Okay, relax! This isn’t going to be a soap opera about the lurid things you’ve heard about prisons – most of which are not true at all. And I’m not going to San Francisco wearing flowers in my hair or anything. I don’t even have any hair, let alone flowers. So before you unsubscribe or delete TSW from your blog lists, let me deflate your expectations. My title is far more boring than it sounds.
This is being posted on Independence Day in the United States, the peak of vacation season in the Northern Hemisphere. So I expect a lot of TSW readers will be outside barbecuing and not stuck inside reading this post. Of course, in an age of iPhones, iPads, and Blackberries – none of which I’ve ever seen – you could be lounging at the beach while reading of Independence Day in the slammer. Actually, I hope most of you somehow manage to do both!
This post really is about birds and bees – real ones, not the euphemistic ones we learned about growing up. This is about the great outdoors, which, from my perspective, is mostly experienced through a two-by-three-foot, sealed and heavily barred window in a concrete and steel prison cell. Through that window, I have seen 18 years of summers come and go. I was never one for hanging around bars, but now I have little choice. I have been a devoted observer of the rhythms of life through a small barred window for a long, long time.
Sometimes I receive letters from readers who tell me they’re hesitant to write of their vacations and travels, their celebrations and family gatherings, their liberties. They write that they fear making me depressed by reminding me of places I cannot see, things I cannot have, and freedoms I can no longer embrace. Please don’t ever feel this way. I do not see most things in terms of myself. I don’t think there is anyone who revels in your freedom more than I do.
Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “Remember those who are in prison as though in prison with them.” I much appreciate that so many of you fulfill this admirably. But I can also remember freedom, and I can celebrate yours. Perhaps there are things you can also learn about appreciating life and liberty from someone in prison. On this Independence Day, if you can log off These Stone Walls with some new appreciation for freedom, I will be the happiest blogger in cyberspace.
THE INSIDE-OUT AQUARIUM
“Contentious Convicts” was one of my earliest posts on TSW. It was brief, so I hope you’ll take a few moments to read it anew because it’s closely related to this post. Since I wrote it, I’ve had a recurring dream in prison that I live in a reverse aquarium. In the dream, I live inside the tank and all the water and life are on the outside. My view out my cell window is a lot like that, and is perhaps even the source of my disconcerting dream.
The more we are denied something as basic as the great outdoors, the more we long for it, and are fascinated by it. The patch of grass I can see is not really grass. It might have been at one time. Today, it’s a few square yards of weeds interspersed with grass and a few wildflowers. My cell is on the bottom floor of a four-story cinder block prison containing 96 cells and 504 prisoners. It’s one of six housing units in this prison complex. All surrounded by a 20-foot wall.
Some prisoners in this building live eight to a cell, a horror I endured for nearly six years and once described in “The High Cost of Innocence.” Some prisoners live stacked in dayrooms and recreation areas with no windows at all. So today I count myself blessed to live on the ground floor, with only two to a cell, and a window but a few feet from the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees that I can see so closely, but never touch.
You might be amazed at the varieties of life I’ve seen in just the small patch of grass and shrubs that separates this window from the towering prison wall dominating my field of view from ten yards away. At night a family of skunks somehow manages to tunnel into the prison (Go figure!) to forage for grubs among the weeds and grass. Early one morning last summer, a beautiful red-tailed hawk perched for an hour atop the prison wall just beyond my window. It seemed as though he was watching me on this side of the bars and thick Plexiglas. Then his three-foot wingspan spread out. He swooped toward me, and caught a field mouse just two feet from my window. I was shocked at how quickly he devoured it. The experience really put me off field mice for breakfast. I’ll stick with Cheerios, thank you!
I’ve had a close-up view as the dandelions open to greet the dawn. I’ve watched the bees just a few feet away as they fly from flower to flower. There’s a ficus tree about twenty feet from my window. I first spotted it years ago when it was just a foot tall. It grows up the center of a dense spiral of razor wire that descends from a corner of the prison wall just outside my window. Over a few years the ficus tree slowly engulfed the spirals of razor wire and completely obscured them. It was a drama about the victory of life played out in slowest motion. I cheered that tree on! Then one morning, my spirits fell.
I once described the window in my cell in “Inherit the Wind,” a Pentecost post last year. Through a security grate under the window I awoke to the sounds of saws and clippers. Was it four summers ago or five? Years in prison tend to blend together. Anyway, I watched in silent mourning as the ficus tree was cut down to its very roots. Someone had declared it a security hazard because it had grown so tall, blocking the view from atop a nearby guard tower. I missed that tree, and I resented the spirals of razor wire back in full view. My tree lost that battle.
Prison: 1; Ficus Tree: 0.
For the rest of that summer, I stared out the window at the small bare stumps left behind among the grass and weeds beneath the razor wire. I thought sure the tree was dead. Then three summers ago, I noticed a few shoots with tiny buds protruding from the stumps and the grass around them. Day after day the buds unfolded into leaves and a small bush slowly took shape.
Over each succeeding summer the ficus tree emerged anew, and grew bigger and stronger. It took on a different shape than it had in its first life, growing wider and taller. It became a host for birds and a way station for all manner of living things. The birds and the bees seem to thrive around it. I never before witnessed something cling so tenaciously to life.
Prison: 0; Ficus Tree: 1.
EMILY DICKINSON ON POETIC JUSTICE
In a week or so, our friend Pornchai Moontri will commence a course in American Literature, his final class before earning his full high school diploma from Granite State High School, an accredited high school program inside prison walls.
Pornchai earned his GED equivalency years ago, and has since completed a few college level classes in theology at Catholic Distance University. But he decided to take on the challenge of finishing high school the hard way, and with this one last class he will graduate. I’ll write more of it when the time comes. I’m proud of his undaunted effort like I’m proud of that ficus tree.
I’m looking forward to Pornchai’s American Lit class mostly because I’ll be able to steal a few hours with his textbook. Two years ago in “A Prisoner, A Professor, A Prelate, Two Priests, and a Poet,” I wrote of my third year at Saint Anselm College in 1977. I had written a term paper entitled, “Emily Dickinson, Recalcitrant Daughter of Abraham.” The paper focused on Emily Dickinson’s reputation as a recluse and cynic in her poetry. Here are a few paragraphs from that post:
“As I sat here yesterday morning thinking of a title, I heard something unusual through the open grate. It was a song, and it came from a red-breasted robin perched atop the spirals of razor wire on the twenty-foot wall that has been my view of the outside world for sixteen years. I watched the robin for a long time, and listened as he sang. It instantly made me think of Emily Dickinson and one of her most pessimistic poems:
‘I dreaded that first Robin, so,
but He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though –‘
I won’t depress you with the rest. I could just imagine the reclusive Emily Dickinson pondering with a grimace the signs of life spring brought to her window – the very idea of cracking it open a bit to let some spring air clear the foul mood of her winter.
I understood her though. It’s hard to be depressed while listening to a robin sing. Her’s must have sung a lot, for she changed her own tune with a later poem:
‘Hope is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the Soul -
And sings the tunes without the words -
And never stops – at all.’
My robin sings the latter song, and he was back again this morning. I don’t dread this robin at all. I just dread not being able to open this window so I can hear him better!”
If you’re not planning some time outside, consider this: Wall Street Journal columnist Jonah Lehrer had an excellent recent article entitled “Mom Was Right: Go Outside” (“Review”, WSJ May 26/27 2012). He cited something alarming. At least, it’s alarming from my perspective. A recent study found that youngsters in America now spend more than four hours a day in front of computer screens of one sort or another.
As a result, there’s no longer time for nature. Over the last few years, childhood outdoor recreation fell another 15 percent. Jonah Lehrer cited another study. Psychologist Ruth Ann Atchley gave 60 backpackers a standard test of creativity before a hike. She gave the same test to a different group four days into a hiking trip. The latter group scored fifty percent higher on the creativity test across the board, and these results were consistent for all age groups. Without a doubt, exposure to the outdoors is good for us.
So as soon as the realities of prison allow it, I’ll get away from this window and take a long walk in the “Field of Dreams” I’ve written about before. To get there, I have to stare beyond the ficus tree for a door to open in that prison wall. Then I have to wait to be buzzed through three sets of locked doors, wait in a long line at a guard station for a “movement pass,” wait for passage through two more security checkpoints, and then walk the walled path around the back of this building right past that resurrected” ficus tree now consuming all the prison razor wire in its slow dance of victory over prison and death.
Your friends behind these stone walls offer some of our days and nights in prison for you. So honor life, and let freedom ring! Then resist with all your might the forces in our world now seeking to squander them.