I’ve been thinking about this sudden kinship with the incarcerated that’s been thrust on the world. How inexperienced most of us are at “doing time.” How what we all need at the moment is what I generally advise guys through prison letters: to use the time, repurpose it. Turn your cell of useless warehousing and punishment into a monk’s cell. Transform it, like a molotov cocktail. It takes creativity, though, and patience, to sit still, to “go inside” when we can’t “go outside.” To do the inner stuff we say we never have time for.
And then there’s living with our families. In jail or prison, dealing with your cellies in close quarters helps assholes learn etiquette real quick. Families all across the land are on the verge of fights, I would bet, three weeks into lockdown. Celly fights are standard fare. You beat the shit out of each other, elbows smashing bedposts and walls, and then you have to listen to each other rub your wounds, get through the rest of the day together, regardless of the winner.
Some guys take up reading, learning. Some take up prayer. Some letters. Some working out. Some spend their days planning revenge. Some rocking themselves in self pity. Some, I’m told, stew in bitterness or conspiracy: a girlfriend out there, the government, always something or someone doing them dirty. Seething is one way to pass the time.
Murph, that list-montage-portrait of your household this past week was great. Seems like a pile-up of all the things that counter the easy childhood bliss you wrote about earlier. It reminds me how your childhood wasn’t just cut short with death, with the loss of your dad, but also with being thrown into responsibility for your own mother. I think you used the word “dutiful” somewhere in your self-portrait. That sounds right. The word ennobles those responsibilities that cut short part of your childhood mindlessness, that which the rest of us took for granted well into our teens. If it’s “duty,” you don’t resent it, but take it up with a kind of begrudging honor. Makes me think about your life as a balancing act you’ve perfected since sixth grade: “Ok, whatever I have to do, I will figure it out, slam dunk it quick as I can, so I can maybe get back to some video games or sugar cereal.” I love the boldness with which you hold your retained practices of play: “Fuck you if you look ascance at my <quote-01>sugar cereal<quote-01>.” And “oh boy, do I relish this video game marathon more than the rest of you mooks”—guys in our group with no spouses or kids—”who only do this because you have no other responsibilities.”
Wuck, recording music on Instagram sounds good. I can’t imagine the powerless feeling that comes with your job, the uncertainty of every audition and the waiting for weeks afterward—all with a baby on the way? Maybe that digital platform is the perfect venue for you to take control of your creative work, to put your tunes directly in front of people? I don’t know. But I’m rooting for you.
As for me, I’m getting closer to writing again.
When I leave the abandoned church down the street—leave my office where I’ve been filling whiteboards with the names of those writing with incarcerated men and preparing for their releases, where I’ve been writing and responding to emails from donors and prisoners, where I’ve been posting our new One Parish One Prisoner informational video on Youtube and Facebook and Twitter and, yes, Instagram—when I come home for lunch and Abram is going batty from no preschool, barred from our gorgeous state parks and wired on Mr. Rogers or Peter Pan after Rachel gave up on the cardboard crafts she wanted to try with him, when he’s demanding I get his “wolfie costume” down from his bedroom door and help him into it while I’m on the phone with a guy who just lost his restaurant job and is afraid he’ll get evicted from his clean and sober house, as I’m writing down his address for our bookkeeper to mail the check—even when I’m doing all this and not hiding back here in my office, I somehow feel I’m getting closer to writing again.
To pump myself up I’ve begun reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Here’s a line that struck me this morning: “Writing has never been linear for me. I always circle my own stories, avoiding the truth like a pooch staked to a clothesline pole, spiralling closer and closer with each revision till—with each book—my false self finally lines up eye to eye with the true one.”
Looks like she’s read a little Merton.
But more so, it makes me think of your tetherball chains, Murph, how the harder we try to swing away from our origins, the harder that momentum circles us back home—<quote-02>eventually<quote-02>.
I think now about the things I’ve avoided talking about—writing about—regarding my home, my parents, theology in general, the traces of toxin in the air I’ve tried to address only indirectly my entire life.
Maybe I’ll write about that here, just to you guys. How long are we going to do this, again?
For now I’ll pass the ball: Murph, say more about what you considered fashionable in my last entry, naming how <quote-03>neurotic<quote-03> we—Abram’s parents—were to him at the outset. What’s the fashion? Fashionable or not, I want to talk about our flaws with him. My parents—all our parents?—weren’t so good at self-awareness or confessing their sins or taking responsibility, though they preached that last value very loudly. Nothing calms me more, endears me more to somebody, than hearing them name their most annoying traits, neither defending nor apologizing—<quote-04>just aware<quote-04>. I want Abram not to feel crazy around our small forms of crazy, to be able to name them as easily as I would the birds outside the window. To name something is to welcome it as part of our reality; it’s there and it has a name.
I wonder if quarantined families all across America—all across the world right now—will have to confront the realities they avoided when always on the move. Could be a season of revelations—or further denial. I guess it depends on how long this lasts. Guys who write me from the hole normally don’t start facing their demons until the distractions run out.