Don’t call us, we’ll call you

April 21, 2014

March: Work

I organized; I cooked. Two months in a row sticking to my plan isn’t too shabby! Alas, no research happened in March. But lots of work nonetheless. If I had known at the start of this year that I would be taking on another job, I probably would have changed 2014’s theme from Do ALL THE THINGS! to Just Stay Alive. I know working Monday through Wednesday from 8:30-3:15 doesn’t sound like a ton, but oh goodness, this has been a hard change!

I managed it pretty well in March, but April has been another story. I’ve been sick almost every day in April, even missing a whole week of work. I think I have taken for granted my relative good health these last couple of years and forgotten how grinding more intense chronic pain, sickness, and insomnia gets.  It has been a struggle to not slip into a depression after the last two and a half weeks. (I should probably reread this post.) Working out of my house, which I haven’t done in a rigid way since probably 2005, certainly adds an extra layer of stress when I’m feeling ill. At 4:30 am it really doesn’t help to keep telling myself, “You have to sleep. You have to get up in 3 hours . . . 2 hours . . . 1 hour.”

Despite all that, my new job is a good combination of great coworkers (I think that has all but solved my need for a social outlet in our town), direct service, and repetitive paperwork. I know some people hate paperwork, but for me, the paperwork is essential. I love the precision element of it — my paperwork can be nearly perfect with effort, even if the lives of my clients (and all humans, obviously) are always messy. And I love the space it offers to decompress after those difficult meetings. But even in those difficult meetings — like the one with someone whose husband had abandoned her after a particularly messy fight several days before, in which I had to find a way to gently express that breaking things throughout the house is in fact a sign of domestic violence even if he didn’t break her — there is something refreshing in comparison to prison work. Because I can always help them, somehow. Even if it’s just a bag of food from our Food Pantry or a pack of diapers or a small gift card to the local market, I know I can always send them away with a tangible thing that will make them feel a little more hopeful about the future. Not to mention a hug or supportive touch on the arm. Human touch is valuable; it’s only in replaying all these meetings, first with my incarcerated men and now with these men and women, that I see how different a meeting is in which we often could not even shake hands.

I need to go back to work tomorrow despite still not being in the best shape physically. Writing this out made that prospect feel just a little bit easier.

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April 8, 2013

Psych. I’m gonna talk about the death penalty again.

I know no one requested a death penalty post, but this NY Times article profiling a case in which a less culpable defendant received the death penalty while his co-conspirators did not was screaming for a share. I think you all know my position: in short, our criminal justice system is far too messy, unfair, and inconsistent to impose an irreversible penalty. This article hit on some of the reasons why.

Does it not give pause when a judge reviews a death sentence and finds it legal, but still feels the need to rebuke the prosecutor for seeking the death penalty for someone who “even under the state’s theory, did not cause the physical death” of the victim? I sure hope so.

February 6, 2013

Forgiveness and restorative justice, part I

Once upon a time, when reading letters from incarcerated people was my job, I got a letter from a man I’ll call John Doe. John was not actually a D.C. prisoner — he was in federal prison — but he had somehow found the address of D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project and decided to send us a letter. The envelope was surprisingly thick, far thicker than any other I had received there. Despite that, I was still unprepared for what I found inside: multiple pages of careful cursive explaining just exactly how he had raped and brutally beaten a relative of his. I can still remember some of the details, though, thankfully, most have faded with time. Because the organization dealt solely with civil issues related to incarceration, we explicitly instructed people not to share details of their criminal cases with us. As far as I remember, this was the one and only time while working there that anyone ever specifically told me about their crime. It was certainly the only time anyone ever told me about it in such excruciating detail.

My first response was nausea. Next came anger and disgust. The fact that alongside the horrible confession was an intense outpouring of remorse didn’t seem to make a difference. My job was to write John a cordial letter letting him know that our mission was only to serve D.C. code offenders, and wishing him luck. But I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to give the time of day to someone who had done something so horrifying and despicable. For quite a while I sat at my desk, thinking, I can’t do this. I can’t help this man. Wouldn’t sending him my best wishes be the same thing as violating his victim, his RELATIVE all over again? And if I can’t help him, then how can I help all the others, people who might be hiding these same dark secrets?

I put John’s letter aside. I had inherited an enormous stack of letters (a few hundred at least) upon starting my work at the Prisoners’ Project. It had been months since the last intern had been up-to-date with all the incoming mail, and though they specifically told me that I need not get through them all, I had immediately resolved to respond to every single letter. These were real people, after all, being assaulted in their cells at night, deprived of medical care they were constitutionally guaranteed, or just seeking an affirmation that someone, anyone cared. No one else knew of this anal-retentive vow of mine; I knew it would be easy to just slip that letter under the pile and let it become the Fall intern’s responsibility. But this was a crossroads — I knew it even then — the first of many I would face working in the justice system. And if you’re an insomniac prone to replay all your daily decisions, you can’t just walk away from a crossroads, hoping the next intern will have the courage to face it. But it was tough. I had to decide that, even with the horrific details running through my mind, John Doe was still a human being worthy of my good will and energy, and not just an animal — or worse than an animal — that had done this cruel thing to someone he should have protected. It took me a few contemplative weeks, but I finally typed him a letter.

***

Following this decision point, I was ever more certain that criminal justice was my life’s work. My initial plan was to go to law school, either to continue working as an advocate for the humane treatment of incarcerated individuals or to go into restorative justice. Restorative justice, simply put, is an approach to criminal justice that focuses on repairing the harm done by an offender, as assessed by the victims, the offender, and the community — not solely the state. I shared this quote once before about one of the things that, in my view, is critically wrong with our “justice” system, but it is so apt:

As currently practiced, incarceration not only provides offenders with an excuse for not contributing to the welfare of their families and communities, but it practically enforces their noncontribution.  Indeed, if anything, the sentencing reforms of the 1980s and 1990s have enforced radical irresponsibility and unaccountability, and it is the families and communities of offenders that are bearing the burden.

Enter restorative justice, wherein the victim, the victim’s family, the offender, the offender’s family, community representatives, and state representatives can dialogue about their perspectives and strive to come to an agreement on what kind of punishment is suitable and how restitution can be made.

Over the years I’ve read a lot of articles and watched many documentaries chronicling restorative-justice community conferences and victim-offender mediation, but this recent New York Times‘ piece by Paul Tullis is as fascinating as any. I highly recommend you read the whole piece to understand the enormity of what occurred in this particular situation, but I want to pull out a few points that are particularly salient to me.

The critical participants in the conference were these:

  • Conor McBride, who killed his girlfriend, Ann
  • Kate and Andy Grosmaire, parents of the deceased Ann, who felt called to forgive Conor and undertake the restorative-justice process
  • Julie and Michael McBride, parents of Conor
  • Sujatha Baliga, director of a restorative-justice project
  • Jack Campbell, local prosecutor

The conference began with the charges being read, after which the Grosmaires spoke. Andy, Ann’s dad, talked about how she loved kids, and acting, and wanted to open a wildlife refuge. Her mom Kate started at the beginning: how she nursed her as an infant and sought treatment for her “lazy eye” as a child so that eventually she could drive. “It’s another thing that’s lost with her death,” she said, “You worked so hard to send her off into the world — what was the purpose of that now?” As Baliga recounted, Kate “did not spare [Conor] in any way the cost of what he did. There were no kid gloves, none. It was really, really tough. Way tougher than anything a judge could say.”

Way tougher than anything a judge could say. Truth. Just one of the ways that I believe our adversarial legal system undermines accountability is that it often does not create space for victims to express how they have been injured, which can be the very thing that communicates to the offender the full weight of his/her actions. As 19-year-old Conor said, “Hearing the pain in their voices and what my actions had done really opened my eyes to what I’ve caused.” Even the skeptical prosecutor agreed that the Grosmaires comments at the conference were “as traumatic as anything I’ve ever listened to in my life.”

Following the Grosmaires, Conor had to offer a detailed account of what he did, even as Ann’s father further questioned him. Although in some cases offenders must allocute, or publicly confess their crimes, in order to accept a lesser-sentence plea bargain, this is another aspect of accepting full responsibility that can be missing from our legal system. You would think that offenders would not be anxious to walk through the details of their crime, and certainly some are not, but then I always think back to John Doe. John Doe, who wanted so much to be able to apologize to his victim, his family, anyone who would listen; who wanted so much to unburden himself by telling every. single. detail. of his crime and how he loathed himself for it, that he wrote it all out and sent it to a total stranger. It was only later that it hit me how sad it was that I was possibly the only person who knew that much about both his crime and his remorse. While not all victims would want to read that letter from their attacker, many would. We know this both because of growing interest in victim-offender mediation and victim reports that restorative justice programs increase their satisfaction with justice and reduce their post-traumatic stress symptoms. I can only hope and pray that at some point John Doe’s victim learned how much he regretted his appalling actions.

Although forgiveness and reconciliation is not the end goal of restorative justice, it is, in many cases, a byproduct. In the case of Conor McBride, the Grosmaires’ forgiveness had a profound effect: “‘With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness, I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.'” As author Tullis explains, “Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands.” When I worked for the Prisoners’ Project and later during my research, it became sort of cliché to have people tell me some variation of this: I’m not a saint, but I didn’t do this thing that they’ve got me locked up for. And therein lay that “certain kind of refuge,” that feeling that they were hated by society, persecuted by the police, and abandoned by their families, which for many redirected their attention and energy away from grappling with their own responsibility.

Some have accused me of not wanting offenders to get their rightful punishment because of the work I do. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, I envision a system in which offenders can feel the full weight of their responsibility and answer for it, without being ultimately “condemned” such that there is no possibility or motivation for change. Because how can you feel the full weight of something without struggling to lift it? And why would you undertake that struggle at all if the law, society, and every person you meet has already convinced you that the weight of your sins is too great? I believe a more rehabilitative system would serve and protect victims, offenders, and society far better than the unforgiving and dysfunctional behemoth we have created thus far. Underlying my beliefs, of course, is the decision I made at that first crossroads: that no matter what they have done, every human being is worthy of my good will and energy.

As this is just the first part and these issues are endlessly complex, I welcome any thoughts, questions, concerns, or disagreements that will help me as I work on part II. This stuff matters to me, a lot, so if it matters to you too, speak up!

Also, I have to give a shout-out to Neal who looked at a couple of earlier drafts and nitpicked over ever. single. freaking. word. Dude’s a smart guy and a talented writer even if we almost came to blows a time or two. 

December 29, 2012

2012 Holiday Letter

Filed under: Family, Incarceration research, Personal — llcall @ 7:34 pm

I know I said the blog would get more love over the holidays, but apparently I had not sufficiently consulted with Neal about our plans. No matter; I’ve had a great time hanging with Addison so Neal can get more work time. I did, however, manage to get out this end-of-year letter. Two years in a row? That’s called being on a roll!

Happy New Year! It’s been great to hear from so many of you and we hope this finds you happy and healthy!

2012 was a calmer year for us than 2011, much to Neal’s relief and Addison’s chagrin. If you’re not familiar with Addison (almost 3) and her zest for life and interaction with the world, this conversation sums it up:

Addison: [On the way home from running about 30 errands] I want to go to parties now!

Me: It’s time to go home.

Addison: NO! I want to go to parties!

Me: Home.

Addison: Can parties come to our house? [Note: Over your father’s cold, dead body.]

Besides parties, Addison is also keenly interested in marrying, dying, and driving cars – she can’t wait to grow up and do all those things (we’re still trying to determine how disturbed we should be about this). She is alternately heart-burstingly adorable and frustratingly obstinate, but never, never dull.

In April, Neal formally launched his blogging/writing career and has now officially interacted with more people online in 8 months than he did in person in his previous 28 years. He mostly blogs and draws comics about being a stay-at-home dad at Raised by my daughter, but he also became a monthly contributor to a larger book review blog. His comics have been picked up by some larger websites and bloggers, and he’s amassed a small group of ardent fans. Thanks random people on the internet for believing in his talents!

For me, this year had some ups and downs health-wise, which is why it was such a godsend to get a job as an online adjunct faculty at a university. Teaching in my pajamas? Yes, please! So far I teach a general family studies course – everything from parenting styles to courtship trends, relationship dynamics to abuse – but I hope to pick up a personal finance course next year. One of my pet projects, a paper encouraging financial educators to outreach to incarcerated populations and tailor their curricula accordingly, was accepted for publication this month, so that was a great way to end my year! I still blog occasionally (obviously), though “real life” seems to have interfered with my verbosity.

Wishing all the best to you and yours!

DSCN1477

I thought we could get one quick snapshot of all 3 of us looking at the camera, but 20 tries later, forget about it. This is why, when asked what kind of girl she is, Addison says, “I’m always reaching for stuff.” True that. (If you need a hit of her sweet smile, go here.)

Neal perfectly capturing our extrovert-to-the-10th-power:

overly friendly at the park

August 30, 2012

Thankful(ly revising)

I spent most of the day working on my revise and resubmit. (Thankfully, my neck is much improved, though still rather achy). I planned to just bang it out yesterday, but that didn’t happen — too many interruptions. And then I thought I would finish today, but Addison definitely had other plans. It is hard to stay focused with so many distractions going on around me. Neal is always telling me that he has no idea how I even force myself to do it — for no pay, no glory, no particular purpose except to finish things I’ve started.

But even though it was rather slow-going today (sometimes it seems harder to revise a paper than it does to write it in the first place, you know?), I was really filled with such a sense of excitement and gratitude. I love my work. Sometimes I love having done my work more than I love doing it, but still, I am blessed to have found such a true passion in life. Something that I could read, write, study, ponder FOREVER and still find new questions I want to ask and problems I want to solve.

And this paper, this really is my baby. Even more than my thesis. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my thesis too (even though at the moment it is little more than a vague memory that I can’t even remember the title of), but this paper is a practitioner-focused piece, which has always been my priority. I want the work I do to impact the way incarcerated people live, work, learn, and are treated. Not in an eventual, trickle-down sort of way, but now, tomorrow, YESTERDAY! And this piece will do that far more than my thesis. I have already been able to discuss the ideas and recommendations with dozens of financial educators around the country who are beginning to work with incarcerated individuals. Even though academic articles in general are read by about 1.6 people, this particular journal has a wider readership because it maintains its focus on helping practitioners do their jobs better.

So even though about 50 times today I thought, WHY am I doing this? Why am I  going back and forth to my computer and wracking my brain about financial capability theory, only to be interrupted every three seconds by getting Addison water and putting her on the potty and listening to her bang on the door while calling out for me? (It was Neal’s care time, but I guess she was bored with him.), I am thankful that I get to do this work. Thankful that I found what I love, that I continue to love what I chose, that I still have the mental capacity to do what is required, and that I can get my laptop to lay sideways just so and still keep my neck at rest while I work. Everyone should be so lucky.

May 21, 2012

“The hurt child”

I’m on my third adoption book now. And, WHOA, it’s a doozy (I definitely need that fiction break!). I certainly don’t consider myself squeamish (I actually enjoy reading about the complexities of incarceration), but this is one of the hardest books I have ever read. Ever. It’s called Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids. You just don’t ever want to think about the kinds of things that they’re describing happening to children. Having to face the reality, on page after page, that these things do happen to hundreds of thousands of kids is difficult (understatement of the year). Perhaps I just haven’t arrived at the hope part yet . . .

It’s probably as telling as anything that about 30 pages in I actually wanted to stop reading it. And I never want to stop reading anything I’ve started. I was just coming off You Can Adopt: An Adoptive Families Guide, which even though it does address all aspects of adoption, including “hurt children,” is a bit rah-rah-rah. You can adopt! It will work out! Here’s how to do it! Ready, go! (Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a great resource, I just think maybe I should have read it after Adopting the Hurt Child).

But I am pressing on and realizing some important things. For one, there is a certain comfort in working with adults in the criminal justice system. Even though many, if not most, have experienced the trauma the book is describing, I’m seeing them as full-grown men, strong for having lived through various kinds of hell; strong for being willing to talk about it and to seek help and to just keep surviving. It’s much harder to envision the children in this book, almost frozen in these devastating circumstances.

The other thing that’s been growing in my mind is that in some ways my background is ideally suited for adopting through the foster-care system. Considering a “special needs” adoption forces you to really think about what you expect from your children, and how you would cope if your children veered from those expectations. A couple of weeks ago my friend Emily, my resident child development expert, asked if I do a certain child development activity with Addison, and I responded something like: Not really. I’m not very intentional about it anyway. It’s more intuitive for my mom . . . but when Addison goes to jail, I’ll know just what to do! Of course, I don’t want Addison to go to jail or prison, but it’s definitely something I think I could deal with. I’ve played out that possibility in my head, considering what I would do in various scenarios (does that sound weird? When I’m sick I end up with a lot of time on my hands!), and I certainly don’t assume that Addison is immune to those kinds of problems simply because she is my child and has been blessed with many advantages in this life.

I guess the point is that when you think your child being incarcerated would be tough, but workable, and you’ve already considered strategies for getting through it, perhaps you are precisely the kind of parent that some “hurt child” could really use. Perhaps.

April 23, 2012

A new story of my life, part I

I feel like it’s time to write some more stories.  Stories about this journey of acceptance I’ve been on, realizing that if I want to have another child, adoption is the way to do it.  But as I try to capture all these different threads of thoughts and feelings, slight shifts and major changes, I keep coming back to that day I met Oliver and started to ask myself those fundamental questions of what I am capable of.  I guess that day in May 2002 is as good a place as any to pick up this story.

Although that day, that experience rocked me to the core, I went back to work at D.C. Prisoners’ the next day ready to go.  I still had a stack of letters from incarcerated men and women waiting for me, and I was determined to work through a two-year backlog before my internship ended.  But something started to take root in my mind that I had hardly given much notice to before: prevention.  See, when you start in nonprofit work to help incarcerated people, you get a lot of fellow public servants telling you that prevention is where it’s at.  Once they’re incarcerated, your hands are tied, you’re terribly limited — why not focus your energy on at-risk children and youth to help them avoid incarceration altogether?  Up to that point, I had mostly dismissed their arguments, not because prevention is not noble and worthwhile, but because I felt a special affinity for people who were already incarcerated and in need of some redemptive assistance (this impulse is the product of many things, not the least of which is multiple readings of one of my favorite books, Crime and Punishment).  But after Oliver, I felt so stung by my own helplessness that I started to think seriously about channeling my energy into something with fewer handcuffs and bars (literally and metaphorically), and more good feelings, more pay-off, more sense that what I was doing was actually making a difference for someone.

I finished my internship in June 2002 and set to work on that new plan.  In between getting just enough temp work to pay for my half of an F Street studio apartment, I volunteered with an organization called Heart of America.  I worked on their Books from the Heart project, which aims to get books into the hands of low-income children, who often have little to no access to books at home.  I helped sort books at their downtown office and then deliver them to a struggling school in Anacostia, an area of Southeast D.C. generally known for poverty, drugs, and crime.  This picture from Heart of America’s website pretty much sums up the joys of giving books to elementary school students who don’t have them:

Other than the disgust I felt at seeing the sort of school facility that these youngsters had to endure (in contrast to wealthier and more predominantly white areas in the district), it was a wonderful, heart-warming experience.  A lot of the incarcerated men I had met through D.C. Prisoners’ were from Anacostia, so I tried to spend my last weeks in D.C. (I was soon moving back to Provo for my last couple semesters of college) trying to understand the situation in Anacostia and the preventative work underway there.

Over the next few years, I tried various prevention-oriented efforts.  Back in Provo, I mentored a middle-school girl who was struggling with academic, behavioral, and family problems.  Later I volunteered at the Center for Women and Children in Crisis, doing some intake with women who were newly leaving abusive relationships but mostly just playing with the kids at the shelter.  When I moved back to D.C. again, I started my year of Americorps service with the Coalition for Residential Education.  I mentioned CORE’s mission last year (in this post), but briefly, it is “to advocate for boarding schools for disadvantaged youth, particularly youth in foster care who are unlikely to find permanent family placements and will eventually ‘age out of the system’ with little to no support. ”  One year with CORE turned into two or three as I moved up in the organization.  Although I threw myself into advancing CORE’s mission (as in, worked at home, on the bus, straight through lunch, and routinely stayed at the office until 7:00 or 8:00), I knew that I did not have quite the same spark for this prevention work as I did for my work with incarcerated individuals.  Because CORE was a coalition of schools nationwide, I was able to travel to boarding schools from Florida to South Dakota.  But I was always most taken with one right across town: the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, which had begun as sort of a last-chance school for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

I eventually quit my job at CORE to try a slower-paced life.  It was meant to be filled with conceptual art and reading, but I spent the first three months just sleeping off the years of pushing my body much harder than I should have.  I knew that I had given my all to prevention, but my heart just wasn’t there.  I even resented at times the implication from some prevention proponents that once individuals got to a certain point — usually jail or prison — they were a lost cause.  I don’t believe that, and I wanted people to look at my life and know that I don’t believe that.  I decided that even if meeting another Oliver would break my heart again, it was worth it to share this little message: I care about you, I respect you, I will give you my time and energy no matter what your background or what you’ve done in your life.

I made that decision in 2006, and six years later I have never doubted that this is an integral part of my true calling, my life’s work.  But recently, my eyes have been opened to another part of my life’s work that I had scarcely considered before.

Stay with me . . . I’m about halfway there.

March 20, 2012

Oliver

I’m not really sure if this is going to be Oliver’s story or mine.

My first job working in D.C. was as an intern at D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, an organization that “advocated for the humane treatment and dignity of all persons convicted or charged with a criminal offense under DC law who are housed in prisons, jails or community corrections programs” (this organization no longer exists in its original form, but the mission is still alive and well).  My daily work consisted of reading letters and requests for assistance from incarcerated men and women, mostly in D.C. but also from around the country.  Most of the time I couldn’t help them at all — we did not deal with parole or criminal issues, the most common requests for assistance, but only civil issues relating to their incarceration.  Even with regard to civil issues, we were seldom able to do much for those seeking help (for example, getting peanut butter into the commissary, a surprisingly common request, was outside of our purview).  I wanted to help but our opportunities for doing so were frustratingly limited.

Looking back, I see that for someone with no previous legal experience I was given a surprising amount of discretion in what cases to pursue.  I was most drawn to assault cases, and Oliver’s most of all.  I can’t remember why I was so set on pursuing Oliver’s complaint, because I received multiple letters per week alleging similar incidents, but I was determined and asked my supervisor within minutes of reading his letter if we could go investigate his assault claim.  The facts, as he presented them, were these: on 17 February 2002 he was arrested and brought to D.C. Jail.  Following processing, he was placed in a cell in Northwest-3 around 3:00 am.  Shortly thereafter, the officers on duty let two other inmates into his cell, claiming that the inmates were going to clean up some vomit, although there was nothing to clean.  The two inmates, who allegedly had a mop and a knife, began threatening Oliver and his cellmate and demanding cigarettes.  The two inmates then proceeded to “violate the civil rights” of Oliver and his celly.

To understand what really happened, you have to know that when a male prisoner talks about having his civil rights violated, he is usually talking about rape.  You never use the term rape.  In fact, I never heard anyone at the jail use that term, even though in fifty other ways I could tell that is what they were trying to communicate to me.  Even though it is very hard to prosecute rape cases on the inside, I still wanted to try.  I was 22 and full of social justice rage, and Oliver said he had some evidence and I just wanted to go meet with him and see if, against all odds, we could hold someone responsible for this terrible thing that had happened to him.

You cannot typically make an appointment to see an inmate.  You usually just show up and hope they are not getting medical treatment or locked down.  The day I went to meet Oliver, sometime in May 2002, turned out to be his 19th birthday.  I had met some incarcerated men before, and many, many since, and he is still among the most gentle, soft-spoken men I have ever met.  He answered all my questions, but he didn’t offer information spontaneously.  Over a one-hour interview, I learned that he had first come to D.C. Jail as a juvenile, a 16-year-old, charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deal.  Before being fully classified, he had been in cell blocks with much older men and had his “civil rights violated.”  It was impossible to determine how many times he had been raped, but my gut was that it was a lot.  He was neither tall nor short, neither big nor small; he was just average and soft-spoken and I couldn’t imagine him being menacing, which isn’t necessarily a good thing when you’re jailed with much older and bigger men.  I can’t remember what specifically was said, but I know there was this moment after he told me it was his birthday where we just looked at each other and thought about why we were so close in age and in such different places.

Of course, I already thought that incarcerated individuals were no less valuable than I was.  Of course, I already thought that I had been blessed with an easier, more privileged life situation than so many of them.  But I don’t think I really knew it until that moment with Oliver.  His half-smile to shake off the pain of being locked up on his 19th birthday.  Both of us ultimately just staring at his handcuffs because there wasn’t anything else to say.  In that moment I felt in such a profound and visceral way how valuable he was, how worth loving, how worth helping, how worth caring for.

And then I had to leave.  I got on the hour-long metro/bus ride home and just cried.  Wept.  Sobbed.  Bitterly.  I knew there was nothing we could do, nothing I could do.  There was not enough evidence to make waves about the February assault.  And it had happened three months before.  And even if I could identify the guards and the inmates that had perpetrated that assault, there was all that past damage.  Fundamentally, the damage of being a 16-year-old child, still trying to stay in high school but dabbling in marijuana use, thrust into a man’s world of rape, assault, murder, hard drugs. I could never undo all that.  It was too much.

I wandered around the D.C. streets for hours that evening (which is saying something if you know my disdain for all forms of exercise), crying and thinking.  Could I really do this type of work?  Or would it always be too much?  More than I realized at the time, I was asking a fundamental question about what I was capable of.  Could I look at people and love them so immediately and so fully, and still accept the ultimate limitation — that I could not really help them?  Or just as bad, that the help I could offer would be so wholly insufficient to alter their lives in any meaningful way.

The question of what I am capable of was not answered that day (and it has been further complicated by changing physical and emotional limitations).  But another more significant question was settled in my mind and heart.  That day ten years ago, in D.C. Jail, I found God once and for all.  I had been raised to believe that there was an all-loving, all-knowing God, but looking at the world around me had continually challenged that belief.  But that day, in a way I can never fully express, I knew there was a God who knew and loved Oliver.  And I knew He taught me to love Oliver in an unforgettable, eternal sort of way even though our paths only crossed for a few short weeks.  Even a decade later, I can’t write about Oliver without seeing him in my mind and feeling the same feelings and crying similar, though less bitter, tears.

I think about Oliver a lot when I contemplate my life’s work.  I would give a lot to know more about his story, but that’s not exactly the way these things work.  Even so, I am grateful that he wrote that letter to me and that we met on his 19th birthday and that, for a few brief moments, our stories came together.

March 19, 2012

Recent and random

I think I’m still in the “just can’t face it” funk.  Still overwhelmingly fatigued, still fighting some sinus issues, still totally unmotivated to do anything.  I managed to prepare and teach my Relief Society lesson for yesterday, but beyond that, I have done nothing productive since I returned from my trip.  And by nothing, I mean, I have not even unpacked my bags in the past eight days.  Oy, it’s a mess around here!

It’s really disappointing to me — I stayed so healthy on my trip, despite interacting with mildly-sick people right and left, that I was feeling really optimistic about just-me-and-Addison travel.  But if I lose a couple of weeks on the end of every trip, is it really worth it?  Not that I’m giving up altogether, but it’s been a little disheartening.

***

Despite that, I’ve read and watched some interesting things lately.  Here are a few in no particular order:

This TED talk by Jonathan Haidt was quite interesting (though a bit repetitive), going in some entirely different directions than I was expecting.  But for some strange reason, I was particularly captivated by the way he used his hands and how elegant his wedding ring looked.  It made me think I should get Neal a wedding ring, you think?

***

A couple of my friends linked to this lovely letter John Steinbeck sent to his son.  I thought about excerpting part, but there were just so many little gems that I couldn’t choose.  Just go read it!  It reminded me of the first time I fell in love with Steinbeck’s writing, reading the truly stunning East of Eden.

***

Speaking of fiction, this article on the neuroscience of reading fiction really caught my attention.  Even though I am mostly a nonfiction reader and have been since childhood, I really believe in the power of novels and the like.  Sometimes I’ve felt that a fictional account captures a truth about humanity in a more perfect way than any nonfiction version could.  So I was not surprised to read that some studies find that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

***

This Salon article from an ex-con/college professor was obviously right up my alley.  In the opening paragraphs, she references people who were locked up for minor offenses (like possession of marijuana) and had their lives forever altered by incarceration.  This is all too familiar because it is the tragic story of one of the first men I met in D.C. Jail.  I’m going to tell you Oliver’s story some day soon (I’ve started writing it many times) but it’s taking me time since he is still the person I have cried for most in my life.

***

It turns out if I do only have one biological child (which is looking likely), I had her at exactly the right age!  Apparently, 30 is the statistically ideal age for having a child that is “less frail, less obese, taller, and [has] better self-reported health later on in life.”  (I’m not sure what happened with the height, but the healthy-as-a-horse part definitely bears out so far.)

Thanks to Rachel and her getting-a-PhD-in-demography husband Stephen for the info!

February 6, 2012

Sacrament Meeting Talk: 1 January 2012

As I’ve been trying to streamline my life over the past several weeks, I have realized that I need to reduce the number of places I collect and save things, especially in the digital realm.  It has sort of expanded my vision of what I want to use my blog for: everything, basically.  I’m writing more about my past, jotting down quick entries rather than just my usually lengthy musings, and other things yet to be determined (and posted, since at this point I’m up to 140 post drafts).  I have another friend who posts the talks she gives in church (Sacrament meeting is one of three meetings we have each week for the purpose of taking the sacrament and instructing each other [since there’s no paid clergy]), and that seemed like a good idea too.

As many people seem to say when they speak here, I grew up in this ward, but I have been away for more than a decade.  In that decade, I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector, mostly with incarcerated individuals.  In August I finished a Master’s degree studying the family and financial backgrounds of incarcerated men.

Now it may be that I have a one-track mind, but when I read the assigned talk by Elder Ballard called “The Importance of a Name,” I immediately thought of a particular criminological theory (I do have a one-track mind actually, I relate everything back to incarceration).  The theory, which has been around for decades, is called labeling theory.  The gist of it is that the labels or names we assign to people influence their behaviors, their perceptions of themselves, and the perceptions others have of them.  That’s a simple enough concept — even my two-year-old can perfectly demonstrate it for you.  She’ll unabashedly tell you that she is cute; she barely knows what cute means, but she knows that people have been telling her she’s cute from day one.  (She is cute, by the way, in like a totally objective, non-parentally-biased sort of way.)  So back to labeling theory, it is closely associated with a more common phrase: self-fulfilling prophecy.  The idea is that we actually become both what we are told we are and what we tell ourselves we are.

What we call ourselves

I don’t know if anyone else has ever had this thought, but Neal and I both agree that we’ve often felt strange calling ourselves Latter-day Saints.  I often think about the Catholic conception of a saint as someone who is above-average in holiness, in goodness, benevolence, etc. and that’s not me.  But as Elder Ballard explains, “Saint simply refers to those who seek to make their lives holy by covenanting to follow Christ.”  So by identifying ourselves as saints, and taking even a moment to reflect on what that means, we are subtly strengthening our identity and commitment to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps an even more significant name that we are invited to take upon ourselves is the specific name of Christ.  King Benjamin discusses it this way in Mosiah 5:

I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ….And I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name that I said I should give unto you that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression; therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts (Mosiah 5: 8, 11).

Often when I hear the term “blotted out” I picture this big book, the book of life mentioned in the Bible, in which God and His angels are adding names and crossing some out.  But this scripture adds significant nuance to that when King Benjamin warns that we should make sure “the name be not blotted out of our hearts.”  What he’s saying is that rather than a book in which our name is written, our life is far more about our own book — the one that we’re writing in our own hearts and in our own lives — in which we choose whether to record Christ’s name or to let it go.  By constantly reaffirming to ourselves and others that we are Christians and Saints, we can keep his name more fully in our hearts.

In a related conference talk by Elder Dallin H. Oaks back in 1985, he discusses the significance of partaking of the sacrament and witnessing our willingness to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ.  Elder Oaks says that when we do this, “we are signifying our commitment to do all that we can to achieve eternal life in the kingdom of our Father. We are expressing our candidacy—our determination to strive for—exaltation in the celestial kingdom.”  It’s kind of a bold statement to say that I am a candidate for the celestial kingdom — I remember when I was living back east I met a couple of recent converts to the LDS Church who both agreed that they could not possibly aim for that.  But that is exactly what God invites us to do, wants us to do, to firmly declare ourselves as candidates for exaltation and to then do everything we can to act in accordance with that label.

Although this is not always the case, sometimes calling ourselves by these names — Christians and Saints — also invites others to help us in our efforts.  One of my best friends since childhood, Anne, who is not very religious herself, spent years of our adolescence telling people — “Lindsay doesn’t do that.”  “Don’t talk like that around her.”  And she would question  me if I did or said something she thought I shouldn’t based on my values and beliefs.  Anne helped me live the way I labelled myself even though she didn’t necessarily share all my beliefs.  In this way, being vocal about being Christians and Saints can give others the opportunity to support, protect, and even remind us at times who we say we are.

What we call others

Just as Anne helped me to be the person I intended to be, what we call others can either help bring out the best in them or hinder that process.  In a 1999 conference talk, Elder Cree-L Kofford spoke of a man who made this his personal motto: “Your name is safe in our home.”  Elder Kofford goes on to say,

What a blessing it would be if all of us could follow that counsel, if each of our names truly could be safe in the home of others. Have you noticed how easy it is to cross over the line and find fault with other people? When we deal with the name and reputation of another, we deal with something sacred in the sight of the Lord.

I have to admit that I have been guilty of doing just what Elder Kofford describes — damaging people’s names and labeling them in ways that belie who they really are: God’s own children.  A turning point for me (though it’s always a work in progress) has been understanding more about the Atonement.  In General Conference a few years ago, Elder Merrill J. Bateman said this:

For many years I thought of the Savior’s experience in the garden and on the cross as places where a large mass of sin was heaped upon Him. . . . however, my view has changed. Instead of an impersonal mass of sin, there was a long line of people, as Jesus felt “our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15), “[bore] our griefs, … carried our sorrows … [and] was bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:4–5). The Atonement was an intimate, personal experience in which Jesus came to know how to help each of us.

I love to picture that now — a long line of people, myself included, having our personal moments with Jesus Christ during his great Atonement.  Him calling us by name, seeing our future lives, our strengths and weaknesses, getting to know us as well as anyone ever has.  I try to consider what He sees in the people I come in contact with, the names He would call them if He were here.  And I try to remember that He has invited me to call them the same names and see them in the same way.

One of my early experiences working with incarcerated men was another turning point.  When I first embarked on that type of work, I got a lot of negative push-back.  People questioned why I was doing what I was, that “those” people needed to be punished for what they had done and why was I trying to make life easier on them.  But on one of my first visits to the Washington D.C. jail to investigate an assault claim, I was caught off-guard by the person I was meeting with rushing into the room and saying, “I knew someone was coming.  I was praying to God to send someone to give me hope so that I could go on.  And you came and I know that God remembers me.”  Even though, in the end, I could really do very little for him in a practical sense, it was enough for him to be reminded that God was listening to him and cared for him.  Time and time again, meeting with people that some would describe as “scary” in dark, undesirable places, I have been blessed to see both their humanity and their divinity.

Who we really are transcends the earthly names we call ourselves and others

I don’t know who originally said this, but I heard it in a movie once: “Some things are true whether you believe them or not.”  So today I want to bear testimony that one of those true things is that we are, each and every one of us, beloved children of God, whether we feel that now or not.  That is an identity that transcends any earthly names or labels that we assign to ourselves or others assign for us.  The Spirit has born this witness to me over and over again in some dark, difficult places, that I was sitting with an individual of infinite worth.  That nothing they had ever done or could ever do would change God’s love for them, and that it was my opportunity to see them and love them the way God does, if I would take it.  And I believe that God continually invites all of us to do the same thing: to love ourselves and every single person around us; to call ourselves and others positive, affirming names so that someday we will live up to those names more fully; and to see the divinity in ourselves and all those around us.

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