Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Buddhas on Death Row

 Company by Moyo, 2015

For a little over a year now, I have been writing to two prison pen pals, one of whom is on death row. He has been incarcerated since age 18, which means he has spent his entire adult life behind bars (he just turned 35). Most of that time has been in solitary confinement. During that time, he has discovered the love of reading, art, Buddhism, poetry and yoga.

Besides me, he has several other pen pals he corresponds with around the world, one of whom orchestrated this extraordinary show, Buddhas on Death Row, in Helsinki, Finland. For this show, my pen pal has adopted the brush name, Moyo, (Swahili for heart/spirit).  

In his latest letter, Moyo wrote to let me know the exhibit had launched. He called it “…our labor of love. Our as in you. Thank you, thank you.” I only contributed in tiny ways, (helping Moyo secure art supplies, mostly, and of course, moral support) but all the same, I feel immensely honored to have been a part of its realization. I hope the exhibit sheds some light on the issues regarding corporal punishment in general and the cruel and unusual punishment of solitary confinement in particular.

As for the art—well, see for yourself:

Moyo’s Buddhas are the first art pieces I’d seen by him. His art is made from a lot of scavenged materials (in prison, improvisation is just a part of survival-- some of the letters he's sent me are written on brown paper lunch bags). His repeated use of the subject never feels repetitive; he seems to always bring a new perspective to that holy visage, even as he employs new color, texture and media. But I find myself particularly moved by his drawings of solitary confinement. Distortion is the reigning sensation in a place where time loses all meaning, and a person is sucked into an existential nightmare where they just might be the lone survivor shipwrecked on a 54-square foot island, surrounded by walls, but bereft of human contact.

Also, do be sure to read Moyo’s thoughts regarding his work and his experience. If you take away nothing else, I hope you remember these words: 

I don’t expect to ever be let out of solitary confinement alive.

I could die next year, I could die this year. I don’t sense an overwhelming anxiety about this.

What I am most concerned with is spending my time in worthy ways. What bothers me is that I am a waste to others while here. In the movie The Matrix, humans still served some purpose. They were fuel! Here, my purpose is none.

Stick me in front of a camera and let me talk to some at-risk kids. Teach me to knit so I can make some blankets for the homeless. Let me donate some blood or some organs!

I am a healthy male. When I am executed, I won’t be able to donate any of my organs because at that point they will be ruined by the chemicals that the state goes to all sorts of lengths to acquire to kill me and others.

So my protests are my donated organs. My speaking out are my donated organs. My art is my donated organs.


The show runs through Aug. 28.


From the art show website:

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT is the practice of isolating prisoners in small closed cells for periods of time that range from days to decades.

It is a pressing human rights issue in the United States, where 80,000–100,000 people are held in isolation on any given day. Most death row prisoners are held in solitary, with little human contact or interaction; reduced or no natural light; and severe constraints on visitation, including never being able to touch their family or friends.

Solitary confinement causes devastating effects to the mind and the body. These include intense anxiety and severe depression, paranoia and hallucinations, rage and violent fantasies, self-mutilation, nightmares and insomnia, heart palpitations and lower levels of brain function.
Few prison systems use the term “solitary confinement” and refer instead to “segregation” or “restrictive housing”. Those enduring these conditions call it a living death.

In 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment called on UN member nations to ban nearly all uses of solitary confinement in prisons, warning that it amounts to torture.

To learn more, visit: 

To take a closer look at solitary confinement, visit The Guardian’s 6x9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Book III Soundtrack

Here's something I haven't done for a while-- shared an O4S playlist. The following are songs that I listened to while working on Where Flap the Tatters of the King, The Order of the Four Sons, Book III.

Originally written as a single, long book, we have now broken it into two volumes. We are preparing Book IV, The Sacred Heart, for release this fall. (Check out the excerpt here.)

As I mentioned in a previous post, Coyote and I have taken a break from the main O4S storyline and working on a side project about Corbenic, which is the setting for Books III and IV. One of the reasons I think it's been so hard to finish Books V and VI is because it's so hard for us to say goodbye to Corbenic. It's our favorite place.

While you're waiting so patiently, you can at least share my creative headspace, in which music is so indispensable. As always, SPOILERS AHEAD. 

1. The Road to the Capital - Violet Hill, Coldplay

"There was snow
White snow..."

A song about winter and war. The entire planet of Corbenic has been plunged into an endless winter while the King is imprisoned, which means the team has a long trek through snow and ice to get to the capital. As Murphy observed, the characters were "just in a goddamn desert." From scorching heat to freezing cold-- we're not nice to these people. Fortunately, they're all from the Midwest, so they're used to extremes.

2. The Witches - Four Women, Nina Simone

One of the team's early stops is at a house where four women hide from the rest of the Corbenese society-- if they did not, they could face execution simply for being what they are in a world that forbids women from practicing magic.

A song about four very different women, with different backgrounds, who nevertheless share the pain of persecution. The witches consist of a woman who was born to a noble family, a servant, a seer and a prostitute, who have managed to come together to form a tight family unit.

3. The Toy Makers - My First Child, Nil Lara

"You're my first child
I'll lose you someday..."

Another one of the team's pit stops-- Daedalus' Toys, manned entirely by women workers. Like the witches, these women must hide from society because they have escaped cruel husbands, masters and pimps. Some of them are lesbians, which, like witchcraft, carries a death sentence. There are some little girls at the house, but no boys. As one of the women notes, "To steal a Corbenese man's son? That is suicide." If a woman comes to the house pregnant and gives birth to a boy, he is killed. So there's something especially poignant about women who had to either leave their children behind or kill them outright for their own survival, then turn to toy-making to earn a living.

4. The Fox Boys - Portions for Foxes, Rilo Kiley

Alyssa is the pretty young thing in front of the Bassarides boys, and almost becomes a portion for foxes. Much to her chagrin.

5. Voice Like an Angel - The Ballad of Jesse James, The Ramblin' Riversiders

We could hardly pass an opportunity for a Jesse James reference, especially since our heroes are only a few shades away from being outlaws themselves.

6. Four Mothers - Marble Halls, Enya

"I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls..."

A white castle by the sea, a handsome prince, and magic-- Four Mothers, the imperial palace of Corbenic, is definitely a dream.

7. The Ball - Galapagos, Smashing Pumpkins

This song always felt like a waltz to me, perfect for Alyssa's first dance with the Prince.

8. The Market - Mystic's Dream, Loreena McKennitt

I think it's mostly the opening note of this song, which sounds like a boat horn, that inspired me so much for this scene. I listened to this song on repeat I don't know how many times as we worked on Leo and Christophe sailing the team across the bay to tour the capital city, and all the attendant shenanigans and mishaps.

9. The Red Garters - Rebel Girl, Bikini Kill

A feminist anthem was in order for Corbenic's proto-feminists and suffragettes. Lady Susan Lamprise is the queen of our world.

10. Murphy's Healing - The Merry Old Land of Oz

"Rub rub here
Rub rub there
Whether you're tin or bronze
That's how we keep you in repair
In the merry old land of Oz."

After two and a half books of gimping his way along, we cut Murphy a break. With the help of magical Corbenese medicine, he is relieved of the health problems that have been plaguing him since a vampire attack years ago. Also, the Corbenese capital is totally the Emerald City-- right down to those green glasses, which I totally want a pair.

11. The Blue Lotus - Glory Box, Portishead

One of the most popular brothels in the capital-- and thereby, the Corbenese empire. A song about a woman being tired of being coveted for her body and not her heart.

12. Lady Susan - Black-Eyed Susan, Laura Veirs

"Flower like you in a desert this cruel
My, my, you're a rare, rare find."

See what I said above about how we *heart* the tenacious, tough-as-nails, yet big-hearted Lady L.

13. Alyssa and Leopold - Lover I Don't Have to Love, Bright Eyes

"Your tongue in my mouth
Trying to keep the words from coming out
You didn't care to know
Who else may have been you before
I want a lover I don't have to love
I want a girl who's too sad to give a fuck."

What can I say about Al and Leo? They fall for each other hard and fast, but Al's got this eensy little problem with communication. And commitment. And intimacy. Good thing Leo's a patient fellow. Also, he has a Christophe to rely on for sensible relationship advice.

14. Downstairs - Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd

JD plays guitar for the staff at Four Mothers. Remember that guitar pick keychain he had back on the day he met his wife? We planted that as a little clue that the Colonel knows his way around the ol' gee-tar strings. Of course, he would be, in the immortal words of Eric Foreman, a "good, clean, Lynyrd Skynyrd-lovin' American."

But I still love Bill's comment, "And not a goddamn one of us from Alabama."

So there you have it, folks-- the songs I listened to when working on Book III. I'll post a Book IV playlist sometime after we release it this fall.

If you like, here are the previous O4S playlists:

Book I
Book II, 1 of 2
Book II, 2 of 2 

Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know what you think in the comments.