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.

 

 

 

Rhythms of Summer, Rhythms of Life

Monday Morning Afternoon Musings

(One of those days, Folks!)

The sound of life is measured by its own rhythms. At its most elemental, there is the rhythm of the heartbeat. Parents are reassured and then overwhelmed upon hearing that first fetal heartbeat. A lover, quiet after the escalating drumming of two hearts, is comforted to hear the steady beat of his or her beloved’s heart as they lie together, one resting a head upon the other’s chest. Animals find heartbeats soothing, too–my cat cuddles against me in the night. My heartbeat calms him, and the rhythm of his purrs comforts me.

When the heart stops beating, the body dies. The pushing and pulsing of blood through our bodies is necessary for us to live. [As an aside–because this is the way my mind works– have you noticed that in popular culture, people kill vampires by putting a stake through their hearts, but zombies have to have their brains stabbed or heads cut off? Is it because vampires feed on blood, but zombies eat bodies? Add to list of things to ponder.]

The earth also has a rhythm. Watching the ocean from the beach, I’m often mesmerized by simply watching the waves as they crash upon the shore. There is something hypnotic about that rhythm and the rolling of the waves, as well as the beauty of the water catching the light and creating a tumble of white, silver, blue, and green and spraying rainbows into the air.

Summer seems to have its own special rhythm. This summer has been a busy one for us, marked by rhythms of life and life’s passages—one daughter’s graduation from graduate school, our other daughter’s wedding, and my husband’s retirement.

The song, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, has become a sort of cliché at weddings. (For the record, it wasn’t played at either of our daughters’ weddings.) But like all clichés, it was once fresh and new, and the words ring true. At each wedding, I did wonder to myself as I gazed at the beautiful bride, “Is this the little girl I carried?”

The chorus of the song, reminds us of the passage of time, and the rhythm of day to night, season to season, months to years:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset,

Swiftly fly the years.

One season following another.

Laden with happiness and tears.

As well as life changes, I’ve been caught up in work–finishing one book project, beginning two more, and writing test items. Testing is big business. Still, no matter the activities, summer marches to a slow, lazy beat that is different from the brisk upbeat of autumn and the solemn dirge of winter. Even though we’ve yet to make it to the beach this summer to watch those mesmerizing waves, we’ve spent time outside—

Watching a Bastille Day event at Eastern State Penitentiary, a silly hour of song, dance, and jokes hosted by “Edith Piaf” of the Bearded Ladies Cabaret. (“Marie Antoinette yells, “Let them eat TastyKakes,” before hundreds of them are tossed to the crowd below.)

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Drinking wine, eating pizza, and watching a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at a local New Jersey winery,

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And enjoying the bounty of local farms.

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This is why New Jersey is known as the Garden State. Yes, it’s more than highways and the Jersey Shore.

In the summer I long to sit on the beach or on a shaded porch and spend hours reading a novel, simply relaxing. I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, but I still have some weeks left before summer marches on. Soon, its hazy, lazy-feeling days will merge into the crisp, clear, get-back-to-work fall. Then winter will come–and instead of longing to be outside, I will want to huddle under a blanket and read a novel. I’ll want to turn on lights to find my way out of the darkness, to eat hearty soups with homemade bread, and to wish again for languid summer days. I have work to do now, but perhaps a nap is in order. It’s all part of life’s rhythms, and after all, it is summer time.

My Summer of Breasts and Revolution

 

I’ve been busy this summer with professional projects and personal issues and events. Unfortunately, this has left me little time to post to my blog or visit the blogs of others. I apologize and hope to have more time later in the fall.

 

In July I reviewed the page proofs for my forthcoming book, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast. It covers everything you always wanted to know about breasts in history, art, fashion, literature, movies, popular culture, and science. It should be out in October, or perhaps even before that. Grazia De Michele reviewed it for the Breast Cancer Consortium. You can read the review here:

 

I’ve also been working on my next book, another encyclopedia, titled World of the American Revolution (ABC-CLIO). As the deadline approaches (GULP!), I am scrambling to write numerous entries on a wide variety of topics. Let me just say there have been ISSUES. Contributors dropping out; contributors not coming through with acceptable articles; contributors who plagiarize. . .But I have also had some wonderful articles submitted. So it goes.

 

In addition research, editing, and writing entries for my books, I’ve been writing many test items this summer—after all, I have a daughter getting married and there are a few expenses to be covered. The bridal shower has past and the wedding will soon be here. I can’t believe that something that seemed so far away is now almost here! There will be more on that topic in the future.

 

With so much going on, my husband and I did not even attempt to make vacation plans, but we have taken a few hours here and there to visit places in the area. Following my theme of “revolutions,” we went to Eastern State Penitentiary for the “Bastille Day” Celebration as envisioned by the Bearded Ladies theatre troup. My husband and I stood for free with the mob. We cheered and jeered as Edith Piaf introduced celebrated figures from the past to help bring about revolution. Or something. Well, we all know from Les Miz that revolutions need songs. And apparently they need line dances, too. Because this is Philadelphia, Marie Antoinette—joined by Tonya Harding—threw TastyKakes from the top of the prison with the cry, “Let them eat Tastykakes!” It is true Philadelphia craziness that has to be experienced to be believed. You can see more about it here.

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After the “execution,” my husband and I went on an after hours tour of the prison. If you are ever in Philadelphia, visit this museum. It is fascinating. The prison opened in 1829 and was considered a model prison with each prisoner kept in a solitary cell. The prison was in use until it closed in 1971.

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On another day, in lovely summer weather, we walked through the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art. We saw an exhibit of proposed architectural changes to the museum. The alterations, if they happen, will be done in stages, and will take decades to complete. The proposal that has met with the most discussion is one that would change the famed “Rocky” steps.

 

After visiting the Medieval and European galleries, we went outside to have a picnic lunch and walk. It was a beautiful day to walk by Boathouse Row and along the Schuylkill River. When looking walking along the river, it is easy to imagine the nineteenth-century city of Philadelphia.

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Looking at the Philadelphia Museum from the Waterworks

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A solitary rower on the Schuylkill River

 

We have also managed to make two brief trips to the beach (down the shore, as we say here), as well as some trips to local wineries.

 

So this is my summer of breasts and revolutions–and a soon to be wedding. It’s been brightened by family and friends, sunny skies, stress-busting trips to the gym, and some glasses of wine. Chocolate, too, of course. I hope all of you are having a good summer! Back to work for me.