Bonfire of the Humanities

When a PPTG member is relocated to another facility, the group holds a “flame ceremony.”    In this post, Adam has recorded the thoughts of PPTG members and facilitators during the flame ceremony for Michael.

Going to prison nearly tops the list of stress-inducing events, followed shortly by moving. If you’re in prison and have put down roots – good friends, good jobs, involved in a host of activities – being move to another prison can be dreadful.

The prison was locked down when Mike was told that he’d be transferred. He didn’t request it, but having been here for more than ten years, his number came up; it didn’t matter that he was still enrolled in Cornell’s Prison Education Program. In the aftermath of the escape at Clinton, this is the new normal. Mike would’ve been told at around 8 AM that he’s “on the draft,” and given an hour to pack thirty-one years’ worth of possession into no more than four duffels. Because of security concerns, we’re not told where we’re going, so it was only the following day, when the bus hissed to a stop outside the fortified gate of Attica, that Mike learned where he’d now be kept.

In the days after the lockdown, PPTG members greeted each other with a similar gesture, whether it was up close or from across the yard: shrugged shoulders, outstretched arms, and an exasperated “They took Mike.” We felt the strong need to make it to Friday evening, for the group’s flame ceremony.

The ceremony entails sitting in a circle, and taking turns remembering our departed. It has the feel of eulogy, and in fact, it was less than a month ago when we spent an evening “flaming” Steve Cole, the first volunteer, who recently passed away. That’s what makes this group special. We’re a family, not simply a “theater program.” Every person is special, but some flames burn brighter, and certain losses register more acutely. In the moments before beginning, we joked that to pay proper tribute to Mike, the flame ceremony would have to be a bonfire. And so it went.

We were assigned to a different room that night, one that looked out on a grassy courtyard, where we could hear the crickets make their languid song. Over the gray prison wall the dusk stretched cloudlessly, a dark cornflower blue. It took little stretching of the imagination to picture a bonfire ablaze on the room’s shiny concrete floor.

Davíd, who was housed closest to Mike, went first. With tears just beneath the surface, he spoke reverently of Mike as a father figure, impersonating his tough tough love in a tone reminiscent of Don Corleone. While Daví was speaking, a prison official eased into the room. If Mike were present, he’d have buttonholed the man, pressing for the next new initiative. After we explained what was going on, he acknowledged Mike’s transfer, and joked that they were flying the flags at half mast. After a time, he left. It was always Mike’s wish for us to be witnessed, and that administrator heard an earful of humanity.

Nate: “Mike was the most controversial person I’ve ever met… a great guy.”

Ray: “What I appreciated most was his vision for PPTG.”

LB: “He drew out your real self. ‘Push yourself,’ he’d say. Thank you, Mike, for starting this, and being the most stubborn person that you are. Without you, we wouldn’t be here.”

Nick: “… one of the most beautiful movers that I’ve ever seen.” Nick then told of how Mike encouraged him, and gave him the courage  to meet with Angela Davis.

Chris: “…how vulnerable he was, and meticulous… always taking risks.”

Sheldon: “Mike is awwwl right, man. He has a lotta ambition.”

Phil: “In the beginning, I thought he was a bit abrasive. All business in PPTG. But, one time after group, he took me aside and said, ‘Phil, do you think I was too rough in there?’ We’ve walked together in the yard and had beautiful conversations.”

Demetrius: “He took a liking to me. At work in Transitional Services – peer counseling – and in PPTG, he helped you figure out your own issues without telling you what it was. I miss him.”

Judy: “After describing to him my walk through the prison’s grounds one evening, seeing a kitten curled up underneath a sun flower in the now-defunct garden, he encouraged me to write a poem about it, and told me where to get it published. I did. And it was! I look at the strength of this circle, and it’s thanks to Mike. Mike, I hope you can hold onto hope.”

Mariana: “I realized quickly that he challenges because he believes in you.”

Yours truly: “He has sharp elbows, but it’s in furtherance of something positive and worthwhile. I’ve witnessed him walk right up to administrators and ask for permission to replant the garden, or begin a writing workshop, or whatever. The word ‘iconoclast’ gets thrown around a lot, but it’s appropriate here: Mike challenges the system and tries to make it better. I didn’t think I’d miss him as much as I do.”

JR: “I moved into Mike’s old cell, but I’m mad that he left. I looked up to him, liked that he’s a hard worker who pushed me in my school work. I miss him.”

Mary: “He could be so generous, like Manjusri Bodhisattva, the helper energy, full of compassionate wisdom. I treasure him. And I’m sure he’s thinking of us right now.”

Bruce: “I remember the first night I met Michael. It was my first night coming in here. The group was learning Rasa Boxes. Mike was in the shame box, pounding on the floor and crying. At the end of the night, I got the inquisition… he said I could stay. He’s tough on everybody because he’s tough on himself… The first time we expanded the group, he articulated a vision: ‘We want a peaceful place where we can look at ourselves through different eyes.” We’ll go on, and create something that pays tribute to Mike.”

Nine o’clock crept up too quickly. In Mike’s honor, we ambled like Charlie Chaplin, twirling imaginary canes as we coalesced into the huddle that ends each get-together.

While we share a similar view of Mike, he occupies a different space in each our hearts. Mike the visionary, the good guy, the force of nature, the dancer, risk taker, founder, friend, mentor, and motivator. Leaving the building that night, more than one of us said, “I needed that.”

When someone departs, you realize just how large a space he occupied. The dynamic will certainly change, members will assume expanded roles, but there is no replacing Michael Rhynes.

Prison rules prohibit communicating with a peer in another facility, but if we could, it would be with one voice that we say: Mike, we love you, we miss you, and we hope that you are thriving. It will surprise none of us to learn that you have brought into existence another chapter of PPTG, literally bringing your show on the road. Until we meet again, brother, take care of yourself.