Back in March, I re-posted a paper which I wrote in 2007 for my senior English project, called "A Season of Service." It was based on experiences amassed from late 2005 through the summer of 2007, especially my volunteer work with the Iowa Dept. of Correctional Services. As I mentioned in that post, those experiences became a catalyst for dramatic life changes in 2008, moving my family from Iowa to Virginia to start graduate studies in seminary and in peacebuilding/conflict transformation. These are my butterfly stories. They're pretty. Like butterflies.
When I saw Howard Zehr speak in Des Moines in March of 2008, he told the crowd that butterfly stories are good. But so are bullfrog stories. The stories that aren't so pretty. The stories that end in sadness or failure or tragedy. Well, I was reminded today that there are some bullfrogs hiding amidst the butterflies of my Season of Service story. Today I received a letter from Jan, the woman who helped me facilitate the writers' workshop program three years ago. While it lifted my heart to hear from her, and she offered some encouraging words, the primary tone of the news she shared with me was sad. It took me a bit to adapt this news to the sun-shiney story I've been walking around telling for the past few years. So read on after the break if you're up for a dose of the dark side of reality...
Even before Jan's letter, there were a few things that began to knock holes in my well-edited story. The man who ran the halfway house at which I, along with some folks from church, helped deliver milk had been removed from his position under circumstances I was never completely clear on. This happened as we were in the process of moving two years ago. Shortly after moving, I gave his cell phone a call and chatted with him for a while and things obviously had not gone well for him. An ex-offender who had a great run of it as executive director of a halfway house, but was now struggling to find what came next. Our phone conversation didn't give me many answers and certainly didn't comfort me on his future prospects. The next time I tried calling him, both numbers I had for him had been disconnected. That was over a year and a half ago. He still comes up in my thoughts and prayers, and it hurts me to not know where he is. This guy was pivotal to my development in so many ways, vocationally and spiritually being at the top of that list.
Anyway, back to Jan's letter. She mentioned some staffing and programming changes in Iowa Corrections, and a few of the familiar faces that got me on the road to restorative justice have been reassigned, with some of the ex-offender programs being dropped or drastically scaled back.
The worst news came in reference to one of our best "students" in the writers' workshop, Robin. She's referenced numerous times in the paper linked to above. She was released from the residential correctional facility shortly after the workshop ended, and was able to speak with Jan and I at two events including the big RJ conference at which I first saw Howard Zehr. Jan continued to work with Robin after the workshop and describes the following two years as sadly watching her drift slowly back into the world that had landed her in prison in the first place. And now she's back in prison.
I suppose anyone who works professionally or as a volunteer in the social services with high-risk clients gets faced with this realization, probably more quickly than I've made it. This stuff is time-intensive, emotion-intensive work that is all too often low-reward. My wife and I have been dreaming about our future after grad school recently, and both of us will be working in the social services field in some form or another. This stuff is already facing her, professionally, while I get to put it off for another two years while I'm studying and working as a web nerd at the university. The key will be finding ways to keep hope alive and the promise of redemption close to my heart.
While thinking of a visual to pair with this post, I quickly thought of a picture I took this weekend while hiking in West Virginia with my sister-in-law's husband. He nearly stepped on a small snake, but caught himself at the last moment and stopped to take a look. When I looked, it looked as though the snake's head had been crushed on a rock and it was dead. But as we drew closer, the little thing shot off to the side of a trail a few feet away. It was then that we saw what was clutched in his mouth: a frog that was much bigger than this snake's mouth. His teeth were sunk into the frog's back, covering most of the rear of the frog, including the back legs. The front 3/4 of the frog was still out, and the frog was still alive. The frog had perhaps the most comical facial expression I've ever seen on an animal up close. He seemed to be staring up at us as if to say, "A little help here?" The snake biting off more than he could swallow seemed to be saying the same thing. Marveling at this hilarious/awesome scene of the food chain in action, we left nature to take its course, and left the two animals on the side of the trail.
This is perhaps a random move to append this story to the end of this reflection. I was mentioning bullfrog stories earlier and their importance, which no doubt conjured this snake-frog story and image in my mind. The plight of both animals could perhaps be an apt analogy for the situation described above. At times like these, hearing this sad news from my past life coupled with the significant challenges of my present life coupled with the daunting future...I can identify with either of these animals, really. I'm the snake that's bit off more than I can swallow. That's certainly a common refrain for me. Or perhaps I'm the frog that's caught in the clutches, yet still hanging on to life and the hope that the snake will finally give up his quixotic designs and let go of me. Or maybe I'm me, standing above this amazing little experience of life and death happening right before my eyes, laughing at the tragicomedy.