(Almost)-Spring Cleaning

A Rainy Day at Castle in the Clouds, Moutonborough, N.H.

Sunday, chilled, rainy, very windy, I’d almost wished there’d been a fireplace fire in the meetinghouse fireplace. Surely a hearty blaze would brighten my spirits?  But, no, I realized. If there were to be any cheering up going on that gloomy morning, it would have to come from within!

And I remembered something someone in my yoga class had said on Thursday. (Actually, this was at our pre-yoga class, when we discuss a poem someone has brought in, or the Sutras, or a piece of writing our gifted teacher wishes to share.) One woman talked about sadness, hard times, grief and loss; how we’re sometimes too eager to be happy. “There’s good reasons to feel sad,” she said.

So I let myself sink into despair. Not to “wallow in it,” as my father always cautioned when anyone in our family dared to be sad. (You were allowed to be sad in my family for about five minutes. Then you had to get over it.)  But to be honest! To honor the countless reasons we all have to feel sad.

And, mysteriously, after way more than five minutes of sitting in silence and letting myself “feel the feels,” as my daughter, Hope (!) says, Something happened. As if something inside me had been decluttered, de-cobwebbed, dusted or lemon-oiled or rearranged. As if I’d cleared a space within me to hold this sadness. And it was okay. More than okay. It was exactly what I was supposed to do.

What Joy when we do what we’re supposed to do!

. . . Things I Cannot Change

Playroom Creation by a Three Year Old.

I visit a man in “Seg.” (as in Segregation) Aka “The Hole” or “Solitary Confinement.” (Once, on the phone, while making the required appointment to visit this man, I’d carelessly used the word “Isolation” and was quickly and firmly corrected.)  Whatever its label, putting a human being in a tiny room all alone for long periods of time is cruel and unusual punishment. Period. And, yes, in the early nineteenth century, Quakers—and Anglicans—invented this form of punishment so, yes, of course, I feel personally responsible whenever I visit him. And am eternally grateful for the many activists working hard to abolish this inhumane punishment.

His story is his to tell, not mine, so I will offer only this: Let’s just say that because of the times we’re living in, when he’s served his sentence, another sentence will be imposed upon him. And, it seems, there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. (I’ve tried.)

But here’s what I want to report—and to marvel at. In the six months I’ve been visiting him, something truly wondrous has happened! On Friday, the angry, young man I met in September who’d rightfully demanded, “Why me?” shrugged his shoulders; he’s accepted that he cannot change his fate, as deeply unfair as it is. Indeed,he’s viewing his unplanned and unwanted future as, oh, my, an opportunity!  Grinning, he struggled to remember the words but eventually nailed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Living well is the best revenge. And gestured as if to acknowledge to the cinderblock walls of the booth where we met, the glass and metal wall that separated us, the guards lurking outside the booth, the prison cells, the barbed wire fences; all that presently surrounded him.

And, yes, there’s a tiny, tiny part of me that wants to believe that those early Quakers and Anglicans were right! And that this man’s transformation was made possible by forcing him to be “penitent.”

But, mostly, I want to marvel at the human spirit. Again. Oh my.

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.

 

 

“To know and not to act is not to know”

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[A fountain in downtown Boston]

Just finished Nadine Gortimer‘s Burger’s Daughter; she’d used the above quote by Chinese philosopher, Wang Yang-ming (1472—1529), to introduce Part Two of her amazing and painful and gorgeously written anti-apartheid novel. It just might be my new credo.

If I know that climate change is real but do nothing, I don’t know.

If I know that my country is riven by racism and the dregs of slavery yet do nothing, I know nothing.

If I know that the criminal justice system isn’t just but don’t speak out, I know nothing.

If I know that men and women have equal rights yet fail to act on behalf of my oppressed sisters, I’m an idiot.

if I can remember when water fountains and swimming pools and schools and buses were segregated but fail to exult when I notice that arc of the moral universe has bent a little closer towards justice—in my lifetime!—I remember nothing.

“The Deepest Thing Inside”*

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Last Saturday I took the 83 bus, which was running late, to an all-day workshop on restorative justice circles** in Cambridge. Seated across from me was an elderly, well-dressed African American man; he was also blind. When the bus approached the intersection of Beacon and Washington Streets, he pushed the call button indicating he wanted to get off. The bus maneuvered towards the bus stop but was stuck in heavy traffic. So I had plenty of time to notice a young, heavy-set African-American man in a denim jacket and jeans, clearly agitated, who paced the sidewalk maybe ten feet ahead of the bus. “What’s his story?,” I wondered. (And, yes, my Flight or Flight was definitely triggered—not bigtime—but I was a little wary, shall we say?)

When the bus stopped, as the blind man, guided by his cane, slowly and carefully walked from his seat and approached the opened bus door, the agitated man brightened and quickly moved to the left side of the door so that when the elderly man stepped off onto the curb, the young man gently and tenderly took his arm and the two began walking slowly towards the corner.

“Why don’t more people tell stories like that!” I wondered as the bus pulled away.

So I did.

Naomi Shihab NyeNaomi Shihab Nye

* “Kindness”

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.Before you know kindness as the deepest thing
inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

 

**Because as my F/friend Lynn says: “If we’re going to change the criminal justice system we have to come up with an alternative.”