Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I have always felt we don’t give dying the respect it deserves, but Stephen Jenkinson helped me realize the immensity of the problem [“As We Lay Dying,” interview by Erik Hoffner, August 2015]. I am a hospice volunteer and see people — both patients and families — who should know it is the end yet refuse to believe this is so. I respect Jenkinson’s work and the wisdom he shares with the world.
Stephen Jenkinson brings a depth of understanding by confronting the mind-numbing consumerism that deadens our nation’s spirit. I had a chance to hear him speak in Chicago and felt the calm and strengthening one feels when truth is explored, revealed, and given up as a gift for any to take as their own. He has a mind that is in constant conversation with his heart and soul: a learner and a doer.
Stephen Jenkinson’s claim that death “doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life” is in tune with the conventional wisdom that we should accept death. But people vary. As an atheist who loves life and is convinced there is no afterlife, I dread my own end and intend to postpone it by all available technology if I become terminally ill. Don’t push me to bow out naturally!
Stephen Jenkinson says he tries to offer his farm animals “close to a fair deal” for what he asks of them, including “that they more or less submit to the knife or the bullet when the time comes.” But it’s a stretch to think of an animal looking at its executioner as “submitting.” What else is the poor critter to do?
There’s a simple way to avoid making such a deal: don’t kill animals. Eating meat is only part of what Jenkinson identifies as our debt as fortunate members of a consumerist society, but to me the debt feels lighter if meat consumption is minimized.
When Stephen Jenkinson describes his spiritual practice as farming animals, he says that feeding them well is a “subtle exchange” for slaughtering them. But we don’t need to eat animal flesh or the products of their bodies to be healthy. Breeding and murdering sentient beings that don’t want to die, and stealing their babies and their milk, is a chilling “spiritual practice” indeed.
It is in keeping with these times — and the death phobia so persistent in them — that the discussion of death on the farm draws more ire than anything else. Would that people be as roused by the mayhem that gathers at human dying.
The reality of small-scale mixed farming is that the life of animals is mandatory for the plant, soil, and human health upon which they rely. Animals mitigate the need for chemical fertilizers and the like. The apartheid of sentiment that criticizes the purposeful killing of animals on the farm and condemns those who attend to it typically extends no similar critique of the equally mandatory killing of plants. Life does not sustain life, friends. That is death’s job. Farmers who domesticate animals agree to take upon themselves the spirit burden of replacing the natural predators which attend all animals’ lives, and which enforce animal health through the culling of the weak and the sick and the numerous. When honor and devotion are present, as they must be, farmers visit death upon those animals in a way that is no more or less arbitrary than the way it would have happened in the wild. The abattoir is a rupture of this covenant.
The spiritual practice of farming, and of eating food produced by the labors of those who farm, brings all of us into a burdened kinship that hoists us upon the red hook or the green hook of being alive.
Johannes Lichtman’s “You Really Have to Stop the Killing” [August 2015] is a tribute to the short story. He crafts a multilayered tale about what it means to be a teacher; about substance abuse and recovery; and about being young and not-so-young — all in the confines of a genre where a limited word count is implicit. I was awed by his accomplishment.
The August 2015 Correspondence regarding Mark Leviton’s interview with Linda Kreger Silverman [“Beyond Their Years,” May 2015] reminded me of my own experience. I went to a public middle school reputed to be one of the better ones in my state and was singled out as mathematically inclined. Along with a handful of other students, I sat at a table in the corner of the math classroom with an algebra book from which I was to teach myself. But I couldn’t keep pace with the other gifted students. After a few weeks I returned to the regular coursework a failure.
I experienced comprehension problems in college-prep math classes throughout high school. Teachers couldn’t help me understand how they were solving equations, and they thought me a lazy and unmotivated student. I was encouraged several times to take remedial math, but I wanted to belong to the smart crowd. As I was failing trigonometry, my mom hired a tutor from the university, who showed me I had a gift for math and made me promise to take calculus in college. If it weren’t for his ability to see the unusual way in which I learned, I would never have gone on to be a math major.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Matthew Fox [“The Mystic and the Warrior,” July 2015] deeply saddened me. This reaction was not because I disagree with everything he said (knowing that I will encounter viewpoints very different from my own is a large part of why I value The Sun). In fact, as a politically liberal, environmentally conscious Catholic attracted to the mystical, intellectual, and prophetic tradition of my faith, I share a great deal with Fox. That’s why it was so painful to read his perception of the Church that I love. His portrayal of Catholic teachings made me want to exclaim, “But that’s not actually what we believe!”
I wish the two of us could just sit down and talk. I know I could learn a lot from him, and I hope he would consider hearing another version of the story.
The last line in Teetle Clawson’s poem “Three Seasons” [July 2015] hit hard: “It didn’t occur to me to hide the bullets.” I thought the poem was going to be about a couple returning to nature. I was surprised to find it was about suicide.
I have had bipolar disorder since the age of nineteen and have made suicide attempts in my darkest hours. Later in life I suffered a traumatic brain injury from an automobile accident. It changed my personality, affected my memory, and eventually led to my divorce.
If I’d had a gun with bullets, like Greg did in Clawson’s poem, I would not be here now.
The July issue of The Sun arrived the day after nine parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down during Bible study.
I found David Hernandez’s poem “We Would Never Sleep” prophetic. He laments the “daily number” of people killed in mass shootings and the ensuing numbness. Hearing that five are dead hardly rouses a response in him. He writes: “It has to be double digits, / don’t you think?”
At the Emanuel Sunday service following the shooting, Reverend Norvel Goff proclaimed that only love and forgiveness can conquer hate. Some of the victims’ families publicly forgave the killer. May we all be inspired by this community’s example.
Before my husband died, I worked in the criminal-justice system. I’d ended up there in part because of my graduate studies in conflict resolution. Tracy Frisch’s interview with Maya Schenwar [“Criminal Injustice”] and the story of Gregory Bright [“Twenty-Seven and a Half Years,” with Lara Naughton] in your June 2015 issue reawakened in me a passion for restorative justice that I haven’t felt in many years. I have since contacted my old mentor, and as soon as my young daughter is ready for school, I’m going to pursue a job at a place like the Innocence Project.
I was moved by Peter Witte’s essay about his deceased father [“Enigma,” May 2015], especially when he revealed in his last paragraph that he had begun the essay four years earlier but was unable to finish it because he couldn’t solve the enigma of his father.
I, too, have someone in my life with whom I have a complex relationship and about whom I have tried to write. I am not a writer who typically abandons projects, but this has been the toughest piece I’ve ever undertaken, and after a year and a half, I was considering giving up. I want to thank Witte for reminding me that such stories don’t have expiration dates. In fact, these difficult stories are the most essential for us to tell.