Archive for category quotes
Walking this weekend brought to mind a poem I remembered about Ginkgos. Their “yellow fluttering fans of light” never fail to inspire me. I attempt and fail to capture them in yellow/fossil/sucked-in-breath poems. They are the last of their division of tree (Ginkgophyta), all others being long extinct.
Ginkgo leaves are found in fossils dating back 270 million years, and though they are messy and somewhat smelly trees—they are my favorites at this time of year.I look up and get lost. Or look down and get lost, depending on which day I come upon them.
Here’s a stanza of the poem I had to come home and google around to find. It’s from “The Consent” by Howard Nemerov.
Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone: the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.
The small man
Builds cages for everyone
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
The beautiful, rowdy prisoners.
It is their ghosts I think of as I walk past cell after cell. (I know. It’s easy, in such a ruin, to imagine ghosts.)
Silent screams echo through the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary in the trendy Fairmount neighborhood of urban Philadelphia. This prison, now an historical museum site, has not housed inmates since its closing in 1971.
Maybe it was the humidity, pressing down on me the hot summer afternoon I visited. But I felt what I felt. I felt heavy layers of despair. I heard voices, and not just the recorded ones in the audio headset. I also heard the voices of prisoners past and prisoners present, calling me to attention.
This place was, back in the early 19th century, thought of as a ground-breaking, humanitarian response to reforming criminals. The Quaker-inspired system was based on the belief that solitude and work would allow convicts to focus on their wrong-doing, and become truly “penitent.” Prisoners, many in for crimes like horse theft, saw no one, spoke with no one, touched no one, and smiled at no one, day after day. When necessity forced prisoners to leave their cells, they were hooded so that they had no visual interaction with other humans.
Eastern State is where solitary confinement was pioneered, and perfected, the audio recording hissed in my ears, as I peered in cell after lonely cell. The Pennsylvania System, as it was dubbed, was hailed as a model.
It didn’t work. It did not reform.
But “solitary” remains a punishment used at many modern prisons in the US and is even used on prisoners under the age of 18. US state and federal prisons are currently holding as many as 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement or isolated housing, according to ACLU reports.
Human Rights Watch notes that as of 2006, the rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater than in the general adult population.
What 17-year-old deserves solitary confinement? What mentally ill person deserves it? Which criminals deserve this, exactly? And who is empowered to decide and implement this torture that takes place far from the eyes of mainstream society?
As Charles Dickens said, after visiting Eastern State in 1842:
“….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
I wonder at how I have slumbered. In the courtyard of Eastern State sits a sobering, three dimensional bar graph, charting the rate of incarceration in US prisons versus the rest of the world. The US has achieved world domination here. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
Processing all this, I walk the corridors of Eastern State. A fog of cognitive dissonance begins to cloud my mind. The light here is soft, and beautiful as the light through any rose-windowed cathedral. The arched corridors are beautifully proportioned. In its heyday, Eastern State was hailed as a model of justice and technological advancement. On the surface, it appeared to be such a good idea. An unquestionable system, implemented by a government that knew what it was doing.
This is a reminder, one of the little voices whispers to me.
A reminder to wonder, to question. A reminder to look beyond, to see what is really happening.
I’m not entirely sure what all this means. But I know it’s not good. I keep reading. The United States prison population has increased by 500% in just thirty years. I learn that that minorities and impoverished people—the most voiceless, the least powerful— are far more likely to end up doing time. Hard time.
Meanwhile, according to the New York Times, prisoners are being put to work filling government contracts. Think “slave labor.” Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, uses prisoners for labor, and pays as little as 23 cents an hour. And, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, thirty-seven states have legalized the contracting of prison labor by private corporations who bring their operations inside prison walls.
Suddenly, as I write this, I hear other voices too, jeering ones, asking me if I’m forgetting the victims, in all this wondering? No, I’m not forgetting.
But there can be many kinds of victims, after all. And many kinds of crimes, not all of them carried out by individuals.
The ghosts in my head remind me to keep wondering, to keep questioning why we as a nation keep building so very many cages.
Links to more information on this topic:
How hurt people hurt people, themselves or others. Are some people hurt because few people have ever been kind to them? Maybe I’m being unbelievably naive, thinking like a fourteen-year-old girl doomed to be murdered by power-crazed regime, by people who killed humans en masse, like it was a job, and for many, it WAS their job.
But really—if more people saw the world like Anne did, if more people took time for kindness, instead of retreating to mockery, bullying and worse—maybe a revolution would begin?
“How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world! How lovely that everyone, great and small, can make their contribution toward introducing justice straightaway… And you can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness!”
― Anne Frank
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
– from “Eagle Poem,” by Joy Harjo
“Feeling emotional upheaval is not a spiritual faux pas; it’s the place where the warrior learns compassion.”
–Pema Chödrön, From The Places That Scare You
“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Heard a story on NPR today about exposure therapy—a guy who had paralyzing anxiety of rejection set out to GET rejected, over and over, until it no longer frightened him— and it worked for him. It made so much sense. He faced his fears until they stopped scaring him silly.
I guess that is what I am doing, though I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. Exposure therapy. I have been delving into dark places lately (no, no—not all the time, that would be crazy!) and the more I look at things inside that are scary and just ‘be’ with them, the more I appreciate their beautiful powerful forces and the less scared I feel. Rejecting part of yourself takes a lot of energy. It makes you worn down. I wonder if the denial of dark things inside is what creates some cases of chronic anxiety? My overall anxiety level certainly is ebbing as I dig. (But also: spiking like mad as I hit uncharted tunnels.)
Digging it all up is a messy process. I’m not all that great at it, a lot of times. I get stuck sometimes. A lot of times. I thrash and make it needlessly worse. I grasp. But I’m hoping I’ll get better at being with it when it comes, unexpectedly. Because it’s the fear you have to fear. Like the guy who was afraid of rejection. He wrapped his brain in a new direction. Away from fear, into acceptance of something that scared him. So hopeful, stories like his.
Like anything else, it takes practice. All any of us can do is keep trudging!
Per aspera ad astra. (A rough road leads to the stars).
“It is all very beautiful and magical here–a quality which cannot be described. You have to live it and breathe it, let the sun bake it into you. The skies and land are so enormous, and the detail so precise and exquisite that wherever you are you are isolated in a glowing world between the macro and micro, where everything is sidewise under you and over you, and the clocks stopped long ago.”–Ansel Adams, describing Ghost Ranch, in a letter to Alfred Steiglitz ,1937