Inmates and Landscapes

Prison has its own distinct landscape. While not all prisoners have been liberated from obsessive thinking or chronic negativity, neither have many of us who are not "locked up."
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Around our community garden behind my house stand high grasses, bushes and flowers, and a few leafy trees swaying in the wind. Singing birds are constantly circling above the garden. At my kitchen table, or in the small den on the second floor, I enjoy the view. Then, one balmy evening, a discordant thought came to mind. Views like these are just out of reach for many people. For example, down the street from where I live is the New Jersey State Prison, with its ultra-high fence. As a Catholic layman and minister, I started visiting a group of incarcerated men a few months ago and began to see through their eyes. Men have pointed out views of their own during their days in prison -- a plant in the courtyard or, during a religious service, the passing of sun's rays across the altar. They have also expressed gratitude for literature, television episodes of Nova or Discovery, and memories of treasured fields or rivers. The men have taught me the joy of not taking delicate views for granted.

A few weeks back, I brought in a DVD and we watched the HBO movie, "Temple Grandin." I looked around the room occasionally to marvel at how the drama of an autistic woman (convincingly portrayed by Claire Danes) who revolutionized slaughterhouses and the cow industry, enraptured the men. For two hours, they were completely taken in. We only had a few minutes to debrief the film, but they sat mostly silent, and one man commented how there was a lot there and that he needed time to process the movie.

Sure enough, two weeks later on Easter Sunday, as the men entered our small but comfortable discussion space, this same man smiled, asking if we were going to discuss the movie we watched previously. I told him that our discussion was on hope and that he could relate insights about Temple Grandin to the conversation. This he did.

I am taken by the depth of humility and yearning that several men speak from. Daniel (not his name) shared his understanding of the emergence of Temple Grandin's compassion for cows, and human beings, a reality made possible only through the empowerment of her mother's extraordinary patience and love. Growing up with autism, Temple Grandin had great difficulty relating emotionally to people, including her mother. Temple was unable to give or receive any kind of physical embrace. Daniel explained that Temple's mother, played by Julia Ormond, opened her daughter's life paths to persons who nurtured her growing ability to empathize with cows. Not only this, Daniel continued, but Temple learned to "contemplate" the relationship between humanity and cows, and therefore "devote her life to making life better for these least of God's creatures, and for us."

It is hard not to feel gratitude for all that Temple Grandin has done to transform the ways that cows go to their death, as well as the hope carried by so many men and women in prison. Even without expansive outdoor scenery, they learn to create beautiful views in their minds. One gentleman, who has not had a visitor since 1997, writes a Mystics' newsletter for men in prison. He recited an amazing poem, at length, about papyrus leaves. He said he could recite poems and texts, from memory, for hours. And he always has something interesting to say in group conversation.

Prison has its own distinct landscape. The hearts and minds of inmates are as varied as those of us who live outside prison's walls. While not all prisoners have been liberated from obsessive thinking or chronic negativity, neither have many of us who are not "locked up." Something to this effect was said by a man who remorsefully acknowledged taking a person's life. He still struggles to find God, but before prison, he frequently worried about work and money and other life issues. Like many of the men, he is grateful for his faith community in prison -- and God's grace.

Exterior or interior views arrive before our eyes every day. How do we choose to perceive our seen and unseen worlds: as beautiful or ugly or some shade in between? Does God make any difference in the landscapes of our minds and hearts? Can we -- like many inmates, like Temple Grandin -- help open and expand our realities?

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