“The Deepest Thing Inside”*


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
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*


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


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



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.]