The Heat Wave
Written by Spencer, a CLF member living in a prison on the east coast
I’m responding to an invitation by Rev. Riley to describe my corner of CLF. Something happened this past week which describes my corner pretty well, and can illustrate for Chaplain Pat why I appreciate her work, so I wanted to tell you about it.
The facility in which I’m incarcerated is a tightly-packed, poorly maintained, old building, with no air-conditioning in the southern housing units where I’m located. A heat wave lasting over a week with high humidity and triple-digit temperatures causes a degree of suffering, especially for older and ill inmates, that I’m sure would cause a public outcry if the public did (could) ever find out about it. Most summers are bad, but this heat wave was the worst I’ve seen in 10 years. What I want to tell you about is what did (and didn’t) happen when one of the guards decided to require an inspection in the middle of the heat index reaching as high as 107 degrees last Tuesday. We had to pull everything out of the cells and dorms, scrub, clean, put it all back and then get inspected, which is all well and good, but there’s absolutely no reason to do it during a forecasted heat wave. So, here’s the situation: several dozen tightly packed men with anger and/or violence issues, sleep-deprived after a week in the heat (sometimes the nights are worse than the days, men get painful prickly-heat, and can’t sleep in a puddle of sweat), irritable and breathing each other’s inevitable funk, being asked (told) by a guard who just got back from an air-conditioned break room and goes home after 8 hours to an air-conditioned house, to do heavy work that could easily have been done last week or next week. Now normally that could result in a lot of “entertainment” for the guards in terms of fights or drama. But that’s not what happened.
I was amazed that the guys who are seen as the spiritual leaders of the wing for the Muslims, Christians, UU (guess who that one is), etc., without even discussing it worked very closely together to make sure our oldest guys didn’t have to do any work, kept everyone hydrated, got the work done, and kept people calm. We got through heavy work in suffocating conditions with some sleep-deprived and grumpy people without one case of heat exhaustion and no fights (not even an argument).
For all the men, it was a spiritual victory that was tangible, even if they didn’t have the words to call it that, and even if the victory was simply not losing his temper for 4 hours, jammed up with a bunch of stinky men in brutal conditions. (Some of these men don’t do well controlling their tempers under good circumstances.) Part of the spiritual victory was also seeing some of them let in the fact that others were caring about them. By “let in” I mean they actually felt it and they let it in from people they may not normally interact with that much.
I wanted to share this with you because it’s my corner of UU—tapping into the similarities between spiritual paths under difficult conditions. Because of dialogue, friendship, and understanding in several areas of diversity, often using UU materials (especially the sexual orientation info), when a crisis came we came together in a human spiritual victory instead of being this week’s “entertainment” by coming unglued. We each tapped into something in ourselves, but my belief is that we also tapped into a universal strand of energy which provides amazing power when mutually accessed. My belief, my dear Chaplain Pat, is that you help us keep closer to that by your thoughts, meditations, and ministry on our behalf. I’m sure that’s also true of you, Rev. Riley, although I only know you, so far, through your Quest article.
When this was over (the inspections, not the heat wave, unfortunately), I wrote the following poem because this experience reminded me of the psalm about having a feast (at least a spiritual one) in the house of your enemies. I showed it to the man who is the Muslim leader on the wing. He asked me to put it on a 3 x 5 card for him, and we each have it posted in our cells now to remind us of this experience:
The Heat Wave
A fast of thinking
Is a feast of wisdom.
A fast of food
Is awareness of plenty.
A fast of dogma
Is a feast of knowing.
A fast of privacy
Is a feast of humility.
We fasted from our selfishness
In a feast of receiving love.
A fast from denial and ignorance
Is now our feast of truth.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
My corner of the CLF doesn’t smell particularly good, but it’s a beautiful place in a sense. Unitarian Universalism has helped me define spirituality as “what actually happens.” A lot is happening here before, during, and after a crisis, and also day to day. It actually happens inside people, and it manifests in events where it actually happens externally. My UU work is impacting people on other paths, and they are also spiritually impacting me—which I can tell because stuff is actually happening.
In peace and friendship,
Photo by Sherifx on Flickr