A These Stone Walls Summer Rap: New stone walls that contain us; prayers of hope that sustain us, the books that still entertain us, a Labor Day week to restrain us.
I worked all week on a very important post but then decided to postpone it for another week. It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, and that means that seventy percent of our readers will be tied up with a barbeque, a back-to-school sale, or an end-of-summer depression, and in no mood to be stuck inside reading something heavy at These Stone Walls.
So I thought it best to use this week’s post to answer some of the questions I have received about recent changes in our living situation. I first described this in “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls.” If you haven’t yet read that post, I urge you to do so. Titles sometimes fail to capture the full impact of a post. If I had it to do over I would change its title to “Hope is Doubt that has Said its Prayers.”
That post about our move is really about the mystery of Marian consecration, or what St John Paul II called “Marian Entrustment.” I’ll get back to that in the next segment of this post. But first, readers want to know where and how we now live. After a series of chaotic moves in July, Pornchai Moontri and I ended up once again in the same place.
It’s the same prison, with the same mailing address, same food, same everything, but we are now in a housing unit that we had never before lived in or even seen. Sometimes you just don’t know the full extent of the oppression you are living under until you are no longer living under it.
The change is enormous for us. After 23 years (as of September 23, 2017) living in the same building where we were locked in for most of the day, this place is less crowded and far less restrictive.
In this prison system, this is considered “preferred housing,” but it has always been out of my reach. After the crowded chaos of the last year, we now live in a safer, saner place. The most obvious and striking change is our sudden freedom to move about with unfettered access to the outside. The new quarters, called the South Unit, is a park-like setting built in an octagon shape. Along one wall of the exterior is a paved court for basketball.
On the opposite end are two paved handball courts. In between are some paved walking paths and some nice landscaping that is well maintained by prisoners. Each end has a separate courtyard with nice murals painted along the walls and some picnic tables for reading or writing.
Completing the octagon is a four story building that has the appearance of a large motel. Each level has an outside walkway reached by one of three exterior staircases, one at each end of the building and one in the middle. The building is in four segments marked A, B, C, and D. We live on the top floor in the “B” segment.
Each segment has a door – much like a motel room door – that opens onto a small pod or day room with tables, a common lavatory and showers, and ten small cells along its walls. So where I previously lived in a setting with 96 men, we now live with 24. Pornchai and I live out in the open in a set of bunks in the dayroom, but it is still far better than where we were. We have decided to stay there and wait for a cell to open, even though this could be many months away.
One reason for that is that Pornchai-Max and I know most of the men we are now living with. Some were on Pornchai’s championship ball team last year, and several others work with him in the Recreation Department or woodcraft shop. This move came at just the right time for us, and the fact that we ended up in the same place… well, that part of the story has no rational explanation.
Pornchai and I now live on a top floor high above the prison walls that contain us. We get a lot of exercise just climbing the 48 stairs about ten times a day, and we are both suddenly free of a heavy dose of what prisoners here call “stress fatigue.”
At 5:30 AM every day now, I step with my coffee onto the outside walkway high above the octagonal park down below to watch the sunrise over the Merrimack River Valley in the distance. At night I watch headlights far off on Interstate 93, and feel that I am reconnected to this world.
Last night we stood mesmerized for an hour under the covered walkway to watch a torrential rain. We are still in prison, but we are too busy rediscovering the planet it is on to even think about it. Our spirits are suddenly free.
“PRAY, HOPE, AND DON’T WORRY” – Padre Pio
“Pray, hope, and don’t worry.” It’s easier said than done. It’s a quote from Padre Pio that I had printed on a small card from the days when prisoners here were allowed to receive cards. It was attached for years to the inside cover of my typewriter, but it became lost during our recent move. I guess I don’t really need the reminder anymore. I don’t think there will come a time in my life when I will pray and hope, and then not also worry.
When I wrote “Pornchai Moontri at a Crossroads Behind These Stone Walls,” I had no idea of the reaction it would cause. Many people found it to be so sad that they were hesitant to read on and finish it. Many of those who did wrote that they were astonished by what they discovered there, and really needed this sign of hope at this time in their lives.
Ordinary miracles happen every day. By “ordinary” I mean the ones that don’t quite reach the level of the raising of Lazarus or changing water into wine. But the ordinary miracle we recently witnessed feels no less supernatural.
As a result of it, many readers have written to me asking for my prayers for loved ones – husbands, wives, sons – lost to the slavery of drug addiction, or alcoholism, or the abandonment of faith. I do pray for these intentions, but I hope you realize that one part of the miracle you ask for is already taking place.
I heard this line in a movie a few days ago: “Hope is doubt that has said its prayers.” I had to think about it for awhile before realizing that it’s much more profound than the script writer might have intended. When I sat after Communion at Mass and prayed the Memorare, I knew that in my heart I had already given up hope for the outcome. Life just doesn’t have enough neat, happy endings to reinforce our hope.
And yet we pray nonetheless. The act of prayer is itself evidence of hope that “is doubt that has said its prayers.” Just by virtue of the fact that you pray to restore the faith or freedom of a lost or drifting loved one is itself an answer to your prayer. Cling to that, please, and never, ever, ever give up subjecting your doubt to the power of prayer.
I wrote a post awhile back entitled, “Why You Must never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.” If you fear the loss of your drifting loved one, then read that post, and maybe even ask those who are drifting to read it. It is not a miracle cure, but most people will be hard pressed to read it and not hope.
It’s about my friend, Alberto, who at age 14 took the life of another young man during a drug deal gone bad in a Manchester, NH alley 26 years ago. I wrote the post, but a large segment of it was written by Alberto himself.
Below the subheading, on this post, we again post the familiar group photo from Pornchai Moontri’s high school graduation in prison in 2012. You may recall that Pornchai was Valedictorian for his class and gave a brief commencement speech which you can still see and hear at Mercy to the Max.
Just behind Pornchai to the immediate right in the photo is the bald head and smiling face of Alberto Ramos who graduated with him. Also in this same group of grads, to the far left in the photo, is another person I have written about in these pages in “Evenor Pineda and the Late Mothers Day Gift.”
Some months ago, I received a letter from a Massachusetts woman who came across my post, “Why You Must never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.” She is the mother of the 19-year-old young man that Alberto killed in that Manchester alley all those years ago. She wrote of the weight of vindictiveness and resentment that she has carried in her heart for a quarter century, but after reading and pondering this post, and seeing Alberto’s life in a context other than her loss, that weight is diminished.
No amount of prayers will ever restore her son, but a miracle of another kind has taken place. An “ordinary” miracle. She has forgiven Alberto, and posted this on a comment on that post. It’s more important than the post itself, and you could easily find it by scrolling to the comments of “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being.”
THE STUCK INSIDE LITERARY AWARD
Traditionally, near Labor Day weekend at These Stone Walls, I post the “Stuck Inside Literary Award” to recommend an author and book that gets me through a long weekend locked up. I am less locked up now, but during the seemingly endless Independence Day week in July, we were still trapped in an eight-man cell and locked in with no outside at all for several days. And they were very hot days. Suffice it to say, it was an ordeal.
But it was made far less so by a riveting book that took me far beyond my own woes. The book is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I have since suggested this novel to some who could not read it – at least, not yet. I have never come across an author who can take a subject as spiritually brutal as the loss of a child and turn it into an awe-inspiring tale of forgiveness.
It’s a tough story about the rape and murder of a 14-year old girl who narrates the account from Heaven. It is not easy to read, at least not in its beginning, and it was made tougher by my knowledge that the author is herself a survivor of rape as a young adult.
From the sheer depths of such pain and loss, Alice Sebold has crafted an astonishing novel called “spare, beautiful, and brutal” in its prose as it finds light in the darkest of all dark places.
I don’t want to say more. The recipient of These Stone Walls annual “Stuck Inside Literary Award” is Alice Sebold for The Lovely Bones (Little, Brown 2002), and I bow to her in humble awe of both her burden and her gift.