It's nearly Thanksgiving, that flicker of time we blink at between carving jack-o'-lanterns and hanging mistletoe, the time when we pause ever so briefly to count our blessings and give thanks for family, friends, God and country.
For most of us, giving thanks should be easy. But for some, the blessings aren't as obvious. Nowhere is that more true than in the many homeless shelters, soup kitchens and prisons.Just think about it for a minute: What could these people be grateful for?
I remember "Uncle" Bill, an 84-year-old man who became my childhood friend. A philosopher of sorts, he called himself the "Wizard of Words." He wrote aphorisms, thousands of them, all carrying his story, his wit, the poignant feelings he had about his condition, and his gratitude.
You see, in some people's minds the Wizard of Words really didn't have much to be thankful for: William A. Hightower spent more than 40 years of his life in California's San Quentin Prison.
Convicted on circumstantial evidence for a sensationalized murder, he was denied parole 26 times. For four decades, not one black mark went on his record. He was a model inmate. And that was something to be grateful for.
Uncle Bill spent his "free time" reading, writing and teaching himself about the world outside the prison walls. He learned Japanese, Greek, Latin, German and bits and pieces of other languages. And all this time he gave thanks for those moments of spare time he had to learn.
It was during this spare time that he recorded his thoughts on life, values and the world outside.
I am so tired of noise that it seems to me,
I'd even object to the bark of a tree.
He was tired of the continual yelling and unintelligent sounds that ring throughout any prison cell-block. He would find respite working in the prison gardens, thankful for the quiet shared with flowers and plants.
One day after hearing about all the complaints the "outsiders" were making over the rise in beef prices, he came up with this quip.
Q. When was beef highest?
A. When the cow jumped over the moon.
He would laugh and carry on and say how wonderful life was and how much time people waste not learning and showing appreciation for what they have.
Eat, Drink and be Merry, he'd say, is a sensible system if it is done decently, and in an orderly fashion.
I have never met anyone more patriotic than Uncle Bill, more kind or gentle to women and children. He loved a beautiful sunset and the smell of rain and the quiet of a hot summer day.
He was full of life, and not even prison walls could stifle his freedom to think and grow. Bill cultivated, collected and stored his feelings in the very worst of conditions.
I had an opportunity to visit San Quentin in 1987 and see where and how my old friend lived. For a brief moment I felt the loss of freedom, the degradation and depression that filled the yard, the cell-blocks and chow-hall. I felt silently, for an instant, what he must have felt over and over again.
And yet he was thankful.
So, through him, I have learned that it is possible to be thankful for life in the most wretched conditions. Perhaps Uncle Bill said it best himself, when, prior to his parole, he penned this "Thought for Thanksgiving Day."
I am a little bit thankful that I am living.
I admit that conditions are much below par.
But I am very thankful, this day of Thanksgiving,
That bad conditions are not any worse than they are.
Although all the hopes that I had seemed to work in reverse,
I am still very thankful that the bad is no worse.