A few months after finishing "A Season of Service," I posted it on my other website, Honnold.org, in serial fashion. About once a week, I would drop a section of the paper onto the site and let people comment on each. [Update: The original posting is no longer available on Honnold.org - BG, 1/16/2011] I'm reposting the entire story here on the Restorative Theology blog, all at once, for posterity and that it may be incorporated into this new-ish web project of mine, because it is a significant marker along the journey. It marks the end of the last chapter of my family's life together and the transition into this current chapter. The story itself is a reflective one, bouncing around over a few years in the midst of the primary timeline, the summer of 2007.
I've been posting long papers recently, and I assure this is the longest. But if you're interested, read on after the break for an important story from my not-so-distant past: A Season of Service...
I. Cold Room - June 2007
The room is quiet and cold. Class doesn't start until 6:30 PM on Sunday nights, but Jan and I always show up 20 minutes early to gather our thoughts and prepare. The quiet works well for this. The cold is welcome. Outside, the summer afternoon cooks on into the evening. Hot and humid. The Iowa way. Jan's severe asthma is infuriated by this weather and she wears a mask over her nose and mouth when it's like this. In the room, unread books cover the registers to keep the temperature up. We kicked these off as we entered. Jan speaks softly and deliberately, with a sideways grin and her eyes gazing intently into mine. They sparkle with wisdom, weary of the world's tricks. "I am not fooled," they say. I believe them. I believe her. We are at the Women's Residential Correctional Facility in Des Moines, Iowa, to lead a writers' workshop. Our students are criminals.
In our room, there are far more chairs than can fit around the conference room table which takes up most of the rectangular room. The chairs are always a mess when we arrive, scattered haphazardly by whatever group last met here. Fix the chairs: three on the sides, two on the ends and the rest pushed against the walls; everything in its right place. We sit down and go over the plan for the night.
Jan is a fellow volunteer in facilitating this writers' workshop at the women's facility. Since the class we are leading is in an all-women's facility and I am a man, Jan is my female accountability partner. She is an active volunteer for the Fifth Judicial District of the Iowa Department of Corrections and represents what corrections folks call the "victim perspective." Jan survived a double homicide when she was 10 years old, over sixty years ago now. Her abusive, alcoholic father charged into their house one night and fired a 16-gauge shotgun, fatally wounding Jan's mother. Moments later, Jan's 12 year old brother fired shots from a .22 caliber rifle in self-defense. It worked. Jan's father was dead. She was also sexually abused throughout her childhood and for years afterward buried her unspeakable pain in alcohol and work. In her 50s, Jan began to seek help, talking about the nightmarish experiences from her youth to counselors. She formed a relationship with God. She began volunteering. Now in her 70s, Jan continues the healing process herself by helping others heal.
Jan is a good student. While she is a co-volunteer, she lets me lead the class and participates in all the writing activities as if she were one of the regular participants. Despite the fact that I don't assign homework between our weekly meetings, Jan has been completing her writing for the next week's topic in advance. Tonight is no exception. Before class, she reads her piece to me. She will read it again later to the whole group, just before the writing time begins on the particular topic. In both cases, it brings focus to her listeners. When she reads her stories, people listen, transfixed, sometimes tearful. Muffled by the glass, concrete, and steel, the sounds of women talking and laughing make their way from outdoors into our cold, quiet room. They gather outside by the picnic tables in the parking lot, chatting in between drags on their cigarettes. It seems like the majority of the women in this facility smoke. One program and meeting to the next, separated by smoke breaks. Voices approach the door. It opens and the women in the writers' workshop class file in and collapse in the chairs. They are usually tired and a little grumpy. I look at the clock: 6:30 PM.
"All right, we have a few folks missing, but it's time to get rolling. Take out your comp books, write down the date, and let's have 15 to 20 minutes of free writing." A few women look expectantly at my guitar leaned against the wall, then to me. Obliging them, I unzip the case and take out the guitar, sit down and rest it on my knee. Fingerpicking a few moody pieces, the quiet returns for a while, at times punctuated by coughs, sniffs, and whispers. Latecomers drift in and get writing, offering me apologies and explanations. I smile and nod acknowledgements, continuing the music.
The women took to the guitar the very first night. I caught a lot of grief on the one night that I forgot it. The music seems to work well during the free writing time which opens each class session, melting the stress that has built up throughout the week and helping their minds focus and their fingers move that pen across the paper. Jan writes with them, occasionally looking up and watching the women. Her gaze shifts from the large table to my chair by the whiteboard. She smiles at me, then winks. "You're doing fine," she says without speaking. It's not telepathy, but probably the closest thing possible.
As my fingers work around the neck of the guitar and across its strings, my eyes wander around the room to the faces of the women deep in their writing, thoughts, feelings, and memories. My mind wanders as well, to places and times that led me to this peculiar situation.
II. The Lake - November 2005
The traffic finally let up as we steered the church van north on I-55 from I-10. Getting out of New Orleans during rush hour had taken much longer than any of us had anticipated. Three months after the hurricanes, the city was still mostly a ghost town when the sun set. Every day saw a cycle of the city filling up in the morning for the recovery work to be done everywhere, only to be emptied out at night, heads resting on pillows somewhere else besides The Big Easy, ravaged and lonely.
On the last stop of my church's week-long mission trip to Louisiana, I had driven a U-Haul van packed with cleaning supplies from a warehouse in Thibodaux, an hour to the south-west, to a lower middle class neighborhood in New Orleans. After unpacking the van into an abandoned house serving as a relief supply center, the five of us from Ankeny Presbyterian Church prepared to say our goodbyes to the others we had met and worked with throughout the week. Gary, from our group, gave his remaining spending money to a young woman who was working in the city for the long haul. They embraced in the middle of the street amidst damaged houses and FEMA trailers. Ralph, an 80 year-old retired minister from Ohio, talked with another relief worker. The young man and woman would be loading up supplies from the house in their little truck and would drive around the city looking for anyone who could use some help.
Driving out of the residential area, we hopped on the interstate that took us over the Mississippi River and right by downtown, with its tall buildings damaged from the winds and the Superdome, a scene of horror and hopelessness just a short time before. Driving down a main thoroughfare south of the interstate and downtown, the devastation greeted us face to face.
We had spent most of our time the week before in Thibodaux, which had been largely spared by the storms, save for a few missing shingles and downed tree limbs. It was our home base. One day, we had dropped off supplies in the tiny fishing village of Dulac, south of Thibodaux and deep into bayou country. The whole town was surrounded by water and consisted of trailers that were raised many feet off the ground by wooden stilts, so most homes had survived the storm surge. But their community center and church had been flooded with six feet of water.
New Orleans was spared no such measure. House after house with markings spray-painted on the front, signifying the number of people living and dead when relief workers first arrived. Some of the houses were tiny, while others were old mansions, standing sad and proud. None escaped harm. In one lot sat a smoldering heap of brick, metal, and mortar where an old house once stood. Sheet metal hung like nightmarish leaves from the branches of live oak trees. Traffic signal poles hung crooked and broken, their dark sockets lightless.
Heading back north, we crossed under the interstate and hit Canal Street east to downtown. The French Quarter looked the healthiest of anything we saw in the city, the tiny, narrow, almost tunnel-like streets packed with activity. People in elegant clothes and expensive cars entered fine dining establishments right next door to a building being gutted, its contents being thrown by the ton into huge roll-away dumpsters outside. Leisure and recovery somehow pulling off this awkward dance.
On the interstates, on-ramps and scattered on the roads in town were abandoned vehicles, covered in a thick layer of grime. We drove by a full graveyard of them under a freeway overpass, looking eerily similar to the above-ground cemeteries famous in New Orleans.
Driving north toward Hammond on I-55, darkness covered the bayou around us and Lake Pontchartrain to our right. Quite a different sight than what we had seen coming from the north a week before. I had been asleep when we hit the bridge at sunrise, my sleepy eyes opening on a long bridge over the swamp and the orange sun rising over Pontchartrain, reflecting off the still, mirror-like surface of the water, the world cast in a peach-like hue.
We drove on through the night and into the next day, exhausted from our trip but eager to finally be home. Arriving at the church in Ankeny the following day, the first snow of the year had fallen, coldly adorning central Iowa for our homecoming.
III. Cold Room - June 2007
I glance up at the clock. Free-writing time is up. Putting my guitar back in its case, I tell the women it's time to move on. It's time for lecture, time for me to play English teacher. The lecture material tonight is from a sheet of writing tips from a Creative Non-Fiction writing class I took two years ago at Simpson College. Tips like avoiding cliches and "so/very/really" modifiers. Varying sentence length to create a cadence that won't put the reader to sleep. Using the "-ing" form of verbs to create a sense of action and movement. The timeless maxim: "Show, don't tell."
Halfway through the ten week workshop, I stopped lecturing for a few reasons. For one, I ran out of things to talk about. My lecture material to that point had been pulled mostly out of my head from the things which had sunk in during my English education at Simpson. And I had run out of things that would make much sense in this environment, or perhaps could not be effectively conveyed. Second, we were always running short on time. An hour and a half often passed too quickly and left little time for sharing and discussion of the writing assignments. After dropping the lecture piece of the workshop, I noticed the quality of our time spent together increase immediately. The women didn't feel rushed to complete their writing assignments since they had time to write more and dig into deeper emotional territory and memories.
But tonight, I'm still lecturing and we make it through with rambling on my part kept to a minimum. The topic for group writing tonight is "Your Body" and I'm a little wary. Our weekly group writing topics are taken from a document that was given to me during the planning phases of this workshop. The document was developed by a female professor for a writers' workshop in a female prison. This is also a female facility, but I'm the only man in the building. More importantly, I know sexual abuse is a reality for some of the women in the class and that some may have trust issues with men. Earlier in the week, I had sent an e-mail to Jan and the Department of Corrections folks overseeing the program, voicing my concerns. Despite their affirmations it would be fine, my timidity on the topic remained.
In what would become a common occurrence, the women surprised me with poetic and prose pieces that were mostly light and sometimes hilarious. Pieces about fading youth, having kids, advancing years, and the unfortunate physical changes brought about by those things. Our sides aching and our faces sore from smiling and laughing, my initial fears were decidedly put to rest.
IV. Milkman - December 2005
A few weeks after the trip to Louisiana, I found myself at the very place we had started and ended that experience: the church. On this particular Wednesday night in December, I sat at the dinner table with my friend Doug as a chattering mass of children ate their evening meal, preparing for the educational programming afterward. Doug is an idea guy and also the most sarcastic person I know. So it's sometimes hard to separate his wisecracks from his ideas.
Still charged from the Louisiana trip, I was lamenting to Doug my lack of community involvement. Driving 18 hours for disaster recovery was by all means a good thing, but people at home are also in need.
"Well, let's drive down to Des Moines and see what we can do," Doug suggested. Blowing his remark off as a joke, I made a dismissive comment, remaining morose.
"No, I'm serious. Let's go!"
"Well...we can't just leave and not have a plan!"
"I know a few places we could stop, come on!"
Reluctantly, I went and told my wife that Doug and I were headed down to Des Moines for a bit. She looked puzzled. First, we went to Churches United, a shelter on the south-east corner of downtown. The shelter workers happened to be busy when we got there and didn't have time to entertain two random visitors with vague aspirations, so we moved on. The tall buildings and lights of downtown quickly gave way to run-down homes as we headed back north across the freeway and past Mercy Hospital. A few blocks on, we pulled into a gravel parking lot between two large, old houses. On the right was a two-story white house with brown trim and a signed fixed to the front that read: "Hansen House of Hospitality."
The Hansen House is what some might call a "half-way house." Men freshly released from prisons across Iowa can come to the Hansen House in Des Moines and spend up to three months there, room and board free of charge, while looking for jobs and places to live, all while staying clean and sober. One of the members of our church had sat on the board of directors for the Hansen House at one time, which is how Doug found out about it.
Doug rang the door buzzer. Footsteps approached, the door opened and we were standing face to face with Mario, the executive director of the Hansen House. Eyeing us apprehensively at first as we introduced ourselves, Mario quickly invited us in. After breaking the ice for a few minutes, Doug explained to Mario why we were there and if there was anything we could do to help.
I'll never forget Mario's response: "We need a milk ministry."
There was a pause in the conversation as Doug and I were both somewhat perplexed by this statement. Muffled by the walls, cars could be heard passing in front of the house from 6th Ave.
"I'm sorry, a what?" Doug asked.
"A milk ministry," Mario repeated. "We need milk."
It was so simple it baffled us. The men drank a lot of milk (always 2%) and it can get expensive if you're buying a lot of it frequently. Money is tight around the Hansen House and so they needed a milk ministry.
On the way back to Ankeny, Doug said: "Well, let's go get them some milk!"
"Yeah, why not? You heard Mario: they need milk!"
I was stuck in the rut of thinking too much and doing too little, but Doug helped me snap out of it that night. We picked up four gallons of 2% milk and drove it right back to Mario and the guys at the Hansen House. And we're still doing it two years later.
V. Dropping - July 2007
Looking around the room at 6:30 PM, I notice we are short on numbers as the class is ready to begin.
"Where's Shannon," I ask those who are present.
"She's dropping," casually states one of the women.
Dropping the class? My mind reels. Why would Shannon drop out of the workshop now, mid-way through July and with only a few weeks left? Sure, she's always been the quiet, shy member of the group, never reading her pieces after group writing time is over, but she was consistently writing and always participated in the subsequent discussion. She always seemed emotionally engaged in the group.
Recovering my senses, I ask: "Dropping the class?"
Sensing the despair in my face and voice, the women howl with laughter and one of them corrects me: "No, dropping a UA!"
"UA" is short for "urinalysis" and "dropping a UA" is something each of these women are required to do on a regular basis at the facility, especially if they're coming back from their furloughs. Dropping a clean UA ensures the residents of the facility are abiding by the terms of their probation or parole agreements. Dropping a dirty UA has dire consequences including, but not limited to, a trip back to prison. This requirement is so common, the women have condensed the term even further to just: "dropping."
I exhale a sigh of relief amidst the laughter and minutes later, Shannon walks into the room and we continue on past my misinterpretation of slang. But my reaction illustrates an anxiety over attrition we've experienced in the group. When I was first handed the list of participants before the workshop started, one person on that list didn't show up the first night. Then from the first to second session, another person dropped. Those two were okay. Anyone who has ever taken a college course sees that happen with each new class. Starting out, it's not a big deal.
But in early July, just a month after the workshop began, we lost a young woman who had shown considerable promise early on, a natural talent ready to be nurtured. On the first night of the workshop, she handed me two poems that she had previously written, and in mid-June she wrote an emotionally stirring piece for the "Sense of Place" topic. The story recounted the violent neighborhood of her youth and how she and her sister coped.
Playing in the parking lot in front of their apartment complex, the girls heard gunshots close by. Running into their apartment, the girls hid in a closet, low to the ground, holding each other tight. They began to tell each other fantastical stories of far away lands where they were princesses, where there was no gunfire, and no death. Building these worlds in their collective imaginations, the girls hid there until their mother came in and told them it was okay to come out of the closet. The violence had passed.
While reading this piece, the young woman wept openly. Others joined her, cheeks flushing, eyes turning red and hot tears streaming down faces. I sat with my jaw locked and eyes set on the group, trying to absorb every molecule of the moment.
In the next few weeks, the young woman began to exhibit erratic behavior and before long she was gone. I'm sure I could have gotten concrete details on where she went and why, but didn't. The remaining women whispered rumors of parole violations and trips to the hospital, but I never followed up on these details. In my imagination, she has been transported to the lands described in her story. Regardless of where she really is, I picture her huddled somewhere dark, feverishly reciting stories with someone close by, riding out the wave of despair that encircles her.
VI. Pills, Booze and Meth - July 2007
We've got this writers' workshop thing down. A month and a half in and we're ticking smoothly along despite our diminishing numbers. The first-timer jitters are long gone out of my system. We've made the transition from a disparate collection of individuals into a real group. Our group has its own identity, its own personality. However, like the "My Body" topic before it, tonight's topic makes me a little nervous: "Drugs and Alcohol." Again, I had sent out an email to the advisory committee to see if there was any concern there and, again, I received the "go for it" response. Most, if not all of the women in the workshop are in this facility because of drugs and/or alcohol, and I am wary to tackle a topic which had the potential to trigger a relapse in any one participant. Sitting together before class, Jan gives me assurances it will be fine and, as part of our modus operandi, she reads me her piece written for the topic. I'm less anxious this time around and the class begins.
During the topic writing time, I jot down a quick narrative retelling of my induction into the world of substance use and abuse. As a junior in high school, I was on an island a few miles off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, for a school trip. The nights spent there boiled down to one big opportunity to party while the group's adult chaperones seemed to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. We spent the second night on the island at a dance club overlooking the white sand beach, complete with palm trees and docile waves rolling onto the beach; a true tropical paradise with seemingly no consequences for a group of rowdy teenagers.
A few beers in, my friend and I spotted a circle of men standing on the beach, passing around a bottle. Going out to talk to them, we pieced together from their spotty English and our even spottier Spanish, they were natives to Cancun and were on the island to have a good time. Hey! We were there to have a good time, too! Apparently the word "marijuana" needs no translation, because when my friend asked them if they had any, we were vigorously informed they did, indeed, have some. Before I knew it, I was on the inside of a tent hidden in a grove of palm trees and brush, just off the beach with my friend and a handful of complete strangers, passing around a joint.
Luckily, nothing terrible befell my friend and me, and the strangers were really just on the island for a good time and not for anything criminal (aside from possessing narcotics). The rest of the night is an absolute blur of techno music and dance club lights flashing and stumbling around, while the combined effects of alcohol and THC worked through my system. Up until that point in my life, I had encountered neither one, individually nor combined. I had been around alcohol all my life, but had never consumed it in excess until that night.
Writing time is over and I take a look at what I've written. It feels wrong. The story used to be one of the cool "you thought you were wasted!" party stories I'd pull out from time to time. But in this environment, with all its tales of destruction and pain involving serious substance abuse, the story leaves a foul taste in my mouth. This sense is further galvanized when each woman shares her story. Most striking to me is Robin's:
An addict - yep that's me! Who would have thought my life would have turned out this way? When I flash back in my mind to who I [was], I see a little girl of five or six; playing, running, being carefree. Making dandelion necklaces, blowing bubbles. A princess, I am. A princess, I was.
When I look at where I'm at now, I wonder what went wrong. Why me, GOD? PLEASE MAKE IT STOP. I don't want it anymore.
I see a woman, a grown woman in her 30s. This woman went to stay the night with her grandmother because she missed her grandma so. But the addict in her was always in control and this girl just couldn't stop. You see, she had so many pills: white ones, yellow ones, blue ones, peach ones and even purple ones. She had so many concoctions and couldn't stop herself. She was so out of control. Her grandma's house was the safest place in the world for her, but even then in her home this woman couldn't stop herself. She was taking so many pills on a daily basis that she would forget how many and of what she was taking.
This woman decided to go downstairs and take a shower. How she got there and why, she doesn't remember. It's all a blur, everything is a blur.
(because when you're an addict you lose chapters of your life)
Next memory is waking up on a bed. Bright, bright lights overhead. A black mess everywhere - black liquid running down her chin. There were tons of family members in the room. What an embarrassing mess, the black charcoal vomit; still everywhere so much so that it startled her. So she screamed. She cursed. She told everyone to leave, to go away. The shame was overwhelming.
(she doesn't look much like a princess now, does she?)
You see, her 80 year-old grandma was the one who saved her life. The one who pulled her out of the shower naked and overdosed. She didn't mean to overdose. She wanted to live. She didn't know how to stop - stop the chaos, the craziness.
She has three beautiful children she loves. Why her? Why is she an addict? Why was she chosen to have that curse for the rest of her life? Why can't she control it? Why does she hurt the people she loves the most in the world?
She hates it.
You see, that "she" is ME. And I don't want to be an addict anymore. Please someone make it go away. GOD make it stop, please stop the pain. "They" pick at my brain, thinking they can make it stop. "They" can't. Only I can. It's hard and painful, but I want to stop. I WANT TO LIVE.
Carissa shares her piece, which amounts to a break-up letter to her old significant other, Meth:
I've been with you for a long time
I could never really quite make up my mind
The hurt you caused, I can't quite explain
But for some reason I kept turning to you to fix my pain
Your love was selfish
And I was blind
For you, I left everything behind: I left my kid, I left my home
And for some reason, turned to you to not feel alone
I thought with you that I'd be set free
But you just locked me up and laughed as you threw away the key
One long month, I've thought about you
Wondering every day if we were really through
I thought I'd be dying to make that call
But the fact is: I don't want to hear from you at all
It's taken patience and it's taken time
But I realize now that, without you, I'm just fine
This night was really our first foray into directly serious topics. The previous weeks had seen serious writings pop up from topics which could go either light-hearted or emotionally intense. Tonight was different. We have next week off, but the two weeks after that won't be any easier with the writing topic of "Love" followed up by "Loss" before our final class on August 12th.
VII. A Little Help - Spring 2007
The planning group for the writers' workshop held two meetings in early 2007: one in February and the other in April. Both times, we met at a cafe in West Des Moines, Luann Smith from the Fifth Judicial District of the Iowa Department of Corrections, Betty Brown from the state level of the Department of Corrections, a few other stakeholders, plus Jan and me. These were the first times I had met Betty or Jan. Peggy Urtz from the Women's Residential Correctional Facility attended the second meeting after expressing an interest in having a writers' workshop there. After that meeting it was decided that Jan and I would lead the writers' workshop at Peggy's facility, starting on the first Sunday in June.
Betty provided a three-ring binder with materials from a workshop she had participated in the past and this ended up being one of the most valuable resources for the whole experience. The gray, hardback plastic binder contained various workshop guideline documents as well as old e-mails and newspaper articles written about past workshops and their successes. Stuffed in among these materials was a four-page document with a simple yellow sticky note that read: "A prof. from Iowa State [University] did a workshop at Mitchellville." There is a women's prison in Mitchellville, Iowa, fifteen miles east of Des Moines. The title on the document stated its purpose with terse precision: "a 12-week workshop that meets once a week for 2 hours." Each week had an assigned topic for group writing and discussion. Short descriptions accompanied each topic. The material contained on these four pages became the basis for the week-in, weekout activities of the workshop at the Women's Residential Correctional Facility and therefore became very valuable to me, the first-time facilitator. Aside from the fact that our class times were 30 minutes shy of two hours and two weeks shorter in length, we followed this template very closely.
A few months after the writers' workshop at the women's facility wrapped up, I was revisiting this curriculum template and discovered a name on the last page that I had missed before: Sheryl St. Germain, Associate Professor, English Department, Iowa State University. An internet search yielded that Ms. St. Germain had since moved on from Iowa State and is currently directing the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Through her webpage, I sent an e-mail thanking her for creating something that had come as a great help to me. She even sent me a nice response, saying her experience at Mitchellville was incredible.
Three weeks after our April meeting, I found myself standing in front of a large group of women within the Residential Correctional Facility, making a pitch for the writers' workshop that would be starting in a few weeks. A few women asked questions and voiced concerns, but we were largely regarded with blank stares and disinterested looks. But a week later, Peggy sent me a list of twelve names, the twelve women who would be participating in the workshop with Jan and me in another week. The workshop was now official and ready to start moving. My excitement and mild anxiety continued to build.
VIII. Love is Hard - Summer 2007
As early as our first planning meeting in February, I was reluctant to commit to leading this writers' workshop. Time was the primary factor feeding this reluctance. With my final year at Simpson College underway, I already knew my non-work/non-family time was going to be tight through the end of the summer. In our two meetings in February and April, I voiced these concerns to the group; but somehow, I would come away from each meeting with a sense of excitement at the possibilities and was more willing to take on another commitment for the summer. Around the same time, I was having discussions with a local church executive who was interested in me preaching at a church in Ankeny once a month. This idea turned into a reality and I now had yet another commitment for the summer.
All of these commitments, of course, alarmed my wife and were the source of numerous tense discussions throughout the first five months of this year. Despite these intense concerns about over-commitment, spreading myself too thin, and creating an unpleasant situation at home, I began to see a thread connecting all these summer commitments: school, preaching, and the writers' workshop. One of my summer classes was entitled "Christian Ethics," which seemed to naturally fit with the preaching gig. After looking over the reading list, I noted many of the books focused on matters relating to social justice, something which had become near and dear to my heart over the past few years, thereby strengthening the link between school and the writers' workshop. Finally, I knew before the workshop even started that the stories coming out of it would make for compelling material which could easily be worked into the sermons I would be preaching once a month.
So, with much trepidation on my wife's and my parts, I agreed to the two additional commitments besides school. We knew full well the summer was going to be miserable at times, particularly at home, and that certainly was borne out. In two instances, the unsettled personal life was illustrated in my writings. As early as the second week, June 10th, when our topic was something so innocuous as food, there came this short piece entitled "Vegetarian Pizza":
At 11 PM, the last thing on your mind is food. If your spouse is mad at you, even less so. And why not? You were gone in the morning, tired at noon, and then out the door again by 2 PM. To show up at 11 PM? Oh, and the grilled chicken, green bean casserole, apple salad, and chocolate cake at 8 PM got your mind off of food quite successfully.
But that was last night. This morning? Frosted Mini Wheats and a cup of coffee you finished on the way to church. Pray fervently. Then instead of real lunch you feed on your spouse's frustration over the fact that you're barely home anymore. It tastes terrible. This meal you've prepared for your family is turning into a flop. The milk's gone sour. The dough has fallen flat. Too much yeast? Not enough flour? Salvage what you can and head to the basement to work for a few hours.
At 5 PM, head upstairs and throw the frozen vegetarian pizza in the oven. 5:15 PM - food's on the table. Hold the hands of your family. Pray fervently.
I didn't share this piece with the class as it broke from the otherwise light-hearted writing of the women that night.
On July 29th, near the end of the 10 week class, our topic was love and this short, troubling piece sputtered its way onto the paper of my comp book:
Love is hard work. Not only is it hard for me to write about, but it's hard for me to express. It's hard to understand. My philosophical and spiritual thoughts on love have a hard time being acted on in my daily life, in the real world. Sometimes I think I express love to others more effectively than to my own wife and child. That scares me. My granddad was a busy man when his kids were growing up, including my dad. He was a pastor and was very involved in the lives of his parishioners and church business. He left most of the child-raising to his wife. He wasn't available to his family enough. When the kids were out of the house, he and grandma got a divorce. I'm scared shitless that this could happen in our marriage.
Unlike "Vegetarian Pizza," I did share this piece with the women. The topic had been hard and full of pain and guilt for all of us, so it seemed fitting to share it. As with the "Your Body" topic in June, the group's response was a pleasant surprise. The women were genuinely concerned to hear this troubled side of me, who typically had remained emotionally guarded and "teacher-like" in the class. They asked me questions and I answered them. They made suggestions and I listened. Expressing my fear that I'd exposed too much personal baggage, the women dismissed the notion. After class was over and all the women had left the room, Jan sat beside me, patting my knee and offering more counsel. I left class that night exhausted emotionally, but with the comforting realization that the therapeutic qualities of a writers' workshop are available to the facilitator as well as the participants.
IX. Final Class - August 2007
I showed up at the normal time on August 12th: 6:15 PM. But this was not a normal evening. This was the last night of the writers' workshop at the Women's Residential Correctional Facility. August in Iowa is typically oppressively hot and humid with little rain. This year, however, August was turning out to be surprisingly wet and pleasant. That afternoon, billowy clouds towered above with patches of blue peeking through at us. It looked and felt like rain could come at any moment. Ringing the buzzer, the attendant inside unlocked the door. I stepped in and took a seat by the front desk to await Jan's arrival and for the women to come out. Tonight was special. Instead of another normal class, we're going to celebrate at Java Joe's, a coffee shop in downtown Des Moines. So as the women came out, I was pleased to see a few of them had dressed up for the occasion. Being in the facility on Sunday evenings, I was used to seeing the women in extreme casual mode: sweatpants, sweatshirts, and slippers. Hair pulled back in pony tails. But tonight they looked nice for our night out. Peggy, the director of the facility, was out trying to round up a vehicle for us to all pile in. Jan had forgotten her camera, so she went home in her car and planned to meet us downtown. Peggy pulled around with a state-owned, Department of Corrections 15-passenger van. With all of us crammed in, we began the ten minute drive downtown.
On the way there, it began to lightly rain, but that didn't darken our mood a bit; stories and laughter prevailed all the way to the coffee shop. Peggy stopped in front of Java Joe's to let us out so she could find a place to park the huge van. Scurrying to the door to get out of the rain, we stepped inside and looked over the menu on the wall behind the counter and waited for Jan and Peggy to join us. Once our drinks came, we pulled some tables together and sat down. Light discussion continued atop the pleasant sounds of a coffee shop: background music barely audible, the clanking of cups and saucers, the workers' banter with each other and customers, the continual whooshing of the dishwasher. The women took turns holding one woman's infant son, who had been born during the course of the class. Hovering around the tables, I snapped pictures with my cell phone's measly camera, while the women played modest and hid their faces, laughing.
I had assumed going into out last night together the women just wanted to turn in their revised favorite piece from the class (their only real homework from the entire class), drink some coffee, hang out for a while, say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. Once again, they surprised me. All of us had seen the stage at the rear of the shop when we came in. One of the women asked if we were going to have a reading. Polling the other women showed a general favor to the idea, so I went up to the counter. Getting the attention of one of the baristas, I briefly explained who we were, why we were here, and was it okay if we had run of the sound system for a while for a reading. He graciously agreed and got the music shut off and the stage microphone turned on.
Kathy, bold and outspoken in the group, went first, reading her piece on "Loss." The shop had been fairly empty to that point, save us; but there happened to be a small crowd at the counter, placing orders when Kathy's strong voice came out, into the mic, out of the speakers, filling the entire shop with her story:
Loss means losing something, no longer having it.
Today I no longer have alcohol in my life. The liquid that clouded my judgment, tore at my self esteem, and alienated me from people I loved is gone - lost. It has been a loss that was long overdue.
Also lost is the little girl inside me that never stood up for herself. Today, I know it is okay to voice how I feel about issues. I choose today what is healthy for me and who is healthy for me. Gone are the past ways of allowing myself to "go with the flow" or be part of the crowd. I am my own "crowd" today and I make my own decisions without regret or guilt.
My old preconceived notions of other people, especially those who have less than perfect legal standing, that has went away as well, lost forever to the big pit of irrational thinking and illogical behavior.
Loss doesn't mean having to lose someone or something we wished we didn't; it can mean a loss of ways of thinking and living. I am proud to have the losses I have. Losing narrow-mindedness, bitterness, gullibility, weakness, and drunkenness are okay with me. They are forever lost to me and those kinds of losses I can live with. And living is what I am now doing since those losses. I have become a clean, sober, strong-willed woman. I don't pre-judge anyone. I still believe in following my heart, but now I listen and act with my gut. The little voice that talks to you and tells you things, whether you want to hear and listen or not.
Having losses in my life has enriched me in so many ways I never imagined possible. The "Old Kathy" wouldn't have seen it as a good thing, so as I see it, I have lost some of myself as well. And a new and improved Kathy has taken her place. And who says loss has to hurt?
The more I realize my losses, the more I notice it was BEFORE when I was hurting...not afterwards. My losses didn't hurt me, they are healing me. I know having losses is a normal part of life and that's okay.
When she was done reading, I was very pleased to hear some of the applause was coming from up at the counter, in addition to the proud cheers and clapping coming from our tables.
The reaction to Kathy's reading emboldened a few of the other women to read their works on the stage. Robin read her gripping piece on "Drugs & Alcohol," as well as "Beauty." One of the women allowed Peggy to read her piece, which was a lovely thing to witness: Peggy, the director of the facility, the authority, humbling herself and serving a woman under her charge. Jan even took to the mic and read her emotional piece on "A Sense of Place," the topic from our second week of class in early June.
When our cups ran empty and the stories had been told, a deep, warm sense of fulfillment and satisfaction settled on the group. I certainly felt it, and could see it in the faces of all the women. The ride home was a bit more subdued as the reality of the workshop's ending began to sink in. With Peggy and I up front in the van, the women filled out their evaluation forms for the class, joking with me on how they were scoring my performance. The rain had let up long before we returned to the facility, but once there, goodbyes were kept brief nonetheless. Exchanging hugs and words of encouragement, thanks, and farewell, I hopped in my truck and headed for home, my wife and daughter eagerly awaiting my return and the return of our Sunday evenings together as a family.
At the crest of the hill overlooking the Des Moines River valley in Saylorville Township, the sun was setting amidst the hazy, near-transparent clouds in the sky. This image perfectly accompanied the bittersweet happiness within me, so I pulled off the road and soaked in the complete moment; the kind of moments which so rarely come in the hectic business of life. Giving thanks for such things, I continued on home, somewhat reluctant to, but aware of the futility of grasping too hard onto blessing.
X. Affirmation - September 2007
Out of the office for the afternoon on this clear and bright date in late September, I step out of my truck in the parking lot south of Mercy Capitol Hospital and walk toward a cluster of state government buildings. Somewhere in there is the Restorative Justice Task Force meeting, and I'm looking for its conference room in the Department of Corrections central office. This meeting is the closest thing to an official wrap-up or "post mortem" for the writers' workshop that finished over a month ago. Scheduling conflicts have pushed us out a few weeks, but it finally came together. Having forgotten to bring the explicit directions, I embark from my truck on an excessively long search for the building first, then a particular conference room therein. After walking between buildings, through lobbies, commissaries, hallways, ascending elevators, then quickly descending, I finally arrive at my destination.
The Grant Room is huge. A few hundred people could probably fit within its walls quite comfortably. Off on the far wall, rectangular tables are arranged in a large square shaped with folks sitting on the outside so everyone can see each other. Walking across the room and acknowledging the familiar faces' greetings, I sit down across from Betty Brown, director of Victim & Restorative Justice Programs for the Iowa Department of Corrections. My gaze continuing around the square of tables, I note that on the side to my right sits complete strangers. On the left, I notice Luann, and right beside her is Jan, looking back at me with her sideways grin. The conference had actually started a few hours before I showed up, so I had come in the midst of a man recently released from the Newton prison talking about his relationship with two of his mentors who flanked him on either side.
Betty mentions the man who had just spoken had been in writers' workshops at Newton which were facilitated by students from Grinnell College. She uses this to segue into the discussion of the writers' workshop Jan and I had done over the summer at the Women's Residential Correctional Facility. As Betty spoke a about the workshop, Jan got up from her seat by Luann, walked over and sat down beside me. Her soft, melancholy voice whispered inside my head, recalling the story she had written for the topic on our third week, "A Sense of Place":
When I was a little girl about the age of nine, I lived on a farm. Down in our pasture was a grove of old oak trees that from a distance looked like their branches were arms stretching towards heaven. Creatures other than myself were drawn to this place. There were squirrels gathering acorns to hide for winter stores. There were birds catching bugs and worms. Hearing a redheaded woodpecker hammering away, I wondered how he kept from getting a headache.
Around the base of those old trees was a cool, clear pool of water fed by natural springs whose water just bubbled out of the ground. Over the years the water had eroded the soil away from the south side of the trees' root systems so that some of the roots extended out about a foot above the water.
On a hot sunny day when I just wanted to be by myself to think and to daydream, I would walk down the field, through the tall grasses and flowers to that old clump of oak trees. This was my Safe Place! I would climb out on my favorite root to dangle my feet or lie on my belly and dip my hands in the water. There were always water bugs shooting across the surface, trying to make it to the other side without becoming food for something below. I would let the tadpoles and minnows nibble and explore my fingers. Fascinated by the tadpoles, I didn't understand the changes they went through to become frogs. I didn't know the word metamorphosis then! I always hoped I would actually see the process but never did.
Sometimes I would lay there for hours singing my thoughts and feelings to words and tunes that came along. Often times, tears would stream down my face, especially when I sang about my good friend Bob, who had been killed in a gasoline storage tank explosion. My heart felt broken as my soul poured out its pain and sorrow. Why had I been spared from death?
When I grew wary and my emotions had been spent, I would flip over on my back, balancing myself on the old roots, the arms of God for all I knew. Lying there quietly, watching the cloud formations, pretending I was walking among them.
After a while, I would hear the squirrels barking as well as redwing blackbirds, meadowlarks, and whippoorwills sharing their day's events and telling me it was time to go. I would hug the old root before scooting off and heading to the house.
At her seat by my side, Jan patted my knee in encouragement. Smiling warmly at my friend, I turned my gaze outward and addressed the group.
About five minutes into the talk, a woman enters the far door of the conference room. It's Robin from the workshop. She is dressed and made up nicer than I had seen her all summer. Smiling as she spots familiar faces, it strikes me how great she looks: beautiful, healthy and, most importantly, happy. I can see freedom written all over her face and her words as she introduces herself to the group and tells her story. Answering questions from Betty about what the writers' workshop had meant to her, Robin proceeds to give the most glowing testimony one could ask for. Looking to Jan and me at her side, then to the rest of the group, she says at one point: "You'll never know how much this class has helped me." There were terribly dark memories from years ago that Robin had buried deep within her, which hadn't seen the light of day until she wrote them down and talked about them in the class. And re-read them at Java Joe's. And then reads them again to the group assembled here, her piece on "Beauty":
Behind a prison fence - where's the beauty in that?
Face after face in the same clothing with no personal identity, far from home, surrounded by hundreds of women but the loneliest place in the world. Women crying every night wishing they could take back the choices that led them there - aching so bad in their hearts a pain that is indescribable and sometimes so bad that you wish you didn't have to live through it.
But you go on day after day, year after year because just maybe one day might be your day. The day you pray for every night: the day you do the things you've longed to do: to tuck in your children, to cook a meal, clean a house, mow the yard, watch a movie with someone you love, hold hands. To kiss someone's lips, to lie in someone's arms.
TO JUST BE!
To exist, to wear what you want to wear, to say what you want to say, to make the right choices. To laugh, to sleep when you want to sleep, to skip, to run, to play with your children. To live to BE FREE.
To be on the other side of that fence. God, how there's beauty in that. JUST TO BE.
At the end of her reading, a man to my right removes his glasses to wipe away tears. The impact of these women's stories amazes me all over again and you can see it in the faces of the group. After the meeting, Robin has to run to an appointment, but we embrace before she leaves and I wish her well.
For the fall of 2007, I cut down on my volunteer commitments to focus on finishing strong at Simpson College, and to focus more energy on my family, who had seen me very little over the summer months. But it's impossible for me not to think about the future, considering the amazing things which have come to pass in my involvement with Corrections. Two years ago, there was no time in my schedule for volunteer work. But from the sunrise on Lake Pontchartrain to the sunset over the Des Moines River valley, much in me has changed. The word "justice" has taken on a much more nuanced and vital meaning. The lives of the people I've worked with: ex-felons, fellow volunteers, judicial branch workers at district and state levels - all of these relationships have touched and shaped me somehow. Some of these people I now count as dear friends and kindred spirits, which couldn't be traded for any earthly sum.
Keeping with the sappy sunrise/sunset theme, I am in the nighttime hours of my volunteer work. But another sunrise will come. The first time it did, I was taken off guard; groggy and sleepy, wholly unprepared for the work which lay ahead. But next time, I will be ready, eagerly waiting for the sunrise on the new day. In time, these cycles of service should become as natural and inevitable as the cycles of day and night themselves. And at this early stage of my life, I really can't imagine it should be any different for me, or anyone else for that matter. I've seen the same awakening in my wife and she has pursued a different path in helping the poor, hungry, and homeless. But we're motivated by the same drivers.
Gandhi said: "You must become the change you seek in the world." It is my hope that my beliefs put into word and deed are a positive force for change in this world, and others would hear those words and see those deeds and take them to heart, and more, to become positive forces for change themselves. That is how lives are changed for those involved in service to their community, regardless if they're the volunteer or the individual being served. That is how the hearts of neighborhoods, cities, states, and nations can change. That is how we become the change we seek.
There is an excellent public service campaign from the Ad Council whose slogan is simple and convicting: "Don't almost give. Give." Many of us have kind, charitable hearts, but they've been conditioned by our culture to be selfish, territorial, and paranoid. I'm only beginning to grasp this and working to change my thought and behavior patterns to break through those barriers. Some get it, some don't. Some agree and some disagree. But to all, I'll paraphrase the Ad Council slogan: Don't almost change. Change. And don't almost serve. Serve.
One reward I've experienced by living life in this manner is my amazement at how much we have in common with people we've been told are dangerous and should be avoided. Something echoed by Margaret in E.M. Forster's 1910 classic, Howard's End:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.