We awoke in the New Hampshire State Prison this morning to a dark and gloomy autumn day of cold wind and torrential rain. Leaves of maple and oak, dead from the fall, have blown over the prison wall from trees we cannot see. The wet wind pasted a few to the cell window.
In addition to the dismal scene brooding outside today, most activities in the prison are canceled – such as classes and the Hobbycraft center for Pornchai and others, and work in the library for me. So we’re stuck in this cell all day. I could easily re-write that poem:
“Stone Walls DO a prison make, today, and iron bars our cage. Minds, innocent and quiet, just brood in idle, silent rage.”
But when the going gets tough, the tough start writing! So after staring for ten minutes in dismal foreboding out the cell window, I made some instant coffee and hauled my typewriter out from under the iron bunk. Pornchai, pacing like a caged tiger, stopped to help me stack up books to set my typewriter upon. I guess you’d have to be a fly-on-the-wall to see the humor in our conversation this morning. Listen in for a moment:
Me: “Well, Pornchai, I need something funny to write about.”
P: “The mirror’s right over there! HA-HA! Ummm, did you mean HA-HA funny or prison funny?”
Me: “HA-HA funny. My posts have been real heavy the last few weeks, and I think readers need a break.”
P: “Leave it to you to want HA-HA funny on a day like this.”
Me: “Okay, maybe I’ll write about you again!”
P: “If you do, at least someone will read it! HA-HA!”
Then, as evidence for his position, Pornchai pulled out a graph sent to me by Suzanne. Pornchai’s mathematical Asian brain just loves graphs. This one’s a steadily rising progression of peaks and valleys charting the growth in readers of These Stone Walls over its one-year existence. The conversation continued:
P: “See? The peaks are all your posts that mention me!”
Me: “So what are the valleys?”
P: “Those are your history lessons about the Mayflower and The Big Bang! No one wants to read about your boring childhood!”
Me: “This is going to be a very long day.”
And so on it went. You get the picture. I wonder if this is what the Supreme Court meant by “cruel and unusual punishment.”
But I guess I need to explain the difference between “HA-HA funny” and “prison funny.” “Prison funny” is the vast collection of anecdotal information in here that strikes prisoners as insanely ironic, but would not make much sense to anyone else unless you experienced this environment.
Here’s a benign example: there’s a guy on the pod where we live who is a walking, talking noise machine. Day or night, he cannot speak without shouting, and always has way too much to say. Everything he does involves lots of noise. In fact, though I don’t think he knows it, “Noise” is the nickname other prisoners bestowed on him. One day, he stopped by to tell me that he’s decided to ask for a move to the uppermost tier in the cellblock. When I asked him why, he said, “Well, for starters, it’s a LOT quieter up there, and I just can’t take all this noise!”
That’s “prison funny.” “But if you want HA-HA funny,” Pornchai just said, “write about this.” He handed me a short story that a TSW reader sent to him awhile back. It’s hilarious, in a “prison funny” sort of way, so here it is:
THE MAINE POTATO FARMER
“An old man who lived alone in Maine needed to spade his acre of potatoes for spring planting, but his only son, Bubba, was in prison. The old man wrote to his son to describe his predicament:
‘Dear Bubba, I sure do miss ya! I’m feelin’ pretty bad cuz it looks like I won’t be able to plant the field of potatoes for the first time ever this year. I’m too old to dig, and without you here to help me, I just can’t get it done.’
A week later, a letter arrived from Bubba:
‘Dear Dad, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE DO NOT DIG UP THAT FIELD! (That’s where I buried the bodies.)’
At 4:00 AM the next morning, FBI agents and state police showed up with a backhoe and shovels. They meticulously dug up the entire field, but found no bodies. At the end of the day, the exhausted agents apologized to the old man and left.
Two days later, another letter arrived from Bubba:
‘Dear Dad, Hope that helped! It was the best I could do under the circumstances!'”
THE BOOKS UNDER MY MACHINE
You might know already that prisoners here are allowed to have ten books per person in our cells. TSW readers often ask if they can send me a book, but I discourage it. It usually means that I have to turn one in to get one, and sometimes it means surrendering a book when I’m half way through it.
I think this particular cell has the strangest collection of books in any prison anywhere. I wasn’t joking about Pornchai’s mathematical mind. His personal books, now stacked up under my typewriter, include:
-Merriam’s Collegiate English Dictionary
-Discrete Mathematics with Applications, Vols. I and II
-Physics: Third Edition, Vols. I and II
-Mathematics for Physics with Calculus
And Pornchai has the nerve to suggest that my history stories are boring! Also, up on his bunk are: The New American Bible, (Study Edition), Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Catechism, and the New Peoples’ Prayer Book. Needless to say, not many prisoners are borrowing Pornchai’s books.
I, on the other hand, have no math books at all. I count on my scientific calculator to do all of my math. I just marvel at how Texas Instruments managed to get all those answers into those little tiny batteries! Anyway, my own small library includes:
-Hammond Atlas of the World
-Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary
-Oxford Revised Standard Version Bible, Catholic Edition
-The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
-Oxford Dictionary of World Religion
-OSV Encyclopedia of Catholic Theology
-Daily Roman Missal
-Single Volume Breviary
-Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition)
-One work of fiction that I trade in for the next one.
When I was a senior in high school in 1969, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were wildly popular. Being a somewhat counter-cultural teenager then, I refused to read them simply because everyone else was reading them. I picked them up several years ago in prison, and was mesmerized by Tolkien’s craftsmanship. I read them after learning that he was one of the contributors behind The Jerusalem Bible.
I recently learned that we are getting close to filing a new appeal in my case, and I’ve been nervous about it. After sixteen years in prison, the prospect of possible freedom can seem as daunting and unfamiliar as the idea of life in prison seems dismal and bleak. Do I dare to hope?
So I decided I needed something comforting to read at night. After five years or so, I decided one night to give The Lord of the Rings a second read, and last week a few lines jumped off the page at me:
“There was a noise like a strong wind blowing, and on it was borne the sound of hoofs, galloping, galloping, galloping from the East. ‘Black Riders!’ thought Frodo as he wakened, with the sound of the hoofs still echoing in his mind. He wondered if he would ever again have the courage to leave the safety of these stone walls.” (The Lord of the Rings, p. 127).
A PLACE FOR YOUR TREASURE
My post, “Come Sail Away! Pornchai Moontri and the Art of Model Shipbuilding” got a lot of notice. Some websites devoted to model shipbuilding linked to it, which is no small feat for a blog posting by a prisoner about another prisoner. I’m told that if you do a Google search for “the art of model shipbuilding,” TSW and that post will feature prominently.
A few TSW readers have asked if a ship can be built and mailed to them, but the costs of packing and shipping them would be prohibitive. However, in addition to the intricate ships displayed on that post, Pornchai has also been carving some beautiful treasure chests. The dimensions are W=4″ by L=8″ by D=3.5″ handcrafted from black walnut and basswood. He also has carved a very nice heart-shaped box from cherry. Pornchai made a treasure chest for Charlene who thought TSW readers may love to have an opportunity to own one or the other, or both.
Pornchai plans to carve a few treasure chests that could be mailed to TSW readers who might want one at a very reasonable cost. Mailing them abroad might be too costly, however, but we’re not sure of that yet. In a few weeks, I hope to post some photographs of them and the details of having one made. Charlene offered to assist with requests for them.
A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS NO LONGER
Here’s some irony that I find most dramatic, but it’s entirely lost on prisoners everywhere. It’s certainly lost on any priest in prison. Prisoners, virtually everywhere, have no voice. The media writes a lot about them, but rarely does anyone ever listen to them. That’s especially true of priests in prison, most of whom are entirely cut off from the Church they once served. If you wonder just how cut-off the wilderness of imprisonment can feel, have a look at “To Azazel: The Gospel of Mercy and the Diocese of Manchester.”
I complain sometimes that in the last eight years of scandal in the Catholic Church, the only voice that has never been heard from at all is that of the priests accused. I’ve been writing about this for the last three weeks in sometimes very heavy prose. I want to thank you for reading my three-part post, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused,” and I much appreciate the excellent and thoughtful – even powerful – comments. The series was not without some obstacles. When I typed part two and mailed it to Charlene to scan, it just disappeared in the mail. Poor Charlene had to spend two hours typing that post while I dictated it by telephone in the 11th hour. Then Suzanne spent her only day off editing, formatting, and getting it ready for posting on time. One of the hazards of prison is that mail sometimes just disappears.
Somehow, at some point when I wasn’t looking, These Stone Walls became noticed, and it seemed to happen suddenly. In the last few weeks, some friends who keep track of such things have told me something astonishing. TSW is showing up on the first page in a number of Google searches. As a prisoner with zero access to the Internet, I can be forgiven for not having noticed. Google didn’t even exist when I was sent to prison, and the Internet was in its virtual toddlerhood.
Now, so I’m told, if you search in Google for any of the following phrases, These Stone Walls appears prominently in some subjects despite lots of competition. Try a few of these:
– Falsely accused priests
– Saints Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein
– Father Georges LeMaitre and Stephen Hawking
– Saint Michael the Archangel’s Scales
– Padre Pio and the Stigmata
Even though I cannot see any of this, I find it very hopeful and encouraging, and even a little exciting. Though she shuns taking any credit, I know the web expertise of Suzanne has a lot to do with it.
But I’m told that another reason These Stone Walls is being noticed on the World Wide Web is because other sites are beginning to establish links to it. There’s a concrete way you can help, if you are so inclined. If you want to help give voice to a falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned priest, please join in this effort. Links to TSW on your own blogs and websites help a lot, as does Tweeting and pinging my posts. Comments with links to TSW placed on other Catholic blogs and on-line publications also help.
We need you to help spread the word that there is more to the story of accused Catholic priests than what The New York Times and The Boston Globe have told the world. As David F. Pierre, author of Double Standard has pointed out:
“One visit to These Stone Walls will make anyone reconsider all the one-sided hysteria we’ve heard in the media in the last two decades.”
Sending a link to These Stone Walls to other interested Catholics also helps in a sort of viral effect that can be very powerful. Faithful Catholics constitute an influential voice in our culture, but they cannot respond to a story the news media has kept from them. If you mention These Stone Walls on-line, you can help counter the tide of accusation, extortion, and unjust rhetoric that now holds your Church in contempt while attempting to silence a Catholic voice in the public square.
The day is fast approaching when the battle for justice will begin anew for me in both the courts of justice and the court of public opinion. My only hope is to place into public view another side of the story of priests accused, the story that the news media simply refuses to tell, the story carried on These Stone Walls.
Please help us in this. It isn’t dramatic irony to say I’m counting on you, because I really am. We have a mountain to move.