Being Human

Doors. New Bedford Quaker Meeting, New Bedford, MA

Sunday morning found me, earrings and bracelets and watch-free, being escorted through the long and eerily empty corridors of the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Loathe to say anything that could in any way negatively impact the inmate I was about to visit, I chose to remain silent with my prison-guard escort.* And, too, because I recognized that although I can usually find something to talk about with just about anyone, I had no clue how to engage in a real conversation with someone who worked in a supermax. “So don’t even try,” I coached myself as we waited for another massive, electronically-controlled door to slowly slide open.

The actual visit? Wonderful. Rich. Moving. We told stories. We laughed. We got sad. We talked about our families. We explored why he’d ended up where he was. He described the dimensions and the fixtures of his segregation cell. At some point, as he was animatedly explaining something, his arms waving in the air, his eyes lit up, I was gifted with something one of the Sharing Circle had said last week: “This circle lets me be human.” ( I can’t write about this without welling up.)

“That’s what is happening here,” I realized. He’s remembering how to be human as he sits in this cinderblock cubicle shouting his words to me through a metal grill in a plexiglass window. Every second, here, is precious. (Duh!)

Finally, our time was up, signaled when my new escort unlocked the door to my side of that cubicle.

“I’d been locked in?” I sputtered indignantly.

“Sometimes inmates work as janitors on this floor,” the guard explained wearily. You-were-locked-in-for-your-own-safety, he shrugged as we began our trek back. Along the way we passed another guard. “Howya doing?” he asked my guy.

“Not good,” MG responded through clenched teeth. “But I know how to fix that.” (Or words to that extent.)

“I can use this silence to pray for him,” I decided. I can hold him—and whatever is plaguing him—in the Light. can be human in this self-imposed silence. I can pray. I can put my earrings and my bracelets and my watch back on as if performing a ceremony to commemorate my return to Normal.

And here I am.

 

*The young man I was on my way to see is in “seg,” i.e. segregation, i.e. solitary confinement. Seg visits happen in a different section of the prison from its visitors’ room. That’s why I required an escort.

 

 

It Goes On

Harvard Square Sidewalk, Election Day, 2017

Like many “Villens,” Ralph Hergert had dual citizenship: Somerville and Cambridge. So it was not surprising that although a long-time, pivotal, and much-loved Somerville activist, Ralph’s memorial on Saturday was held at Old Cambridge Baptist Church, his spiritual home in his last years. And that his beloved, vaulted church overflowed with OCBC congregants and Villens who’d worked with him and beside him on peace and social justice issues for over thirty years.

Still the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in East Somerville when we first met, Ralph and I had many conversations about how his faith and mine, both predicated on the belief that we can experience The Divine without an intermediary, were so radically different culturally yet, in fact, so very close. Good stuff.

My favorite Ralph story: He and I worked in the same building, he as the head of the Mayor’s Office of Human Services and I as a teacher at Somerville’s adult learning center. One morning as we were both coming to work we met outside the building and, somehow, got to talking about music—specifically, for some reason lost in the mists of time, about “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” (Endlessly kind, he nevertheless pitied my ignorance of liturgical/spiritual music.) We walked inside, he walking up a flight of stairs, me walking down a flight, and when he reached the top of the stairs, he leaned over the railing. He looked down at me. He grinned. And  began singing that wonderful spiritual. His voice filled the stairwell. His voice filled my sin-sick soul.

Ralph struggled with Alzheimer’s in his last years; his disease was referenced, present, many times during his (music-rich) memorial.  Something else was present, too: a sense that The Work continues. I felt it; others did, too. That all that Ralph held dear and had worked so hard for lived. Buoyant. Enduring. Possible.

Good stuff.

Near-Hit*

No, that isn’t a tree growing in our driveway. That’s a Norway maple branch which broke off during Sunday night’s fierce winds and, miraculously, hit no one, nothing as it crashed to the ground. Tilting backwards, that impressively thick branch—and its leafy, smaller branches—then nestled against the building next door. Today, while more than a half-million people in New England are still without power because of other, less felicitous broken-off branches, ours has already been sawed into manageable bits. So tonight, on All Hallow’s Eve, as I’ll pass out Snickers and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ll take time between doorbell responses to consider Life’s tenuousness. And its preciousness.

 

 

 

*Thanks, George Carlin

Me 2 (Duh)

While seated in a waiting area at LAX Monday morning, two women of a certain age and class and race arrived at Gate 23. Loudly.  Grandly. As if making an entrance at a cocktail party. As if they were the only people traveling to Boston that morning. As if Alice Harvey characters in a New Yorker cartoon. As if the waiting area were their own, personal space. Operating on that assumption, one of them, the redhead, threw her jacket over a waiting area chair—connected, of course, to another, back-to-back chair—so that her insouciantly-thrown jacket obstructed the empty chair on the other side vacated by my husband. (Who sat on it when he returned.)

There was something so egregiously la-di-da about that redhead and her blonde BFF! So infuriating. So annoying that the middle-aged man whose family, I am guessing, originated from the Indian subcontinent, seated at the end of the row, caught my eye and raised his eyebrows. So I got up and whispered to him, “I hate white people!”

Oh, my, Reader, how he laughed! “You know,” he told me. “I will remember this for weeks and will still laugh!”

But here’s the thing, Dear Reader. When it was time to board I realized that I, too, had insouciantly thrown my jacket on the chair beside my husband, thereby forcing people to sit somewhere else.

So, yeah: Me, too.

Our Thoughts and Prayers

Backyard Helicopters

At a wedding Friday, I met a young woman working in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos—aka Lesbos. Because I’d asked her to, she contacted me Sunday (in the midst of packing, no doubt), with info as to where to contribute. (Now you can, too.) “I’ll hold you, your colleagues, and the people you are serving in the Light,” I emailed. “That’s Quakerese for a daily mindfulness,” I elucidated.

I see the two of us on Friday in our nicest wedding duds and best jewelry, holding wine glasses, perhaps: removed. Happy. Touched by a lovely wedding. Today, back on Lesvos, weaving between rows and rows of tents filled with Syrian families, does that young woman even remember our chat? Does that lovely wedding now seem a very, very long time ago? And far, too far away? Do all the best wishes, the thoughts and prayers and being held in the Light by well-wishers Back Home kind of seem beside the point today?! I would imagine so.

But she, and the small piece of this troubled, broken world she invokes, is still with me. She has enlarged and brought her backyard into clearer focus. This morning as two helicopters, like vultures, circled my backyard, I held Syrian refugees and the people of Puerto Rico and all those who lost their homes from northern California wildfires and all who suffer in the Light.

No, my prayers don’t solve the Syrian refugee crisis. They are merely a tool with which to dismantle my complacency.

May that dismantling bear fruit.