08 March 2009

Second Sunday of Lent--random thoughts

It's March 8th, for heaven's sake. Look out the windows of the chapel. There's a near white-out going on. Snow?? Again? Too true. I hadn't seen any snow in the whole hour that it took to drive from Tacoma to Shelton. When I got to the parking lot, it was sort of misting kind of hard (you have to live in Western Washington to get the nuances).

I went inside, turned in my keys, went through two sets of gates, picked up my work keys, went through one last gate and outside. Thick fluffy flakes settled on me. This place has its own convergence zone.

Men on the walkway from their units to the dining hall looked headless. Their coats were pulled up over their heads as they hustled.

The first reading sent Abraham and Isaac up to Mt. Moriah. "Good Abraham! Lots of faith!" Yeah. Right. "Good Isaac! Lots of faith!" I don't think so. I have this picture in my head of Sarah coming out of the tent, waving an apron and yelling, "God said WHAT? Are you out of your mind? What are you thinking?"

And I'm still thinking about a comment I read somewhere, comparing this Abraham with the one who was set on bargaining with God, "What? You'll destroy this whole town? What if there are 50 righteous people in it? 45? 40?" All the way down to ten. What happened to that man? "God never spoke to Abraham again (after the Mt. Moriah incident)." Good. Serves him right.

I know--that chapter is also a lesson in "Human sacrifice does not belong here" in Jewish practice. But what about the rest of it?

And I can never get enough of Peter on Mt. Tabor. "Cool beans! Let's set up tents! We can put the RVs over there. The Ferris wheel and other rides can go just down the hill. Midway? Who wants to take care of the Midway? Postcards! Virtual games! We'll be rich!"

By the time I left just after three, there was no more snow anywhere. It wasn't quite warm out, but it was sunny with huge wonder-making clouds, a reflection of all the wonder-making inside today.

06 March 2009

"I was so stressed, I wrote 23 poems."

One of the real joys of my job is doing something that is not in my job description. Twice a month, I facilitate a writers group. It's informal, meant to encourage creativity. The rules are few: bring something to read, tell us what kind of critique you want.

Over the years, there have been poetry, essays, stories, how-to articles, love letters, even a couple of books. We listen to it all, no more than three pages at a time. Every now and then I issue a challenge. A couple of years ago, I handed out index cards with five unrelated words on them. One of the participant got a card with "MTV, Singapore, desert, Jell-o, and in-bred" on it. Instead of 3-500 words, he wrote several thousand about a time travel device that was misfiring.

Dave came to the group more than five years ago and wanted to write about his life as a mechanic working the boats in Alaska. He had a fine knack for taking technical aspects and making them understandable to lay people, while still keeping the experts enthralled. Some nights it was just the two of us there. Dave worked on his writing as well as his reading. He struggled to be clear about what he had written. Over time, he finished two books. Now that he's been released from prison, he's looking for a publisher, and I've no doubt he'll be successful.

Last night, half a dozen men showed up. One man is working on an English course by correspondence. We've been listening to his assignments over the months. This one was a research paper on God, limited to eight pages. One of the other men asked him if the questions posed in his paper were his own questions, or were they posed by others? Duane said they were his own, that he was interested in learning more about God. We talked for a while about how it helps to have a subject you're interested in when you're assigned a research paper. Like anything else, motivation helps.

There are all sorts of artists in prison. They could be making real money on their talent. Instead, they are swapping it for coffee and another goodie from the store. Pictures are admired the most. Those verbal artists can sometimes be rare, but they do exist.

A popular item that was available in my office for a while was a composition book. You know those hard-backed, black and white marble covered books we used for school? or someone did. They can be expensive, but every now and then, especially in the run up to Labor Day, they can be found at Wal-Mart for fifty cents. I had a generous friend who'd donate dozens to me and a line would form outside my door as soon as the supply was in. "Do you have any journals?" (The composition books are now available through the offender store, so my benefactor is concentrating on other things.)

It's amazing how a little fifty cent book of lined pages can change a man. A couple of years after he got his first journal, Ted came through Shelton again and came looking for me. "That journal you gave me? I wrote letters to my kids in it. They were pretty young when I started and they'll be almost teenagers when I get out, but I've been able to share some things with them. I want them to know me, not just the few minutes we get on the phone or in the Visit Room. I really want them to know me."

The writer at our latest meeting said that writing had helped him get through some serious stresses, enough to write 23 poems.

Who knows what uproar is averted because a person has pen and paper and a few minutes alone?

01 March 2009

Ash Sunday

It's that time again. Lent is here. Every year we do a crash course in the purpose of Lent. The altar cloth changes--from the mainly blue Mexican serape to a deep purple, the candle from white to purple, we stop saying the Gloria and the Alleluia--though our wonderful worship sheets had the Alleluia included on the English side and not on the Spanish.

We move Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent for purely practical reasons: we can get everyone together on Sunday. Wednesday is far more iffy. About two dozen people arrived well after we'd distributed ashes this morning and I got some weird looks and had to explain again why we put ashes on our foreheads.

Catholic service is never just full of Catholics. We get the Protestants who got up too early, the curious, the religious who try to hit every service possible, and those who want a head start on the way to the gym where there are phones available. (We finally had to post signs for these folks, "If you leave the service at 8:30, you must return to your unit and NOT go to the gym.")

It's fun doing the education piece. Try explaining why Easter falls when it does. Someone asked when Easter was this year. April 12th. Easy enough. But why is it different every year? Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easy once you know what all those pieces are.

Last year, one of the men decided his Lenten discipline was to say enough rosaries to equal the distance from the prison to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Washington DC. A bit ambitious. He's trying something different this year.

And while there's no special diet for Catholics for the Lenten season, for some reason the Department of Corrections, in a budget-cutting move, is serving some alternate protein on Fridays--no meat. Which means that all my gentle teasing about eating what's put in front of you without complaining, even if it's steak, is going to waste.

I'd like to give up doing death notifications for Lent, but I had two this afternoon already. There were nineteen death notifications in February, five of them over a two day period. One of the Native American men told me that whenever they go down to the sweat lodge, they pray for me because they know I carry the sorrow and the prayers of so many. That almost took my breath away. What a comfort and a support.

Happy Lent.