BootsnAll Travel Network

A swirl of life!

Lisa is having a baby as I write this. Manko has come home for an overnight, and that has gone well. On the world scene, it begins to appear that a significant mass of Americans now see what a disaster the invasion of Iraq has been and are perhaps wanting a change of government, though it is very difficult to see how to make the mess in Iraq better for the people whose lives have been ruined. Great emotion wells up in me for all of that. Speaking of great emotion, I showed Shakespeare Behind Bars at the prison on Thursday. Seeing it with John and that group of men was deeply moving, and last night I finished Alexandra Fuller’s Scribbling the Cat and sat weeping and wrung out for about an hour before I fell asleep and dreamed it. Last weekend I visited Guillermo in the prison he has recently moved to, and this afternoon, after I take Manko back to her dorm, I will visit Odus in a different prison. Plans for the summer, which are actually plans for my future life, are shaping up, and this morning as I walked on the trail, smelling the late summer grass and listening to the crickets and cicadas, watching dawn color the Texas clouds shades of pearl and rose, I felt as if the stillness in the very small me is surrounded by a swirl of emotions, changes, activities, and possibilities in the greater silence that holds everything.

The details aren’t all tied up with bows yet, but it looks like I’ll be spending June at the Human Kindness Foundation near Durham, NC, with a week at Great Tree Meditation Center near Asheville, NC; and July at Sravasti Abbey in Washington State. All are possible places I will go when I make my next (and possibly last) big move in life. HKF and Sravasti are spiritual communities with major service to prisoners, HKF with an emphasis on prisoners and Sravasti with an emphasis on monastic training; Great Tree is located very near where I was born, where the mountain laurel, the brooks, the mountains, the apple orchards, and the rocky land whisper insistently, “Come home!” I need to be on the land, in each of these communities, to see if any is a possibility. As I make these plans I also know that something else may happen, as it usually does, making the dreams and plans fall away, so when I notice my mind falling over itself with fantasies of what each of those lives would be, I gently pull myself back to the truth of this moment. Training the puppy.

This moment. I check email every hour to see if there is a report from Jim on how it has gone for Lisa and the baby. There were complications at the last moment. I’m so glad she’s not having the baby in Africa, and I feel knife-points of pain for African women who don’t have the hospital and the care that all of us have who live in the prosperous places of the earth, our prosperity built, from the beginning, on the blood and bones of others. That brings me back to Alexandra Fuller and her book about traveling through Zaire, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Powerful writing, and never more powerful than in this tiny, deeply insightful paragraph a little past the center of the book:

“It was a land of almost breathtaking beauty or of savage poverty; a land of screaming ghosts or of sun-flung possibilities; a land of inviting warmth or of desperate drought. How you see a country depends on whether you are driving through it, or living in it. How you see a country depends on whether or not you can leave it, if you have to” (pp. 143-44). That’s it. Finally I see why I came back to the USA in 1999. I have cast about for a clear answer all these years, and there it is. I knew that if I didn’t come back while I was still young enough to get another job, I would not ever be able to leave. Palesa and Manko would not ever be able to leave. Mandela had just finished his term, his successor was not promising, the university where I taught was turning white again as scholarships for poor students dried up, and the rand was falling. What was the amazing thing Bishop Tutu said this past week? It was something like, “South Africa is a scintillating possibility still waiting to happen.”

Fuller says that while she was in the middle of her mad adventure, surrounded by tormented white men who had been soldiers of fortune and who lived with nightmares of the violence they had committed, she began to long for Wisconsin: “I itched for the routine of laundry; the apple-air-conditioned scent of the grocery store; the happy predictability of the days that started with tea and porridge, and children crumpled with sleep, and that ended with bath, books, bed. I longed for that bland quality of domesticity that allowed a creature enough stability to take root. Here, I felt as if I might pick up and blow away from a storm of emotion and intensity” (197).

And yet I struggle with the injustice of having that choice. I took it, quick, while I still had it. I was in my fifties and it would not be easy, but it would not be impossible to find a job in the USA. It was even more difficult than I imagined. Anybody who left a chance of tenure in the ivy league for six years in Africa on an African salary and adopted two more children (at her age!) looked on paper like a mad woman, an alcoholic perhaps, a nut case. And so I wound up in south Texas, haunted by memories both sweet and painful, of lands of “breathtaking beauty” and “savage poverty.” My brain still staggers from holding the weight of all those images.

That may also explain part of my calling to work with prisoners, although that calling precedes my experience of Africa by more than twenty years. Prisoners live with a braid of stability, emotion, and intensity. Prisons are the only place I’ve ever been where boredom itself is intense. The walls hold, restrict, confine; and they also allow the long-term prisoners to have a kind of rootedness that is something I’ve never known. Prisoners are forced to rely on their minds and imaginations to provide the only freedom they can know.

Last week, Guillermo talked to me about the process of adapting to a new prison: losing his old friends, but still held together by the daily routine, rules, orders. Odus needs to see me today because he’s coming up for parole, after twenty-six years of serving time, and the anxiety of that possibility is making him a little wild and crazy. I am the only person who has visited him in years. All his family is in another state. The woman he married by proxy and has never touched, is in Ghana, an African woman he met through the mail. He needs occasional contact with a real person in the free world to give him a reality check, some balance, grounding. So I will go, hoping I can provide a reality check, some balance, grounding. After I drive Manko back to the dorm. Last night was her first time to spend the night at home since she moved to the dorm, and she, too, was a little off her axis. Her room “felt different” to her. Being “home” was unsettling. She spent most of the time she was here on the computer, having e-conversations. That grounded her. I ground myself in the breath: coming in, going out. That constant companion.

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