In a simple but powerful post about being unable to change the cross he bears, Fr. Gordon MacRae cites a need for perspective in any measure of your own existence.
These Stone Walls recently published a post about annual spring cleaning and inspections in prison entitled “A Good Housekeeping Seal for the Hotel New Hampshire.” We also gave it a subtitle: “How Two Grown Men Live Free of Clutter Without Room Service in 60-Square-Feet.’‘ It presented a soap opera-like glimpse of the days of our lives in prison from the inside.
A number of readers wrote that they laughed out loud all the way through it, but some also marveled at the photos of my friend, Pornchai Moontri’s woodworking creations I don’t want to overemphasize the soap-opera-like drama of life inside a sixty-square-foot prison cell, but as the world turns I would like to also give equal time to the outside.
Prisoners are not supposed to dwell on things they like about prison. We are not supposed to like it at all, and for the record, we don’t. But “like” is a relative term. After 23 years trapped inside a single building with very little “outside,” we like the fact that the place where we now live has very little “inside.” Even prison is a matter of perspective.
Twenty-four men live in an area called a “pod” which is about the size of your average living room The room is surrounded by ten six-by-ten foot cells each housing two men with another four bunks out in the open to accommodate prison overcrowding. At one end of the small pod is a bathroom with two showers, two sinks, and two toilets used by 24 men. There are 24 such pods stretching across two multi-story buildings.
To really capture the atmosphere, I have to paraphrase something I wrote awhile back in an article for LinkedIn pulse entitled, “The Shawshank Redemption and its Real World Revision”:
“To better understand prison, imagine taking a long walk away from home far outside your comfort zone. Invite the first 23 strangers you meet to come home with you. Then lock yourself in your bathroom with them, and ponder the fact that this is how you will live for the unforeseen future.”
Coping is a matter of perspective Such an environment serves as a great impetus to get outside. For just the last two of my twenty-five years here, we have been able to do just that from about 5:00 AM until 9:30 PM. For the better part of every day we are now, in a sense, free range prisoners. We can roam outside at will in an area large enough for us only barely to notice the barred gate that slams shut if we roam too far.
So though our prison is still a prison, it is a vast improvement over how we once lived. When I step from our cell out onto the outside walkway with my coffee at sunrise each morning, I have to actually look down to see prison walls. The walkway outside our cell looks out over the walls into the forests and hills beyond. At night I can see distant headlights on the Interstate some miles away.
After the dungeon we lived in for all those years, I was stunned when I first saw that view. I have been stunned every morning since. In the winter, I watched with a chill in the frigid wind as the frozen world down below seemed to extinguish all signs of life. In the spring, I watched that world come to life again.
In the early morning, I can hear the lonely distant wail of a train whistle as it meanders along its tracks by the Merrimack River hidden from sight by miles upon miles of trees. It is a nostalgic reminder that there is a world and life out there.
Ernest Hemingway was right in the title of his classic work, The Sun Also Rises</a>. Even in a dark place – and prison is definitely a dark place – I have a choice. I can start each day bemoaning my imprisonment – which I cannot change – or I can start with the sunrise God has granted to me. Even here, the measurement of life is a matter of perspective.
SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE
This prison is built on multiple levels. People with knee problems would not much like it up here where I live and write. When I step out of our cell, I descend 52 outside stairs to the main yard of the unit where I now can roam. From there, I pass through a gate that opens to me each morning where another 24 stairs take me down to the main prison yard.
I cross the long walled yard twice a day from 07:15 to 11:00 AM and then again from 11:40 to 2:30 PM. Each time I climb another 48 stairs to the Law Library where I work And when I leave to descend those 48 stairs, a total of 76-stairs await my return to where I live. Just in routine movement, I climb about 600 stairs each day.
There are some ramps for prisoners in wheelchairs and those who cannot cope with the stairs, and often I spot someone sitting in a wheelchair there waiting for a push up the long, steep ramps. It is always a source of irritation to see 20-something year old prisoners walk by pretending not to notice a guy in a wheelchair pondering how to negotiate the ramps.
I always stop to assist. Sometimes they don’t want a push and are just sitting there catching their second wind to proceed under their own steam. Some older or heavier guys patiently wait for a push.
One day recently as I came out of work, my friend, John was sitting nearby in his wheelchair. John is a U.S. Army veteran about 20 years younger than me. He survived two tours of duty in a Middle Eastern war zone only to lose a leg in a motorcycle accident. After a few years confined in that chair, a prison within the prison, John’s weight rose to over 300 pounds.
When I saw him sitting there at the foot of the long steep ramps leading to his housing area, I asked (reluctantly, I admit) if he needed a push. He said his assigned pusher – some kid working off disciplinary reports – did not show up.
So ignoring his 300 pounds, I handed him the books and paperwork I was carrying and pulled him back away from the ramp so I could get a little momentum. We were off, and John was actually impressed. “You’re in better shape than the kid who’s usually huffing and puffing by now,” John said as I did my best to mask my huffing and puffing. We made it to the top of the longer ramp and turned a corner for the next one which is steeper.
Just then on the incline, John dropped my books and papers. Holding his chair from rolling back with one arm, I strained to pick up the books with the other. We lost all our momentum. When we finally made it to the top, my heart was pounding thunderously in my chest, and I was struggling for breath.
By the time I left John at his housing unit, I was on the verge of collapse. I made my way through the gate where I live, and looked with defeat at the eight flights of stairs that stood between me and my bunk. So I sat on a bench to recover. As I sat there red in the face and heaving air, a young man came and sat beside me. “You’re the last guy we want to see hauled off in a body bag,” he said bluntly. “Please don’t do that again.”
I was 41 years old when I was sent to this prison. Now I am 66, and I have been living in some denial of that fact. My mind and its ego both ignore the reality that I probably shouldn’t be pushing 300-pound men up those long ramps.
I have always based such things on whether or not I could do them without ever thinking about whether or not I should. Aging is more of a challenge in this age of its denial. Aging is the single, most basic reality that none of us can change. So it requires serenity to accept.
Back in 2016, I wrote a post about the great Lutheran Pastor and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr and his famous “Serenity Prayer.” The prayer was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step groups, but only a small part of it appeared on those hallowed walls of recovery.
COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS THAT I CAN
On Saturday mornings, when I don’t have to be up and about at 0600 for work, I like to go outside with my little radio and walk the stairs for exercise. My 600 stairs a day on weekdays conditioned me for some marathon climbing on Saturdays. I lose count and just walk the walkways and stairs until I cannot climb another step.
Concord, New Hampshire is host to a small Catholic radio station WCIX, found at 102.6 on the local FM dial. Its signal is too weak to be heard anywhere beyond Concord, and it is also too weak to penetrate prison walls. But when I climb to the top where I live high above the walls, I can receive it. In the winter, the howling frigid wind up there makes it hard to listen for long, but in spring and summer I take breaks from my Saturday stairs to see what local Catholics are saying.
On a recent Saturday morning, I caught part of a discussion between a Catholic radio interviewer and a priest and seminarian from my diocese. They were talking about the fallout from “the abuse crisis in the Church,” a much misused term. There is no point repeating myself. I made my case for how this topic is used and abused by those with agendas of their own in “A Little Perspective Before Stoning Your Priest.”
That Saturday morning discussion on Concord Catholic radio was difficult to take in. I wanted very much to respond to the priest and seminarian and their angst over all the bad press, but a radio discussion is a one-way street. Writing at These Stone Walls is my only avenue for making a counterpoint, but TSW is read much more in Washington, DC than it is in New Hampshire.
But that must not stop me from seeing the truth and writing what I see. During the last year of one-sided media battering of the Catholic Church and priesthood, readership of These Stone Walls has fallen off by about a third. Facebook, which has virtually a monopoly on social media, is said to have suppressed some Catholic viewpoints, especially conservative ones.
But TSW has also moved some to action. I have been very inspired by what I hear from readers. Two readers have told me of their decisions to pursue formation for priesthood or religious life after following TSW over the last few years.
I received a moving message from Peter Haas, a devoted reader in New Jersey who has actually become a little less devoted in recent months due to the fact that he has become very busy. Two years ago, Mr. Haas sent me a message telling me that as a result of my writings at TSW, he has become a volunteer at a local prison, an apostolate that he is finding to be very rewarding. A few weeks ago, he sent me this remarkable update.
“I’m a little behind on your posts – just printed the last two so I can read them later. As I have said before, you are an inspiration to me. You may remember that I started prison ministry a few years ago after reading your posts. Here is an update: Thanks to the Holy Spirit, I am now the Coordinator of Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. Within the Diocese, we have six state prisons, four county jails, and the federal prison at Fort Dix. Over 10,000 prisoners.”
THE WISDOM TO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE
The courage to change the things that we can is most powerfully manifested in ourselves. Every fundamental and radical change that I have witnessed in prison – “Pornchai Moontri: Bangkok to Bangor, Survivor of the Night” comes to mind – redemption and salvation have been found not in changing their circumstances or their past, but, through grace, changing themselves.
I have been re-reading a book about coping with the darkest of times. The book was profiled in one of my first posts on These Stone Walls ten years ago, “Maximilian and This Man’s Search or Meaning.” The book, of course, is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning which contains volumes of wisdom in very few page. It has been my guiding light in prison.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, a young medical doctor and psychiatrist, was imprisoned at Auschwitz by the Third Reich during World War II. He was the only one among his family to survive. In a very dark time and place, he reminds me of the one freedom that can never be taken from me. It is a freedom I have taught to many others:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, p 66)
The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr captures what Viktor Frankl has taught us. The entire prayer is beautiful, and it is the omitted part that I find myself most in need of. I wrote about it in “God, Grant Me Serenity, but Wait Until I Calm Down”:
“God, Grant me Serenity to
Accept the things I cannot Change,
Courage to change the things I can, and
Wisdom to know the difference;
Living one day at a time,
Accepting one moment at a time,
Enduring hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is,
And not as I would have it.
Knowing that You will Make all things right
If I but surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You in the next.”
– Reinhold Niebuhr
One day when listening to my radio while walking in the prison ballfield, I arrived just in time to hear Catholic radio host and columnist Teresa Tomeo interview singer and songwriter Annie Karto.
Annie was talking about the evolution of a beautiful original song she had recently written. Along with the song, she produced a moving video to accompany it. I have never seen it, but Annie was inspired by These Stone Walls to include me in the video.
I give Annie Karto this week’s last word: “Rise Up, All People.”