Stephen Jenkinson has reached an epic level of rationalization and superficiality with his response to the letters criticizing his views on killing animals for food [Correspondence, November 2015]. Eating animals is detrimental to our health and harmful to the environment, despite Jenkinson’s protest to the contrary. He even suggests that killing plants is on the same level as killing animals. But there is no equivalent to the obvious grief of animals who’ve lost their young or their mates, and their terror as they hear the sounds of death in the slaughterhouses.
Emma Duffy-Comparone’s story “Plagiarism” [November 2015] elicited guffaws and gasps — at debutantes, teachers’-lounge junk food, orgasms that scratch the unreachable itch, and mismatched shoes.
She lit up the gap between daytime pedagogic civility and nightly disappointments at home. I was fascinated with the main character’s simultaneous compassion and disdain for her students and colleagues. And, as a semi-retired English teacher, I was moved by her deep love for Jane Eyre’s passionate language.
I read Emma Duffy-Comparone’s “Plagiarism” at work and had to stifle my laughter. Having been an adjunct writing professor at one time, I hoped Helen would report her privileged student’s plagiarism despite her colleagues’ advice to forget it.
I love how important Jane Eyre is to Helen, and how she risks losing her job to protect it. I am fond of Jane Eyre, too. In my late twenties I called in sick to work just so I could stay in bed to finish it. I’m grateful that it was not required reading for me in high school or college, because I wouldn’t have understood it fully when I was younger.
Bravo to Renee Boss for her courageous stand on behalf of her patient while facing the scorn of the head surgeon at her medical school [Reader’s Write on “Saying No,” November 2015]. Unfortunately I predict Boss will face more of the same as she progresses through her clinical years. American medical-school faculties are made up overwhelmingly of specialists, who often regard an interest in primary-care medicine as a sign that a student is substandard, even though our country needs more primary-care physicians.
Having taught family medicine for twenty-five years, I often counseled students with an interest in primary care about the rewards of getting to know your patients and helping them make decisions about their health.
One reason I subscribe to The Sun is to read whatever Brian Doyle writes. His essay “To the Beach” [October 2015] is luminous.
Tim McKee’s moving interview with Francis Weller [“The Geography of Sorrow,” October 2015] arrived on the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s suicide. She took her life when I was twenty-four, and I have been unable to look at her picture since, despite the fact that she was once the most important person in my world. I have done my best to minimize her importance, to leave her the way she left me, but now I want to crack open the shell that has sealed off not only the grief but also the good memories. I am grateful to Weller for sharing how his experience of loss and grief enabled him to “fully inhabit” his life. I feel a few steps closer to taking my own journey through grief.
My husband of thirty-nine years died suddenly a year and a half ago. Afterward I bought Francis Weller’s Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World. Weller writes that we live in a “flatline culture” and have forgotten to take care of the soul. In traditional cultures, he says, people are often given at least a year to grieve a major loss. Tribal or village life is what we are hard-wired for. Gathering around the fires at night and telling our stories is what we need.
I befriended three fellow widows after my husband’s death. We talk about how our grief, if nothing else, forces us to be authentic. My friends and I think that many people avoided us when we were first widowed because our grief had, as Weller describes, “stripped [us] of excess and revealed [us] as human.”
Such raw vulnerability lies in everyone’s heart, waiting to be exposed when the right conditions arise. Too many of us feel ashamed of our feelings, especially males who are often taught that being strong means not showing any emotion but anger.
There is much wisdom in Tim McKee’s interview with Francis Weller. My experiences, too, tell me that communal grieving and mourning rituals are essential in moving us through loss. Grief needs to be tended, not solved.
But Weller’s glib idealization of village life pains me. In small villages everyone knows everyone else’s secrets; gossip and grudges are the order of day; and, if the community is poor, people often steal from each other. Alcoholism and mental illness are as prevalent as in any city. People leave villages not only to earn money but to experience a wider world, meet individuals unlike themselves, and gain a modicum of privacy.
We should strengthen communal life’s healthy elements while remaining free of its stifling aspects.
Francis Weller responds:
There are more than seven thousand cultures in the world, some of which have endured for more than ten thousand years. These are known as “mature” cultures, and they have survived, in great part, because of their members’ practices and ways of being together.
I agree that we should not idealize traditional, indigenous cultures, but we do have much to learn from them about how to handle loss and suffering. They are our elders when it comes to matters of communal cohesion and generational continuity. In Western culture we value individualism and neglect what we have in common. I am grateful for the reminders — of how to feed life and keep the soul vital — from our indigenous brothers and sisters.
I get what Tony Hoagland’s talking about in his poem “Ten Questions for the New Age” [October 2015]; it’s frustrating when you meet head-on with somebody who lives in La-La Land. But his reference to Waldorf education implies something that simply isn’t true.
Nobody “suffers” at a Waldorf school. Children are engaged, active, and creative. Their academic and arts studies are rigorous, and they are taught skills like forging metal, weaving, and woodcarving. The schools encourage participation in real life — in contrast to the “real world” Hoagland refers to, which has robbed us of our humanity in many ways. Children learn that humanity is good and that people can get along with one another. These students will grow up to create the change they want to see, because they believe it’s possible.
Under all his disparaging remarks, I suspect Hoagland is disappointed, like the rest of us, that the world is such a mess. But let’s go after the real enemy, which, I assure you, is neither New Age people nor Waldorf education.
Tony Hoagland’s absolutely right when he confesses that he is a “scornful, not entirely grown-up child” of the New Age. As a new subscriber, I hope that misinformed stereotypes, such as those Hoagland trots out in this and other poems, are not typical of the magazine’s editorial judgment.
Hoagland’s mockery of those who use cultural appropriation in the name of self-realization may be justified, but his superior tone is belied by his lack of information. Waldorf students often study folk dance and woodworking, but they do so along with physics and algebra. Waldorf’s emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-expression helps its graduates to be successful college applicants and responsible adults. I suggest Hoagland do a little homework before conflating a worldwide independent-school movement with a term like “New Age.”
Tony Hoagland responds:
It’s great that the Waldorf schools have such ardent defenders — and that they are Sun readers, too. As a university instructor, I’ve taught Waldorf graduates who have been exceptionally cultivated people, so I freely acknowledge my libel. Waldorf was collateral damage in my mocking interrogation of New Age pretensions because “Waldorf” has a delightful phonetic quality I couldn’t resist. Playfulness is one of the pleasures of art, after all, and a poem is not a newspaper.
I hate saying the obvious, but just this once I will: no one should base his or her opinion of Waldorf schools on my poem.
P.S. Is it true the teachers hula-dance at graduation?
In your September 2015 correspondence, former corrections officer Katherine Van Niman describes her experience of having prisoners make threats and throw disgusting things at her. She takes to task Maya Schenwar [“Criminal Injustice,” interview by Tracy Frisch, June 2015], saying Schenwar wasn’t there when “prisoners like her sister” did these awful things.
As an inmate, I can attest that Schenwar’s sister probably witnessed all that and worse, but the overwhelming majority of prisoners are individuals who work hard and are decent and respectful. Most are incarcerated for one major lapse in judgment. “Prisoners like her sister” paints on all of us a sinister face we have not earned. Only when the world can see prisoners as individuals with different personalities can we correct such bias.