Archive for March, 2009

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.

 

My entries of late have been a little bleak, I fear. Or if not bleak then heavy-minded. Writing about prison certainly doesn’t always lend itself to lightness of any kind. But I do find myself wishing sometimes as I travel home that I had a better way of painting a picture of what it is like when I am actually there, at the prison, with the guys in our group. It’s not depressing. Sad sometimes. Sobering. But not depressing. We laugh a lot actually.

 

Tonight we had a band. I repeat, a band. Prison never ceases to surprise. In place of the anger management group that has been sharing the visitor’s room with us over the past couple of months, tonight one of the prisoner bands was setting up and sound-checking for a community performance tomorrow night. So, imagine, if you will, our group, trying to discuss the nature of writing, being a writer and what it is to be a hero accompanied by a bass player, a drummer and a lead singer, who could, actually, sing. I was torn between wanting to be with our group and wanting to go to the other side of the room and dance. The guy could sing. The band could play. I am always amazed at the amount of talent we’ve got locked away. Alas, I stayed with our group, but there were moments when I just had to shrug my shoulders at the men and we all had to take a break from conversation and just enjoy the music.

 

One of our group members gets out April 6th. I’ll miss him. The next group will be his last. I have work of his that he has given me permission to post here. I need to do that soon. He’s young and resilient and I still worry about what it will actually be like for him once we walks out those prison gates. I have not had to think too much about this fact of working on the inside yet – having to say goodbye.

 

Tonight Gloria asked the group what they thought it meant to be a writer. I feel like it’s a question to whihch even I need to give more thought.

March marks a year since I started volunteering at Monroe. A short list of the ways my life has changed since March, 2008.

 

  1. left a six year relationship
  2. house-sat for various folks for 6 months
  3. finally moved into my own apartment the beginning of this month, which required a move from the north end of the island to the south end
  4. started a new job, working full time
  5. finished my internship, which began this whole journey
  6. began my last semester of school
  7. continued with my various follow up appointments related to my 2007 cancer diagnosis
  8.  received my first “clean bill of health” March 11, 2009

 

It’s been a full year indeed. More full than is probably good for one’s mental health.

 

But there is another list, and that is the list of ways I have changed since beginning the work at Monroe.

  1.  I am more compassionate – for myself, and especially for others.
  2.  I am more aware of the fact that there are multiple perspectives on every story and we are well served (as writers and as individuals) to explore them all.
  3.  I understand there is nothing – nothing! – in life that can be considered as easy as “black and white”.
  4.   I understand that being on the side of “right” is often dependent on the privileges and opportunities with which you were born and to be on the side of “wrong” is often (not always, but often) not a choice but a series of complex missteps and misinformation leading up to a tragic mistake.
  5.    I understand that writing is as an activity most easily enjoyed by those who are “free” to write without censor. What the men in prison do is defy that censorship – at times at great cost to their personal safety. So if you are “free” and a writer, then damn-it quit whining and write!
  6.  I now believe I am lucky, and a little bit blessed.
  7.  I now understand that bad people can do good things and good people can do bad things. Most of the men in our group at Monroe are good people – believe it or not.
  8.  I now believe my writing here on this blog and beyond will one day make a difference. I know that the writings of the man in our group have already changed my life.
  9. I now know I will do this work forever, if I can, in one way or another. I will always leave room in my life for those spending their nights in a cell.

One of our group members wrote me a long letter and handed it to me with a couple of poems. His hope is that we might be able to exchange letters via the group, but it is against the rules for volunteers to correspond with prisoners beyond the scope of the group. I am going to have to tell him this (he knows the rule, but is hoping we can work around it) and tell him that I won’t be able to write him letters in return. I’ve been thinking about his letter for a couple of weeks now, wondering if I should respond anyway, screw the rules. But I don’t want to be responsible for getting the entire group in trouble – one misstep by a volunteer can get our whole program shut down. I’ve been thinking about all that was in his letter – his thoughts on death and disease and questions to me on the same subjects. His thoughts on Washington’s recently passed assisted suicide bill. His thoughts on life after death. Of course I want to respond!

 

So, I decided that in lue of writing a real letter to Bill, I could write a letter and post it here. Readers of this blog won’t get to see Bill’s letter, but you’ll be able to infer their content from my response.

 

It’s crazy to me that I can’t write to a man serving a life sentence about life and death, regardless of the fact that he knows me as a volunteer. It seems counter-productive to his health and wellness on the inside and, for that matter, to my health and wellness on the outside. But then, I don’t know that anyone is advertising the US correctional system as an advocate for health and wellness.

 

*******

Dear Bill,

 

Thank you for your letter. It is timely for one main reason. This week I had to go back to the hospital for a follow up CT scan. The doctors have been watching a small spot on my lung for about nine months now, most likely nothing, possibly metastasized cancer from my original melanoma, possibly…well you know how it is. So, your questions about life and death and disease are weighing heavy on me this week.

 

I am lucky in that I did not have to ever have an Interferon treatment. I am sorry that you had to go through it. I hear that it is pretty terrible and your story confirms that for me. The doctors had told me I would have had to most likely drop out of graduate school if I went on the treatment. Imagine. I wouldn’t have met all of you in our Hero’s Journey group. I understand that it must have been difficult to choose to stop the treatment, regardless of the side effects. We all hope that there is indeed a miracle cure for the diseases that ail us. Alas, sometimes you have to consider quality of life over quantity of life. At least in my humble opinion. I can understand why your brother would have been upset with you. Disease is difficult on family for many reasons.

 

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have spent 32 years in prison already and to know that you will spend the rest of your life there. You write that the prison hospital is no place to spend your final days and that is why you have considered, when the time comes, taking your own life. I would never try to sway you one way or another, but I do believe strongly that how we die, when possible, should be up to us. As I said in the group the other night, if it is true we are all going to die, then shouldn’t there be some respect and dignity in the act itself? So much of our culture is about denying that we will die that everyone is so unprepared (I’m thinking of family and friends) when it does ultimately, and predictably, happen. That just makes it harder for everyone, I think.

 

Because I was so young when I was diagnosed with cancer the whole idea of death and how I wanted to die took me by surprise. I hadn’t, honestly, had to give much thought to it at 27. People tell me that it’s unfair that I had to deal with cancer at such a young age. I don’t know anymore if that is true. I certainly felt that way in the beginning, but now, on the good days, I think that maybe I am lucky to have had a brush with death so early as it allowed me to begin to ask some of those big, complex questions. I feel like I have time now to really decide what is right for me should I ever get sick again, or even what is right for me when I am old and grey and approaching my final days.

 

I do envy that you have found a spiritual path that calls to you. My own spiritual life continues to more of a mystery. I think I am more spiritual since my experience with cancer (how can you not be, right?), but I still can’t bring myself to look to any particular tradition to tell me how I ought to live (or die for that matter). I would be interested in hearing more about your walk with Buddhism.

 

I have a friend who believes firmly that it is my own thinking on the subject that will have the greatest impact on whether I stay healthy or not. He’s an eternal optimist. And while I’m not a die-hard pessimist I have a hard time always holding on to what he’s saying. Can you believe you are going to live and stay healthy, but still consider death without canceling out your “good” thoughts? How practical do you have to be about the limits of the body – particularly when your body has already exposed its weaknesses to you? I’d be interested to know what you think (if indeed you were to ever see this question).

 

So, Bill, this is long enough for now. I feel like I’ve only begun to touch on all you put in your letter, so perhaps I will write a second letter soon. I’m sorry that we can’t actually exchange letters. I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on these subjects. I’d be interested in your stories from prison and before prison.

 

Thank you reaching out. I wish I could reach back.

 

Sincerely,

Erika