April Links Roundup: Making and Unmaking

Happy Spring! Six weeks into my program as a first-year student of the Temple of Witchcraft, I have communed with several trees, learned a lot about my inner struggle over manifesting my power, but so far failed to establish a meditation practice before the end of April. The Temple’s founder and head minister is Christopher Penczak, author of such books as Gay Witchcraft. It’s early yet, but I may have found my ideal path (for the time being): a tradition that combines the sensory paraphernalia and rich imaginative world of Christianity with the empiricism, practical skills focus, and interfaith coexistence that I admire about my husband’s Buddhist practice. Penczak discusses the Temple’s rigorous but non-dogmatic approach to occultism in his essay “The Path of Making and Unmaking”:

Part of the world of the occultist is the continual evaluation, revaluation, and refinement of our ideas based upon our experience. We see Witchcraft as an art, with creative expression, as well as a religion that builds relationships with the gods, land, and people, but to the occultist, it is a science. Having too strong of an attachment to a belief system or identity, including that of the Witch, can hinder evolution. We obviously need words, ideas, and images to communicate, but as one enters the mystical realm more deeply and encounters direct experiences of consciousness and the spirit, one often opens up to greater possibilities and broader definitions of self and others, including the identity of the world “Witch” itself…

…Occult teachings will often break you down, unravelling the pattern for you to see the parts. We seek not only what is behind the masks of the gods, but behind the many layers of our own masks, to find the god within. Our heads are cracked open to new possibilities of the universe and the self. Our own image of ourselves and how the world works often changes. Our hearts are cracked open, and our wounds from childhood and adulthood are exposed to be examined and healed. And for some, even our bodies are cracked open as we become teachers through illness and injury, through pain and pleasure, and we explore the link between thought, feeling, and health. Mystery schools offer a path of purification, of unmaking, returning you to a place of potential.

Ever wondered why the Torah talks so much about curtain rings? In the left-wing magazine Jewish Currents, English professor Raphael Magarik muses on the detailed re-description of the Ark of the Covenant in “Exodus: Vayakhel”. He suggests that the repetition is meant to de-mystify the sacred object so it doesn’t become another idol like the Golden Calf. “…The traveling sanctuary itself is built on a shaky foundation; it is constructed only to be deconstructed, its repeated relocation a cycle of sanctifying and secularizing space, bewitching and disenchanting.” Magarik urges us to embrace a similar paradox in our return to post-Trump, post-COVID “normalcy”, to celebrate without letting the rituals of our civic religion lull us into ignoring injustice once again.

Dr. Eleanor Janega’s hilarious and informative blog, Going Medieval, is aptly subtitled “Medieval history, pop culture, swearing”. In her recent post “There are no white knights”, she deconstructs the ideal of “chivalry” that modern-day conservatives tout as preferable to feminism. Like cops today, medieval knights were more likely to beat up the poor than rescue women from rapists.

In general, licit violence is made licit in order to protect the power of an entrenched class, and whether that is rich white dudes in the medieval period or rich white dudes now doesn’t make much of a difference. In other words, you are only given the power to beat people up if you beat up who the rich guys want, then as now.

Much as gallant knights were much more likely to inhabit fictitious worlds, the good cops we are meant to understand are out there are the preserve of shows like Law and Order: SVU. That isn’t something real. No one is coming to help you if you are not from the ruling class. Don’t let that scare you. Let it spur you to make the world differently.

In Massachusetts, legislators are considering a reform bill that would end re-imprisonment for merely technical violations of parole, including addiction relapses. Get on the Real Cost of Prisons Project email list for updates. The wisdom of this approach is laid out in the USA Today story “Community supervision, once intended to help offenders, contributes more to mass incarceration”. (The cynic in me balks at “intended to help” but so be it.)

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail system was Raymond Rivera — a 55-year-old father and husband who lost his life in April. The “offense” that ultimately resulted in a death sentence for Rivera? Leaving a drug program without permission — a minor technical violation of the parole he was on for stealing a motorcycle cover and some bicycles.

There’s a common misconception that probation and parole — sometimes called community supervision — are more lenient alternatives to incarceration. But justice officials are recognizing that community supervision can be a tripwire that perpetuates incarceration based on crimeless technical violations like the one that resulted in Rivera’s incarceration and, ultimately, death…

Rivera was hardly alone. Almost 25% of people entering prison in 2017 were incarcerated for a technical supervision violation, rather than a new offense…

In 2017 alone, U.S. taxpayers spent $2.8 billion on the people who entered prison for a technical violation. It would clearly be a much greater boon to wellness and safety if scarce resources were used to address the housing, education, health and employment needs of those under supervision, rather than disrupting people’s lives, families and communities through unnecessary incarceration.

I enjoyed Randy Rainbow’s parody song videos and other satire of the Trump years, in moderation, but I didn’t delude myself that it made a real difference to the advance of fascism. I was raised by a narcissist, so I know that all attention feeds the beast. At the Yale University Press blog, social anthropologist Mark Leopold analyzes the deliberate buffoonery of dictators Idi Amin and Donald Trump. Playing the outrageous windbag entertains supporters, causes opponents to underestimate the leader’s power and intelligence, and distracts the news cycle from his more serious and dangerous actions.

Behind all this is clearly what Freud recognized as the aggressive nature of joking. I suggest that buffoonery is, at root, a quintessentially masculine characteristic. In my experience, very few women are ever called buffoons. The jokes of a buffoon carry the stale reek of an all-male atmosphere—the barrack room in Amin’s case, perhaps the golfers’ locker room  or boys’ boarding school classroom for others… [A]n open, even boastful sexual promiscuity is another part of the package.

Don’t feed the trolls.

March Bonus Links: Food and Freedom

More links that didn’t fit in the last post!

My prison pen pal, “Conway”, sometimes sends me pictures of the gross food that they serve California’s inmates. It’s mostly starchy, unidentifiable mush slopped together in styrofoam trays. I’ve been spending a few hundred dollars every year sending him and his cellies some more appetizing, though probably not very nutritious, packaged food from the few official vendors that are authorized by the Department of Corrections: jerky sticks, shredded beef in a bag, candy bars. They’re not allowed fresh fruits and vegetables for fear they would ferment them to make alcoholic beverages. I’ve heard horror stories of prisoners being fed spoiled milk and bait fish labeled “not for human consumption”. Diabetics and others with special dietary needs often don’t receive the types of meals that are medically necessary.

Patricia Leigh Brown’s New York Times Op-Ed this week describes “The ‘Hidden Punishment’ of Prison Food” and reports on an innovative prisoner-run farm and kitchen in Maine. The inmates at Mountain View Correctional Facility, a medium- and minimum-security prison, are not only eating healthier, but also learning self-care and food-prep skills that will help them re-enter society. Seems like common sense, right?

Though the average American rarely spends time worrying over how incarcerated people are being treated, their physical, psychological and emotional health has a ripple effect on all of us, especially after they serve their time. If the goal of prison involves not only punishment but also rehabilitation and lowering recidivism, then sending a healthier person back into society is in everyone’s interest.

I accidentally subscribed to the e-newsletter from Jewish Currents when I bought their “Zayde mug” for a fellow Bernie Sanders fan, and I’m actually finding it’s a must-read. Jewish Currents is a left-wing politics and culture magazine that combines a strong Jewish identity with fact-based criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government–a third rail among many liberal American Jews, for whom Zionism fills the gap left by traditional belief and Orthodox observance. “How the ADL’s Israel Advocacy Undermines Its Civil Rights Work”, an investigative piece by Jacob Hutt and Alex Kane, explores how the Anti-Defamation League has remained silent on threats to free speech from state and federal measures that silence Palestinian human rights advocacy. This stance also hampers American Jewish leaders from making common cause with groups like Black Lives Matter.

In my continuing quest to learn how to BE A MAN, at the thrift shop I picked up a copy of The Bastard on the Couch, a 2001 essay collection in which two dozen male writers (mostly straight, usually with prestigious publishing histories) shared their feelings of confusion, resentment, and self-deprecating humor about modern changes in gender roles. Essentially they don’t know what to do with themselves now that their wives earn more money and open their own jars. One particularly whiny chap felt emasculated by the fact that his wife makes him a to-do list. I recently came across this graphic narrative, “You should’ve asked,” by feminist cartoonist Emma, which encapsulated why the men’s essays frustrated me so much. The invisible work of being household “project manager” often falls to the female member of a heterosexual couple. Without a conscious effort to resist societal conditioning, they can get into a mutually resentful pattern that is more like overworked mother and immature son than a pairing of equal adults. Luckily, my partnership has not been like this, even when I was female.

Finally, enjoy this cute story that I found on Twitter today, published in Queerty in 2018: “Are Bert and Ernie a couple? We finally have an answer…” In this interview, “Sesame Street” scriptwriter Mark Saltzman says he based the Muppet pair’s relationship on himself and his life partner, the late Arnold Glassman:

Yeah, I was Ernie. I look more Bert-ish. And Arnie as a film editor—if you thought of Bert with a job in the world, wouldn’t that be perfect? Bert with his paper clips and organization? And I was the jokester. So it was the Bert & Ernie relationship, and I was already with Arnie when I came to Sesame Street. So I don’t think I’d know how else to write them, but as a loving couple. I wrote sketches…Arnie’s OCD would create friction with how chaotic I was. And that’s the Bert & Ernie dynamic.

So you’re saying that Bert & Ernie became analogs for your relationship in a lot of ways?

Yeah. Because how else? That’s what I had in my life, a Bert & Ernie relationship. How could it not permeate? The things that would tick off Arnie would be the things that would tick off Bert. How could it not? I will say that I would never have said to the head writer, “oh, I’m writing this, this is my partner and me.” But those two, Snuffalupagus, because he’s the sort of clinically depressed Muppet…you had characters that appealed to a gay audience. And Snuffy, this depressed person nobody can see, that’s sort of Kafka! It’s sort of gay closeted too.

September Links Roundup: Drawn That Way

Nothing I will read on the Internet today could top this hilarious illustrated essay by Bradley Bazzle in the new issue of the online lit mag DIAGRAM. In response to his 2-year-old’s fascination with the human body and “Sesame Street”, a bored dad finds himself drawing “Naked Bert & Ernie” in some peculiar situations:

When I draw a Bert or Ernie, I start with the face. The moment I finish the face, my daughter shouts “body!” Then, the moment I start the body, my daughter shouts “naked!” But sometimes, in my haste to finish the face before she starts shouting “body” and “naked,” I’ll accidentally draw the collar of Ernie’s crewneck sweater or of Bert’s turtleneck, which he wears beneath his v-neck sweater…

…I was drawing Bert for my daughter when I made the mistake of starting his turtleneck. As usual, I recovered quickly. I even jumped down and started drawing his arms, to distract her, but my daughter kept pointing at the line around Bert’s neck. I told her the misplaced line on Bert’s neck was “like a collar.”

“Leash,” my daughter said, nodding earnestly.

“That’s right,” I said, “a leash. Like a dog has.”

My daughter started pointing at the empty space next to Bert’s neck, so I had no choice but to draw a long leash extending from the collar and then, naturally, to end it with a hand.

“Ernie!” my daughter cried, and I colored the hand orange. “Ernie! Ernie!” she persisted, and so I drew the rest of Ernie’s body. In my head a little voice (my wife’s?) told me I should draw him clothed, or, better yet, in his traditional jeans and horizontally striped sweater, and so I did this, over my daughter’s strident objections, but then what I had in front of me was a drawing of Ernie, clothed, walking Bert, half-naked, like a dog.

The essay goes on to ponder the ambiguous age of the humanoid Sesame Street puppets, the backlash against their possible queerness, and the downplaying of romantic love on the show in general. Bazzle is disappointed in this last omission, but I find it refreshing in a media landscape where nearly every kids’ cartoon movie includes a heterosexual love interest.

On the subject of comics strictly for adults, graphic novelist LB Lee has launched a Kickstarter to publish an updated edition of their memoir All in the Family, about coming to accept themselves as a multiple-personality system and grappling with recovered memories of incest. I had the pleasure of meeting Lee at the Queers & Comics conference this May, and enjoyed their graphic novel Alter Boys in Love, a sweet and unique story about relationships among their “headmates”. For a good introduction to their work, check out this profile by Abraham Riesman at Vulture, “The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is Eight Different People”:

In an era when memoirs about gender, sexuality, mental health, and trauma are surging in importance, LB Lee deserves to become a much-better-known name, not in spite of their work’s challenges, but rather because of them — and because of their comics’ untrained and exhilarating beauty. Indeed, by elegantly and brutally exploring the fringes of fluid identity, LB Lee makes one rethink what it means to be human.

Riesman’s article is notable for its respectful, even-handed investigation of the controversial subjects of recovered memories and dissociative identity disorder (DID). He writes:

I spoke to multiple medical professionals with expertise in DID and asked all of them if it would be a problem for me to treat LB’s alters as individual people. I was worried that acknowledging the headmates was somehow encouraging the disorder when I should be trying to convince them that they’re actually a single person. I was told in no uncertain terms that the latter, actually, is the more dangerous approach. In fact, the medical consensus is that it’s almost impossible for people with DID to unify back into a single personality, so there’s no sense in trying.

“I commonly talk to my patients as ‘you all’ and they refer to themselves as ‘we,’” says Dr. Richard Loewenstein, the medical director of the Trauma Disorders Program at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and a professor at the University of Maryland. “Just say you’re mostly interested in understanding and want to be very respectful and make sure you’re not treading into territory that may cause undue distress.” In other words, although being transgender or gender-nonconforming is very different from having DID, the same principle, so radically important and newly acknowledged in mainstream thought, applies: If someone with an uncommon identity wants to be called something, it’s your duty to comply, however awkward it may seem at first.

At BuzzFeed, Kristin Arnett, author of the bestselling debut novel Mostly Dead Things, shares childhood memories of “Queering Barbie”. The doll’s plastic-perfect middle-class life was aspirational but also shaming for a girl whose own world was messy and full of struggle:

A good way to make yourself feel like you’ve got any kind of control over your life is to play with dolls, because you can make them do whatever you want. Another good thing about owning Barbies if you’re a little queer girl is that you can look at their naked bodies and not feel like anyone will say anything weird to you for it, because if there’s anything we know about Barbies, it’s that they were manufactured for the purpose of taking their clothes off and putting new clothes on…

…The Barbies I own are hard-won. I have to beg for them. Looking back, that feels right — how to get all the women I want who want nothing to do with me. I should get on my knees and grovel. It should cause me physical pain to acquire them. I need to beg —to do service to deserve them…

Did you know: Barbie is a pediatrician, a veterinarian, a stay-at-home mom. She works at McDonald’s. She owns a dream house. She owns a fucking DREAM HOUSE. I will never own a dream house. The house I live in has five rooms and one of them is a bedroom I share with my sister and one of them is a bathroom I share with my entire family. The only way I can read in my house is to wait until no one’s in the bathroom and then go lock myself in and pretend I’m taking a bath so I can have one second of time alone so I can read, because no one in my family reads and no one wants to let me read — they think it’s a fun time to try to yell my name over and over again while I am trying to focus on any of the words.

Is this why I can’t listen when anyone calls me now? Is this why I can’t believe when anyone actually wants me?

My fellow St. Ann’s School alum Wendy Chin-Tanner, a widely published poet, shares her own experience of racism and classism at our elite Brooklyn high school in Gay Mag, a new online publication curated by Roxane Gay. In “An Unsentimental Education”, Chin-Tanner describes how the arts-oriented school’s ideology of individual meritocracy made her blame herself for micro-aggressions and cover up her working-class Chinese heritage. (TW for sexual assault.) “The ethos of Saint Ann’s eschewed the bourgeois and reified the artistic class, obscuring how that class is nonetheless bound to economic and social capital,” she writes. Chin-Tanner is the poetry editor of The Nervous Breakdown and Executive Director and Co-Publisher at A Wave Blue World.

Another St. Ann’s graduate, Rachel Cline, writes in Medium about “The Unexceptional Jeffrey Epstein”:

We have normalized the idea that women can be treated as less-than-fully human in so many ways that it is like weather, or air — a fact, an act of nature or God. The Epstein case demonstrates this. He was as much a friend of Bill Clinton’s as of Donald Trump’s, his friends were A-listers ranks deep, his sweetheart deal in Florida was kept secret from the victims, and Pulitzer Prize nominators were swayed by Alan Dershowitz’s super slimy plea to eliminate Julie K. Brown’s Epstein reporting from prize consideration — all these things required the collusion of regular people, non-sex offenders, non-plutocrats, and women, too. The girls themselves were able to believe that what this jerk asked of them was somehow appropriate, and that it was acceptable to recruit others to the same fate. I am not saying we should go after them, nor do I want to minimize in any way the extent of Epstein’s harm — what I am trying to say is wake up: This is so much more than one man’s wealth or one man’s kink.

Cline’s new novel The Question Authority (Red Hen Press, 2019), about two women finding themselves on opposite sides of a sexual misconduct case against their former high school teacher, is on my to-read list.

Lastly, one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ariana Reines, was interviewed at length about her new collection A Sand Book (Tin House, 2019) by Rebecca Tamás in The White Review. Among other topics, they discuss poetry-writing as an occult force that can shift our consciousness away from planet-destroying political paradigms. Asked whether her work has ever faced dismissive criticism because of her references to astrology and esoteric spiritualities, Reines replied: “The reason I’m involved in poetry is because I wish I knew how it would feel to be free, not because I want to trick some boring asshole into considering me an intellectual.”

Quick Links to Support Immigrants’ Rights

Through an inhumane and dubious interpretation of immigration law, the U.S. government is currently separating innocent families at the border and locking up children in detention centers. For once, the Nazi comparison so over-used in Internet debates seems terribly apt. Brianna Rennix explains the situation in “Understanding the Administration’s Monstrous Immigration Policies” in the leftist political journal Current Affairs:

Children are NOT being taken from their parents simply because the government wishes to prosecute their parents for illegal entry and the children cannot accompany them to jail. That makes it sound like these separations are simply incidental to a separate enforcement policy that the government decided to pursue.

The reality is actually just the opposite. The Trump administration’s decision to prosecute parents for illegal entry was taken in order to create an excuse to separate mothers from children. As I’ve said, the irritating problem the Trump administration has been struggling to overcome, with reference to the many thousands of bona fide asylum seekers that come to the border, is that a) lots of them are moms with kids, b) kids can’t legally be kept in more restrictive custody than absolutely necessary, and c) there is a federal court decision, legally binding on Trump administration, that states that when you release children from detention who are detained alongside their mothers, the mothers have to be released too.

This is what Trump and Sessions have meant when they have talked cryptically about “loopholes” that are “forcing” them to release asylum-seekers into the interior. There are lots of asylum-seeking moms that the government would otherwise have preferred to have kept locked up in hidden border facilities, without any meaningful ability to recruit counsel, for the entire duration of their cases. But because these moms had a child detained with them, they couldn’t do this.

Separating kids from moms thus serves two purposes. One is deterrence. It’s designed to send a gruesome message to women contemplating fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico: If you come here looking for protection, we will take your child away from you…

The second and perhaps even more critical purpose of family separation is to ensure that moms who are still brave enough and desperate enough to come here will lose their cases. There are not nearly enough competent immigration lawyers along the border to meet the needs of all the people who come to ask for asylum. In the past, when the government was forced to release moms with kids, these families could go settle anywhere in the country they chose, and have their case adjudicated in the local immigration court in their new place of residence. Because they weren’t detained, they had the ability to actually recruit a lawyer to help them. And a lot of them settled in parts of the country, like California or New York, where the immigration judges actually, you know, sort of care about people not being murdered, as opposed to border judges, who are mostly looking for any colorable reason to say “no” to a case. Now that the government is starting to separate moms from kids on a large scale, it is possible we will start to see moms detained in border facilities for the entire duration of their cases. They will be unrepresented and facing unfriendly judges. They will lose.

I think it is important to understand that these family separations are not just a byproduct of brute over-prosecution of “illegal” entry. Rather, they are part of a concerted strategy to allow the government to avoid granting people asylum, and to circumvent the courts’ few, limited attempts to legally impose humane limits on their treatment of asylum-seekers.

Rennix points us to the New York Times’ June 14 staff editorial that includes a list of ways to fight these horrific policies. Some options:

Find out who represents you in Washington, and let them know you want the practice of family separation to end. Ask them to support bills that will help reunited children already taken from their parents and also prohibit future removals. Those include the Senate’s HELP Separated Children Act and Keep Families Together Act

The proposed Fair Day in Court for Kids Act would require the government to appoint counsel to unaccompanied children, and it’s important to ask Congress to support its passage. Until then, there are several nonprofits providing vital free legal aid that need financial support: The Texas Civil Rights Project; the Florence Project in Arizona; and Kids in Need of Defense and The Young Center, which work nationwide. Lawyers might also consider lending their expertise. The Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is helping families with supplies and humanitarian relief.

Massachusetts voters should also keep tabs on the progress of the Safe Communities Act, which passed the state Senate and will have to be voted on by the House before the fiscal year ends June 30. This bill would prevent state and local law enforcement from being deputized to support Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Call your representative today! Luckily, House Ways & Means Chair Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is a supporter.

The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition explains:

State and local police should use their limited resources to fight crime, not immigrant community members and their families. The bill would bar police from arresting or detaining a person solely for federal immigration enforcement purposes, or participating in U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations or raids based solely on immigration status. It would also prohibit agreements to deputize state and local officers as federal immigration agents, co-opting and taking away resources from local communities…

The bill ensures that constitutional principles are upheld equally for citizens and non-citizens, by requiring a warrant to arrest a person on behalf of ICE. It also requires notice to immigrant detainees of their legal rights – in a language they understand….

[The bill] prohibits Massachusetts law enforcement agencies and the Registry of Motor Vehicles from providing information to any federal registry program based on religion, national origin or other protected characteristics.

Finally, if you’re having trouble deciding which advocacy group to support, ActBlue will distribute your one-click donations to eight of the top organizations working to protect kids at the border, including the ACLU and United We Dream.

New Poetry by Conway: “Lost in Translation”

Happy 2016! We’re hopeful that this will be the year of liberation for my prison pen pal “Conway” (Richard C. Jackson). He’s been waiting for a hearing on his early release petition since 2012, when California repealed the three-strikes sentencing law for nonviolent offenders. His case has just been picked up by Stanford Law School’s Justice Advocacy Project. If you’ve enjoyed his writing on this blog and would like to send a letter in support of his case, please contact Michael Romano.

Lost in Translation

In this shadowed space,
each word’s a button, a worried rosary bead.

Green flares announce one possible survivor.
How I found my soul interested.
I fell with the moon
I wait with white face.
I couldn’t know the danger,
though, coming home a stranger.

Yesterday has been left in ruin.
Someone piled prisoners, abandoned
their value like legless dolls.

Nothing stopped the way I left it.
In the shower mirror, crows’ feet
reflect an age complete, bubbling
down the drain, through the years
waving goodbye to the night in my eye.
This silver hair shows, like paint
from a previous life (chipped to primer).

If something came by for me to swallow
as do mirrors, another world appears.

Two moons, one in the window
over my shoulder, an unfamiliar egg
floating in space, in solitude
which has truth, which meaning?

This sphere of thought, birthed
by reflections, brought about
an inner directed connection.
New possibilities to do something,
discover a pattern, an opportunity to re-engage.

On this new stage stands
a mature embryo.

I am an offering, a need
begging to be cracked
spilled onto the fired skillet.
But still lost in translation…

A Christmas Message from Becoming Church

Becoming Church, an offshoot of the Church of the Saviour in Washington D.C., is an intentional Christian community devoted to racial and economic justice. Their major project at the moment is Reunion, a ministry that re-integrates formerly incarcerated people into civilian life, as well as doing activism for prison reform. I blogged about my inspiring visit to their weekend conference last year.

Their latest newsletter included some timely and challenging reflections by Rev. Becca Stelle, the Director of Becoming Church, which I am excerpting below. Please consider donating to this unique and worthwhile ministry.

I recently saw a sticker on the back of a car: “Give Jesus a Chance.” My first reaction was that the slogan projected too simplistic a faith, but in giving the off-handed language itself a chance, it began to resonate with possibility.

Our world is caught in terror and division, hostility and fear—between neighbors, between nations. Black against white; Muslim against Christian; Republican against Democrat; always, oddly, us against ourselves.  As our global degradation pushes us to consider new paradigms—some more palatable than others—we could do worse than to consider what Jesus offers.  Do we ever hear compassion or mercy as a legitimate political, economic or development strategy? Can you imagine? To give Jesus a chance would mean giving God’s love-strategy an honest political chance in a world bent on hatred; forgiveness a chance in a world steeped in vindication; reconciliation a chance in a world committed to war; hope a chance in a world consumed by despair. The proposition seems all the more laughable as circumstances appear increasingly extreme.

This is not the only way in which we are called to give Jesus a chance. The phrase has a double entendre.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies with the sick, hungry, homeless and the prisoner.  “When did we see you hungry and feed you?”  “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Clothe me, feed me, visit me in prison.  Give me a chance!”

Men and women coming home from incarceration face crippling obstacles to successful re-integration into the community.  A fortunate few have a roof overhead through Jubilee Housing’s Re-entry program.  Others secure employment through Jubilee Jobs.  As important as those services are, the sustained need for belonging and purpose remains.  All of them—all of us—need a spiritual community where our deepest inner impasse can be transformed by Love to its fullest potential.  For us, to give Jesus a chance is to know Charles and to be known by him; to keep him in prayer; to arrange a job interview for Charles; to help him with car repairs to get to that job; to wait out his anxiety; to talk him out of self-defeat; to pay the court fees imposed which he could not possibly manage on his minimum-wage, part-time income; and to watch Charles grow in confidence that he is important to our community; that he can give back; that he is a blessing. Even then, it’s not so much that we are giving Jesus a chance, but somehow Jesus is giving us a chance—to move from our societal plague of separation to become the whole, healing people God created us to be.

New Poetry by Conway: “They Have a Cave”

My prison pen pal “Conway” continues to wait for a hearing on his early release petition, three years after California retroactively repealed the “three strikes” law mandating long sentences for nonviolent crimes. If you have enjoyed his work on this blog, feel free to send me a letter of support that I can forward to his attorney.

Meanwhile, his artwork graces the cover of Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s just-published book of political poetry, Imperfect Echoes. Check out her sample poem, “Antigua’s Hope”, at Winning Writers, and read Conway’s new poem, “They Have a Cave”, below the graphic.

They Have a Cave

Have you been in a cave?
Blackened by shadowed bars; strip searched
like a newborn puppy, probed to prove a gender.
Paraded down concrete corridors, jingling in chains
like an untrained beast. Un-named, then re-numbered.

I despise this neverness, this severed distress
from the world of incorporated man.

I have survived too long in this cave,
while they have waved away time (The Administration.)
To claim the one key to freedom’s peace.
To fleece my mind, and control the doors
lashed to the mouth of each cave.

These caves have been built for your poor.
But, no-one they love. Only those
they claim to care about.

You can have my hollow cave.
I have saved nothing from its stark desperation,
from the stripes of separation
that have
stomped out this conversation…

Juvenile-In-Justice Gives At-Risk Youth a Platform to Tell Their Stories

I met prison librarian and youth advocate Jane Guttman 10 years ago when she invited me to teach a poetry workshop at the Juvenile Court School in San Bernardino, CA. Before then, I’d never had personal contact with prisoners. I unconsciously accepted the myths and fears that popular culture promotes about people who wind up behind bars. But I said a prayer, walked in there, and all those mental barriers dropped away. They were just kids–vulnerable, troubled, painfully sincere about their writing, grateful for books that could give voice to their feelings.

Jane has been working with criminal justice professor Richard Ross on his new website, Juvenile-In-Justice, which collects the stories of at-risk youth in their own words. Poverty, racism, under-resourced schools, and dysfunctional families create a deadly undertow that few can rise above. The system often fails them by throwing them in jail instead of providing support services. They become statistics and stereotypes to justify extending the prison-industrial complex. Juvenile-In-Justice shows us their faces, and their souls. Read these stories and let your heart be opened.

From “Welcome Home, Ronald”:

…At seven PM on Saturday night Ronald called. “I’m free Richard…I’m breathing free air.” Ronald Franklin, age 20, is now free after seven years—all of his teen-age years. Four and a half were spent in TGK while Ronald awaited adjudication. This isn’t a misprint. Yes, there is a sixth amendment and the right to a speedy trial, but in the case of adolescents, this is often compromised…

…I went to visit Ronald at a facility run by G4S, a private corporation that’s contracted by the state of Florida. In spite of being approved by his public defender, his mother and Ronald himself, I was turned away at the gate. Ockachoobee has 55,000 residents and 33,000 are incarcerated—but that’s another story and another time.

Ronald is free today, reconciled and living with a mother who was addicted for decades. Living around some of the roughest communities in the country: Miami Gardens, Liberty City, a Miami far from South Beach where privation and poverty are the norm. He is no stranger to subsistence living. For the past seven years the State of Florida spent $1.95 a day to feed him. Ronald will make it. He is planning on enrolling at Miami Dade Community College. He wants to do something with his life.

From “We Almost Starved to Death”:

This is the second time I’m here. I’ve been here three months now. The first time I was 15 and here for a month. I got tired of the stuff at home so I ran away. I survived by breaking into houses. So I’m here mostly for B&E and burglary. I live with my mom and stepdad. My sisters are both 6. And then I have a younger sister. My mom’s about 40. My dad died of heart attack when I was 4. My mom was doing crack and abandoned me and my sisters. I was staying in a foster home for two or three years. My little sisters and me were abandoned. We almost starved to death…

…They said I had behavioral problems and would break toys, push around my sisters, and go off by myself. I was so angry I would strip the bark off trees. They put me in children’s hospital. I was angry at the situation and my mother. I sometimes don’t want to see her, most times. She would badmouth my grandmother. She’s a tough one. Several times she would leave us all without food. I would get extra food at school for the twins and I got in trouble for that. She would leave my 8-month-old sister unsupervised. Where was DHR? I don’t know.

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New Poems by Conway: “Sleep Deprivation” and “City Elegy IX”

My prison pen pal “Conway“, who’s serving 25-to-life for receiving stolen goods in California’s notorious Pelican Bay facility, tells me that not much is new about the New Year. His early release petition hearing has been deferred yet again, till February. Keep him in your thoughts.

Meanwhile, he’s writing lots of poetry, and creating artwork for a book project commissioned by another reader of this blog. I’ll share full details when it’s published.

The poems below made me think about the normalization of torture. With 2.3 million Americans in prison, many suffering under conditions like these, can we call ourselves a free society?

Sleep Deprivation

It made no difference
how busy the hours had been, or
who I’d communicated to
through the unseen voices on this tier
while sipping a lukewarm cup of mud,
even if it took thirty minutes of pushing
the hot water button on the stainless toilet’s sink.

The only thing that made a difference
was that section door.
It opens so loudly, I had to wonder
if it hadn’t been devised on purpose
by some lousy crumb, to be that damn noisy.

It crashed open around midnight
reminding me with its rudeness
that I’m still locked in this concrete box.
By myself.
With no way to open this heart or door locks.

To remind me that I was alone.
The cop walked a flashlight
searching for eyes to shine in
as keys uselessly jangled songs
step up and down the stairs
then exit.

As the sounds of persistent doors
rattle away again
then, creeping silence forced its way back in.
I could only hope
that the return of the intruder
would find me safely wrapped
in slumber’s silent headlock.

Long enough
to be recovered before daylight
to be upright and shuffled
among the chained population.
Not that much of anything was happening.
But, if something did,
it’s best to be prepared for whatever.

The legacy of intrustions
of clinking clanking conclusions
schedules of the return
by someone I do not know
someone who would never say hello
but someone I swear I will not forget.
At least until I fall back asleep.

I was too much awake in lonely thought, in this empty cell, to surrender.
Or, to recover from the intrusion of lonesome desire.
So, I listened in to the section doors open and close
as time prowled around in this pen of lonely people…

****

City Elegy IX

The streets have been my cathedral
I stole through the nights, searched and crept
Trying to find a truth I could accept
In the streetlights’ dance, of taking a chance;
To be burned beneath the sidewalk of not.
This seemed to be all, that a living wage bought.

Now this soul’s been stripped naked for years…
Rewinding each skyless night
Counting myself alone
Stuffed into this squeeze of unknowns.
Enduring this endless crush of bones.
While gun towers cast their scorns
Sheltered beneath those barbed wire thorns
Flinging the sting, off the point
Of their meaning; A meaning I must endure.

So, now that I know the score,
I’ve lost any right to be more,
Than the rumbled crash, and groan
Of steel doors. As they rattle (in threat)
On every closing report. Exposing intent–
From a contempible court.
Like a jester unsprung, itching to finger someone.

This soul still recalls, all of its flaws…
My conscience remains true, above false.
Forged in this furnace, of doing hard time.
Refusing to drop, even one dime. That’s why–
These vents are still blowing in grit, as
I’m flat on my back, in this land of unfit.
And those amber lights. It should be no surprise,
They keep catching me spotting for spies.
But those yellow lights’ glare, man!
That’s always been there. I know better
Than to expect any slack. So–
I’m standing here staring right back.

If this truth contains proof…
Somewhere existing, at my vision’s edge.
Between the silence, as my voice fell out alone. (Or so I had thought.)
It wasn’t until your voice was hurled
In the wind at the top of the world.

So what, if everything’s changed. (Alright.)
Those memories shared, have still stayed the same.
They remain soft as the breeze–
In my city’s warm summer nights…

New Poem by Conway: “Smell”

My prison pen pal Conway reports that the hearing on his petition for early release has been delayed until December, crushing his hope of being reunited with his family for Christmas. It’s been over two years since California voters passed Proposition 36, which was supposed to roll back the harsh sentences imposed on nonviolent offenders under the three-strikes law. This Nov. 14 L.A. Times article suggests the state is dragging its feet on releasing prisoners because the Department of Corrections benefits from their underpaid labor:

Federal judges on Friday ordered California to launch a new parole program that could free more prisoners early, ruling the state had failed to fully implement an order last February intended to reduce unconstitutional crowding.

The judges, for a second time, ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence. They told corrections officials to submit new plans for that parole process by Dec. 1, and to implement them beginning January.

“The record contains no evidence that defendants cannot implement the required parole process by that date, 11 months after they agreed to do so ‘promptly,'” the judges wrote in Friday’s order.

Corrections department spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the agency would comply with the order.

But the federal judicial panel did not take action on other steps it had ordered California to take last February. Those include increasing the sentence reductions minimum-custody inmates can earn for good behavior and participation in rehabilitation and education programs.

Most of those prisoners now work as groundskeepers, janitors and in prison kitchens, with wages that range from 8 cents to 37 cents per hour. Lawyers for Attorney General Kamala Harris had argued in court that if forced to release these inmates early, prisons would lose an important labor pool.

Meanwhile, my friend Conway keeps his soul alive through creative writing. In addition to poetry, he is working on an autobiographical novel about growing up with his brothers and sisters in a gang-ridden neighborhood. I think he could be the next S.E. Hinton! I was struck by this poem’s taut rhythm and rapid-fire rhymes and wordplay.

Smell

This is the smell of a cell…
This is the smell of rust and dust, and sometimes lust.
Plus it’s the smell of double bar-locks, block and blocks, of towers
and useless clocks. If you don’t know what time it is, oh well!

Could it be the smell of a dirty-ass sock, or worn-out useless
fruitless talk? But still, it’s a voice you feel you might trust.
Not that, oh no!
This is the smell of nothing good. No pleasure, no sound,
nobody around to be found, nowhere to go.
Nothing to show, for all the shit you now know.

This is the smell of a place where no one belongs, but still
we’re stuck here. Because the court insists we’ve done something wrong.
This is that place where they’ll put you away, to serve
day after day. And you’ll rust in the smell of the dust and decay.

This is the smell you will always smell, unless
they tell you “your smelling is finally done.”
In this smelly assed life, that’s good for no-one.
This is the smell of no place to be, this is the smell I see.
This is the smell of just one prisoner’s tale.
This is the smell of that living hell.
This is the smell that I smell.
This is the smell of jail…