Friday, January 11, 2013


In preparation for relocating to Panama in a few weeks, I have been sorting through many piles of papers, including hundreds of letters written and received during my 12 years in prison. I also came upon a bunch of writing from those days, some of which I plan to tap into when I eventually write a prison memoir. The following essay, from sometime in the late 1990s, is an example of this:

There is in Eastern tradition something known as "The walk of a thousand days." In this spiritual cleansing process, someone gives up not only all his (or her) possessions but everything and everyone familiar in life and walks forward into uncharted territory so that he may come to know himself and the true nature of the universe in a much deeper way. When I first heard about this I thought that three years was an awfully long time to be spent in lonely contemplation--and I also thought that very few people have the luxury to be able to walk away from their lives and responsibilities to take on this kind of project of self revelation, or as some might see it, self-indulgence.

Thanks to an unpredictable series of events involving some immensely stupid choices on my part and some turns and twists beyond my control, I've been given a chance to take my own thousand day walk times four. I don't get to do that much walking and the scenery isn't constantly changing, but all the other elements are there and perhaps even intensified. The actor, Robert Downey, Jr., told the Today Show two weeks before his release from Corcoran State Prison, located just down the road from my current place of worship, Pleasant Valley State Prison, that "prison is spiritually debilitating, it's like dying."

I can't say I agree with Downey. Yes, there are many horrible truths about prison--some that would shock even the most ardent supporter of law and order if they became known. But prison also has the capacity to be spiritually strengthening, and it has the power and potential to allow someone to find new meaning and purpose in life, free from many of the distractions and concerns of the outside world. In this, it has much in common with the walk of a thousand days.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013


Finally, the Philadelphia classic (going back to the 18th Century) New Year's Mummer's Parade is getting some of its just due, with livestreaming available nationwide (and I suppose worldwide), and lots more exposure of this greatest parade I've ever experienced, dwarfing the Rose Parade and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in terms of sheer volume, music, dancing, and comedy.

Before I was born, and I think before he even met my mother, my dad, Edward, was a marching banjo player in the most popular band in the parade, The Ferko String Band. My own favorite instrument in watching the parade were the xylophones. We kids would imitate the strutters by holding our coats open and singing the iconic song most identified with the Mummers, "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers." Which was written near the end of the 19th Century by an African-American composer and was a mainstay for blackface performers in minstrel shows. It is still ubiquitous in today's parade.

New Year's Day was usually cold in Philadelphia, and I would be bundled up as I walked with my parents the three blocks from our 11th Street home in South Philly to Broad Street, where, if we were early enough, we could get a place on the curb to sit. As I grew older, I would go with my friends. It was like a three ring circus. There were the string bands, with their Vegas showgirl-type elaborate costumes and headdresses, then the comic divisions, making fun of just about everything going on in the world, and the fancy dress divisions, as colorful and inventive as any Rose Parade float. There were actual floats, too. 

It was a far longer parade than most, often lasting six hours or more. A sort of endurance contest, but worth every minute shivering in the cold and watching one's breath as the parade went by. If I was lucky, a soft pretzel vendor would appear and I could warm my hands on a heated version of Philadelphia's gift to culinary culture.

Perhaps Carnaval as celebrated in several cities in Panama can match the Mummer's Parade, but somehow I doubt it. I'll be moving there in time for that mid-February celebration, so we shall see.
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