Monday, September 21, 2009

On Prisons

I have been thinking about prisons lately. I'm re-reading The 79 Squares by Malcolm J. Bosse, & I'm learning about the French Revolution with my kids. We've read adaptations of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, & I have been going through the library's movies set in that time.

The 79 Squares is a book about an old man and a young boy: the old man has spent the last 40 years of his life in prison, and the boy is living a life that will take him in that direction. Through a chance encounter, they develop an inexplicable relationship based around a garden and the old man's insistence that the boy learn to see the things around him. The old man explains that 40 years in a prison cell would drive a person mad if he didn't learn ways to cope.

The old man coped by learning to look, to see the details of his world, the cracks in the brick, the pattern of the floor. He spends his last summer teaching the boy to look closely, too, & unimaginably, the boy is transformed as he spends hour after hour learning to see the world of an ant, a tree, a bird, and a blade of grass. He learns the names of every insect, every plant, every animal, until he can read the changes in pressure by the flight of the birds and the shape of the clouds and the pull of the flowers.

There's the Bastille. I've got images of prisoners watching glimpses of the sun and the moon from movies made about this famous prison. I think about these wretched men learning astronomy, marking maps on their prison walls, focusing on details so they don't go crazy, so they have a reason to live, and I can't help it. The smallest piece of me is...jealous. For the opportunity to sit and see. To be still, to learn.

But my life is frenetic. Some days it's one long bellow of diapers & bumped knees & hurt feelings & pouting & ringing & knocking & chores, errands, paperwork. No time for being still. No time for gaping at a piece of the moon or learning astronomy—or Greek, as my husband would like.

How peaceful prison life sometimes sounds to my weary ears.

What kept madness at bay for the prisoners I've read about, though, was shifting their focus from the bars that held them to the very small bit of life that passed through their cells.

The wails of crying babies, the stink of overflowing trash, the never-ending hunger pangs of four growing children—these are the bars of my prison, if I can for a moment call it that. But I sometimes focus wrongly upon the bars, inviting madness in, gripping tight the iron shackles & seeing only the endlessness of my sentence: 10 years before the stove, stirring, flipping, steaming; 10 years before the washing machine, sorting, switching, folding, drying, hanging, ironing; 10 years on aching knees, bathing, changing, dressing; another 10 bending over, picking up, chasing, catching, sweeping, being chased by crumbs.

It seems an endless term sometimes. But when I remember to move my gaze, my thoughts, from the prison bars to the life that passes through my tiny cell, I see not iron bars & eternity, but a miracle & a beautiful moment that is fleeting.

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