July 26, 2015
Sunday, 7:00 p.m.
Letter #393: If You Have a Shape
We don’t have a ton of choices or decisions to make here in prison. You can opt to go to yard or take a shower or attend church or sign up for inmate-led classes, like learning guitar or piano. Nearly every other decision is made for you, from what you wear, to what you eat and what times you are required to be in your cell. Thus, the choices you do make define your life and determine how you serve time.
One non-optional activity for many is to be enrolled in basic education classes up to the point they pass the GED test or prove they received a high school diploma or GED prior to prison. Many guys, with little or no desire to learn, try to flunk their tests in order to stay in class with their friends.
Others, like my cellie, Duffy, who graduated last year, or my good friend, Josh, opt to work hard, study, and pass the tests. For Josh, in prison for over twenty years since he was just seventeen, this education hurdle looked insurmountable at first, but he stuck with it. For the past few years, he’s been in the prison equivalent of high school (which is society’s equivalent of prison, right?) He kept trying and trying to pass the various tests necessary to get his GED, but it seemed to be just beyond his grasp. Finally, after six tries, with each failed test bringing him closer to his elusive goal, Josh passed his final math test, making him a part of this summer’s graduating class.
I have choices, too, and one of my favorite choices is what to play on the piano before, during, and after major events. At a family vacation years ago, my niece, Michaela, had a Fisher-Price shape-matching toy that looked like an oven and played a catchy/obnoxious song. I remember the next Sunday, when I incorporated that tune into my prelude to the morning church service. Michaela’s daddy, Pastor Michael, noticed, but I was hooked. I just HAD to play that little tune whenever possible. Wherever possible. I could play it rocky and fun for a party, slow and sensitive for a funeral, and change it up for everything in between. Besides those events, I’ve played the song for a wedding, banquets, church services, and of course, before and after graduations.
My favorite reaction to the little tune came just five years ago, when I chose to play it after leading worship in a prison chapel service. An old Catholic nun who was meeting with the chaplain at the time, came out of his officer and sidled up to where I was thoughtfully playing the keyboard. Smiling, she sighed and said, “Ah! That’s my favorite song!”
I smiled back and kept playing, hoping she wouldn’t ask any follow-up questions about the song. I didn’t know whether or not I should accuse her of lying or of having a poor memory. I couldn’t imagine her playing with the Fisher-Price shape bakery toy as a kid. I couldn’t imagine plastic being invented back then. I figured I could encourage her to sing along with my playing, but I didn’t know how good of a singer she was, and I didn’t want her to butcher a perfectly good song. Besides, I had no guarantee she could remember all the words, either: “If you have a shape that you want to bake, just pop it in the oven and what’ll you make?” Man, if only you could hear it now!
Well, this past week brought the next GED graduation exercises here, and as usual, Sister Peggy and I were asked to have the choir ready to perform. Normally, besides the national anthem and the graduation standard, “Pomp and Circumstance,” we choose a few songs that are meant to inspire and uplift the graduates, staff, and any family members attending. However, this time, the school administrator, Dr. DelSordi, asked me to play the 90s dance groove song, “I’ve Got the Power,” to go along with his commencement address on power. Oh, and two days prior to the ceremony, he also requested “Wind Beneath My Wings.” I got the music to both songs the day before graduation, and my band pulled it together. But I knew I needed something special, just for me.
The graduation went great, and we even got Dr. DelSordi to think that the choir would sing “I’ve Got the Power” with him, when in reality, we just left him to sing it himself. Everyone loved it, giving him props for stepping out of his comfort zone. Sister Peggy gave a brief tribute to the kind officer who recently passed away, who had worked in the education building for years, dedicating her beautiful rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings” to his memory.
Then, I had my choice. While the graduates marched forward to receive their diplomas and shake the hands of the wardens and other important staff members, I played “Pomp and Circumstance.” But Josh? I figured he had a shape he wanted to bake, and he just needed an oven to pop it into and a song to go with it. So, while he walked forward, I very regally performed a grand rendition of “If You Have a Shape,” by Fisher-Price.
True, I wanted to add an actual graduation march to my list of funerals, parties, one wedding, and countless other events I’ve played that song for. But the message of it really fit the moment too: Sometimes you just have to seize whatever shape you’ve been given, stick it in wherever it fits best, no matter how tough the task, and see what you make of it.