Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Captive Samhain

I apologise to those readers I still have for neglecting my blog, but I've been in prison the last few months. Several prisons, in fact, including the Womans prison... as a member of the Indianapolis Pagan Prison Ministry, created by the inimitable Colleen Kelly I lead a Wiccan group at the Indianapolis ReEntry Education Facility, and both a Wiccan group and an Asatru group at New Castle Correctional, an hour's drive away.

It's a fascinating and rewarding experience... and humbling, to learn how little I truly know. Luckily for me, they're usually happy with the answer, "I don't know- but I'll find out!" And it's equally fascinating to learn about them... on one hand, it's often easy to see why they're there, even though I don't know a thing about the particulars. ("What did you do" is a verboten question, by both rule and custom) Nonetheless, you can often see things; the poor reading skills of some, the impulse control of some, the attitudes of some- as one told me, "I used to be epically selfish." But for many, you won't have a clue how they wound up there- a momentary lapse of judgement, perhaps.

But they know. And that's why they called for us. They're trying to put their lives back together, trying to learn how to fit into society again- and for some reason, the church of the childhood has failed them. Or they might have deliberately chosen a Pagan path for another reason- as one told me, "I finally figured out that I was the reason I'm here. Not my parents, or society, or ony of those other things. Me. My choices. And suddenly, Christianity didn't fit any more. This is my responsibility; I can't pass it off on someone else, not even on Jesus Christ." And so he chose a religion that reflected his sense of responsibility.

But I've learned a lot about bureaucracy, too. Even when the chaplains are sympathetic- and at New castle, they called us- there is still a lot of hoops to jump through, Tees to dot and I's to cross. And then there's the guards and administration, who naturally have different concerns than the chaplains do, and may or may not be communicating all that well. The Samhain feasts Monday were an excellent example.

Their rule require them to provide a feast for the Pagans on certain holidays, Samhain being chief among them for the Wiccans- and while the Blot is a lesser one for the Asatru, well, it's still a feast, isn't it?- you take em when you can. But... we have the biggest Pagan groups in the state at New Castle; it's difficult logistically to accomodate sometimes, with a hundred Wiccans and around thirty Asatru. So three cornered talks involving chaplains, caterers, and guards became quite a dance.

First there was the issue of Samhain being on a Monday, not my normally scheduled days. I assured them that I was willing to show up on a non-scheduled day for the Samhain ritual. Then I guess there was concern about enough physical space for the two groups, so they then made it two different days for the two groups- I agreed again, and they were appreciative of my being willing to make the hour's drive three times in one week. And then the administration and the caterer wanted them to do them both on the same day after all, that day being Monday the 31st. The Asatru would be at 11:30-1:00; the Wiccans from 12:30-2:00. Some overlap, but fine. That was the state of things as of last regular service the week before.

So Monday, when I arrived at 11:00, (always early, after the debacle of my first visit when they couldn't find the gate release), I found no preparations had yet been made. I inquired, and they called for some trustees to come and set everything up. While this is happening, I notice the appt board has both groups listed for 11:30-1:00! I ask if that's correct, and am told yes, it is- is that a problem? Well, of course it is, as I hate being cut in and out of a sacred circle, but I say, "We'll cope." Then it's 11:30, and no prisoners. 11:35. 11:40. I ask where the prisoners are, and am told they can't be called out until the morning count is over. "We've been meeting at 11:30 for months, with no count issues- is today different for some reason?" "I'll check" I'm told.

About 12:00, prisoners start arriving, and we're able to start formalities by about 12:10- but not the ritual feast, which hasn't arrived yet. Then another hang up- one of the leaders of the Wiccans was in lock up and we're told that all the ritual materials are listed as his, and cannot be released even to me. So the prisoner group leaders say, "Listen up! We need ritual materials- I know you guys must have some bits and pieces, let's see what we have!" I volunteer my cane for a ritual staff; one of the trustee types runs out and returns a moment later with a Styrofoam "chalice". Somebody's needle point becomes an altar cloth, and someone else's fancy painted pentacle becomes an altar tile... a combination pen/ letter-opener becomes an Athame, etc... within just a couple minutes, we had a complete improv ritual set going.

By this time, about 12:20, the feast arrives, and the Styrofoam trays are stacked in back while ritual is opening. I leave the circle and go through the partition door to check out the Asatru... The Asatru had all arrived by then, and were ready to start- perfect timing. They opened their ritual circle, and started the remembrances ritual. I ask to go first, as I had to check on the Wiccans, and they agree with good humor. I say my remembrance for my father in law, Phil, who I had been missing recently. "Hail Phil!" They shout, and I slip out, kinda fogged up, and slip back into the Wiccan circle- they, too, are doing memorials at this point, and the raw emotion displayed by hulking, tatooed monsters is very touching. By now I'm feeling like I have a foot in three worlds; to paraphrase Jim Morrison, there are the sacred Wiccan circles, the sacred Asatru circle, and between them are the Doors- and me! I tell them that I may say this only once a year, or maybe never say the words aloud again... but there's nowhere on Earth I'd rather have feasted than here. And I meant it.

At about 12:55 several of the prisoners asked if I could ask that a restroom be opened for them. I go ask the chaplain. He says, "That's not really necessary, is it? It's supposed to be over at 1:00." "Even though the prisoners didn't get here until after 12:00, and the food, 12:30, instead of the scheduled 11:30?" "What?!?" (he hadn't been told of the hold ups) He starts talking scheduling with a trustee; after a few minutes of debate he agrees to ask a guard to open a restroom, and will allow the feast to continue for a few more minutes.
Quite a day. Despite fate's attempts to monkey wrench it, services continue to improve, and yesterday's Samhain was the most touching I have seen in a long time. Thank you, Colleen, for getting me involved.