That Thing With Feathers



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):

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.

Branded #1


Last night I had a wonderful phone conversation with a Harvard student investigating service projects for herself and her classmates. Through another Kennedy School student, she’d heard about Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Prison Fellowship Committee and our Wednesday night sharing circle —so arranged for our phone call to learn more.

Early on I’d warned her that I’d have lots to say. And I did. But, bless her, she hung in there. So I blathered. Oh, my, did I!

At one point I heard myself reference the early Quakers and their historic interest in prison reform since they’d spent a fair amount of time in gaol themselves. I even mentioned Elizabeth Fry.

This morning, as I often do post-blather, I wondered if my (way too many) words had been well-chosen. Specifically I wondered what right I had to claim this history as mine.

But Quakers’ penal reform history is much a part of the brand as The Peace Testimony, right? (And, of course, we mustn’t forget that that history also includes Quakers’ well-meaning but misguided belief that sitting in penitent silence with, perhaps, a Bible, i.e. in penitentiaries, was a good idea.) “And this is our testimony to the whole world.”

The brand. A concept I both loathe and am intrigued by. (So why this post is a I; there’ll be more, I’m guessing. Especially since positioning a Quaker Oats container in other settings could be such fun!)

I am confused re brand but do know this: Prison ministry means a version of mindfulness that has enlarged my life.

PS: During that long-winded phone call, I also referenced “The House I Live In.”










The first S of the Quaker principles “SPICERS”* is Simplicity. Which I used to interpret as anti-stuff, i.e. “Live simply that others may live.” But at a recent retreat, a wise soul pointed out that simplicity can also mean looking at ALL the tugs and pulls for our time, our love, our energy, and making careful, thoughtful choices. “What am I asked to do?” (May I suggest adding strategically to that all-important question?)

So I am presently experimenting with this inward simplification. Was bummed not to be one of those 40, 000 climate change activists in DC Sunday. But that day, I could be present when a member of our Prison Fellowship Committee downloaded.

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” Mother Teresa.


[* Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Respect, Stewardship)

April 23, 2012: Perfect!

Friends Meeting at Cambridge’s Wednesday evening sharing circle—for the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them— has recently received letters from three inmates currently incarcerated in MA prisons. All three men are looking for people on the outside to write to them—and, no doubt, hoping to establish a connection with someone they can reference when coming up before the parole board: “See? I know this person—who’s not from my old neighborhood, not a family member. ”

My attempts to find interested  penpals among the Quakers doing prison work has, thus far, failed. But, meanwhile, those men are waiting for a response. So today, I decided to send something to each of them, myself.

Remembering how much a former member of the circle—who, unfortunately, has again wound up back in prison—appreciated a notecard I’d sent him, a notecard with a beautiful photograph taken by my friend Janie on the outside, I was figuring out where the closest stationary store might be, who might sell something similar when, duh! Of course! I’d order a batch of Lynn Wiles’ incredible notecards. So I did.


March 19, 2012: Hacked Off!

Okay: I really have a great excuse for not posting 4-eva: This site was hacked!

Had been alerted, thanks to my dear friend, Susan Who’s-Half-Way -Round-the-World, that my site suddenly decided to link to a porn site all on its own. Yuck. ‘Course I should have figured something was off when I did actually try to post (Swear to God) and my dashboard resembled nothing I’d ever seen before. Clever me, I’d figured WordPress had been updated at the beginning of March AND that there was something seriously the matter with me because I couldn’t figure out its new commands.

Okay, so maybe didn’t use the best reasoning skills, here.

But thanks to dear, dear Nathan, who’d set up this site in the first place and who could actually comprehend DreamHost’s page-long list of things to do to clean up this mess, all is well.

Had I posted last week, I might have written about the Habitual Offender, aka the 3 Strikes Bill rally, March 15th, on Beacon Hill. But maybe I’ll just say this: Protesting in front of the Massachusetts State House last Thursday, something I’ve done a time or two, was very, very different this time. Why? Because my Quaker meeting, god bless them, had approved a minute re 3 Strikes the previous Sunday. (The text of that minute follows this.)

To paraphrase that old song: How goodly it is and how pleasant when one’s faith community supports one’s ministry!

Here’s the minute:

Approved Minute, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, March 11, 2012


At its Meeting for Business in Worship on March 11, 2012, Friends Meeting at Cambridge came to unity in its opposition to the Habitual Offender, or Three Strikes Bill currently being considered by the Massachusetts legislature. In doing so, we join our brothers and sisters of faith throughout Massachusetts who have strongly and passionately spoken out against this unjust bill.


As people of faith, we believe we are called to witness to that love and compassion which passeth all understanding. And we believe we are called to ask: Who is my neighbor?


The current bill, now in Conference Committee, perpetuates a broken system and raises more questions than it answers, including:


How long will Massachusetts continue to overcrowd its prisons, already at 143% capacity?

How long will Massachusetts continue to spend its limited financial resources to keep men and women behind bars while failing to invest in preventative measures such as drug treatment programs?

How long will Massachusetts continue to spend $47,000 per inmate per year but only $10,000 per public school child?

How long will Massachusetts continue to incarcerate young men and women of color in disproportionate numbers?


As Quakers, called to witness for peace and justice, we share the Commonwealth’s concerns for public safety. Yet when we have listened to our brothers and sisters living in those Massachusetts neighborhoods most impacted by violence, we have heard their grave concerns and believe, as they do, that this Habitual Offender Bill will not make Massachusetts communities safer.


We urge our elected officials to reject this Habitual Offender Bill which was acted upon hastily and whose true cost to Massachusetts’ taxpayers no one can responsibly predict. Instead, we urge you to carefully, thoughtfully and compassionately design a real Public Safety Bill worthy of this great Commonwealth.


Let Massachusetts’ “light upon the hill” shine forth.


October 12, 2011: Let’s Celebrate (True) Collaboration

The mini-version of “American Autumn” seems to be playing out at Friends Meeting at Cambridge in the form of collaborative efforts by my fellow Quakers with like-minded activists.

(At least that’s the view from here.)

Here’s an initiative that’s recently grabbed the attention of the Prison Fellowship group I’m part of:  Abolishment of Massachusetts’ Life Without Possibility of Parole. AKA “the other death penalty.”

Newbies to this initiative, we don’t have a clue who’s doing what. Especially among members of other MA faith communities. But as we begin to learn how best to contribute to this effort, I am mindful of how, during the Civil Right Movement, well-meaning but incredibly patronizing, self-righteous Quakers (and their best buds, the American Friends Service Committee) did an enormous disservice to the cause.

So pray for us!

July 27, 2011: Homecoming

Just got back from a terrific, 5-day trip to LA to hear that the son of someone in our Wednesday night’s meal-and-sharing circle has been murdered.

Another dear person in our circle’s sister was recently murdered in a murder-suicide in western Massachusetts.

Four years ago, when a group of us from Friends Meeting at Cambridge considered beginning a sharing circle for “the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them,” did any of us anticipate how profoundly the violence and tragedy people of color routinely experience would touch our lives?

I certainly didn’t.

February 22, 2011: Let Go, Let Synergy

Tonight was another Prison Fellowship meeting. And, as always happens on the fourth Tuesday of the month, in the middle of a hard discussion I thought: “There is no place on earth I would rather be right this minute than sitting here with these hard-working, dedicated people, talking about the criminal justice system and what we’re called to do.”

February 2, 2011: It’s official: the Prison Fellowship* fundraiser’s been postponed. (Yuck)

This letting go is so much more complicated: There’s a man sitting in prison, waiting for our Prison Fellowship committee to raise the money to pay his legal costs so he might appeal his life sentence. “Sorry,” we have to tell him. “You’ll just have to keep on being patient.” (He’s been in jail for something he didn’t do for 23 years.) There’s a loss of momentum by deciding to postpone—definitely a handicap when confronting that monolith known as the criminal justice system. There’s my innate fear that by giving in to weather conditions and no parking and the rest of the complications due to these back-to-back storms, what we’re really saying is: This prison work is too hard.

Yes, it is hard. But, I believe, it’s also what I’m being asked to do. And I know the others on the committee believe so, too.

So, we’ll reluctantly accept what we cannot change (some key speakers were not going to be able to make it, either.). And regroup.

* [What is the Prison Fellowship Committee? We are a committee of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (MA) doing prison ministry. Committee members visit prisons and work for better prison conditions.  We take families to visit family members in prison and we visit individual prisoners ourselves. Every Wednesday evening, we offer a meal and sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated and those who care about them. We have raised funds for bail or legal costs; the recipients are those in need whom individual members of our committee have met through our prison work. We do this work because we can and because we are unable to stand by and not take action when we see so many suffering unfairly.]

November 7, 2010: Collective mindfulness

Wade Drayton, currently serving a life sentence at MCI-Norfolk for a crime he says he did not do, wants to appeal his sentence. An expensive proposition.So last night at the Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) meetinghouse, forty to fifty people attended a fundraiser for Wade. There was wonderful folk music performed by Kristin and Jonathan Gilbert, the multi-talented Trecia Reavis sang, members of Wade’s family told stories about him and read his poetry; there was fellowship and laughter. The first such event organized by FMC’s Prison Fellowship Committee, the evening exceeded our wildest dreams! We’d been hoping twenty people would come; we raised far more money than we’d dared to anticipate.

As the evening wound down, we sang “How Can I Keep From Singing” together. In prison cell and dungeon vile/Our thoughts to them are winging. And I couldn’t help but thinking that when that many people collectively sing those words, Something happens.

June 24, 2009: Blame the rain?

[Background to today’s blog; much of this info is discussed in the last chapter of Way Opens. Scroll down to the * if you already know about FMC’s inner workings.]

A few years ago, 8 to 12 people doing what’s sometimes called prison ministry, formed a quasi-support group at Friends Meeting at Cambridge (FMC) and called this group, what else, Prison Ministry. These people were visiting prisoners in jail, writing letters to men and women behind bars, advocating for a more just criminal justice system, volunteering in agencies working with families impacted by violent crime, etc., etc. Uncomfortable with the word “ministry,” this group, which meets once a month, is now called Prison Fellowship (PF).

Over time, PF, while continuing to support its members’ individual efforts, took on a new role: sponsoring talks and lectures about the criminal justice system and sharing the stories of individuals directly affected by what some call “the very criminal justice system” for the entire Meeting’s edification. PF also proposed FMC offer a weekly meal-and-sharing opportunity for the formerly incarcerated which is now in its second year and has attracted eight to twelve regular attenders. My husband (who cooks amazing meals for these weekly, powerful, community-building gatherings) and I attend faithfully.

* About a year ago, in the Spirit-led, organic way that these things happen, three people from Prison Fellowship found themselves raising funds, mostly from the larger FMC community, to bail out a young man who’d been held in jail for three years. This oh-my-God-we-actually-DID-this! has led PF to wonder: Should we create a bail fund? A legal defense fund?  Both? Neither? (Twice, through PF members’ efforts, money has also been raised to pay for lawyers, too.)

Over the past few months, at our monthly potluck-plus-meetings, PF has gone around and around on this should-we/ shouldn’t we. Lots of good meals, little progress. Last month, someone suggested we do a kind of personal assessment, ask ourselves what’s keeping us back, what’s a concern, fear, ” a stop,” as they say.

So I did. And here’s what I discovered when I listened to that still, small voice: Given how many people could use bail and/or legal defense funds, including, God forbid, people I love, people I break bread with every Wednesday night, how do you decide who gets what? I am simply not up to such a challenge. It’s too much.

Usually an energetic and optimistic person, I prefaced my gloomy remarks (last night) with: “Maybe it’s the rain but. . . ” (We haven’t seen sunshine around here FOR A LONG TIME!)

But in the organic, Spirit-led way that these meetings go, another PF member suggested that the decision-making process re who gets what should be the responsibility of a wider group, including, she suggested, mothers whose children had either been the victims of the perpetrators of violence and people from the Wednesday night group!

Yes. Once again I’ve assumed primary responsibility for some endeavor. Once again I have decided it’s all up to me! Once again I have failed to appreciate the power of community.

Can’t blame the rain for THAT!

March 12, 2009:”Go tell it. . . “

Three times last week I heard tragic, dire stories from Palestine. Last Sunday, Gay Harter* showed slides of her trip to Palestine last fall and shared her concern for the troubled country’s remaining Christians. A few days later, photographer Skip Schiel, a f/Friend, presented his slide show which included photos from ravaged, desperate Gaza and painful first-hand accounts from the Palestinians Skip has met on his numerous trips. This past Sunday, at First Church in Jamaica Plain, Reverend Terry Burke, to illustrate his Lenten rededication to social justice, told the story of Rachel Corrie, killed by an Israeli bulldozer (made in USA) while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes (Skip had also recounted Rachel Corrie’s death).

A huge fan of both Gay and Skip, I’d attended their respective shows because I knew they would tell me news from “over the hill,” i.e. information and stories not reported, not told. They did not disappoint. And I’d heard Terry Burke’s wonderful sermon because I’d been asked to give a talk re Way Opens that morning at First Church.

During my talk, I quoted from a Derrick Z. Jackson Boston Globe column from the day before: “This week, the Pew Center on the States released a report that found that states spent $47 billion on prisons last year, with spending rising faster than for education. The spending continues to rise, even as crime rates have fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years. . . Huge percentages of the 1.5 million people in prison, particularly African-Americans (one in 11 African-Americans are under some form of correction), are there for nonviolent drug offenses that call out not for barbed wire, but for treatment, education, and job opportunities.”

Like their counterparts in other churches I have visited, these JP U-Us are concerned and well-informed and compassionate people. When I brought up CORI reform, for example, they knew what I was talking about. Still, I got the feeling, especially when I read that column, that I, too, was bringing news from “over the hill.”

When I’d heard Gay and Skip’s impassioned presentations, my first reaction both times was “I, too, need, to go to Palestine so I, too, can come back and tell what I saw. That’s the only way our country’s policy will ever change.” But, after Sunday, I’m rededicating myself to reminding people how many African-Americans are “under some form of correction” (one in ELEVEN? C’mon!). And—this is brand-new, folks—to explore ways to better connect with other people of faith working on, as some call it,  “the very criminal justice system.”

* Gay Harter is a loyal member of Side-by-Side, a safe and loving sharing circle for the formerly incarcerated  held every Monday night in Boston’s JP. After people from my Quaker meeting’s Prison Fellowship group visited this circle, we decided to start a similar group in Cambridge. No wonder I’m a big fan!