Monday, December 15, 2014

A Little Out There

He is wiry. Compact, thickly muscled, and what in other days was called jaunty. His nappy hair he wears braided. He tends to carry an expression of amusement, of some joke he knows that no one else has gotten.

He also has a far-off look in his eyes.

I guess he is what many would call mentally unstable, part of why he is in prison, most likely.

Prison is, after all, where we put many of our mentally ill after the Reagan Era terminated funding for their care in hospitals.

I don't know what brought him to the writing workshops, but he has become one the regulars for the last several years. He sits across from me, and nods a lot. He writes odes to God and says he sees things most people don't.

He is also impulsive, and quick to take magazines or dictionaries that I offer. Sometimes the other inmates don't appreciate that, so I have to be careful about how those resources get distributed.

A week ago, he very ceremoniously presented me with a letter of sorts. He said, "Give this to your wife. I know she will like it." He was adamant about this.

What he did not know is that M. is struggling. She is going through a dark night and looks for comfort in soulful music, poetry, and close friends.

"You give this to her," he said again. "She'll know."

Now, you may be thinking something like "This guy is a wing-nut, half-a-bubble-off-plumb, bonkers, not-playing-with-a-full-deck," or other off-the-rails expression. And you would be correct. But consider some of the following.

Last spring, before I took a hiatus from the workshops to work on the house in New Mexico, Mr. L. took me aside as I walked to the guard house and sally port. He looked straight at me, hard. "Now, you listen... You have some kind of truck, right?"


"Well, you need to careful. I'm just telling you. You need to be careful driving that truck. Because there is a lot of trouble out there, and some gonna come to you. So you drive slow and careful."

As I turned to leave, he stood there and spoke to my back. "You be careful up there. You and that truck. You drive careful."

I didn't think much of it, but did remember that he seemed to know when I was coming to the workshop. He told me that he could "see" me coming down the road, from miles away. He knew, even when the guards told him otherwise, that I was coming to meet the writing workshops. "They said you weren't coming, but I knew you were. I told the guys so."

When I returned to the workshops at the end of summer, Mr. L. was first in line and made a bee line to me and asked "So, how's your truck? Is it bad? You look OK."

I had said nothing, but had been in an accident, been T-boned in Gallup in an intersection. The truck was nearly totaled.

"You gonna fix it? Can you fix it? Everything OK? You need to be careful about that front end."

Remember, I still had said nothing. The truck had been hit right at the front wheel. The impact knocked us into the oncoming lane. If I had been going any faster, the collision would been absorbed by the door, behind which Megan sat.

"It's going to cost a lot, but the truck will be fixed," was all I said.

"Is your wife OK?"

"She was a little shaken up, but she is good," I said, as other men filed in and Mr. L. took his place across from me at the table. He spent the day nodding in assent, smiling when he caught my eye, as the other men read their work.

That was six months ago. Since then, he keeps checking in, following me to the guard house after the workshops. He has not offered up any more warnings or advice beyond "I knew you were coming today. I saw you."

I kept all of this in mind when I presented Megan with the card. She opened it and found a hand-drawn heart surrounded by flowers, all if it intertwined, all of it on a manila file folder transformed into art. This came from a man who has no "official" access to paints, Exacto knives, brushes, or markers.In fact, those things are contraband.

M. found the card soothing, lovely, meticulously crafted.

I put the card on the mantel with the other Christmas cards.

I'll have to ask Mr. L. about it when I see him next.

His eyes will likely be looking through me to something distant, either here or out there over the horizons of his mind.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Good Stuff

It was not the best of moments. My stomach burned something fierce from the coffee I drank on the way to the prison. To distract myself from the gnawing acids, I looked up at the collapsing ceiling tiles and the big gaps that showed electrical wiring, galvanized pipes, and the guts of the Programs Building. I waited for Sargent T., the C.O. on duty, to unlock the classroom where we would meet the writing workshop.

The hallway narrowed to a vanishing point in both directions. I stood there in the middle, next to the drinking fountain, and decided I should use the time to write something. 

Just as I settled in, inmates began to show up, and we gathered there in from on the door, an informal, and likely unlawful, assembly.

Y.D., usually one of the first to arrive, noticed that I was writing, and wanted to share his week of work. He tended to minimize his efforts, repeatedly saying, "I'm no PhD." He told me that he had not done the assignment but rather was reading "Chozer," something the prison librarian had recommended. It took me a second to realize he meant Chaucer.

He said he had neglected the homework reading, a short story by T.C. Boyle, because he wanted to read some "serious stuff." He said it was tough going, but that he liked it, had heard that Chaucer had quite the bawdy sense of humor, and that he had published the first fart joke. He also said that the Boyle story was too "working class," too much about young guys making choices about violence and its place in growing into men.

I didn't know whether Chaucer published the first joke about flatulence, and agreed that Chaucer's Middle English could be tough going. But I wondered about the stigma, or bias, against writing that looked too much like life in the 21st century. I wanted to know more about what he meant by "serious stuff," so I asked him.

"You know, the stuff they read in college. Real literature. High brow reading, not the stuff that passes as 'good' these days."

I had to think about that. Here was a man who was a pretty good writer. He had published a few things in our inmate journal, Rain Shadow Review, and other magazines, like The Sun, but he felt that subjects that he knew, and that writing told in a contemporary voice, was somehow "less than."

To be sure, ,may popular, "genre," books do not past muster for "literary merit," but there was more going on here. Y.D. felt that his voice, his experience, his way of seeing things was not "correct" or "worthy" of literary attention. Y.D. was buying into the idea that "real writing" had to grow out of academic study, university training.

And yes, those are valuable endeavors. But writing from one's standpoint, one's place on the social hierarchy is also valuable and necessary. We readers need to hear more from the margins, from the underclasses, from the hard-knocks of having to scramble and fight for a living.

Too many men, I told him, live lives of noble struggle. They build our houses, roads, bridges. Pick up the trash. Raise families. Teach working sons and daughters how to navigate a society out to exploit them.

Movies don't get made about the dignity of work, the genius of stretching limited paychecks to provide rich, stimulating athletic, creative, or academic training for children.

Yes, craft in writing is important. Quality of ideas, language, and awareness of literary history all matter. And the voice of a writer who has lived the underside, who can speak truth to power, who finds a voice that inspires action -- all of these are what make writing good.

Before I could put these thoughts into words, Sargent T. showed up and unlocked the door. With a space to talk and write waiting, we entered.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Beating the Odds, Forgetting the Prize

Between the mad rushes to buy things, December can be a time to wax philosophical.

Here are two things to think about: stars and life.

Stars because it's dark, like it is for more of the day this time of year, we can see them better. Also because they are where we come from. I mean really and literally where we come from.

The stuff that we are made of (atoms) was forged in the furnace of stellar fusion. Nuclei of atoms fused to make the elements of the universe. The material that we are made of was once the light of fusion. Hold that thought.

Then consider the impossible. Atoms and life found each other in the immensity and hostile conditions of cold, heat, radiation, distance, and entropy.

Life then took those atoms and put them in motion, into a dynamic system, a system that defies the greatest of odds. The conditions necessary for life are more rare than gold, diamonds, winning the lottery, or finding Rosebud. But wait, there's more. Life can evolve, again, against great odds, to a form of consciousness. Nobody knows what consciousness is or where it resides, but we can agree that it exists.

We humans are lucky enough to be be able to see and appreciate the stars and world that brought us into being.

Given the enormity of space, the light years of absolute zero, the emptiness of it all, that's a big Wow!

Problem is, we forget.

Instead of wondering in awe at the gift of it all, we want more. In the process of getting more, our brothers, sisters, fellow animals, and planet take it in the shorts in the form of brutality, atrocity, violence, rip-off, exploitation, genocide.

Knowledge and image run riot but kindness and wisdom  go begging. 

Talk about dragging a rose in the dust....

In this, the dark and cold time of year for us in the northern hemisphere, anyway, the stars are particularly bright. And because it is cold outside, it is also quieter than summer.

How about taking a walk under to stars to marvel, wonder, and open to amazement?

How about remembering joy?

How about surprising someone with the gift of seeing in him or her the life we share? Seeing in its generosity and mystery the planet that sustains us? Waking to the moment that contains within it the secret of eternity?

Now that would be a winner.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Let's Talk About Traffic

I am standing in the crosswalk near University and Euclid waiting for traffic to yield so I can get to work. As you might guess, it does not. Monster trucks, souped-up rice burners, and blithe co-eds zip past at 35 miles an hour. And it is a rainy morning, so they send up a rooster tail of street run-off high onto the sidewalk.

Insult? Yes. Injury? Not this time.

As I assert my rights as a pedestrian, I get soaked for my actions.

Don't these people know a woman in a crosswalk was killed last night by a car just like these?

The thought is sobering as I finally run to beat the next driver in his jacked-up pickup. He lays on the horn as he sends spray in my direction, laughing no doubt.

You might think this behavior is limited to drivers who don't know traffic etiquette, but it is not. The hipster on his fixie laying into corners like he's at a velodrome, slaloming through pedestrians on campus is just as bad. Don't even mention long-boarders. And women are great for texting as they roll through stop signs on First Street. The street cars are pretty good, but the tracks are treacherous.

My friend Ken was hit last week in a crosswalk at First and Mountain, in bright daylight. An international student was struck by a bike, knocked out, and suffered brain damage a few years ago. The examples and varieties go on and on and include all of us.

The subject is traffic, but the problem is inattention and a self-interest at the cost of the common good. In other words, it's more important for Me-Me for to get where he or she is going at the rate he/she wants to go than it is to watch out for others who might cross the path.

I hate to say it, but we all need reminders that pedestrians have the right of way. Legally.

Signs saying "Yield to Peds" line bike paths, but are obscured by trees and not very abundant. Since people look down and ahead more than up, how about some speed limits painted on the bike paths, some big, reflective traffic stencils that say SLOW? More flashing lights would be nice too, even the ones that line the perimeter of a crosswalk sign. The solutions are out there, but are only a start.

What I would really like to see though, is a big flashing alarm that says Wake Up!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Passing a Milepost, Turning a Corner

This will be the 200th blog post on this site. That is not such a big deal, but it is a mile post of sorts for this writer.

I have been recording my crazy life here for the last couple of years, mostly, and have jumped from topic to topic, genre to genre, and mood to mood as the crises and dreams have come and gone.

I hope this has helped me somehow to grow up, be more observant, more reflective, more present, kind, and compassionate.

I can't claim any of that, but I can say that I notice when I get pulled out of the moment by self talk, by a story, or a button-pushing incident.

When that happens, I have begun to go after it rather than give in to it. I want to be here and happy rather than lost to old, bad habits of thought that lead to anger, depression, and disconnect.

That's a small thing I know, but I just wanted to make a note on the psychological timeline.

It's also time to write something good and big. I don't know what that will be, but I have a hunch of what it looks like, what it sounds like, what I want it to do. My job is to keep showing up and to keep recording and to keep looking for that live wire of truth that needs saying. 

Here's the next 200.