In the United States, we’re in the middle of a peak vacation week. As I write this, we’re also in the middle of this summer’s first real heat wave with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) and high humidity. My barred prison cell window faces west, so for much of the day into early evening my concrete and steel abode is assaulted by the relentless sun. Blocking the cell windows is not permitted so there is little we can do to escape the heat. This cell has only two electrical outlets and multi-plug extension cords are forbidden. To type this post I have to unplug my fan, and it’s just stifling in here. Like a tomb.
I assume most of you in the land of the free revel in summer, and are likely doing things that are far more fun than reading TSW. A week ago, during a few days of dismal gray skies and cold drizzling rain, I heard several prisoners say, “It could stay like this all summer and I’ll be happy.” Well, I would not be happy at all. Even after 19 years in prison, I just cannot feel that the world revolves around my discomfort. I hope we have a long, hot summer that brings joy to your freedom. I ask only that you cherish that freedom.
My friend, Leo Demers – TSW’s Facebook Editor – and his wife, Penny (who is also my friend) just returned from two weeks of hiking through Yellowstone National Park. I have known Leo and Penny for 35 years, and know without doubt that they strayed far from Yellowstone’s beaten paths and tourist traps into the inner life of this magnificent national park.
In a letter I just got, Leo attributes that back-trail bravado to me. He says that I introduced them to trail hiking 35 years ago when I dragged them along for some excursions deep into the mountains and forests of northern New Hampshire. In freedom, I did a lot of hiking and mountain climbing, and spent lots of days off deep in a forest. I am not a “tree hugger,” but I love trees dearly and hiking is among the things I most miss in the free world.
As my friends were encountering Yellowstone’s vast wilderness, I came upon a two-hour PBS Nature documentary about Yellowstone. It had to be the fastest two hours I’ve ever spent with a TV screen. The camera crew did what my friends did. They strayed onto the back trails and into the wilderness to watch the bears and wolves and bison and owls emerge from the deep sleep of a hard winter as spring wound its way toward summer at Yellowstone. This world God made is breathtaking!
These Stone Walls suffered some sort of strange glitch a few weeks ago that caused two recent posts to disappear from view on the home page. They showed up if you had an RSS feed or clicked on a direct link, but they were otherwise invisible. It was perplexing, and I am grateful to our editor, Suzanne, who unraveled the mystery and fixed it.
One of those two temporarily disappearing posts was published June 5th on the 31st anniversary of my priesthood ordination. If by chance you missed it, I think it would be a good post to mark Independence Day. It was about the motivations of Revolutionary War writer, Thomas Paine, who in 1776 wrote “The American Crisis,” an essay calling on the Colonists to rise to rebellion. Thomas Paine might make you see some of today’s headlines very differently. This Independence Day, share this link to “Freedom, Catholic Free Speech, and a Partisan IRS Scandal.”
A very kind TSW reader ordered a DVD copy of this year’s Academy Award winning film, Les Miserables from Amazon.com to donate to this prison’s film library. I got to see it this week, and liked it immensely. I know the story inside and out, but it still made me cry. I’m not a big fan of musical theatre, but the film is so much more than that, and if you haven’t seen it, I hope you will.
I’ve read all the critiques of the film version of Les Mis. Some of the singing was gritty. Russell Crowe may have been a somewhat tone deaf Inspector Javert, but still he seemed quite fitting for the part. Anne Hathaway won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was worthy of it.
The crux of the film was a very brief role by veteran stage actor, Colm Wilkinson who shined as the venerable Bishop Bienvenue. Fans of Les Mis will recognize him as the original Jean Valjean in the London and Broadway stage productions over 25 years ago. It was Bishop Bienvenue who set in motion the redemption of Jean Valjean.
That very redemption was at center stage throughout. Jean Valjean holds a special place in my heart because he endured nineteen years of unjust imprisonment. It’s a dubious milestone which I, too, will mark on September 23rd this year. Jean Valjean is one of the noblest characters of literature, and I can only hope to emulate such nobility after nineteen years in prison. It’s an endangered commodity here.
At this year’s annual Memorial Day celebration in Washington, DC to honor those who have served this nation with their lives, British actor, Alfie Boe sang a moving rendition of “Bring Him Home.” The song was reprised from his role as Jean Valjean in the London 25th anniversary stage production of Les Miserables. Alfie Boe was brilliant as Jean Valjean, giving Hugh Jackman some difficult shoes to fill in the film. He filled them well.
I hope you will see Les Miserables if you haven’t already. It was deservedly nominated for eight Academy Awards. I also hope you will share with other fans of Les Mis my own take on this great story, “Les Miserables: The Bishop and the Redemption of Jean Valjean.”
My Memorial Day post, “Butterflies Are Free,” included a beautifully hand drawn butterfly by my friend, David, and I quoted him extensively. For many years David was a noted professor of literature at one of the nation’s most prestigious prep schools. In that post, I pondered what David might think of my remarks about Robert Frost’s most famous poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It was intimidating to point David to my interpretation of it in my post, “Mother’s Day Promises to Keep, and Miles to Go Before I Sleep.” I received this surprising response from David in snail mail this week:
“Robert Frost was a close friend of mine. He’s been dead now for fifty years. He died while I was in the Marines, five months before I was to take a two-week leave to get married . . . He would have wrinkled up his crows-feet and nose-bridge and chuckled with delight at your interpretation of “Stopping By Woods,” which was one of his own favorites of all his poems. He would have loved your spin on that poem. I was touched and honored to be quoted and graphically represented in your May 29th TSW writings, especially since they, along with your Mother’s Day piece, were among your best ever.”
Where does a blogger go after such accolades from a friend of Robert Frost? I may never write again! Pornchai says I should just quit while I can still get my head through our cell door! Anyway, now I’ll bravely point my friend, David, to one more snippet of literary chutzpah. I wonder if he shares my admiration for a certain British writer bestowed with “These Stone Walls Second Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award.”
A DIVINE MERCY UPDATE
The reader response to “Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand” was heartwarming to say the least. I am told that there were over a thousand links to it scattered around cyberspace just in the few days after it was posted.
To clarify, our friend, Pornchai, has miles to go before he can dine at a Thai restaurant. We are friends, and as such I have always hoped and prayed that he may be released from prison before me. I have long hoped for this because I fear leaving him behind these stone walls should freedom come to me first. On the other hand, as Pornchai himself has pointed out, I can do far more for him in freedom than I ever could in prison. We’ll see what the Lord has in store for us. For now and the foreseeable future, we both remain in this Concord, NH prison until justice with mercy becomes a reality for us.
THE BLACK HOLE THAT SWALLOWS MY SOCKS
Bear with me, please, for one more loose end. In a recent column in The Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition, writer and dilemma debunker, Dan Ariely takes on the cosmic mystery of missing socks (“Missing Socks Are No Mystery,” Review, June 22-23, 2013). He explains that the universal experience of missing socks is a not a quirk of physics, but of the mind. It has something to do with the psychology of pairing. Socks come in twos, of course, and Mr. Ariely explains that we overcount them. So when we find one without its twin readily at hand, we register in our minds that we have a missing sock. When the other eventually shows up, we tend not to recall that it’s the twin of the one that went missing yesterday, but rather think that the twin of the one now in hand is missing now. It’s complicated, but it makes sense – to a point.
The article caught my eye because I have endured a lifetime of missing socks. At one point in my life, I believed that it was just me, that some tiny, unseen black hole large enough only for socks was somehow attached to me. I believe I have had more missing socks than any human being on earth.
In prison, our socks are white. Only white. All personal laundry – socks, T-shirts, sub-ubi (Latin for “under where”), and towels – goes into a personal laundry bag. It’s a net bag tied very tightly using an old sock with my name and number on it. Coincidentally, I use the twins of other missing socks to tie the bag. The net bag is then thrown into a huge bin with the personal laundry of sixty other prisoners. I try not to think about it too much.
Late on the same day, the bin – which is on big wheels to be rolled to and from the prison laundry – returns. All the net bags are dumped into a heap where they are sorted out to be picked up by their owners. The returning “clean” laundry passes through many prisoner hands – which are not always so clean. Again, I try not to think about it too much.
This happens twice per week, and each time the knot tying my laundry bag is as tight as it was when it left me that morning. It takes an effort to undo it. Then I dump the contents out on my bunk for sorting. Every third week or so, there is still a missing sock.
I’m sticking with my tiny black hole theory! Somewhere in the Cosmos, at the end of a wormhole created by a tiny singularity attached to me here on Earth, is my life’s sum total of missing socks. Pornchai also has missing socks, though not as many. He uses a missing sock’s twin to brew coffee. Did I mention that I try not to think about it too much?