Archive for November, 2010
I go into prison several times a year to offer nonviolent strategies. The Alternative to Violence program (AVP) is a successful program with a simple concept. If you practice self-respect and treat others as if you expect their best behaviors, you can live without forcing your way on others. If you examine how to act respectfully in tough situations, then you can cultivate nonviolence skills in your own life. If you believe a power to transform violence exists, then you practice ways to make it happen. Have you seen the fury of a nor ‘easterner pummel the rocky NE coast? Then the next day see how the land swept by storm illuminates emerald meadows? Violence shifts to nonviolence all the time.
I wonder why would a person shoot a close friend? I wonder how tempers fly off the handle? Why would I slap my 2 year old for spilling mango juice? Have you ever seen the like? Furious actions and words cause damage. Why do we shut our doors on the homeless person who comes looking for money? Why do we fail students who read in Arabic or Spanish and can’t read English? Is the system at fault or the individual who doesn’t fit?
Providing shelter, food and language is part of our humanity and us building a land of peace. In the US, land of the free, health, jobs and education is plummeting to an all-time low. I’m trying to live humanly, so I sprout a few tender shoots in prison. Starting with prisoners seems like starting with those who are losers. But they are eager to learn because of the serious mistakes they made. “My first crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We were selling drugs. I didn’t shoot anyone. Now, 20 years later , I’ve been here four times. I don’t know why I keep coming back.”
Any of us who have let anger, punishment and revenge rule our minds need this workshop. Anyone who wants to voice more understanding than put downs. I take some responsibility for a world of woe. I live often by disregarding others, and not lifting up others.
Before I went into Concord prison last Friday, I had a play date with a friend, , Kali is adopted and now 7 years old. She has bright eyes framed in trim black braids. I tell her not to snap a rubber band at me and a scowl dances on her forehead. She walks with me from the bus and we talk about nature’s amazing ways. I show her where Monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Wind showers red leaves around us.
“If you catch a falling leaf, your wish comes true.” Kali tells me. She and I run foolishly around the parking lot, darting and twisting to catch a leaf. We come close, my hand bats at the yellow leaf, but it slips away. I watch for cars. Kali laughs. As nimble as she is, Kali couldn’t snatch the leaf. Another golden leaf returns to the earth. I decide to count my blessings and let the leaves tumble at will.
Prisoners are people first, their crimes are such a tiny part of their lives. In prison the guys live in a cell block. On their unit they describe their criminal exploits and how they survived on the streets. Many were inducted into committing crimes as young teens, many sold drugs or made some quick cash because that was the best way to stay alive. Rarely do they talk about the sadness and loss in their lives. Anger and dominant behaviors get lauded and reinforced. I meet guys in super maximum prison who have tattoo tears on their cheeks. Each teardrop signifies someone that they killed. The indigo tear is a tragedy and a badge.
Doing a workshop on Nonviolence with convicted felons is difficult and ultimately rewarding. It’s like walking in the woods with moonlight to guide you. You have to adjust your pupils and irises to see. All 7 senses are needed. It’s personally challenging; it’s absorbing; it’s funny (I can end up in stitches); it exposes hypocrisies; it’s touching as bullies show their softside. A 24-year old guy told me, “I’ve been locked up off and on for 12 years since I was eleven years old. I just what to grow up. All that I ever learned is in prison.”
In prison there’s a code. The following is what inmates tell me:
“Live with honor. Die with dignity.”
“Don’t be a slave from cradle to the grave.”
“Anger with no outlet is a slop bucket.”
“Are you sure you want to cut in front of me? Don’t be too quick. Because I’ll take you down. Then I’ll go in the Hole’ (solitary) and you’ll go to the hospital.”
“Don’t snitch.” The code of conduct is not outlandish.
The inmates see how unbending punishment squeezes them on the inside. Part of no snitching builds a shield between the men and their enforcers, “Don’t see, don’t tell, don’t stand out.” They unite together. This passivity among inmates not getting involved in any way with their enforcers is reinforced. “Shhh. Don’t tell mama or we’ll all get a whipping. It’s hard to keep your dignity if you decide to hide the truth from those who have power over you.
The AVP workshop has genuineness and opportunity to admit our weaknesses. After the AVP workshop many men come up to me and say, “I really appreciate it. The whole time we were in the workshop, I didn’t think about being behind bars. I could forget about the sh- – out there.”
“Yeah. I don’t see how it works, but I’ll try it.”
” It’s somethin’ different to hear the stories of walking away. You all are being real.”
As an AVP leader I see apathy turn to questioning. I see guys move from hands crossed in front of the chest to open hands cuffing each other. I see grim faces turn to grins. Teaching peace is elusive. It’s done face to face, one relationship at a time. Next week I’ll visit with Kali again.
Maybe we’ll catch a falling leaf this time.
Nature can be very forgiving.
The trees are candle flames flickering in the wind. The wind doesn’t howl, but it’s brisk, sharp. The leaves dive, pause and with a sudden updraft a bouquet of color is tossed upward. It’s Halloween. A hallowed time. A time suspended. Oct 31 is a sacred day on the wheel of the solar calendar. It is exactly half way between the end of summer (Sept 21) and the first day of winter (Dec 21). October 31 is the New Year for those of the Wiccan faith. Instead of black cats and frosty nights we have flaming trees this year. Ah, the weird joys of global warming.
And within the cloister of the trees and the vaulted blue, I feel a shimmer of fear in the air. It’s not just the gathering cold weather. We, are a people gone awry. Do you feel it? We listen to belligerent political shoot-him-dead duals; we buy fruits and broccoli packed in plastic; we are proud of driving Priuses 100 miles, when we need to be hopping a hybrid bus. Humans are on a runaway train and its picking up speed. In the US we are in the first car. We have chest thumping, hate language, teens bullying, suicides after your private life is on the internet. Will we let the train carry us over the cliff?
Where is hope? -it’s not in Obama or any giddy wins on election day. Where is reliable hope?
“So All friends be faithful, … be zealous for…truth,” says our Quaker prophet. Mary Waite writes to friends in 1679 heedless to the fear and chaos of 17th century England with its insurrections and moral ineptitude. Quakers were a movement and called themselves Publishers of Truth.
Mary Waite says, [the Lord] will deliver thee out of every unclean way and polluted path. …the day of the Lord is at hand, in which he will arise in … strength, to plead the cause of his suffering seed.” Geepers and OMG.
Can we buy into this reality? Yes, I can open my heart to the possibility that a Holy Spirit is at work. Just barely. Any victims of poverty and war are the suffering seed. I weep and cry out for the injustices. If I step out of my chronic denial and realize that my consumption of oil is ruining the planet, I mourn. I see pictures of oil coated egrets from Louisiana coast, I mourn. I met a friend having coffee who just lost her job, I mourn. This decade is an era of sorrow. And I have gone to 7 or 8 funerals this year already. There are funerals for 21 year olds in Mattapan and 15 year olds in Boston, and suicides in Wellesley. I cry and beg that our hearts of stone can be broken open.
I will plow this field of sorrow until Spirit shows me a way to transform the systemic violence. How do I plead the cause of my suffering? The suffering of those killed? The suffering of our planet? Mary Waite says, “fear the Lord and obey his voice in thee, and he will deliver thee out of every unclean way and polluted path.” May it be true. I often know what is the moral thing to do, and the voice isn’t a booming megaphone. God’s message comes in many forms, the wind, the miners trapped in Chili far underground, a oil drill gushing, the shimmering trees.
No one wins by manufacturing guns, amassing oil tanks or shooting others down. In 2010 there are many war lords bent on spilling blood. Combine this with the conglomerate way all humankind is pilfering to the point of strangling the earth, our home. Ahh, we can see heaven on earth. Hope is in the damp winds. The birch trees offer licks of yellow that do acrobatics across the lawn. The plum tree usually drops its leaves weeks earlier, by early October. Today its leaves are an especially deep shade of peach, luminous sails shaped like almonds. The maples are sorted mandarin/gold colors. The trees with buttressed branches rustle with pale green, lava yellow and fiery orange. Maple trees are everywhere: some are tiny squirrel flags of trees, and others large square-masted brigades towering over the plebeian plants.
… the weary travelers are refreshed, the feeble knees are strengthened, the broken spirit bound up, and the wounded soul hath oil poured on (Luke 10:34 the wounded soul is the Samaritan); who can but rejoice and be exceeding glad? for he hath put a new song in our mouths, he hath given his people beauty for ashes….Speak truth, Mary Waite. Give hope.
Trees are so green. Still. I love the lingering days mid-October, the temperature drops one degree lower each day. Slowly, so slowly the dahlias and sunflowers descend into a frosted land. Summer grips us tighter this year. Its talons hold on fiercely even as its fire fades. Do I love summer more than I fear winter? Once Bar St. John said that she harbored a hate towards mockingbirds. How very absurd. I was baffled beyond belief that Bar would say that. This clear woman was loved by Quakers. She played the harp and loved the world until the butterflies ate out of her hand. Could she even harbor a drop of hate. She detested mockingbirds because they were pilfering off others. She begrudged their chasing off smaller songbirds. She thought their sound was obnoxious, copying other birds without singing their own song.
She said, “I realized that my dislike was not changing the mockingbird at all. Humans have little effect on the cares of this bird. We aren’t that important. So any hate that I have prevents me from loving.” One morning she woke up happy to be back in her own bed. She heard a familiar cacophony. Barb had been visiting a sick person out of town. It was a symphony of beauty. She knew the birdsong of cardinals and mourning doves and the twittering of sparrows. She heard the mockingbird. And she blessed it and welcomed it. Imitating the song of others could be useful. Music composers borrowed a phrase of music often and added their own style to it. Bar was sure mockingbirds were loved by God. The birds were on earth for a purpose and her hate was only corrosive to herself.
Was Bar, a seer, giving me instruction in that preposterous task to love your enemy?’ Wasn’t she talking about the mundane? Changing your attitude about an annoying bird is like shaking off a creepy fear of a dark room. Or how we get used to the clicking of the electric heater. Or deciding that we can mop up a child’s vomit and it won’t kill us. Or is changing an old assumption about mockingbirds as pests rather sublime? I mean, think about it. This is not a simple task. Hate comes in many shrouds and we need to unveil them. I hate the Tea Party movement. I hate the military generals who derail world peace. I hate garbage, I hate pale green, I hate sleet in November. You get the picture. But what good does any of that feeling do? Anger is energizing: and hate? Hate is destructive.
Loving your best friend is as hard as loving your enemy. It’s just when I consider loving someone who has hurt me, I slam into my sense of personal integrity. Such love often unloosens my grip of self-preservation. I spend more time licking my wounds than pouring a drink for my enemy. I spend more time hesitating and building my case than walking over to the other side. Xenophobia is so limiting. It’s so inside the box. It’s so retro. Fear of mockingbirds, or of another person is worse than retro. Fear is so Jurassic Age; it’s at least 2 millennium old.
Yes, the mockingbird has a song that I can learn to love. I can only surmise how Jesus went about â€˜loving your enemy.’ I can only imagine what that Quaker lioness Margaret Fell meant when she claims, “We [Friends] do deny and bear our testimony against all strife, wars, and contentions that come from the lusts that war in the members, and that war against the soul.” (letter to King Charles 1660). I’m guessing that Fell is saying that when I participate in war on the outside, my soul is also at war. Isn’t the US in a state of endless war? I am a small mammal, trying to learn heavenly ways. We Quakers sign onto a peace testimony but our practice flounders. Quakers commit to peace, and the path is muddy with hidden sand traps. I’ve dedicated my life to learning how to treat others with respect. That is a stepping stone to loving others. Have I learned how to treat others? Golly. I’m as good at making peace as a cat swimming against the tide.
And I laugh at Colbert’s March to Keep Fear alive at the Washington Monument on Oct 30th. but I don’t have anything against the Rally to Restore Sanity. Does Jon Stewart want to clean out the destructive forces in our political ruckus? Doesn’t he want to create an attitude change to political mockingbirds? Humor does open doors for peace to happen.
I love Bar St. John even though she died 10 years ago. Love will conquer fear. I will dwell in the house of love with friends. I will work on the seeds of hate inside me. And when I am called I’ll venture into loving my enemies. We are all called to do this. I just hope I only have to do it until I can a full-time job. Like I can’t love my enemies all the time, can I? Maybe just every election day.
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