In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I’m seventy-five years old and a longtime reader of The Sun, but I confess I’ve never finished an interview until “This Mortal Coil” [interview by Deborah Golden Alecson, April 2021]. I was caught up in the clarity and simplicity of Sheldon Solomon’s ideas. Provocative questions and thoughtful responses propelled me through to the very end.
I quail to think of what I’ve missed by failing to finish decades worth of interviews. I’ll explore The Sun’s archives to make up for lost enrichment.
I was grateful to read Deborah Golden Alecson’s interview with Sheldon Solomon on how the fear of death affects our lives. I’d been craving this sort of conversation since the pandemic hit. Our fear of death seemed like the most important thing we could be talking about as a society, but no one was. The fact that Solomon referenced the brilliant work of Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death, made the interview even more satisfying.
After reading “This Mortal Coil,” I couldn’t help but wonder why Sheldon Solomon didn’t mention Buddhism, which talks extensively about death. Meditating on death is a common practice for Buddhists, as is contemplating the preciousness of life.
To Elisabeth Boone and Sarah Simpson: I appreciate your too-kind words about “This Mortal Coil,” and your acknowledgment of both Ernest Becker’s brilliance and Deborah Golden Alecson’s excellent questions.
To David Hollocher: Good point. I didn’t mention Buddhism because I am abjectly ignorant of it. We can surely profit from being aware of, and engaging with, non-Western attitudes toward death and life.
I was looking forward to speaking with Dr. John Dunne, an expert in Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin, in Manhattan last year. Our aim was to discuss terror management theory and how Buddhist contemplations of mortality might alter the effects of our otherwise unconscious terror of death. The event was canceled because of the pandemic but will hopefully be rescheduled soon.
Patrick O’Neill is a longtime Catholic activist who is currently serving a fourteen-month sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution, Elkton, for charges relating to an anti–nuclear weapons protest at the Naval Submarine Base in Kings Bay, Georgia. It was held on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death.
The protesters’ statement from the day of the arrest read that the protest was a “reaction to [King’s] efforts to address ‘the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.’ We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) to ‘beat swords into plowshares’ by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine.”
O’Neill and his collaborators were arrested peacefully. It was his twenty-fifth arrest for nonviolent protest.
The rattle of the guard’s large brass keys — a sound I’ve heard in every jail and prison I’ve ever occupied — told me it was about time for the daily mail.
Here in the Special Housing Unit, we’re limited to two books per week and a Bible. I set down my Bible and looked toward the door of my solitary-confinement cell. First a letter, then another, then a third slid under the steel door. Then there was a pause, and finally a large manila envelope with The Sun logo appeared. My prayer was answered.
I opted to skip the Sheldon Solomon interview until after I get out of the hole. Being locked in this cage is already a foretaste of purgatory.
Debra Gwartney’s “Beat the Old Lady Out” [April 2021] brought me back to the mornings when the smell of my Swedish grandmother’s cinnamon rolls, slathered in buttery caramel, would wake me up. Nine of us kids gobbled them up before they cooled — “starving for something,” as Gwartney says, that we “couldn’t name.”
I sent the essay to my two children, who are in graduate school. I haven’t hugged them since before the pandemic, when I took for granted their casual visits, holidays, and just-passing-through drop-ins. Like Gwartney, I’m sure I often substituted banana bread or Grandma’s rolls for what they really wanted: a listening ear, quality time, mothering.
A year into the pandemic there’s nothing new to say about the things we’re not doing, the places we’re not going, the people we’re not seeing. Instead my son and daughter share recipes with me. We savor stories about a golden loaf of sourdough grown from a starter shared among my son’s biochemistry pod, or the chocolate babka my daughter made to cheer a friend who stumbled in her preliminary exams. Gwartney’s essay reminds me that, until we can be together in person, bread and stories will fill our hearts.
The final lines of Alison Luterman’s poem “Being Wrong” [April 2021] made me laugh out loud: “I suspect I’ve been wrong / about pretty much everything, / including death, / which will come for everyone / except me.” It provided just one more reason why I read every issue cover to cover.
How could we be laughing while reading your April 2021 issue about death — the death of herb gardens, snakes, gerbils, newly planted trees, tropical fish, an orphan overseas? It was the brilliant writing of the late Donald Barthelme [“The School,” Dog-Eared Page] that had us guffawing.
Yes, the short story was about death, but the paradox made it even funnier. We’ve subscribed for twenty-five years and have long enjoyed the emotional range of the writing in your magazine, which is often about the anguish of life, and occasionally about the lighthearted moments, too. But never before have we cried tears of laughter, as we did with Barthelme’s story.
Your March 2021 issue was profound. Thank you for raising the voices of people serving time, the people who love them and are loved by them, and the people working to reform the system.
My father was in prison for more than a decade when I was growing up. It’s true what they say: that a family, not just an individual, serves a prison sentence. The dedication of organizations that spotlight our shared humanity and desire for justice is heartening and helpful.
After the collective dark night of the soul we all endured this past winter, your March 2021 issue was like a spring rain. The issue’s themes of love and incarceration simultaneously broke my heart and filled me with hope. I was delighted to learn that my favorite inmate-contributor, whom I’ve followed on your pages for years, Saint James Harris Wood, has finally found not only freedom but a darling companion [“I Still Don’t Feel Free”]; that Doug Crandell, whom I adore even more after having spent time with him during one of your writing retreats, is still submitting gritty prose about finding intimacy in the unlikeliest of places [“The Union Waltz”]; and that mailboxes have feelings, too [Readers Write on “Mail”].
With politics such as they are, and the pandemic on top of it, I’ve struggled to keep turning your pages. Sometimes it all seems too heavy. But this issue reminds me why I keep subscribing: life can be hard, but it is still breathtakingly beautiful.
Charles Raison [“Parting the Clouds,” interview by Sarah Conover, February 2021] would have us think the best treatment for depression is ingesting a substance. That’s not the case.
Research shows that people who receive psychotherapy experience a similar improvement in mood, with much lower rates of relapse. They also learn how to use their thoughts, emotions, intentions, and perceptions to overcome adversity, love the way they want to love, and live the way they want to live. When they do that, their depression starts to lift. Psychiatric drugs that numb emotions get in the way of psychotherapy.
I fear this is a misreading of what I said in the interview, which is that, in addition to currently used antidepressants, there are multiple ways to treat depression. In fact, I think psychotherapeutic approaches are generally preferable to medicinal ones. The medicines in development that interest me most are the ones that activate the same types of psychological reactions that occur during psychotherapy.