On Constancy

John and Joanna

 

Without constancy, there is neither love, friendship,
nor virtue in the world. —Joseph Addison

 

 

I write you every day, not because I have something
new or world-changing to tell you—although
I would love to tell you something that would change
at least your world—but because I know
you want to know that I am here still, that somewhere
in a world you’ve barely known there is a rock to cling to.

So here I am again. Today is Monday.
Yesterday was Sunday, and tomorrow
will be Tuesday. Please know I am not dead,
I am not ill, I have not wrecked my car,
or come down in a plane, or been blown up by terrorists.
Please know I have not abandoned you.

I try to conjure what a friend on the outside is like for you
and find I’m up against that old conundrum,
the one about the tree, the forest, and the sound.
You do not know it? Here it is: When a tree falls
in the forest, does it make a sound if no one’s there to hear?
No one with, perhaps, a panicked heart,

a sudden hard contraction in the belly,
no one awed and terrified by this momentous crash.
And then, of course, what follows on from that:
if no one’s there to see it, is there a tree at all?
And so on to the forest, and so on . . . Or is it all
inside some solipsistic mind, the mind of God perhaps?

See how the question shifts, becomes more slippery?
And yet for people out here in the world it is old hat,
a riddle of a type, offered by professors to beginning thinkers,
who maul it with beginning minds, and then dismiss it with a joke.
To them it is an exercise without an application.
To you, however, it is urgent, real.

Each Friday when I leave the cramped,
sour-smelling visitation booth, you consume yourself
with worry that I have gone for good,
that friendship—all those affirmations—
has vanished down the creaking elevator labeled
Danger! Occupants no more than four!

And next week wait on your side of the viewing glass,
fraught in your flaming jumpsuit,
head bowed, praying I will come, praying
for that miracle again, praying that there really is
a world out there where trees fall with a crash,
that one day you will come with me to listen.

The Bubble Pot

John and JoannaI met him quite by accident, although later
I’d concede that it was Fate, that tripartite
goddess alert to put a twist in things.
Spoke in the wheel. Bird in the bush.

Round about the caldron go;
in the poison’d entrails throw.

As if they cared tuppence what would
become of us. Those Weird Sisters.
Harsh Spinners. Maiden, mother, crone.
Witches, stirring at the bubble pot.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
in the caldron boil and bake.

He wrote to me, you see. That piece
out of my novel in the paper, the cat
in the next cell whose mother
looked up my address. All that.

Eye of newt, and toe of frog.
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog.

He asked me to come see him, and I came.
Lamb to the slaughter, peat to the flame.
It was, he told me later,
as though it had been planned.

Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
lizard’s leg, and owlet’s wing.

I had never been inside a prison
in my life. He had barely been outside.
So it was up to me to take that giant
leap across the tracks.

For a charm of powerful trouble,
like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

One small step, the spaceman said.
Moonwalker. Moontalker.
The moon is cold.
The witches’ brew is hot.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
then the charm is firm and good.

From An Innocent in the House of the Dead

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

 

DEATH ROW

He was an accidental package, thrown away
to float upon the surface of the world,
an obstacle, a mouth to feed,
the nuisance bastard of a rough man’s wife,
a punching bag, a dog to kick,
a pale-skinned black boy good for nothing
but to shove aside, to mock,
to stare at with that hard and silent
slow-neck-turning straight-on stare
that sees so little and yet says so much.

An ordinary story his, the giddy highs off gasoline,
the Bull malt liquor and Wild Irish Rose,
the swift onrush from foster home to foster home,
group home to group, as though he traveled
down a glass-slick tunnel with the four harsh
winds of fate exploding at his back,
his panicked hands flung out to seize
whatever shone along the way—a box of donuts
and an apple pie, a winter coat, a pair of shoes
with solid soles, a pack of socks, a watch, some bikes—

until a handgun, loaned out of his grandma’s purse
to a cat who called him cousin, friend,
slammed him, spread-eagled like a cartoon character,
against the tunnel’s silver-badged,
blue-uniformed dead end.
And then the slave-like hobbles, lost-child mug shots,
and the prison label black, ignoring half his ancestry,
the stunned astonishment at what he had become.
And after that, beneath a high, shrill,
ever-burning light, the long slow dirge
of days and years toward the needle’s fatal,
sympathetic slide into his arm.

John Lee & Prof. Gorman Gilbert

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

Why are we posting a series of episodes in John Lee’s imprisonment? We felt that it is vital for people to know the kind of man they are being asked to help. It is easy to hear the words “murder”, “death row”, “prison”, and have an image which is hard to overcome. Even with the lack of evidence against John Lee, the deals made with his accusers, the botched legal representation, sometimes it is still hard to see beyond them. Hopefully, these stories will help you to do that and move you to support the freedom of an innocent man.

Sister Ann was not the only one who helped John Lee educate himself. Here is what he told me about Professor Gorman Gilbert, a civil engineering professor at NC State University, in walking distance of the prison.

“After the passing of my beloved grandmother in nineteen ninety-four, I was going crazy. My family had abandoned me. I had no peace, happiness or love. All I could think of was my grandmother being gone, the only person who ever loved me, and all I had in this world. I needed help but I had nobody to turn to.

“So I asked this young lady who was working on my case at the time for help, and this is how I came to meet my father Gorman Gilbert.

“When Gorman came into my life, I had nobody to love me and cherish me and so when he came along and loved and cherished me and wanted to help me, to make me the best I could be in my situation, it was a shock. I couldn’t understand it. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me in my life before, and so it was very, very precious. I learned from him that color doesn’t matter when it comes to love.

“Me and Gorman . . . we had a bond. He was the first white person from the world to really do anything for me. He wanted to give to me. Anything I wanted he would give me and I didn’t even have to ask. He always wanted to buy books for me. Not ghetto trash like you call it. He sent books that were hard to read, he forced me to think. So I would read these books and he was willing to sit with me and listen and reason with me so that over the years what the writers were saying got into my head and educated me. Gorman taught me like a father. He made up for the one I never had.

“Even after he got Parkinson’s and went back to Oklahoma he still wrote me regularly, and he would get on a plane and fly to Raleigh and rent a car and come visit me.

“I could see him deteriorating right in front of my eyes. I’d tell him something and five minutes later he would have forgotten, and it got worse and worse. I told him, ‘You mustn’t be doing this. You mustn’t be getting on a plane. You mustn’t be driving a car. I don’t want you putting yourself in harm’s way just because you love me.’

“I still have mad love for Gorman, even though he doesn’t know me any more. It hurts me that I can’t be there to help him now he’s sick. A son is supposed to take care of his father when he’s old and sick.

“And now my sweet Sister Ann is getting old and forgetful too. I love her so, so much. If I am blessed with freedom, I want to go to Michigan so I can hug her and kiss her and say thank you for all she’s done for me before she dies. She and Gorman helped make me into the man I am today.”

How a Penpal is Like Gold, A Visitor Like Diamonds . . .

John and JoannaPeople were horrified John Lee had my address. They said he’d send someone to rob my house, or kidnap me and make me empty out my bank account, maybe even shoot me. Or he’d hand my address around for other men to put a hit on me.

When I told John Lee this, he clasped his hands and turned his head down. A few moments passed, and then he took hold of the bars and brought himself up close behind the glass.

“You know how precious a penpal is? A penpal is like gold in here. And someone who comes visit is like diamonds. I’m a rich man on account of you, so you can always trust me to protect you. Soon’s I open one of your letters I tear the address off into little bits and flush it down the toilet. It makes me nervous, though, when they bring the mail, because they put it all out on a table. I try to get there fast, but some guy could see your address on the envelope before I get to it, so if anyone does write you, don’t answer, because you don’t know who they are. There’s some real bad guys in here. I don’t mean put a hit on you. They’d try to steal you. That’s about the worst thing you can do to a prisoner, steal his people.”

“Don’t worry, no one’s going to steal me.”

“Well, I know you’re a kind person so I have to warn you. Don’t let your kind heart run away with you. You write to any other prisoner, I will cut you off.”

That shocked me. John was supposed to be the needy one, the one reaching out, but now it seemed to be the other way around.

“Don’t think that’s on account of jealousy,” he said. “It’s not jealousy, it’s self-protection. I’ve seen it happen to other guys. There was one guy in here had a penpal, and another guy had a different penpal, both college students, but it turned out the two girls were roommates and they talked about their guys to each other, and then one of them wrote her penpal and told him something about the other one, something private, and it turned into a real bad situation between the two guys.

“You’ve got to understand these guys lived on the same block, they couldn’t get away from each other, and this guy is telling stuff on the other guy. So the other guy writes to his penpal and tells her the problem he’s having, and what does she do? She drops him. Never writes to him again.

That was a real loss for him because he didn’t have anybody else out in the world. He’s only young and he got depressed, sat on his bed staring at the wall for weeks. And actually, he was lucky, he could have had it worse. A guy gets something on you and who knows what he’ll use it for. Could end up someone getting hurt. That’s why there’s not much trust in this place. You have to watch yourself because everyone is watching you, looking for a weak spot.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Joanna Receives Advice from a Gentle Nun

Sister AnnShortly after meeting John Lee, a letter came for me addressed in the shaky handwriting of the very old:

“Dear Joanna Catherine Scott,

“I am a Dominican Sister who is retired and living at our Mother House in Adrian, Michigan. I am able to write to John Lee but I am not able to travel to visit him. John Lee has been wishing to have a friend who lives close enough to visit him. He wrote to me saying that now he does, and he is very happy about it. It is an answer to much prayer by both of us. Over the years he has told me about his life and he may be doing that with you also. He is now waiting to hear from the judge about his case. We have been praying for a good judgment. I have been having the Sisters here and my family praying too.”

Sister Ann gave me her email address and phone number so I emailed her telling her I’d call her in the morning.

To which she replied: “Before you call me I want you to know that all during the time I have known John Lee, I have been sending him a little money and books. I told him recently that I will not be able to continue doing that because of my situation here. When I met him, John Lee  had no one to give him any help and he was very sad and lonely. I do not want him to be in that same state if there is someone who can give him a little help. If you are able to do that I would be happy for him and grateful to you.”

I emailed back and told her I would be happy to take care of him any way I could.

To which Sister Ann replied: “Dear Joanna, I just read your email. It made me cry. I am so happy you have found him. I have been loving him for all these years that I have known him. I will keep in touch with him all I can even when I can no longer support him. I am looking forward to talking with you tomorrow. John Lee and I have been praying for so long for this that I am sure it is a real gift from God. Please tell him that when you see him. I love you also, Ann.”

Next morning we talked. Sister Ann was a gracious and wise woman who had worked with children in the Los Angeles ghetto and understood the problems of the poor.

“I believe,” she said, “God puts people in my way who need my help and for six years now that’s been John Lee. I’ve been a teacher all my life and I know there’s always one or two who need special help. John Lee only has a little formal education, sixth grade I believe, but he’s been working to improve himself and trying to help the younger men, so I take care of his needs by sending him books to help him do that. And we write back and forth all the time. Sometimes I write him every day, but at least two or three times a week. I’m eighty-one and too old to teach anymore, so I spend my time talking back and forth.

“He really loves you and I am happy you have so many children (I have seven now, including John Lee) because it shows you have learned how to nurture. The way I see it, he needs nurturing more than anything, and I think God has sent you to him so he can have that.”

I hung up the phone and sat a long time contemplating that word “nurture.” A gentle word from a gentle lady.

 

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 6

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

John Lee in the Red Jump Suit of Death Row

I have always been aware of the responsibility I have as a writer toward my readers, that what I write can effect their lives. But not until John Lee came into my life did I realize that what I write can change the course of my own life.

One day John said to me, “I’ve been thinking about your book, The Road from Chapel Hill.

“What did you think?” I asked him.

“Tom’s life was like mine in many ways.”

“Tom was a slave. How could his life be like yours?”

“Because I’m a slave too, a slave of the state. It says so in the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. And because Tom did not know his father, and he was taken away from his mother when he was very young. But mainly because . . . you know that part in the story where Tom learns to read and realizes he’s not stupid?”

“You mean when he ran singing and shouting through the streets?”

“Yeah. I know how he felt. See, my true education did not start until I came to Death Row in nineteen ninety-two at twenty-five years old. I was very upset and confused when I was sent here. I could not understand why this had happened. Then one day an older prisoner came to me and gave me a book called Holy Qu’ran. He told me that if I studied that book it would lead me into knowledge, wisdom and understanding. “

“That night while locked in the cell, I realized that I couldn’t read this book very well because I wasn’t a good reader. The next day I talked with the older cat about this problem. He told me to have no shame and to start asking everyone for help. So I started asking everyone to explain word meanings to me, and every day I would sit in front of the TV and look at different commercials and repeat what the person was saying and the name of the product, and when I didn’t understand I would ask someone to say the name of the product for me. “

“Now reading is my biggest educational strength today. My attachment to books has restrained me from getting involved in gambling, drinking, fighting, and doing unpleasant things in here. And it’s taught me how to express myself. At first when I wrote to penpals, I didn’t know how to put my thoughts into words, so I would copy out of books because the writer could say it better than me. Gradually I learned from writing it all out how to say it for myself. It taught me how to think as well, because while I was writing it out, I was thinking through what the writer was saying. Now I am thinking and analyzing everything all the time.”

I was fascinated. “Tell me what it felt like, how it felt inside your head when you first began to think.”

He thought a while.

“It was like when you notice a butterfly not as a butterfly, but as a living, pulsating energy as it flaps its wings. I began to see things a lot differently and more clearly. Free! I felt free! Just like Tom did in your story.”

“I’m still learning about thinking and I’m getting better at it all the time. That’s why I like to talk to educated people, people like you. It makes me think in different ways and I get to understand more about the world and why people do the things they do. You don’t know this, but you’ve already helped me change some of my opinions just by being willing to come see me and talk with me like I am a human being.”

He smiled. “Thank you!”

“Don’t thank me,” I said, “Your Muslim brother’s the one who started you off thinking for yourself. You should thank him.”

John Lee looked at me with something painful in his eyes. “Oh, nah, I can’t do that.”

“Why not? What’s the matter? Have I upset you?”

“They executed him. He was a good man too. He taught me a lot to help me be a better person.”

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began – Chapter 4

John and JoannaWhen Joanna first started to communicate with John Lee, well before she became involved with his case and well before she adopted him and took his freedom as her cherished cause, she was barraged with warnings. Little could she imagine that he was beset with almost identical warnings. Here is part of the story…

When I first met John Lee, it seemed the whole world set out to warn me I was being played, I was a bleeding heart, a dupe for some evil person who wanted to manipulate me into something, it was not clear what. What I didn’t know at the time was that John was being warned about me as ferociously as I was about him. This is how he told it to me:

The guys on the block all laughed at me when I showed them the newspaper with the piece out of the book you’d written and said I was going to write to this woman. I was going to try to get her for a pen pal. They didn’t pay attention to the piece out of the book. They just looked at your photo.

“You think a woman like that going write you? A white woman like that? You crazy, man.”

I said, “If I don’t try I’ll never know, will I?”

They said, “Man, you a fool. That sort of woman, she don’t care nothing about you.”

I said, “How come she wrote this book about this slave then?”

They said, “She white, man, white. You jest a black man settin on your ass in prison.”

I said, “At least I keep on trying to reach out to society. At least I keep on trying to find myself a friend. Not like you damn cowards, too afraid to try because you’re frightened of rejection.”

They said, “How you going write her anyways? You ain’t got her address.”

I got pissed then. I said, “Well then, I will get it.”

See, I’ve got this friend in here, first white person I’ve ever been friends with. I got mad love for that guy. He’s one of the few whose family keep in touch with him, so I got him to write a letter to his mother and his mother looked you up in the phone book and sent back the address and then I wrote that letter to you.

Then I sat back and waited. I didn’t tell nobody, but I did not expect an answer, not deep down in my heart.

So I was real surprised how fast you answered. Dear Mr. Conaway. No one ever called me Mr. Conaway.

When I told the other guys, you should have heard them. They told me all kinds of stuff.

“That woman might be using you for her own gain, man.”

“Man, you done lost your mind.”

“Damn man, that woman’s white, man. Man, that woman could be trouble.”

Some of these guys are real bad when it comes to whites. I even had one of the guys real close to me said, “You better be careful, man. That woman might be using you, man.”

I think he’s changed his mind now. I think you did that on your own. You changed him without even knowing it. He was lying in bed one day trying to sleep with the blanket on his head and I ran into his cell and said, “I got a letter. I got a letter from that writer, man.”

He said, “Man, you better be careful, man, with those people, man.”

I said, “What you mean, man?”

He said, “Man, all right man, you know she’s a writer, man.”

I said, “Man, what you talking about, man?”

He said, “All right, boy. She could be using you.”

And guess what I told him? I said, “Well hell, I don’t got nothing to lose.”

He looked at me, just laughed. He said, “Man, you crazy, man.” And he put the blanket back over his head.

So I went ahead and walked off and got my paper and pencil and went down to the table and started writing you back. But don’t think I heard no negative stuff, because I did.

Even one of the correctional officers too, he told me, “Boy, you keep away from those white people. Those white people, they going lynch you, ain’t going do nothing for you, just leave you standing on the corner like a fool.”

So don’t think you were the only one. You caught it in your world. I caught it in my world too. About the only guy who didn’t do that was the white guy got me your address.

Justice for John Lee: How It All Began Chapter 3

John and JoannaJohn Lee is now housed in a medium security facility in Burgaw, NC – Pender Correctional Institution.[1] However, 8 years ago when Joanna first knew of John Lee, he was on death row in Central Prison in Raleigh, awaiting an appeal. That is where Joanna first visited him.

“As I turned into the doorway of the visitation booth at Central Prison, I could see John Lee waiting on the other side of a glass partition. Intensity came off him like an arm reaching out to drag me in.

“Shut the door,” he said, so I shut it and sat down, my first experience with a prison stool.

Up close I could only see my own reflection. Then I saw my own reflection with what appeared to be a head inside it. After a little experimenting with position, I was looking at a young man in a blood red jumpsuit.

The visitation booth was small and double, like a pair of telephone booths set one behind the other and separated by a thick, wire-crises-crossed window. Cream-painted metal rods ran vertically behind the glass. A narrow ledge ran below the window, and between the window and the ledge was a fine-holed rectangular grille for speaking through. A matching grille, I came to understand, was on the other side, the two separated by several inches of dead air. This arrangement made for a curious intimacy, since it was necessary to lean in close to be clearly heard.

At first we just sat there looking at each other. Then I said, “Hello, I’m Joanna,” and he said, “I’m John Lee. Thank you for coming.”

He turned his head aside, looking down. “I’m nervous,” he said in a small voice.

“I’m nervous too,” I said, and we began to talk.

Despite the photo, I had expected John Lee to be a thuggish sort of person, someone ignorant and inarticulate, a murderer no less. But this young man had kind eyes and a gentle manner. He was honey-skinned, carefully spoken, remarkably well read. It was a strange conversation. In his letter he’d seemed intent on telling me about his life, but here we were talking about the effect of ancient Egypt on modern culture. There were other topics too, all as esoteric, and it was not until years later that he told me he had crib notes on the ledge below the window and was desperately trying to make me think he was intelligent enough to be worthwhile.

Eventually silence fell, at which point I said, “Well, I guess I’ll be going now.”

He looked at his watch. “We’ve got four minutes left.”

That’s when I learned visitation at Central Prison is an hour and a half and nobody leaves early. They want every second of their loved ones they can get.

“Oh,” I said, and tossing around for something else to say, asked if there was anything I could do for him.

He hesitated. “Will you come again?”

Up till then I’d thought this visit was a one-off, not consciously, but now I knew I had. Oh dear, I thought, I’m into something here. At which point a guard thumped back the door behind me and John began to say goodbye.”

______________________________________________

[1] We will tell the story of this situation as soon as the lawyers working on John Lee’s behalf approve the text. It is somewhat sensitive due to the on-going nature of the case.