“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.

 

(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.

 

 

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.

 

“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.”

Branded # 7: Amity*

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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

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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

That Thing With Feathers

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Maybe because the snow’s melted enough to reveal tulip and daffodil shoots and in sunnier yards, actual crocuses. Maybe because of soft, vernal light. Maybe because Easter—as confusing and complicated as it is for me—is Sunday. Certainly being on the other side of a several, recent, challenging events helps. But I’m hopeful.

Why? Because of two articles in The Boston Globe, one on the statewide pushback re drug-sniffing dogs in Department of Correction visiting centers, the other, a scathing report re Massachusetts’ regressive get-tough-on-crime policies . Could these articles mark the moment when the proverbial paradigm shifts? Is something different emerging? I choose to believe so.

This morning, the online writing group I am blessed to discover I’ve “joined” has been oohing about the wonderful poem that follows (sorry about the mishmash fonts):

WHAT THE LIVING DO 
by Marie Howe
Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.
And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.
It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.
For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those
wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.
Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want
whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,
say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:
I am living. I remember you.

I live. I hope.