The Best Spiritual Writing 2000
Philip Zaleski, Editor
(Harper San Francisco)Some of us in the book biz go a little daffy when we are presented with yet another "Best" volume. The Best Short Stories, the Best Reviews, the Best Poetry, the Best Pornography, the Best of Show-Off Journalism, etc etc.
Best? How does anyone, much less some religion teacher in Massachusetts presume to know, much less tell us, what was best in the world of spiritual writing in the year 2000.
Did he read every religious and spiritual organ for the year? "The Standard Periodical Directory" lists over 5,000 English language religious/spiritual magazines, journals, and periodicals, which doesn't include countless obscure little newsletters that come out of obscure little sects from all over. Has he read through all the Shaker literature of Pennsylvania, Mormon polemics from Utah, the weekly newsletter of the Church of the Four Square Gospel out of Butte?
How about spiritual writing in England? In Russia? In Chile? In China? Has Zaleski pored over originals or translations from the Zoroastrians in Iran, Buddhist tracts from the Ainu Islands, Transcendental works from Benares, Nahuatlan tracts from the Yucatan? If we are pretending to be spiritual, let us encompass a bit of humility in the process. Why not call it Some Interesting Spiritual Writing of America 2000? (As I write this, the year 2000 is not yet over. Are we fudging on the date as well?)
If this is the best we have to offer, god save the republic. Ann Hood has a long story about her father's cancer. He was vigorous, funny, lively --- then he turned sick and died. It is very sad. But all sickness/dying stories are very sad. We get some horrible disease, we seek miracles, sometimes we find them, sometimes we don't --- then we die. Her father did the same. Competent reporting --- yes. Factual --- of course. But the best? Does it shake us to our souls, does it bring tears, does it give us a whole new perspective on ageing, sickening, dying?
James Van Tholen is a pastor in New York state. He got cancer. He got scared. He thought he might die. He has taken refuge in Christ. He says he now knows that he has two weaknesses --- one of the body, another of the soul. He will continue to preach, but he knows he is dying. He is a sinner, but he knows that his faith will sustain him. His story is sad, but we ask again --- is his tale different, does it knock us out, does it raise us up to the heights, does it plunge us into the depths?
It takes a certain arrogance to put together the "best." Where is it? This is not to say that the whole collection is mediocre. Annie Dillard writes a dynamite piece based on a visit to the Holy Land. Is it spiritual? Actually, it is more anti-spiritual. It asks, "Is God completely out of the loop?" She answers in exquisite refutation of the Old Testament God so favored by the Pat Robertsons of the world:
God is no more blinding people with glaucoma, or testing them with diabetes, or purifying them with spinal pain, or choreographing the seeding of tumor cells through lymph, or fiddling with chromosomes, than he is jimmying floodwaters or pitching tornadoes at towns. God is no more cogitating which among us he plans to be born as bird-headed dwarfs or elephant men --- or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia or sudden infant death syndrome --- than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, triggering rock slides, or setting fires. The very least likely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call "acts of God."
Out of the forty essays that Zaleski has chosen, there are few that touch the heart or the mind (or the soul): Richard John Neuhaus' chronicle of almost dying, David Rensberger's droll tale of having a panic attack on the roof of his house, or the aforementioned study of God by Dillard. Most of the other articles are either ho-hum, or are heavily cadged in Old Testament homilies --- ones that in the year 2000 are sure to offend, religious stories that revel in the blatant sexism that has been and always will be at the heart of Christianity, most of all, that you and I are Sinners, to be born in Sin, to die in Sin. Even our immense respect for Jimmy Carter cannot make his "Conversation" --- and his terrible poetry --- worth including in this book.
There are some kickers. William Gass is included, but we are wondering if it is his name alone, for what he writes about has less to do with spirituality and more to do with his passion for books. What he has to tell us is commonplace, but is redeemed by his wonderful quote from Ben Jonson:
What a deale of cold busines doth a man mis-spend the better part of life in! in scattering complements, tendring visits, gathering and venting newes, following Feasts and Playes, making a little winter-love in a darke corner.)Lovers Set in StoneWe have our local holy virgin. She lives up in the Sierras. She's the Virgin of Juquila. The story is that she arrived from Spain some two hundred years ago in the form of a statue, about two feet tall.
She was installed in the chapel near Juquila, and many years later, there was a fire. The entire building was destroyed, except for the Virgin. They moved her into the town of Juquila --- but when, after reconstructing the chapel, she was taken back to her original home, she would have none of it: she disappeared and reappeared in the church in the town. After she did this three times, they figured that was where she wanted to be and, of course, she was attributed with deep magic powers.
The only thing that happened to her in all these adventures was that, after the fire, her skin turned dark --- what they call morena --- like most of the people who live here. She is no longer one of those light-skinned güero virgins out of the Iberian culture but --- like the more famous Virgin of Guadelupe --- has become a dark beauty. Her skin is the color of the rich brown earth that surrounds the town of Juquila.
People come from all over for una promesa. They promise to make a certain number of visits over the next few years. In return, they ask a miracle: that a sickness be cured, that a broken limb be repaired, that a dying relative be brought to life again, that a child be made well. They also ask for prosperity: a bounty of sheep, or goats, or maize.
The visitors come sometimes by car or truck or bus, but, as often, on bicycle or on foot. Since Juquila is an isolated place in the mountains, it is no mean trick to get there from the Pacific coast, or from central Mexico, no matter how you do it. Supplicants often crawl the last two kilometers --- from the entry area to the actual statue --- and since the path is one of stones, many arrive with bloody knees.
The chapel is almost always filled with penitents, and on weekends, a thousand or so may arrive. Before, during and after the holy day of the Virgin --- December 8th --- there is a terrible crush. They say that people come from as far away as Veracruz on the east coast, or Puebla, near Mexico City. It will often take them a week or more to arrive, and if they are on foot, more than a month.
There are stories of miracles that occur to those who have stuck to their promesa --- sicknesses have been cured, sudden wealth appears, babies have been brought back to life. There are also tales of those who have thought or spoken badly of the Virgin, or doubted her powers. They have been involved in choques --- wrecks --- either coming to the holy site, or after leaving.
Even worse is what happens to those who violate the vow of chastity that one must make for the excursion. One lusty, overeager couple, it is said, stopped by the roadside to engage in some hanky-panky and presto, were changed to stone. To this day, it is said, they are stuck there, somewhere off in the mountains, belly-to-belly.
Once you pay homage to the Virgin, you buy a picture of her from one of the little shops around the chapel. If you've come by bike, this picture is mounted under the handlebars, surrounded by pine branches. If you came by bus or car, it will leave with a picture of her, with greenery, mounted just over the front bumper.
There are smaller keepsakes, key rings, jewelry, decals. I myself have many images of her around the house, presents that my workers have brought back for me. My favorite is a small, somewhat fuzzy picture of her, depicted with the letters STMA. VIRGEN DE JUQUILA around the image.
Her face is tiny, and pale, and she is dressed in an elaborate gold and red and white robe, opening up in a high triangle. It came attached to a beer opener, which I have kept --- even though my beer-drinking days are long gone. I have hung it on a chain, along with the keys to my car, and my Swiss Army knife. Thus the good Virgin of Juquila goes everywhere with me, keeping me healthy, or at least, keeping me from turning to stone.
The Lamed-VovnikRivers of blood have flowed, columns of smoke have obscured the sky, but surviving all these dooms, the tradition has remained inviolate down to our own time. According to it, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, the Lamed-Vov, indistinguishable from simple mortals; often they are unaware of their station. But if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our griefs.
Thousands of popular stories take note of them. Their presence is attested to everywhere. A very old text of the Haggadah tells us that the most pitiable are the Lamed-Vov who remain unknown to themselves. For those the spectacle of the world is an unspeakable hell.
In the seventh century, Andalusian Jews venerated a rock shaped like a teardrop, which they believed to be the soul, petrified by suffering, of an 'unknown' Lamed-Vovnik. Other Lamed-Vov, like Hecuba shrieking at the death of her sons, are said to have been transformed into dogs.
When an unknown Just rises to Heaven, a Hasidic story goes, he is so frozen that God must warm him for a thousand years between His fingers before his soul can open itself to Paradise. And it is known that some remain forever inconsolable at human woe, so that God Himself cannot warm them. So from time to time the Creator, blessed be His Name, sets forward the clock of the Last Judgment by one minute.
--- from The Last of the Just
Translated by Stephen Becker
Out of Your Mind
Essential Listening from the
Alan Watts Audio Workshop
(Sounds True)Back in 1958, radio station KPFA took me on as the volunteer announcer/engineer for Sunday nights since I wasn't doing much else except trying to escape from the graduate school program I had come to despise. I knew to cue up the records, turn the Ampex tape recorder on and off, and how to pronounce "Johann Sebastian Bach" and "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" and "Sidney Bechet" without making a fool of myself.It was a radio station trying to sound like the BBC for America or at least for the Bay area where we lived. On weekends, no one was around, no doors were locked (no revolutionaries, no pickets, no rage) so it was me alone with 59,000 watts and a possible 25,000 listeners.I did what I was supposed to, tried to study what made this strange operation function, and, since the station was teaching me more than I was learning in my lackluster graduate program at Berkeley --- I dropped out of school, became a full-time bad poet and radio nut. At the same time, I left my wife and past behind me.
I'd get to the station at seven in the evening. On the air, there would be a tape of commentary (Russell Kirk, Robert Schutz, Casper Weinberger, Bill Mandel), short concerts (Pergolesi, Dallapiccolla, D'aquin), a hour or two of drama from the BBC (Hamlet, The Lady's Not for Burning, All That Fall), and finally a longer concert that ran up to midnight at which time I signed off, locked up, went home.
Right smack-dab in the middle of my shift sat Alan Watts. The program was called "Way Beyond the West," and it was aired every Sunday night --- the closest thing to Pacifica's religious program.
Most often it was on tape, a half-hour of musing, very amusing musing, on Zen, Buddhism, psychology, etymology, eastern culture, Christianity, Hinduism, morals, Japanese thought, Indian history, American vagaries, Tibetan lamas, the role of the roshi, the stages of world culture, the meaning (and joining) of divine opposites, the Baghavad-Gita, the Kama Sutra, the Book of the T'ao.
Watts spoke with an elegant accent, seemed to know everything there was to know about Eastern religion and thought. And he loved paradox. "There is a famous koan about a young Buddhist student sitting at Zazen," he would tell his rapt audience (me!): "The roshi comes along and asks the young monk what he is doing.
"'I am meditating so I can become the Buddha."
"The roshi picked up a brick that was lying nearby. 'Can you make a mirror out of this brick?' he asked the student.
"'In the same way, you will never become enlightened by meditating,' said the master.
"This koan is not very popular in present-day Japan," said Watts, smiling, at the microphone (and me, me pretending not to be charmed out of my wits, listening to my new, perfectly spoken master guru).
§ § §
Hearing these twelve discs from Sounds True put me back there again, I'll tell you: me an eager student, eager to learn all that I could about these exotic religions which were so contrary to the doughty Episcopalianism I had grown up with. With the Hindus, Watts would tell the audience, you are not born into the world, you are born out of it. You are thus, never a part of of the universe, certainly not apart from it, unless you choose. There are the contraries --- Yin and Yang, the black and the white, two fishes, or the two lovers, tied together, the white with a black eye, the black with a white. Forever tied together, all part of the unity, the head and the tail. Look at a pair of scissors. On one side the cutting edge. On the other side, almost inviting, a pair of women's legs.
The concept of the psychological shadow, he would tell us (what some might call the "black" side of us) was Jung's "greatest creation," for it explained so much of human fears: prejudice, the fear of the dark from within, our own unknown.
Watts would often speak of visiting Jung, watching the swans on Lake Geneva: When a male and female go to make love, he tells us, neither knows which is male, which is female. So they fight, until they can figure out which is which.
§ § §
"What is the most important thing in the world?" Watt would ask, offering up the famous koan. Answer: "The head of a dead cat." Are you in charge of your body? What would happen if, when you got up in the morning, you had to turn on your liver and heart and digestive system? "Who is it that beats your heart?" he asks. "Is it not the same as the one who shines the sun?"
To be "holy" is to be whole. But why is there never a laughing Jesus? Kali, yes. In the Hindu play, Kali, the chaotic part of Shiva, finally destroys the world; he turns to leave, and on the back of his head lies the mask, the face of Brahama, the creator. It can be high comedy, those Hindi religious epics.
The stories the stories. If we were to transcribe them, I am quite sure we would never be able to make them jell. Watts was not linear, his thoughts ran together: "slippery" was one of his favorite words. There always seemed to be a perfect wholeness in what he said, but one could never find a center --- that Judeo-Christian point of supposed Truth that we western religionists had learned too early to grasp onto, holding on for dear life.
§ § §
Mostly it was tapes that he had made earlier in the week, but every now and then Watts came in to do the program in person. He would come up the back stairs and in the back door, would sit for awhile in the control room, behind me, me with all the lights and dials and tapes and discs, he with his bad teeth and big cigar, sitting there behind me. By the time I first met him I could hardly be expected to make conversation with him for he was my new radio god, a man who could take the confusion of the divine and divinities and somehow, in thirty minutes, make it all parse.
In the studio, behind the glass, at eight on the dot I would put him on the air ... no notes, just his stinky cigar in the ash tray, Watts in front of the great silver RCA microphone, alone in the beige soundless studio, me responsible for sending his words out to the night, all 59,000 watts of Watt speaking the mystery, speaking it so beautifully, his words mixing so beautifully with the aether, explaining the unexplainable: if you want to find it, you won't find it; if you don't care, it will probably come; if you don't reach out, it will probably be there, waiting for you, what you have been seeking, all along ... the divine within and without, what you were seeking before you started seeking.
And then at exactly 8:29:30, he would utter one last pregnant aphorism, perhaps capped with his hoarse, cigar-smoker's laugh, then he would nod at me. I'd turn off his microphone, turn mine on, say, "That was Alan Watts with 'Way Beyond the West.'" By the time I was done with my announcements, he would be gone.
The RainmakerThere was a great drought where the missionary Richard Wilhelm lived in China. There had not been a drop of rain and the situation became catastrophic. The Catholics made processions, the Protestants made prayers, and the Chinese burned joss sticks and shot off guns to frighten away the demons of the drought, but with no result. Finally the Chinese said: We will fetch the rain maker. And from another province, a dried up old man appeared. The only thing he asked for was a quiet little house somewhere, and there he locked himself in for three days. On the fourth day clouds gathered and there was a great snowstorm at the time of the year when no snow was expected, an unusual amount, and the town was so full of rumors about the wonderful rain maker that Wilhelm went to ask the man how he did it.
In true European fashion he said: "They call you the rain maker, will you tell me how you made the snow?" And the little Chinaman said: "I did not make the snow, I am not responsible." "But what have you done these three days?" "Oh, I can explain that. I come from another country where things are in order. Here they are out of order, they are not as they should be by the ordnance of heaven. Therefore the whole country is not in Tao, and I am also not in the natural order of things because I am in a disordered country. So I had to wait three days until I was back in Tao, and then naturally the rain came."--- From The Nature Writings of C. G. Jung
©2002, North Atlantic BooksPadre Serra Sells BajaSeveral years ago, the missions of [Baja] California were accused at the Court of Madrid of trading with the English. Yet there is nothing in California except wacke [composite dirt and stone] and other worthless rocks, and it produces nothing but thorns. If the English would accept these and in return import, above all other things, wood and shade, rain and rivers; then to be sure, a trade of great advantage for California could be established with Great Britain. Otherwise, there is nothing to trade. Wood and water, stones and thorns, are four elements of which California has an unbelievable scarcity of the first two and a great surplus of the others. Nothing is so common in California as rocks and thorns, nothing so rare as moisture, wood, and cool shade. It is not recessary to be afraid of drowning in California, but it is easy to die of thirst.--- "Observations in Lower California"
by Fr. Johann Jakob Bægert (1771)...the Old Gentile (Indian) did not flee. It was soon evident from his actions that he neither cared nor feared any one or any thing. During his talk with us, in the very midst of all the people, he squatted down, and having no clothing to remove he proceeded to relieve the demands of nature even as he kept on talking! And when he finished, he was as happy as he was relieved!--- The Journal of Padre Serra
May 20, 1769In the midst of the bone-desert lava-flow lies the oasis of San Ignacio, the clear and lovely lake at dusk, surrounded by tule and palm trees. The mission, dating from 1786, is exquisitely designed, decorated with several irregular points atop the structure --- a half-dozen giant strawberries, and a dozen or so round windows here and there, surrounded by faded red rings and diamond-shaped workings. There is the usual huge, wooden door, with elaborate black-metal hinges. It's dark and cool inside.
"When the Spanish padres came through," I tell my friends, "their first thought was to build a mission." The Indians were perfectly content to go around eating their piñoles and sweet cactus and mescal, dressed up in their birthday suits, but the Spaniards wanted to have some symbol of their proper religion --- they wanted to clothe the land (and the Indians) --- so they caused thirty missions to be built thoughout the 800 miles of Baja California. They, like the city planners of the urban United States, had a definite (and intractable) edifice complex.
The missions were all the same: imposing, cool, with tall ceilings --- always relief from the blasting heat outside --- but always with the feeling of prison, with twelve-foot heavy doors, the black metal bars and hinges.
§ § §
The next day, as we drive west and north of San Ignacio, I catch myself thinking about Padre Junipero Serra. We're going along the same trail he took, although at a slightly different speed. The good father marched north from Loreto --- a hundred miles below Mulegé--- between March 28 and July 1, 1769. He and his followers went by foot across some of the most parched, dry, inhospitable, burning hills, arroyos, and mountains in the world.
But to read his words, one would never think that he was trudging along through a wasteland, with his soldiers, a few burros and Indians, and the newly appointed Governor Portola. In fact, reading his entries, one would think we were on the road to Paradise. Which --- romantic that he was --- perhaps was true.
At San Andres he wrote:
What we saw was a vast extent of good land, all prairies and well watered. It is an excellent site for another good mission and ranchería.
On May 16th, he paused at
a pleasant spot called San Juan de Dios. We found here plenty of water, pasture, alders, tules and a bright sky.
And on June 13:
The explorers sent us word about 3:00 P.M. that we may take our choice of two good watering places. The first is three leagues from here; the second is five. Both have plenty of sweet water, with abundant pasture for the stock. God be praised!
Even at those places where there was absolutely no water, he could find something of interest, such as on June 2, when he reported the discovery of "Rose Canyon:"
I have noted the beauty and abundance of flowers. To indicate the truth of this, when we arrived at our camp site today we found here the Queen of the All --- the Rose of Castile. As I write I have before me, a stem on which there are three full blossoms, several buds, and more than six whose petals have fallen.
Was he as deranged as Columbus --- to whom he bears no little spiritual resemblance? Or was he just an optimistic talespinner? Maybe the father had a necessary supply of bunkum in his soul, something appropriate to other salesmen that were to appear in Alta California a hundred years later.
It may have had to do with the fact that if he were to report honestly on the barrenness of the countryside, it would be the end of any and all further exploration or interest from the Spanish Crown. By sending back glowing reports of verdant fields and potable water --- even hinting at a good silver mine just waiting to be worked --- Serra was making sure that his own stupendous efforts on this godforsaken peninsula would not be in vain.
Perhaps it is wrong to call him a liar. Perhaps it is best to think of him as a romantic, the Don Quixote of the desert, a man who was able to find flowers and trees and good, sweet water where no one before (or since) ever has been able to do so. There has to be something daft, indeed, about one who presumes to walk eight-hundred miles up one of the most barren peninsulas in the world, claiming all the while that it is in the service of The Divine ("I have undertaken this journey to the Ports and San Diego and Monterey, for the greater glory of God and the conversion of heathen to our Holy Catholic Faith," he wrote).
Serra's tale is not only one of romantic tale telling. It has the feel, as well, of tragedy to come. Not for the Spaniards, certainly --- they had the cross and the musket to protect them. It was the ruinous, events that would soon enough befall the Indians, the happy "Gentiles" that the Spaniards met. For them, the crossing of paths was as much as if they had met Mr. Death himself. Instead of the crucifix, it would, perhaps, have been more appropriate for Serra to carry a Death's Head on his breast. For he, the soldiers, the priests, and the Spaniards who followed over the next decades were to leave behind them virulent diseases --- mostly syphilis -- that killed off 50,000 Indians and laid waste to a whole innocent culture. In less than a century, the Indians who roamed Baja California would be reduced to 2,000 in number by a corruption of flesh presented, gratis, by Padre Serra and his followers.
This is a priest's report from a mere fifteen years later:
The missions of San José, Santiago, Todos Santos, San Javier, Loreto, San José de Comondú, Purisima, Concepción, and Santa Rosalia de Mulegé are on the way to total extinction. The reason is so evident that it leaves no doubt. Syphilis has taken possession of both sexes to such a degree that mothers do not conceive, and if they do conceive, the fetus is born with little hope of living. There are three times as many adults who die as there are babies born.
A special gift of the soldiery, the camp followers, and the religionists of Spain.
For that reason, Serra's descriptions of the "Gentiles" is especially piquant --- for it was the last time that they would be so free and alive, so free of the European sicknesses. Their innocence has the hue of tragedy because they were so eager to contact these strangers, showing them their naïve way with possessions.
So many came that I could not count them. But their amiability soon degenerated into familiarity. If, in token of friendship, one placed his hands on their heads or shoulders, they would immediately repeat the gesture upon us. lf they saw us seated, they would sit right down beside us. They showed an acute desire for anything they saw or fancied --- not stopping at petty things at all. They begged me for my habit. They asked the Governor for his leather jacket, his waistcoat, his pants, and in fact, all the clothes that he wore!
Excellent conceit: wanting "all the clothes that he wore." We'd be the last to think of Serra as obsessed, but he mentions a dozen times that the Indians were as naked as on the day of their birth:
I found myself face to face with a dozen of them, all grown men except two boys, about ten and fifteen. One fact impressed me, a fact which I could not believe when I read or heard it: --- they went about stark naked just like Adam in Paradise before the Sin. Thus they came among us. We mingled with them a while. But although they saw us completely dressed there was no evidence that there was the least blush of shame among them for their nakedness.
Lo! the poor Indian. And denizens from Civilization came to them, and would clothe them, and tell them right from wrong. And there would be nothing to fear:
I made them understand that henceforth a Padre would be stationed here, pointing him out to them and calling him Father Miguel. They and their friends should come to visit him. They should tell their friends that there was nothing to fear, for the Father would be their best friend. The soldiers who remained with the Padre would not harm them, but would do good things for them. They must not take any cattle which roamed over the open country. They should come to the Father in case of necessity, and he would do whatever he could for them. These and other things we told them, and they listened attentively, seeming to understand. Thus it appears to me that they are ready to fall into the apostolic net...
Fall into the apostolic net. The naked Heathen. Now saved by the Holy Church. Beasts now saved by the bald man with the piercing eyes and the heavy cloak. "The Father would be their best friend." "There was nothing to fear." Nothing to fear.
They do not need food --- for they are big and fat! Because of their great stature, the Governor thinks they would become fine grenadiers....
They are fat and big now, big enough so that the Spaniards think of turning them into soldiers, an Army of the Cross. Lo, the poor Indian! So happy and fun-loving, so curious about these interesting people from another land, men with their burros (how the Indians loved playing with them) and these funny shaped coarse materials they called "clothes." Lo, the poor Indian, who, in such a short period of time, would be devastated by the sicknesses that ran through the hearts of the holy Spaniards. It was only a century-and-a-half later that Arthur North was to write:
The end of the Baja California lndians is near at hand. The Pericues and the Guaycuras are now practically extinct. Of the former thousands of Cochimis, perhaps a hundred still survive. Of the northern Indians there survive today remnants of the Cocopa, Catarina, Yuma, Kiliwa, Pais and Diegueno tribes, but only the first names can muster more than a hundred individuals.
Those Indians who did not die, who became part of the missions --- the few who were not murdered by the social diseases out of Civilization --- would be treated so wretchedly with scourge and rod meted out by the Spaniards that one commentor opined that the Indians would most certainly be better off dead rather than saved.
A mother with a nursing infant took a notion to let me hold her baby in my arms for awhile. And thus as I held it I could scarcely resist the desire to baptise it before giving it back to its supper ... I gave them all the Sign of the Cross, and I taught them to say "Jesus! Mary!"
I do for them what I can, caress them as I may --- And thus we journey onward.
That sweet infant with such a short time to live.--- From The Blob That Ate Oaxaca
C. A. Amantea
We're All Doing Time
Human Kindness FoundationAmericans do have a strange way with their prisons, and prisoners. At any one time, almost 3% of U. S. citizens are in the pokey, and over 6% of the inhabitants of this country have Done Time. Almost 50% of the jail population are those who have run afoul of our country's Puritan stance on those who buy, sell, or use drugs. For Black males, the figures of those in jail or on parole is almost five times as for the rest of the population.
Some critics think it is the ultimate example of those who have lording over those who have not. Perhaps it's a sign of a failing political system --- for having so many of the constituents behind bars does say something about abandonment of what the political scientists used to refer to as "the concurrent minority."
Maybe it's television: always ragging on us about what we don't have, what we should have --- building frustration in those who are poor and unemployed. Maybe it is the daily news telling us about all the hot-shots who make themselves so very very rich with such apparent ease, those nattering articles in the newspapers about the former geek, Bill Gates, turning billionaire before our very eyes. In any event, some sociologists claim that the prison population is a metaphor for the society's inability to match desperate needs with a desperate need to survive. A fifteen-
year- old in the ghetto has little chance to participate in the American Dream unless he becomes part of the most dangerous game going --- being drugs --- with its concurrent violence and opportunity for formidable prosperity, not to say a chance to become oblivious to the ghastliness of ghetto life. § § §
Prisons are the only institution in the country where the "victims" run the whole show. The aged and the poor have almost no say about the Social Security system. Children have little or no input into the public school system. You and I and Joe Blow have almost no influence on the local zoning laws that can destroy whole neighborhoods willy-nilly. But prisoners run the federal, state, and county prison systems, and no guard in his right mind would dare interfere with "prison justice." The administrators ride uneasily atop the angry mass that make up the 2,500,000 inhabitants of our prisons.
Prisoners are failures: they got caught at their chosen profession (crime). Their power when incarcerated is just that: naked, brutal power. The weak get eaten up, destroyed --- either emotionally or physically. Recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have proved what we suspected all along --- that civil wars between the races in jail are often fomented by the authorities in imitation of the style of the English in India during the times of the Raj --- a power system that kept the multitudes off-balance, at each other's throats, so the real locus (the state) is free of threat.
One of the least discussed aspects of The Joint is sexuality. Since the prisoners run the prisons, they determine its passion, and they have no choice. There are no women, so it has to be male love. (Celibates don't exist in prison. Virginity is rare except for the very old, the very ugly, or the very strong.)
Prison passion isn't what you and I think of as passion. Recent studies indicate that 75-80% of prisoners have some sort of sexual encounter --- usually violent --- between themselves and their fellow prisoners. Much of it is enforced pleasure, eg, assault. The irony is that it is considered by many street kids to be "manly" to serve time --- yet once behind bars, they either get raped by their fellow inmates, or become rapists. And not long ago, a series of articles in salon.com showed that violent sex becomes a means whereby the guards can punish the incorrigible. By putting intransigent prisoners in cells with acknowledged brutes --- violent and bloody rape becomes the punishment of choice.
In prison, sex becomes a commodity --- the same as cigarettes or dope. The young and the weak have to "marry" a stronger prisoner in order to survive. Men who are violent heterosexuals on the outside become violent homosexuals on the inside, and will fight (and die) to own the most desirable partners. In a strange twist, openly gay cons are scorned by the prison population: they are not considered to be manly enough for the violent prison love. They are often segregated with the child-molesters and the weak. The explanation: "They'd be murdered by the other cons."
Sexual activity in jail involves the physically impotent being dominated by the physically potent. Our prisons thus make for a strange philosophy of justice. This virulently anti-homosexual society has decided that the appropriate punishment for thieves, pimps, murderers, rapists, con men, forgers, check-kiters, and bank robbers is to make queers out of them. Passion is turned into punishment, and it is passion without tenderness --- which may be the worst punishment of them all. Coupled now with the new threat of AIDS, a night in a cell with a violent rapist might well turn into a death sentence for the young and the weak.
One of the few writers to write of the sexuality of prisoners with grace was the late Jean Genet. Because of his predilection for "rough trade," he once spoke of his return to a French prison in terms of one who was ennobled and anointed; saw himself as marching past the golden bars of the entryway with a chorus of angelic cons playing silver trumpets in harmony at his glorious return. The prisoners gathered on high to honor the return of their "bride" from the outside world.
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The American prison system works poorly, if at all. The rate of recidivism runs between 60 and 80% --- not because the cons are so enamored of prison life, but because their experiences outside the walls are so futile: employment is non-existent, and the prison schooling of technique becomes the only discipline that they can depend on. As one of the correspondents says in We're All Doing Time,
You can be in a year or ten years, it don't matter. You get out and you don't really know anybody, you don't know where to go, so you just start getting as many things as you can. And you start drinking and you get on the phone and call Joe Blow who's in the same predicament, and pretty soon you're sitting together somewhere half-drunk, and deciding that the only way to get ahead is if you just burglarize this place or rob that place, and neither one of you really wants to do it. Most people in prison just wanted to pull that one big score and then live like everyone else.
Most cons on the outside manage to break back into prison:
Hell, the worst that could happen is when you succeed. You don't know what to do with the money anyway. The easiest thing is you'll be back in the joint, listening for the door to crack, hanging out on the handball court. It's a slow suffocation, that's what it amounts to; you suffocate. The great majority of people who get out of prison, break back in.
Bo Lozoff has written a book for prisoners, and it is a good one indeed. The writing is simple, wise, direct; it overflows with honesty. The book came out of the Prison-Ashram Project started by Ram Dass --- and it is subtitled (correctly) "A Guide for Getting Free," and the freedom described can be within or without. It is in no way preachy, or arrogant, or "we're-
up- here- and- we're- gonna- help- you- down- there." It is an honest recounting of the methods that one can use to get free while one is in the most unfree place in American society. It makes no excuses for the specific methodology it offers to those who are, after all, in a violent war zone:
Going to prison is one more opportunity to come closer to Truth, God, Self, Freedom --- whatever we want to call it. Prison life is so negative and intense, prisoners sometimes get the chance to work out karma and build strength in a period of months that might have taken fifty years on the streets, if they could have done it at all. What a blessing!
This is the tone of the whole book. Grace, godliness, and the topsy-turvy concept that being in prison can contrarily be considered "good fortune." After all, says Lozoff --- where else can we get all our bodily needs taken care of, and have a regular schedule each day to work on our spirituality. The assumption --- the key assumption --- of this book is the very existence of the holiness that each of us holds within ourselves. Such Grace is hidden from us by our ignorance, but it can be accessed by meditation, by touching "the blue pearl" within. As part of the process, one has to leave behind violence, hate, anger, superiority, cruelty. Once one has the courage to embark on such a course --- either inside or outside the joint --- freedom is one, but not the only, dividend.
We're All Doing Time is divided in three parts. The first is an overview of prison and spirituality. Number Two --- "Getting Free" --- introduces the reader to Yoga and diet and breathing and the chakras. Book Three consists of letters sent to Bo by prisoners all over the country. Lozoff has been working on this project for many years now --- and he publishes here material, including letters of praise, of questioning, of triumph, of hope, of hopelessness, of terror --- gathered from his correspondents.
And there are, too, the chilling letters:
In April of l974, eleven men entered my home in Portland, Oregon, raped my 17-year-old wife, who was three months pregnant at the time, then threw her four stories out our apartment window. You see, I had been running drugs and guns for some people out of Nevada. My wife had asked me to stop so I tried to get out but they said no. On my next run I kept the goods I was to deliver and told them I'd turn it over to the feds if they tried causing me any trouble.
They went to our house, after beating her and realizing she really didn't know where I put the stuff, they gang-raped her and threw her out the window. By some freak accident she lived for several months after that, long enough to tell me who most of the eleven were. She committed suicide while in a state mental institution, as her body was so crippled up from the fall, she had lost all hope and just wanted to die. In August of 1974, I went after the eleven guys who did it and caught nine of them in several different states. I was unable to complete my death mission and get the last two because I got caught here in Idaho...
Now, how would any human --- not to mention Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, you, me, Lozoff --- handle a letter like that, much less try to show such an angry man how to free himself from what had happened? That is the impossible task that the writer of this book has set for himself.
In reading We're All Doing Time, one comes up with not only a how-to-survive course, but a picture of a man named Lozoff who is trying to get prisoners free of the chains within their own heads. For instance, the key is not in atoning for "sins" (atonement being a self-destructive, blaming concept) --- but to grow through experience, to accept the nature of "karma," recognize it as an inevitable step in the human progression towards personal freedom. Lozoff says, in response to the letter above:
I don't mean to imply that you should look back and feel good about it [the murders], but just to try to understand that no accidents happen in this universe. Even the most horrible experiences are still steps along the way. And the pain which may still lie before you from the karma of killing nine people [is] just more of the same: Difficult, necessary steps on your path.
This is the work of a loving man --- a man who has chosen to work with prisoners because of his innate humanity, his willingness to serve. The Lozoffs of the world may well be the saints of our society, for they go to those who are trapped, and offer a message of freedom. It's a simple message: that all freedom lies within.
In prison, the daily dramas can get very heavy. Somebody comes up to start a fight, for example. If your own mind is centered and quiet, you see that they're just creating more karma for themselves, and that you're experiencing karma from your own balance sheet. If you can handle the whole thing without so much anger or fear...then you've begun to break the cycle, and have come one step closer to freedom --- internal, if not external.
Lozoff frankly admits there are some questions without answers. Should one fight if one is going to be raped? The answer --- there is no answer. He points out that the Chief of the Nez Perce would never permit rape because his body was sacred, and he had to protect it. On the other hand, Gandhi would have submitted because he considered his body to be dross, saying, as a good Hindu would, "I don't own this body; it belongs to God."
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This is a practical, how-to-survive book. It gives specific exercises to open the heart and quiet the babbling mind. The main message is: "You'll survive if you lay hate and vengeance aside. You'll contribute to your own spiritual growth --- and your survival --- if you let yourself grow into love." The Bureau of Prisons, if it had any sense, would be ordering these books by the gross, handing them out to their wards. For, after all, the message is one of peace, and acceptance --- or at least tolerance --- and non-violence.
Some people have claimed that the American prison system must perpetuate itself. There's a huge business in the processing, feeding, and keeping the cons off the market. As with most moral systems, it must ultimately pay for itself --- in fact, must yield a handsome dividend. (It isn't just chance that now some private contractors are anticipating fortunes with the privatization of prisons). The 2,500,000 Americans who are spending time in jail are a necessary function of the American economic and social system. The Christian idea of Sin gets raised to an operational level: we all sin; it is the devil in us; we must be punished for those sins; jail is the best way to punish the devil within. And we all get to "pay" for it.
A huge, overcrowded and arbitrary apparatus of prisons is not peculiar to America. There was another prison system in the world as large and as ugly as our own. You guessed it: it was in Stalinist Russia. Which all says a great deal, perhaps too much, about the similarity of governmental processes, our standards of justice, our mutual concepts of "wrong." It demonstrates a similar willingness to purge the body politic by putting away so many anti-social elements. Punishment in both countries was and is built on intolerance and dehumanization.
All we can do is marvel at the hope represented by the people out there, like Lozoff, who are willing to dedicate time and energy to the most dispossessed of minorities --- the poor and the forgotten behind bars who, ultimately, make prisoners out of all of us.