Archive for February, 2009

I just returned home from an interesting discussion with two fellow islanders about how to use the hero’s journey to work with verterans. Is it possible that there are similiarities between prisoners and soldiers (is it possible there are similiarities between all of us?)? It seems there may be.  Stepping back from the labels of soldier and prisoner, aren’t we talking about individuals who have journeyed away from home and experienced or witnessed something that they cannot easily relate to others upon their return? That is a hero’s journey. And aren’t we talking about people who may or may not be able to see themselves as heroes? The prisoners certainly struggle with such an idea (and many of us on the outside would struggle to apply the word “hero” to a prisoner, wouldn’t we?). Where in our societal mythology relating to the story of prisoners do we ever refer to them as the hero of the story? With veterans you would think it would be obvious — of course they are heros. But do they see themselves and their experiences that way? Do they embrace the label or shy away from it? Shouldn’t we give them room to explore the issue rather than demanding they be our heroes, act as we expect a hero to act. Doesn’t a soldier have a right to his personal story? To have a story different from other soldiers? To tell a story other than the one many us of, perhaps, would be comforted to hear?

I wondered too about how difficult it must be for a veteran to choose what to share and with who. I experienced this restraint in storytelling with the men at Monroe. They have to know first that you can handle it, that what they tell you is not going to scare you away. Returning from war must be like that. I think soldiers must assume most of us cannot handle the “real” stories. And maybe we can’t. But someone has to be able to listen, someone has to be able to stand in that space with them and say, the story you have to tell me does not scare me. Someone has to say to them, tell me your story. I want to listen. Not to comment, not to judge, not even to presume to help you heal. But just listen.

The people I was talking with said, we are trying to figure out what it might really mean to support the troops once they return home. I don’t know that I can think of a more honorable way to support the troops than honoring their individual stories.  They certainly are not prisoners, and yet I bet, if you asked, you’d find most of them are familiar with feeling as if they have locked away parts of themselves. Many of them must feel the pressure of being defined by their experiences at war.

Again, I find myself thinking of prison as a state of being, not a place. What parts of ourselves do we lock away and why? What stories do we not tell and why? Who are we trying to protect? Ourselves? Our family? Society? What is the purpose of this protection? What do we fear would happen if we unlocked those stories and let them roam free for a while? What systems of support do we need to feel safe enough to speak? What systems truly rehabilitate? What systems truly heal? These aren’t just questions for the US correctional system. These are questions for each of us, everyday.

I’ve spent several hours today reading some of the guys’ work. During the last workshop we gave the following prompt to the guys: When I returned [to the ordinary world], everything was different. Or was it me?

One man gave me the short paragraph he wrote while in the workshop. It is one of those pieces that says so much in the fact that it says so little. In it he writes about growing up and living his life in one place. He lives (lived, prior to prison) in the house is father lived in. His son still lives in the same neighborhood now. He says he’s traveled little. So, his biggest “adventure” away from home, has been his journey to prison.

He will not be able to return to his home upon his release. So, he writes that he cannot answer the above question about what it will be like to return home. He writes that he doesn’t know if everything will be different because he cannot go there.

And I wonder if imagining what he will not be able to return home to is painful? I think it must be. We all like to assume we at least have the option to go back, return. We don’t always, but we like to hold onto the illusion. This man holds no illusion though. His crime took him away from his home, and his crime will keep him from his home. I wonder if he cares then if he is different? Who from his previous life will be there to notice? To comment?

To go to prison, change and then upon release not be able to go back and at least see if you still fit into the world you left behind (or ifyou can, in some way, make yourself fit again) is the story of many of these men. For many, there are good reasons why they should not return home. Reasons that will make it more possible for them to succeed on the outside and reasons that might be better for their families. And yet to know you can’t go back…

Even if you have changed, “resurrected” as Vogler calls this stage of the hero’s journey, does it do you as much good if you cannot prove it to those you love and who, at least once, also loved you?

There have been changes up at the prison lately. There’s a new custody officer (CO, and he’s got new rules for both volunteers and inmates. We’re all trying to adjust.  Our procedures for processing into the prison have changed, and we have to end our group earlier because the guys must, MUST, be lined up for movement by 8:45 every night — not a minute after. We used to be able to stand and mingle for a bit after the workshop until the guys were called to go, but no more. The new CO doesn’t not appreciated chit-chat apparently. Just when we had gotten comfortable and familiar with the guards we normally see, now there is this new personality to take into consideration.

The inmates don’t seem particularly fond of this new guy, but then the relationship between inmates and custody officers is tenuous at best. The COs that seem to do the best are those that can some manage to insist on respect and obedience from the guys without being a prick about it. I’m not actually sure how some of them manage to do it, but they do. This new guy hasn’t quite figured it out yet, and it’s possible figuring out how to establish a good interpersonal relationships with the guys isn’t really his goal at all. I understand he has a job to do. A hard job at that. He’s obviously clear about what “side” he’s on and that may make him feel like his job is easier to do. Or, maybe it is just about power. Pretty much everything on the inside is about who has it and whose trying to get more of it.

This tension between COs and inmates can be difficult for volunteers. The guys want to vent to us about their frustrations over how they are being treated, but we have to have a good relationship with the COs in order to continue to come do our work. Piss off one CO and he can make a quick call to the community programs coordinator and that could be it, or program is out. They are overworked and understaffed and don’t have time or patience to deal with difficult volunteers, or volunteers they feel are working against them in terms of their relationships with the inmates. And they can define “difficult” any ol’ way they want. So the guys want us to be their allies and the COs expect us to act as employees of the department. It’s tricky, and it’s sometimes hard to know who is trying to manipulate us more, but in a system built on the concept that certain individuals have absolute power over others in order to protect the safety of all (and I’m not saying it’s a good system, but it’s what we are working in), is it any wonder its not clear which side you should be on?

My commute to and from the prison includes a twenty minute ferry crossing plus however long I get to sit in line to wait to board. It’s a good time to reflect on the night at Monroe, to record first impressions and document those moments that are resonating with me the most before I have a chance to filter them or make them academic. I’ll post these thoughts from the ferry each time I go to Monroe.

Tonight we talked about resurrection, the stage of the hero’s journey when the hero is on the road back home, about to return to the ordinary world that he left so long ago (or perhaps not so long ago — not all journeys are long, right?). At this stage in the journey the hero must both shed the parts of himself that no longer fit who he has become AND he must figure out how to go back to a world to which he, in many ways, no longer belongs.

 

The guys get this stage. They understand going away and returning and not recognizing themselves amongst their surroundings. They understand having changed, having grown, havng left behind old selves, but returning to a world that does not understand the journey they were on. A world that does not understand the dangers the hero has faced. A world that was perhaps hoping that the hero hasn’t changed much at all. I know my fellow MFA students can relate to this. We go away to our residencies in Boston, ten intensive days of being writers surrounded by writers, and when we return who really knows what we have gone through? How can we describe it? Does anyone really want to listen? Most of us discover that the journey was personal. It was shared only by those who were there with us and not those we left behind and so we must set aside our ego and even our enthusiasm and return to “normal” life. But we are changed aren’t we. We are walking amongst “normal” but we are changed. Now imagine going away for years, to prison, and then returning. One man wrote tonight about lives that have passed while he was “down” (locked up) and lives that have begun. One man talked about realizing that upon his release this time he won’t be able to return home. He has changed that much. There is no going back — not if he wants to keep from going back to prison. He has to give up the dream of his family, the desire for reunification. His journey forces him to let go of his dream of having what he’s never been able to hold on to, nurture, care for and face a new reality of having to go his own way. He’s scared. Shitless. Wouldn’t we all be?

 

Don’t we go on journeys hoping to be celebrated upon our return? How often does that happen anymore? Not often. Instead we go on journeys and perhaps people barely notice our absence. Or they are confused, frustrated, even angry that we are no longer the person that they knew and loved before.

 

I think about my journey with cancer. Am I just now in the stage of resurrecting a new life out of that whole experience? I think so. It can take a long time. I’ve been “down” for a year and a half and I’m well on my road back, but not everyone recognizes me and many who once knew me don’t know me anymore. So there is loss. There is grief. But at the same time there is rebirth. It’s a messy stage. A messy, beautiful stage. And if you can just keep from jumping off the path altogether (which is really impossible I think, if you are true to the journey — how can you deny that you have changed) then there is a new life, amongst the old life, to be created.

 

My therapist says, you can’t always expect folks to show up and give you a parade every time you make a significant change in your life. People may not cheer when you return. But you know. You know where you have been and what it has meant and you just have to hold on to that. Hold on tight. 

“It is as if Americans typically have their moments of stillness when those moments are framed on both sides by violence. It is a peculiarly American form of Zen enlightenment, when stillness can only justify itself by planting itself amid uproar.”  from Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

Baxter’s essay on stillness in writing got my attention. Not only because it is a concept I have not given much thought to other than when conversing with poets (who have a knack for the art of stillness and silence in their work). Reading the essay I’m in agreement with Baxter, including stillness in fiction (probably any prose) is difficult. It is a state of being that almost doesn’t belong in a narrative that by nature is focused on plot and action. If the action is still, what is left? Atmosphere, for one, Baxter offers. By which he means setting, perhaps. But he also talks about how for a moment the story becomes about focusing on the minutiae of the story. Not the dreams and desires, but actually allowing the character to exist in the moment with what exists around her. Tough.

When I got to the quote above in the essay, I suddenly found myself thinking about the guys at Monroe. How their lives, at the moment, almost embody what Baxter is saying. They are stillness surrounded on both sides by violence. Mind you, it is a forced stillness (or you could argue it was a choice, that’s another conversation). Or maybe they are stillness surrounded on one side by violence, that is the act(s) that brought them to prison. On the other side is what might be once they are released. Of course for too many, release does not equal rehabilitation and they find themselves back again, relegated to stillness, to the minutiae of their cell, the prison yard, the chow hall.

No doubt there is drama, plot and action on the inside. If anything such states are amplified. Living in such a regulated and intimate environment how could there not be drama, story lines that keep the mind entertained from day to day, month to month, year to year. And yet, it is as if their story, or a part of their narrative anyway, has stopped and there is a moment of stillness. It’s a life suspended. A narrative suspended. And how interesting that the one of the few places you can find such a state of being is inside prison walls.

Does enough violence ultimately bring a moment of stillness? Do these men crave such a reprieve from the chaos of their lives on the outside that the violent acts are in some way a search for stillness? Certainly there is not that much consideration put into a violent act, but if there was? And if we can reach them during this moment of stillness — with programs and therapy — can we lessen their chances of returning to the violence? If stillness and violence co-exist then what are the changes for rehabilitation?

Questions. This work always brings up more questions than answers.