A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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In “A Buddhist on Death Row” [February 1998] Jarvis Masters presents an accurate picture of life in a state prison. I’m happy for him that he has found a way to cope, attain some peace, and improve himself. It might interest some to know that there are other ways besides meditation to achieve the same ends. Some methods are prayer, good works, learning, and loving God and others.
For me, though, it has been a simple act of choice, a rational decision to be happy rather than sad, forgiving rather than angry. It isn’t always easy. Even on the outside there are trials, there is suffering, there is the need to make the right decisions.
Masters is on a good path. All rays lead back to the sun. I wish him well.
Reading the negative letters concerning Alison Luterman’s “Virus” [Correspondence, January 1998], I was amazed at how different the sensitivities of Sun readers can be. I’m surprised that in the context of Luterman’s essay the description of fist-fucking warranted any negative feedback. Why is it that certain elements of life bother some people so? A good fist-fucking is as much a part of the human experience as a good intellectual debate, an enlightening commentary, or a well-written poem. Lighten up, negative ninnies! All of life is tasty. Fucking, loving, thinking, writing, and farting are all pieces of the same pie. Bon appétit!
I’ve just finished reading John Taylor Gatto’s “In Defense of Original Sin” [January 1998] while on a retreat at a non-Christian spiritual center. It is amazing how true his statements ring to me here. It seems more useful to grasp the effect of original sin — separation from God — than to believe it makes us immutably bad, a condition that no amount of effort can change. It’s better to focus on reuniting with God, using the lessons we learn from work, pain, moral dilemmas, and death.
I took a special interest in John Taylor Gatto’s “In Defense of Original Sin” because I am a public-school teacher and also a member of the Congregational Church, born and bred into what Gatto calls the “wisdom tradition of American Christianity.”
Much of what he says strikes a chord with me. Rational thought is useful, but, as Gatto points out, it is only a part of human life, and can be dangerous when mistaken for the whole story. Recently I read about a scientist who intends to clone humans and says unashamedly that it is the human destiny to become God through science. I also recognize, in a general sense, the complicity of compulsory education in such developments.
I disagree, however, with Gatto’s portrayal of public education as one system. Although we may trace the history of the public schools back to the factory model of the early Industrial Revolution, not all schools are operating from that model now. In my classroom of seven- and eight-year-olds, I try to create an environment that encourages autonomy yet recognizes each individual’s responsibility to the group. I get to know each student well enough to teach him or her some of the skills of reading, writing, mathematics, social inquiry, and, yes, scientific method. I also encourage the children’s wonder, and listen to their explanations. Sometimes they even talk about God.
When this happens, I acknowledge their thoughts and let the other children respond to them. In my particular school, I feel free to do this, though I don’t feel free to share my own beliefs, as I often wish I could. School systems vary from state to state. Within my home state, New Hampshire, they vary from town to town. The fact is, in some New Hampshire schools I might feel nervous letting children talk about God.
Can there be an education of the heart even when God is not mentioned explicitly?
However excellent their literary qualities, if you run stories, poems, and essays in which extensive casual motor-vehicle use is taken for granted — in fact made to seem almost elemental, like the wind and the tides, and assumed, like indoor plumbing, to be an integral and unobjectionable part of normal, civilized life — you have failed to comprehend something of profound importance.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed Bradford Swift’s interview with Daniel Quinn [“Down the Garden Path,” December 1997], I found some of Quinn’s answers incomplete. Many male theorists are still reluctant to embrace feminist thinking, despite the fact that women’s issues are often central to the problems we face.
Though Quinn correctly points out that wild animals in ordinary circumstances do not starve, he does not explain the actual mechanism by which animal populations decrease when food becomes scarce. When a female eats less and exerts herself more — but long before she actually starves — she stops ovulating, and new young cease being born. The practice of what Quinn calls “totalitarian agriculture,” however, has profoundly affected human female fertility, eliminating such natural population-control mechanisms. According to recent anthropological studies, female hunter-gatherers on the average give birth to about four children in a lifetime, properly spacing them to best ensure their survival. The mothers breast-feed each child for four to five years and normally stop ovulating when they have to travel long distances in search of food.
Once, this was true of all human tribes. Then large-scale agriculture brought about a vast change in our diet, replacing vegetables with starchy grains that could be easily stored both in barns and in our bodies, and that dramatically increased female fertility. Because women were now having more children and were also busy working to feed them, mothers began to wean their infants earlier, switching them to mashed starchy foods. This, in turn, allowed women to get pregnant again faster. Thus, mothers were held captive by their need to feed large families, and children were born to fill the increased need for farmhands.
Amazingly, our society’s “experts” on nutrition still recommend that mothers give their tiny infants solid foods as early as four months, and urge them to start out with grains instead of fruit. What happens when people begin life with their stomachs stuffed with starches and their mouths deprived of sucking? They develop tremendous appetites — for everything. This deep-seated hunger is what fuels the rise of corporate structures, so eloquently depicted by Jerry Mander [“The Rules of Corporate Behavior”] in the same issue. We literally are eating ourselves and our planet to death.
We look at animals searching for food and think: They must be hungry. Thank God for civilization. But they are not hungry — we are.
I agree with Daniel Quinn about totalitarian agriculture, but I think the rest of his statements are facile and unscholarly. In all, I counted eight times that he said tribal people have been doing fine for “thousands of years.” He would have us believe that tribal people have always lived “harmlessly,” “beautifully,” and “perfectly well,” and are “classless.” This is much too vague and simplistic to be believable. Anyone acquainted with human history ought to be able to smell this “noble savage” fallacy a mile away.
Quinn has some valid points to make, but he shoots himself in the foot with his new-age blather about the perfection of the tribal system.
Daniel Quinn has drawn the wrong conclusion about Buddhism, which he criticizes for being a “religion of anguish.” Buddhism teaches that the belief in an independent self is the cause of all suffering; if we can transcend the notion of self, we can find peace. The tribal societies Quinn admires encourage this same sublimation of self.
“We all belong to the community of life,” Quinn says. I couldn’t agree more. This sense of bedrock connectedness is at the heart of all Buddhist teaching.
Helen Cohen’s useful insights extend my own in a slightly different direction. What the letters of Pam Hanna and Edwin Joseph tell me is that a brief interview can’t really do justice to arguments that are developed over the course of hundreds of pages in my books. I would like to point out, however, that I nowhere ascribe “perfection” to the tribal system. The wonder of tribal life is not its perfection but rather its remarkable and enduring adequacy.
I’d also like to point out that my books are used in hundreds of courses in colleges and universities all over North America, including the U.S. Naval Academy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth, Rutgers, and Carnegie-Mellon University, to name a few. This suggests, I think, that they offer something more than “new-age blather.”
Today is a special day for my daughters and me. My wife, Sally Gordon, would have been forty-two today. Her birthday is always a day of reflection for us. This morning, after I packed the children off to school and fed the cows, I thought it would be a pleasure to catch up on the issues of The Sun I had not read over the holiday season. Imagine my surprise to see, in the November 1997 issue, my friend David Romtvedt’s article “Alive in the Dying,” about, among other things, my wife and her death.
Earlier this fall, David had given me the book that essay was excerpted from, and pointed out two pieces in it about Sally’s demise. I remember as I read them being troubled by his reflections, and by their arbitrary romanticism. Later, I thought, Well, if that’s what it takes to make a book publishable, so be it. Moreover, I felt that I had no business interfering with David’s healing process — it’s been difficult for all of us. Still, I felt a little betrayed.
But today, seeing his essay in your periodical truly offended me. Something about the possibility of my wife’s abridged story lying on a coffee table somewhere while people discuss the pithiness of David’s writing seems perverse. His characterization debases Sally, and that hurts.
Since Sally’s death, one of her brothers, a devout Buddhist, has spent a lot of time trying to understand where her spiritual energy might have gone. Her mother suspects it has just disappeared. Fortunately, my two daughters do not allow me much time to speculate on such things, although in them I can see parts of their mother’s personality manifested. One was four when Sally died; the other, two. Thus, the image friends carry of her is extremely important.
David and his wife are two of my closest friends, and I value the impressions they hold of Sally. Their daughter Caitlin and my Bea have been in every class together since first grade. I have always respected David’s talent and his intellect. He is accomplished in just about everything he does, from writing, to teaching, to music. He has a perspective that, though sometimes combative, is usually refreshingly genuine. And I know how hard he has struggled for recognition, and how fragile he has found it. As a result, I am torn now between the need to disparage his likeness of my wife, and the love I have for him and his family.
But I am a historian, and accuracy is important to me. David’s portrait of Sally fits his literary purposes better than it does the woman he describes. Like David, Sally was an outsider to the community of Buffalo. And like him, she married into an established ranching family. Both came from working parents and went to good liberal-arts colleges. She played the piano, he the accordion. Both performed publicly. Both loved Willa Cather and gardening, although they disagreed about gladioluses. Both were smitten by the land and driven by a desire to protect the environment. While he went to Nicaragua, worked in various academic capacities, published books, and helped educate rural youth, Sally sat on the board of High Country News, pioneered a business that employed several women, and drove a bus full of library books to the hinterlands of Wyoming. David’s wife, Margo, is a potter whose store has become something of a keystone of the local economy, while I am a lifelong rancher and was, until Sally’s death, the treasurer of the national Sierra Club. And, just for the record, we all did household chores. We are hardly the stereotypes David paints of a smug status quo.
Consequently, David’s ruminations seem ill-considered. The windmill he tilts against is one he manufactured. In this story, he is no more the champion of truth than Sally is the figurehead of ranching. Perhaps his account is not so much about political perspective as about an angry exchange between two strong personalities. To make more of it is specious.
These days, though, everything achieves importance by being in opposition to something else. As such, David’s story is grist for the controversy mill. That is what’s so sad about seeing my wife’s vibrancy reduced to a literary device. By portraying Sally as the antagonist, David is able to create a context for his musings about hypocrisy — but in so doing, he recasts the argument and flattens the person he describes. The dialogue is lost. Nuances of the dispute are overlooked. We are left with little more than a transparent desire to get in the last word.
After Sally’s funeral in Buffalo, a Sierra Club staff member pointed out in a memo that “there were as many cars there with bumper stickers saying, ‘Bring Back the Wolves to Yellowstone’ as there were saying, ‘No Wolves.’ It was a tribute to her that so many people of such divergent points of view could be together in one room for a single reason.” This real person is not the character one would expect to find in a story about a quarrel between a liberal-minded hero and a judgmental member of a decadent society. Something is missing.
I remember that famous conversation David had with Sally from a different perspective. She came home from the library that day livid with him. She had had enough of his complaining about government programs. David had spent a few weeks depressed, moping around his home, grumbling about the injustices of the world and the inadequacy of the compensation for his writing. Sally thought he should get a job. That was often her solution for people she thought were overly self-absorbed.
In retrospect, the ironic thing about this exchange is that they were both right and both wrong: David has benefited from government grants and programs, yet that doesn’t diminish what he has brought to the communities and audiences that have enjoyed his presentations. Moreover, Sally was wrong to suggest he had no right to criticize the government simply because he profited by it. Still, David was being a pain in the ass that day.
His sanctimonious attack on ranchers and on Sally is equally misguided, though more calculated. As I reread “Alive in the Dying,” I feel the urge to refute, point by point, David’s accusations, as he does Sally’s — but that is not what is so troubling. It is the insensitivity of David’s two-dimensional account that really hurts.
Ultimately, as David points out, we are all to some degree beneficiaries of the federal government’s munificence. Though David might seem like a Pharisee in his affected disdain, I believe there is something more to “Alive in the Dying” than just a superficial rejoinder: it is in part a story of how hard it is to admit one might be wrong, and how disconcerting it is to leave such a painful thing as a passionate argument unresolved.
In the end, because David’s essay is wonderful proof that he is human, I worry his feelings might be hurt by the thoughts imparted here. Nevertheless, I am compelled to correct his unfair appraisal of my wife’s life and her spirit.
Where does this leave us? Regrettably, no closer to a better world. That path lies not in doctrinaire conceit, but in understanding our humanity, our light and our shadow. It lies in a better appreciation of where we fit in our landscape and who we are as a community. Sally and David would have agreed on that I think — albeit reluctantly.