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Finding Myself in Those Who Reside Elsewhere

For many years I taught incarcerated people. During a course called “Explorations in Reading,” at the women’s prison in New Hampshire, we managed to persuade the officer to let us hold a class session outside, on the edge of the blacktop basketball court where several women were sunning, pant legs and tee-shirt sleeves rolled up. I looked beyond the wire fencing to a stand of trees and read aloud Mary Oliver’s poem, “Some Questions You Might Ask,” wherein the poet wonders about the nature of the soul: who and what have one? Is there a shape to it?

I told the women in class I love the poem because I believe that trees have souls. Immediately, someone suggested that when I die my soul might enter a tree.

“That would be perfect,” I said, “as long as I don’t end up a bench.” We laughed and a woman said, “You could end up paper that someone writes on.” Another piped up and said, “You could end up being a disciplinary write-up form.”

“No not that,” I exclaimed. But then it hit me, what if every thing, every being potentially held some particle of spirit or soul of something or someone I loved? What if the disciplinary write-up form were printed on paper that came from a tree that possessed a great soul?

The answer came tumbling out of my mouth: I would be more apt to treat all things and all beings more compassionately. My vision and relationship with the world and all its inhabitants would change.

Rabbi David Cooper in his book, God Is a Verb explains five levels of soul — the first is Nefesh, the Hebrew word for vital life force, which refers to the soul of atomic structure. Every particle of matter has Nefesh.
Rabbi Cooper cautions us against limiting soul to a particular body or entity. He likens it to magnetic field, a kind of spiritual current that flows through every thing, every being, connecting us all.

Alice Walker begins her novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy, with a line from a bumper sticker:

When the ax entered the forest, the trees said, “The handle is one of us.”

To see ourselves in those who seem most definitively them is a kind of vision I desire though it frightens me. Often, when I feel tethered by fear, I long to be free of it, yet there are moments when what I want is to be willing to be afraid, and still enter the forest where trees are brave enough to recognize themselves in the handle of axes that seek to cut them down.

In part, that’s why I began working in prisons, to find in myself those who reside there. That came easily enough. Were it not for the privileges, the resources, the chances, and choices I’ve been so abundantly given, but for the grace of God, there go I. The challenge was finding myself in the correctional officers. I thought a lot about who becomes one and why. I remembered how I, too, needed a job once, which led to teaching in a locked adolescent unit of a psychiatric hospital where we assessed and tallied behavior on point sheets, where fluorescent lighting and sealed, chicken-wired windows taunted fresh air and sun.

I never really subscribed to the treatment model, nor did I like much of what I saw, but it paid well. To the teenagers on that unit, no matter how empathetic I tried to be, I was still “staff,” the hospital equivalent of a correctional officer.

When the ax entered the forest, the trees said, “The handle is one of us.”

Before I knew it, I found myself behaving like some correctional officers I’d observed: leaning too far into the face of an angry adolescent whose confinement embittered him. I heard myself telling him like countless other adults had, what I could do to him. In that split second when he screamed at me and I knew I was powerless to change one iota of his pain, I reached for what power I could, and did nothing but sully myself and fuel his cynicism.

I heard the words of Maya Angelou who said there is nothing sadder than a young cynic because she or he goes from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In that moment of mutual frustration and powerlessness, neither of us believed there was anything else to do. Neither of us recognized the soul of the other, or anything we had ever loved. In that moment, the sparks of the divine in each of us, lay dormant, dispossessed. We saw only the ax blade, not the handle.

When does a child embody the soul of an ax instead of a tree?

Each time I have volunteered in a penal facility, I have been warned: Do not trust the inmates. They are called “cons” for a reason. They will ask you for things and try to manipulate you. Not once in the ten years I taught or brought in artists or speakers, did anyone con or manipulate me. I did not expect them to. I offered my respect and received theirs in return. I have no doubt that prisons, like society at large, are rife with negative behaviors. They breed like bacteria on stale bread, seizing the most opportune conditions: distrust, disrespect, dehumanization. It is challenge to enter a prison and keep cynicism at bay; it is a triumph of spirit to dwell there, for an eight-hour shift, or a sentence, without surrendering one’s humanity.

In her “Morning Poem,” Mary Oliver speaks of daring to be happy. I asked the women in class what that meant to them. A woman said, “They hate it when we are happy in here. They can’t stand to see us smile.”

Later that afternoon in prison, when we had returned to the building, to the room we shared with vending machines, we were all laughing, and I looked up to see four people with visitor badges on a tour of the prison staring in at us. “Now see,” I joked, “they’re going to think prison is fun.” But underneath the irritation of being studied lay the recognition that the four people on the tour saw something important as they passed by. They saw incarcerated women who knew their bodies could be chastened, but not their souls. And maybe, like the trees, they understood, “the handle is one of us.”

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