Publish and Prison

I’ve had both excellent news and one devastating experience this week. Maybe this is the shape life is supposed to take: part dream, part nightmare. Anyway, the good news is easy, I heard another piece of mine will be published–three times published makes me feel legitimate. Three times sounds like a streak, like it wasn’t an aberration or mistake. This is comforting. The devastation has to do with prisons. What should be a relatively low key experience–a class visit to a prison museum, screwed me up.

I hate the idea of prisons. I hate the fact of prisons. I hate prison architecture. I hate the notion of retribution. I hate punitive measures. I hate cages. I hate life in cages. I must have been a zoo animal in former life.

At any rate, I refused to visit Alcatraz when I lived in San Francisco, and here in Philadelphia I have refused to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary (except for once giving in to the Halloween fest activity they have there, where you’re too busy dodging made up ghouls to reflect on the nature of imprisonment.)

Being given a clear eyed, highly informative account of the life of the prisoners of Eastern State did nothing to improve my sense of dread. I learned a lot. But I was filled with grief. I was filled with grief at the way ideas seize imaginative people, and how they then make reality bend to the idea, regardless of the shape of life. In this case, well intentioned Quakers thought the prisoners needed more reflection–while I typically respect the desire to encourage self reflection and insight, it seems obvious that imposing close to total human isolation is a bad idea. And yet, the idea was pursued, despite the consequences. Humanity’s ability to creepily adhere to ideas, regardless of evidence, is what terrifies me the most.

Anyway, I’ve been carrying around a grief stretched heart since my visit. The flowering trees are helping reverse my grief, but not the grief of those who are currently incarcerated.