Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My wife and I once stopped at a roadside vegetable stand in Hermiston, Oregon, to buy a watermelon. The stand’s owner was a man much like Jack Parris, the farmer in Perry Dilbeck’s photo on the cover of your June issue.
We had some time to kill, and the stand owner had some stories to tell. By the end of our conversation, it was clear to me that this man loved each and every fruit that he had ever grown. He insisted on carrying our watermelon out to our car, and he placed it carefully in the back seat so that, when we arrived home, we could taste watermelon as God had intended it.
When I ate that melon, I tasted not only the best watermelon I will ever eat but also the love and energy that farmer had put into growing it.
If it’s possible for The Sun to redeem itself for years of dreadful poetry, you have done it with a single gem: Ellen Bass’s “Pray for Peace” [June 2003]. The poem is a prayer itself. It hums along like a mantra and anoints us with its blessing.
Genie Zeiger’s account of having rhinoplasty as a young woman [“My Nose,” June 2003] both delighted and angered me. I was delighted to see that no one ever took a scalpel to Zeiger’s sense of humor, but angered by the fact that she felt the need to have a nose job. In what I assume is a “before” photo, her face has dignity and character. In the era that Zeiger grew up in, however, a woman’s face was not supposed to have character. It was supposed to look cute.
I would think that the post-feminist women of today would have better sense than to undergo such a procedure, but Jewish women are still bobbing their noses and otherwise surgically altering their bodies to appear more attractive.
In his comments on the 2000 presidential election [Correspondence, June 2003], Al Neipris writes: “I must have been out of the room the day [Bush] stole the election, because what I saw was an exceedingly close contest decided by constitutional means.”
Neipris seems to think that the terms “stolen” and “constitutional” are mutually exclusive. If only that were true. The United States has participated in several significant acts of thievery that passed constitutional muster: the theft of half of Mexico’s territory; the theft of men, women, and children from Africa; and the theft of an entire continent from native tribes. If the proper arguments were submitted to the Supreme Court, these acts might be deemed constitutional again today.
Does The Sun give too much space to President Bush’s critics, as Neipris claims? Perhaps. But taken as a whole, the president’s defenders seem far more guilty of blind moral certitude than anyone on the Left, and they have a multitude of forums — this letters page included — in which to express their views. Those who disagree with the current administration have fewer opportunities to speak out, and I salute The Sun for giving them a chance to be heard.
Al Neipris criticizes The Sun for its “unrestrained vitriol toward George W. Bush,” whom he says didn’t steal the presidency. Maybe, if Neipris had more time, he could learn a few facts about the 2000 election.
Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris — while simultaneously acting as Bush’s campaign co-chairperson — hired Database Technologies to remove from the Florida voting lists anyone even suspected of being a former felon. (Floridians with felony convictions are ineligible to vote.) Database, a firm with strong Republican ties, removed 173,000 registered Florida voters, many because their identifying data was close to that of an ex-felon. Those who complained were required to submit themselves for fingerprinting. In one county, 54 percent of those denied the right to vote were black. These people were all legitimate voters. Thousands of people (most of them likely to vote Democrat) were denied the right to cast a ballot.
Then there is the issue of the thousands of absentee ballots from overseas military men and women, mostly Republican voters, that were counted even though they were signed and postmarked after the election. And let’s not forget that Gore was gaining in the recount until the Supreme Court — led by Bush family friend Antonin Scalia — stopped it.
So now we have a president who was not only installed by questionable means, but who has gone on to wage illegal wars, to incarcerate and detain people whose religion or ethnicity makes them suspect, and to advocate an endless “war on terror” — all in order to help Americans feel safe.
To Name Withheld, whose Readers Write entry on “Marijuana” [May 2003] starts, “I have smoked pot almost every day for the last seventeen years”: I smoked pot myself for twenty-three years. I loved it. It enhanced my worldview and made me more creative. I married a man who also loved pot. We had children, and we continued to smoke, though not in their presence.
I eventually started therapy due to some unrelated issues, and my therapist suggested my pot use was a problem. She advised me to quit. A psychiatrist I saw, however, was noncommittal, and I used that as an excuse to continue smoking.
I became so dependent on pot that I scraped the pipe, hoarded roaches, and smoked stems. When we were without pot, I threw tantrums, yelled at my husband, and terrified my young children. Time after time, I wound up in the psychiatric unit of the local hospital.
Still, I denied my problem. Nobody gets addicted to pot, I told myself. And most of the counselors I talked to seemed to agree. In addiction counseling groups, pot was never discussed, and when I mentioned it, I might as well have said I was addicted to milk.
Then came the day that I threw a full coffee cup at my husband and shattered the window behind him. We were potless, and I was out of control. He gave me a look that I will never forget. Then he took the kids and left.
I went back to the hospital and entered an addiction-recovery program. I went to my first twelve-step meeting and was received with open arms. It’s now been almost two years. I have not backslid once. If I’m ever tempted, I have only to remember the look on my husband’s face when I threw that coffee cup.
The popular belief is that pot is harmless, but that’s not always true. Physical addiction to marijuana is real. I have no argument with anybody who can smoke pot regularly without melting down between baggies. But I urge Name Withheld to persevere. Keep going to twelve-step meetings, and don’t worry about what other people think.
I read Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” [May 2003] with great interest, especially the passages regarding neuroscience and consciousness. I wonder whether Pollan has read anything by neuroscientist Francisco J. Varela. Though there is no way I can adequately sum up Varela’s work in a letter to the editor, the gist of it is that we each bring forth — or create — our own world by means of our senses. For example, color, as we experience it, exists only in the mind of the perceiver. I have no idea whether the way I see purple is the way my husband sees purple.
In answer to the question “What does it mean to be high?” Varela might say that, because each individual creates his or her own world, there is no correct answer. Each experience of being high may be unique to that person. My normal may be someone else’s high.
Timothy Conway says to interviewer Arnie Cooper [“Coming Back to the World,” April 2003] that religious orthodoxy is useful “for people who haven’t come very far on the journey home and don’t really have a highly developed conscience or sense of empathy.” Would he really attribute these faults to such figures as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Dalai Lama, and Pope John Paul II, all of whom were or are believers in a religious orthodoxy?
Conway admits that his statement “sounds horribly elitist, but it’s the truth.” Horribly elitist it is, but why should we believe it’s true? Throughout the interview, Conway states his “truths” with an apparent lack of love and humility that’s surprising in a spiritual teacher. He seems to value knowledge over compassion.
On the Sunbeams page of the same issue, Jean Jacques Rousseau is quoted as saying, “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” I found little kindness in the spiritual practices prescribed by Conway.
After receiving dozens of appreciative e-mails, it’s wonderful to also receive this deserved blow to the ego. I thank Julia Grella for her passionate stand on core spiritual virtues. Surely kindness — along with humility, love, and heartfelt compassion — is essential. I treasure the line in Lost Horizon on the simple secret for social harmony: “Be kind.”
Yet spiritual teachers sometimes need to criticize imperfect religious and secular tendencies — a tradition going back to the Buddha and Jesus. Merton, Day, and the Dalai Lama have all been quite critical of flaws in their own religious institutions. (In his letters, Merton also declares himself closer to certain mystics outside his own faith than to most of his fellow “orthodox” Christians.) Religious orthodoxies have a well-documented history of abuse of power, derision of other religions, misogyny, cultic groupthink, and persecution or attempted silencing of their own greatest mystics and progressives (Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Ba’al Shem Tov, al-Hallaj, Day, and Merton, to name a few).
Julia is most welcome to continue the conversation by e-mail if she wishes (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I have read many extraordinary short stories in The Sun, but I was particularly moved by Jim Ralston’s “Don’t Come Crying Home to Me” [March 2003]. I teared up as I read about Ida and her ailing husband exchanging I love you’s over and over again. And the dream at the end captured the strangeness and vulnerability of the human condition.
I also loved the simplicity and profound mundanity of Cortney Davis’s poem “God and the Blueberries.” The way the image of the blueberries was reinvented in each line reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It was like reading some odd sort of prayer.