Somewhere With No Service

[Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico]

It’s been almost three weeks since I last heard from the friend I used to visit in prison, recently deported back to trouble-torn Dominican Republic. “They’ll kill you for a pair of $25 sneakers over here,” he told me a week or so after he’d arrived. “I think I’m destined for a violent death,” he’d said not long after that. And now: silence.

“Maybe he lost his phone,” my husband has offered. “You said he was moving—maybe he’s somewhere with no service.” Maybe he’s still alive, my husband is trying to say. Maybe.

The last time we talked, I’d had the chance to comment on something he’d said a couple of days before: “Remember how you’d said there are more bad people than good people?” I reminded him. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that. And I’m pretty sure that if I’d been born into your family, I’d think so, too.” And over these past three weeks, I’ve thought about him, how bright he is, how full of promise, about his violent life, about trans-generational trauma, about poverty, about racism, about The Jail Trail,  about all the good things I’ve always hoped were in his future. I think about his word destined. I think about what, in a perfect world, he was destined to be.

And in this three-week silence, the obscene disparity between my life and his has become as close to me as the air I breathe. Waiting in a spotless, equipment-filled examination room for my well-trained, courteous doctor to come in, I am reminded in a new and piercingly painful way of his world-view. Of course!

“I feel as though I have joined a gigantic group,” I’d told my husband. (I feel as though I have learned another way to be human, I might have said.) “It’s made up of all the millions of people who have ever lived or who are living now who don’t know what happened to someone they love.”

 

“Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free”*

Tuesday,  having spent some wonderful time with our Tarrytown, NY family, my husband and I explored that part of the world a little on our own. Driving north, the broad, magnificent Hudson to our left, we’d gotten off Route 9 to wend our way through the side streets of another charming, perched-above-the-Hudson village much like Tarrytown; the village’s name not quite registering until lo, unmistakably,  there it was. The thick, grey walls and guards’ tower of Sing Sing. (So, yes, we were literally, “up the river.”)

Surprised to willy nilly stumble upon such a famous prison, it took a moment or two for us—who both visit people in the Massachusetts’ Department of Corrections system—to adequately take in what we were seeing. Because, well, for starters, unlike the DOC sites we know, isolated and inaccessible and surrounded by razor wire, this prison is surrounded on three sides by a low-income residential neighborhood. Like directly across the street! And, like a Rockerfeller mansion, its position right on the river allows a beautiful view! (But who inside is able to see that view? Enjoy it? Take solace from it?)

Another cognitive dissonance: A ground crew was working outside one portion of the prison, this portion not surrounded by a thick, stone wall but, instead, by a very tall chainlink fence. And like good neighbors, two crew members, one on one side of the fence, one on the other, were having a cozy chat—both under the watchful eye of the squad car parked nearby. But, still. It all seemed so, well, benign. Neighborly. Normal!

But then, praise Spirit, the same horror I experienced as a child every time my family drove past the prison near our house hit me. And the same, horrifying thought that gave me bad dreams for nights when I was eight: There are people locked up, being held inside those formidable walls.

Thank you, Light. May I, with your guidance, never, ever normalize our prison system!

 

 

*Fannie Lou Hammer

Tethered

Last evening after the rain had ended, I was walking along one of Cambridge Common’s asphalt paths when I noticed a mother and her two or three year old son walking ahead of me. Coming upon the park’s broad and luscious open space, its grass glistening from the rain, the little boy darted off the path and ran, just ran, twenty, twenty-five feet away from his mother—who continued to walk along the path. Not actually looking at her, he turned and happily walked through the wet grass as if alone yet parallel to her, eventually veering closer and closer to her until, maybe fifty feet down the path, they rejoined.

I’d been thinking about my dear friend, recently released from prison and dealing with all the terrifying and daunting issues of re-entry,  when gifted with that child’s joyful yet judicious experience of freedom. Because, yes, when that child first took off he’d been so free! And my friend tells me he sometimes experiences freedom, too. And about as briefly.

Because although his cell bars and his manacles have been removed, my friend’s still tethered in ways he both understands and, like that child wordlessly and instinctively tracking his mother’s route, he’s also still bound up in ways he cannot yet name.

 

Going Deep(er)

This morning after a long silence I received a text from the man I had been visiting in prison. He’s finally been deported—back to the Dominican Republic. (Red Sox Nation citizens will marvel at his horrible luck to have been sent to DR this week!) For almost two years he and I had been Old-School corresponding via the United States Postal Service so, for starters in this brand-new phase of our friendship, it was pretty sweet to text back and forth! In real time.

As he never failed to do in all his letters and during our month visits, he texted me his thanks for being his good friend. I used to think that his thanks was all that mattered in our relationship; that by his being briefly grateful that he, held in solitary confinement in a series of Massachusetts’ prisons, got to be human in a different way.  Briefly. Very briefly.

But during this long silence after being released by the DOC and then detained by ICE—which meant being sent to Louisiana where, as a soft, Southern, female voice informed me, “He ain’t here long enough to get mail”—I found myself watching myself. I saw myself free. With agency. Able to go wherever, whenever. Free.

How truly precious freedom is!

Some ICE detention centers in Louisiana are prisons-for-profit so, newly cherishing my own freedom, I was also haunted by what that meant for my friend. And imagined that the cruel, tortuous treatment he’d experienced while in “The Hole” in Massachusetts’ Department of Correction facilities would be far, far worse. And that how long he’d be detained in Louisiana would not be about Fair or Right or Just but predicated on some corporation’s bottom line. The longer he’d be detained meant more money for some “Keep occupancy high and costs low” business, right?

But now he’s in violent, drug-infested DR—a country he’d left when he was four. Where, he says, there’s already a price on his head. Where there are 200 murders every month in Santo Domingo. Where he, an ex-offender already dealing with a very complicated re-entry process because of being held in solitary confinement, knows no one and cannot yet suss out who might be a trustworthy friend.

In his recent, viral, heart-breaking essay on climate degradation, Cody Patterson states “I wish I didn’t know.” I get that; I feel the opposite. I am grateful to know what I now know only because of this friendship.

May this deeper knowledge inform my life.

And, more important, may my friend find his way.

 

. . . 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.

Speaking Truth—or Redemption—to Power?

Blockade Fencing, Irrepressible Tree, Somerville, MA; 2017

In March, at the request of X, a Massachusetts inmate I have been writing to for the past three years, I send the letter excerpted here to the Parole Board:

 . . . A member of my [Quaker] meeting’s Prison Fellowship Committee, I’d learned through people connected with our prison ministry that X would appreciate receiving letters. So I volunteered. From his letters I have learned that he is a thoughtful and caring person, a gifted artist, and, most importantly, a compassionate, steadfast care-giver to and for his fellow inmates.

X has asked me to explain to you what kind of support I can offer: For the past ten years, Friends Meeting at Cambridge has hosted a weekly meal and sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated. During the meal, useful information re re-entry issues such as housing, jobs, navigating public transformation, etc. is discussed; during the circle, members talk more freely and openly about personal issues. X will be welcomed and supported by our circle.

Tomorrow afternoon I will appear before the Parole Board; I’ll have three minutes to explain the sharing circle and to answer questions. Tonight, writing this, I wonder if I’ll be moved to say more. Pretty sure I will say something about the deep friendships, the care, the love among the circle members I have witnessed for ten years.  Pretty sure I’ll say something about how, over and over, circle participants talk about how sitting quietly around flickering candlelight and speaking about what is in their hearts lets them “be human!” But will I feel compelled to say something about redemption? Something about transformation? To say those precious and, for all of us who have attended the circle, real, embodied, in the-flesh words aloud?

I hope so.

 

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

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

Cops as Case Workers?

 

IMG_0282

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.

Branded # 4: “Trust the process.”

 

IMG_0196

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Our apple-cheeked Friend rests on a Bible; beside him are a couple of others: Tim Wise’s White Like Me,Wendell Berry’s The Hidden Wound, Cornel West’s Race Matters.]

I had jury duty today, the first time I’ve been asked to serve in the thirty-four years I’ve lived in Massachusetts.

In the deliciously long silence of meeting for worship this past Sunday, I had plenty of time to reflect on this lofty, civic duty. I was already pretty clear that, unlike some Quakers, the raising of my right hand and swearing to uphold—whatever—was not going to be an issue. (I already knew that the “Place your hand on the Bible” thing doesn’t happen any more.)

More deeply, however, I realized that, in truth, (or as my mother used to say, “deep down inside”) I’d prefer not to put my life on hold, thank you very much. And realized that I’d been imagining that my Quaker principles would somehow automatically exclude me from selection. But realized that, really, short of magic-markering “I am a Quaker” on my forehead, there wasn’t any real way, no space on the “Juror’s Confidential Questionnaire” form to declare my religious affiliation. (Which is as it should be, right?) Further, I realized—with alarm and embarrassment—that actually, I’d been planning to use my principles to get out of jury duty!

An interesting challenge: How can I be a person of integrity and truth-seeking without using those principles to avoid something inconvenient?

I prayed over this for a long time. And it came to me: Trust the process. Two weeks ago, for example, as I watched the jury selection process for another case [see “Seeking That of God”], one of the questions those jurors were asked to respond to was, basically, Do you trust the testimony of the police over the testimony of someone else?

Hmm, I thought, anticipating today. Now there’s a question I’d have a hard, hard time simply acquiescing to.

So on Sunday, I decided that I would simply trust that were questions such as this raised, I would answer truthfully.

And they were and I did and was promptly dismissed.

Driving home, I had second thoughts. Maybe I should have kept quiet so that someone with lots of experience cheering and supporting defendants could have served.

But that’s not exactly “fair and impartial,” is it?

So I think I did the right thing. Do you?