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”

IMG_0216

[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”*

IMG_0225

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.”

Branded # 7: Amity*

IMG_0613

Last night I attended a reading at Porter Square Books by Debby Irving, an attractive, personable, and righteous Cambridge resident, re her brand-new book, Waking Up White And Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

Reader, I was upset. And jealous. Especially when Irving flatly stated that after taking a course at Wheelock College—where I went, for heaven’s sake!—and awakening to race matters, she couldn’t find any memoirs by white people on the subject! So decided to write one, herself.

Still stewing, I came home to find an e-mail from my dear friend, Delia, with this link. “Apparently I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this poem first thing in the morning lately!” she wrote. As Delia knows,  Robert Hayden’s incredible “Those Winter Sundays” introduces Chapter 2 of my memoir re awakening to race in this country. How grateful I was to be gifted with such loving—though inadvertent—support of a dear friend when I needed it! How lovely to again contemplate, “What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” !

My memoir’s entitled Way Opens: A Spiritual Journey. That journey continues. So when, ahem, I woke up this morning, I realized I’d heard something else last night: How there’s another, little-known narrative in this country about people of color and white allies. (And, yes, although although our record has been definitely checkered, Quakers have historically been counted among those allies.)

Post Way Opens, here’s where Spirit had led me: To be, as best as I am able, a criminal justice ally. And here’s what I believe I am led to explore: how best I can support Jobs Not Jail. (Not completely clear; need more discernment for sure.)

Reader: care to join me?

PS: Upon reflection, I realized that the above was clumsily written. Let me be clear: I commend Debby Irving and the wonderful and important work she’s done. There can’t be too many books on this incredibly important and difficult subject!

* “Friendship, peaceful harmony; mutual understanding and peaceful relationship.” My alma mater runs a National Center for Race Amity; who knew?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The View from Here

IMG_0521

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