I think just about everyone has seen Bill Donohue, President of The Catholic League, on the national news engaged in the annual war for Christmas. Though like everyone else I sometimes wince at his unbridled candor, I also cheer him on. This year, the group, “American Atheists” took out a $20,000 billboard ad near the Lincoln Tunnel in New York to declare Christ and Christmas a myth. The Catholic League erected its own billboard, and the war for Christmas was on.
I have to say that Bill Donohue won the skirmish. He prevailed in the news clips as well. He was reasoned and charitable while the atheists’ spokesman seemed in near hysteria in his denunciation of Christmas. Anyway, if you’re not a member of The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (www.catholicleague.org) please give it some thought. It’s the front line in the culture war and its newest anti-Catholic purge – and not just at Christmas.
Christmas is upon us in prison, too. The result can be summed up in two words: “Bah, humbug!” That cynical alternative to “Merry Christmas” was made famous by Ebenezer Scrooge, the Christmas curmudgeon in Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Story. There’s likely no one in the Western world who hasn’t heard it. I suspect that some of Charles Dickens himself was projected into his more colorful characters like Ebenezer Scrooge. In 1824, the author’s father was sent to a London debtor’s prison, forcing Charles, at age 12, to help support his family by working in a shoe-polish factory. His 1850 classic, David Copperfield only slightly masked the fact that the story was largely an autobiography.
So it’s likely that Charles Dickens had some understanding of the place where I’m about to spend Christmas for the 17th time – surrounded by about 1,800 grinches. I hear lots of variations on Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” at Christmas, though most can’t be repeated on a respectable Catholic blog. As a whole, prisoners are not known for self-restraint, and Christmas in prison doesn’t exactly bring good tidings of comfort and joy. As Christmas cards deck the walls starting in early December, and Christmas carols are heard on just about every radio and TV broadcast, the spirit on the “inside” starts its annual downward plunge. Everyone’s mood reaches its yearly low in prison at Christmas.
CAPTIVATING CULINARY CREATIONS
Earlier this year, in “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places” I wrote of how much prison life is influenced by food. There’s a substance the prison “chow hall” serves about three or four times a week. It’s called various things, but most of those can’t be printed here either. In essence, it’s a sort of ground up and highly processed sandwich meat substance. Its true origin is a mystery, but I’m told the packaging describes it as 60% soy and 40% “meat by-products.” It has enough salt to de-ice the local Interstate.
I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t seen so often. In one week earlier this month, we had it four times. It’s the result of a food budget that has been cut once a year for many years, and cut again this year. I remind other prisoners that everyone “outside” suffers under the same budget constraints. But the food budget in prison, I am told, is less than one dollar per person per day. Hence, the mystery meat! But there’s also a peak to offset this valley. Twice a year, in the summer and at Christmas, prisoners here can order a 15-pound food package through a vendor. Prisoners start dropping hints to their families in October, and those without families, which are the majority, save for it all year long. The orders were placed in mid-November and arrived last week. It was like Christmas in here. This meant that on the day mystery meat salad was served in the prison chow hall, we skipped it. Instead, Pornchai made a Thai beef and rice dish that was the best meal I’ve had in 17 Christmases of prison.
A lot of prisoners order food they will not ever see again all year long, and one popular item is a 4-pound cheesecake. On the day the food packages arrived, there was a parade of prisoners dropping off pieces of cheesecake at my cell. There were five different kinds, and, of course, every prisoner insisted on staying until I ate the cheesecake. By the end of the day, I was hoping that it isn’t always so that what is bound on Earth is also bound in Heaven! But the best Christmas perk for me – no pun intended – is real ground coffee. We’ve devised a way to brew it using hot water and an old sock – though I had to insist that Pornchai never, ever wear the sock! Well, I’ll spare you the gory details so suffice it to say it works, and the result is far superior to the generic instant “gun powder” that is all we can usually purchase in the prison commissary the rest of the year. Is there coffee in Heaven? Will I need to bring my own sock?
LIVING WITH PAINS-IN-THE-NECK
You may remember that awhile back I suffered the collapse of two cervical disks in my neck. Among the collateral damage, I had to find a better way to type my posts for These Stone Walls. Pornchai came up with the idea of stacking his hefty math and physics books atop the plastic bucket I used to sit on to type. This raised my typewriter quite a bit so I don’t have to look down so much. Over the long haul, it helps a lot. However, it also leaves me facing the door to type.
My friend, Skooter-with-a-K said it reminds him of a Peanuts comic strip. He said he half expects to see a sign above my head declaring: “The Doctor Is In: Psychiatric Help, 5 cents.” The effect is heightened by the fact that I can’t type two consecutive paragraphs without someone stopping at the door with some variation on the “Bah, humbug!” theme. Yesterday, a prisoner stopped by to vent his lack of Christmas spirit – and lack of coping skills – by swearing for ten minutes straight without repeating himself once. I was impressed! I wouldn’t have even thought that possible! “Bah, humbug!” was about the only expletive missing from his repertoire, but the gist of it was the same.
I didn’t bother assessing my usual, never-paid-anyways fine for foul language I described in “Descent into Lent” this year. I just patiently waited for him to run out of curse words. It was all about Christmas. Actually, it was all about being in prison at Christmas – which for him is the first time, and he hopes with all the power of hope that it might be his last.
John just turned twenty-three years old. His infant daughter was born three months into his prison sentence, and he fumes and rails at himself for being in here while his girlfriend struggles to raise an infant alone out there. John is very much aware that his own bad choices landed him here. Now he is deeply involved in learning to be a father with no clue about the job description because he never met his own father. One good sign is that John has enrolled himself in some parenting programs here, and he is rising admirably to the challenge. He seems determined not to repeat history. The local newspaper, The Concord Monitor, had a recent article about John and others trying to be fathers at Christmas in prison.
Like a lot of people here, John saves his explosions for when he’s standing in my doorway. As the carol goes, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” because the explosions of “Bah, humbug!” have been a daily event. It’s easy to say that for most people like John in prison, being where they are is a result of their own bad choices. I hear that a lot from people on the “outside,” and it’s usually true. But like most of life, it isn’t so black and white. The shades of gray are real, and prisoners wear those shades of gray every day. At Christmas, they converge into a sullen gloom.
Some of my posts tend to humanize prisoners, and TSW readers often thank me for that. But don’t get the wrong idea. There are real monsters in here – men who have given themselves over to such evil in their essence that they should never again be trusted with freedom. There are also career criminals, and they are many. Their entire raison d’être is to feel they have gotten it over on someone, that they have gained at someone else’s expense. Crime, for them, isn’t just driven by economic necessity. It’s a way of life chosen for the sheer thrill of it. Monsters are contained here, hopefully forever, but some small hope is always held out for criminals that some might change in their core, and indeed, some do.
There are two other groups. First, there is that small minority who committed no crime at all. As described in two of my posts, “The Eighth Commandment,” and “The High Cost of Innocence,” evidence is growing that this group is actually larger than anyone in the U.S. justice system ever thought.
But there’s another group in prison, and the angry young man who unloaded his “Bah, humbug!” at my door is one of them. They are the growing number of young men who committed crimes, but are not really criminals. They are aimless, lost, without foundations, inevitably from fractured families, almost always without fathers. They’re filling our one-size-fits-all prisons at an alarming rate. I plan to write more about this soon. After John’s explosion of frustration, his eye found something on the wall just above the stainless steel mirror in my cell. It was the image of Saint Maximilian Kolbe I first described in “Saint Maximilian and the Man in the Mirror.” John asked me about the image so I told him the story of St. Maximilian. When I finished, I said, “This is what you now have to do, John. You have to give your life to your new child, and become someone she will one day be proud to call ‘Dad.'” I think a light dawned upon John. I think he finally gets it that he can choose the kind of father he will be to his child.
AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM
The other effect of typing my posts facing the door is that the small, barred cell window is behind me. The reflection in the little one-inch screen on my typewriter is the row of spiraled razor wire atop the prison wall that has been my view of the outside world for 17 Christmases in prison. The reflected spirals are a constant reminder of where I am.
My cell window faces west. On this cold and gray December day, the sun is just now setting behind that wall and glistening upon the spirals of razor wire like tinsel. Its final glimmer of light is just now fading from view. I am reminded of my favorite prayer, a verse from Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in England in September. It has become a tradition of sorts on These Stone Walls as the sun sets on my Christmas post:
Lead, kindly Light,
Amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see the distant scene;
One step enough for me.
I was not ever thus,
Nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blessed me,
Sure it still will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent
Till the night is gone,
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
The readers of These Stone Walls have cast a light into the darkness and spiritual isolation of prison this year. It’s a light that’s magnified ever so brightly, in my life and in yours, by the birth of Christ.
The Grinch doesn’t really stand a chance! He never did!