Many readers of Fr Gordon MacRae’s posts ask for the gritty details of time in prison. As he turns 63 this month, time is a hot topic behind These Stone Walls.
“Speak, you who are older,
for it is fitting that you should,
but with accurate knowledge,
and do not interrupt the music.” (Sirach 32:3)
A few weeks ago, a TSW reader in West Virginia wrote to ask me how I experience the passage of time in prison. She wanted to know whether time seems to drag on for me, or passes quickly. There is no easy answer, and in some ways it does both. I am probably busier than most other prisoners here, and so are Pornchai Moontri and others among our friends, so on a day to day basis, time flies.
But for most prisoners, huge blocks of time are spent simply waiting. Prisoners wait for everything. For meals, for example, we have to be ready and waiting at the door when it electronically opens or we cannot go. The main meal of the day is called at a different time every day, so we spend lots of time simply standing and waiting. On a day to day basis, as it is for anyone who waits, time takes its time.
And there is simultaneously a strange psychological phenomenon that affects the experience of time in prison. I wrote about it once in a Lenten post entitled, “In a City on a Hill: Lent, Sacrifice, and the Passage of Time.” Over a long term in prison, time stands still in a strange experience of suspended animation. My psyche expects everyone and every thing I ever knew to be just as they were on the day freedom was taken from me. Among the six priests who once were my closest friends in the priesthood, five have died since my imprisonment, but prison permits only an imagining of the Sacraments through which we bid them farewell. For me, they are gone without having ever left.
When I came here, my sister’s three daughters were pre-teen girls. Over the passage of 22 years they grew up, got married and now have little girls of their own, but my psyche resists that knowledge. In my mind they are just as they were when I last saw them. Time can be very confusing here.
There is a sort of internal disconnect experienced by most prisoners here for longer than ten years or so. On April 9, I mark the 22nd anniversary of my 41st birthday. That isn’t just a vain denial about my age. I know I turn 63 on April 9, but it’s another fact that my mind resists. I still see myself as age 41, the age, I was when I came here. Half my brain acknowledges the simple math, but the other half drifts stubbornly away from that knowledge back to the moment that the real world was left behind. The effect is that I have not been in prison for going on 22 years, but rather for one long, tedious one.
My birthday is on a Saturday this year, which doesn’t help in my plans to evade the reality of it. I’m a “shut-in” on weekends, so I have no where to go to avoid the rituals of a prison birthday. The usual, impeccably insulting homemade card is already circulating among my friends here for all to sign and memorialize their thoughts. They try to be original, but it’s inevitable that some of the birthday classics – most originated with Pornchai – will find their way into the card. I admit that some of them are very funny, and worth repeating:
- “G likes history so much because he was there for most of it!”
- “When G was born, the Dead Sea was just starting to feel sick!”
- “We asked G what we could get for his birthday, and he said ‘Depends’ – so that’s what we got him!”
Here’s the best one that Pornchai-Max and friends concocted four years ago when my birthday was the day after Easter:
- “At the Council of Nicea in 325, it was decreed that G’s birthday falls on the first Monday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox!”
Prison can be so cruel!
I recently stumbled across a TV commercial for T-Mobile for the iPhone 6, a device I can only imagine, but have never seen. You might have seen the same memorable ad in which the Cookie Monster of Sesame Street fame endures the long, slow, grueling passage of time while awaiting his cookies from the oven. In the background plays “Time in a Bottle,” Jim Croce’s great 1971 classic, an ode to life-passing-by.
Hearing “Time in a Bottle” conjures up very different memories for me. I was 18 years old in 1971 when Jim Croce published that hit song, and it was a hit because of what was going on around us. I was but one month 17 when I graduated from Lynn English High School. A year later at 18, I registered for the draft. In the year that “Time in a Bottle” was Number One on the pop charts, I was Number Six in the draft lottery for the one fate facing every young man my age then: Vietnam.
“Time in a Bottle” set to music the dread and high anxiety every 18-year-old male felt then. I became resigned to that fate, and would surely have gone one year later at 19 if not for the onset of U.S. withdrawal from a war that was tearing the nation apart. For young men in America, time passed too quickly then, and Jim Croce lent his mesmerizing lyrics to its cruel passage:
“If I could save time in a bottle,
the first thing that I’d like to do
is to save every day ‘til eternity passes away
just to spend them with you.
If I could make days last forever,
If words could make wishes come true,
I’d save every day like a treasure, and then
I would spend them with you.
It seemed almost surreal to hear this song play out against the angst of the Cookie Monster and his interminable wait. Clearly the anxieties of youth about the passage of time are different in 2016 than they were in 1971. We heard that song while waiting for war and death, not faster Internet.
Other dangers lurk around that song as well. If Jim Croce wanted to write a song we could never forget, he succeeded. Like a few other rare scores of its kind, “Time in a Bottle” is so well written and performed that when I heard it in the Cookie Monster commercial, it became “stuck in my head” for days on end – just as another famous song from that same era did as I described in another post, “Unchained Melody.” I didn’t just remember hearing these songs so much as my mind played them incessantly, day in and day out. This often happens to me with certain music, and it won’t leave until something comes along to, replace it.
This prison’s Recreation Department has a number of programs that aim to keep the minds of prisoners occupied with better things than the day-to-day trouble that is always lurking all around us. Sports programs are a popular distraction, and I hope you have read about one day of amazing grace here in our most popular post of 2015, “At Play in the Field of the Lord.”
Pornchai Moontri works for the Recreation Department, “Rec,” as it is called here. His days are spent in the ballfield mowing grass and organizing teams, or in the gym as a referee for basketball games. Hazardous duty, that! But not nearly as hazardous as the Thursday music program where, for a modest fee, prisoners can torment their roommates by taking up guitar.
I wrote recently in “The Writing on the Wall Behind These Stone Walls” of our friendship with Chen, a young man in this prison from Shanghai, China who just turned twenty. One day last month, Pornchai and Chen both walked into this cell with guitars. I have since dubbed them “The Twang Brothers” because they play without ceasing the only song that they know. It’s called “Twang!” When Jim Croce wrote, “If I could make days last forever,” he clearly never had to sit through a concert with The Twang Brothers. If I found out I was dying and had six months to live, this would be music to my ears. It would’ not make me live longer, but it would sure make it SEEM longer!
But to be fair to The Twang Brothers, they have actually provided a valuable service. They not only disrupted my mind’s endless replay of “Time in a Bottle,” but they also helped me to hone a most basic survival skill. The ability to tune out the never ceasing background noise of prison is an absolute necessity for inner peace and psychological survival, and The Twang Brothers are helping me perfect it.
For the first ten of my twenty-two unplanned birthdays in this place, the noise of prison had the effect of a rough rasp being dragged across my mind. Enduring a concert with The Twang Brothers has become a preferred distraction in a place where something foul is screamed out from somewhere near or far about once every 3.2 seconds. As the Cookie Monster ad makes clear, time and endurance are relative. Crosses and blessings are also relative things, and if you paid attention to my Divine Mercy post last week, it can be hard to tell the difference between them in the end.
NO LITANY OF MISERY
Lots of people ask me to write about the day-to-day doom and gloom of life here, and especially what it’s like for someone who should not have even been here in the first place. I resist writing with a focus on prison’s dark side. I wrote that as though prison has a bright side. It doesn’t. Not of its own accord, anyway. But my friends, The Twang Brothers and I cannot dwell on the evil in our midst except to say that we live in constant confrontation with it, spiritually and in every other way. A line from Psalm 22 sums up prison well: “Indeed many dogs surround me. A pack of evildoers closes in upon me.” (Psalm 22:16) But Psalm 91 applies in equal measure:
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.’ For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence, He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge, His faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the devastating plague at noon. (Psalm 91:1-6)
One of the greatest hazards of being here is the constant, nagging, inner drive to focus only on me, on what this costs me, on the toll it takes on me, on the things it deprives me. The “Litany of Me” can drive “miserable, empty, and mindless” to new lows in this or any injustice, and I have worked long and hard to tune “me” out of the equation.
Our friend, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri agrees. As I wrote in “The Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy” here last week, Pornchai marked 24 years of his life in prison on March 21, and it commenced when he was 18 years old. Worse still, a third of his own “miserable, empty, mindless existence” in prison was spent in the cruelty of solitary confinement. Somehow, by some unseen grace, Pornchai’s life and soul have since been overthrown in a coup. It took place in something I described last year as “A Transfiguration Before Our Very Eyes.” I cannot claim any credit for that transformation except to say that I doubt it could have taken place had “me, me, me” been the limit of my field of vision.
In the end, who can really say what is good and what is bad? All are at His disposal. God gave me just enough grief in my life to recognize grief in another, and to emulate Simon of Cyrene to help carry it. So how can you settle for dwelling on your misery once you see that even misery can serve God?
I just interrupted The Twang Brothers music practice to tell them that I’m opening this post with a wonderful quote I found in the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes). I took the opportunity to explain to them that the Hebrew text for Sirach was lost to antiquity, leaving only a Greek translation, but most of the Hebrew text was recovered in 1947 when found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
They stared at me in stunned silence for a moment. “I heard they also found a birthday card for you!” said Pornchai-Max. Then he took his guitar and played a surprising round of blues with well rehearsed technique.
“Wow!” I said. “I’ve been tuning you guys out for way too long!”
“Do not interrupt the music!” said Chen.