Archive for January, 2009

A twenty minute ferry ride doesn’t seem like nearly enough time tonight.


Perhaps because it’s been more than a month since I’ve been to the prison, which is enough time to gain some distance, even, maybe, to forget a little. Life out on the outside is busy and full and though the men at Monroe are a part of my life now, it doesn’t mean that when I am gone long enough they don’t fade away a little. Only a little. But enough that when I go back after an absence the intensity of working on the inside comes back quick and hard. You get used to how protected life on the outside is, how we don’t ask the hard questions of one another, how easy it is to conceal and hide what we don’t want to discuss, how politeness dictates what we do and do not ask about one another or of one another, how our concept of time is endless and loose and even idealistic and so we are in no rush to talk about what is tough.


Perhaps twenty minutes also doesn’t feel like enough because tonight the opening question to the group: what have you learned from a time you faced death, danger or defeat? initiated a conversation about death, choosing to die, death in prison. One member of the group shared his experience with liver cancer and nine months of Interferon treatment. The same treatment I would have faced had my own cancer diagnosis been as worse as originally feared. He shared how he choose to stop taking the Interferon, despite the doctors wanting him to stay on it another thirty six months. Thirty six months! I was flooded with memories of listening to my oncologist tell me about the side effects of Interferon (including depression, suicidal inclinations, general inability to get up and do much of anything, the reality that I would have to drop out of grad school) and the small percentage it might add to my survival rate. I don’t blame this man for stopping treatment. I was undecided about even beginning it. Next month he will find out if the nine months he suffered through had any effect. If not, he likely has less than two years to live. His statement to the group: maybe it’s not so bad. I don’t expect to ever be paroled (he’s already served 26 years) and I don’t want to live another 26 in here. It’s about an honest of a statement someone can make, and it’s a statement that only someone who has had to face the question of quality of life when faced with limited time can truly even ask. When the question is no longer theoretical, but reality, you are surprised at the answers you come to.


Then a man in the group asked me, what did I think about choosing to die? And I found myself talking about how we don’t honor the process of dying well in this country. We fight death to the bitter end, and I wonder what sort of dignity there is in that sometimes. How often do cancer patients hear, you have to keep a positive attitude, you have to keep fighting. Yes and yes, to a point. At some point there is also dignity in facing death as the inevitable and natural process that it is (even if it has arrived much too early and without consideration for your plans and schedules, hopes and dreams). There is strength in not fighting, but rather living your final days as well as possible. To deny someone facing the end the right to talk about their death, to insist they keep fighting, where is the dignity in that? If the man with the liver cancer finds out he has two years to live and that is a relief to him, then let him be. I found myself saying to the group that it is a question you have to answer alone, and I imagine that you feel even more alone if you are asking the question in prison, but the truth is no one can go there with you, no one wants to support you in letting go, no one wants to say goodbye, no one will give you permission.


I have been thinking a lot about cancer and prison and tonight reinforced some of my thoughts about how the two are connected. Being given a “sentence” can take many forms. And whether you are physically behind bars or emotionally behind bars, the truth is, you are alone to face the darkest parts of yourself. Neither journey is for the weak.


And now the ferry is docking already. Twenty minutes, gone like that. It was good to be with the men tonight. I can’t thank them enough for asking the hardest of questions and then waiting patiently for me to respond. I can’t thank them enough for how they remind me that story telling and story sharing is what reminds us we are all human and we are all going to die, despite our crimes or our good deeds.



I’ve begun to prep for going up to the prison tomorrow night. I’ve been gone for too long and look forward to catching up with the guys, hearing about their holidays, seeing what they think about the inauguration of President Obama today. I was thinking about how I’d like to bring them something from my MFA residency, something that I learned, something I think might help them. So, I was going back through my pages and pages of notes last night and came across Naomi Shihab Nye’s quote, “Every act of violence is a betrayal of language. We believe in language.”

Nye’s quote is a call to action. Since beginning my work at Monroe (and probably well before that actually) I have been deepening my conviction that art and activism go hand in hand, and Nye reminded me that my goals for myself as a writer are two fold. First, to tell good stories that reveal to readers something about humanity and the human experience they might not have known or considered. Second, well, it’s lofty, but to change the world with words. That’s all. Easy, right?!

As I thought about getting to see the guys tomorrow and I read Nye’s quote again I also started to think about how it applies to them, to men who have already chosen violence at least once in their lives, if not several times. I began to think about how these men were raised by other men and women who chose violence too often and language too little. I began to think about the struggle they face when they are released to not return to violence. It might be too idealistic to hope that part of what I am doing up there is replacing violence with language, but for some of these men I think it is true. I think they will be able to walk out beyond the walls of the prison someday holding onto their stories, stories that if they’d gotten to tell instead of suppress, might have (might have) set them on a different path, and if they clutch those stories hard enough, hang onto their words with all the strength they have, then they can believe in the power of language, as Nye calls us to do.

I’ll bring them Nye’s quote tomorrow evening and hope that a few of them will be as inspired and encouraged as I am each time I read it.

I’m here in Boston at school. Tonight I would normally be at the prison, working with the guys, hearing about celebrating Christmas and the new year behind bars. Perhaps talking resolutions, or at least hopes. Hearing new stories, writing new stories. Laughing. Perhaps crying. But I’m here, surrounded by words and lovers of words who still get to roam the outside and this is certainly my heaven, but I am cognizant of where I am not this evening. I am not behind the walls where I sometimes feel like I better belong.

Tonight though, at a poetry reading, Naomi Shihab Nye read a poem about her experience meeting with a group of prisoners at a maximum security prison. And as I listened, and as she spoke so eloquently via her poetry, about being changed by her experience of meeting with these men I thought of the guys at Monroe and how appreciative they would be that this woman stood at the podium and gave voice to their stories. I know that most of the time they feel as if they are forgotten, as if their stories, like them, have very little chance of making an escape over the walls. But if they only knew that there are others out here, speaking, and speaking beautifully, on their behalf, trying to give voice to the voiceless, trying to include them in the conversation, despite their absence they would be so lifted. I couldn’t have been more pleased that she chose to read the poem she did. And I’d like to think that it had something to do with the fact that I introduced myself earlier in the day after her lecture and thanked her for including prisoners in her work to bring stories of different people and cultures together. And I’d like to think that she understands there are so many, men and women, tonight, sitting in cells, who could just as easily sit amongst us students, just as easily keep up with our pens and some who could even make us stop and say, damn, now that’s a story, now that’s a writer.

My thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye for speaking of and for the prisoners tonight. It was only one poem amongst a reading of beautiful poems, but it made me think of the guys at Monroe and how I look forward to seeing them soon.