Freed Minds and Imprisoned Bodies

Monday Morning Musings

“And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.”

–William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1

“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong. I hold this slow, and daily, tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

–Charles Dickens, 1842

A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement. As the captive men were faded and haggard, so the iron was rusty, the stone was slimy, the wood was rotten, the air was faint, the light was dim. Like a well, like a vault, like a tomb, the prison had no knowledge of the brightness outside, and would have kept its polluted atmosphere intact in one of the spice islands of the Indian ocean.

–Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit

 

In the deep soft blue of night,

a full bright moon murmurs

which path would you stroll

always night

or beautiful dawn?

Would you breath the sweet air of ancient breezes?

 

I ponder mysteries of life and time,

the paths we choose, the where and when

the roads that make us who we are

the journeys that lead to discoveries,

do the words I write,

the forms of things unknown,

take flight across the world,

in a poetry chaos theory

to effect change?

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One of my writer workout shirts.

 

I’m at a book fair,

I don’t sell many books,

my profits come from knowledge gained

or reaffirmed,

books have power,

the reason why slaves are not taught to read,

they release the minds of those bound by ignorance

they free those imprisoned by walls of stone

or by barricades of bigotry,

they build bridges of enlightenment,

people are drawn to them

in excitement, wonder, and surprise

I watch the boy’s eyes

open wide at the thought of reading magical adventures

then disappointment,

“My mom doesn’t have any money.”

“Today is your lucky day, says the author,

“I have something special,

a free book for you–

see, the cover is slightly damaged.”

 

He signs the book for the boy

who takes it,

holds it reverently,

a treasure.

I hope he remembers this moment.

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West Deptford Township Book Festival. Yes, I did bake cookies, too.

 

My husband and I visit the art museum

not for any particular exhibition,

“Sunday at the museum,” someone says,

people there from all over the world

(even though the “Rocky Steps”  are closed)

I hear many languages: French, Chinese, Russian.

We walk through the Impressionists,

see the real and surreal,

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View from the Duchamp Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

look at art and people,

adults and children,

viewed and viewers.

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Reading at the Museum—Mary Cassatt, Family Group Reading (c. 1901) Philadelphia Museum of Art

We walk from the museum

 

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across the Parkway to Fairmount

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and on to Eastern State Penitentiary,

 

 

the world’s first penitentiary,

conceived with a purpose–

to induce penitence in its prisoners,

the original building completed in 1836,

though the process began earlier

with efforts to relieve the conditions of the Walnut Street Jail,

in 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush founded a group to reform prisons,

The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons,

an organization that still exists,

the new penitentiary is thought to be humane,

a wonder of technology and innovation,

a central hub with spokes,

cells with plumbing and heat

designed by architect John Haviland,

but prisoners were cut off from human contact

and sometimes went insane.

Charles Dickens wrote of the torture of solitary confinement

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and later the prison became too crowded for the concept to continue,

a second tier of cells was built

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and prisoners shared cells.

We listen to actor Steve Buscemi

tell us about it in the audio tour,

we’ve been here before,

but it is good to be reminded,

and there are new exhibits we haven’t seen

there are other visitors and tour groups,

but when it is quiet, without other visitors around,

I feel the ghosts around me

there amidst the rubble

 

Prisoners

in dark fevered air

decayed concrete and old secrets,

a dirt home

listen to who was

they live not

but almost open,

in time

 

It is a reminder

of good intentions gone wrong,

yet there are traces of beauty and goodness,

even here,

the tales of good and humane guards

the art created by inmates,

the synagogue

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The original synagogue door. (For my blogger friend, Robin.)

 

but still there are ghosts,

the imprisoned,

some died here,

and I have no answers for those who are imprisoned still

but I hope they have books and art

and that their minds can roam, even if their bodies cannot

do they wonder about the paths of their lives?

Which path would you stroll

always night

or beautiful dawn?

Would you breath the sweet air of ancient breezes?

 

Tonight I dream of wide-eyed boys

of beauty and art

amidst decayed walls

a cat purrs softly in my ear,

I am home, but my mind roams free.

 

The kind author was Ben Anderson, who shared a table with me at the West Deptford Township Book Festival at Riverwinds Community Center. His books are chronicles of Irish fantasy, targeted for middle grade readers, but suitable for “eight to eighty-eight” he says. You can read about them here .

We joke about the Magnetic Poetry Oracle, but she gave me this poem (incorporated above) the morning of the day we went to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. She also came me part of the opening.

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You can find out more about Eastern State Penitentiary here.   Here is an article on programs for prison literacy.   And a list of additional resources here.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is always worth visiting, even with construction going on.

 

 

 

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The Water is Wide, but It Connects Us All

Monday Morning Musings:

“The water understands

Civilization well”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Water”

There’s a spin instructor

At my gym.

She sometimes lifts her water bottle

And says, “community drink.”

When she says that

I picture a group of people

In a smoky old tavern

Passing around a mug of ale.

History brain.

And as soon as I think “history brain,”

Referring to myself

You understand,

I begin to ponder drinking in

Revolutionary Era America.

At the City Tavern

In Philadelphia

The bill for “55 Gentlemans Dinner & Fruit”

In September 1787

Went mainly for alcohol.

Madera, Claret, Porter, and Beer,

And don’t forget the “7 Large Bowels of Punch.”*

George Washington

Had a distillery at Mount Vernon,

The largest one in North America

At that time.

His hogs were fed the slops.

No waste on the farm.

Perhaps his neighbors

Drank to his health

With the whiskey

They bought from him.

Eighteenth-century toasting

At the table could be an ordeal.

With each guest toasting the health

Of everyone there

And on

And on

Till they could toast no more.

But perhaps it was better

Than drinking water in the city.

Dr. Benjamin Rush once

Lauded the murky water

Of an urban well,

Saying that its mineral waters

Could cure a host of conditions

From flatulence to rheumatism.

But it turned out its peculiar scent and taste

Was due to its connection to a privy.

Ooops.

I guess the doctor is not always right.

Well, well.

There’s a scene in A Town Like Alice

Where an Englishwoman

Returns to a village

In Malaya,

A place where she lived and toiled

During the war

After the Japanese took control

And force-marched her with

Other women and children

Over hundreds of miles.

She had money after the war,

An inheritance,

I think,

And so she goes back

To ask the headman of the village

To let the women have a well.

A small thing

But huge to them.

The scene has stayed in my mind

After all these years.

And I think about how in many parts of the world

Women and children are at risk every day

Because they must fetch the water used for

Cooking,

Drinking,

And washing

From miles away.

They can be assaulted

Or kidnapped

Or killed.

And women in some places

Do not have sanitary facilities

During their monthly periods

And so they cannot go to school

Or to work.

Water.

Those of us who have it

Take for granted that we can turn on a spigot

And there it will be.

And I just realized we haven’t seen

The Walking Dead survivors boiling water

To drink

Not that I remember anyway,

I could be wrong.

But then I guess if you’re already

Infected with a zombie virus

It doesn’t matter much

About the water.

Water from faucets,

Wells, springs, and rivers,

The Amazon,

The Nile,

The Thames,

The Tiber,

The Ganges,

And the Delaware

That flows not far

From my door.

The Delaware River from Red Bank Battlefield

The Delaware River from Red Bank Battlefield

All giving rise to cities

And civilizations.

And the oceans–

The magnificence of whales

Killed to supply people with

Oil for lights and corset stays.

The tides call to them

And to us.

I think about my four-year-old daughter

Twirling and jumping on the beach,

Sheer delight at seeing the ocean

For the first time.

Then the day both girls

Were terrified by a storm

That arose suddenly

On that same beach

As if Poseidon himself

Had awakened–

But was not very happy.

Nothing like a grouchy god.

Air and water blended

Into a mist,

The sand whipped us

In tiny, stinging pellets

As the wind howled

And the waves crashed.

And then just as quickly,

All was once again calm.

Water

And life.

Playful otters

Who cavort in rivers

And salmon that swim upstream

To spawn.

Fanciful beings who

Live between water and land,

Selkies,

Mermaids,

The Lady of the Lake,

And Nessie, too.

We build bridges over troubled waters.

And we sing in the rain.

We paint water lilies

And glance at reflections,

Illusions

And ripples

Time passing

On the water.

I'm fascinated by reflections on the water. Knight Park

I’m fascinated by reflections on the water.
Knight Park

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We humans spend nine months

In a fluid-filled sac,

Emerging from the womb

To gasp, breathe,

And let out that first cry

Announcing,

“I am here.”

Like our ancestors

Who surfaced from the sea

To build a life on land.

But still,

The water calls.

Spinning thoughts

As I pedal

And the wheels turn.

Connections,

Community,

Though the water is wide.

Raise your glass.

Drink.

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Sources:

* “Entertainment of George Washington at City Tavern, Philadelphia, September 1787

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/citytavern/

Merril D. Smith, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2015).

A Town Like Alice (miniseries 1981 with Helen Morse, Bryan Brown, and Gordon Jackson) based on Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel.

There are so many versions of the folk song, “The Water is Wide.” Here is James Taylor singing it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opfEk_Yoksk