“Arias” by Mardith Louisell

Five years after my younger sister Barbara  died of a malignant brain tumor, I moved from Minnesota to California. I loved the soft tilt of the large round hills, the unfiltered California light, the green Irish spring and golden Italian summer.  Being alone, without Barbara, wasn’t what I had thought would happen. When she died, both of us were in our forties and neither of us had married.I had presumed that the two of us would age, visiting each other’s homes where we would both wash dishes with a sponge, not a rag, use SOS for burned pans, and, like Mother, wrap everything in plastic. Eventually we would end up in a nursing home, eccentric old maids rocking side by side; I imagined her tormenting me with her singing.

Instead I sat in my dusty studio in the Marin Headlands overlooking the Pacific Ocean and just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.  It was a 170 square foot garret in an old army quarterhouse with rutted floor boards that caught my chair as I rolled from one part of the room to another, and in the inflated real estate market, I was lucky to have it. In summer my room was often cold and smelled of the spit of the swallows that nested in the eaves. If I opened the skylight, the resident cat jumped out on the roof and attacked the swallows.

In this room for the next five years, I tried to resurrect my sister. At times, Barb’s spirit had given me a friendly wave, and at other times, chastised me as it emanated from one vertical file cabinet, then another, from Minneapolis to San Francisco and places in-between. Now, a yellow folder sat at the front of the file cabinet, luminous against the royal blue hanging file. When I unpacked the files, I felt I was removing a body wrapped in fragile papyrus.

I had Barb’s dresser and desk, I wore her chartreuse harem pants and her red and black striped socks. I had a soft leather purse with her pink plastic comb, boxes of letters, and wads of photographs in rubber bands. I had her sheet music and her scribblings about the voice lessons she took. I drove her 86 Camry across the country and back. I had her eulogy and three-inch thick binders filled with notes and flip chart pages on which I had written “What is the meaning?”

Perhaps our meaning was in singing, maybe even our faith, certainly our hope was. The women in our family had been as one with the Metropolitan Opera as Texaco, which sponsored the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts from 1940 to 2003. My grandmother in Massachusetts sang to those broadcasts and so did my mother in Duluth, Minnesota, turning the volume so high that the basses and sopranos rocked through the oak doors of our house, from the den to the kitchen where, apron tied around her middle, Mother sponged dishes and sang along with Leontyne Price, even though a high school chorus teacher had told her to mouth the words in chorus. Unless the opera were extraordinarily long, broadcasts started unfailingly at 1:00 and my mother refused any invitations for Saturday afternoon.

When each of the three sisters in the family reached fifth grade, our parents took us to the Metropolitan Opera, which toured every year in Minneapolis. Riding in the back seat of the old Buick into downtown Minneapolis, I saw the Pillsbury and General Mills factories stationed like sentries over the Mississippi River. To me they meant, not farming and food processing, but opera and food. In the Curtis Hotel, I walked importantly through the green and red train style lobby, ate in the hotel coffee shop, walked through Dayton’s Department Store with my mother, saw the sunset glow a deeper gold than in Duluth and sniffed grainer, less piney smells. All of this was going to the opera. After I left Minnesota and returned to Minneapolis for graduate school,  by which time the Curtis Hotel had been demolished, my feelings remained the same about the opera and so did Barb’s, who had entered law school in Minneapolis.

That year, the May of opera week was humid and hot and the auditorium wasn’t air-conditioned. Three times that week, Barb and I  joined the opera mavens, their long silk gowns rustling in the soft night breeze, high heels clicking on the stone plaza of Northrup Auditorium. The first night we dressed in black and white and pretended to be ushers. The second night we wore our dress-up hippie clothes, long, pink and black flowered skirts with peasant blouses. The skirts would blend colorfully with the gowns the wealthier patrons wore – we would fit right in, we were sure of it. At the end of the first act, imitating the privileged patrons, we strode to empty seats in the first row. Jittery, we eased into the maroon velvet. A well-dressed matron stopped us and said, “These are not your seats!” We stood up, smiled and walked with injured dignity to the side of the auditorium, where we remained until we found a seat for the next act.

The last night of the opera there were no empty seats in the front rows. We stood at the side and as soon as the curtain went up, Barb beckoned me, then walked across the first row of seats, crossed the few yards separating the audience from the orchestra, and casually walked towards the seven steps on the far left that led to the stage. Praying that I was invisible I followed. There we sat, on the fourth and fifth steps, nearly on the stage, twenty feet away from the silver streaked hair of Cesare Siepi, who was singing Mephistopheles in Faust, his tall lanky body packed into a red jacket threaded with gold and silver. The dimension and timbre of his bass voice slid into every cavity of our bodies in the same way a morning jump into Lake Superior cuts to your vital organs and makes your body tingle until nightfall. My ears reverberated and my heart beat – in part I was afraid we would be asked to leave but Barbara wasn’t perturbed – she hummed along with the music. I  heard the music note by note, the melody almost fragmented, each note becoming both more and less than it was alone as it joined up with the others and strolled or marched or leapt toward the end of the aria.

It was certainly possible that we would be kicked off the stage steps and tossed out of the auditorium, but I went with Barb year after year because to hear Violetta die in La Traviata and Lucia go mad in Lucia di Lammermoor from six yards away thrilled me. Concentrated in one night were all the bliss and fear I had yet imagined. I felt proud going to the opera with Barbara in the same way I had felt special when my parents took me in fifth grade. I was going with  someone who cared. It was my good luck to be with her.

After Barbara passed the bar exam and joined my dad’s Duluth law practice, she took voice lessons in Duluth and kept written vocal instructions in a booklet lined with bass and treble clefs, as she practiced arias from the operas we had seen as children. She did breathing exercises every day and learned how to support the voice and how to locate the place where the sound comes from, behind the bridge of the nose, deep in the sinus cavities.

Eight years later, Barbara was diagnosed with a brain tumor that started in her visual cortex. “If I hadn’t identified so strongly with Violetta when I was a little girl,” she cried as I sat with her in the hospital, “do you think this would have happened?” Violetta, a young courtesan, is Alfredo’s lover in Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Alfredo’s father begs Violetta to leave Alfredo so that Alfredo’s sister can make a good marriage. Violetta, sick with tuberculosis, is reluctant to leave the man she loves, and during the duet, you’re not sure what will happen, she could go either way. Finally, generously, she  forsakes Alfredo and moves to the country to die of tuberculosis. Believing himself abandoned, Alfredo rages. When at last he learns of  Violetta’s sacrifice, he rushes to her bedroom and they are reunited. Minutes later she dies. Barb and I grew up listening to La Traviata as my mother played it on the old mahogany record player in the front hall. We both thought it could be the most beautiful opera ever written. Verdi’s combination of tragedy and score – the troubled relationship of father and son, the family pride, the illness-crossed love of Alfredo and Violetta, the courtesan who sacrifices so another woman can marry in an almost feminist gesture – all of this thrilled us. Oh, to be so grand, to love so well, to sacrifice so nobly. To die so beautifully. Barbara had always identified with Violetta, I think because she felt things wouldn’t work out in her own life, and because Verdi’s flowing melodies express a bittersweet longing for all that is unattainable.The story would be melodrama without the music. The despairing “Addio” is filled with longing and the melody searches. Why do we enjoy wallowing in sad music? Because the song’s end promises, not joy, but the knowledge that others have felt what we feel. If you know an aria, you silently join in that place at the top of your soft palette where music soars. You feel it in your chest and throat and lift your rib cage, involuntarily breathing as though you were singing, and climb over and under, up and down, your pleasure in the melody and the search propelling the aria forward. The music of “Addio del passato,” which Violetta sings at the end of La Traviata, melds a sublime musical line with an earthly story, guiding you from loss, to rage against that loss, until, eventually, over the course of the aria, you are able to reflect on what happened. After she got the tumor, Barb couldn’t see well but she could still sing while I played. She sat scrunched against me on the piano bench, so close that my arm couldn’t move. Then she stood. “It’s better to sing standing and better to see too,” she added.

“I can’t see either, Barb,” I said.

“You act like you don’t believe I can’t see.  You don’t want to admit what is happening to me because it makes you unhappy.  You’re trying to make me feel better, but it doesn’t.” I was lucky we continued. I stilled my back and shoulders so they didn’t betray contradiction. Only my fingers moved. She was so close I could smell her if we hadn’t smelled so much alike that I smelled nothing. Would she sulk? I couldn’t see very well but who could say how well I saw compared to her or what made it dark – the light or the angle or the blindness caused by the tumor? We had really believed, Barb and I,  we could burrow inside each other’s skin or behind each other’s eyes, that we knew what the other was feeling. Now I couldn’t make the leaps of understanding that came so easily before. I couldn’t be inside her head. I was careful not to look at her in case that made her angrier. I couldn’t see what she saw. I could only see how to find the keys in her purse and open the door to the porch, how to put bright lights in her lamps, and when to shut the windows because it might rain. I could only see that she wanted to sing and I waned to play. A match. Rejoice!

“Shhh,” I whispered, meaning, “Sing softer.”

“Were you telling me to be quieter?  I haven’t sung in over six months. I am lucky to get out anything at all much less the variances necessary to do it At the piano I kept silent, breathed slowly, acted calm. I loved playing and hearing her sing the arias from La Traviata, Un di felice – A happy day, Sempre libera – Forever free, and Addio del passato.

Ten years after Barbara died, I walked down a sandy hill to the Pacific and felt the familiar tears welling up as I thought about Barbara’s lengthy and violent dying. I had cried almost every day, sometimes several times, from loss, guilt, anger, all the usual emotions of grief. Startling myself, I thought, “I don’t have to cry.” I felt some guilt, as though I were choosing to ignore Barb. I smiled anyway. It was a windy afternoon softened by warm moisture from the sea. The hills were blossoming with bushes of lavender lupine and on the sand were unruly spreads of fuchsia iceplant. I heard the brown pelicans’ wings tapping softly against the water in Rodeo Lagoon when they landed. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, for which I imagine these brown pelicans, nearly wiped out by DDT then, flap their wings in gratitude. Carson herself died of breast cancer in 1964, but not before visiting Rodeo Lagoon in a wheelchair to witness fifty brown pelicans gliding to the ocean on their huge floppy wings and splash-landing in the water. Before that day, I hadn’t known that one could choose not to be sad, not to cry, that one could move around in the mind like a chessboard, taking a pawn and sliding it to a safe place instead of placing it directly in the path of  the queen. At the turnoff on Coastal Trail, I started singing. I had begun singing lessons nine years after Barb died and I breathed through my diaphragm and tried to flare my nostrils and smile, as my singing teacher had instructed me. In classical singing, you pull your chin down, push out your diaphragm, let your stomach flop, flare your nostrils, flatten your tongue, make fish lips and smile. When I neared the east end of the lagoon, nostrils flaring and stomach flopping, I thought I was singing well.Addio, dorati sogni, cari fantasmi, addio. . . .  (Farewell, golden dreams, dear spirits, farewell. There is no room for you in my heart anymore.) My teacher picked this song for me, along with Come Away Death by Sibelius, Dido’s Lament by Purcell, and several other death-oriented arias. It troubled me that she thought I was suited only for death. The music of Addio has an agitated marching rhythm and an acrobatic melody but the lyrics are angry and depressed: “Woe is me, in the strife of the world sorrow cannot be forgotten. Death is the only true farewell and that pleases me.” It pleased me to sing the song, but I didn’t understand its emotions until I remembered Barb saying she needed distance from me. By the time she said that, I had thought things would be peaceful but they weren’t. I saw that it was wrenching for her to pull away from the living and when Barb pulled away, I felt like she’d socked me in the stomach.

Suddenly, in front of me in Rodeo Lagoon, a Great Blue Heron lifted its terrific wing spread and flew to the next cove. My body on the shore seemed utterly unimpressive and finite. I walked to the bridge over the lagoon and she did it again, flying back to where my singing had disturbed her. She landed on the grey rocks and was still. After a few seconds, I couldn’t make her out. Perfectly camouflaged. I began to sing again.



Mardith Louisell has published essays, profiles, and book reviews in Italy, A Love Story, The House on Via Gombito Street, The Best American Erotica, and in journals and magazines. She writes about music, color, obsession, the WWII Holocaust, feminism, food and relationships. She lives in San Francisco where she works in child welfare and just finished singing the Mozart Requiem.

“The Menopausal Warrior Queen Dictates 7 Rules for Fighting the Evil Breast Cancer” by Tana Suter

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I couldn’t help but notice circumstances that, when they arose, seemed to strike me as blatantly unfair.  To each I would respond with a dramatic sigh and state emphatically to anyone who would listen, “There ought to be a rule against that!”

Now as the self-proclaimed Menopausal Warrior Queen, I decree that the rules that follow are hereby effective immediately and across the universe.
Okay, so I don’t really have that kind of power.  But if I did, here are the ones I would implement with the snap of my noble fingers.

Rule 1: Bad behavior on the breast cancer patient’s part should not be held against her by others, at least not permanently.  Actually, this rule was in effect for me although I wasn’t badly behaved all the time.  I was at my worst when I was recovering from my mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery and my husband was my primary caregiver.  After a week in the hospital, he drove me home and bundled me off to bed,   then set to the design and execution of a well-documented system of round-the-clock checks, meds, and drain line cleanings that would have impressed Florence Nightingale.  He made sure I ate on schedule.  He arose every hour on the hour, night after night, to lead me to the bathroom since I couldn’t walk without wandering because of the pain medication.  He was the model of loving efficiency.   Since I was unable do much by myself, I really did need his help.  But his unlimited cheerfulness made me want to smack him, so I soon dubbed him the “Nurse Nazi.”  

Luckily, he remained steadfast through my emotional outbursts and did not hold them against me.  His explanation was that my temporary lack of gratitude was the result of exhaustion, pain, medications and fear which sounded plausible enough to me.  Therefore, I dictate that this rule is now in effect for all, henceforth.

Rule 2: Anyone who accompanies you to a diagnostic test should be prepared to dress you once the test is complete.  I took a doctor-prescribed Xanax prior to my MRI biopsy and it did the job because I don’t remember any pain or discomfort.  The tricky part came when the procedure was finished.  I was so out of it that I couldn’t dress myself, so the nurse called my husband from the waiting room to help me.  The jeans I wore had slipped off quite easily when I undressed to change into a gown.  But getting those same jeans back on proved to be about as difficult as stuffing sausage meat into a casing, only without the spiffy machine.  Ed was able to place my feet into the leg openings while I sat on the bench, but when he tried to stand me up my rag doll posture made it difficult for him to pull them up around my waist.  His military training served him well as he draped me over his shoulders in a modified fireman’s carry, propping me up so he could slide the jeans over my hips.  My giggles over Ed’s groans coming from behind the dressing room curtain caused the nurse to check to see if everything was okay.   In retrospect, I was grateful that I hadn’t asked one of our male neighbors to drive me to the test.  That would have made the rounds of our neighborhood at lightning speed!

Rule 3: You should not be held responsible for breaking basic fashion rules when coming home from the hospital or at anytime
during treatment.

This rule can keep you off the fashion hook for four or five months, at a minimum.  For example, although it was not a combination I would normally wear, drawstring sweat pants, a blouse that buttoned up the front, and pink Crocs on my feet were all I could manage when I left the hospital.  Since it was chilly that day, I layered my white terry cloth robe over it all for an attractive finish to the outfit.  The good news is, no one cared because everyone leaves the hospital looking like hell anyway.  And I didn’t care because… I was on pain meds.  Thank God my oldest daughter, ever ready with her camera, was not there or I would certainly have shown up on the back page of Fashion Don’ts in a future Glamour magazine with a black rectangle over my eyes.

Then there are the days during treatment when concocting any outfit, much less a fashionable one, is just too overwhelming.  One afternoon after a chemo treatment I answered the doorbell looking a bit green while wearing my trusty terrycloth robe over pink knit pajamas, slippers, and a pink terry turban on my head.  A Victoria’s Secret ad gone terribly wrong.  The FedEx man, polite but wide-eyed, had me sign for the package, then literally sprinted back to the safety of his truck.  Note the common theme of the robe in both anti-fashion examples.  Maybe I should decree that runway designers need to elevate the style status of fluffy terrycloth robes in next year’s collections!

Rule 4: As a cancer patient, you should not be embarrassed to admit to the use of unorthodox methods to solve unexpected annoyances. I submit the example of what to do with your head after you shave it, that is, if you choose to shave off your hair prior to it falling out during chemotherapy.  A week or so after you shave, some hairs will not fall out readily, won’t come out when rubbing your head in the shower, and are also not growing.  They feel like little needles and can be pretty uncomfortable under a hat, scarf, wig or crown.  

I presented this dilemma to my husband, ever the willing problem solver.  He suggested the typical male answer to most all of life’s problems – duct tape.  My first instinct was to snap back at him: “Are you crazy?  It isn’t enough that I am bald?  Now you want me to rip the skin off my head??”  (This was a holdover from the bad behavior highlighted in Rule #1.)  But I managed to hold my tongue and, after conceding that this stuff was used in wartime to patch bullet holes in helicopter blades until repairs could be made, decided that I didn’t have much to lose if I was careful.  And I had to face the cold reality that none of my ideas had worked.

Per his instructions I cut a 9” length of tape, wrapped it around my palm and the top of my hand, sticky side out, then slowly and gently rolled my covered palm across my head where the needle hairs were.  Sure enough, many of them came out without any pain while my skin remained intact.  As I performed this exercise Ed sat in the bedroom anxiously awaiting the results.  I walked out and stated ruefully, “As much as I hate to admit it, this actually works.”   After a few more duct tape treatments, I progressed to my Sheltie’s pet roller for the less stubborn hairs.  These two techniques got me to the point where I had no more needles and no more hairs falling out and sticking to my pillow or turban.  Therefore, I order that we will no longer be embarrassed to share our unusual (okay, weird) solutions with others who might benefit.

Rule 5: Staying with the hair theme, wigs need to be cooler. I don’t mean better styling, although President’s wives must be popular /images for some wig designers because one made me look like Mamie Eisenhower while another channeled Pat Nixon. The wig I finally selected was a stunner and was comfortable enough when I bought it in mid-October.  That is, until my first serious hot flashes began after I started chemotherapy.  Then, all I wanted to do was strip off everything – my clothes, the wig – and do it fast.  Since that kind of behavior can get you arrested out in public, I sucked it up until the flash was over.  But over a period of four months I went through several packages of batteries for my personal hand fan.  That sweet little device saved me from becoming bald jail bait.  So forthwith, wigs will help us look terrific while containing a cool gel lining in the net cap so we can survive climate change, both personal and global, while staying on the right side of the law.  

Rule 6:  Steroids and adjuvant hormone therapy should not result in weight gain. Here’s another one where the drug universe really sticks it
to us.  Although I didn’t have a weight problem before, once I started my second round of chemo accompanied by steroids, I packed on 13 pounds before I could bat my skimpy-eyelashed lids.  It didn’t help that I was moving less because of bone pain, fatigue, and winter weather, and my steroid-induced appetite evaporated any attempts at portion control.  But the appearance of my ballooning alter ego was definitely unwelcome.  And, for the record, I was still bald.

As the effects of the chemo drugs faded, and the weather started to turn warmer, I began an exercise regimen to strengthen my body, doing a little bit at a time, and progressing as I felt stronger.  Just about the time I started to feel like I was hitting my stride, my oncologist initiated a one pill per day hormone therapy which will continue for five years or more.  One of the most common side effects is – yes, you guessed it – weight gain.  You have to love the irony here.  It’s not like we need help gaining weight as we mature and our metabolisms downshift after menopause.  I am dutifully exercising and watching what I eat, as well as how much, and am feeling 100% better and looking fitter and firmer but really, this rule needs to happen – NOW – before I gain another ounce!

Rule 7: When you ask for the curly hair chemo, then you should get curly hair on the regrowth. I spent my entire life begrudging my two brothers their curls, while my hair was stick straight.  That’s another rule that I should have taken care of long ago.  (Did I mention I am the oldest, and had to put up with them both, so they owe me?)

But I digress.  When I heard that many survivors’ hair grows back curly, I saw my chance.  I explicitly requested the curly hair chemo mix from my oncologist, who appraised me with a puzzled look, nodded, and said vaguely, “Aha.”  Now as I examine the current quarter inch regrowth that nominally qualifies as my crowning glory, there is not one curl to be seen.  The hairs are baby soft and delicate, and there are many more silver representatives than before.  What is that all about?  But not a damn one is curly.  So let’s revise this evolving rule: Curly hair chemo, if requested, means you get curly, non-gray, luxuriant tresses as your regrowth, and this goes double if you have two ungrateful brothers who have curly hair and the gall to complain about it in your presence.  Now that’s a kickin’ rule!

In summary, I don’t mean to be a complainer.  But if these rules were effective today, coping with breast cancer surgery and treatment could be rendered significantly more straightforward and certainly less maddening.  Alas, until that time comes, we just have to hunker down and fight our way through it, day by day.  To those untouched by breast cancer I say, good luck, annual mammograms all around, and keep ‘em coming!  And to my brave, survivor sisters: Fight on, Warrior Queens!  We can’t back down now and we can’t let the Evil Breast Cancer win!




Tana Suter is a recent cancer survivor who, fed up with illness memoirs crammed with drama and pathos, used her idle time throughout treatment to document how a serious illness muscled its way into her previously well-organized life.  She is finalizing a book entitled The Menopausal Warrior Queen Slays the Evil Breast Cancer where she collects her non-medical frustrations and observations into a funny, sad and often cranky call-to-arms for warrior queens and those who love them.  Her website, menopausalwarriorqueen.org will go live in May 2009. Suter lives with her husband, Ed, in the picturesque foothills of northern Virginia.

“The Persistence of Desire” by Richard Wirick

This is, of course, the name of one of his stories. In it, a man who has escaped his  farm town past, a rustic with urban vanities, nonetheless returns there to visit a trusted dentist. He sees the things that have changed since his childhood visits, the most telling being a digit-based (though not digital) clock, its minutes dropping away, as he watches, “into the brimming void.

What has not changed is his passion for a childhood flame who happens to drop
by the office, chat him up a bit, blush under his revived attentions, and eventually,
almost silently, alludes to the anomies her marriage there has doomed her to. Though
his themes are as abundant as Adam’s names, persistence is Updike’s perpetual
character-driver, the life force that animates each form of his characters’ transcendence:

[Janet] arose and came against his chest, and Clyde,
included in the close aroma her hair and skin gave off,
felt weak and broad and grand, like a declining rose.
Janet tucked a folded note into the pocket of his shirt and
said conversationally, “He’s waiting outside in the car.”
The neutral, ominous “he” opened wide a conspi-
racy Clyde instantly entered. He stayed behind a minute,
to give her time to get away. Ringed by judging eyes of the
young and old, he felt like an actor snug behind the blinding
protection of the footlights; he squinted prolongedly at the
speedometer-clock, which, like a letter delivered on the stage,
was blank.

And who wrote better about abiding religiosity, the search for faith that Updike saw as essential and unexplainable by reference to historical or social forces? In the story “The Man Who Loved Extinct Animals,” the protagonist sees in the joints and hinges of the fossils he assembles the delicate bridges that the mind builds over the abyss. The brimming void may blind us, he seems to say, but as long as we rivet the beams together, keep busy with the reality or the illusion of building and don’t look down, we will be fine for the time being.

Persistence also abides, though less than in other writers, in those characters who shore up some art, or artifact, against their ruin. One of the most powerful of “The Olinger Stories” (Collected in 2004’s Collected Early Stories), is “The Alligators.” An elementary school boy fashions his first illustrations not out of any transcendent wish, but to satirize a classmate whose ostracism is a requirement for popularity. He feels guilt  at creating for such a mean and limited purpose, but then, as he shares other, maturing drawings with friends, sees that he has inherited a transfiguring power, and one conferring the consolations of infinity.

What often persists the most could be the most unattractive but necessary of qualities—market ambition, social climbing, the Sinclair Lewis hucksterism that tells us the historical echoes of the “Rabbit” nickname. In the story “The City,” a man falls ill while traveling on business, and as he recovers through hallucinations and incisional pain, we think that maybe he will reassess, prioritize, hunger for the stasis of a family and fixed life. But the desire to impress and dazzle is as basic to the organism as eating or breathing, and the brush with death seems to have taught him nothing but the need for reserves of energy stored up by rest. It was always Updike’s exploration of ambition that made him that most American of writers. Roth and Bellow approached it brilliantly through urbanized machers of immigrant merchant classes, but Updike filtered it through our Rotary Club speakers, the Toyota salesman (Rabbit Is Rich) quoting gas mileage stats to us from Consumer Reports.

Perhaps the greatest persistence he portrayed was longing itself; yearning, the desire to rise higher and keep hope borne up in one’s bearing as the very badge of existence. Like Francis Bacon, Updike believed the world is laid out for us, kindly disposed to our discovery and enjoyment: “Full of Joye and Wondrous Goode.” That transporting, almost erotic elixir of exploration runs through the age-sequenced life snapshots of the narrator of “Museums and Women.” It first visits him like a spell as he traverses a county reliquary with his mother:

Who she was was a mystery so deep it never formed itself
into a question. She had descended to me from thin clouds of
preexistent time, enveloped me, and set me moving toward an
unseen goal with a vague expectation that in the beginning was
more hers than mine. She was not content. I felt that the motion
that brought us again and again to the museum was an agitated
one, that she was pointing me through these corridors toward a
radiant place that she had despaired of reaching . . .I was her
son and the center of her expectations. I dutifully absorbed the
light-struck terror of the hushed high ceilings and went through
each doorway with a kind of timid rapacity.

What is sought here—though great—is not as important as the sensation, the very texture of seeking: she was pointing me. . . toward a radiant place she had despaired of reaching. Updike owns the luxuriance of The Search more than anyone (perhaps excepting Walker Percy) in modern letters: he invented the theme out of whole cloth and then perfected it in more than fifty books, through hundreds of characters. His perspective on it was tactile, limber, instinctual, breezy, and at the same time solemn, like one of his epistolary clergymen. William Pritchard said of him, reviewing the collection with the above story as its title: “He is a religious writer, he is a comic realist; he knows what everything feels like, how everything works. He is putting together a body of work which, in substantial intelligent creation, will eventually be seen as second to none in our time.” Eventually seen? For those in the know, the fathomless depth, and the dexterity, was staggeringly obvious from the start. Chip McGrath, in his tribute in The Times, posed the question: “If you could write that well by taking a pill, who wouldn’t swallow whole fistfuls of them?”

Though we had no way of knowing it, my colleague Victoria Pynchon  and I saw him in his very last public appearance, at UCLA’s Royce Hall in December. He read a quick passage from The Widows of Eastwick, where Alexandra, the aging Rhode Island witch of the Seventies, is now an old woman on a Nile cruise, telepathically electrocuting bats that are flying across her steamer bow and mussing her hair. Everything you could want in establishing a scene is there: the colors of the foul but suddenly clearing river, the Monet hues of the Egyptian twilight, the precisely rendered sound of something we’ll never hear but know could sound only that way were we to witness it—a bat’s fur and rubbery extremities flaming up and then dousing themselves to death in the water.Wrapped up in this sensuous music—much as with his beloved Proust and Bellow—is the effortless, sudden ranging between third person and first, the immediately recognizable hinges of his free indirect style. It is what hit American readers of Rabbit, Run like a thunderbolt in 1959, or like the welcome sun Harry sees on the first page, sliding open the door of his dark, Satanic Linotype shop and blinking at the kindly-disposed world, the bright, haphazard gravel under the soles of his basketball hi-tops. It was the same shifts in register and perspective that made you always know but never care which thought was Rabbit’s or which was his creator’s. He dove like a . . . what?

Like a bat—down into everyone’s head and hovered there meticulously. He got out of them just what was needed for reality to create their observations and then, with a pirouette Sam Tannenhaus called “pure magic,” let his characters’ minds in turn press out upon the world their seeing had reconstituted.

He honed this to perfection in the opening scenes of Rabbit At Rest, where the narrator jumps inside Rabbit (he’s waiting for his wife to get out of the bathroom at the Ft. Myers airport) long enough for us to feel the man’s gluttonous elation, then leaps back to look at his character like a Babbitesque, portly clodhopper, chewing and dribbling a candy bar, gazing at his own strange sunstruck extinction:

While she’s in the ladies he cannot resist going into the shop and buying
something to nibble, a Planter’s Original Peanut Bar, the wrapper says. It was
broken in two somewhere in transit and thinks one half to offer his two
grandchildren when they’re all in the car heading home. It would make a small hit.
But the first half is so good he eats the second and even dumps the sweet
crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with his tongue eats them all up like
an anteater . . . . . As he tries with his tongue to clean the sticky brittle stuff, the
caramelized sugar and corn syrup, from between his teeth—all his still, thank God,
and the front ones not even crowned—Rabbit stares out at the big square of
sunny afternoon. As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its
claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold a diamond solitaire.

We come finally to the little shadow under the intensity of appetite: its forbiddeness and its premonition of oblivion. You stuff yourself, but with something of your own negation.

Later, even closer to death, Rabbit looks up from his heart bypass operating table and sees on a video screen his own horrific viscera, “the pulsing wet tubes we inherited from the squid.” Harry is reassured that his doctor is Jewish, having a

Gentile prejudice that Jews do everything a little better
than other people, something about all those generations
crouched over the Talmud and watch-repair tables, they
aren’t as distracted as other persuasions, they don’t expect
to have as much fun. They stay off the booze and dope and
have a weakness only . . .for broads.

We get Harry’s immediate assessment of his surgeon’s vices, but only after we’ve sailed around the room a little, flitting omnisciently within the purely authorial, purely sociological adumbration of the character.

At the reading, Updike finally laid down the copper-jacketed book and talked awhile with a writer from the L.A. Times Book Review. All his observations were witty, generous, self-deprecating, and in the words of his own epitaph for his beloved editor William Maxwell, “funny and wise and kind and true.” He finished with a gush of enthusiasm about the newly-elected Obama, clasping his hands together, appearing to rise up out of his chair like one of his early cartoon whiffenpoofs. Then he took a series of mostly inept audience questions, steering each gracefully toward a cognizable answer. The inevitable what-are-you-working-on eventually arrived, and for once he really didn’t have a thought-through response. He shrugged his shoulders, slapped his palms on his knees, and said “I’ll only say I intend to stay in this writing business until I drop over dead.” And lucky for us, by God, he did.



Richard Wirick lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and three children, where he practices law and writes. He is the co-founder of the journal Transformation and the author of the hauntingly lyrical collection of prose poems 100 Siberian Post Cards.

“The Prison Diaries of Arthur Longworth” by Arthur Longworth

one:  where I am

Sunday, July 27th
(first day of diary)

I suppose I should start by telling you where I am. This is an
old prison (well over a hundred years old) and it would be better
suited as a historical site, than a place to keep prisoners. It’s
falling apart. The state wanted to close it years ago because it
cost too much to operate, but they can’t, Even though they are
constantly building new prisons and adding to the ones they
already have, there are too many of us.

They have nowhere else to put us.

The massive Romanesque architecture of the prison’s
buildings, gun towers, and the thirty foot wall that surrounds us
is composed of worn red brick. Millions of them. The mortar that
has for so long held them together is falling out. In places, the
bricks have separated in distinct fault lines. Weeds have taken
root between them and sprout directly from the sides of buildings
and the wall. It’s a funny sight.

There is a contrast in the wall between the uppermost
section—which was replaced after it broke apart and toppled into
the big yard ten years ago during an earthquake—and the rest of
it which is covered with a dark, crusty type of moss. The contrast
is becoming less apparent though. Long streaks of rust from the
razor wire that crowns the top of the wall have stained the new
section and the moss is beginning to encroach.

I’m not as old as the prison (43 now) but there are times I
feel like it because prison is all that I know. I have been in since I
was eighteen. That is, if you don’t count the juvenile institutions I
spent my childhood in. Longer, if you do. Looking back it seems
like a long time. I’m conscious that I’m swiftly approaching the
limit of a prisoner’s life expectancy—which isn’t the same as that
of a free person’s.

two: proximity
Monday, July 28th

My celly, Bucky, began vomiting a few days ago. He’s in the
infirmary now with some kind of food poisoning. He isn’t the only
one who got it, so he has company.

I wouldn’t wish a sickness like that on anyone but, I have to
admit, his absence from the small place that is our cell is a bit of a
relief. I am less distracted, able to write more, and can get off my
bunk whenever I want, instead of the way we have to do it when
there are two of us…taking turns.

It isn’t that I don’t like Bucky, or care what happens to him. I
do. He came highly recommended (my friend Jimmy vouched for
him). After my last celly was transferred, the cell house sergeant
told me I would have to find another, or he would find one for
me. I had Bucky move in later that day.

Bucky came to prison as a juvenile with a four year sentence,
but in the few years he has been here six more have been added
to it because of his behavior (and I suspect he will stretch it to
more than that before he is through). He gets into trouble
because he’s afflicted with what used to be called in my time
“hyperactivity”, now ADHD. They give him Ritalin in an attempt to
control it, but he sells the pills. He has no other source of money
–no parents, he was raised by the state.

You may wonder why I choose to live with a prisoner like
Bucky, afflicted as he is and only nineteen years old. But, the
truth is, I am more comfortable around him than I would be
around someone who wasn’t sent to prison until he was older. I
have patience for Bucky because I understand him…at least the
circumstances that brought him to prison, because they are not
much different from the ones that brought me here when I was
his age.

I have to yell at Bucky sometimes to take a shower because
he forgets, or to wash his socks. But, besides that, he isn’t a
problem. He’s trustworthy and his word is good. What more
could I ask?

The problem isn’t my celly, it’s that this prison has the
smallest cells in the system—we literally live on top of each other
here. State officials know they aren’t supposed to put more than
one prisoner into a cell this small. An injunction was issued by a
Federal Court years ago that kept them from doing it—until the
state got it lifted by telling the court that prisoners were
volunteering to be crammed in together. Bastards.

I’ve pondered writing to the court to tell them the truth, but I
know it wouldn’t be wise. Others have tried it and everyone
knows what happened to them. Because of the overcrowding,
more than a thousand of our state’s prisoners are housed in
other states (long distances away), and I would quickly find
myself with them if I were to write the court.

Bucky is a decent celly, but I am going to enjoy this time while
he is gone. I don’t miss being forced into such close proximity
with anyone.

three: birds of a feather
Wednesday, July 30th

We were allowed out into the Big Yard this morning and I went
with the hope of catching sight of the young osprey that has been
hanging around the prison recently. Last week he landed on one
of the lights above the wall and I was able to get a good look at
him. He at me, as well.

No sight of the osprey today though. It was warm early and the
only birds to see were starlings, a small group in the grass on the
far side of the yard. They are always here because they don’t
migrate, the prison is their home. I have watched enough
generations of them live out their lives here, go from chicks to
death, to be able to tell you with certainty that they don’t go

I like to watch birds—which is strange when you consider that I
have spent many years of my life in IMU (maximum-security)
where I was unable to see them. There you are confined only to a
small cell, you don’t get to see outside. Then again, maybe it is
because of that experience that I have gained this appreciation for
them. I don’t think I had it before they put me in that place.

The starlings in the yard this morning were parents with their
offspring. Although the young ones were no smaller than the
adults, they were easy to pick out because of their coloring and
the way they behaved. While the adults search the grass for
food—thrusting their heads down into it and looking around, then
taking a few steps and repeating the process—their fledglings
follow them raising a ruckus, squawking and shaking their wings.
The only time the youngsters were quiet was when one of their
parents stuffed a bug in their throats. As soon as they got it
down, they would begin squawking again.

Sometimes when I am watching birds, thoughts come to me—
like the one I had this morning. As I watched the starlings, I
couldn’t’t help but recognize a correlation between them and a
certain kind of prisoner—those who were raised by the state in its
institutions. They, too, were brought up to be where they are.
Free people, I suspect, would think it ridiculous to say that, but
that is only because they don’t know what it is like—what growing
up in those places teaches you, and what it doesn’t. It doesn’t
prepare you for a life in civilized society. The only thing a young
person raised by the state is fit for is this right here. I’ve been in
long enough to see that cycle play itself out too, generation after
generation—I’m thinking of Bucky now, one of the most recent

Is it fair to write this? To believe it? My own generation comes
to mind now, those who grew up with me in those places. Yes, I
think it is fair…because I can’t think of a single instance where it
wasn’t true.

four: home
Thursday, July 31st

It is raining today. When we’re locked in our cells we can’t see
outside, but I know it is raining because water is running in
rivulets down the inner wall of the cell house, being absorbed into
state-issue blankets that have been laid out for this purpose. The
blankets must be changed frequently by the tier porters. Water
drips from cracks in the ceiling, the drops fall into large plastic
garbage barrels placed strategically on the cell house floor four
stories below.

It isn’t raining hard, if it was, more water would be coming
through the cracks. It’s funny to see streams of water pouring
from the ceiling (funny in the same way it is to see errant weeds
growing from the sides of old brick buildings here and on the wall).

I wonder how much longer this place is going to last. What if it
fell down? Wouldn’t that be funny? What would they do? Tell us
to go home? When you have lived your entire life in prison, where
is home?

five: fight
Saturday, August 2nd

There was a fight tonight during the last movement period.
(Movement periods are times during the day when we’re allowed
to move from one area of the prison to another.) Fights are
hardly unusual here, they happen all the time. I wouldn’t bother
mentioning it if there wasn’t more to it.

The fight broke out in the main corridor leading to our
cellhouse between two prisoners of different races and quickly
swelled to include more prisoners of those same races—six of one
and eight of the other. This kind of fight is more serious than
usual because it affects everyone in the prison, tautens the
already threaded line of tension that runs through everything
here, and carries with it the very real possibility that the entire
place will erupt into violence.

Alarms sounded, and the gates inside the prison that control
movement on its sidewalks and through its corridors slammed
shut, cutting off other prisoners’ ability to get to the disturbance.
Guards converged from every section of the prison.

I saw the fight from behind a wall of bars that separates one
end of the corridor from the other, part of a large crowd that was
caught there when the gates slammed. All of us watched as the
drama played out. One of the race groups involved in the fight
was my own and I was immediately conscious that there were
members of the other race in the crowd around me. I tallied the
numbers in my mind—theirs, ours— and shifted in the crowd,
moving closer to the others of my own race. I watched myself
doing this and realized what I was doing was automatic—having
done it so many times in the past, I didn’t have to think about it.
And I wasn’t alone, everyone in that crowd did what I did. The
races separated. I wonder at what point in a prison sentence that
a person becomes like this. Reaching into my memory as far as I
can…I can’t remember. I’ll have to ask someone newer.

We are in our cells now, locked in for the night. The cell block is
quiet, that’s  how you can tell something is going on. All it would
take is for someone to say something, to direct it out through the
bars of their cell into the quiet bock. Maybe not even that. It may
be already going to happen anyway. We’ll see what tomorrow
brings, when the cell doors are racked in the morning.

six: search
Monday, August 4th

I found my cell destroyed when I returned from the Big Yard this
morning. It was impossible to take it in all at once, so I stood at the
bars for some time looking in, trying to make sense of the mess,
assess the damage.

Everything was on the floor. The sheets and blankets that cover the
thin foam pads we call mattresses, stripped off and thrown there—
Bucky’s and mine. The cardboard boxes that I keep my property in had
been turned upside down and dumped there too. My heart froze at the
sight of my writing tablets in a twisted pile, loose pages scattered.

Anger came over me and I entered the cell. The door racked shut
behind me. Bucky’s property was dumped in the corner and his meager
collection of possessions were pushed under the toilet. The cover of my
favorite writing book was torn and I realized that it is as good as gone,
its useful life ended—not because the damage had destroyed it, but
because it is the reason guards will use to take it in the next cell search.
According to prison policy, it is now “altered.” No matter that they did it.

When I picked up the writing tablets, I noticed that my photos were
under everything, strewn across the concrete floor face down. I
dropped the tablets and hurried to pick them up. Some lay in water and
there was no way I could salvage them.

It would have been easy at that point to tell myself it was the last
straw, to self-destruct. It was what I wanted more than anything to do.

The photos were of Kriss—of Kriss and me together. Kriss, who has
visited me for the last fifteen years, who sacrificed so much in her life in
order to befriend me, then more in order to marry me. She has been
with me through the hardest times and is the only family I have ever
known. Do they not know that I love this woman more than life itself?
My anger turned red-hot; my hatred of them, implacable.

I reminded myself that the photos aren’t her, they’re just photos.
She doesn’t want me to self-destruct and end up in the hole. I tried to
imagine her here, what she would say. A shadow passed in front of the
cell and I looked up to see a guard standing there. He looked young and
a bit nervous. I stared at him with the blank cast of my prison face, not
saying anything. I didn’t know why he had come to my cell (to witness
firsthand the misery he had caused and revel in it?) I remember exactly
what I thought at that moment, “It’s too soon…I haven’t composed
myself yet…I’m not ready to hear what you have to say…get out of here
and leave me alone!”

The guard smiled in an attempt to appear friendly, to bridge the
gulf. He offered an offhand apology for the mess and informed me that
it wasn’t their fault (he and the others guards who did it), the order to
search the cell had been handed down “from above.” He looked at me
as though he expected me to say something.

I held on to my deadpan expression—as much a part of me as it is, I
had difficulty maintaining it. I told him quietly to leave.

The guard began to say something, but I didn’t give him the chance.
I yelled, ”LEAVE!” imbuing the word with all of the anger that I felt, no
longer interested in concealing it. It was as civil a tone as I could
manage, His expression turned angry instantly, his lips compressed into
a tight resentful line and he moved off.

For a moment, I tried to look at things from the young guard’s
point of view, but it was useless. There is no way I could understand a
guard like that, how he and his buddies could possibly think that it was
okay to do this, and that he would be able to come by the cell afterward
and explain away what they had done, that I would be okay with it and
everything would be all right—or, at least, no different than before they
did it.

I sat down heavily atop the wreckage of my property, no longer
interested in trying to sort through them or pick things up, the photos
of Kriss still in my hands. I counseled myself—as I have done countless
times in the past—that I don’t really own anything…photos or anything
else. No one does here. What you have in regard to property, you only
have through good fortune, and only for the time being, there is no
guarantee you will be able to retain it. If you lash yourself to it—what
you think is yours—prison will break you. Anything you have in here can
be taken or destroyed on the whim of those who keep you, and the
more you cling to it, the more likely it is to happen.

Breathing deep, I allowed my thoughts to settle and reminded
myself of the source of my strength, My strength lies in the knowledge
that guards can take everything from me, strip me naked and throw me
into a concrete and steel cell with nothing, leave me there an indefinite
period of time (months or years) and I will find a way to survive, to
come out of it sane and still a functional human being with the ability to
start anew. I know this because they have done it, and I have made it
through…many times. It is these times that are my greatest victories.

The only thing we truly own in prison is what we possess when we
are naked…locked inside of a cell with nothing. If a person can figure out
what that is and cultivate it, abide in it, what they take from him
materially means nothing, that is when he is doing time right. If you’re
unaware of what you have to fall back on when you’ve been stripped of
everything…then you truly are poor.

I feel better now. I realize I only get upset because I forget, lose
touch with what I already know, the source of my strength. When I’m in
touch, none of this is able to bother me…and I don’t feel the need to hate anymore.

seven: fat jack
Tuesday, August 5th

They transferred Fat Jack to the infirmary today. I was glad I got the
chance to see him before he left, but it was difficult watching him go. I
have known him a long time and he really is a decent person.

It’s funny that I still call him Fat Jack even though he isn’t fat
anymore and hasn’t been for some time. His belly protrudes, but that is
only because his organs are distended, painfully bloated with the toxins
his liver is unable to filter from his blood. The rest of him is skeleton-
like, the flesh that remains hangs loosely from his bones. He is in the
latter stages of Hepatitis C infection.

Jack’s transfer isn’t a surprise, he knew it was coming. It’s inevitable
when you lose touch with who and where you are—when you ask
guards questions that don’t make sense and wander unconsciously into
sections of the prison you aren’t supposed to go. We have both seen it
before (infirmary staff say that the prison HVC infection rate is over
seventy percent), most recently with some of Jack’s closest friends:
Chuck, Leo, Speedy…Bill.

Jack took Bill’s death the hardest. Bill, who spoke of being betrayed
before his transfer to the infirmary. He passed most of his sentence
working as a clerk in the chapel, certain that Jesus would get him out of
prison one day. “Faith” he called it. As it turned out, it was nothing
more than overconfidence in Jesus’ ability to influence the affairs of the
Department of Corrections. Bill died within days of his move out of the
cell house and Jack has made a point of declaring his own position on
Jesus ever since. Even when he is in one of his delusional states, his
position doesn’t change—there is no Jesus.

For me, what the state is doing to Fat Jack throws into question
their assertion that their prisons only house those who are too
dangerous to allow into society. After all, Jack can hardly get around
anymore—he was sent to prison for drug offenses. What would it hurt
to cut his sentence and let him die outside these walls? Wouldn’t that
be the right thing to do? Every terminally ill prisoner I have known
asked for this, but I’ve never seen it granted.

It was hard to watch Jack make that walk today. I tried to lighten his
mood by telling him that Bucky (my celly) is in the infirmary…that he will
see him there…but my words sounded phony because they didn’t match
what was in my heart. I wish that I could have thought of something
more meaningful to say. Jack seemed unusually clearheaded. Watching
him trudge off down the walk in the direction of Medical, I believe he
knew this would be the last time he was going to make that trip.

eight: about education
Thursday, August 7th

Everything stopped while I was reading a newspaper in
the library today—the article said that Alexander
Solzhenitsyn passed away in his home in Moscow. The rest
of the world continued on, I suppose, but everything
stopped inside of me. I retreated to my cell and remain here
in order to contemplate his life, and the connection I have
for so long felt with him. I realize you may not understand—
why Mr. Solzhenitsyn meant anything to me, why the news
of his death affects me. Let me try to explain.

When I was sent to prison many years ago as a very
young man, I had only a seventh grade education and didn’t
read or write very well. I had never heard of Mr.
Solzhenitsyn. I wanted to go to school and get an
education, which was something that was not available to
me before I came to prison, but I soon discovered I wasn’t
allowed to attend school inside either. Prison officials said it
would be a waste of their time and resources to educate me
because I had a life sentence. They told me I would only be
allowed to take barber or janitor classes—two vocations that
would make me a useful prisoner.

At this point, I didn’t even know if it was possible for me
to learn—if I had the same abilities as others—but I had
made up my mind to try, so I set out to educate myself. I
went to the prison library and began to check out books. It
was a small library and poorly stocked, but I read everything
I could…biography, history, philosophy, language. Then I
made tests and gave them to myself in order to be sure I
had retained all that I was pouring into my mind.

On the back shelf of the library one day I came across a
treasure—a three volume set of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag
. When I got it back to my cell, it held me
entranced long after I finished it.

I went on to read all of Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s published
works. My favorite is a small book entitled One Day in the
Life of Ivan
Denisovich—the story of a day in the life of a
prisoner in the Soviet Union. I love that book, not only
because it reflects the strength and perseverance of the
human spirit in the face of seeming hopelessness but,
because it could have only been written by a prisoner…only a
prisoner can know of so many of the things he wrote. In
fact the book startled me when I read it because I knew it
was written about prisoners in another country, during a
different time, under different circumstances, yet I felt as if I
was reading about prisoners and guards I know, what goes
on here, and what goes through many of our minds while
we’re experiencing it. There were so many parallels, I couldn’t
help but feel close to them. Of course, I am conscious that
Ivan and many of those in prison around him were political
prisoners, and I and those around me are criminals, but
there is still a connection…and that connection is that we are
human beings.

The experience of prison as it exists in our country today
is no less damaging to the individual or society than the
experience of it that Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote about. There
are many differences, but it is no less harmful and those
who would believe otherwise are deluding themselves;
certainly they have never been prisoners. The only argument
to be made is whether or not (because of the harm many of
us have caused others) we deserve it, and if the price of
doing this to so many of us is worth the toll it takes upon
society. I’ve often wondered what Mr. Solzhenitsyn would
think (write) if he were able to experience what it is like to
be a long-term prisoner in this country today where prison
has become an industry into which human beings are fed,
and out of which is spat a product that is much less capable
of functioning in society than the one that went in.

Being in prison in this country is different now than it ever
has been before. There are more people inside—many times
more. Never has there been anywhere close to this number.

And sentences are longer and harsher than ever. Is that
because people are worse today than they were in the past?
Worth less? Less able to redeem themselves, or less
deserving of the opportunity to do so?

And young people—the ones with the greatest potential
to reform themselves—are given those sentences. We have
prisoners in this state who were given mandatory Life
without the Possibility of Parole sentences when they were
thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old. We have prisoners
struck-out as career criminals when they were nineteen,
twenty, and twenty-one. They too have mandatory Life
without Parole sentences. “Mandatory” means that a judge
didn’t have a choice in the matter, the sentence was
mandated by legislators (lawmakers who decided without
ever meeting these young people or considering their
circumstances, that there is nothing in them worth
salvaging, that they can never change, and that they
deserve nothing ever other than unremitting punishment.

Maybe I am deluding myself, but I have always felt that
Mr. Solzhenitsyn would be able to relate to what is going on
here with many prisoners…feel as close to us as I have
always felt to him. Getting a sentence of Life without Parole
when you are young is hopelessness. Continuing on after
that, learning to survive in an American prison and proceed
forward as decades stack one atop another, and you have
long since forgotten what is on the other side of these
walls, is perseverance of human spirit.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s writing inspired me as a young prisoner
to continue my efforts to educate myself and, eventually, led
me to write a book modeled after his One Day in the Life of
Ivan Denisovich
. It’s a manuscript that is passed from
convict to convict; the story of one day in the life of a
prisoner inside the prison in which I grew into adulthood and
have spent most of my life—the prison in Walla Walla. When
officials there discovered a copy and read it, they threw me
in the hole and revoked my medium-custody classification.
But the manuscript still makes its rounds. Prisoners read it
because it puts words to what they are unable to, relates
the truth about prison, and what it does to those who are
in it. I have always felt that Mr. Solzhenitsyn is as
responsible for the existence of this convict manuscript as I

I wonder if Mr. Solzhenitsyn ever dreamed while he was in
prison that his life would turn out as it has…that he would
live outlive the system that imprisoned him… that he would
one day live free…that he would own a home (in Moscow)
and that he would be able to die there. Perseverance of
spirit. Thank you Mr. Solzhenitsyn for showing us what that
is. No better example could have been given, no better life

nine: crowded
Friday, August 8th

Bucky was released from the infirmary today around noon. He
surprised me when he showed up at the cell haggard and pale,
hunched over because his stomach still hurt. He said that he had
seen Fat Jack.

Part of me is glad that he is back. Tomorrow, if he is up to it, we
will play chess. He likes getting beat.

I am trying to suppress the other part of me—the part that
doesn’t like to be crowded.

ten: a river of faces
Tuesday, August 12th

My friend, Kenny, got out of prison yesterday. He felt bad
about leaving, I could tell. Not bad that he was getting out, but
that I’m not.

It’s a kind of guilt that I don’t understand. He wanted me to
say something, I know, to allay what he was feeling. But I didn’t.
It’s not my fault what he feels.

Kenny is a decent person, but he cannot fathom the endless
line of people I have seen get out in the last twenty-five years, a
river of faces almost as large the one I have watched flow in. And
he is only one ripple in that river. I didn’t want to try and explain
that to him. Better that he just went…thinking what he thought,
feeling what he felt.

Never do I mouth the same tired platitudes I hear from
others—“Good luck…” “I hope you make it…” “It’s been good to
know you…” etc. I can’t bring myself to do it. Only in the last few
years have I become aware of what I say—“See you later…” Maybe
that is what I am hoping for. And…why not. The odds are it’s
true. Am I supposed to feel bad when they come back? You think
I want to be alone in here? Or surrounded only by those I don’t

I realize it’s a fucked up way to think. I’m working on it.

Eleven: The Sting
Thursday, August 14th<

An unusual sight on the Big Yard today—two gold finches. I
heard them and looked up in time to see them flit over. That was
it, only a second or two worth of sighting, but enough to be sure
of what they were.

The young starlings were more independent than last time I
observed them—they have ceased to bother their parents so
much. All that differentiates them from adults now is their

I’m not sure what made me think of it, but as I watched the
birds it occurred to me that prison is harder on people who were
sent here when they are older. At least, those who are older than
twenty-one. When you’re sent to prison younger than that, there
comes a point when it loses its sting, you lose touch with the fact
that you are being punished. This is true especially if you have a
life sentence because when you live your entire adult life in prison,
no matter how bad it gets in here, your situation is only what
you, as an adult, have ever known it to be. You go about life the
best you can without the handicap of memories of a better time
or place (unless it’s memories of a better prison you were in
once, compared to the one you are in now).

After living so long here I’m conscious that prison is
punishment only because of what I see on the faces of those not
yet accustomed to it. Watching the newly arrived, it’s obvious
that what they find in here isn’t what they are used to, not what
is considered normal outside these walls…undoubtedly a long way
from it. Their reaction infuses itself on their faces, a dawning look
of horror; realization that they now have to live like this, will have
to find a way to do it…or knot a sheet around their neck. They
don’t know the half of it yet.

Even as I write this I’m aware that it isn’t completely true, I’m
not entirely unbothered by prison, the experience of life here isn’t
bereft of punishment for me. That is because I’m not blameless. I
am responsible for the death of an innocent person, that is why I
am here. And it eats at me…always has. What bothers me is that
I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to pay anything back, in any
way make up for the crime I as an ignorant young person
committed—no matter what happens in here, no matter how bad
or intolerable it gets, prison has never made me feel like I am
doing that.



Arthur Longworth has been incarcerated since age 18. His youth was spent in a variety of foster homes – usually for only two or three months at a time. He was separated from his sister at an early age and, in his teens, he lived in a series of youth facilities. At sixteen he was released to the streets with no means of support. He had only a seventh-grade education and began life in Seattle breaking into cars and doing petty criminal activity. At age 18 he escalated to armed robbery and in one holdup a victim was killed. Arthur was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.  After Longworth arrived in prison he asked to go to school to get an education. He was told that as a “lifer” he wouldn’t need an education. Eventually he visited the library and educated himself.