Death Row

Death Row

Or the Wall of No

Part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention getter but I found out when I visited the first time that Death Row is integrated into the rest of the prison. I was told it’s the only Death Row in America that is not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the language I was so surprised. Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

There was a guy I walked in with who was a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling filebox full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than I am) but he told me he can bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose a way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer. So it goes.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. Lately they’ve been going down about one a month [this piece was first written in 2015].

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Everything is all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes. I knew from his letters that he describes his prison life well.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and until 2015 it did seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this is deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency with the previous governor than under the prior two governors before him, but more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

Last year however, 2016, there was only one execution in Missouri, most of the individuals awaiting execution now have pending appeals.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he is working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he is looking to for the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details are rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of no so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into small obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? Not sure. What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison and he framed my experience for me. He said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space. Then you came into it, sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.

Part 2

The next night I went to a meeting and there was a speaker who told a difficult story without any details. Everyone in the room understood where this guy was going but there were no hooks in his story, there wasn’t a place to hang sentimentality onto so at first the tale rolled out raw and abrupt and unapproachable. It wasn’t a story. It was something else, like an algebra of truth-telling. It was not a familiar approach.

It was a confrontation without the expectation of entertainment. This was no TED talk. It was raw, without details, no entertainment value. It was not rehearsed. It was delivered in a room with about thirty people and everyone was uncomfortable at first because it felt as if the speaker was looking into your eyes and saying: listen to this, I hope you get it because it’s as real as I can be but I will not carry you. You know what I’m talking about you’ve been there you recognize what I’m saying and if you don’t – so what? It’s not about me it’s not about you it’s about these set of ideas I’m am plucking out of the space over our heads where we meet if we rise to it.

I get up in the morning in prayer, he said, I have breakfast in prayer. I go to work I prayer. I spend the day working in prayer. I go home in prayer. That’s my day, every day.

It was a challenge listening to him at first. I rose to it. So did the people on either side of me. I was talking about it later and someone said to me, yeah we’re all looking for a new voice. We love the crap coming out of our mouths. You were intrigued by that — we all are — and you advanced along the full of sh** scale because this guy broke all the rules and it worked for you.

Part 3

I didn’t expect to write about this evening’s event in proximity to the prison visit the day before, didn’t connect them not even in time — so much happened that day and the day before since I had been to the prison house — but here I am with my hands my heart and my head following with the story of this guy in the prison house where he derives his resolve to push on and another guy speaking a story without details no entertainment value unless the truth as it is plucked out of the air is kicks for you, for me there is no relation outside of time. Or so I thought before I started writing.

The next day I am writing and the glue is there: it’s true it’s uncomfortable it’s hard as hell. It’s life inside and out. I was telling a friend of mine about it. That guy in the jail house? My friend said, ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you.

I think I know but I’ll ask.

Part 4

I did ask. Not when I was sitting with him, the next time I visited there was a power outage and I had to leave mid-conversation. It was frustrating but not for the usual reasons. In prison I have learned there are no usual reasons. It was frustrating not because the power went out — I was told this happens frequently (the emergency generator kicked on) — it was frustrating because I was about to ask what sustains you with so much no and I didn’t get the chance. So I later scribbled out a note and I asked him. I stuck the note in the mail.

Three weeks later I got a letter back. His handwriting, script, is meticulous, small and precise. At first it looks likes a form of micro-orthography, but it’s just a fastidious handwriting style. His language is similar. There is no economy to the language he writes in, but I’m not teaching him writing so I haven’t mentioned that.

Almost all the guys I teach in prison are hesitant to write at all. They are reluctant to commit anything to paper. Several times when I have brought it up they told me why. Prison is an extreme environment and it manifests in no-trust, so they do not like to leave a written trail.

On the other hand, they love to be written about. They feel as if they are the forgotten people. They encourage me to write their stories. When a journalist offered to accompany me inside, I checked with them first and they were unanimously enthusiastic. They even wanted pictures. There are no pictures in prison but they got permission.

In his letter back to me, in answer to my question about what sustains was a long and intricate narrative about himself and some of the others he is incarcerated with, but he did answer my question and basically it was simple. I stay in the day. I try to keep it here, in front of me, I try not to drift too far away and over-think the moment. Now is everything inside here, and to keep my sanity I try to live in the present. That was his response, it took him some pages coming there, but that is where he arrived.

It’s not a different response that I hear from almost everyone I know living in extreme conditions and/or high states of consciousness. It’s the perennial wisdom, a necessary adjustment reaction: I have today, I make it count.

jsg

From the Hidden Tales of Stone

 

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up, as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which my parents protected me from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until much later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them well, but I didn’t know them well. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

About two weeks ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all who had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and she told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description, the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

The gestures were more horrifying than verbal language. They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted the ugliest picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In last week’s Torah, the reading just before the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12). That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers that existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her frail life she endured.

She endured and these people her daughter kids grandkids a great grand kid are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of her early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

Then there was my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: How are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving and if not for this if not for that, I would not have and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: What continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.

jsg

 

Four Other Questions Five

Four Other Questions

For prisoners, incorrigibles, activists, shut-ins, singers, students, poets, etc.

  

Every Passover, the Haggadah says, I should feel as if I, personally, were being liberated from Egypt. That is always the point of the liberation saga: it is my story. I am getting free. I ask myself four questions.

First question: Free from what?

The Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which is a pun. It means narrow place. Each year at Passover time, I get a little more free, each year I leave that narrow place which is too small for me now. It’s a different place each year, because I’m in a different place each year. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, is also meant to conjure the birth narrows. Freedom is always a birth experience, a re-birth, renewal.

Second question: When does my freedom begin?

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked this question: when does my freedom begin? I might think it begins with leaving Egypt. The koan of the question puts my memory to work on my own life, trying to discern the influences, who said what to me when that gave me strength, that planted a seed, that snuck the message by the guardians of my equanimity, the way the soul eludes the intellect and speaks directly to the heart. Who taught me to resist the easier, softer way, to get up out of complacency, who taught me that I could transform, be transformed, that I could be free? Who was it? What teacher? What voice? Who is part of my freedom chain? Who made it possible for me to get free?

Third question: What is freedom?

It is written that the Torah was given in the third month after leaving Egypt, the Midrash plays with the pun for the word month which in Hebrew is related to the word for something new (chodesh/chidush). That’s the form that my freedom takes every year, I move into something new, a place I haven’t been yet. How do I know I have achieved some measure of freedom? Not because I have crossed the state line and passed out of Egypt into the Wilderness, but because I have learned something new.

Asking the two questions, when does freedom begin, and how do I know I have acquired freedom re-fashions the liberation concept, re-formulating my notion of freedom from something that I have or don’t have, to the process; re-thinking freedom from a matter of arrival to the matter of the journey, re-envisioning the liberation saga from a matter of achievement to a matter of being on the road. It’s not about arrivals, but about process, not about goal but about journey, not about there but all about here. Radically here, on my own freedom trail. A link in my own freedom chain.

Fourth question: What interferes with the freedom journey?

I put out the chometz, all the leavened food, from my life for this journey. What is this chometz that I remove from my life during Pesach? The chometz is anything inflatable, all the inflatable aspects of self that interferes with the presence of God. The inflatable sense of self aggrandizement, the inflatable narcissism of self — this is chometz, and this is what I take out of my life during Passover. There is no room for God in a person too full of self (Baal Shem Tov). I get, in a word, humble.

We call humility bittul which means little, here a suppression of self. Less self, more other, less self more Other–this is the emerging Jewish spirituality. When I eat matzah, that substance of no chometz, I am reminded that chometz takes me away from God.

Fifth Question (in Chassidus, there is a hidden fifth concept): So — what is my response to the gift of freedom?

Gratitude, because it was a gift. Humility, because I didn’t make it happen.

jsg

Night of Conscious Watching 2017

The Night of Conscious Watching

Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in

— L. Cohen

It was some time in the days just before Pesach that year that the Congregation was going broke. Someone said maybe we should pray for sustenance. That was not an unusual idea to me, because I suppose that is what I was doing. I was confident, in some fanciful way, that everything would turn out all right because it just felt so good at the shul. The music, the teachings, the study circles, everything felt so good to me. We did not have two nickels but we had a load of soul. It is no shame to be poor (no honor either), but I did not know what to do about the money problem, so I did nothing. Or maybe I was praying for help.

We did not have a lot of kids in the school, but the ones we did have were learning well. The kids in my class loved Hebrew school so much I actually heard a parent say these words: “if you don’t behave yourself, I won’t take you to Hebrew school next week.” Imagine that.

The music and prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning had continued to grow more beautiful and more poignant. My musical partner Will’s presence had grown into a rich musical and personal association, and was inspiring me to deeper levels of musicianship. The spiritual approach to music that I had pursued was clarifying for me by the week; I felt an accelerated sense of learning and accomplishment in music, in teaching, in writing, in all ways. This is certainly the highest reach of the synagogue and my profession that I have yet experienced, I thought.

Still, we were broke.

At the Board meeting before Pesach, the financial news was so bleak that my paycheck was delayed several weeks because we did not have the cash in hand to cover it. I left the Board meeting early. It made me sad, but I did not know what to do about it, so I did nothing. Or perhaps I prayed about it. Everything was going to be all right, this I often say to myself.

The night after the depressing Board meeting was Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that falls before Pesach. I went over to the synagogue, there was a small group that night but as usual the feeling was strong.

My friend Todd’s father had passed away in Detroit, and it was on my mind to speak the Kaddish on his behalf.

In the tradition, Shabbat HaGadol is one of the few times a year that the rabbi gives a formal discourse, usually on matters concerning Pesach. I had a hundred wonderful ideas percolating in my head about Pesach, but as soon as Will arrived, I launched into the music and it held me in its arms for several tunes without letting go.

The first tune was the stately melody for Yigdal that I made up, maybe found in a book, I am not sure anymore, the melody that also works so elegantly for Adon Olam. I had been enjoying singing it lately to Yigdal because Yigdal is one of those texts that I find interesting precisely because it is clumsy in its reach for dogma in a culture that resists such efforts, and because the melody is unmatched to the text.

I played through all the early melodies of our minhag with an uncharacteristic lid on. I rarely play this way, I usually play out, beyond my capabilities really, reaching for something I am not quite ready to achieve musically, but not that night. That night, I played within my abilities, tight, disciplined, with better tone and attack than I usually achieve though sacrificing some of my reach. It sounded beautiful to me.

There was something else happening that night that I wanted to share with my friends, the holy fellowship of prayer who accompanied me that night, but I could not speak. I wanted to speak but I could not. I could not stand either, I played with the same steady burn throughout the service, but I could not speak, so I sat and played and sang. I prayed.

My father Harry died during Pesach twelve years before. I thought of him often, talked of him on occasion, but I had never descended into the depth of my sadness over his death. My daughter was in the hospital at the same time that my father was struggling for his life, so I was flying back and forth between hospitals in St. Louis and Detroit, and when Harry died, I was not there.

I miss him most that time of year, but that night, Shabbat HaGadol, I not only felt the ache of his absence, I felt his presence.

As a young man, my father was a wonderful musician. He had an opportunity to study at a conservatory, but for this, but for that, it did not work out. He ended up in another life. Still, he loved music, played beautiful records around the house (Mahler on Sundays), and paid close attention to the many sounds that I brought home.

When he died, I had not yet found my own entirely personal sound. I have it now.

That night, Shabbat Hagadol, twelve years after his death, I felt that I was playing for him, as if I was saying: this is my sound, I found it. I want you to hear it. It was the resolution of something left undone: here, I am sharing my sound with you. It was as if I was unpacking my music and playing for him, discussing it with him, turning it over for him and him alone; an intimate share with Harry over something he loved the most, music. Something of him had returned to me that night, and something I had I was able to give to him. Something that had been undone got done. I honored him with music.

I was playing for him that night, of that much I am sure. The more I played, the more intimate we became. There were times I could hardly sing my voice my breath overwhelmed by emotion, some quiet tears, but beneath it all was his gentle, decent, attentive presence. I felt him listening. He was always such a good listener.

At the first seder, I was telling two friends across the table about this experience. I wondered what your father was like, my friend said to me. A little sad, beautiful, delicate, lofty, a bit distracted, sweet, mysterious, I said. I was never certain I knew the inside person, though when he opened to me, he opened in depth and in beauty.

As I described my experience of Shabbat HaGadol to my friends at the seder, it was a story. I did not sense Harry’s presence at the seder. Later that night, much later, almost morning, I wrote this story.

There is a night described in Torah, the night before we left Egypt, when we paused. We knew we were leaving by morning, but the night before we paused in our preparations. It is called leil shimurim, hard to translate, “the night of conscious watching” I prefer. The word shimurim is used only in this verse, twice, but only here in the entire Hebrew Bible:

“It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt. It is a night of conscious watching of God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for God; a conscious watching for all the children of Israel for their generations” (Exodus 12: 41 – 42).

What did we do the night before we became free? Knowing we were leaving in the morning, what did we do the night before, when we paused, this night of conscious watching, what is it? A conscious watching, reciprocal, for God for us, a spirtual intimacy, something that was left undone, done?

The sense that though there is uncertainty and even danger, everything is going to be all right. We are vigilant and confident.

It is used twice in that verse; maybe this is what happened on Shabbat HaGadol that year, maybe this was my night of conscious watching for Harry, maybe it was Harry’s night of conscious watching for me. In addition to everything else.

jsg

2001

epilog:

In early 2016, baby Harry was born in St. Louis Missouri to my son and daughter in law, the first grandchild to my wife and myself. There is not a sentence I utter that is not poetry when I mention his name.

jsg

2017

I Was A Detective

 

 

I was a Detective

 

It leaked out I mentioned it in passing last night that I once worked for a detective it was a long time ago from a colorful I suppose part of my story I don’t often revisit not a past dweller and I couldn’t remember his name I hadn’t visited that part of my life for so long but I dropped that detail it got everyone’s attention in the room and I felt I should explain but I didn’t like I ought to explain put it in context integrate it talk about it more often so I don’t freak people out who think they know me as the quiet poetry loving shy person I am. Inward, to be kind.

 

It’s also you think you know somebody but you may not know and that is a common thought for me when knowing you. I often wonder what’s underneath the tissue so to speak what do you have there in your story that might be curious to me when I look at you I am thinking that because under the tissue over here might surprise.

 

The way in which the story popped out last night also significant: I was recounting how the day before I followed someone because I thought I was doing someone else a favor and I know how to follow people without being noticed. Uh oh already I am deeper into my own story than I intended to go. You know how to follow people I could read in the eyes who were listening to me in the room. What does that mean emphasis on that.

 

It may be unseemly to think of me creeping around my neighborhood hiding behind a tree (that’s not how) for how long did you follow this person? All that I wasn’t thinking before I kind of hiccupped it out.

 

I worked a year or two for a detective agency and I learned how to follow people. It doesn’t seem creepy to me though it was a long time ago. Already deeper into my tale than I intended to go I saw around the room some were interested some may have not believed me some were just confused not sure they heard me correctly.

 

A little crisis erupted inside at that moment so I shut my mouth. I felt embarrassment also some surprise at my own lack of self awareness, that this detail might elicit surprise to people who thought they knew me never occurred to me before the hiccup.

 

Someone else started talking and I wrote notes to myself, my detective bossman’s name (I blanked), where we met, how long did that episode last, the name of his sidekick (yeah he had a sidekick), the name of the agency (so fanciful it’s not believable), the before and after of the story more believable because it’s unimaginable but too real to feel fictional, and some shame I was feeling in dropping this detail as if it was a high school I attended temporarily then forgotten. It was a part of my life. It lasted for two years at a crossroads time for me; I ultimately chose the path I am still following but just then I could not have.

 

In other words, I’m not typical. In another sense, entirely typical but in a sense hardly anyone knows about, not typical. Who cares. I hardly care and it’s my life.

 

Also at the moment the story slipped out I couldn’t remember some of the details I hadn’t visited this chapter in so long. I hadn’t told this part of my story in a long time even my bossman detective’s name eluded me I knew it would return but last night it flew away. That offered me a way to frame it I hadn’t thought of: maybe it didn’t happen. I could choose that. But I knew the name would come back to me, there are several significant details found in his name and I knew it all would clarify.

 

I could have even continued the story last night but I didn’t, I waited until this morning, the next day. I was talking to myself now. Integrating my own story. Tap tap tapping on the keyboard trying to make sense.

 

I often follow a principle I learned from the book of Exodus (24:3 ff.) about story telling and writing: I tell the story first, in the telling it acquires some shape, then I go home and write it, then I read it (sometimes out loud) or I find a print medium for it, then I rewrite it again. In each step the story shapes itself so to speak and I am always surprised the form it takes.

 

Part of the story as it slipped out last night is that I was making an offering to the person to whom I am closest to, my beloved, I followed someone who was doing something in our back yard that bothered her it didn’t really bother me but it bothered her and I wanted to stop it. So I told her I saw the guy who was doing this thing in our yard (he has a little dog) thinking I could either knock on his door and tell him to stop or make the same deposits in his own garbage can that he leaves in ours. That’s why I followed him home.

 

As I was telling my beloved the story that I had followed this guy and unraveled the mystery that had been bothering her for several years I could see in her eyes something I hadn’t anticipated: you’ve got some thug in you don’t you. Maybe she saw underneath the tissue and I regretted the whole thing.

 

In addition there was the excuse I heard coming out my mouth that I imagine being grilled under oath and opening with: I did it for her. How much suspect behavior opens with the sentiment that I did it for her and I imagined Joseph Cotton as he was led away to the jailhouse muttering to his captors, I did it for her. I did it for her, how many hapless idiot men in the movies of my youth explained their behavior with that excuse that holds in melodrama; this was my life still it felt like a script.

 

Then I had to put the question to myself: did I really do it for her or did I trot out my secret thug, it lingers within waiting for the opportunity to return. I did it because I’m barely a citizen playing a fool’s game and almost always I con everybody.

 

I also recalled how much I enjoyed following people when it was a job. We got wrapped up in dramas that were way deeper than we anticipated and I still enjoyed it, until that night crawling across the desert someone we were following took a shot at me. And I was carrying a gun, full disclosure, another detail I had forgotten until I inadvertently disclosed something of what I have come to see as my secret past. There’s a reason I don’t visit there often, too much explanation.

 

Well I’m not that person anymore. Or if I am it is because I am continuous in body but have traversed space in spirit. Yes, I said to my beloved as I wove the story out to her, I’ve got some thug in me.

 

jsg