07 June 2012

Like a Smelter's Fire

Fresh Start graduate at Rikers Island
One of the great sources of pride in our community is the work we are doing in partnership with the Osborne Association.  A couple dozen of our members have been regularly visitors to the New York State Prison in Albion, the Bedford Hills Women's Correctional Facility, and Rikers Island, where each year I have the privilege of delivering the invocation at the "Fresh Start"graduation ceremony for prisoners prepared to leave and start their lives over.  We accompany children to visit parents, create and staff family visitor centers, and help shore up Osborne's efforts in Brooklyn and the Bronx to create safe environments for rehabilitation, education and job training so that former prisoners can begin life, with dignity, again.  Members of the broader CBE community who work with and support Osborne comprised nearly four tables.  This work is important to us.

This morning's guests included a brilliant seventeen year old man named Donovan Clark who managed to hold his family together and graduate from high school as his mother served a two-year sentence; Donovan's mother Ayana Thomas who spoke with depth and humility about her past mistakes but shined with optimism and hope for her future; John Valverde talked about the painstaking and inspring workforce development that happens in Brooklyn and the Bronx each day; and we heard from Barry Scheck, professor at Cardozo Law School and founder of the Innocence Project, who shed tears while talking about Osborne's mission and accomplishments.

We even had Miss America 2012--Laura Kaeppeler from Kenosha, Wisconsin--who was presented with the Thomas Mott Osborne Medal for her work on advocacy for prisoners (Kaeppeler's father was incarcerated for 2 years during her childhood.)

The other uncommon highlight of the breakfast was the talk given Osborne's Executive Director, Liz Gaynes, who wove a narrative about the covenantal obligations our society has an opportunity to embrace and uphold when we engage in work inside the criminal justice system.  At the center of her talk was a passage from the Biblical prophet Malachi:  "Behold I am sending My messenger to clear the way before Me, and the Eternal whom you seek shall come to His Temple suddenly.  As for the angel of the covenant that you desire, he is already coming.  But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can hold out when he appears?  For he is like a smelter's fire and like fuller's lye.  He shall act like a smelter and purger of silver; and he shall purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver so that they shall present offerings in righteousness."

Liz knows from what fire can do, the furnace of incarceration.  Her own husband spent twenty years in prison.  But she also shared a conversation she had with a silversmith, who shared that the key to making silver is to take the smelt from the fire at precisely the moment you can see your reflection as one sees one's face in the mirror.  An additional moment of fire burns to black the precious metal.

When we encounter prisoners, she said, we have an opportunity to look into the mirror of their lives and seeing ourselves, we have a sacred opportunity to save one another from the fires of incarceration.

I was stunned by the depth and the beauty of the analogy.  It was, to my mind, a great sermon.

The human element, raw metal, and the smoldering cauldron of our fallibility can yield, with patience, humility, courage, and the decency of our humanity, lives of silver and gold.  The precious metals of life.

Afterward I spoke with Ayana Thomas and promised to take her for an exploratory visit to the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel where I am privileged to sit on the board.  Out of prison since May, she's eager to get to school, get her training, and get back to work.

A truly inspiring morning.

06 June 2012

"You'll Deserve Every Blow You Get"

What a load of bull.

First, Governor Scott Walker claiming during his victory speech last night that "voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions."

Second, his Lieutenant Governor Kleefisch claiming, "This is what democracy looks like."

It would have been more accurate to say, "This is what democracy costs.  $45 million spent by Republicans, more than 60% of which was from outside Wisconsin, with a nod of thanks to Citizens United v the Federal Election Commission of 2010."

The pernicious lies and half-truths of political advertising ("Tom Barrett wants to take away your deer rifle!"); the cynicism of a political leadership and an angry electorate deciding that working people and the middle class and the underfunded and undereducated poor are to blame for society's ills; and this notion--perhaps most insidious of all:  that taxes are not a privilege or an obligation but a burden on our individual rights and freedoms--this idea most of all is at the core of everything that went wrong in Wisconsin and will continue to go wrong across the country.

My home state, once a place of idealism and progressive values, has succumbed to the ugly strains and steady march since the tax revolts of the 1980s that says the individual is God in America and that our money must be protected at all costs from an evil government run by evil people with evil intents.  Scott Walker, who accomplished nothing as Milwaukee County Executive (although his administration remains under a criminal investigation) and has yet to accomplish anything substantive as governor of Wisconsin (his touted job increases could just as easily be credited to the Obama Administration's attempts to undue eight years of fiscal and economic damage done by the Bush Administration) except to deny workers rights to bargain collectively, cut school budgets, lay off teachers, and cut taxes for the wealthy.

The claim will be that these *are* accomplishments and they will get the state back on track.  That remains to be seen.

In the meantime, as you listen to the stories on the radio, watch reports on television, read comments in print and online, notice the selfishness, the anger, the bitterness of tone in people's voices.  The resentment of the poor and the black; the lack of respect and sympathy for civil servants and public employees; the utter disregard for teachers and all they do to bring children to enlightenment and learning.

This country is messed up.

Since President Obama decided not to waste his effort on what his pollsters clearly figured out was a losing cause, I have one word of advice:  study Governor Walker's claims of job creation very carefully.  Then tear it apart.  Prove to the voters that *if* there was any job growth in Wisconsin in the last year it was the result of the Obama Administration's efforts to save the auto industry; save the financial industry; provide stimulus money; and generally follow the moderate path of economic growth that has usually saved us from the disastrous policies of slashing spending for the middle class and cutting taxes for the rich.

And damnit all!  Use the language of civic responsibility; of Americans' obligation to one another; of our country as a place where yes we are all free individuals but we are also fundamentally part of a greater whole called to do good in the world!

Signs all over Wisconsin for the past months have said, "Stand with Walker."  The President, late in the game, Tweeted that he stood with Tom Barrett.  Enough of this nonsense.  There is much worth fighting for in this country.  Tweets are for, well, you know.

05 June 2012

Organic Divinity

One of the books from Mom's library that has given me enormous comfort over the years is a college text from her Madison days, Frank Lloyd Wright's "The Natural House," published in 1954 by the Horizon Press.  From the faux burlap cover to the stinky old book mustiness within that only gets better with age, Wright's weird prophecies and theological claims are prairie truths that, unlike the easy sway of tall grasses and wildflowers, root one deeply in the natural house of our family.

Mom's childhood house was her true home, on Milwaukee's west side, a town called Wauwatosa, that, despite her loyalty to her roots, she couldn't wait to escape.  After college she moved back to Milwaukee, met my dad, an east side Jew, and together the two of them made a family.  They weren't a particularly successful unit as couples go but they made four smart and loyal children who would, and did, follow them to the ends of the earth--or at least the continental United States.  Milwaukee, Sacramento, Deerfield, Brookfield, Bayside (all between 1958 and 1967) and then divorce in 1976; followed by Mequon, Bayside, Wauwatosa (and re-marriage to a west side man).  And then Milwaukee's east side, Oconomowoc, Brookfield, Wauwatosa (and divorce) followed by a return to the east side where she has lived since 1990.

Today those loyal kids, now adults, moved mom to a new home where she will find comfort and care from a generously hearted nursing staff that understands precisely what a person needs when their body is ravaged by breast cancer, lung cancer and leptomeningeal carcinomatosis.  It is from this home that her soul will leave her body, in its time, and be united with those souls who preceded her in the world.  Mom's skeptical about that reunion, which makes sense.  After all, stable structures never did a home make; rather, she found the foundations to be in her garden, with her children, and the continually widening circle of people she met who found her kindnesses uncommon:  poll workers for democratic elections; poor black citizens in need of a friend at the welfare office during the 70s economic hardships in the "inner-city" ( a term she once said was absurd -- "I hardly think there's an 'inner-suburb!' -- fellow clerks at the Boston Store; the old and the infirm at the Protestant Home and Gilda's Club where she taught dozens of the sick and the dying how to knit, sew and make baskets from sticks, twigs and such; and our friends, batches and batches of our friends, who found my mom's home to be the most open, the most tolerant, the least judgmental, of all the homes in the world.  Oh yeah:  and her books.  We packed ten boxes of them last week to take to the home.  Not sure they'll make it but she was offended that we would even consider excluding them from the journey.

She's looking out a corner window today, with a sliver of Lake Michigan in the distance.  She's not very hungry.  She knows the score.  We live and we die.  After six years of battling this cancer, a truth has taken hold.

"I believe a house is more a home by being a work of Art."

"I believe truth to be our organic divinity."

It is truth that we are born against our will; and it is truth that we die against our will.  So say the Sages.

Today the Dogwood at 8th and Berkeley bloomed pure beauty.  Minna and I noticed a proud Silver Birch on the walk to school, just moments after she finished practicing Charles Leslie's "Swaying Silver Birches" on the piano.  And on our kitchen window an African Violet she taught me to cultivate kicked over three new flowers, just like that.   Art in the home; truth; organic divinity.

Mom's first home was the one into which she was born.  And her last home will be the place she will die.

I believe we're all okay with this.  Especially with the knowledge of how beautiful and kind all those places were in between.

"I believe truth to be our organic divinity."