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Tuesday
Jan292013

Pooches and Prisons

It is strange how life and literature sometimes flow in parallel.

It is exactly three years since I left my job as the Protestant Chaplain at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) the largest mens' prison in Maryland.

I am reliving those days in great detail as I revise and tweak my new storytelling show “Tea in The Slammer” which takes an in-depth look at my time behind the bars and how I discovered a new use for my tea-making skills.

This afternoon I took a break from the editing and picked up a poetry book that was part of a set that my niece had given me. It was the selected works of Oscar Wilde. Once again I was riveted by his “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that I hadn’t read for many years.  It is based on Wilde’s own two-year incarceration with hard labor, completed in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century. 

I meant to read something frothy but I was drawn to this, his final work. This time the words took on new meaning in the light of my own time behind the bars.

One strand of the poem is about the execution of a man who murdered his wife for her infidelity.  After finding him guilty, the judge gave him three weeks to live.

English Victorian prisons were notoriously harsh – a world away from their 21st Century American equivalent - but I was transported back to the men that I knew at MCTC with the words:

"I never saw a man who looked

  With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

  That prisoners call the sky.

And at every drifting cloud that went

  With sails of silver by."

No matter what century, no one relishes freedom more than those who have lost it.

On the day of his execution, while still alive, the man in Wilde’s poem is read the rite of burial.  After the hanging he is interred naked but still in shackles.  It was that last detail that struck me as particularly punitive.

Shaking off the sadness surrounding the death of a man that happened close to a hundred and twenty years ago, I went for a long walk on the path behind my house that winds besides a brook.  An enthusiastic, handsome St. Bernard bounded past me followed by his young owner.

I long to have a dog, but it’s not the right season in my life and so I scratch the itch by volunteering at my local animal shelter, writing the dogs' bios for the organization’s website in the hope of the pooches finding their perfect forever home.  I am conscious of the irony of downsizing from incarcerated men to cooped-up canines – but one spin-off is that I’m more aware of dog breeds.  And this St. Bernard was a beauty!

I struck up a dog-oriented conversation with the young man who encouraged his clearly beloved seven-year-old pet to come over and greet me.  And then he told me that he had found out yesterday that the dog has cancer.  His whole body started to shake gently as he held back tears. 
“He has three weeks.  So ‘till then I’m just going to let him do whatever he wants.” 

And the two friends carried on up the trail.

I was saddened by the dogs impending demise but amazed by the parallel.

Three weeks to live.

It might mean nothing – this melding of life and literature, pooches and prisons – or it might mean that a story is coming knocking wanting to be told.

Just in case it’s the latter, I’m listening.

Listening hard.

 

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