In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I agree completely with Stephanie Mills [“The One Who Steals the Fat,” January 2001] that if humanity doesn’t reduce its impact on the earth, we may eventually cause our own extinction. I’ve often thought that we should add humanity to the endangered species list — not because there are too few of us, but because there are too many.
We must also deal, though, with the consequences of trying to reduce consumerism. I work for a company that sells stationery and greeting cards. Our products are a perfect example of items that people could easily do without. If this company went out of business tomorrow, it would be a good thing for the planet. Yet several hundred people work for this company, and many others earn their livelihoods supplying raw materials and services to it. Reduce consumerism enough, and you make it impossible for a great many people to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads.
We have built an enormous house of cards that grows larger every day. We face chaos and misery if we do not dismantle it, but we must begin the process carefully and thoughtfully.
Thank you for Stephanie Mill’s excellent essay “The One Who Steals the Fat.” It was a relief to read a piece about consumerism that takes a more moderate stance than those you often publish. Most of your articles on environmental subjects leave me gasping, “But that’s not the whole story!”
I’m a sixty-two-year-old retired woman who enjoyed a career in business. Despite a serious health problem, I manage to live alone in a harsh northern climate. Granted, this security is not available to everyone, but it wouldn’t be possible at all without those items your writers are so quick to put down: cars, pharmaceuticals, computers, phones. I shudder to consider what my life would be like if their wishes were suddenly granted and we went back to living the way people did in my grandmother’s day.
Taking away our gadgets and sending us back to cabins on the hillside isn’t the answer. The simple fact is, there are many millions of us, and we have to live somewhere, so we are going to use more land and resources. If we’d stop all the complaining about our neighbors’ shocking habits of consumption (never our own, of course), maybe we could redirect that energy toward finding moderate, sensible solutions that work for everyone.
When tempers cool and the public has been awakened, some reasonable person somewhere will find the cure. We can hasten this eventuality by not taking extreme opinions that alienate others and stall the debate.
I recognize the paralyzing dilemma Jennifer Grow describes [“My Life as a Mermaid,” January 2001] of trying to figure out how to live in this country and still acknowledge — and maybe help — those in need far away. I do not agree with her representation of the people of Honduras, however.
Making Hondurans out to be helpless victims of nightmarish parasites and horrible wounds does a disservice to their dignity and beauty as human beings. They are poor, yes, and in dire need of many basic things, such as food and medicine. But they have some things we would envy: close families, a great sense of community, a more realistic sense of what is important in life.
In Grow’s story, the Hondurans are portrayed as creatures in an alien land, too deformed and damaged for us to comprehend in our supermarket reality. In the end, doesn’t that just make them easier for us to ignore?
I appreciate Hall’s comments regarding my representation of Hondurans. I agree that the Honduran culture offers much beauty and grace, and that we have much to learn from it. In writing this story, I did not intend to diminish or generalize Hondurans as a people “deformed and damaged.” I simply fictionalized the account of a friend who traveled to Honduras with relief workers and hiked through the mountains to treat patients with a variety of ailments. Among those my friend treated were a woman with mastitis and children with worms growing from their foreheads. Those facts were difficult for me to ignore.
When I read Julie Burke’s essay “Skin” [January 2001], I felt as if I were reading about myself. I, too, suffered embarrassment and humiliation as a child because of my freckles, even going so far as to feign sickness to get out of gym class. Other kids, especially the boys, teased me about the freckles that, I felt, disfigured my legs.
I suffered silently until, one day, I was diagnosed with Sherman’s disease, a spinal condition that caused me a lot of pain as I grew taller. I was overjoyed, though, because it meant no more gym class, only exercises to be done at home. I happily endured the physical pain knowing I would no longer be humiliated by my peers.
Though I appreciated the creativity of Julie Burke’s essay, I found it difficult to empathize with her struggles, all the time knowing that it is only material overabundance that could make freckles seem like a cross to bear.
As I read Burke’s essay, I thought of another article I’d read recently about the immense courage of burn victims who lose their skin and, with it, any chance of ever “fitting in.” In this light, Burke’s reflections on freckles and moles seemed unbearably trite. Millions of people walk around with varying degrees of real disfigurement that must be routinely exposed to the world.
I understand that, by the end of the essay, Burke has reached a precipice of gratitude, but the path she takes to get there is nevertheless strewn with immaturity and self-conscious disregard for those who must take much harder roads.
I must admit Macpherson’s letter stopped me cold when I read it. Hers was the exact criticism I leveled at myself while writing “Skin.” She is right: there is much greater suffering in the world than my own. I would never claim to hold first prize for distress, misfortune, or pain, nor can I imagine why anyone would want to. To attempt to decide who suffers most in this world would be an endless pursuit, and a futile one. Our energy would be better spent in working to ease even the smallest suffering, instead of demeaning it.
The point of my essay is that my skin has simply been my most effective tool for keeping myself disconnected from other human beings. Had it not been my skin, it might have been anything else. Though my journey toward discovering how and why I’d isolated myself might have been immature or trite (most of it took place in my teen and pre-teen years), I still remain grateful to have made it.
Judging one person’s suffering more worthy of sympathy or consideration than another’s serves only to isolate and disconnect people even further in a world already far too detached from its humanity. As a private, shy person, I had a difficult time sharing what is, for me, an embarrassing, highly personal story with fifty thousand readers, and responding to Macpherson’s letter only leaves me open to closer scrutiny. But I feel I have to defend the very basic need to tell one’s story. Writing honestly about our experiences might bring us together and contribute, in a small way, to acceptance of ourselves and others. Sadly, our culture discourages this. Judgment and criticism are more common. This is what keeps us silent, isolated, and apart.
Poor Saminaz Akhter, who would deny a child the simple pleasure of make-believe [Correspondence, January 2001]. He’s just another in a long line of would-be victims who confuse culture with race. The child in C.D. Eshleman’s Readers Write piece on “Disguises” [September 2000] was engaging in a cultural affectation with his costume, not a racial slur. Or are Arabs born with burnooses?
Arabic, Chinese, Jewish, African — we’re all the same race: human. Let’s remember that and get on with solving the big problems.
In the December 2000 Correspondence section, Harold Glazer says that the “regular inclusion of letters from convicts” in Readers Write “amounts to an effort to diminish the social stigma of the authors’ offenses.”
I have served thirteen out of eighteen years on several charges of child molesting. I could pose for a photo beside the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and the ghosts of Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, and it wouldn’t diminish the social stigma of my horrible crime.
I am grateful that The Sun sometimes gives me a voice in Readers Write. It does the rest of the population good to get a glimpse from my side of the razor wire every now and then. But I doubt that any reader will think me a Boy Scout as a result.
I am ashamed of my crime and engaged in a lot of soul-searching before I decided to mention it in this letter. But I wanted to remind Glazer that we are still people on this side of the wall; we still bleed and sleep and eat and read. And if he’s worried that the world will forget my crime, he can rest assured that my rap sheet is public record and can be accessed via the Internet.
I do not begrudge Glazer his opinion. I do, however, envy him his ability to go to sleep without the memory of victimizing someone. I will never know whether my victim was able to overcome the wounds I left her with. Like my police record, I will carry that memory to my grave.
David James Duncan’s disturbing dream [“meeting with a god,” December 2000] appeared to reflect his frustration with trying to educate politicians and government agencies in the environmental perspective. I hope he will keep at it, though, and not become discouraged. Look what running water does to rock over time.
I disagree with David James Duncan that “there is a faith called fishing.” Fishing is just another cruel pastime. Does Duncan really believe that his catch-and-release policy makes him a “sportsman”? I have a hunch that swallowing a titanium hook probably hurts like hell.
If the cells of our bodies, synapses of our minds, and beats of our hearts are the product of any one method of manufacture I can name, I’d call that method “sacrifice”: hooks, arrows, spears, crosses, self-starvation under bo trees in the name of truth, blood, pain, death, and all the rest. Life is a Eucharist feast, and, as Meister Eckhart says, “Love is like a fisherman’s hook.” We’re born in blood and pain. We can’t escape it. But we can be mindful, frugal, grateful, and willing to make sacrifices ourselves. The faith called fishing helps some of us to do this. If you don’t believe it’s a faith, great: I won’t see you on my river!