Archive for the ‘story’ Category

It has almost been five years since I first stepped inside the prison to teach. Three years since we started working with our current group of students. There are nights inside the walls which feel routine to me. The towers aren’t as imposing as they once were. The delays in being processed in no longer take me by surprise. Walking through the yard to get to our classroom, feeling the eyes of dozens of men watching us, doesn’t make me nervous. I greet our students like they are good friends I’ve been looking forward to seeing—because they are. I sometimes take for granted their continued dedication to our class. What it means to them that we keep coming, month after month, year after year. I underestimate our impact on their lives, as confined and restricted as they are. I even underestimate their impact on my life.

Then there are nights like this past Tuesday. We go through the routines to get inside the prison. There are delays at processing. They’ve lost one our volunteer’s badges. There’s no stamp to ink our hands—required to pass the next security check much like you’re required to have a stamp to get in and out of a club. We’re now too late to get to our classroom before “movement”, which means we have to wait for the yard to clear, for guys to get to and from where they have ten minutes to get to and from within the prison. We wait. We take it in stride. This is just how it goes. Inside, you have no control. This fact has even become routine to me, a self-professed control freak.

Finally making it to our classroom, our students waited. We walked around the tables, shaking each man’s hand. Saying over and over, “It’s good to see you.” It always is. We started class. Their assignment from the last class was to write an affirmation for 2013 related to how they will use what they have learned about The Hero’s Journey (the story writing structure we teach) in the new year. How will The Hero’s Journey influence the way you (the hero) will show up in your world as a strong, compassionate and positive human being for yourself and the people around you?

I had a difficult time doing the darn exercise, imagine asking men locked down for decades to consider a response.

But they all responded. This has also become routine. They do their homework, respond to our questions, trust us to be leading them down a good path both with their writing and their lives.

One student had said a couple of classes before, after telling us how on Christmas his wife let him know she was filing for divorce, taking the kids and moving out of state, that he needed to share this with us, despite how hard it was for him to speak about it because, “We’re family, you know.”

And like family, sometimes you forget what you mean to one another. Sometimes you forget how you depend on one another, and you often forget how you need one another. Until, of course, you do need the people who know you best. The people you can trust. I’ve carried his statement (and his story) with me several weeks now. And I was reminded of its truth again this past Tuesday—a night which seemed, well, routine.
Two students volunteered to read aloud to the group essays they were working on. The first student started. I normally—per routine—take notes while a student reads (because we aren’t able to get copies made of each piece and so don’t have the pages in front of us to read along and refer back to during discussion of the piece). I usually jot down particularly good phrases. Images that are working. Themes which are strong. I make note of questions I have, what might not be working as well.

I doubt, however, this student go more than a paragraph into his piece before I put my pen down, closed my eyes, rested my chin in my hands and simply listened.

He was telling the story of his psychotic break. When he lost himself to the overwhelming reality of a thirty year sentence at only nineteen years of age. He described a young boy screaming into a dark room, no one listening, no one offering to help. Punching the plexi-glass window of his cell until it cracked. He told of being taken from the prison to the hospital and the treatment he received from those along the way. Custody officers who thought he was “faking it”. An EMT in the ambulance who was “nurturing, you know?”. How he was strapped to a board. Catheterized by force, without anesthetic, in order to obtain a urine sample because they were certain he had only managed to get his hands on some drugs and that’s all his behavior was really about. He talked about going crazy and thinking he might just stay in such a state for good. Why not?

I’ve known this man for three years. I didn’t know this. Like a family member who finally comes forward to tell a secret he’s been harboring for a long time and can no longer carry alone—the only thing you are required to do, as family, is bear witness. What else can you do when someone trusts you with one of his most terrifying stories?

And, like only family can do, the group, when he was done, thanked him, before they said anything else, for sharing. For giving voice to his truth.

The second student then read a piece I had already taken home and read. I knew what was coming, and I braced myself. I had already sat alone on my couch and cried over this piece, for this member of my family. Two shattering pieces in one night was going to take some composure on my part. I took a deep breath. I closed my eyes again. His story was about a moment of physical and sexual abuse when he was five years old. It’s written with so much tenderness for his five year old self you want only, as a reader, to pull him into your arms and hold him. This student is a handsome, thirty-something, big, strong, man. He never, ever, shares himself like this. Not with the whole group. Only recently with the pieces he’s been letting us volunteers take home and read privately. Now there he was, across the table from me, reading and trying to keep from crying as he did.

Again, I made no notes. I closed my eyes. I thought of the other students in the class who I know have been through the same thing. So much untold abuse in prison. So many boys trapped inside the bodies of men, screaming out in a dark room, no one coming to help them.

When he finished, I leaned forward on the table. I looked each man in the eye. I looked this particular student in his eyes. I said, “Before anything else is said, I want to say, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry for anyone else here who has had a similar experience because I know many have. Thank you for sharing.”

We’re family. We might be better than most families in fact. I don’t know that these men can talk about these things out amongst the general prison population. I doubt it. Outside of our classroom they have to be tough, strong, thugs, unafraid. They have to be the grown men their experiences as little boys taught them to be. Inside our classroom though, somehow, we’ve created safe space. We’ve created trust. We’ve walked along with one another long enough we don’t have a choice but to take the good with the bad. There’s an acceptance amongst us—come as you are. This is where the stories get told, and more importantly honored and held.

It’s not routine. And it’s not a normal life. And it’s not okay. Not one bit of it. And as a member of their family—like a mother or a sister—I take my love for them seriously. Want to protect them. Want to see them grow. And I’m willing to bear witness as I would for any member of my family out here in the so-called real world. I wish so many more of you could hear what I hear, read what I read, know them as I know them. Imperfect. Certainly. Done wrong. Without a doubt. Still human. Yes, yes, yes.

It has been a while since the subject of cancer filtered into a conversation at the prison. A while since what was being discussed around the table made me think back to my moment of diagnosis, my first appointment with an oncologist, my trip on a gurney down a hospital hallway to an operating room. It has been five and a half years since my diagnosis. The memories, fears and worries do not plague me in the same way they once did. My experience with cancer always inhabits my thoughts, but more and more, thankfully, it hovers in the background, unobtrusive and no longer distracting. There are days I don’t think of it at all—like an ex-boyfriend one swears she’ll never get over, but then, one day, finds she has. Time, it turns out, doesn’t heal all wounds, but allows them to scab over, scar and become a part of you. A part you stop noticing in the mirror each and every morning.

Sometimes, though, the memories return fresh and strong. This happened during the last class at the prison when the guys offered up their stories of what it was like the weeks or days before they started serving their current sentences. The question specifically was: what did you do to prepare for this part of your journey? As teachers I think we expected responses about saying goodbye to family, spending time with children, making love to wives and girlfriends, visiting favorite restaurants and eating favorite meals, and taking long walks for as long as one wanted to walk. Our expectations only turned out to prove there is still much we have to learn about this experience called serving time.

Turns out, one doesn’t often get a chance to prepare for serving a prison sentence. One student did say something along the lines of, come on now, if you’re out in the streets doing dirt you always know you’re going to end up here. His argument being, if you are doing things that might get you arrested you would be wise to be prepared to go to prison any day. But beyond that general truth (Which reminds me of the saying: live every day as if it is your last. Good, but not necessarily practical advice.), it turns out most of our students were simply going about living their lives at the time of their arrest. They were not prepared. They had not discussed it with their families. They did not remember to do something they loved every day just in case tomorrow was the day they got caught. And once they had been arrested they stayed in jail until their trial was over, received their sentence and then went straight from jail to prison. There was no “time out” in the free world to prepare for the journey to prison. They were in their lives one day, and on their way to prison the next.

Cancer was like that for me. One moment I was a twenty-seven year old organic farmer living a fairly hippie and healthy lifestyle, the next moment, at 8am on a random Thursday, I was a cancer patient. I wasn’t sick. Then I was sick. In less than a few ticks of a clock. With only a few words from my doctor over the phone. Like the students in my group, I had to come to terms with my new reality after I was already existing within it. There was no considering. No trial period where if I decided this cancer business wasn’t for me I could give it back. People sometimes still ask me: don’t you feel like cancer taught you lessons you might not otherwise have ever learned? Maybe. Sure. What? I’ve never been one of those survivors to say after the fact that I was thankful for what cancer taught me. I learned the lessons I faced because I had no choice. But I would have taken them any other way. Without a doubt. I would have taken continuing to live my life in cancer-free bliss, saving the lessons for another day. I would have spared my family the months of fearing they were going to lose a daughter, a sister. I am not comfortable trying to package cancer up in a shiny bow of subversive self help. An unexpected path to enlightenment. It’s cancer. It can kill you. It could’ve killed me. Someday it still might. I would rather not have had it. That’s the truth.

There are experiences in life which change us profoundly. Rearrange our literal and figurative guts, redefine who we are, present us with questions we must answer whether we want to or not. How will you spend your time now that you’ve been sentenced to it? What is a life worth with a 50-year sentence? How do you want to die? These are not experiences you prepare for. They catch you by surprise. They are not a gift. They might have been inevitable, and maybe some part of you always saw it coming, but, you don’t prepare. Even if you could, what would you have done that would have made it any better? How many times could one of our students hug his children before going to prison to make not being able to hug them for years any less of a burden to bear? What would I have done the day before my diagnosis to feel alive that would have lessened my awareness of death the moment after my diagnosis?

What our conversation with the guys about preparation—or lack of—for entering prison reminded me is many stories start with the unexpected and the unpleasant. This does not mean there is no point to the story, but it can mean the point will take some time to find. And once the point is found it does not mean you have to be thankful for the journey. I don’t expect the men in our group to be thankful for 20, 30, 40 years behind bars no matter how much they change and grow into better men while serving their sentences. I do not expect cancer victims to be thankful in some way for their cancer experience. Such expectations are what those not walking these particular journeys want to hear to make themselves feel better about another person’s suffering. We wanted the guys to tell us they made the most of their final days in the free world, that they noticed how the air smelled and the way their wife smiled for what felt like the first time in their lives. We wanted them to say they were thankful in some way for the journey they were about to embark on. That they were ready, accepting and determined to make the best of it. It would have made us feel better to hear these things. The fact that they looked at us and said, “Why would you think we had a chance to prepare?” and, “How would I have prepared exactly?” was beautiful. It taught me what I had learned once with the cancer, but apparently forgot: there are some things in life you simply have to endure and survivor. If you come out on the other side a better person, well, then, as some say, there go I but by the grace of God.

Over the past week or so I’ve come across a few resources I wanted to be sure to post here for those interested in hearing and reading what others have to say about the prison industrial complex in the US.

These first two focus on the work of Bryan Stevenson, winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson was instrumental in the 5-4 US Supreme Court decision to end life and extremely harsh sentences for minors convicted of felonies.

Read more about Stevenson, the court case and his theories on equality and justice in this Smithsonian article: Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As A Society by Chris Hedges.

And, listen to Stevenson speak to the prison system, justice, race and equality during this TED Talk. (About 25 minutes and more than worth your time.)

For readers in WA State (or in states who do not currently have a parole system) be sure to connect with the work of People4ParoleWA. The time is now to write to our legislators asking them consider reinstating a system for parole in WA state–a system which can not only save taxpayers money, but also provides a fair review for inmates serving long sentences who have committed to their rehabilitation.

Finally, for an insider’s take on processing into a jail check out this short story published today by Mike Miner, my friend and fellow graduate of the Solstice MFA Program at Manor College. His story, El Locomotive, appears in Burnt Bridge and is available online. Within Mike’s piece are echoes of the stories I’ve heard from my students when they recount their first experiences in jail or prison.

From “There Are Things I Want You to Know” About Steig Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson
Steig Larsson is the author of the Millennium Trilogy

“Stieg was a generous man, loyal, warmhearted, and fundamentally kind. But he could also be completely the opposite. Whenever someone treated him or anyone close to him badly, it was ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ He never forgave such an affront, and made no bones about it. ‘To exact revenge for yourself or your friends,’ he used to say, ‘is not only a right, it’s an absolute duty.’”

I’ve had reason as of late to consider the act of forgiveness. That is, I have been asked to forgive and have not yet been able to grant the request. Have had, in fact, to say out loud, I do not know if I will and if I can, I do not know when. This is uncomfortable territory for me. I believe in forgiveness as a basic value that defines who I am. I feel it is an ultimate gesture of not only peace, but also recognizing another’s frail humanity and in doing so, acknowledging my own. Forgiveness, to me, is tied up in humility, grace, compassion and an acceptance that try as we might, no one…no one…is perfect. Not granting forgiveness, I feel, stalls us in a place of anger, cynicism and feeds the fires of revenge while simultaneously snuffing out the embers of compassion.

And yet…I said no. Not yet. I hope, in the future, but not yet.

Part of the problem is I must first forgive myself before I can forgive anyone else, as I am also equally uncomfortable with the feeling of victimhood. That is I fight against seeing myself as a victim at all costs. Victims, to me, can lack control and autonomy and I refuse to acknowledge I have ever given either of those things away—or had them taken away—by another. Even when I clearly have. If I control whether or not I grant forgiveness at least I control something, right?

It is also hard, I’m finding, to forgive someone who must have, at least in some aspects, planned the betrayal against me. I feel as if I were marked, targeted and I do not know, let alone understand, the reason why. Only that I find myself here—unforgiving—and in the darker moments, even wishing I had the capacity for revenge.

This scares me.

I think then about the men at the prison, and remember the times I have lauded on to others who ask about my work there about my utopian dream that one day we will have a “justice” system in this country that is more focused on reconciliation and healing for both victims and perpetrators than it is on retribution and punishment. I consider my wish that the men in prison can not only find a way to forgive themselves, but their parents and others who should have known better who betrayed them in the worst ways, a system that fails them in their quest for rehabilitation at almost every turn and a society that ostracizes them for mistakes—egregious as they often were—made, in most cases, decades before. I think of the victims. Their suffering, loss and pain (in a myriad of unimaginable iterations) and my still strong belief that forgiveness is the ultimate act of claiming their lives back from tragic experiences that otherwise threatens to define them forever. I think about how annoying, dismissive and ridiculous my notions of forgiveness for men who have ruined lives must feel to those whose lives exist within and in spite of those ruins.

I am not trying to forgive someone for breaking into my home, killing someone I love or hurting my child. I have not had to attend a funeral, return to an empty or destroyed home or explain to a son or daughter the meaning of death, violence or random acts of rage. The “crime”, such as it is, that I cannot currently forgive, is one of the heart (yes, that old story)…of love gone awry…of trusting someone who turned out to be untrustworthy. Disorienting, yes. Emotionally painful, yes. But an experience which even in the darkest moments I know, KNOW, I will recover from. An experience I know I will, one day, forgive.

Yet, I have not forgiven, and now get to spend time examining the side of myself that has no interest in forgiveness whatsoever. Fuck ‘em, as some say–as some have offered as a sentiment of sympathy and proposed as a course forward. I’ve been getting to know the part of me that feels forgiveness benefits only the person who wronged me—lets him off the hook, minimizes his actions and leaves me still the perpetual doormat (to my dear friends reading this, especially my fellow feminists, you do not need to convince me of my errors in thinking here…I know). I do not believe, as Steig Larsson states in his quote above, in an eye for an eye. I think such notions are juvenile, perpetuate wrong-doing instead of healing it and speak to the least of who we can be as human beings, not the best. And yet, if I could, take an eye…let’s just say, I get why the statement is appealing.

Incarceration is society’s form of revenge (also systematic racism and a litany of other “isms”, but that is for another post—do read: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander if you have the chance). It is not our highest ideal. It should not be held up as a symbol of who we are as a people. We should be ashamed of the prison industrial complex in this country. We should be ashamed that we are not ashamed. But revenge satisfies something in us as a people. It satisfies something in me. I am not okay with this realization, and I will fight against it, but I am acknowledging it for perhaps the first time in my life.

I have a vision of perpetrators and victims being able to sit across from one another at a table and simply talk. Tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine, and by the end, despite the pain between us, we will heal because we will know each other as the flawed humans we are. Currently, I won’t even take a phone call from the person who has hurt me. If I sat across the table from him it would not be to tell stories—it would be to yell and admonish and belittle and rage. If I cannot imagine such a setting given my current circumstances, how does a mother sit across from her son’s murderer? How does a rape victim sit across from her rapist?

I don’t know.

So, today, on the subject of forgiveness, I say this: Forgiveness is not mandatory, only a goal we can aim to achieve. In some cases (not mine), forgiveness is not even warranted (and that is hard for me to write, but I think it might be true). However, in the cases where forgiveness might be possible, even if we’re not sure how to achieve it, we should cling to that possibility and work toward it the way we work hard toward any difficult goal. And on the days that we can’t spend our energy there, when we must forget forgiveness, put it on the back burner because it is too exhausting or doesn’t feel right or only invokes new anger, then my wish is we (I) might instead focus on living lives filled with grace, beauty and love in the hopes that we (I) keep the scales from tipping too far out of balance.

I ask forgiveness for the flaws this post reveals about me.

The last two classes at the prison have been focused on publishing. For prisoners, the want to see their work in published form is no less of a desire than it is for the rest of us still waiting to officially and professionally move into the class of “emerging” writers. Yet, the barriers to their goals are significant. No access to the internet means no electronic submissions, no ability to research current contests, submissions guidelines or current information on agents. Everything they have access to is outdated–Writer’s Digests from 2008, if they are lucky. They have no ability to create a Word document and send it to anyone as an attachment. Most of them cannot afford to purchase a typewriter, and even if they can, a typewritten page now a days only gets you so far. Entering contests requires money, and as many of us know those fees have only risen in recent years. A $10 entry fee is a half a month’s salary for most of the guys’ in our group–we asked. Despite all of that we have spent two full evenings walking them through the process of what an agent is and what they do, what an editor is and what they do, what a query letter is and the difference between submitting nonfiction proposals and finished fictional work. We’ve covered literary magazines, and talked about e-books and self publishing.

Yet, the most pressing question, the one they won’t take our word for, is whether or not, if they were to say publish a novel, if you as a book buyer and reader, saw in their author bios on the back covers they had or were currently serving time for violent offenses of whatever nature, would you still buy the book or would you put it back on the shelf? Why or why not?–they really want to know. Does it matter what the content of their work is? That is, if they are writing a a novel about prison are you more likely to buy it than say if they have written a young adult novel about a zombie apocolypse (as one of our guys has done and it’s quite good)? Are readers only interested in true stories by prisoners about prison, or can a prisoner write something else and still be trusted by a reader? Does the background of an author matter to you at all as a reader? Why or why not?

The guys asked if I’d be willing to ask these questions of my readers here on the blog, and so I am. If you are so inclined to respond, not only would I appreciate it, but I promise they would as well. And they don’t mind honesty, I promise. I will share any responses I receive, but will remove any identifying information (name, email address, etc).

All writers doubt anyone will care about what they’ve written, and most of us experience moments of doubt about whether or not we even have the right to write what we do. Who are we to think we are more of an expert on anything than someone else who clearly is? Yet, prisoners are already doubted in most ways on a daily basis. In prison, they are labeled manipulators, liars and cheats no matter how hard they are working at their own rehabilitation (given that the prison system no longer focuses on rehabilitation, only punishment). Out of prison, they are ex-cons not to be trusted–not with a job, not with housing. Do we trust them to tell us stories?

I went to the prison this past Tuesday with little of myself left to give. I had not slept a full eight hours, let alone four or five hours, in days. My emotional tank had been spent on the personal challenges I am facing (nothing life threatening, though possibly life changing). My head and heart were in a multitude of places other than teaching writing craft and the hero’s journey story structure. My goal for the night was simply: do not burst into tears for the next two and a half hours, no matter what.

The specifics of my own personal drama are not essential to this post, and are probably best saved for a future short story about how hard it is to both love another and live as you desire all at the same time. I will ultimately be fine. But I was not fine on Tuesday night. I could only tell myself I was going to do my best and be thankful that my co-facilitator was doing the bulk of the teaching for the night.

I often tell people about this prison work that I learn as much from our students as I think they learn from us. What I don’t always say is that sometimes I go to the prison only for myself. Tuesday was one of those nights. It can be a relief (and I recognize the sensation of relief is only possible because I can walk back out of the prison when I choose) to hear the various prison doors closing behind us as we make our way deeper into the prison, each one locking me further away, even if only for a brief period of time, from the outside world, from a life that momentarily feels out of my control. In the prison there are no cell phones, no email, no fucking Facebook. There are no partners, no family, no lovers. There are concrete walls, metal-barred doors, familiar security procedures and at least an appearance of control and order. For two plus hours no one from the outside can reach me, no matter the crisis.
I went to the prison on Tuesday wanting to be locked away for a while. That was my only desire. I knew I would not share any of my personal struggles with the group (not appropriate). I did not expect to walk out with answers or new insights that would help guide me through the coming days and weeks. I just needed to disappear. And I did, and it was exactly what I needed.

What I did not expect was the unintentional kindness of so many of the students. Kindness that manifested in ways they probably didn’t intend or recognize. M-, for example, when he came into the classroom, shook my hand as always and asked how my last two weeks had been. I said, “It’s been a little tough, but I’ll survive.” He said, “Shoot, you don’t have to pretend in here, we get tough,” and gave me a big smile that did actually make me feel a little better. M- also read a personal essay, which was both well written and powerful and clearly demonstrated he’d been paying attention during our last class when I presented a craft lesson on scene vs. narrative summary. I was proud of him and his work, and pleased with myself for maybe having reached at least one of them to help make a difference in how they think about constructing their words on the page.

At the break, J- asked if I wanted some tea. He’s been bringing extra with him for us volunteers. I said I’d love some (I needed the caffeine), and then when I wasn’t paying attention because we were calling the group back to order for the second half of the night J- placed in front of me a hot mug of water, a tea bag and two sugar cubes. It was the sugar cubes that nearly undid me. Such a simple act of kindness in such an unkind environment on a day when I was feeling like the only person I would ever be able to depend on again was myself. Sugar cubes. I almost cried. Instead I said to him, “You just made my day, seriously,” and meant it.

J- is serving consecutive life sentences for some gruesome murders.

J- brought me sugar cubes.

We laughed a lot on Tuesday night. I got excited about an opportunity one of our students has to explore his fascination with fire when he was young, and somehow got myself pegged as a closet pyromaniac, which made me remember the time I got grounded as a kid for giving matches to another kid. That in turn made me remember I was once a kid and I made mistakes then just as I do now, but it still all worked out eventually.

I left the prison, walking through mechanized door after mechanized door, feeling better. Nothing had been resolved. I was headed back to my life where the same issues I’d left behind a few hours before still waited for me. I had no new good answers. But I felt cared for and respected. I felt like in a life filled with chaos at the moment, I’d found a small sliver of something that felt normal. And most importantly, I’d been gifted the smallest acts of kindness in a place and at a time when I expected none. In a small way, those sugar cubes fortified my resolve. Life is hard…and occasionally still sweet.

The First Time Back

There’s an agitation in the air. That’s the first thing I feel. At the front desk, our group’s paperwork had not been processed properly. For fifteen minutes it seemed we’d made the trip up to the prison, full of anticipation to get back in after our sixth month absence, for nothing. We’d told ourselves to prepare for just this sort of thing. When dealing with the prison system it’s best to not let your expectations get too high. Best to come with patience…endless patience. After several calls with a lieutenant on the other end of one of the custody officer’s radios someone, somewhere, found some piece of paper clearing us to go inside.

Is it strange to say I was relieved?

The check-in security procedures are about the same. I don’t know what I was expecting. More comprehensive searches? A renewed list of items we can and cannot bring in with us? We proceed through the normal process of shoes off, bags on table to be searched, through the metal detector, shoes back on, volunteer sponsor badges attached, invisible stamp on the hand, back downstairs, through the sliding metal doors (one at a time, so for a minute you stand inside a cage, waiting for the next door to open), sign in to the book letting the officers know who is in the prison, where they are going and what time they came and left, flash the invisible stamp under the black light for the guards behind the enclosed office, through the gated sliding door (like a cell door), down the long hallway, past the cafeteria (I did not miss that smell), through the sliding metal door out into the causeway between the building we’ve just left and the turn-style gates to the classroom building, past one of our students being patted down by an officer, in his hand his notebook, I wave, which is stupid, and he knows better than to wave back while the custody officer is still running his hands down his back, shaking his pant legs, J- has killed, J- is a good student, J- is an amazing artist, J- is in for life plus some, J- will have made sure all of the guys in our group knew tonight was the night we were coming back, past the now two guards at the front desk, one a familiar face, he does not like us, nor the prisoners, and likely not his job, and that was true before the murder, the other a quiet and young looking kid, down to classroom number one, our classroom, move the tables and chairs into the configuration we like, and wait.

First Jo-, then T-, F- and M-, B- and JD come into the room. It is good to see all of these familiar faces, a relief to know we have not lost them all. We cannot hug these men. I understand. I shake each hand, one by one, saying, “It’s good to see you.” It IS good to see them. I have a million questions. I weirdly want to tell them about my grandfather, who fell ill the month before and who we thought might die, but who is now recovering in a nursery home and was coherent enough to understand me when I told him, “Grandpa, the prison is going to let our program back in,” and he was happy for me (it’s not easy to garner the support of friends and family…I try to understand that too). For six months I’ve only been able to imagine our guys’ lives. For six months I’ve worried they have thought we didn’t want to come back because we were scared. That we’d abandoned them. I’ve worried about who’s been shipped off to another prison, and who’s spirited has been weakened by the lockdowns and changes in rules since the murder of Officer Bindel, who has behaved and who has not, who we have lost to the system for good. I’ve prayed for them to keep cool heads. We’ve lost W-. No one knows where he was shipped. W- whose grandfather sent him to the store at age eight to steal a forty. W- who asked if we could be friends and I had to tell him no, not in the way he was asking, the prison doesn’t allow it. They say Mal- will be back. I have a piece of his writing to return to him.

We’re prepared not to talk about the last six months. These guys, we know, sometimes want to talk about anything but living behind the walls. We go around the room one by one and ask them to answer just two questions. How are you? Have you been writing? None of them are well, even if they say they are. All of them look pale, like they’ve either lost weight or become harder in some other way difficult to define. There’s an anger about the last six months. There’s grief, but they don’t know that’s what it is. They don’t understand the officers are also grieving. It’s not an excuse for anyone to behave poorly, but try to understand. J- says he worked with Officer Bindel and says had another inmate been there in the chapel on the night she was murdered the attack would’ve been stopped. “There wasn’t the normal satisfaction of seeing an officer hurt,” he said, “I mean, it was in the church and she was female. He was just a messed up guy.” T- has been to the hole. He tells us he planned to get in enough trouble to be sent, “Anywhere but here,” until he heard we were coming back. As he speaks he both looks like he might cry and like he is still so on edge if someone looked at him wrong he might still snap. He says an officer told him we weren’t coming back, we didn’t want to, and I can see the hurt he felt even though he knows better now that we are all sitting around the table again. Before he leaves at the end of the night I shake his hand again, tell him I expect to see him again in two weeks, he tells me not to worry, he’ll be here.

A member of the Granta magazine team sent me the link to this piece recently published by Granta: http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/On-Rikers-Island

The piece is short, but also directly powerful. Honest. Unafraid of the prison powers-that-be that might read it (an issue I struggle with here on the blog and as I consider writing more formal pieces for publication). I was drawn to the phrases “air of infinite weariness” and “oppressive lethargy” because they are accurate descriptions of the mood that hangs over any prison complex. McConnell is right, you feel it as soon as you step onto the prison property (and you feel a sense of desperation to fight against it, to wake up the men you meet). A blanket of deep tiredness. Within the prison there are certainly men who fight against such lethargy and weariness (we had several in our group). The institution itself seems to promote it, preferring indifference and sluggishness on the part the prison’s residents (and maybe one can’t wholly fault the institution for this promotion as imagine trying to “guard” hundreds of motivated, inspired, and determined men).

I sympathize with McConnell when he writes, “For some reason I’ve always got along with social castoffs, not the people who nuture their marginality into some marvelous and fecund inner freedom, but the people who can’t: the damaged, the uneducated, prisoners, run-of-the-mill criminals.” I too am attracted to work that brings me into contact with people who seem to have the longest hills to climb to make something of their lives (“make something” as defined by who and against what standards I still don’t know). I am not yet as cynical as to believe that there are people who “can’t” as McConnell writes. I still believe at least one or two of the men from our program will succeed upon release. But I’ve certainly met people who “can’t” or “won’t” and I am equally as fascinated by their stories as I am by those who are struggling to prove they can. These relationships with people who have been written off–prisoners, specifically–make me ask so many questions: what makes a life? what makes a productive day/week/year? where does ambition come from and if you don’t have it, do you miss it? can you choose not to give a shit? about laws? about others? about yourself? and if you answer yes, are you lying? I think we consider prisoners easy to define–simple, uneducated, anti-social and not interested in playing by the rules–but I argue that to be so is in fact to be strangely complex…baffling even. Perhaps because I didn’t have to struggle nearly enough growing up, and now in adulthood have still managed to avoid the worst of circumstances visited upon others, I am drawn to “the damaged” not the way a passerby rubbernecks at a car accident, but the way a student, preparing for an exam she is certain the teacher (life) is going to give, desperately searches for answers to questions she can’t possibly know until the test actually lands on her desk (by way of tragedy, illness, death, violence). I feel the men in prison know things I won’t ever learn without them, important things, survival things. Perhaps that is McConnell’s fascination with “social castoffs” as well. Thrown out of the larger, socially acceptable, law-abiding (depending on your definition) tribe, who are these “castoffs” and what unique knowledge do they take with them when they go?

We’re not going back to the prison. At least not anytime soon. I have known this for over a week now, but writing about it seemed to make it too real, so I’ve shied away. We have been told that all non-religious programs, such as ours (though I’d argue we are a soulful program, a heart-mending program, an imagining the self in a new better light program…but that doesn’t seem to count) will have to submit our programs to the Department of Corrections again for review and possible reinstatement. They will select those allowed to return based on the program’s relevance to the DOC’s Strategic Plan (a plan I need to look up), but the reality is that the security and procedural changes taking place as a result of the murder which happened in the prison chapel almost three months ago simply means there will be fewer custody officers to staff volunteer programs. So, programs must be thinned to a new manageable number.

Much like knowing you are one of the smallest, less athletic kids standing in the lineup waiting to be picked for a baseball game during recess on the playground, it is hard to realize that despite the power of our program’s will and spirit (and effectiveness, in my personal opinion) our chances of getting picked as anything but an alternate are slim. We are not Alcoholics Anonymous. We are not an anger management class (you should hear what the guys say about the effectiveness of those classes!) or a nonviolent communication class (though perhaps we can argue we are the latter…pen to paper is not pen to the side of the neck…doesn’t that count as promoting nonviolent communication?). We don’t offer GEDs, technical degrees, bachelor’s degrees.

Writers always have a difficult time qualifying their work. The hours spent quietly putting pen to paper (in the case of the men at the prison…few have access to typewriters or computers) with months and months passing without a final product to show for it. The transformations that take place between the soul of the writer and the story on the page are difficult to describe. What you learn about yourself, your story, your understanding of the world, your interest in questions larger than yourself, how you change, what your characters teach you, what you want your characters to learn so that you can learn as well…these experiences are hard to put into words others, non-writers, understand (despite their valiant efforts to try). Despite the fact that the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives, it can be difficult to get others to understand that when you help someone relook at his story, write it from a more honest perspective than perhaps he’s ever told it before or encourage him to write about the parts no one has ever asked about before you help to change him…in most cases for the better. The changes are subtle. A man who never talked in class and rarely completed assignments starts to bring 5 to 6 pages at a time asking if I’ll take them home and give him feedback. A man who has never talked about his abusive father writes a piece of prose poetry full of deep pain and childlike requests for love. A man who considered his crime “not that big of a deal” writes a story from his victim’s perspective and understands for the first time. Can I say with any certainty that any of these things will lead to a greater chance of any of these men not reoffending when they are released—not with any real authority (I’ve learned to try to stop predicting the behaviors of human beings—whether locked up or free). But is chance of recidivism the only marker we can use to determine whether a program has value, whether it is making change?

I will continue to write about our absence from the prison (as if I have a choice at the moment). This weekend we are filling out our “review form” on our program, which we just received Friday. Supposedly the prison will start reviewing these forms in early April. I’m preparing myself for a long wait before we hear anything from them—positive or negative. I don’t know how to prepare for being told our program wasn’t selected. Maybe it won’t come to that.

At the prison we teach the hero’s journey. I am now reminded that I’m on my own journey with this work. Everything has always gone so smooth for me at the prison, perhaps I should have expected an obstacle, a challenge, a conflict to arise sooner rather than later. It is the conflicts that make stories interesting after all, right?

When my doctor told me in late mid-2007 that the funny looking mole I’d had removed from my right shoulder was actually the outward manifestation of melanoma cancer cells hurriedly making their way toward malignancy I wanted to know why. What had I done wrong? And if I wasn’t specifically to blame, then who or what was? Did my parents not protect me from the sun when I was young? Did it begin when I visited my aunt in California when I was thirteen or fourteen and was sunburned while kayaking? Was it Florida’s fault? I’d lived there for three years after high school, and though I never became a beachgoer or sun worshipper per se, there was no avoiding the constant and insistent sun in Florida. Perhaps it was one pool party too many? What about my diet? Organic and local food didn’t make their way into my consciousness until I was well into my twenties—had the damage already been done by then by too much pesticide-laden food, too many antibiotic filled factory meat? Was it my brief stint as a not-very-dedicated smoker during college? Was it the air I breathe, polluted with God knows what? Or was the cause something subtle? Stress I wasn’t acknowledging? Sadness I wasn’t addressing? Did I know on some level I needed to make a change in my life, but because I was dragging my heels my body, suffering the quiet emotional consequences of being stagnant, became sick in an effort to force me to act? Was I simply not a good person? This last question of course was one I kept to myself and struggled with answering quietly while attending doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment.

I asked my doctors for answers. They responded with questions of their own that, though probably not meant to be blaming, came across that way. Do you always use sunscreen (no, do you?)? Have you used tanning booths (once)? Were you sunburned as a baby (I don’t know)? When I pointed out that I’ve lived most of my life in the northwest and that the mole was on my shoulder where clothing nearly always covered it, the doctors would eventually relent and say some version of, we don’t actually know why.

The journey of asking the question why when applied to any tragedy is a necessary, but often fruitless, endeavor. Occasionally, there are answers…or half answers or answers to related questions, but more often than not we are left to shrug our shoulders and admit there is no answer that satisfies the human need to place order and reason on the chaotic and unreasonable.

The scramble by the Department of Corrections and Governor Gregoire to find a reason for why the guard at the Reformatory was murdered this past weekend strikes me as a quest that will lead to eventual disappointment. A news article today revealed that the accused murderer was discovered with blood on his clothing, a bite mark on his finger and scratches on his buttocks. The article also revealed that the system-issued clothing the inmate was wearing wouldn’t have allowed for scratches to appear on the skin. The theory at the moment is then that he didn’t have his pants on at the time of the attack. So, the question of why, which he has answered thus far by saying he was attempting to escape (which seemed a dubious answer at best anyway), appears to not hold water at all. We must all now wrestle with the truly horrific idea that the guard was not only murdered, but murdered during an attempted rape attack and that she was targeted specifically for being female and alone in the prison chapel.

What is the why of that reality?

For a while during my cancer journey I radically changed my diet. I remember eating an enormous amount of blueberries for a while. I cut out all sugar. I started seeing a naturopath who, while overall quite helpful and encouraging, gave me a litany of supplements to take. I ran a half-marathon for crying out loud. Anything to prove that I had reformed my ways and deserved to live. Knowing all along that in general, while aiming for better health is always a good idea, no amount of blueberries and fish oil were going to prevent me from ever battling a recurrence of my disease.

I also left a relationship. Moved. Threw myself into my graduate work in writing because clearly I had to prove that I was going to make the most of whatever time I had left by being committed to what I loved. I started therapy. I had difficult conversations with my parents. I started volunteering at the prison—work that I’d always wanted to do.

Many of the changes I made in response to my cancer were for the better. Some have fallen by the wayside. Others proved to be destructive in their own ways. None of them answered the question of why I got sick in the first place.

The prison is still on lock down this week as investigations and independent reviews continue. The blame has thus far been directed at state budget cuts, understaffing, overcrowding, the ineffectiveness of so-called rehabilitative programs and the ways in which inmates can manipulate the reward system for “good” behavior. No doubt, all of these things, in one way or another contributed to the guard’s death. Ultimately, however, the “blame” lies with the man who committed the act—a man with a history of sexual violence against women, a man serving a life sentence, a man with a shadow side many of us prefer to not imagine or even ignore altogether. We’ll never understand his reasons why even if, like I asked my doctors a million times, we ask and ask and ask.

The prison will implement new procedures. The Governor will issue proclamations. I wouldn’t be surprised if our state government passes some new reactionary law, which promises to prevent something like this from ever happening again. But it will happen. If not at this prison, at another. It will happen at a frat house on some campus. In a park while a woman is out jogging at night. After a first date with a guy she thought she could trust. Between a husband and wife. And we will never be able to fully answer the question, why.

Eventually, we will learn to live with not knowing. Until the next time, when the quest for answers to the unanswerable questions of human existence and motivations for violence will start all over again.