Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shakespeare in prison

“In nature there’s no blemish but the mind. None can be called deformed but the unkind. (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)

Saturday night we enjoyed a rare privilege. We watched a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. That alone would have been great fun, but it was the the venue of the event that added adventure and heightened awareness. We were at a medium-security state prison in northern Oregon, and inmates preformed the play. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
A close friend of ours, let’s call him Dave, is a prisoner there.  We keep in regular telephone contact, and have been able to visit about once a year. He continues to bless and encourage us with the realities of repentance and transformation. But he remains a prisoner. And we remain close friends, doing all we can to make the encouragement mutual.
As a participant in the production, Dave had secured our tickets and urged us to attend.
We arrived in the early afternoon, in time to take advantage of visiting hours before the evening performance. Two other friends had joined us, and we sat with Dave around a small table, in a room full of other such small groups of inmates and guests. Guards stood around the walls. Dave was in high spirits and our conversation lively. We ended in prayer and left to check into our motel, grab a bite to eat, and return in time for another lengthy check in process.
I didn’t know what to expect. This would clearly be an amateur performance, with minimum staging and props. I had seen Twelfth Night years ago, along with members of the high school freshman English class I was teaching at the time. To refresh my memory I consulted Wikipedia’s synopsis of the play. But I was basically here to support Dave, not to experience great drama.
We conversed with our friends in the hushed tones the prison atmosphere inspires as we again went through the identity check, got stamped, found our group, and were ushered through the series of locked rooms and corridors that finally ended up in the multi-purpose room. But as we arrived this time, I immediately noted a change in the atmosphere. Instead of being separated and strictly guarded, the inmates, in their colorful Elizabethan costumes, mingled with the crowd. People were laughing and talking. Dave was playing medieval music on a synthesizer up front.
At exactly 6:00, we found our seats and the play began. Time passed more quickly than I would have imagined as we laughed and applauded for two hours. I loved watching men take the role of the women in the play, just as it was done in Shakespeare’s time. The role of Viola was especially funny as a man played the part of a woman pretending to be a man. He gave a convincing portrayal. This was real theater.  It was really Shakespeare in one of best live performances I have seen. I was frankly surprised.
But it was what happened afterward that made the evening so unforgettable. The play ended, and we were invited to have refreshments and mingle with the cast.  They were all beaming, buoyed up not only by our response but by knowing they had actually pulled it off. After refreshments, we gathered again, took our seats, with the cast sitting in front (much like a Quaker facing bench!) and talked together.
Cast members came from varying backgrounds, some with minimal education, only a few having read Shakespeare before, and most with no theater experience. The genesis of the project came from the director of the play, Johnny Stallings, a professional in theater who volunteers his time in the prison. A few years ago Stallings began visiting the prison once a week just to facilitate conversation among a group of inmates who wanted talk about life and death, family, freedom, and so on.  For three hours a week these men forgot they were prisoners.
At one point one of the prisoners suggested they read a Shakespearean play together, and Stallings was more than glad to facilitate. This was a first for most of them, but with help they came to appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare. Then someone suggested they perform a play, an audacious idea, and one that took time to run through the system and secure the necessary permissions.
But it happened, and three years ago the prison troupe preformed Hamlet. Last year, it was A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. A change in this year’s performance was the addition of costumes, on loan from the Portland Opera.  The troupe gives three performances for the public, on an invitation only basis, mostly to friends and family members. They perform at other times for fellow inmates.
As the cast members spoke, it became clear that the process itself was transformative. The challenge of moving beyond themselves, of doing something new and totally out of their experience, of entering the world of great literature, and succeeding, well, who wouldn’t be changed?  One of the cast members said that the opportunity to make us laugh, to give us such a good gift made it worthwhile. Another testified that the surprise of knowing he could come to understand and like Shakespeare, let alone perform a play, has changed how he sees himself. Just seeing all of them beam with pride and pleasure as we again broke into applause brought tears.
And I realized these men were not the only ones to forget they were prisoners.
In my past visits to the prison, to this very room, while I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dave, I had been reacting with suspicion to the others in the room. The whole experience of the careful check in process, the multitude of locked doors and guards, the prison garb itself had combined to make me afraid. It was through the lens of fear that I had been viewing the other men in the room, wondering what they had done, not daring to look directly at any of them. Another word for it would be prejudice. And I had not even recognized it.
Before Saturday night. What happened to me through the performance, through the time of visiting with the cast and then through hearing their stories was a transformational experience of my own. I saw men of talent and courage, men capable of great feats of memorization and performance, people with something to say and something to give, people I would like to have as friends. People worthy of respect. People.
I thank God for an experience that went beyond entertainment. I thank God for people like Johnny Stallings who continues to drive the three hours from Portland to the prison once a week. I thank God for hope in dark places. I thank God for Shakespeare in prison.
And I’m thankful that God can change even me.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Continuing the conversation: an exercise in paying attention

At North Valley Friends Church, we are beginning a year long sermon series on discipleship, focusing on the book of Mark. Concurrently, a new Wednesday evening class for adults, called “Continuing the Conversation,” is starting up. The intent of the class is to instill in us the disciplines and dispositions to become better at listening and discerning what God is saying as we gather for worship on Sunday morning.

As I prepared for last Sunday’s time of worship, I found helpful the instructions that the class facilitator sent to us.  The process he suggested to us is as follows: 

1.      Participate in worship service, take notes.
2.      Later in the day on Sunday, spend a few minutes reflecting on the meaning of the service and pray for guidance in application.
3.      Between Sunday and Wednesday, write a brief reflection paper.  Use the following prompts as a guide.
a.       What were key themes that were present in the service?
b.      Do you sense a continuous flow during the meeting,
c.       How did you feel and what were you thinking during the time?
d.      What confusion or lack of clarity did you take away from the service?
e.       What are you prompted to do as a result of the sermon?
f.       What passages of scripture come to mind, what can you read to extend the learning about this service?
4.      Engage others in conversation on Wednesday night.  Make commitment for continued reflection and application.  Explore scripture passages and other related readings
5.      Write one more follow-up prior to next Sunday’s service ( a brief journal entry or two).
6.      Notice, reflect, pray and report.

My reflections from Sunday morning
I went to church primed and ready to receive. I prayed that God would help me not be so focused on this process and on how I would respond on Wednesday evening that I would neglect to worship.

It helps that I attend the early unprogrammed meeting, which becomes not only a preparation for programmed worship, but a worship experience in itself. The gathering word came from a quote by Carolyn Stephens about God who communicates: “The one cornerstone of belief upon which the Society of Friends is built is the conviction that God does indeed communicate with each one of the spirits he has made, in a direct and living inbreathing of some measure of the breath of his own life; that he never leaves himself without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man; and that in order clearly to hear the divine voice thus speaking to us we need to be still….”

Several people spoke into the silence, one about an atheistic scientist who found Christ through research on the human genome project, the other a personal story about seeing a deer in a small forest in the middle of Newberg. I felt awe and gratitude before the fact that God communicates with us in so many ways.

So many aspects of programmed worship spoke to me. The words of the songs became prayer: “Knowing you, Jesus, there is no greater thing;” “Oh draw me, Lord, and I’ll run after you;” “We have decided to follow Jesus.” During the baby dedication, I had the strong sense of the community vowing to follow Jesus in the care and discipleship of our children. I felt his pleasure and was moved by the seriousness of this commitment.

Lynn preached on several passages from Mark 1 and 2, and the parts that stood out to me concerned Jesus’ calling of the disciples. “Follow me.” Here are some of the points I noted down about the call to follow and our response:
--Jesus calls his disciples into a community of followers.
--We don’t necessarily get to choose our companions on this journey.
--Jesus initiates the call.
--He calls ordinary people.
--Worse (or better) than that, he calls sinners, traitors and sick/wounded people.
--The call to follow in the Jesus way is integral, involving all of our life.
--The decision to follow is made over and over again.

And mixed in with these formal elements of worship were the greetings, conversations, warm connections with my fellow followers. This, too, is worship.

Now, several days later, what is lingering and growing is the voice of Jesus throughout the day, inviting: “Follow me.”  On Monday, as I communicated with the students in my online class, as I interacted by email and phone with other members of the administrative team, as I prepared for the writers group and, later that evening, led a meeting of the elders and pastors, this invitation accompanied me. I had a very real sense of following Jesus in each endeavor.

This continues and has become a profound and deeply encouraging experience. I know what Jesus is saying to me through the Sunday worship. Now I broaden the question: What is he saying to us as a community?

Monday, September 19, 2011

A mouse ate my poem

and I'm really mad.
It had been months since the words flowed
from brain to hand to page and I was anguished,
wondering if my muse was on extended coffee break
or if this was a clear-cut case of abandonment.
But then, last night as I was brushing my teeth,
it came to me, pure and full-blown, the perfect poem.
So I rushed from the bathroom to my desk,
grabbed paper and pen, put it all down,
then basked for a moment in creative relief.
I left it there on the edge where I'd be sure
to see it first thing in the morning.

It's morning now, but all I find are nibbled margins,
a few Sanskrit footprints in the dust,
and down on the carpet,
barely visible, one small grey poop of a metaphor.


(From The Secret Colors of God: Poems by Nancy Thomas, Barclay Press, 2005)

Friday, September 9, 2011

My lips are sealed

Right now Hal and I are in Springfield, Oregon at our daughter’s home, helping out with the grandkids. We are giving Kristin time to do her online courses, while we care for three-year-old Peter. Peter is legally blind and autistic. Other than that, he is a bright, beautiful, active toddler. And life is an adventure.

Among the many things we’re learning about autism are the unique ways people with this condition process language. They think in pictures and take things very literally. They have trouble with metaphors and imagery.

The other morning I was getting Peter up and I said something that irritated him. He ordered me to “No Grandma talk!”

I responded with, “You don’t want me to say that? All right. My lips are sealed.”

He immediately sat up in bed, dug his stuffed seal out of the covers, found its mouth and said, “Seal’s got lips. Seal’s got lips.” (Repetition is another characteristic, usually more than twice.)

I laughed and tried to explain what I meant. We then got him dressed and headed down the hall to breakfast. Entirely out of context, he said, “Peter’s lips are sealed,” then changed it to a question, “Are Peter’s lips sealed?”

We enjoyed his remark so much that he has adopted this phrase and at various times throughout the day, always out of context, he will inform us that “My lips are sealed.” The new bed time ritual involves picking up his seal and making some comment on his lips, after which he’s free to go to sleep.

Life is indeed an adventure, and young Peter is teaching us much. He certainly keeps me on my toes. (Now how would he picture that phrase? Grandma in a tutu, doing pirouettes?)

Though his lips may be sealed, Peter can still grin.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I collect, therefore I am

Several centuries ago, RenĂ© Descarte wrote, “I think, therefore I am” (1637), thus laying one of the foundational stones of Western philosophy. Modern thinkers challenge Descartes’ affirmation, in search of a more holistic image of human existence. But approaches to the essence of humanness abound. The Latin American equivalent might be, “I relate, therefore I am.” Some would say that the North American version is, “I consume, therefore I am,” or, for the workaholics among us, “I produce, therefore I am.”

Recently I spent a delightful afternoon with a friend. Gary talked about his writing projects and among them was a reflection on his collections. The idea originally came from an exercise in self-reflection, pondering what the things we collect say about who we are. I found his article fascinating and insightful and decided to do the same exercise myself.

I’ve been a collector all my life. Much of this stuff I no longer own. My stamp collection became too expensive and demanding, so I finally just gave it away. I outgrew the dolls and comic books. But I still collect. And while I don’t really believe my collections define my existence, it’s still an insightful exercise.

I collect heart rocks. Why? Because they’re small, pretty and very inexpensive. And because I love the way they feel in my hands and the way they sound when I tumble them together. And because it’s a bit of a challenge to find them. Whenever I go to the beach I manage to bring home one or two. When a visitor to my home admires my heart rocks (and not everyone even notices them), I invite her to take one home. For keeps, as my grandkids would put it.


I have a wooden bird collection. These come from Bolivia and show both the beauty of Bolivia’s tropical woods and the skills of her craftsmen. My wooden goose accompanies me every day as I work at my computer, reminds me of where I’m from and what I love.

My wooden puzzle collection speaks mainly to my role as a grandmother. The grandkids love these animal puzzles and, although they’re harder than they look to put together, the kids have become quite good at it. These come from Costa Rica, a place I visit frequently as a teacher and have come to love. They represent the colors, creativity, and natural beauty of this place.

Hal and I both collect books and some of our rooms look rather like libraries. We have several categories of books, and my favorite collection, that includes movies as well as books, has to do with stories about cultural values, communication styles, and intercultural relationships. I especially like books and movies produced by the culture they represent. Favorite authors include (among many others) Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan), Ynag Erche Namu (southern China), Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt), Isabel Allende (Chile), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua), Sandra Cisneros (Hispanic American), Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan (Chinese American), Jung Chang (China) and Jhumpa Lahiri (Indian American). The movies include my favorite, Babette’s Feast (Denmark), The Necessities of Life (Inuit culture), Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Taiwan), and Departures (Japan). There are many more, but you get the idea. This reflects my life as a poet, writer and participant/observer, having lived most of my adult years outside the US.

I collect words. I collect them as favorite poems, some committed to memory. I collect funny (always insightful) things my kids and grandkids have said. I remember interesting conversations (some overheard) and billboards along the highways. I store in my mind words that sound beautiful, funny or interesting, as separate entities or in phrases. I use them when appropriate. Hal and I read good books out loud to each other, partly because we like the sound of the words. When we were reading Jacob Have I Loved (yes, a book for young people), we came across the word lugubrious, and just stopped to admire it, guessing its meaning from the context (and later looking it up). I then wrote this poem in honor of the word:

A WORD LIKE LUGUBRIOUS

needs a poem of its own.

Consider the slime and the slink of it,

the slightly sinister wink of its eye

as it peeks from behind potted plants at wakes,

lingers at the altars of Protestant revivals,

or sobs with soap opera heroines.

An irreverent Uriah Heapish word,

a marbles-in-the-mouth sound,

it offers no apologies

for its lumpish singularity.

Some suggestions for everyday use:

--"This piano is lugubriously out of tune."

--"He shed a lugubrious tear

as she passed him the marmalade."

--"This morning at exactly 5:37,

a lugubrious lummox was sighted

at the corner of 11th and Lucerne

in downtown LA. We have investigators

on the scene and will interrupt our broadcast

to bring up-to-date coverage

on this fast-breaking story."

--"Not tonight, dear. I'm feeling lugubrious."


What are some of your collections? What do they reveal about you?