The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I enjoyed James Kullander’s interview with Pema Chödrön [“Sitting in the Fire,” January 2005]. One rarely reads about the spiritual journeys of women who practice Tibetan Buddhism. As an American practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, I often find myself challenged by its traditions, even though I am deeply steeped in its practices. It is especially challenging to communicate with Tibetan Buddhist teachers from the East, most of whom are male and do not speak English. I wonder whether Pema Chödrön has experienced such disjunctures, and whether she considers herself a feminist. Perhaps being a Buddhist nun in these times is, in itself, a feminist act.
Although women teachers like Pema Chödrön and Tenzin Palmo do not say outright that they are feminists, they have paved the way for women like me who are on a spiritual path in the West, and they have done so with courage, dignity, and wisdom.
I thought of dozens of ways to express how incredibly accurate, wry, and wrenching Sherri Hopper’s portrayal of her lover’s cancer is [“When This Is Over,” January 2005], but I began to ramble. So I boiled it down to one: You nailed it, Sherri.
Having worked in healthcare and nursing for most of my adult life, I was moved by Sherri Hopper’s “When This Is Over.” I must confess, sometimes I have been a sort of compassionate misanthrope in my job, doing what is expedient instead of what is kind and gentle. And I sometimes get defensive when a patient’s loved ones walk in and try to run things.
The insensitive medical technician Hopper describes probably didn’t mean to be a jerk; he just wasn’t thinking. At the very least, he should have explained what he was doing and why. We nurses tend to forget how barbaric some procedures can look to the uninitiated. Nobody wants to be treated like a piece of meat, and indeed nobody should be. Would that technician have been as rough if the patient had been his own mother? After thirty-four years at this job, I have concluded that being professional often means being a better person than I actually am.
Some days I feel as if I touch patients’ lives and am touched by theirs. Other days are hellishly busy, and I leave work just glad that I didn’t inadvertently harm anyone. Usually, after a busy day, I get a nasty e-mail from my unit manager, chewing me out for not having properly completed some piece of paperwork of interest primarily to bean counters.
It’s a challenge sometimes to be empathetic without getting overwhelmed by death and misery. Many people have admonished me to take extra care of their loved ones, because they are so special. I usually think: So is the elderly woman in the next room who needs my help to get to the bathroom. So is the frightened Alzheimer’s patient down the hall. So is the alcoholic with the d.t.’s who may be trying to climb out of bed and kiss the floor.
Perhaps a better thing to say would be “I cannot comprehend how special this person is to you, but please tell me.” Then I must sincerely listen. Sometimes I need a Sherri Hopper to remind me of my true priorities.
In the January 2005 Correspondence, Jesús Galaviz claims that Daniel Ellsberg destroyed his own credibility by suggesting that George W. Bush might use illegal means to secure the presidency for the next four years [“One Patriot Acts,” interview by Greg King, October 2004].
Unlike Galaviz, I no longer consider voter fraud to be the talk of “conspiracy theorists.” Given the dubious events in Florida in 2000, do we really believe Bush is above rigging an election? Sadly, voting fraud and voter disenfranchisement seemed more apparent in the November 2004 election, not less.
I enjoyed Jean Hay Bright’s “The Good Life Revisited” [January 2005] about back-to-the-land pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing. The excerpt tells us not only to “question authority,” as the bumper sticker says, but to question idealism. Sometimes we believe what we would prefer to be the case, as opposed to what actually is the case.
Reading Jean Hay Bright’s piece brought back my own memories of Helen and Scott Nearing.
In 1982, my wife and I made a pilgrimage to Forest Farm, the Nearings’ homestead on the Maine coast. Scott was ninety-nine. Helen, close to eighty herself, took us on a whirlwind tour of the homestead. The experience was memorable. I saw that these legendary counterculture icons were flesh — Scott wrinkled like a dried pepper and Helen with slight wattles and liver spots on her face.
In 2001 I was invited to Forest Farm on business, and my wife and I spent a night in Helen’s bedroom. (Helen had died a few years earlier.) The books, furniture, quilts, and stoves in the stone house all carried the scent, so to speak, of Helen and Scott. I loved getting the chance to be with them indirectly, by spending time in their home.
My wife and I ate meals with the two young stewards of Forest Farm, and the four of us spent a good hour digging up Helen and Scott’s inconsistencies, like pigs after truffles. An actual hypocrisy counted as a prizewinning truffle. Mere philosophical disconnects were just little snacks.
Our pleasure at this curious sport — my wife and I don’t ordinarily engage in gossip — demonstrated the hold the Nearings had on our imaginations. Something elevated Helen and Scott to titans in our minds, and neither their wrinkles nor the placement of their light switches could alter it. I suppose all this digging in the relatively scant dirt of their lives was just another way to humanize them, to discover that these icons were flesh.
I see a parallel between the work my husband and I do and the missionary endeavors of Kent Annan [“Willing to Die?” January 2005]. Annan works with people in Third World countries who are materially poor but spiritually rich. My husband and I encourage community among Americans who are materially secure, but spiritually impoverished. We run a cafe, host salons at our home, and produce a local publication in upstate New York.
My job does not lead me to consider whether or not I am willing to die for others. The issue for my husband and me is how to remain spiritually, as well as financially, alive. Our nation’s spiritual deficit drives the system that is killing Annan’s Third World friends. Americans have no one to meet their needs for connection, community, and meaning.
So who really needs the missionaries?
Thanks for the balance of female and male contributors in the January 2005 issue. It’s not often that I find a magazine whose contributors are more than 50 percent women.
Although I appreciate the fairly even mix of women and men writers in The Sun, I have noticed that women lag far behind men in the interviews: ten men to three women from January 2004 to January 2005. If we are to bring an end to the patriarchy that cripples both men and women, we must stop viewing the world as a place defined by men. This is about more than simple fairness. The interviews in The Sun represent wisdom to benefit us all. The unspoken message of this unequal division is that wise words come primarily from men.
Calling your magazine The Sun is akin to naming a funeral home “Good Time Charlie’s.”
The Sun’s December 2004 issue was filled with writing that helped me to see other people’s views without judgment. Periodically in his “Notebook,” however, I see Sy Safransky judging President Bush.
I do not agree with the current administration’s politics, not even remotely. But I do believe that George W. Bush and I have the same core concerns: safety and peace. How we choose to address these concerns is vastly different, but we shouldn’t let those differences frustrate us to the point of hate.
Hardly a word Safransky writes about Bush hides his bitterness, hatred, and frustration. It seems to consume him and his “Notebook.” When he does set his judgments aside, the effort feels noticeably forced.
I suggest Safransky take an hour or two and read the December issue front to back, as if he were an outsider to The Sun. Maybe it can do for him what it did for me: enable him to take a step past his frustrations and see someone else’s views.
My compliments on a brilliant publication. I feel as if you’ve read my mind and created a magazine just for me. I admit I didn’t expect much when I sent in for the free trial issue, but I am impressed by the excellent quality of the writing, photography, design — even the careful copy-editing. As an editor, I recognize how much talent and devotion must go into producing such a high-quality publication every month. I applaud your efforts.
My twenty-three-year-old niece reads The Sun cover to cover and has joined a Sun reading group. You, the people who produce The Sun, may feel tired sometimes, and you may wish your lives were more glamorous. (I know I do.) But remember this: You are righteous. You support voices that speak of the real meaning of life and do not merely glorify materialism and power. It is this quality that attracts young people who are searching for something to cling to in this increasingly hollow culture.