Archive for category travel
Last year evaporated.
filled to the brim and
poured over the edges
leaving December behind.
The beauty and the un-beautiful
time escapes like steam from a kettle
screaming with possibilities
I want to find more magic.
I am digging.
On the day after Christmas, I wandered the French Quarter. Jazz and street performers and strollers and couples carrying beer down the narrow lanes. Christmas decorations and humidity and 80-degree heat. People from all over the country and all over the world, converging on a slice of NOLA like ants on bit of powdery-sugary beignet. As tourists, we needed to see this bit of New Orleans. The place people go to celebrate and revel and buy things. To gather.
Sitting in a cafe, with my daughter, eating a beignet and sipping a latte, I thought about a bit of history I read in New Orleans (Wildsam Field Guides).
From “Le Code Noir” 1714:
XIII: We forbid slaves belonging to different masters to gather in crowds either by day or night, under the pretext of a wedding, or for any other cause…under penalty of corporal punishment, which shall not be less than the whip. In the case of frequent offenses of the kind, the offenders shall be branded with the mark of the fleur-de-lis.
Now, of course, the fleur-de-lis has other meanings, too–of NOLA’s comeback after Katrina. Of strength in the worst times.
It symbolizes the lily, and French royalty.
And I always just thought it pretty—symbolizing light, and life, and perfection. Like Jean d’arc. And lilies. I do love lilies.
How you view history, and reality, depends on seeing past what you want to see. Point of view, I’ve learned from writing fiction, is critical.
Like the carefully made-up, carefully preserved older white lady who squeezed past our table at the café and remarked, with (somehow) a bright smile and a simultaneous expression of repressed distaste, “My! Such a…diverse crowd!”
Perhaps if she only wants to look in a mirror, she might just stay at home. I say that as a recovering mirror-gazer. I think I’ll try, hard as I can, to wonder as I wander, so I might just begin to see past the fiction in the history I was taught.
It’s like trying to describe why you love the way oatmeal looks. It’s gray, face it. It oozes.
It’s not colorful but it sometimes hides sweet colorful things, like raspberries or bright green bits of a diced Granny Smith.
It’s like trying to bottle the feeling you got when, slightly car sick, you dozed off in the back of the station wagon, and dreamily overheard a conversation between your parents that you didn’t fully understand. It was raining, the wipers squeaking and groaning, it was night time, semi-truck lights bearing down, passing, bearing down again, your siblings asleep in the seat ahead, your dad’s deep voice, the glow of the dashboard haloing your mom’s short dark curls, the last thing you see before you slide down into the crevasse between the back seat and the way-way back. And that’s when something sharp cuts through the dozy-long-distance-drive fog.
Your mother. She’s angry! You’ve never heard her speak so forcefully, and even if the individual words are swallowed by grumbling highway drone, you know something’s wrong.
It’s like reading a poem you cannot understand, but cannot stop reading. You bump through it, feeling the fuzzy edges of emotions scraping your heart. You stumble, arms outstretched, as lights appear in the distance, as trees turn into mountains, as mountains are swallowed whole, as bushes graze like herds of buffalo. Through the murk, color surges—brake lights and red maple leaves—like berries stirred up in a bowl of fog-gray oatmeal on an ordinary Tuesday when someone you love tells you to go, go! Go out into the fog, just go! And you go, and the world makes no sense half the time, does it? Because a five minute walk can swallow you whole, like you were a spoonful.
In an instant, you’re not sleepy, not stirring oatmeal, no–you are in the oatmeal, you’re a bright bit, maybe?
Yes, yes. You are.
While you slept, love descended like a cloud sent from heaven to make the pitch across the road look like a painting. In the invisible rustle of birds, you sense your mother near. The birds sing, or maybe it’s her, there in the fog, another beautiful bright bit.
Love is always hidden in the gray. Stir, stir, stir it up.
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:
I’m doing a forty-day series of writing prompts to jump-start a novel that I’d let go of working on.
I write each prompt in the voice of the character of my story. A lot of it won’t be in the story, but it is a lot of fun and I’m getting to know my character much better.
Here’s today’s: Imagine a time you felt trapped or were trapped, literally. What happened? (Prompt inspired by a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, a prison where solitary confinement was pioneered as a punishment.)
I visited a heavenly place last weekend, where the breeze off Lake Michigan made the daisies dance, and the peaceful energy of the Bahai House of Worship filled me with hope. I don’t know much about the Bahai faith, but the tenets are inspiring: that no religion is superior to another, that all people are deserving of respect and justice, that racism must be overcome.
There are nine inscriptions carved above the entrances of the Temple:
– The earth is but one country; and mankind its citizens. (my favorite)
– The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me.
– My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure.
– Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner.
– Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent.
– I have made death a messenger of joy to thee; wherefore dost thou grieve?
– Make mention of Me on My earth that in My heaven I may remember thee.
– O rich ones on earth! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My Trust.
– The source of all learning is the knowledge of God, exalted be His glory.
The idea that we are put on the earth to seek justice and to love and feel joy resonates with me. I know there is a lot of work to be done and the world is full of injustice and rage, but it seems to me the starting point for healing is to find the peace within and radiate that outward.
Every time I travel I am energized and struck by new possibilities. As the plane begins its descent, I wiggle in my seat and think: I could live here (or there or there). The world brims with sparkling promise, the way ocean waves shimmer and dance all the way to the blurry far off horizon on a blue June day.
As the plane lands, I feel so full of life. In a flash I understand completely why even tired old horses prance so excitedly on windy fine mornings. They smell change on the wind.
I want to run to the edge of the boundaries—those fences I built or the world erected to contain me.
And then to push past that, and find the elusive place where I can live beyond old fears. Where I can revel. And completely relax. It could be anywhere. It could be inside me.
Will people think I’m strange if I prance in this spring wind?