Saturday, June 11, 2016

Powell's City of Books

Portland, OR

I could live here. Maybe in the Rose Room.

Powell's is like an old warehouse. Nothing about it is shiny or polished. The tables in the coffee room remind me of my grade school cafeteria crowded with long tables I'm sharing with strangers who aren't really strangers. They're kindred spirits, book lovers like me. We understand one another. We're instantly at ease in one another's company. You can keep your Barnes & Noble.

My mission for today is to leave with a French book or an Italian book. The selection is better than that at most university libraries. Maybe something by Natalia Ginsburg or Oriana Fallaci. But --more than that-- I want to linger. In my imagination I plot how I could stay past closing. How I could hide in a corner, evade detection, and sleep here. In the morning I'd have coffee and a biscotto for breakfast, greeted by the smiles of other bibliophiles. Only the ghosts of my favotite authors would know...

If the nerves in your fingertips don't scintillate when turning the pages of a book, you can't understand.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Ils sont tombés

A poignant song written and performed by Charles Aznavour, qui est de ce peuple, i.e., from an Armenian family that migrated to France.

Ils sont tombés sans trop savoir pourquoi
Hommes, femmes et enfants qui ne voulaient que vivre
Avec des gestes lourds comme des hommes ivres
Mutilés, massacrés les yeux ouverts d'effroi
Ils sont tombés en invoquant leur Dieu
Au seuil de leur église ou le pas de leur porte
En troupeaux de désert titubant en cohorte
Terrassés par la soif, la faim, le fer, le feu

Nul n'éleva la voix dans un monde euphorique
Tandis que croupissait un peuple dans son sang
L' Europe découvrait le jazz et sa musique
Les plaintes de trompettes couvraient les cris d'enfants
Ils sont tombés pudiquement sans bruit
Par milliers, par millions, sans que le monde ne bouge
Devenant un instant minuscules fleurs rouges
Recouverts par un vent de sable et puis d'oubli

Ils sont tombés les yeux pleins de soleil
Comme un oiseau qu'en vol une balle fracasse
Pour mourir n'importe où et sans laisser de traces
Ignorés, oubliés dans leur dernier sommeil
Ils sont tombés en croyant ingénus
Que leurs enfants pourraient continuer leur enfance
Qu'un jour ils fouleraient des terres d'espérance
Dans des pays ouverts d'hommes aux mains tendues

Moi je suis de ce peuple qui dort sans sépulture
Qu'a choisi de mourir sans abdiquer sa foi
Qui n'a jamais baissé la tête sous l'injure
Qui survit malgré tout et qui ne se plaint pas
Ils sont tombés pour entrer dans la nuit
Éternelle des temps au bout de leur courage
La mort les a frappés sans demander leur âge
Puisqu'ils étaient fautifs d'être enfants d'Arménie

A lovely translation that preserves the poetic quality of the original French:

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Decoration Day

Some thoughts that occurred to me during meeting for worship this morning...

Today I hold in the Light military vets like my 98-year-old father-in-law as well as those who have fallen, who paid the ultimate price --and whose families continue to suffer-- because of humanity's inability to resolve conflicts nonviolently. 

I am reminded of the Illiad and the Odyssey, those epic poems that express the Greek belief that war among humans reflects rivalries and conflicts among the gods on Mount Olympus. Our leaders in high places, like the gods of Antiquity, pull the strings of those in more lowly places. However, unlike Ulysses, Aeneas  Roland, Henry V, and other literary military heroes, our leaders do not gallop at the head of their troops. Some, like Joe Biden, do have sons or daughters who serve. But most are safe and their children are safe at home, while the sons and daughters of others are sent into combat. Some reserve units deploy a number of adults from the same town ... sometimes including a mother and father from the same young family.

We still have much to do before we can, like George Fox, come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On the road- Days 3 & 4: Of bottles and men

Houston airport, 12:15 pm

    Still processing the second day of my visit -- already day ago. Although I was much less hesitant going through security and much more relaxed conversing with Troy (not his real name), I came out of Polunsky just wanting to unwind. Couldn't get it together to write. I exited the compound under a brilliantly shining sun that made the barbed wire fencing sparkle.  Thinking only of myself, I was in a hurry to savor my freedom.

     There was more activity in the visitation room on Friday than on Thursday. By total coincidence, I ran into the kind TCADP member who had sent me the long, informative email.  She happened to be visitng her friend and was assigned to the booth right next to mine.  She seemed subdued and heavy-hearted. We exchanged a bit of conversation and she remarked sadly that the men there are treated "like animals."  Troy's arrival on his side of the glass pane cut short our chat. My TCADP friend peeked over and waved hi to him. When her inmate friend arrived, Troy said a sideways hi to him and I peeked over and said hi too. He gave me a big smile. He seemed happy. Her visits must be a great source of cheer to him. Troy knew that inmate, of course, and told me his name.  I excitedly told Troy that the lady visiting the other inmate was the TCADP member who had sent me the helpful email. Then we settled into conversation.

     I had requested a different booth in the hope that the telephone connection might be clearer, and indeed it was. This time I felt no awkwardness. It felt natural to be there talking and laughing with  my friend.  As natural as can be expected when you're sitting in front of a pane of glass. A visit totally devoid of physical contact. I keep asking myself: what are they afraid of? Would I slip him a weapon or a razor blade? Or some other contraband? Would he slip me a note? Behind Troy I could see guards leading other inmates to and from visiting booths from time to time. The presence of these stocky, heavily armed guards keeps visitors and inmates properly intimidated. There must be a better way.

     The guard who gathered the snacks that I purchased for Troy couldn't have been sweeter, however.  Wonder how it feels to be a combination guard and take-out delivery employee? Seeing the guards and other prisoners going to and fro behind Troy, I thought of the beverage machine. You push a button and a mechanism behind a glass window locates and fetches the desired drink and drops it onto the shelf below, where only the guard is permtted to touch it. Of bottles and men.

     How does he keep his spirits up, I wonder? And when will we see each other again? And will we ever be able to give each other a hug?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

On the road -- Day 2: Eating yogurt with a spork

   The rain is beating against the window of my hotel room overlooking US 59. It's so damp and chilly that I turned the heat on. Not what I would have expected for Texas weather during the month of May. But then, it's been an unusually cold and rainy spring back home in PA too.  Just can't seem to escape the rain.

   As a couple people who have been to Polunsky Unit promised, the personnel were all very friendly when I visited today. The visitation room is kept spotlessly clean. The floor was shining. However, the dilapidated fixtures, worn or peeling paint, and generally Spartan institutional decor contribute to an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere. The visiting booths look like something out of a 1950's TV crime drama.The telephone connection was staticky and I sometimes had difficulty understanding Troy (not his real name) when he spoke. The bathroom, although kept very clean, is in serious need of renovation. At the very least, prison admin should consider replacing the door. Sitting on the toilet you can read the sad, desperate musings etched into the surface on the interior side by family and friends.

    I found it hard to see that Troy was handcuffed as he was being led into the visiting booth. I gave him a big smile and a two-handed wave, and even the guard smiled along with him as he removed the cuffs. He reached for a telephone receiver on his side of the window, and I reached for one on my side. The first few minutes were awkward. While we have spoken before, (during periods when he was on bench warrant in another county and could call me -- no telephone privileges at Polunsky), that was awhile ago. I was touched that his first words were to ask about one of my family members who was recently ill. I was entitled to a "special" four-hour visit (as opposed to a usual two-hour visit), because of the distance I had come.  We chatted --and at times laughed-- about this and that for the first couple of hours, and then he asked if I wanted to eat.  Sure, I said. Troy had really been looking forward to this culinary treat, lunch from the famous visiting room vending machines. Says something about the daily grub he gets, I suppose.

    The procedure for purchasing food for the inmates is cumbersome to say the least. You take your friend's order. Then you call over the guard.  She comes with a brown paper lunch bag on which she has noted the number of your booth and follows you from machine to machine as you make each purchase. You deposit your quarters, make your selection, and the item is delivered. Or, in the case of a  refrigerated item such as a salad or sandwich, you slide open a little door.  But you are forbidden to touch the item. The guard retrieves it and places it into the paper bag. The process is repeated until all desired items have been purchased. Finally, the guard delivers the bag to the inmate. Just like ordering take-out, right?  When you buy a salad, it comes with a napkin and little plastic spork. Same for yogurt, as I discovered when I purchased some Yoplait for myself. Consuming a creamy comestible with a spork has a most unnatural feel. It's almost as though the entire experience has been calculated to be as unnatural as possible. Even as a visitor you feel you're being punished.

      Troy ate his lunch with great relish as we continued our conversation. Seeing him enjoy his food gave me at least the illusion that I was doing something for him. However, I know that he is totally vulnerable and at the mercy of the system, his only hope the unrelenting efforts of the pro bono attorneys. May the Spirit guide their work.

     Well, at least the great unknown has been dispelled. When I return tomorrow I'll be more familiar with security procedures and visitation culture. Maybe I'll even master the fine art of eating yogurt with a spork.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

On the road - Day 1


OK, I've got this. Packed my suitcase in a reasonable amount of time last evening. Could have packed lighter, but...what the heck.

Philadelphia International Airport - TSA security check didn't take as horrifically long as the news reports are depicting. Perhaps I was just fortunate this morning. My flight is listed as on time.  Just purchased a Subway hoagie (as we call them here in Philly) to eat on the plane. Settling in. Going to write and read some.

Feeling peaceful. This is a trip I'm led to make. Comme une évidence, as the French say. No big deal. No grand convictions. Just going to visit a friend. Who happens to live on death row in Texas.

10:00pm - Livingston, TX

Not a bad drive from Houston airport to my hotel in Livingston. Found a nice tex-mex restaurant nearby for dinner. Took a dry run out to Polunsky, located not very far from where I'm staying. It was starting to get dark.  Lit up and viewed from a distance, the huge compound had an eery feel. Back in my hotel room, as talking TV heads dissected Donald Trump's newly released finances (must be nice being worth $10B), I reread the helpful advice from the kind TCADP member. Take only my ID, car keys, my bag of quarters for our gourmet vending machine lunch, and a sweater. Leave everything else in the car. Lots of gates to pass through. Feeling afraid I'll get lost somewhere between security and the visiting room. Counting on the Light to show me the way.

Anticipating our first meeting.  Through a glass...but not darkly.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Mother's Day

Mom is buried far away
I need to make a pilgrimage
caress the family headstone
feel the imprint of her name
  and my grandparents’
  and my uncle’s
  and my father’s
trace with my finger
the dates of her birth and death
and place fresh flowers
in the accompanying vases

I need to remember
lighthearted days and sad
her face when young
  and when she was very old
recall how my hand felt
in hers
when she was strong for me
  before I became strong for her
how she cared for me
  before I cared for her

I need to see again
her eyes alive with laughter
  too soon vacant
  with dementia
I need to see her walk, stroll
  before those days
  of wandering zombie-like

She died a shell of herself
  my eyes affixed
  to her last exhalation
body spent
soul intact
Mom still

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What ninety-eight years buys

Ninety-eight years should buy you more
than a motorized wheelchair
a room
three meals a day
and bingo games

Ninety-eight years buys you
not of your choosing
and volunteer entertainers
of dubious talent

Ninety-eight years buys you
one-hour visits
from family and friends
more biscotti
than you can eat
and an undesired Kindle

Ninety-eight years should buy you
lingering last hours
under your own old roof
where memories
come sit in easy chairs
to reminisce

Ninety-eight years should buy you
a fridge
that slows down
to your pace
and dishes that chip
but don't break

Ninety-eight years should buy you
a well scuffed table
and photos
that talk back

Ninety-eight years should buy you
the right
to slip into eternity
any way you want

Friday, April 8, 2016

Fly, Mariposa, fly!

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Lk 15:7

...At least, that’s what I think he said, the Nazarene, the one who had nowhere to lay his head and whose dined with outcasts... the one in whose name we righteous folk sentence sinners (today we call them offenders, inmates, and such) to decades-long, sometimes lifelong imprisonment and prolonged solitary confinement. But then again, we’re also told that his own family thought he was crazy. Anyway, I’m trying to figure out why, in our Christian country, we don’t give those who have broken the law a chance at Christian repentance. Lock them up and throw away the key, people say. Because we refuse to recognize their common humanity and cannot be bothered helping them put the pieces of their lives back together.

My observations are prompted by the one-woman play Mariposa & the Saint. I saw it last evening on Haverford College’s campus. Julia Steele Allen and inmate Sara Fonseca—a 33-year-old mother of two, nicknamed Mariposa because of her butterfly tattoo-- have crafted the text of the play together, basing it on excerpts from letters Mariposa has written to Julia over the years. The play writing has been done completely through correspondence as well. Mariposa has never been to rehearsals or performances of the piece that she’s co-written. She hasn’t even seen photos of her friend Julia in the title role. That’s because Mariposa has been confined to the Security Housing Unit (the SHU) of a California prison since their collaboration began three years ago.

   The 45-minute monlogue is nonlinear, alternating between the present time and flashbacks to various periods in Mariposa’s life. The staging is sparse. Piles of white and off-white fabric blocks are the only props, and Mariposa pushes them closer and closer together in the course of the play to depict the increasingly suffocating atmosphere of a solitary confinement cell. The action opens on a very animated Mariposa, dressed in a white prison outfit bearing with the upper-case letters: S, H, and U. Although she shares how much she misses her young son and daughter, we sense a strong life force within her, something that even the criminal (in)justice system cannot dampen. She recites the Native American tale of how Wit’-Tab-Bah the Robin got his red breast and whistles, imitating a robin’s song. However, we come to understand that Mariposa’s life has been as disjointed as the narrative... a child constantly moving from one location to another with her mother and repeatedly raped by her mother’s “tricks”... a young, single mother herself, evicted from the room where she was living with her baby ... a prisoner, separated from another inmate whom she had come to love as her wife. The monologue is punctuated by hand-clap commands from the C.O. (played by an actor in a nonspeaking role) and a couple of popular songs. Little by little, Mariposa grows lethargic, paranoid, agoraphobic. At the of the play, when she is just a month away from being released from the SHU, we learn that she has thrown a glass of cold water in the face of a male nurse, an act that earns her another four years –four years!—in solitary. Mariposa is serving the rest of her time in solitary in the prison's psychiatric section.

  The performance was followed by a 45-minute discussion led by Julia, as well as the play’s director, Noelle Ghoussaini, and members of Decarcerate PA and Reconstruction Inc. We discussed the inhumanity of solitary confinement, especially the lack of contact prisoners have with their own children, and we talked about how difficult it is for those released to find work. We ended the evening by signing petitions to our state representative and senator for reform of the PA prison system. And we were offered an addressed post card to send to Mariposa, who is  elated to receive these from so many persons around the country.

  You will fly again, Mariposa!

Another review of the play:

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Very honored to have been chosen memoirist of the month by Smith Magazine:

I mean, who can't write six words? It's easy and so much fun that I've racked up over 2,000 memoirs to date.

Gonna keep on sixing!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Happy 2016!

Haven't posted yet this year.  To kick off a (hopefully) more active blogging year, here's a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Hast thou named all the birds without a gun;
Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk;
At rich men’s tables eaten bread and pulse:
Unarmed, faced danger with a heart of trust;
And loved so well a high behavior
In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained
Nobility more nobly to repay
O be my friend, and teach me to be thine!

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Note: pulse - edible seeds (in case the word was unfamiliar to you too).