Can We Talk?

 

Tree Removal Process Along The New Green Line, Somerville, MA, June, 2018

Last week, after visiting a prisoner I see once a month, I was being escorted by a Department of Correction guard back to the prison’s entrance when I found myself engaged in a remarkable conversation!

First, let me set the stage: Imagine a hot summer sun shining on the utter desolation, the eerie quiet of no trees, no flowers, no humans, no birdsong; imagine a football-field sized space with nothing but tall, grey walls and barbed wire and chainlink fences and a long row of exercise cages, each attached to a cell, presumably. Got it?

The guard, having volunteered that he was due to go on vacation soon, prompted me to ask what his plans were. His answer revealed where he lived and, knowing his hometown has a very lively Quaker meeting, I revealed that I was a Quaker in hopes that we might know the same people—something we could talk about.

“Oh!” he responded. And began the Matthew 25: 35 passage “. . . when I was ill you came to my help, when I was in prison you visited. . . ” which I ended with “. . . whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”

“And how about Isaiah 53?” he asked.

“The planted in—” but he interrupted me. “No, no,” and quoted a bit from that amazing, Old Testament account of The Suffering Servant that most spoke to him. Which he may have garbled; I certainly didn’t recognize what he said. (It’s a long passage containing lots of verses Handel’s “Messiah” fans will recognize.)

Here’s the thing: Isaiah 53 does begin with “He [the suffering servant] grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in parched ground.” Which I, living in a city with plenty of rain this year but where multiple natural gas leaks are killing or weakening our community’s sidewalk trees, a community whose trees are being decimated to build a light rail extension, find so poignant! In other words, Isaiah is saying: this servant’s sufferings are not his fault. Blame the parched/toxic/inconveniently-located soil. What a metaphor!

Here’s the other thing: Isaiah 53 also contains an incredibly moving passage, the centerpiece for my prison ministry: “Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, how he was cut off from the world of living men . . . ?”

Here’s the last thing: Whatever verses most appeal to us, that guard and I have both been moved by the same biblical passage, the same prophetic voice—who later declares he’s been “sent to bring good news to the humble, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to those in prison.”

Hallelujah!

 

 

 

Peachy

I will be on vacation next week so will not be posting. Am hoping that this coming week gifts you with some lovely, summery treat as delicious as these first peaches of the season—especially tasty since, last summer, we had no local peaches because a late frost killed New England’s just-blooming peach blossoms.

Enjoy.

Go Figure!

[Exhibit, Harvard Museum of Natural History; December, 2016]

What a species we are! We give the exalted name “Splendid Fairywren” to an iridescent, Australian bird—yet kill it and stuff it and put it in a glass case so others of our species may marvel at it! Splendid, indeed!

“Someone Has To Cherish These Tiny Little Heads”

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[“After Supper at Family Camp,” Frost Valley YMCA, 2013]

This is a mull/discern week; whatever it is I might be led to write isn’t fully formed as yet. Instead, I offer this amazing poem which arrived in my InBox a few weeks ago when I’d participated in a poetry chain letter.

Mr. Pate’s Barbershop
By Major Jackson

I remember the room in which he held
a blade to my neck & scraped the dark
hairs foresting a jawline: stacks of Ebonys
& Jets, clippings of black boxers —
Joe Frazier, Jimmy Young, Jack Johnson —
the color television bolted to
a ceiling like the one I watched all night
in a waiting room at St. Joseph’s
while my cousin recovered from gunshots.
I remember the old Coke machine, a water
fountain by the door, how I drank
the summer of ’88 over & over from a paper
cone cup & still could not quench my thirst,
for this was the year funeral homes boomed,
the year Mr. Pate swept his own shop
for he had lost his best little helper Squeaky
to cross fire. He suffered like most barbers
suffered, quietly, his clippers humming so loud
he forgot Ali’s lightning left jab, his love
for angles, for carpentry, for baseball. He forgot
everything & would never be the same.
I remember the way the blade gleamed
fierce in the fading light of dusk & a reflection
of myself panned inside the razor’s edge
wondering if I could lay down my pen, close up
my ledgers & my journals, if I could undo
my tie & take up barbering where
months on end a child’s head would darken
at my feet & bring with it the uncertainty
of tomorrow, or like Mr. Pate gathering
clumps of fallen hair, at the end of a day,
in short, delicate whisks as though
they were the fine findings of gold dust
he’d deposit in a jar & place on a shelf, only
to return Saturdays, collecting, as an antique dealer
collects, growing tired, but never forgetting
someone has to cherish these tiny little heads.

“What is a soul?”

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Recently saw “Choice,” a wonderful new play by Winnie Holzman, which asks us to consider: What is a soul? (That the playwright has the most boring and least powerful character of the play pose this question—whereupon he/his question are immediately snickered at and then ignored—strikes me as a brilliant piece of writing!) So I have.

And as these things work sometimes, while searching for something else, stumbled across this ancient poem which attempts to answer that boring man’s poignant, probing, right-on question:

Song of the Soul, by Shankarachary

(788-820 CE, mystic saint of India)

I am neither ego nor reason,
I am neither mind nor thought,
I cannot be heard nor cast into words,
nor by smell nor sight ever caught:
In light and wind I am not found,
nor yet in earth and sky –
Consciousness and joy incarnate,
Bliss of the Blissful am I.

I have no name, I have no life, I breathe no vital air,
No elements have molded me, no bodily sheath is my lair:
I have no speech, no hands and feet, nor means of evolution –
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss in dissolution.

I cast aside hatred and passion, I conquered delusion and greed;
No touch of pride caressed me, so envy never did breed:
Beyond all faiths, past reach of wealth, past freedom, past desire
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is my attire.

Virtue and vice, or pleasure and pain are not my heritage,
Nor sacred texts, nor offerings, nor prayer, nor pilgrimage:
I am neither food nor eating, nor yet the eater am I –
Consciousness and joy incarnate, Bliss of the Blissful am I.

I have no misgivings of death, no chasms of race divide me,
No parent ever called me child, no bond of birth ever tied me:
I am neither disciple nor master, I have no kin, no friend –
Consciousness and joy am I, and merging in Bliss is my end.

Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form,
I dwell within the senses but they are not my home:
Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound –
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I am found.