Unlock the Sky
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.”
― Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
We park in the courthouse lot, next to Albion County Jail,
in fact, in the space reserved for the judge.
It's Sunday so he, or she, will not work today.
Sometimes, I hang my disabled placard
from the rear-view mirror: an extra precaution
against a ticket.
I never park here without thinking
of the human beings locked away inside,
and the fact that they cannot get out;
and the fact that I am out:
free to look at the entire sky,
free to look at every tree:
the height and width of outdoors, entire.
Across the street stands Pullman
Memorial Universalist Church, our destination.
Built of the finest Medina sandstone:
shades of pink show through each carefully-chosen stone.
Built by George Pullman, successful
train car businessman, the church is a landmark,
dedicated to his parents.
Your first day in jail
a young guard walks you to a cell.
He is shorter than you. He looks angry.
“Put your hands inside your waistband,”
he says. You cannot think why.
You simply obey.
He unlocks and opens the cell door.
There are no bars, just metal framework
surrounding thick dirty Plexiglas. You step inside.
The young guard nods towards a buzzer,
or call button. “Don't call me,” he says.
“No matter what happens.
Don't bother me. If you do, there'll be trouble.”
Inside your cell, you see a stainless steel toilet,
with a small sink attached to its top,
and a bunk-bed.
On the bottom bunk, lays a very young-looking
brown-skinned man. His hair is short and neat,
his eyes look very dark in the sparse light.
He is looking at you.
“Hello,” you say.
He says nothing, then turns his face away.
You turn and look at the toilet. You see there's no paper.
Orange peels float in the toilet water. You don't know why.
It suddenly occurs to you how important are toilets.
How important our privacy.
You are surprised
by how much one window comes to mean
Grateful your one window faces East.
On cloudless days,
for about one hour,
you can see the Sun.
At first, you tell yourself,
“It is only one branch.”
Ten percent of your small window
One one hundredth, perhaps,
of your cell space: your home, now.
And yet, each day, that one green branch
gives you the only joy that you know
you will have, and try to hold on to,
all day, and all the age-long night.
On visiting day,
no one comes to see you.
Inside the slab-sided gray and tan jail
the only color you notice is gray.
The only number that occurs to you is one.
In the late afternoon,
you are outdoors for one hour.
One red-winged blackbird lands
on top of the tall gray wall
that surrounds the exercise yard.
He sings his unusual song.
Someone once told you:
“They only sing to announce Spring.”
You think of Spring,
and try to remember
what it felt like to be warm—
To feel warmth at all—
But especially to be warm at night,
in your own bed.
Time spent in jail extends itself,
the way time stretches out
from the time you know your car's about to crash
until you actually crash.
Even if you are unhurt, you will always remember
how ten seconds felt like ten hours.
Every moment spent in jail feels like
an accident, about to happen.
When they move you to another cell,
for no apparent reason (no one who works
in the jail feels obligated to give you reasons
for anything, ever) your one window faces North.
Outside this window, there's only sky.
Sometimes blue, sometimes white, sometimes gray,
and, at night, a black so black
that you cannot even see the window's outline.
You have only these colors, now,
and can no longer make daydreams
out of sunrises and sunsets,
whose countless colors look the same,
when seen in part, out a narrow window.
You know a few names of other inmates, now,
your cell-mates name, and story,
and Oscar, who lives two cells down.
Oscar weeps at night, sometimes all night.
He is a tall muscular man, who, sometimes nods hello
to you, but more often looks down at the floor.
“Why does he weep so,” you ask your cell-mate.
“He misses his family,” he replies.
“We all miss our families,” you say, “this is a given.”
“Oscar's mother died two months ago,” he says,
“and they wouldn't let him out to go to her funeral.”
You remember your own mother's funeral:
how it was the greenest Spring you could recall,
and how people you hadn't seen in thirty years
somehow appeared there.
Inside Pullman Memorial Universalist Church,
a dozen or so Louis Comfort Tiffany
windows adorn the pristine white walls.
The centerpiece window, high up, is a larger-than-life walking Christ,
and seems to balance, in midair
between what I know about the historical Christ
—The man who was Jesus—And who welcomed all,
no matter their stature in the world,
and the divine Christ, who looks down on the world,
and so on all of us, who live on it.
This window, and every window here,
is more than an orifice to let in light,
they are priceless, uninsurable works of art.
Tiffany fashioned them to be looked at, not looked through.
A small, and ever-dwindling congregation meets here,
under these one-of-a-kind windows, each Sunday.
We welcome and support refugees;
the minister rails against the current politics of hatred and bigotry;
women members march in women's marches in Washington.
We share fellowship, and news of who's child moved on to college,
who is sick, and who has died, and who has simply moved away.
There is no window, inside the church, however,
from which I can see the jail that sits across the street.
And, after an hour or two of kind words of love has passed
—The remaining Sunday hours passing as quickly as sparrow's songs—
I'll pull my car out of the judge's parking space
and drive home, with the one who loves me sitting next to me,
and tonight we will sleep through the night in our own warm bed.
The blessedness of all of this I only know, complete,
from time I spent locked away from it.