In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I found much of what Patti Smith had to say [“Songs of Experience,” interview by Greg King, July 2005] insightful and inspirational. I had to shake my head, however, at her comments regarding marriage and parenting. She asserts that “people don’t respect the institution of marriage. . . . People bail out.” Having been a therapist for twenty years, I can assure Smith that there are hundreds of thousands of couples in this country trying desperately to make their unions work with little help from the culture, much less smug commentators.
Although I’ve never listened to Patti Smith’s music or paid much attention to her as a celebrity, I was captivated by the honesty and power of her voice on the page. We live in such a cluttered media environment, with images and sounds and messages tossed into the ether to confuse and daze us, that it is remarkable when anything of worth gets through. Smith’s voice came through so clearly it hurt. I admire her integrity and the example she has set of an artistic life lived in the real world with children and family and love and loss.
I was disappointed to hear Patti Smith make the narrow-minded statement, “Once you become a mother, every child becomes your concern. [A child’s death] is no longer an abstract principle.” If I hear Smith correctly, mothers have cornered the market on compassion, connectedness, and concern for children. The rest of us are dealing only in “abstractions.”
I have chosen not to have children, but this does not limit my connectedness to humanity or my desire to protect every child from harm. I have wept and prayed for other people’s children — as well as sacrificed and worked for them — as much as any mother does for her own child.
It saddens me that it often takes becoming a mother for many women to feel motherly love, but it is naive to claim motherly love can be felt only by those who have children. We limit each other and ourselves by perpetuating this myth.
By the end of her interview, Patti Smith had won me over with her sheer humanity. But her comments seemed disingenuous when she discussed how the song “Radio Baghdad” came to be.
Yes, tens of thousands of people have died in the Iraq conflict. And yes, Iraqi families may cower in fear at the sound of a passing U.S. aircraft or artillery firing on their own neighborhoods. Indeed, that sort of life is almost inconceivable to us.
But I’d be more impressed if Smith had also written a song about the decades of fear experienced by millions of Iraqis who never knew if the next knock on the door might be Saddam’s thugs come to arrest, torture, or kill them; about how Saddam’s was the only government to overrun a neighboring country for territorial gain since World War II; about how Saddam openly violated seventeen UN resolutions and caused the starvation of his own country’s children by diverting “oil for food” money to his own nefarious purposes.
And perhaps in another song Smith could recognize the stirring movement for freedom and rights among women in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, and other Middle Eastern nations. Smith’s criticism of U.S. actions would be more persuasive to me if she took all of this into account.
I found Noam Chomsky’s response to readers’ letters [Correspondence, July 2005] informative and engaging. When I worked for IBM, I was well aware that I was selling my intellectual ability for healthcare and a salary that enabled me to pay my mortgage. When I developed cancer, IBM laid me off for being “unproductive,” and I was reminded of what I had known all along: that I was no more than a unit of labor to my employer.
Years later I found myself sorting medical documents for ten dollars an hour without benefits, and being criticized by well-fed, arrogant managers for not having a high enough “page rate per hour.” I understood the idea of renting my labor even more clearly.
Chomsky speaks the bald, unvarnished truth. Some might see it as cold, but it’s necessary to jar people out of their denial. Too many of us are suffering, yet still listening to NPR and believing we belong to the elite community of the well-off.
Heather King [“Paradise Found,” July 2005] commented that religion is derived from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind.” That derivation has its origin with the church fathers, whose livelihood, then and now, was dependent on keeping a sizable and generous flock “bound” to their dogma. I prefer the classical etymology that derives religion from relegere, which means “to attend to” or “to take account of.”
As the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, only by paying careful attention to those spirits that possess and direct our faculties and energies are we able to water the seeds of joy rather than those of suffering.
Writing on religion that doesn’t make me cringe is a rare find. Heather King’s “Paradise Found” almost makes me proud to be a Catholic.
I have privately wondered what motivates adult converts to Catholicism. If you weren’t born into this dysfunctional religion, why deliberately choose it? After reading King’s essay, I know. She has reminded me why I am still a Catholic — albeit a struggling one.
Now, if only someone could write an essay that reminds me why I am still an American.
I enjoyed reading about Heather King’s conversion to Catholicism. Personally, I am for any religion, belief, or creed that opens our hearts and brings us closer to the one God who permeates all spiritual traditions. This God is like sugar, which has different names in different languages, but whose sweetness is common to all.
The downside of religious institutions is all the dogma, ritual, and posturing, which can prevent spiritual growth. The perfected state requires absolute surrender to God, and on that high path with no railings, any and all concepts or beliefs you might have about your God, no matter how dear, completely disappear. And then what do you have? Only the nondual “you,” selflessly and effortlessly doing God’s work.
Religious institutions can and do bring liberation from bondage for those who are willing to settle for nothing less than having the Mystery revealed. But I cannot overstate the danger of believing your way is the only way. This belief has, at its worst, resulted in untold millions of murders committed “in the name of God.”
I recently asked my Hindu guru what he thought would be the best way to solve the world’s problems. His reply: “Do away with all religions.”
I’ve been a loyal and enthusiastic Sun subscriber for more than twelve years, and I recently attended my first Sun discussion group. The give-and-take and different perspectives about the interview with poet Li-Young Lee [“The Saint, the Murderer, All of It,” by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, August 2005] led me to re-read and reflect upon the interview. In the past, that issue would simply have been filed.
In his final response, Lee tells the interviewers, “I have friends who say, ‘The only people who read poetry are people who write it.’ I think, Well of course. And everybody should be writing it.”
I’m not sure I’ll take up his challenge, but I’ve got the paper out on my desk.
My father died of a massive heart attack at halftime of a high-school football game that he and I were coaching together. I have written of that night and its effect on me, but I’ve been unable to move beyond it and just write about my dad. After reading Li-Young Lee’s loving thoughts about his father, I wrote a poem that I hope is the beginning of the process of rediscovering my father’s life, not his death.
I enjoyed Saint James Harris Woods’s essay on finding books in prison [“Captive Audience,” August 2005] and would like to add something he failed to mention. There are organizations located throughout the country that will send books to prisoners for free. They mail packages of donated books and magazines to any prisoner who requests them. I discovered The Sun in such a parcel.
Here are a few addresses for those in need, and those who’d like to help:
Books Thru Bars, 4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19143.
Inside Books, 827 W. 12th, Austin, TX 78701.
Books to Prisoners, 92 Pike St., Seattle, WA 98101.
Having just finished “The Immigrant’s Bed,” by Florin Ion Firimitã [August 2005], I burst into tears. The essay brought back memories of having lost my own grandmother’s estate in Rockland Lake, New York, to the State Department, which confiscated the land for Rockland Lake State Park. (Yes, it can happen in the U.S. too.) Granny’s house and the five rental houses that had allowed her family to survive during the Depression were bulldozed to make room for a storage facility. The settlement that finally arrived was disappointing. My mother became a severe alcoholic; the family never recovered.
Firimitã’s description of entering his new home for the first time, after losing his ancestral family home and heirlooms, was very inspiring. I will show my sister and my eighty-nine-year-old mother the essay, as proof that it is possible to replant an uprooted life into new and joyful soil.