Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Butterflies Are Free, and that Dreaded Robin is Back! By Fr. Gordon J. MacRae


“Saint Michael, Defend us in battle.” I do not write that in jest, but it’s Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., and I need all the help I can get. For readers unfamiliar with why this is such a dreaded event in prison, I wrote about the scourge of holiday weekends in “These Stone Walls’ Second Annual Stuck Inside Literary Award.” A three-day holiday weekend in prison means that all activities, classes, work, and access to the outside are suspended, and prisoners are, for the most part, locked up.
I try to plan ahead with lots to read and write, but I live in a world of men with varying degrees of chronic ADHD. Within a day or so of round-the-clock confinement, madness sets in. The 60 denizens of this cell block range in age from 18 to 82, with the vast majority in their 20s and 30s. Younger prisoners tend to have little in the way of coping skills, so long weekends are usually stressful and tense. Adding to the sense of oppression, the 5:00 PM “mail call” – the high point of every day in prison – is eliminated on holiday weekends since there’s no mail service.
I get a lot of snail mail from TSW readers. I welcome it – as any prisoner would – but I also have some dismay at my inability to answer all of it. I wrote about this in a recent post, “When the Caged Bird Just Can’t Sing: The Limits of Prison Writing.” Answering mail from abroad is especially difficult because the prison commissary sells only one denomination for postage stamps. That means three stamps are required for a letter outside the U.S. That really cuts into my weekly postage purchase allotment. Prisoners can earn only one to two dollars per day in prison jobs, so for many prisoners, the cost of a letter abroad can exceed a full day’s pay and postage stamps cannot be sent to prisoners from outside.
Ellen, a TSW reader in Fort Worth, Texas, asked in a recent letter if I would write something about my daily life in prison. She has been looking through past posts trying to learn more of what life in here is like, but the titles themselves may not make that easy. So I’ll help a little with a guided tour of a few posts about the forces that impact and drive prison life from day to day.
If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, then you might want to have a look at my post, “Downton Abbey’s Prison Drama: A TSW Masterpiece Classic.” When I wrote it, I was not aware that Australia was one season behind the U.S. in receiving Downton Abbey, so that post was an unintended plot spoiler. I must point out, however, that the same Australians who chastised me for giving away the fate of Sibyl Crawley in Season Two, prodded me for an advance hint about the fate of Matthew Crawley in Season Three. So much for resilience Down Under! Anyway, that post was really about comparing day-to-day life in Mr. Bates’ prison with my own.
For another glimpse of prison life, you might also want to read (or re-read) “In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land.” It was about one young father in prison, and his meltdown at my cell door at Christmas. Many people perceive prisoners as wasted lives living entirely outside the bounds of decency and honor and family that are the pillars of our culture. That is indeed true of some, but not all or even most. Prisons everywhere are built and operated to contain their amoral and sociopathic, but relatively small, minority.
Two weeks ago, TSW editors were asked by board members of a group called “Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform” for permission to re-print a few of TSW’s posts about prison life. They were especially interested in “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being” which was about this year’s graduating class in the prison high school program. They wanted to use it, and other similar posts, for a segment on their site subtitled, “Notes from the Land of Oz” about prisoner experiences.
There are a few other “prison posts” on TSW that I can recommend to those who want an honest glimpse of prison life. For a humorous side, see “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places,” about prisoner recipes for cell-created cuisine. I wouldn’t try some of them at home, however. For the darker side of prisons and prisoners, I suggest, “In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner” about my friend, Skooter. For those who remember Skooter, I heard from him this week. He is out of prison, working full time, living in a rooming house, and doing well despite his past challenges and obstacles. Skooter is another example of why we must never give up hope.
But if you want to be uplifted by the immeasurable power of grace even in the darkest of places, then I suggest leaving These Stone Walls for a visit to Holy Soul’s Hermitage and Pornchai Moontri’s masterpiece post, “Divine Mercy and the Doors of My Prisons.” It’s a journey “to the lowest possible place my soul could go,” and then on to a life of Divine Mercy, a life in Christ. By the way, that story made its way around the Globe, and TSW editors were contacted last week by a group of Catholics in Bangkok, Thailand who want to assist and welcome Pornchai upon his eventual return. For that reason alone, Divine Mercy has revealed its presence behind These Stone Walls.
My oId friend, David, was for two decades chair of the English department at a prestigious and venerable New England prep school. I mentioned him once in a post entitled, “A Prisoner, A Professor, A Prelate, Two Priests and a Poet!” – David being the “Professor” in that title. I wrote it in May, 2010, though it’s hard to believe it’s now three years old. I just re-read it, and it begins with a very funny story about homonyms, and ends with a tale about a robin outside my prison cell window. That robin returned a few weeks ago. It’s a post worth revisiting as May gives way to June this week, and you might find therein the roots of a few recent posts on These Stone Walls.
David and I have had many long conversations about literature over the years, but he is retired now and spends his days drawing. He’s a very accomplished artist, able to do spectacular things with a mere ball point pen. I received a letter from David this week, written inside one of his incredibly beautiful hand drawn cards. This one depicts a butterfly and I’m sending it along to see if it can be scanned for publication in this post.

David wrote because he read that May 11 WSJ article by Dorothy Rabinowitz, “The Trials of Father MacRae.” His note, as is typical for David, was filled with literary references that sent me scurrying to the prison library. Even in his short note I learned a thing or two about literature that I had not previously known. Here’s the note:

“I am ecstatic about recent developments! I’ll ‘reinforce my joy’ – as Proust wrote – ‘with prayers.’ While we’re in a literary mode, it was Dickens, of course, who has a character named Skimpole in Bleak House (1852) who says, ‘I only ask to be free . . . Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole [or Gordon MacRae] what it concedes to the butterflies!’  He had already mused that ‘The Butterflies are Free,’ and of course Leonard Gershe swiped from that line the title of his 1969 play, used again for a popular 1972 film. I never tire of alluding to it or of pontificating about it. Thanks for providing me with my best excuse ever . . . and thanks for your wonderful writing!”

Of course, all of this is just an excuse for me to call your attention to that very last line which, coming from a renowned professor of prose, is high praise indeed. And as though right on cue as I write this, a butterfly – a free one – just visited my cell window. I wrote about that view once in “The Birds and the Bees Behind These Stone Walls,” and I’ll apologize in advance to those drawn in by the title, expecting something a bit less platonic.
Whenever I take on a literary topic on These Stone Walls, I’m aware of David lurking out there somewhere, red pen in hand. I just sent him a snail mail letter to ask what he thought of my interpretation of the great Robert Frost poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in “Mother’s Day Promises to Keep, and Miles to Go Before I Sleep.” I’m on David’s turf here, and it’s intimidating!
Ellen’s letter from Fort Worth also commented on some more recent posts about affairs in Rome. Between February 27 and April 10, I wrote six posts about developments in the Holy See and the historic transition from Popes Benedict to Francis. The last of that series, “Strike the Shepherd! Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope,” is one I recommend reading again and sharing.
Ellen and many other readers have commended me for these posts, and for some “clear and concise support of the Holy Father.” That a priest -  even one in prison – would be commended for such a thing is entirely foreign to me, but I’ll have more to say of it next week, God willing.  June 5, TSW’s next post date, is my thirty-first anniversary of priesthood ordination, more than half those years spent in prison. And when I say “spent,” I really mean just that. More on that story next week.
Meanwhile, I had one other strong literary reference in a controversial post that would likely make my friend, David, grimace. I think British novelist, George Orwell would have approved of “Electile Dysfunction: Accommodations and the Advent of 1984.” I recommend it again in light of recent news events, though I know I risk a nasty I.R.S. audit by doing so.
Prison places me in a tax bracket more akin to one of Dickens’ plots than one of Orwell’s, however. The I.R.S. is the very least of my worries.  I might be a prisoner, but as a writer, I’m as free as a butterfly.