What Does Freedom Taste Like?

[Sweet-yet-tart red, salt-in-the-wound white, and so, so blue, July 3, 2017]

In a couple of hours, people will gather on Boston Common to take turns reading aloud “The Meaning of July Fourth for The Negro,” the deeply moving speech Frederick Douglass gave on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. At this heart-breaking and fraught time in our nation’s history, such a fireworks-free, no-rockets’-red-glare, somber ceremony speaks to my condition (although, alas, I will only be there in spirit). For, like Douglass, “. . .  [A]bove your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions!”  I hear that wail, too.

Earlier this week I was gifted to hear something different: a “returning citizen,” imprisoned for twenty-five years and released a couple of weeks ago, described his joy to eat in-season, perfect, all-he-could-eat cherries. Wanting to vicariously taste his sweet-yet-tart exhilaration and to be reminded of how precious freedom is with every bite, I’ve bought some, too. They’re delicious!

I’m trying to hear, I am trying to taste all of it.

 

 

 

Whatever Works

 

When I learned that Nelson Mandela had found great strength in Invictus, I made copies of that William Ernest Henley poem and mailed them to two men I correspond with, currently behind bars.

Nice gesture, right?  But pointless. I see that now. Somehow, mysteriously,  a Victorian, “stiff upper lip,” Brit poem (i.e. language of his oppressors) spoke to Mandela. He discovered that rereading “I am the master of my fate” every day reminded him that his strength was with him. He chose that particular poem; he let it speak to him. Through him. And it worked.

Each of us has to chose our own Invictus. One poem can’t fit all. But whatever works for you, oh Lordy, I hope you’ve found it, find it!

Here’s what’s working for me these days: a cheesy* version of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” It sounds an echo in my soul, indeed!

*A word about cheesy: From an interview with Patty Jenkins, director of “Wonder Woman” (New York Times, June 1, 2017):

This may be a cheesy question, but what do you want people to take away from this movie?

Did you say cheesy? Cheesy is one of the words banned in my world. I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing. It’s been like that for 20 years, that the entertainment and art world has shied away from sincerity, real sincerity, because they feel they have to wink at the audience because that’s what the kids like. We have to do the real stories now. The world is in crisis.

I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it. It’s terrible when it makes so many artists afraid to be sincere and truthful and emotional, and relegates them to the too-cool-for-school department. Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.

“Something Close to Love”

What I love about this picture: it perfectly illustrates its accompanying excerpt from WellingUp.net. Check it out! (Keywords: Prison, Light, Green/Exercise Yard)

What else I want to say this picture: Those rusted bars only hint at the horrors of incarceration. But my intention for using this dangerously-close-to-prettifying photograph is to illustrate a prison conversion story—I am not trying to educate the general public re prison conditions. So, reluctantly, I chose what I chose out of thousands of gritty, heart-breaking, online choices.

(But, must say, I will be writing to my prison pen-pals with renewed care and tenderness from now on.)

 

 

 

The View from Here

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Saturday night, the Cambridge Bail and Legal Defense Fund hosted its first-evah silent auction. A needed, organic offshoot of Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Prison Fellowship Committee’s ministry, the Fund supports those in need—with an additional, deal-breaking criteria:  People on Prison Fellowship must know these potential recipients.  People who come to our Wednesday night sharing circle—another PF initiative—or people our members visit in prison, or people our members drive so those folks can visit loved ones in prison, or people known or recommended to PF by greater Boston allies* also working on criminal justice reform; all are eligible for Fund support.

Because PF had never hosted a silent auction before and because we only had about six weeks to pull this thing together, we kept the event small and simple. In-house.  So there were a couple of moments Saturday night when the commodious Friends Room felt a little echo-y. Despite the less-than-optimal attendance, however, the Fund raised almost twice its goal! (In lieu of showing up, several people simply mailed us checks—much appreciated!)

Some examples of what was donated: To teach up to 4 people how to make a flaky-crust, amazingly delicious apple pie (my husband donated this so I KNOW all about his pie skills). Or 3 hours of gardening work. Or advice and support re de-cluttering.

Here’s What I Want To Say:

As point person for the auction, I interacted with the (mostly FMC) people who’d donated goods and services. Their generosity was deeply touching—especially those of modest means who nevertheless gave. Equally touching were donors who bravely offered something that involved some personal risk—but offered, anyway. So I have come away from this experience with such gratitude! To have witnessed such generosity, such trust—and faith—has been an enormous gift.

Because the Fund hoped to refill its coffers, the silent auction came from a place of need, offering a few,  selected-carefully “big ticket” items (in the hundred$, not the thousand$ range, I hasten to add). The comfortable and the well-off would, basically, have no choice but to bid for these $150 to $300 items, in other words. But the next time we run a silent auction, it’ll come from a place of community-building. We’ll have lots of $5 items. People can just show up on the night of the event with whatever they want to auction; the more stuff the better! We’ll do extensive outreach and publicity. We’ll fill that Friends Room!

Most important: The next day, pretty exhausted, I attended an FMC meeting for business. One agenda item elicited much discussion of “the invisible wall,” i.e. the barrier between our privileged, white, faith community and the rest of the world. “Why aren’t we running a soup kitchen,” someone questioned by way of example.

And I realized that my meeting does run a soup kitchen every Wednesday night at the sharing circle. My FMC entails weekly worship and communion with people of color. My FMC is teaching me the wisdom of Mother Teresa’s commentary: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” My FMC is building connections with others in greater Boston doing prison ministry, re-entry support for ex-offenders, criminal justice advocacy et al. My meeting overwhelms me with its generosity and love.

I say these things, not out of smugness but, like the blind man and the elephant, because I only know my own experience, what I, myself, have touched or been touched by.

So, maybe, PF’s outreach needs to begin with FMC?!

 

* Like the Committee of Friends and Relatives of Prisoners

Cops as Case Workers?

 

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Last Thursday, I “showed up”* at the Cambridge Police Department to attend a strange (and potentially wonderful) meeting.

The cities of Somerville, Cambridge and Everett, funded by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, plan to “reduce crime and improve safety . . . through a coordinated and sustainable intelligence-driven model that identifies the most prolific repeat offenders that impact all three jurisdictions and disrupt their offending through focused deterrence.” [from the meeting’s hand-out.] A second section explained: “The effort is coordinated by an interagency working group involving federal and local police, probation, prosecutors, and community resource personnel.” (That last bit; that’s me, apparently.)

Basically, “focused deterrence” means two things: “We know who you are.” and “I am a Somerville or Cambridge or Everett cop and I’m referring you to a drug treatment program because you need help.” Wow.

Prompted by the Annie Dookhan Situation, this initiative, called Operation RASOR (Regional Analytics for the Safety of Our Residents), elicits, not surprisingly, a schizoid response from me: “Oh, great! Big Brother and hassle and surveillance for ALL of us.” (If the police are to keep track of targeted ex-offenders, who else are they watching?)

and

“Great! Maybe this is how the paradigm, aka The War on Drugs, shifts.” Because if, for example, the police do begin to refer long-time drug users and dealers (the men and women they’ve been arresting since 1971, the year that hopeless yet devastating War began) to drug treatment centers, they will discover what re-entry “community resource personnel” already know: There ain’t enough. Ditto, finding a job in Massachusetts if you have a record. Ditto, in greater-Boston, finding an affordable place to live.

Maybe, just maybe, if men and women in blue join the re-entry conversation, something different can happen.

I believe it’s possible.

 

*To be present, to witness, to publicly identify as a Quaker.