Friday, January 27, 2006

Ice Time

In prison slang, ice time is short for isolation time, time spent in solitary confinement. Prison is all about time, about, as the phrase goes, doing time. About doing time in, come to think of it, the "cooler." If prison's the refrigerator, then isolation is the freezer. Everything slows down in the cold.

I went to the Broadmoor Sanctuary again last week. The temperature had moderated, and the snow had melted from the paths and meadows, but the marsh was still frozen over. I kneeled and peered over the edge of the boardwalk. I saw simulacra of summer -- the color-strewn expanse of a summer dress,

a green fan --

but mostly there was ice. Thick, imprisoning ice.

Expanses of ice best viewed in crime scene black-and-white.

There is an appetite for punishment afoot. In California an old, old man, a murderer scheduled for execution, asked for clemency. The Governor, once an actor in violent, thanatocentric films, declined. He witheld mercy. It seems odd to put this muscular man, this Terminator, in charge of something as delicate as mercy.

The prison warden, when asked why he'd denied the old, old man's request for no resuscitation were his heart to stop before the date of his scheduled death, explained, "At no point are we not going to value the sanctity of life. We would resuscitate him." There is no mercy in the warden's double negative. The math is clear.

The winter goes on and on. The worst is yet to come. It has snowed twice, three times, since my walk in the mild woods. My heart, which is so near I can feel it tap the bars of its cage, also seems to sleep faraway and deep in a dark ice cavern. Is there mercy in that paradox ?

On ice, time slows, space shrinks. The excruciating seconds creep along. The walls press in. Then, in a windowed room, in a little panopticon, almost an amphitheater, thick salts sluice into a vein and a heart quivers and stops. Serious, uniformed men and women stand around, some in medical white, one in clerical black, others in law and order blue or bureaucrat brown. Established protocols have been followed. The machinery of the state and of the law stands behind it all. A muscular man, once an actor in blood-drenched films, has given the nod.

A spectator raises a tentative hand. What is meant, he asks, reading from a small notebook, by cruel and unusual ?

Turtles are sleeping under the ice of the Broadmoor marsh. Their metabolism has slowed; their sleep is an imitation of death. Last summer I watched them paddling and sunning in the shallow, lily-stalked water. And now, although they are no more than 15 feet away, so close one could practically pry them out of mud and shake them awake, they seem impossibly remote. They sleep buried, side by side, in solitary confinement, in suspended animation. In the spring some will awaken, some will not. They seem to be trying to teach me something about time and mercy. I lean over the blank ice, close my eyes and listen.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Night of a Stranger

It is in community that we find our true self, the speaker intoned. I wrote the words down in my little notebook. I had transcribed other words and phrases. Contemplative exercise in organizational development. Spirituality & leadership. The speaker was serious. He read from a long prepared text.

He told us that there had been retreats with important participants -- Nobel peace prize winners, important clerics, prominent politicians. There had been dialogue and process, trust and communication. Deep concerns had been probed. Communion had been achieved. Subsequently, there were new programs being developed, new curricula for spiritual development. There would be foundations and websites and publications. There were handouts by the door.

I looked around the clean beige room. It was a smallish college lecture hall with tiers of comfortable seats and long, curved countertop desks. There was a podium with a round seal and Latin motto. There was a flag of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Two dozen people sat scattered throughout the seats, most in groups and pairs, and a few, like myself, alone.

The new project was, the speaker said, about Contemplative Living, a corrective to our quadruple alienation from others, self, God and nature. When applied to society at large, it would lead to peace and justice. It would be an antidote to futility, corruption and despair.

The curriculum was based on passages from the writing of the monk, Merton. They would be used for springboards to group discussion and dialogue. The program, he went on to say, stemmed from Merton's vision. The monk Merton was why, presumably, we had all come to the clean, beige room to hear the serious man from Louisville speak about his programs and curricula.

A man in the back row had been in the novitiate under Merton; a young woman identified herself as the niece of a Merton contemporary. A dapper oldster raved about the Merton retreats he'd attended. The president of the local chapter of the Merton Society stood up announced the agenda of the upcoming meeting. An middle aged man leaned back in his chair and asked a long, aggressive question about the "Christ centeredness" (or lack thereof) of the proposed curricula. Two earnest young men asked about spiritual practices. The serious man agreed that they were necessary. A woman in a bright red sweater offered a strong and detailed opinion about something I didn't quite grasp.

I looked at my notebook. Monastic safety net, I'd written, for societies adrift.

The monk Merton represented, said the serious man, a bridge to the secular world.

I sighed. I was very tired. Beyond tired. I had nothing to say. I felt self-conscious, out of place. Conspicuous. Something inside me seemed to be withering. The title of one of Merton's famous essays kept popping into my head: "Day of a Stranger." There I was again, the perpetual stranger sitting apart from the crowd in the throes of three of the serious man's four alienations: self, God and others.

I thought of the serious probing dialogues, the endlessly unfolding spiritual conversations, the communing, the groups, the schools and congregations, the clubs and societies and parishes and sanghas, the churning, interpersonal spiritual processes. It was positvely oceanic. I sat on the beach, high and oh, so very, very dry.

He was a HERMIT. I scrawled, staking my shaky claim to the one piece of the carcass that was left.

Thursday, January 05, 2006



Suddenly, I was awake. I floundered for a moment in the muddled gap between vanishing dream and dark bedroom. Something had awakened me, something unusual. What was it ?

I rolled over and listened. There was music, an energetic, celebratory song, a march or a dance. I heard rough men's voices, singing in unison. I could not make out the words or even the language of the song. Someone was playing an accordion. The music was joyful, boisterous and unpolished.

I looked at the clock. It was 2:20 a.m. I slipped out of bed, tiptoed down the front stairs and went out onto the front porch. The night was frosty and windless, and the boards under my bare feet were cold, and gritty with ice and sand.

Across the street, three houses down, five or six men were gathered on a verandah. Shadowy, tall, clad in long, dark overcoats, they were singing. They moved with the music, almost dancing. The pleated, black lung emptied and filled, emptied and filled.

I watched and listened. When the song ended, the men filed into the house and the silence of the night resumed. I stared at the empty verandah. The New Year was 26 and a half hours old.

Into what would I wake next ?



The eye-catching, hobnailed red of rosamultiflora hips. They punctuate the winter thickets.

These surprisingly blue, white-whisked seeds. Why blue ? Why not ?

Five gold rings, says the song.
Ring aroung the rosie, says another.

When there were no depths
I was brought forth,
when there were no springs
abounding with water.

What's your name, blue girl ?


I followed the map to a part of the sanctuary that I'd never visited, a small parcel of land, with a stream and a pond and a few looping trails.

The pond was small, and partially iced over. It had a tiny island, eccentrically placed, from which three birch trees arched. The banks of the pond had been cleared and landscaped. There were scattered benches and a few small footbridges over the snaking stream.

It was a garden in the woods. Alone, I followed the call of the water toward some tall bushes.

I stood in the mud and ice, craning my neck to better see the curled

and rayed undersides of big, strange pods.

Some were face down in the dark water. Tiny yellow bugs skittered over them and over the water.

Further around the pond there were other bushes and other pods, some upright

others pendant,

and all wearing tattered sheathes and shawls.

There were stands of ferns --

dark brown closely knobbed sticks --

and one beautiful yellow-green cedar like a flame in the dun woods. Here, in this garden, in this little paradise, one could almost recite the farthest reaches of the Nicene Creed -- light years beyond God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God -- with unquestioning conviction --

et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum !

Recite it with all the spes, the blind hope, of the denuded aster,

with all the robust, succulent faith of the rhododendron buds,

and all the vigilant, early-to-rise enthusiasm of the skunk cabbage as it knifes up through ice toward a distant sun.