“It is as if Americans typically have their moments of stillness when those moments are framed on both sides by violence. It is a peculiarly American form of Zen enlightenment, when stillness can only justify itself by planting itself amid uproar.”  from Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

Baxter’s essay on stillness in writing got my attention. Not only because it is a concept I have not given much thought to other than when conversing with poets (who have a knack for the art of stillness and silence in their work). Reading the essay I’m in agreement with Baxter, including stillness in fiction (probably any prose) is difficult. It is a state of being that almost doesn’t belong in a narrative that by nature is focused on plot and action. If the action is still, what is left? Atmosphere, for one, Baxter offers. By which he means setting, perhaps. But he also talks about how for a moment the story becomes about focusing on the minutiae of the story. Not the dreams and desires, but actually allowing the character to exist in the moment with what exists around her. Tough.

When I got to the quote above in the essay, I suddenly found myself thinking about the guys at Monroe. How their lives, at the moment, almost embody what Baxter is saying. They are stillness surrounded on both sides by violence. Mind you, it is a forced stillness (or you could argue it was a choice, that’s another conversation). Or maybe they are stillness surrounded on one side by violence, that is the act(s) that brought them to prison. On the other side is what might be once they are released. Of course for too many, release does not equal rehabilitation and they find themselves back again, relegated to stillness, to the minutiae of their cell, the prison yard, the chow hall.

No doubt there is drama, plot and action on the inside. If anything such states are amplified. Living in such a regulated and intimate environment how could there not be drama, story lines that keep the mind entertained from day to day, month to month, year to year. And yet, it is as if their story, or a part of their narrative anyway, has stopped and there is a moment of stillness. It’s a life suspended. A narrative suspended. And how interesting that the one of the few places you can find such a state of being is inside prison walls.

Does enough violence ultimately bring a moment of stillness? Do these men crave such a reprieve from the chaos of their lives on the outside that the violent acts are in some way a search for stillness? Certainly there is not that much consideration put into a violent act, but if there was? And if we can reach them during this moment of stillness — with programs and therapy — can we lessen their chances of returning to the violence? If stillness and violence co-exist then what are the changes for rehabilitation?

Questions. This work always brings up more questions than answers.


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