Thanksgiving is a state of mind, not place. Even prisoners can be thankful, if not for being prisoners, then perhaps just for the art of being itself.
I hope you’ve read “The True Story of Thanksgiving” posted here last week. If not, there’s still time before stuffing your turkey for this annual American feast. I would be thankful if you would Tweet, ping, or e-mail a link to that post. It’s a really neat story about giving thanks. We end up thanking Squanto for suffering so unjustly at the hands of others, and, in spite of his grief, for becoming a man willing to lend a hand TO others. It’s an example about how the part of our journey we regret the most may end up, with grace, being the source of our thanksgiving. It’s mind boggling, but just imagine the plight of the famous Mayflower Pilgrims without Squanto.
Then imagine Squanto without the suffering and sacrifice with which history has redefined him. Squanto, saved by the Pope and some priests, likely baptized a Catholic, then placed in the service of … Puritans?! History is such a strange thing. And as I mentioned in “At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming,” two weeks ago, imagine how those Puritans would roll in their graves if they now heard of Squanto’s dalliance with the very Catholic faith that they traversed an ocean to get away from.
I’m not quite ready to give thanks just yet for this 17th Thanksgiving in the hoosegow. But writing this post did make me wonder about the origin of “hoosegow.” The local cable system here carries American Movie Classics (AMC) which broadcasts old westerns on most Saturday mornings. I love John Wayne movies, especially the later ones. It might have been in one of those that I heard Walter Brennan (who, by the way, is from my hometown!) playing a cranky old deputy sheriff.
I can even now hear Walter Brennan threatening to throw someone in the “hoosegow.” Hoosegow has an interesting origin. It comes from the phonetic pronunciation of a Spanish word, “Juzgado,” meaning “courtroom.” It’s the past participle of “juzgar,” which in turn came from the Latin “iudicare,” (pronounced, “you-dee-CAR-eh) meaning “judge.” Since judges send people to jail, “juzgado” came to refer to jails and prisons. Then, in the slang of border towns in the American Old West, it became “hoosegow.” So now you know the origin of the word, hoosegow. Don’t thank me just yet!
Here in the hoosegow, like everywhere else in the U.S., we’re about to mark Thanksgiving. I wouldn’t use “celebrate” to describe how prisoners observe this, or any, holiday. On the whole, prisoners don’t really celebrate much. But even here most can find something to be thankful for. I found such a moment a few weeks ago. I’ll even go so far as to say I celebrated it.
The Earth’s journey around our Sun brings about the inevitable changing seasons beyond these stone walls. I’ve journeyed “Fifty-seven Times Around the Sun,” as I wrote last April, but most of the fallen citizens around me barely notice the changing world. We venture outside each day among asphalt and steel and high concrete walls with little evidence of the march of time and the change of seasons. The “Field of Dreams” – the prison ballfield and the only place with trees in sight – closed for the year two months ago. The only leaves I see now are the very few that the wind carries over the high prison wall which consumes my view of the world.
One day late last month, I turned a corner outside on the long, concrete ramp winding its way up to the prison mess halls. I looked up to discover a spot I never noticed before.
It was a place amid the concrete and steel that afforded a momentary glimpse of a tree-covered hill in the distance beyond the walls, and the setting sun had fallen upon that very spot. For a moment, the hill was clothed in a blaze of glory with an explosion of fall color. It was magnificent! I felt a bit like Dorothy Gale, stepping for the first time out of the gray gloom of her Kansas home into the startling glory of the Land of Oz.
Prisoners are not permitted to stop while moving from Point A to Point B, but in two more steps, or a few more seconds, the view would be gone. So I nudged Pornchai and Joseph who were walking with me, and we all stared for a moment in awe. We froze in our tracks for those seconds, risking a guttural shout of “KEEP MOVING!” from one of the guards posted along this via dolorosa.
There was a guard right at that spot, poised to bellow, but then he followed our gaze and he, too, gawked for a moment, keeping his shout to himself. We moved on up the ramp amid all the downcast eyes around us, but saw no evidence that anyone else noticed that scene of radiant beauty beyond these stone walls. I thanked God in silence for nudging me to look up just then. It was proof that a moment of giving thanks presents itself every day, even in this awful place. Those moments will be passed by unnoticed if I am so consumed with my grief that I fail to look up and out beyond these stone walls. I have to look up to see. I have to keep my eyes opened, and focus somewhere beyond just me.
I look up at that spot every day now, but the color has faded to a barren gloom, just like life here – or anywhere else – can if I let it. I’ve learned from Squanto of The Dawn Land that even the worst plight affords an opportunity for thanksgiving. We mustn’t let those moments pass by unnoticed for our very souls depend on them.
I despise this place of captivity where so many of the days given to me have been spent. Really spent! Yet on Thanksgiving Day, Pornchai, and Donald, and Joseph, and Skooter-with-a-K, and others who walk with us each day, will all try to find a few seats together in the prison chow hall. There, as we have done on too many Thanksgiving Days before, we will give thanks for turkey, for an annual piece of pumpkin pie, for friendship found even in the ruins of lives broken and dreams delayed, for laughter in the face of pain, and especially for the gift of bearing one anothers’ burdens with thanks for the graces given to us.
In a sea of downcast eyes, furtive glances, and foul speech seldom rising above talk of gangs, and drugs, and the exploitation of others, Pornchai shows off his Saint Maximilian medal, and speaks of salvation and sacrifice and the privilege of being Catholic in a truly destitute public square.
In the end, I’m left with no choice. Thank you, Lord, for this day.
Happy Thanksgiving, no matter where you are, no matter how you’ve been. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May He show His countenance to you, and give you peace.
Editor’s Note: Several of you have expressed a desire to join Fr. MacRae in a Spiritual Communion. He celebrates a private Mass in his prison cell on Sunday evenings between 11 pm and midnight. You’re invited to join in a Holy Hour during that time if you’re able.
Subscribe to Fr. Gordon MacRae’s Posts
- The True Story of Thanksgiving: Squanto, the Pilgrims, and the Pope (10)
- When Priests are Falsely Accused Part 2: Why Accusers Should be Named (13)
- When Priests Are Falsely Accused Part 1: The Mirror of Justice Cracked (17)
- These Stone Walls: More Loose Ends and Dangling Participles (8)
- The Year Behind These Stone Walls (5)
Tagged as: American Movie Classics, Fr. Gordon J. MacRae, Happy Thanksgiving, hoosegow, John Wayne, Mayflower Pilgrims, Pornchai, Rev. Gordon MacRae, Squanto, Squanto and the Mayflower Pilgrims, suffering unjustly, Thanksgiving Day, Thanksgiving feast, The Dawn Land, the true story of Thanksgiving, These Stone Walls, Walter Brennan
Thanks for the blessings Fr. Gordan. We're praying for you and all priests who are in prison!