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.

 

 

Thank you, Brother West

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY; June, 2017

“I am here because somebody loved me,” Cornel West declared at last week’s Harvard Divinity School convocation. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only person hearing his words who didn’t immediately conjure up sopping-wet, helping hands reaching out to someone in need in Houston. Many of us, I’m guessing, silently acknowledged life’s ever-present disasters*—and yet here we all were, safe and dry and ALIVE because, despite their inadequacies, the someones in our own lives had gotten us through.

Talk about inadequate! My words to describe how Brother West‘s declaration moved me will only hint at what I want to say! But here goes:

I felt not just the love of West’s parents and the congregants of Sacramento’s Shiloh Baptist Church and all the loving people in his life—like his teachers; he spoke their names with reverence— that brought him to that (fancy) HDS podium last week, I felt eons of Love. I felt its enormous, glorious Power. I felt every single compassionate and loving act that every single member of our species had ever bestowed, shared, offered to another! Talk about welling up!

In the coming days and weeks, may you, may we find whatever ways available to us to connect with that Power. (We’re going to need it.)

 

*Some of them, like Hurricane Harvey, man-made. (Which makes them that much more devastating, right?)

“There’s No Plan, Really.”

Charles River Watershed Map. Blue lines indicate stream that are tributary to the river. Source: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis

Sunday morning, waiting to cross Massachusetts Avenue at Cambridge Street in Harvard Square, I overheard two tourists, standing behind me, also waiting for the crosswalk sign.

“It’s not square,” one woman commented, looking at the hodgepodge of intersecting, bustling streets before us, Cambridge Common, green and leafy, across the street.

“No shape,” agreed the other. She paused, as if at a museum, to carefully assess what was before her: “There’s no plan, really.”

Oh, but there was, I wanted to say! Look again. Directly in front of you, not a quarter of a mile away, is a river. The Charles River. Below your feet, beneath all this concrete and paving, are springs. These multi-lanes streets were once pathways leading to sources of fresh water, the best places to fish, higher-ground land that would not flood in the spring. The indigenous people who once inhabited Harvard Square knew every inch of where we’re standing. They had a plan.

And that Commons, I could have gone on. That was the communal place where early settlers pastured their cows. We greater-Bostonians joke that our meandering, confusing, non-gridded streets were once cowpaths. What we don’t acknowledge is that our semi-historic factoid neglects who’d originally created those paths. And why.

Water is Life, I could have extolled, church bells ringing from the other side of the Commons. That’s the plan. Are you ready?

 

 

 

Say It! Name It!

Tanner Fountain, Harvard University, July, 2017

 

One evening last week, after a full day of swimming and story-telling in the hammock—just she and I—and playing with her cousins, my granddaughter crawled into my lap.

“Show me a video,” she asked.”Please?” (Here’s one we both love.)

I thought a bit, Dear Reader, for, truth be told, as a Facebook/don’t own a TV kinda grandma, I watch a fair amount of videos! And then I showed her this one.  “Blue jeans!” She loved it.

Because her parents were apparently content to let her keep watching and Youtube being Youtube, she and I watched other such videos, conveniently grouped and accessible: the first time a mother hears her son’s voice. The first time a blind child sees his mother’s face. The first time . . . And in every single one, tears. Copious tears. “It just wells up, doesn’t it,” notes a Brit technician to a weeping young woman who has just experienced sound for the first time.

Exactly.

“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.)

 

 

 

“Noli Me Tangere”: The backstory

[“Noli Me Tangere” by Patricia Miranda, 2005]

It was years ago, in the midst of the random opulence and higgledy-piggledy of Boston’s Gardner Museum, that I fell in love with Mary Magdalen. This one. “I may not yet know how to love Jesus,*” I thought, instantly attracted to Raphael’s redhead. “But, ohmygoodness, will you look at her! Such love!”  For what I somehow understood—oh sweet mystery!—was how Mary Magdalen’s tenderness, her love, her oil-painted kiss embodied agape: transcendent, universal, non-sexual love. A love so powerful it transcended my feminist queasiness to see a woman, any woman, on her knees kissing a man’s foot. Oh, my!

So, back in the earliest, stumbling-around days as I explored how I might share my novel, Welling Up, online, I examined Jesus and Mary Magdalen paintings—both to discover what various artists’ work might teach me and, of course, because, a website needs art!  I looked at lots and lots of paintings. Like this one.

Maybe, if I hadn’t already viewed Fra Angelico’s “Noli Me Tangere,” Patricia Miranda’s painting would not have caught me eye. Maybe. But I think Miranda’s stripped-down to-its essentials version of this biblical, “Touch me not,” moment would have intrigued me no matter what. Yes, knowing its backstory enlarges my appreciation of her work—but will you look at what she’s done?! Those ardent yet non-touching hands stretched towards each other, hands that speak of that same transcendent love I’d been moved by at the Gardner? Those somber, funeral colors coexisting with three robust, verdant trees and Latin written with luminous, gold leaf? That mysterious, white trapezoid off-center yet somehow dominate?

So you can imagine how excited I am that the very first thing you will see when you open up WellingUp.net—to be up and running in a couple of months if all goes well—is this painting. Which I have permission to use. (And, perhaps, you’ll also understand why I’ll need at least one more post to say all I want to say about it!)

Thank you, Patricia Miranda.

* “The post-Easter Jesus” I now know to label.