The convicts and I, a volunteer, sit in a circle in the prison. We do this every Thanksgiving. Eyes closed, we imagine sitting around a table in a clearing surrounded by a woods in which the parts of ourselves we have exiled live a furtive life.
We sense inside for any exile who might feel safe enough with us now to step out of the woods and join us at the feast. We also sense for whoever else with which we want to reconnect.
Rafael breaks our silence. “I invite the part of me that hides its pain and smiles. It even smiled at my mother’s funeral. My father liked that. ‘You’re strong,’ he told me. But that part of me has been hurting alone for more than 40 years.”
James invites his co-defendant Kevin, an armed robber, to the Table. Kevin is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer at another prison.
“We all heard about Kevin and how tough he was,” Khalid says, glad to welcome Kevin. “But when I first walked into the joint, Kevin came up to me and gave me soap, toothpaste and shampoo. He said to me, ‘I don’t want nothing from you! All I ask is, when you see someone coming in and he don’t have soap and toothpaste and shampoo, you do the same for him.’ I never forgot Kevin.”
After a long silence, Ted speaks: “I was always told ‘shut up!’ when I was a kid trying to express myself. Now I invite the part of me that’s afraid to speak up. “
Rafael calls out: “I invite the light that shines in my darkest moments.”
The light appears. I feel it shining against my closed eyelids.
Charlie welcomes to the Table a guard (“cop”), who treats him with contempt.
“I get angry at how bad he treats me,” Charlie says. “But now it hits me: Why is it wrong for a cop to treat me with disrespect when I treat parts of myself even worse? It’s not any more right for me to disrespect myself than it is for a cop to! I throw parts of myself in a garbage can and then walk away feeling like I’ve got holes in my heart where those parts used to be. I don’t want to treat myself that way anymore. “
Along with the guard, Charlie’s sudden compassion for himself joins our Table.
“I welcome Love to the Table,’ says Khalid, a powerful poet in the oral tradition.
After silence, he speaks again: “I couldn’t read or write when I came to this prison. I took some classes and they were so hard, I cried. The books were too big and there weren’t any pictures! I invite the part of me that despaired back then. I’ll sit it right here beside the light that shines in Rafael’s darkest moments.”
The words of Barry, an African-American whose hair I’ve watched turn from black to gray, land like bullets in my belly: “I invite the man I shot and killed 30 years ago.”
Barry can never forget his victim. Growing up in prison, he has wrestled all these years with the act he committed as a teenager on drugs.
He has more guests to welcome: “I invite all my ancestors going back to Adam and Eve because sometimes I feel so alone. But I’m not alone. I need to remember that. All my ancestors are here with me.”
As the silent minutes pass punctuated by one of us calling out an invitation to a fragment of ourselves or to an old enemy, the Table expands. I feel stronger surrounded by allies, exiles, grandmothers departed and loved and enemies now embraced.
After our meal, Rahim, a lifer like so many in our circle, sighs as he opens his eyes.
“I feel so full, I need to let my belt out a couple of notches.”
Every Thanksgiving, this foodless feast nourishes us, reminding us that, no matter what we have done or endured, we are not alone. We are connected to others. Not only those we love, but those we have pushed away and those we have hurt.
This year I’d like to invite the bankers, traders and the CEOs of corporations bailed out by taxpayers to sit with us at the Table. These men need to know that they are not alone.
They act as if they were not connected to the rest of us. They created practices, including bespoke derivatives, that while diverting huge sums of money to themselves, caused on-going suffering to just about everyone else on the planet. Financiers, no less than convicts, are married to those they have injured.
But they must feel separated from us. How else could they take compensations of more than $25 million each year while so many struggle for food, shelter and medical care?
In the USA, we fail to support Wall Street men in doing the inner work needed to experience their connection to the rest of us and to all that is. So, let the financiers join us at the Table. We are happy to help them contact and work with a special kind of bodily-felt meaning in the practice of Focusing we employ at the Table.
Around this Table, they will not only find support for their inner work, but a chance to widen their horizons. While many convicts I know are living their whole lives behind prison walls after having arguably committed less harm to the world’s people than the money men who collapsed the global economy, this may be the only opportunity the financiers ever have to see the inside of a prison.
Ah! Right here. I see I’m nowhere near as welcoming as I pretend to be. I can taste the furious bitter underneath my invitation. My bitterness is filled with badly formed questions: Why do we condemn and forever punish a young person who kills one human being and not even recognize as crime the millions of half-murders committed by older men? The older, well-educated, mostly white men, in heaping resources on themselves, condemn millions to die early for lack of food, shelter and medical care. The older killers don’t take the whole life of one other human being. They take part of the life of millions of other human beings. We don’t name partial-murders as “crime.” It’s just business.
When we keep a prisoner locked up decades past the time when his or her confinement serves any purpose other than revenge or profit-making for companies that build and manage prisons, why don’t we name that as a crime? A crime government commits against the prisoner?
The state treats one-victim killers as though they were fixed things frozen in evil. Yet, people are processes, not things. We can change. We can grow ever more empathic toward ourselves and others, just as Charlie did. We can increasingly feel our connection to others and want the best for them.
I see that growth in convicts. The prisoners I’ve been privileged to work among for the past 11 years have helped me to grow as well. So, I do know that, furious as I am at the partial- killers, they too can grow. They too can come to feel their sacred connection to all of us.
So, yes, finally, let’s invite them to the Table. We can seat the CEOs and traders between Barry’s ancestors and the light that shines in Rafael’s darkest moments.