Monday, October 27, 2014

What Came Up Last Weekend

You don't have a radio? the guard asks as he unlocks the room we'll use for the prison writing workshop.

He is alarmed when I say I don't want one and then rolls his eyes.

Well, keep the door open so we can hear you scream he says.

As I arrange the tables and chairs into a circle, I wonder what the hell I am doing there, what could possibly pull me away from a Saturday ripe for bike rides and fun and put me here in a room full of felons.

Of course, part of me knows that answer, and that answer is that I don't go alone, that I follow what it is I have to do. I just tend to forget and need a reminder, a clear refresher of values, once in while.

Now things get dicey because few listeners will follow my line of wondering. The line makes itself up as it goes along. It does not progress in a straight, logical, or even common sensical progression.

It is a musing on poetry -- not poetry as something studied in school or memorized for credit or discussed after a professional reading. (Full disclosure here: I am not a "poet." I don't carry that as a label, or identifying trait others can hang onto. I don't live to publish or make any money teaching the art. I am not even all that versed (so to speak) in the disciplines or forms of my muse.)

This is personal. It's organic. And I have no idea where it came from, though it likely has something to do with my mother. (You Freudians will like that.) So here we go.

Poetry connects me to the living world. It wakes me up. It lives in the details and follows the avocado pit as it rolls into the deepest recess of the kitchen, the narrow alley where dust mice hide from the broom, after the pit jumps off the counter. Poetry laughs as I bend and stoop in irritation to retrieve the errant pit. It delights in things not going according to plan, smiles when attention veers toward surprise.

Poetry follows me out to the prison. It takes a quiet seat in the workshops, is patient when words get lazy, but delighted when hard questions dodge easy answers. When Curly finds a sliver of moon and Cowboy claims that people in Yuma delight in gunfights and hangings.

Poetry comforts my anger, sets my sadness afloat on a running river, goads me into opening and action. It forgives my laziness but suffers nothing sloppy.

It sits on the handlebars of my bike when I ride to the mountain. It points out slanting light, water falls, shimmering fall colors. It hangs out in the space between breaths.

Poetry whispers that living is full of pain and joy.

I ask it about the bullies, the ignorant, aloof, and bullet-headed enemies of truth. Poetry just smiles in a way that tells me they are powerful, but no match for what endures. It says keep your mind open and quiet and focused. It says consider your work first, then take care of what needs care. There will always be things that need care.

But I am so tired, after all that fear and anger, I tell Poetry. That's OK Poetry says. It's what you learned. You can outgrow that.

No one will pay me to watch the leaves, to speak truth to power, or find what it is that sings in my heart.

Poetry smiles. And the smile says payment is more than money. Truth can be its own reward. Find that place to work from and the rest will follow.

Easy for you to say.

Yes.  And what have you got to lose?

A lot I think. The world as I know it I think.

And then I am alone. The traces of what made so much sense linger for a while, but fade as weekend turns to Monday, as responsibility and tasks wake and demand my time and attention.

Remember. Something says. Remember. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Toad in the Prison Band Room

The turnout was slow on Saturday, so I stood waiting for the inmates at the door to the "band room," a reference to the days when inmates were allowed to play music.

That was a while ago, in the days when they could also work in gardens that provided fresh produce, and when they could take classes to earn an Associate's degree.

No more music. No more gardens. Very few opportunities.

The band room's south wall is glass.

Yes, I know -- this is Arizona, and south facing glass means solar oven.

I, and the guys in the prison writing workshop, deal with it. I don't need to state the obvious, that we sweat, even though we hide in what little shade remains when the sun is at its most intense.

I have to wonder if the administration doesn't gain some kind of sadistic pleasure in assigning this as the location for workshops, afternoon workshops -- hot sun, maximum gain, solar heated workshops.

So, there I was, last Saturday, with my plastic tub filled with writing pads, pens, books, and drafts of inmate work, when I noticed some movement in the band room.

I thought I imagined it at first, that the movement was a misfire of optical sleight of shadow and light.

But I looked more closely, and sure enough, something was there, behind the leg of a desk, looking for shade against the far wall.

It was a Sonoran toad, a big guy, the kind that produces hallucinogens in its secretions.

Yow! What was a Sonoran toad doing in a locked band room in the Santa Rita Unit of a state prison yard?

My reverie was interrupted by one of the officers who carried keys to the room.

"We want you in here," he said.

No surprise there.

"Remember to shut it down by 3:45," he said.

"Thanks," I said, to both the favor of opening the door to the oven and to the reminder to end the workshop before count. 

Once in the room, I extracted a folder from the tub and slipped it under the cooperative toad. I lifted him like a bearer would lift an emperor on his litter and carried him to the scrubby "garden" in front of the band room.

He hopped off to the cover of some leafy ornamentals before I turned to see some of the inmates watching me from the door to the band room.

"You're a crazy soft touch," one of them said.

"Yeah, even the guards out here seem to take care of the frogs," said another.

I didn't correct him about the toad not being a frog.

"Wonder he got in here," was all I said.

As the men gathered to discuss their work, the toad and the story moved into the background of our discussions.

One of the men wrote about how much of himself he loses in prison, how against the odds maintaining a sense of generosity and trust can be. He spoke of his prison time in terms of chisels, hammers, and knives that cut away at his fragile humanity.

As he talked I remembered the improbable image of a toad hiding from the sun in a locked room and wondered how anything fragile survives out of its place, away from all hope. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


He overcame her with patient tenderness.

She wanted to pull away, to run, but he stroked her hair and told her that she could trust him, that the running world was large enough for a few eddies of peace. She hesitated and then let down her guard enough stay within arm's reach.

It was a tenuous arrangement that lasted only moment by moment, but those moments stretched on into years, and she began to soften.

The wounds she carried still festered down in the deep tissues of her heart. They rose up in fits of rage when she was reminded of the slights of her young life.

In those times she would spit her rage at him, even though he was not the cause.

He did not waver but carefully studied her  intensity.

He found what he lacked in her, that drive to survive, to face the hardest of questions. She gave him raw, unadulterated fear.

And so they danced until time came for one of them, and they found that the price of comfort and a companion was paid in full through the redemption of the other.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Work of Art

I was driving home last week after a long day teaching and thinking when one of these rare fall storms moved across the city. The rains split time and space with brilliant sunlight, sometimes crafting rainbows. I was pulled out of my distracted reverie as I drove into one. 

Rain drops clung to the windshield and glittered like sapphires when the sun shone between the clouds. A street still wet from the passing storm smelled of water and creosote as cars slurped along on their way to important business.

I would have missed it, but happened to open my window.

(Summer in Tucson is usually spent behind glass in air conditioning. Cars act like rolling greenhouses and make really good saunas without A/C. It is forgivable to drive too much with the windows tight. )

So there it was. Rain. Light. Sound. Smell.

I just had to notice.

And, in that moment, I forgot what I was worried about. All the ho-hum stuff of money and work and stress and what I don't yet have but feel that I need or else I'm going to waste my life.

It was luscious.

It was instructive too. Unless I work at clearing away the chatter and clutter in order to just notice what is going  on in front of me, I spend my days trapped in my head.

The work of art is to get out of the head and into the world.

It's a day-to-day, moment-to-moment undertaking that requires effort, focus, and intention.

It is not always romantic, nor is the domain of a privileged, talented few.

It is the birthright of the soul.

I kept the window down until rain soaked me and my seat. The sensual respite woke something sleeping. I have forgotten that I am here to enjoy the world while I can, while I draw breath.

I have learned too well to look away and wonder when I might be able to produce a work of art.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Protests for greater democracy are being led by students in Hong Kong. These students are boycotting classes, a move that could put their tenuous careers in jeopardy. They are giving up solid advancement in a system they find corrupt in order to make a better future for the society as a whole.

I admire that.

When I listen to the interviews I hear enthusiasm, aliveness, passion, and vision of better life. 

And I wonder if many of my students, or I for  that matter, could take such a stand.

Americans, I hate to say it, have gone pretty soft. "Me-me" culture reigns supreme. The common good is a distant afterthought. On top of that, most students live a virtual world that doesn't much politicize them.

We are missing out on something.

When people stand up for something, a principle bigger than themselves, especially one that speaks the truth of poverty, injustice, or corruption to power, they are infused with energy.

I had a small taste of this in my student days at Madison when my fellow politicos and I went to "Survival Gatherings" and other political marches. I got arrested for civil disobedience and did workshops on non-violent resistance.

Yes, there is a veil of nostalgia over those times, but I also remember the days as some of the best of my life. I didn't care so much about my career, or about job security, or health insurance. I was single and able to live on next to nothing.

Of course, things have changed. I am more responsible. But I am also less excited about the difference my work might make.

I watch, with no small resignation, news of the widening gaps between rich and poor. I look at my paycheck and see that I am making less, in real terms, than I was thirty years ago.

In short, working people are getting screwed by the systems set up to benefit the wealthiest Americans.

Millennials are looking down the barrel of reduced wages and opportunity. And they are a wildly creative bunch who know how to work together.

It bothers me that the "old guard" is so set against giving them education and opportunity.  They are like a bunch of spoiled children afraid that they might have to share some of their toys. They live for the bottom line and are as ruthless with the environment as they are with their fellow Americans.

And "we," the ones who work for a living, mostly, don't stand up to do anything about it. When you need money, you do what the people writing the checks tell you to do.

The result, for me, is depression, resignation, desire for distraction. (And there is plenty of distraction.)

Just sayin, and just noticing.

It is a hard choice to make, but maybe the cure is to risk everything again for the next generation.

The recent marches in New York drawing attention to climate change and the need to respond are one indicator that people may be waking up. I say more of that.

Here's to the thrill of waking up and putting it on the line.