Posts Tagged ‘Friendship’
I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.
— Thomas Merton
“Matthew, can I visit you?” Sr. Marijo was on the other end of the line.
“Sure, Sister! I would love that.”
A flood of wonderful memories crossed through Matthew’s mind as he told me that we were going to have a visitor. He remembered this quote from Thomas Merton, who has largely influenced his life:
I have only one desire, and that is the desire for solitude—to disappear into God, to be submerged in His peace, to be lost in the secret of His Face.
Sr. Marijo introduced Zen to Matthew almost 40 years ago. With a small group of friends, they would regularly visit her and sit in meditation together. Needless to say, it was a life changing experience for them. Since then, Matthew shares to me how Zen has helped him deepen his Christian faith and how it has helped him cope with the challenges of life. (see this blog post: A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen).
I really enjoyed listening to their animated conversation and as Matthew describes it, “It’s as if the conversation just stopped for a while and we took off from where we left off.” I guess these are just the stuff that real friendships are made of.
This year, Matthew and I were quite busy. We became godparents to the highly energetic and lovable son of Alex and Robe Ann. We were also able to attend the 50th Golden Anniversary of our godparents, Tito Peter and Tita Dory. It was so much fun to meet and catch up with many people we’ve not seen in a long time.
Also, this year, our endeared godparent Tito Tony passed away. We are saddened by the loss of one of the most generous persons that we have ever known. Thank you, Tito Tony for everything.
Of course, we cannot end this letter without mentioning our blog. Now on its eighth year, we have grown to have 319 followers and have reached a whooping 404,265+ hits! We are happy because people are visiting our blog, liking our posts and our cyber community continues to grow.
May the blessings of Christmas be with you. May the Christ Child light your way. May God’s holy angels guide you, and keep you safe each day.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all.
Matthew and Jojang
I have been reading about freedom in confined spaces. How a prison cell can become a practice ground. I have never been to a prison and somewhere in my mind I have an image of a cell as a stark, empty place, a place of isolation and silence. It does not seem a far leap to link the word “cell” with a monk’s quarters.
Paradoxically, the most vivid the world has ever been to me was during a sesshin, a week-long Zen meditation retreat. No television, no books, no writing, no eye contact, no radio, a strict schedule and limitations everywhere.
All of a sudden the empty world around me was alive – a teacup filled with magenta, a colour my eyes had never witnessed, the syllables in the chant book leaping off the page, each one distinct and embodied with life. I wonder what this space of silence is, where what seems to be empty is in fact very full and what feels like a prison can be a vast open space? With this in mind, I go to meet Sister Elaine MacInnes.
Sister Elaine lives in a modest house on a crescent in a residential, east-end Toronto neighbourhood. This is the main house belonging to Our Lady’s Missionaries, a community of Roman Catholic nuns founded in 1949. It looks as if it could be an old people’s home or a retirement community; nothing spectacular here. On the inside there isn’t anything obviously religious about the space – just a communal kitchen with a long counter, a living room with large windows looking out onto a ravine, violets growing in the windows, a sofa and some modest chairs, a coffee table with a doily, a calendar on the wall. Not a cross or icon in sight.
Sister Elaine MacInnes has been on the phone all morning. At eighty-two, things are not really slowing down for this Roman Catholic nun who is also a Zen Roshi. She was talking to the Prison Phoenix Trust in England, where she was director for seven years. Next she had to handle an incident involving sex offenders in one of the Canadian prisons where she sends yoga and meditation teachers now. It seems that some of the teachers are uneasy working with pedophiles. Sister Elaine does not distinguish between sex offenders, murderers, political prisoners, young offenders or lifers – they are all people she can offer help to and bring a little more freedom into their trapped places. “We hold out a little hope for people in doing meditation when they are in that state,” she says confidently.
Sister Elaine has led a truly extraordinary life. When you look back, it appears to have been guided. Originally from a musical family in Moncton, New Brunswick, she joined Our Lady’s Missionaries in 1953 after studying violin at Julliard in New York. While training to become a nun, she read the writings of St. Francis Xavier and was struck by his experience of attempting to encounter a monk on Mt. Hiei near Kyoto in Japan. She made a secret vow that where he had not succeeded she would.
As fate had it, in 1961 Sister Elaine’s first missionary assignment was to Japan. Not only did she climb Mt. Hiei and meet a monk, she went on to join an order of Rinzai Buddhist nuns at Enkoji in Kyoto, where she lived for eight years. She then practised zazen (sitting meditation) and koan study in the Sanbo Kyodan order in Kamakura under the tutelage of Yamada Koun Roshi, from whom she received transmission in 1980 as a Roshi or “old teacher.”
In 1976, Sister Elaine was transferred to the Philippines during the worst years of the Marcos regime. It was through her work opening a Zen centre for the Catholic Church in Manila that she ended up teaching meditation to political prisoners. Her work in prisons would become her vocation.
Wearing all black clothes, the only splash of colour a cloth flower in vivid hues of orange and red attached to her lapel with a clothespin, her eyes shining as bright as the day she was born, she does not look like a monk or a nun, a Buddhist or a Catholic. Her voice has its Maritime lilt still intact despite the forty-three years she spent abroad, testimony to how vivid and true her personality is.
She may have had “the bottom fall out in a most spectacular way” when she experienced satori, but the “no-self” or “extinguishing of the self” that Zen points to has led to the much more vivid human being. No spiritual trappings here, no pretensions, no stink of Zen or Catholicism or anything I can put a finger on. And perhaps that is her greatest majesty and greatest mystery. Sister Elaine seems ordinary, someone you might encounter on the street in a small town, a warm-hearted neighbour, and yet it is quite clear that she is the real thing, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met: a true mystic.
Surprisingly, Sister Elaine does not consider herself to be a Buddhist. In Kamakura, she studied with a unique teacher from the Sanbo Kyodan order, a mixture of the two dominant schools of Zen (Soto and Rinzai). He was a teacher who did not draw lines of division between lay people and monks, men and women, or even between religions. “You know, there is no separation. We make separation.” She describes the Sunday talks that her teacher Yamada Roshi would give, and said they were filled with Buddhist references.
“I was never moved to be a Buddhist,” she says. When people in Japan asked her about it, she would say, “Look, I was just brought up in Moncton, New Brunswick. I can’t all of a sudden say I have had a hundred lives beforehand. I was born on March 7th in 1924 and I was fresh and clean and I have my own personality. I’m not another hundred thousand people behind me.” When her teacher noticed her first breakthroughs in Zen practice, he simply said, “Now you go out and be a better Christian and a better Sister.”
Sister Elaine speaks of Zen as being about direct experience, not words or objects. “There was never anything but the right now, right here.” Even the Buddha requested that his words not be recorded. He taught from experience and it was these practices that were later to be the basis for Zen teachings, but the terms themselves and the religious elements of Buddhism were recorded later. “Scholars say the Buddha grew up in a Hindu country so that he just went back to the religious matrix of his time.”
Of her own teaching Sister Elaine says, “I have Jewish people and I have Muslims and I have people with no religion and it doesn’t bother me at all. I just try to use quite a few different terms so that people won’t get stuck on one. We don’t find it necessary to impose a god on you, we just ask you to sit down and keep quiet.” She laughs heartily at this.
“My teacher in Japan used to say ‘we are all born to be mystics.’ And I say that goes for each of us. There were twenty-four lifers who had all committed murder in Wormwood Scrubs Prison in England and I went around to each one and I said, ‘that means you’ and there wasn’t one snicker.” When Sister Elaine talks about the prisoners she works with, it is with a great deal of love and an incredible dose of optimism. “There is no guile there, you know, and they’re lovely, lovely to work with.”
In 1992, Sister Elaine was invited to become the director of the Prison Phoenix Trust in Oxford, UK, whose patron is the English actor Jeremy Irons. She set up a network of yoga and meditation teachers who go into penitentiaries across the UK and Eire, teaching simple yoga postures and breath-centred meditation to prisoners who voluntarily come to the classes. The idea behind the Prison Trust is that the space of a prison cell can become a practice ground, not unlike a monk’s cell.
My first image of a prison cell was perhaps a little off. Sister Elaine tells me that most of them are filled to the brim with “fifteen or twenty pictures of all kinds of different girls, a teapot, cups, all sorts of mementos…My experience working with people is that the more they go into Zen the less they need accoutrements.” So an empty cell only comes later, with an empty mind. It is also a constant struggle to find silence in a prison; they are noisy, bustling places “full of society.”
The yoga and meditation taught are a practice of “silent body, silent mind,” and apparently it works. By the time she retired from the Trust, Sister Elaine had set up eighty-six teachers in prisons across the UK and they receive thousands of letters each month from the inmates. “I would say our discipline is therapeutic and that is why it is so important for prisoners.”
The kind of zazen they teach is Shikantaza. “‘Shika’ means ‘only’ and ‘ta’ means ‘to hit’ and the ‘za’ is squatting on the floor. It is something that will hit the mark.” Simple counting of breath is emphasized, as well as correct posture. “The bottom line of meditation for a teacher is that you’re bringing people to a deeper state of consciousness and that involves something very, very touchy. There is something in practising silence the way we teach that is very safe, and to my knowledge it has never been known for anyone to crack up.”
In her prison programs, Sister Elaine felt it necessary to balance meditation practices with yoga instruction. Yoga Outreach, a charity organization based in Surrey, BC, was asked to implement a yoga program for the correctional institutions in Canada. The yoga postures taught are breath-centred to facilitate a link between body and mind.
The practice of yoga and meditation brings a space of silence to the prisoners, and with this seems to follow discipline, productivity, a sense of purpose, an alleviation of depression, a reduction in violence, and in the long run, a reduced rate of recidivism. This approach fits in with a paradigm shift slowly being introduced into the judicial system called Restorative Justice.
One of the most moving letters Sister Elaine ever received was from a nineteen-year-old prisoner: “As long as I can remember I have had a pain in my chest. When I got to prison it got worse. For one month I have been doing just what you say and I want you to know that not only is the pain better now, but for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark within myself that I can like.”
Initially, it was her experience in the Philippines that convinced Sister Elaine of the effectiveness of yoga and meditation as tools for working with prisoners. When sent to the Philippines during the Marcos regime to open a zendo (Zen meditation hall), she unwittingly attracted many dissidents into the practice.
“Boy” Morales, a renowned rebel who headed the New People’s Army against the dictatorship, asked her to come and teach meditation at the Bago Bantay detention centre, where he and nine other political prisoners were being held and tortured. It took the protection of the Canadian Embassy to ensure her safety – General Verr, the head of Marcos’ army and Intelligence, happened to owe them a favour. And so, in spite of her fears, Sister Elaine went to teach meditation to political prisoners. “I couldn’t have said no. And it was an eye opener for me how a person can change from an angry, enervated, depressed person into … I saw them come out of all their jerkings (from the shock treatment) and they became productive. But you need a lot of sitting if you want real results. In some ways you can say there are no miracles in Zen.”
Because of that work, Sister Elaine became director of the Prison Phoenix Trust. When she returned to Canada she decided to set up a similar organization here. It is called Freeing the Human Spirit and in spite of initial resistance from the Canadian prison authorities, she has managed to place yoga and meditation instructors in prisons across Canada. “You don’t find much openness toward anyone in prison in Canada, do you? There is no death sentence here, so a lot of them are going to be back on the streets again, so it is to our advantage to rehabilitate them. Prisons don’t work, that’s the first thing we have to remember.”
Even though Sister Elaine sees the flaws in our penal system, she continues to run Freeing the Human Spirit with a great deal of optimism and enthusiasm, and she does it because it works for the prisoners. “I suppose everybody in a position like mine goes through a time when they try and get more justice in the system.” Sister Elaine recognizes that the work she does is separate from a political struggle for change. She says that if she were to take that up, it would only build a dichotomy between the officers and the prisoners. “I am staying on the prisoners’ side,” she tells me. “Other people will try and get a better idea going. I don’t know what that idea is, but Restorative Justice is a very good step.” In 2001, Sister Elaine was awarded the Order of Canada for her humanitarian work.
When thinking about Sister Elaine, the image I am left with is from a documentary film made about her life and work called The Fires that Burn. The image of an inmate – shaved head and tattooed arms, his muscled body suddenly looking very fragile as he holds himself in Plank pose. I have never seen anyone do yoga with such tenderness and fear before. This is clearly fertile ground – the space for things that are broken to mend in silence.
Note: Almost 40 years ago I had my first sesshin in 1978, that is, a Zen retreat, with Sr. Elaine Macinnes. Thanks to Sr. Marie Jose Garcia who introduced me and some friends to Sr. Elaine. (By the way, Sr. Marie Jose visited I and my wife yesterday. I was so happy to see her. It was almost 20 years since I last saw her).
On my first dokusan or interview with a Zen teacher, Sr. Elaine gave me the Mu-koan. It took me 20+ years before I could have some insight on the koan. But it was worth it. It happened when I attended a one-week Zen retreat with my 2nd Zen teacher, Sr. Sonia Punzalan. I wrote an account of what happened to me during that retreat in this blog post — A Touch of Enlightenment: A Christian’s Encounter with Zen.
I realize that the one wish that was granted to me, so late in life, was the gift of friendship.
— From the movie “Finding Forrester”
When was the last time a Hollywood movie portrayed the acts of reading and writing in such a gratifying and fulfilling way that it made you want to read a real book rather than an “airport” bestseller? And when was the last time you saw an interracial mentor-pupil relationship presented as mutually rewarding, and interracial teenage romance depicted without punitive condescension or parental disapproval? Gus Van Sant’s deftly crafted “Finding Forrester” achieves all of the above and more: It provides a platform for Sean Connery to deliver a definitive, career-summation performance as a reclusive, charismatic literary legend. With the right handling, Columbia has a sure winner here, a skillfully written, expertly acted picture whose uplifting plot should score high among viewers across the board.
With the notable exception of “Psycho,” his futile 1998 remake, Van Sant’s technical work continues to improve in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. His work has always shown a fondness for outsiders, but rather than merely depicting them sympathetically, Van Sant places his outcasts in crisis, forcing them to confront their relationship to society and its rules. Two of the filmmaker’s most-used motifs are highlighted in the new film: the moral odyssey of outsiders and the casual randomness of urban life.
Indeed, on the surface, “Finding Forrester” tells a similar story to that of Van Sant’s 1997 Oscar-winning “Good Will Hunting,” with Connery playing the Robin Williams part and black teenager Rob Brown in the Matt Damon role, a gifted kid with a chip on his shoulder. While “Forrester” is critical of conservative educational institutions and tyrant instructors, it doesn’t put down the system itself.
With a touch of “Rear Window” voyeurism, narrative depicts Forrester as a silver-haired eccentric who spends a lot of time at his Bronx apartment window, seemingly observing a bunch of black kids playing ball in a court across the street; later it turns out he’s an avid bird-watcher. Veiled in mystery, the last the world has heard of Forrester was more than 40 years ago, when he was a brilliant Pulitzer-winning novelist. His book, which has since become a cherished classic, is apparently his only literary output.
As the youngsters are aware of Forrester’s invisible presence, their curiosity naturally builds. Sneaking into his apartment to get info about the mythical man, 16-year-old Jamal (Brown) accidentally leaves behind a backpack full of his writing. The next day, the bag appears at the window and, to Jamal’s surprise, his papers have been read and graded by Forrester. An unlikely relationship begins, marked by all the familiar ups and downs of such bonds. Turning point occurs when an exclusive Manhattan prep school recruits Jamal for his basketball talent and his academic achievement, and he seeks Forrester’s help in dealing with the new environment, becomes a reluctant hero and Jamal gradually becomes committed not only to his own writing, but to cracking Forrester’s shell.
Central acts chronicle the flowering of a union that goes beyond the routine teacher-pupil interaction. While lines of authority are clearly maintained, Mike Rich’s graceful script shows how dependent the mentor becomes on the kid, who evolves from an intrigued fan to a loyal student to a social companion, all the while determined to reignite Forrester’s passion for writing before it’s too late. Though earnest and utterly predictable, yarn avoids the traps of the similarly themed “Educating Rita,” in which a working-class hairdresser-wife (Julie Walters) forces a boozy professor (Michael Caine) to become her instructor. “Forrester” doesn’t unfold as a series of calculated setups painted with a broad brush — there are no cutesy scenes like Rita giving her mentor a shampoo. Rich inserts enough narrative subtleties and moral shadings into a friendship that ultimately becomes a surrogate family relationship.
The text is extremely old-fashioned: A crucial scene at school, in which Jamal is reprimanded for his conduct, functions as the equivalent of a courtroom scene, in which an inflexible teacher (F. Murray Abraham) is contrasted with good ones. A bigger mistake is that the filmmakers signal where the tale will ultimately go about a reel before it gets there.
Undoubtedly, it’s the bravura acting that binds viewers to the characters’ shifting emotions from one scene to the next. “Forrester” is very much a chamber piece for two, with more than half the scenes set indoors in Forrester’s cluttered, oversize apartment, inventively textured by production designer Jane Musky to capture the feel of a capacious pre-WWII residence, which later becomes a kind of Never Never Land. What gives pic a much needed outdoor cinematic dimension are the basketball scenes, which are dynamically shot by lenser Harris Savides, and Valdis Oskarsdottir provides modulated editing.
Playing the Salinger-like writer of legendary stature, Connery expertly fills the bill as a man who’s at once ingratiating and infuriating, a recluse who needs to be rescued from misanthropy. The role allows the actor to display his signature humor, a flourish of arrogance balanced by depth. Connery hasn’t only stopped masking his Scottishness, but now integrates it into the plot. But Forrester is by no means a one-man show.
Amazingly, with no previous experience, Brown stands up to Connery, and in some scenes even matches him with his inner strength and stillness. Anna Paquin plays a student who fosters a flirtatious friendship with Jamal, while “Good Will Hunting” star Matt Damon pops up for a late-in-the-game cameo.
— Emanuel Levy
How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns!
~ Isaiah 52:7
This verse keeps repeating in my mind as I contemplate on the lovely Cordillera mountain from where I sit at a coffee shop situated on the top floor of a mall here in Baguio City.
Where does this serenity in the midst of turbulence come from?
You see, the past year has been a tumultuous year for Matthew and I. We were faced with so much stress that it has taken its toll on our health. Twice, Matthew had to be confined in the hospital, while I suffered some setbacks as well (weakened by my hospitalization around this time last year).
However, although unpleasant, this difficulty we recently faced turned out to be a faith building exercise for us. We stand witness to God’s faithfulness as big and small miracles happened… before we knew it, our concerns were being addressed… issues resolved and very slowly but surely problems solved.
To say that we are awed and humbled is an understatement … Thank you, Lord!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank our doctors who patiently and lovingly take care of us. In spite of Matthew’s stress related hospitalization, he recovers much faster now than before — a marked improvement. I, on the other hand, am grateful for my home based work wherein I do what I immensely enjoy doing.
I cannot end this letter without mentioning this blog which is a source of joy for us. As of this writing, we have 134 followers and have reached 192,963 hits. All in a span of 5 years. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever imagine that we will be able to reach out to so many people through this blog. It excites us that we have developed friendships on cyberspace too. We got to meet like minded individuals who share our beliefs, convictions and interests. A wonderful blessing!
Let me end this Christmas letter with a quote from one of Matthew’s favourite authors:
If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.
~ Meister Eckhart
And we say, “Thank you, Lord” … Indeed, you are good!
Here’s wishing you a meaningful Christmas and a grace filled New Year ahead.
Matthew and Jojang
The following is an excerpt from Laura Bates’s Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard. Bates taught Shakespeare to solitary confinement prison inmates. She befriends a convicted murderer named Larry. The following is the story of their budding friendship:
“Oh, man, this is my favorite freakin’ quote!”
What professor wouldn’t like to hear a student enthuse so much over a Shakespeare play—a Shakespeare history play, no less!—and then to be able to flip the two-thousand page Complete Works book open and find the quote immediately:
“’When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound!’”
He smacks the book as he finishes reading. Meanwhile, I’m still scrambling to find the quote somewhere in
“Act uh . . . ?”
“Act five, scene four,” my student informs me, again smacking the page with his enthusiastic fist. “Oh, man, that is crazy!”
Yes, this is crazy: I am sitting side-by-side with a prisoner who has just recently been allowed to join the general prison population after more than ten years in solitary confinement. We met in 2003 when I created the first-ever Shakespeare program in a solitary confinement unit and spent three years working together in that unit. Now we have received unprecedented permission to work together, alone, unsupervised, to create a series of Shakespeare workbooks for prisoners. Larry Newton is gesticulating so animatedly that it draws the attention of an officer walking by our little classroom. He pops his head inside.
“Everything okay in here?” he asks.
“Just reading Shakespeare,” I reply.
He shakes his head and walks on.
“That is crazy!” Newton repeats, his head still in the book.
A record ten and a half consecutive years in solitary confinement, and he’s not crazy, he’s not dangerous—he’s reading Shakespeare.
* * *
I started doing volunteer work in Chicago’s Cook County Jail because of an argument with my husband’s friend, a theatre practitioner working in maximum-security prisons. “Those guys are beyond rehabilitation,” I insisted. “You should focus on first-time offenders.” And, to test out my own hypothesis, that’s what I did. At the time I could not have imagined that eventually I would be working in supermax—that is, the long-term solitary confinement unit, the prison within the prison.In the twenty years I had spent working as a volunteer and as an instructor in prisons in Chicago and Indiana, I had never met an inmate who scared me. Until Larry Newton. The day we met, I was going cell to cell in the solitary confinement unit looking for prisoners interested in reading Shakespeare. Eventually, I would have as many as fifty prisoners on my waiting list, nearly one out of every four housed in the unit. At the beginning, I would have been happy to find at least one. But when I looked at Newton through the pegboard steel door of his cell, I crossed his name off of my list, thinking, “I can’t work with this one.”
So what was I doing one week later, fighting for special permission to get one of the most allegedly dangerous prisoners in the state’s supermax unit into my Shakespeare program? It wasn’t something in me; it was something in Newton. And it was obvious from the start. Not the first time he looked at me, or the first time he spoke to me, but the first time he wrote for me. It was in response to the initial Shakespeare assignment that I distributed to segregated prisoners as a way of screening prospective participants: a soliloquy from the last act of Shakespeare’s history play,
Spoken by the overthrown king who is now imprisoned, the speech begins: “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world. And, for because the world is populous and here is not a creature but myself, I cannot do it.” Along with the speech, I attached a blank sheet of paper with one question:
While most prisoners scribbled a brief response, Newton submitted a full page, both sides, with incongruous smiley faces punctuating every other sentence:
That comment alone earned him a place in the program. Awareness of multiplicity of interpretation is the key to reading Shakespeare. Not bad for a fifth-grade drop-out.
And his conclusion captured the deeper philosophical lesson about the meaning of life in Richard’s speech:
Wow. That was the most thoughtful response I had ever gotten to an initial Shakespeare assignment—in prison, or on campus. And Newton didn’t even know who Shakespeare was.
* * *
Whenever a participant left the program, I distributed a little survey in which I asked, “What has Shakespeare done for you?”“It helped me to expand my mind,” Green had written.
“It introduced me to a whole new world,” Jones had written.
“It got me out of my cell,” Guido had written.
After I watched Newton disappear down the hallway, I took the folded paper out of my pocket. It was the survey. What has Shakespeare done for you? He had written, “Shakespeare saved my life.”
My research confirmed that the program did have an effect: lessening the likelihood of violent incidents in a population with extensive histories of violence. I studied the conduct records of twenty of the most long-standing and active participants in the program and found that their combined conduct history accounted for more than 600 violent or Class A offenses, including weapons charges and assaults, in their “B.S.” (Before Shakespeare) years. During their time in the program, there were only two charges total: none of them were violent or Class A. In fact, of the hundreds of prisoners who have been in the program—some for months, some for years—not one violent offense was committed.
When Larry was out of segregation, and we were able to have normal conversations sitting side by side, without a steel door between us, I wanted to ask him to elaborate on what he had written in that survey he had handed me when he left the SHU.
“What did you mean,” I asked him, “when you said that Shakespeare saved your life?”
“I meant it both ways: literally and figuratively,” he told me. “Literally, Shakespeare saved my life. For so many years I had been really self-destructive, on the razor’s edge every day. I’m confident that I would’ve done something drastic and ended up on Death Row. Or I would’ve one day found the courage to take my own life. So literally, he saved my life.”
It sounded like he was talking about suicide, but I couldn’t believe it—didn’t want to believe it.
“And I meant it figuratively,” he continued. “Shakespeare offered me the opportunity to develop new ways of thinking through these plays. I was trying to figure out what motivated Macbeth, why his wife was able to make him do a deed that he said he didn’t want to do just by attacking his ego: ‘What, are you soft? Ain’t you man enough to do it?’ As a consequence of that, I had to ask myself what was motivating me in my deeds, and I came face to face with the realization that I was fake, that I was motivated by this need to impress those around me, that none of my choices were truly my own.
“And as bad as that sounds, it was the most liberating thing I’d ever experienced because that meant that I had control of my life. I could be anybody I wanted to be. I didn’t have to be some fake guy that my buddies wanted me to be. When I started reading Shakespeare, I was still in segregation; that circumstance didn’t change. But I wasn’t miserable anymore. Why? The only thing that was different was the way that I saw myself. So the way that I felt about myself had to be the source of all my misery. I’m of the opinion that we are the source of our misery; we perpetuate our own misery. And that realization is empowering! So Shakespeare saved my life, both literally and figuratively. He freed me, genuinely freed me.”
Newton was the only prisoner I’ve ever met who was convicted as a juvenile and is serving life without parole. Through his work in the Shakespeare program, in college, in other prison programs and job assignments, as well as in his acceptance of responsibility in his crime, Larry consistently demonstrated evidence of rehabilitation for nearly ten years. But every request for the right to appeal his sentence was denied.
No matter what he does, he will never leave prison.
~ Laura Bates