Monasticism in Lockdown America, Part 9: Psalms, In the End

Continued from yesterday


11826685814_171e060196_mThinking of the psalms as a way to cycle through the entire range of human experience, I recently brought them with me into juvenile detention.

The kids there, on Sunday afternoons, shuffle through automated doors wearing orange jumpsuits and pink booties and take their seats shyly around bolted-down steel tables with me.

These are boys and girls who have likely seen, and felt on their bodies, and heard, what no child should have to see or feel or hear. And after absorbing all they’ve endured and trying to maintain composure, they have probably been kicked out of classrooms for not watching their tongues. For small outbursts, foul language, bad attitudes. Now, in detention, they spend most of their time in lockdown, in cells of their own, alone. [Read more…]

Monasticism in Lockdown America, Part 8: Psalms, In the Beginning

4591112088_e1c7fb17da_mI always privately hated the psalms.

Most of them, anyway. As a teenager, I’d leaf through the Bible’s songbook quite often and feel it was full of self-pity and self-righteousness, often launching into bombastic praise of God and two lines later wishing curses on enemies. I didn’t understand why Christians still used the psalms, and so often.

As I got older, it was the worst part of visiting a monastery for me: hearing monks or nuns fill up so much of their time together chanting through these oft-sub-merciful prayers. The sentiments throughout the ancient songbook seemed so far from the heart Jesus teaches us to inhabit. They felt human, as Nietzsche said, all too human. Yet monasteries cycle through the entire Psalter month after month, year after year. [Read more…]

Set the Captive Free

I read my friend Dyana’s Art House America essay about her brother “definitely going to prison, and probably for a long time,” and the air went out of my chest. The fear and anger and helplessness were so heavy, almost palpable. I had to turn away from the essay a couple of times during the reading and just look at nothing and breathe.

Sweet quirky Dyana. Her brother. No.

I remember the long shuttle ride from an MFA residency to the airport I took with Dyana several years ago during which she told me about her brother: he was in some trouble, but he was a good kid and she loved him. “I think you guys would like each other,” she said to me. I thought we probably would.

Now he is in prison, probably for a very long time. Dyana has occasionally lashed out angrily at the system, for making her brother feel like less than a human being, for making her and her family feel helpless before a massive, Kafkaesque justice system. I see her posts, and I too get angry.

The circles in which I move these days are full of academics, people who are of as much interest to the local police as the trees lining Rivermont Avenue. If I do a mental checklist of my friends and acquaintances, I cannot think of a single person who has been locked up. The corrections system isn’t something that comes up much.

Only days after Dyana’s essay went live, my wife and I watched the documentary The House I Live In, an indictment of both the so-called War on Drugs and the for-profit prison system. Among other things, the movie argues persuasively that the war on drugs is not primarily about drugs at all, but is a powerful machine for controlling minorities and the poor.

[Read more…]