Yesterday I took part in a Casino-Free Philadelphia protest. It was a long day. Up at 4:00 AM, on Delaware Avenue by 6:00, still dark, the first rosy glow not yet visible on the horizon across the river.
I was one of those who volunteered to be arrested: civil disobedience-- a symbolic blocking of the construction site of the state imposed Sugarhouse casino. One by one, we had our hands cuffed behind our backs, and one by one, helped into police vans. That was the most uncomfortable part of the day—almost two hours in the vans before being taken out for processing… the cuffs cut from our wrists. I had been worried about the nerve damage in my shoulder—but because of it, I could not press my hands close enough together behind my back for them to tighten the plastic cuffs. Mercifully, I was able to slip out of the bands to relieve my injured shoulder—and sneak a scratch on my nose. I was very careful to keep this hidden, slip my hand back into the bands, lest they tighten those straps and leave me in real discomfort.
We were processed and placed two by two in cells. The walls, ceiling—virtually every painted surface was covered with graffiti—scratched, gouged, burned, written with markers… amazing, given that we were stripped of pens, belts, shoelaces… virtually everything but paper money… and our eyeglasses (which I think was a concession to our ‘special status’ as civil criminals). Each cell was approximately 6 x 9 feet, a steel bench about 30 inches wide on one side, the usual open steel toilet against the back wall… ours did not flush.
I would have been honored to share this space with any of my companions—there was, for one… George Lakey, a lifetime advocate of peace and teacher of non-violence…I single him out only because it was Lakey who made me recall Wilmer Young from some forty years back. I’ll return to that later. But for my state at the time, I could not have had a better cell mate than Jessee Brown. If I say we talked about everything under the sun, you would think I was exaggerating. But it would only be a modest description of our conversations… from the microwave radiation left from the Big Bang to alternative deaths of our own life giving star, from cuttle fish and squids to poetry, learning to overcome adversity and of course—a wide range of social concerns and politics, of which he has a depth of knowledge and experience far beyond my own... but it wasn’t the conversations (and they weren’t limited to the two of us… but included the police guards, who were by no means enthusiastic about what those casinos would mean for their work)… it was the hours we spent in meditation. Each in our own place, in our own way… and yet, a presence... by not letting go… by letting each other alone… and for that, a sharing all the more intimate.
Our first quiet period lasted almost four hours. Time did not stand still, far from it! The body does not give up its right to complain for lack of exercise, restricted circulation-- but neither did time weigh us down in its passing. I say “us”… I hope, without presumption. We didn’t say much about it—expect for mentioning the fact—but I had the sense that this was a time of deep significance for both of us—if in howsoever different ways. When we are in a place of greatly restricted possibilities, freedom resides in the ability to accept those limits, and let ourselves dwell in the unfettered reach of a mind without need to control what comes next… or when.
It was a great relief to hear, some 12 hours later, the cheers of those who endured what was likely an even more boring passing of hours to wait for our release. I thought, what a fine and practical skill, this meditation business is in such circumstances. And perhaps, I’m only reading into the experience what I would like… but so many things have come together for me in the 24 hours since that I cannot, however objective I try to be, dismiss the connection, the deeply felt connection, between those hours of meditation and this gradual sense of freedom and new direction that’s been seeping out, and into me… like the gas leak in my stove…
When I came home last night, there was a fire truck, lights blinking… and in front of my apartment! Men inside… but that’s another story…( 3 days later, landlord has yet to replace the stove)
For five months, since learning that I would not be teaching again this fall, I've been looking for part time work. Without success. I had already become reconciled to scaling down and living on Social Security. My needs are simple. I sleep on a blanket roll on the floor. I have no car, little property… my books, a gift mountain bike, clothes to keep me warm in winter. This is not a problem.
But what has been troubling me… for all the time I've had on my hands—why has it been so difficult to make effective use of it to work on my writing? Am I essentially lazy? I know how much I need to do this… it’s my one most effective counter to disabilitating depression. I’ve missed the structure that teaching provided. And missed the volunteer work I did in the presidential campaign--missed being involved in something that mattered to the community at large--not lost in my own solipsistic dreams.
These were things that had been on my mind for some time before I went to the Casino-Free Philly protest yesterday... it wasn’t anything I'd thought or talked about then, in those long hours of conversation and meditation, but something that rose to consciousness later... why look for a paying job when there were so many things I could do as a volunteer?
How easily we miss what should be most obvious!
Tonight I went to a Friends of the Free Library meeting—my local branch.I recalled how important the library had been to me as a child, and when they asked what my interest was, what had brought me there, I had to speak very slowly to keep my emotions from overflowing.
Here's what I can do with this gift of freedom, I thought--not having to grade papers or worry about class evaluations… or…
Sitting in that cell I recalled stories about the Quaker, Wilmer Young-- how at the age of 70 he refused to pay taxes, and at 80, had submitted himself to arrest for civil disobedience--by climbing a fence guarding a ballistic missile site. Here I was, 12 years short of his age at the time... and the memory of carrying those stacks of books home from the library when I was a child--of conspiring with the librarian to let me browse and check out books from the adult shelves... something came together. Not necessarily work with the library... but a larger idea... finding ways I might offer my time and service, and let that define the structure that I need for my writing... and for my life.
I remembered an old woman when I was knocking on doors for Obama. She told me she resented paying taxes for schools… because she had no children… and I thought, but did not say: because you have no children, those taxes are the future you would otherwise have no claim to.
The time left to one is not measured by the duration between the present and the day of one's death, but by the duration and vitality of the life of the human community one serves.
A video of the action HERE. I'm the one with black cap, white beard, 1:02 -1:16 into the video. Meditating as we await ARREST. A bit player in a bigger picture.