Monday, July 31, 2006


In terms of the law, truth is the ultimate object. Establishing the truth is necessary before any other measures can be taken to mete out justice. Truth is the standard by which circumstances and human beings are judged. The dictionary definitions include "conformity to knowledge, fact, actuality or logic" and "fidelity to an original or standard". In order for the truth itself to be established, actions and/or cirumstances must be compared against something unchanging. Is there absolute truth? In a healthy and functioning society, the acceptance of a standard of behavior is necessary. Deviation from the standard requires consequences. This presumes that human beings do not automatically do what is healthy and right for themselves or the rest of society.

In fact, human beings are the only creatures on the earth that can deny, twist, fabricate, scorn and disregard the truth. In terms of circumstances proveable by outside means beyond human observation (video cameras, physical evidence, undeniable results of an action) the truth is still reached by human reasoning and deduction. What makes this so utterly complicated is that humans themselves are not truthful beings. After my son's case was presented and sentence was declared, I still found myself questioning so many things about the whole situation I felt the judge was given an absolutely impossible task. Yet it was necessary for him to make a judgement based on testimony he had heard and read. In life we must make the same judgements continually about ourselves and other human beings or we are foolish.

The standard for human behavior was set up by God, and our example is the God-Man who declared Himself to be the living truth. His life is observable to us today through the scriptures. Absolute truth lives in those words and in that example. Those of us who choose to be His followers have large sandals to fill and it is not always easy to do. We also have the obligation and responsibility to keep ourselves and others accountable and be constant seekers of the truth to live rightly. It takes reading, listening, observing and comparing actions, words and thoughts to our standard. The scriptures say doing this yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness in our lives. The scriptures also say that against such there is no law.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

the wise and the foolish

There's a saying that I think most folks take in a romantic vein, as though it were a good thing and that is, "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread". This saying rather gives the impression that to be righteous and pure is to be a spineless weakling and to be an ignorant, self-willed idiot is brave (and gets the girl or the guy).

I would point out two other sayings, from the wisest man who ever lived that was not Diety. The first is, "A wise person sees evil and hides himself, but the foolish go on and are punished for it". The other is, "Teach a wise person, and he will be wiser still". Both of these proverbs seem too self-evident and obvious to even be considered wisdom, yet how much pain in the world is caused by people who are fools. In other words, those that take absolutely no responsibility for what they do, who do not reason out consequences or even think about them, who are so oblivious to danger and evil they simple keep going thinking they will be ok. Never mind what may happen to anyone else in their path while they insist on continuing in their foolishness. The second proverb implies by deduction that the fool cannot be taught.

The nut of this all is that the fool finds himself a law to himself and righteous within himself (or herself). Their pride causes the oblivion that keeps them going when humility and self-awareness would stop them. The same wise man also said "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". This fear is outside of oneself, an understanding of, and respect for Something greater in the universe than the individual. I suppose then, the wise fear for good reason and the fool rushes due to their unawareness and therefore lack of respect of that Something greater than themselves. I don't think I'd want to be in the path of such a person.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

bread and balm

I'm sure those of us who name ourselves as Christians and even those who have some knowledge of the faith could rattle off the "Our Father" without even thinking about it. What I was thinking about, and read a column about yesterday, was the phrase "give us this day our daily bread". The person writing the article (a priest) pointed out that our daily bread is more than food. If we believe ourselves to be people created in the image of God, we know that we have more than a body to nourish. We have a soul and a spirit. Friendships with people and with God feed them, a clear purpose in life, a grateful heart stemming from these seems lately that my bread basket has been brimming with these things in the face of a great hunger to have them. And the days that find me in the greatest need bring some of the greatest reminders that I do.

Another item probably less familiar to us believers, probably more so to the silver generation, is a hymn and phrase, "There is a balm in Gilead". When I first heard/sang that, I thought I needed cheat notes to explain what the heck a balm in Gilead is-some sort of weird Arabian weather pattern? A balm, I learned, was a plant grown in ancient Israel for it's aromatic and healing properties. Gilead was a very fertile valley. So a "balm in Gilead" refers to something healing to the body and mind. In the hymn it refers to Jesus Christ. But I was thinking that even people can be our "balm in Gilead" when our souls are lonely and tried, and no one seems to really understand what we're going through. Yesterday I was also struggling with my emotions, feeling so tired and spent, unable to feed myself with good thoughts and memories. Nothing seemed to work. So my bread and balm came in the form of a letter I received from a prisoner I've been writing to. His words were so healing to my soul, saying the very things I needed to hear and most likely would not have heard from anyone else except another person in the prison system.

Even from the most unlikely corners of society come the blessings of balm and bread if we are hungry enough.

Friday, July 28, 2006

lost days, nights and weekends

I ask myself how I could give birth to a person, live with that person for 19 years, work with him, talk to him and watch him grow up, and not know he was an alcoholic. In the whole mix of events and the things leading up to my son's arrest, I ask myself how I could be so blind, so unobservant and foolish. I lived with an alcoholic parent, and had one with both a drink and chemical addiction added on during my teen years. I witnessed first-hand the ravages of addiction to a human being and a family, the lies, the trips from the county lock-up, unexplained injuries, late nights and days missing from the family calendar, the fear that a DUI would end in someone's death, the fear of being in the car with someone DUI-the constant emotional upheaval and uncertainty of living a life with someone under the influence of liquor or pills. The one-word question was always "Why?" Don't you love us enough, don't you care enough, don't you understand what your addiction does to you and everyone you love....and now, a child trapped, and I did not see it. After the inevitable consequences came the stories and some truth-and finally hearing that it was simply unbearable to wake up in the morning.

I just finished reading Augusten Burroughs memoir, "Dry". It was an account of his journey to come out of first severe alcoholism and a cocaine problem added on top. I thought the book would help me to understand my father, stepmother and son, and I was afraid of a slow, torturous read that would leave me just as bereft of answers and in more pain that when I started reading it. I could not put the book down. This man's honesty and writing style served as mirror, if not to my family members, to me. I saw myself reacting in ways that alcoholics do. I saw the deception that I've practiced in my life, the denial. I realized how very true it is that alcoholics have a different physiology than the average person. It doesn't matter why they drink in terms of making it any easier to bear knowing-they simply CANNOT drink. They can't. Ever. And when they do, being drunk or high is their only reality. I began to find a way to put my arms around the inexplicable and see that there truly is an answer. But it begins with person themselves, and I cannot continue to be a party to the deception, once being aware.

At the conclusion of the book tears were slipping out faster than I could reason why or stop them. It was the reflection of a wasted life and a loss of time and things that could never be brought back. I saw my son's suffering through the eyes of someone who had lost the one person in life he realized, too late, that he loved. But there was redemption, in that, in the memoir, the person Burroughs lost through AIDS and death left a reminder of himself beyond the grave, a reminder of the love they had shared, which brought him to life again. Miracles do happen, but it has to begin with a desire to live life in all of it's pain and glory. Thankfully the author chose life, and I'm believing my son has, too.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

what's in a name

It's been just over a year now that my son was jailed for killing his best friend in a haze of drunken stupidity. I believe my most potent fear was having my son go from "a person of interest" in the paper to seeing his name (and ours) in print. He made the front page of two papers and the tv news. I remember taking my morning walk the day the story broke and reading our family name in blaring black and white for the whole world to see, encased in newpaper dispensers, sitting in grocery stores and lying on front porches all over town. I couldn't buy all the papers in the county, so our name was suddenly something that, to be honest, I was embarrassed and afraid to speak or write for a time. I went to the beauty parlor that day and had to sign my name to be called. I purposely wrote only my first name and not the last, thinking the entire world must know who we are by now, a family that produced a murderer. Every article seemed like a machine gun volley into our world, making us want to put up our hands and hide from public view. The bullet spray of words soon silenced except for the occasional cannon shot, but because of computers archives and television, were not forgotten.

Just how important a good name can be came back to me in the form of an invitation to participate an art show, and not just any show. This show singled the fortunate participants out as students of a teacher whose name is, by now, known world-wide. This man, still in his thirties, has a name so coveted that patrons wait to own his work. He cannot fulfill the demand for paintings with his signature on them. The value of that signature is now in the tens of thousands and shows no sign of losing value. It was this man who sent me an invitation to be attached to his famous name, as I was one of his first atelier students. I went to visit my teacher to be sure he was serious, wanting me to take part. At first it did not occur to me that my name even really meant anything at all by now. But as I walked into his beautiful studio area, I noticed large framed newclippings and postcard of old shows on the walls. And there I was, and my work, staring back at me from inside one of those frames. It was like being knighted or confirmed to see myself so honored by this exceptionally talented man. Part of me wished he would take the clippings off the wall. I had forgotten how much, at one time, I wanted a name like he had. And now, in a gesture that meant even more to me, I was being included as an equal with this man, gladly remembered and embraced as one of his own.

There is an even greater honor open to the children of men on this earth. Things may happen to sully or even destroy our earthly names, even things not our fault. Some children are born without one. Some people shamed by previous generations simply through association with a family name. But we when we bear the name of God, nothing can soil that bloodline, because the One who bestows a name on us cannot ever lose His greatness. It is said in the scriptures that in heaven we will receive a new name written on a white stone that only we know. I think of that when I remember the sting of verbal stones, and the sweetness of loving recognition carved in one. (Thanks, Tony)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

prison faces

It seems that unless we are thrust into actual situations and circumstances, we really can't imagine or see the truth about them. The one thing that truly and completely shocked me into realizing prison life touches every strata of class, people group and income level was the faces of the actual families of prisoners. You could still harbor illusions watching these burly guys in jumpsuit and canvas sneakers coming through the metal doors into the visitation area, but that would all end seeing who was on the other side of the glass.

One such family, or individual, that made me see how deeply the prison experience intersects with real life, was a beautiful Indian teenager. She was beyond pretty. When this girl walked by you with her shining jet black hair, flawless skin and huge brown eyes, it was not a stretch to imagine that Cleopatra or Neferitti had just passed by. She had a grace and ease in her manner that so belied her surroundings it was like seeing a lion walking through rush hour traffic. The county visitation area was grimy, cold, ugly and so cruelly public it seemed an insult to someone completely undeserving of it's harshness and horror. It was not difficult to find out that this girl's father was a doctor who prescribed drugs illegally. He was in the prime of his life with a wife and daughters and apparently felt the need to have more material possessions than could be gained by legal means. What a price he forced this child to pay. His life destroyed, his wife robbed of her life's partner and unable to start again at this time in life, and his lovely daughter bereft of a father...even if he did return quickly life would never be the same again.

It is easy to imagine that prisoners and their families are freaks of nature, trailer trash, unworthy of living in polite society, not worth knowing, ignorant and poor, people unlike ourselves. Until it happens to your family. Then you see the truth reflected in the eyes of wives, children, friends and sweethearts who probably live and work right alongside of you. Our family does.

Monday, July 24, 2006

of pollyannas and pirates

It was a virtual requirement of my weekend that I take my 15 year old daughter to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, starring a very tanned and striking Johnny Depp in the traditional pirate garb. From Sinbad to Errol Flynn, the sailor/ pirate is the archetype of the anti-hero bad boy that women simply cannot get enough of. What female can resist tall boots, long hair, beards, eye patches, earrings, lots of belts and that devil may care attitude in a man? (Shoot, if I can't have the man at least I want his clothes-Keira Knightley never looked better as a stowaway!). In the movie the moral center appeared to revolve around the lovers Elizabeth and William, and the wild card character who could not be trusted but had to be, Capt. Jack Sparrow, played with absolute comic relish by Depp. It would have been very straightforward fun if not for an unexpected element in the mix-a growing regard and respect between Elizabeth and the Captain. And because Johnny Depp is a consummate actor, suddenly this ridiculous piece of fluff that had me roaring with laughter became a life lesson that had me thinking all afternoon. Add one broken compass to set up the lesson.

Our Captain had in his possession a compass that did not point true North, but to the greatest heart's desire of the person holding it. Jack needed a heading to find William and what he wanted, but in order to do that only Elizabeth could enable the compass to point in the right direction. So he tricks Elizabeth into doing just that. She accompanies him on the voyage, and in the course of it is determined to convince Jack that he truly, under all those dreadlocks, is a good man, and he, in turn, is determined to convince Elizabeth that she has the heart of a pirate. They go back and forth-he apparently disappoints her, and she uses cunning to draw out his true intent, until finally the climatic scene comes when, in order to save her life, William's life and the life of the crew, Captain Jack has to sacrifice himself and go down with his ship. Elizabeth alone seems to know that the danger they are in is due to Jack himself. So, while everyone is bailing out, she pins him to the mast with a kiss and shackles him to the doomed ship. He whispers to her, "You're a pirate", and does not resist being chained.

What crossed my mind and heart in all of this is that the relationship between Jack and Elizabeth is what happens to two people when they stop wearing masks and begin to be honest with each other. Why do we insist on believing in titles, first glances or hearsay and cling to false expectation about people we don't even really know? As though our expectations make another person what they are. I believe this to be the basis for prejudice. And what happens when our costumes are replaced with regard, compassion, and finally a love for the true person, it is really hard to tell who are pirates and pollyannas-love itself transforms the wayward into the true, and kills self-righteous judgement. We're just people in this boat of life needing other people to believe in us and love us.

Also, if Jack had been a total bum, there would not be a third movie coming! I can't wait.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What do you say?

I think the hardest thing for people to do in the face of a tragedy in someone else's life is to know what to say. It keeps friends from comforting each other, hurting people in isolation and unwilling to mention their situation, it makes the burden more painful instead of less and keeps people stuck. I suppose most people are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making it worse, but sometimes it seems it relieves them of the responsibility to comfort and be involved in another person's life. It takes some courage to face a situation that potentially reminds all of us we could be in the same boat so easily.

I'm extremely grateful for the friends, and even caring strangers, who take the time in my life to talk to me, and let me talk, even if it is uncomfortable, sad or just angry at everything. In doing so they fulfill the scriptural edict to bear each other's burdens. For those of us who follow after Christ this is not an option. Recently I joined a ladies prayer and share Bible study, and I seem to always come into such gatherings with the preconceived notion that I'm the only one with a serious problem. As soon as prayer requests were shared I realized half the table represented were divorced or single women with struggles I know I'll never have to face having a caring and faithful husband. All have family issues of every stripe and variety-things that even ten years ago would be unusual but are not now.

The fact is, sooner or later you'll need me, or I'll need you. It's grab a paddle and row or die.

Friday, July 21, 2006

yellow letter day

Our son writes his letters on legal paper in black pen, printing very small in all capital letters. I've grown accustomed to looking at the way he writes as though looking at his face. And through the writing and what concerns him, getting to know a person I thought I did, but the letters tell the story.

This week he was moved to a new cell, and therefore got a new cellmate. He was not happy about this. I suppose I try to imagine what it would be like to be locked into a bathroom with a total stranger and somehow find a rhythm and means of at least being civil with no privacy. He does not like this man's choice of music, and the radio is on all day. It would be a small thing if a body could simply walk away, but he can't. The boredom of a daily routine without meaningful activity compounds the difficulty. Yet he jokes and comments about tidbits of information he hears on his radio. For instance he told the the origin of the expression "pulling out all the stops" refers to the composer Mendlessohn, who used to play the organ with the literal stops out to create the most exciting and loud sound. There is some culture and civility even in such a place as that. And he mentions an add for a music program called music from the "hearts of space". He imagines lots of keyboards and Yanni playing somewhere! He has not lost his sense of humor.

Well, the letter ends for him either hours or days later. It depends on his mood as to how long a letter will take to draft. Time doesn't have a whole lot of meaning when there is little else to do. Still, he takes the time and it is a comfort to share a few sheets of paper with him if nothing else.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


I struggle with claustrophobia. The thought of being in a small space or being restrained in any way from doing what I want to do makes me ill. I remember the days before my son was sentenced and still in the hospital. The thought of him losing all freedom and being confined in a space the size of a convenience store bathroom gave me nightmares. I imagined how I would feel. The dreams took on all sorts of Kafka-esque horrors, cold images of metal walls, endless staircases, no windows, clinical hallways and rooms, no sunlight. I worried that he truly would not survive with his sanity. He could never sit still. And at first, my fears seemed all too real.

But it's a strange thing about walls and restraint... surviving the loss of freedom may bring a greater freedom. The person who went into prison a year ago is not the person who walked into the visitation dayroom a month ago to visit with us. This person is calm, is not on any medication, thinks logically, doesn't rant and rave about his fate and accepts what he has done, but still has hope. If the physical bars are all too real, the mental ones seem to have melted away. In looking at and talking with our son, whom at first I did not recognize, I see that the true prison for him was unrestrained freedom. That kind of freedom can be merciless, leaving a soul to it's own devices without help.

I came away from our visit understanding that my son needed to have his "freedom" taken away. It helped me to understand what the scriptures say about gaining the whole world and losing one's soul. If our freedom is not under the control of something greater than ourselves, it is vanity and not freedom at all.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

choosing sides

Today is incredibly gorgeous outside. The sun is clearing away the mist and causing dew drops to sparkle on our flowers. We're having a baptism in our backyard, in our little pool. Neat rows of chairs are set up outside, and a table of food is set up inside. Birds are chirping away, the sky is so blue and clean it looks like the ocean surrounding an island. The house is tidy and neat as a pin. There is nothing left to do but look forward to a special, beautiful day. Yet I find myself fighting a headache, fear and clouds on my own horizon.

So much of life is how we choose to accept it. Some version of an old saying goes that we don't have to be behind metal bars to be imprisoned. Attitude plays a huge role in how we handle what a day brings. Circumstances, the weather, people, just everything can be picture perfect and still we can be distracted and dissatisfied with everything. Conversely, rain, difficult issues and people, whatever life may throw at us could threaten to ruin every moment, and a peaceful heart can fly above all of it.

I think first of all, I have to reset my attitude dial to thankfulness. I am grateful this day includes our house, friends and all the beauty and bounty we've been given to share. It is a joy to share it. Also, the things that may cause my mind to struggle, while they are real, need to be given the proper place. I don't ignore them, neither do I focus solely on them and have the day spoilt by their insistence. I prayed, I've understood what I can and cannot do, I've taken tylenol and decided to live outside the bars today.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Living with ourselves

Sometimes the hardest person in the world to live with is not a spouse, children or neighbor, but ourselves. Oddly enough, if there is an explanation for the crime my son did commit, it is probably that he could not abide himself. This seems to be a particularly insidious force in the world today, a reverse form of pride, that somehow the human condition is not fit for the world in which it was given to exist. Extreme negativity and cynicism are so pervasive we hardly think about how much it permeates society. It seems to me that this is the dark side of supposedly being a prosperous society and "having it all". When there is nothing left to do but exist-when the reasons to strive and struggle for mere survival are conquered, we also are left with the luxury of being alone with our own minds. And the human mind left to itself is a dangerous thing.

What leads to reckless living, hating our own existence enough to think suicide is the only way out, or very destructive behaviors? What is it inside ourselves that can so devalue life, even our own life enough to follow a path leading to death? Subcultures of anti-everything spring up particularly among young people who find no meaning in the adult world they see, especially concerning the materialistic society in which we live. Sometimes it seems there is so much in terms of stuff, choices, things to do and be, relativity in all ways that it is easier not to choose, not to try, not to fight. Or to be against it all. I have an extremely hard time relating to this train of thought, but in certain ways it is valid, and behavioral acting out the only way to have a voice in the face of way too much of everything. It is as though there is a conscious "blotting out" of all that the next generation knows, or segments of them. They embrace chaos and nothingness.

The problem with all of this is that the mind left to itself is not pure. It needs to feed on what nourishes and promotes life, or it's processes tend to be self-destructive. We were not made to live our lives alone. The human condition is not strictly a mental exercise, or a physical state. We were made to be triune creatures, consisting of body, soul and spirit. All need to be cared for and nourished. If this does not happen, gross deviations in behavior can be justified. The hardest thing for our son to do was decide his life was worth living, and every human being must make that choice. Life itself is a gift that is too often taken for granted or wasted. Once again, I have a very hard time relating to the opposite train of thought. My husband and I had the task of trying to convince our son not to pull the trigger of a handgun pointed at his temple, and we failed. I believe God intervened, because the firing pin of the gun hit the metal casing of the bullet, not the center. Our life is a gift from Him, and He does not take the distain of it lightly.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

just one of those...

It's one of those days-rain is pouring down and the sky is the color of a grey scale. Any clear, rainbow happpy thoughts seem to be melting into a puddle of brown with the rain. I can't seem to read the things I need to, think the things I need to or do the things I need to. Hope is out of reach today and the energy to pull it down to me is lacking. Relationships seem vaguely out of sinc, and the hole in the family is noticeable. I hate days like today.

I know the routine. Blue skies are behind the clouds and if I just wait a little while, things will change. "The sun'll come out...tomorrow..." Sometimes I really don't want it to. I need the rain-it hides tears, washes away the muck in my heart and brings growth-but not too fast. And I don't want to think about the consequences of it now. I just want to stand in it without an umbrella and feel.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

a big, big yard

The world is a funny place. There are skunks and butterflies, urban decay and endless twilight oceans, laughter and tears, wonder and horror, all swirling around us every day. It is a place where we find our greatest joys, and realize our worse defeats. Surprises, yesssss!!! moments and dull, endless daytimes intermix freely. Some days we're so sure of everything, and other days we're only sure that we're not sure of anything. And sometimes the sadness and harsh things of life can blot out the memory of all beauty like an eclipse of the sun.

Today I was dropping my oldest daughter off at the Martz bus station and back to college, chatting away with this confident young woman who burst into our family as our first joy and has tramped around this crazy world for 23 years now. She's beginning to find her way in life, experiencing all that it has to offer, making choices and making a mark that will change lives around her forever. Looking at her I begin to feel a settleness in the craziness, a deep sense that everything has been worthwhile.

When the kids were younger, there was a song they all loved off a pop Christian compilation cd that was catchy and fun, and they'd join singing as soon as it came on. The chorus went something like this, "Come and go with me, to my Father's's a big, big house, with lots and lots of room, a big, big table, with lots and lots of food, a big, big yard, where we can play football, a big, big house, it's my Father's house." I want my space in life to be like that song, a place where people can come and be a part of a big family. In the midst of the happy and sad, I want my world to be big enough to contain everything that life dishes out and continue to be a big, big house with lots and lots of room...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

justic and mercy

I think after all that has happened I have come to understand the connection of justice and mercy a little more clearly. It's easy to see only the bad consequences of a wrong action because they are so obviously played out if a prison sentence is one of them. It is said in the scriptures that mercy triumphs over justice. I wondered to myself how anything could triumph over something so apparently punitive and final. The scriptures also say that God visits the sins of the father down to the 3rd and 4th generation, but pours out His lovingkindness on a thousand generations to those who fear Him. The Apostle Paul argued against doing wrong simply to be shown mercy, yet it seems to me the possibility of mercy exists a hundred fold over the law when a wrong choice is made. Famous literature is replete with examples of the generosity of mercy and its rich harvest in the face of retribution, yet it cannot exist without the law. I think the power of choice is intrinsically linked to justice and mercy, but mercy abounds when both a good choice and a bad one is made. Revenge is warned against, forgiveness commanded.

Still, it is often hard to show mercy without being aware of the shortcomings within ourselves. I think that is why it is hard to be merciful. Our pride craves justification. The motivation to exercise justice should be to show mercy. Self-righteousness has no place in the exercise of either, yet without both there is no restoration. Wrong-doing is only known by the law and demands repentence because of it. In the Beatitudes it is said that the merciful shall obtain mercy. Mercy multiplies mercy it its wake, and justice births its end. I think of the adultress who was to face her end with unyeilding stones. Jesus reminds her accusers that they live in glass houses. He set her free, and all those around him, with the truth, but that truth included the admonition to "sin no more".

To bring this into a practical light, I have seen the kindness of friends and strangers alike given in a situation that really deserves none. In the wake of this kindness and forgiveness poured out toward our family, restoration is happening in my son's life. He is where he needs to be, causing every act of mercy to contrast so starkly against the irreversible justice that holds him, like the grass that grows around the razor wire fence. It is a miracle every time I see it, and reminds me that God's Spirit is present wherever the law's demands bring about the death of certain things, His life abounds all the more. I know in spite of my son's sentence and because of it, mercy is triumphing over the justice in his life.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

an ordinary day

My husband and I went to visit our son in his new "home", the state correctional institution where he will serve out his sentence. We began by travelling 237 miles west (4 hours more or less), arriving at the prison where we leave all of our valuables in the car except for driver's licenses and change ($1's and $5's) only. We are careful not to wear too much metal, and car keys are placed in a locker. We sign in, pass through a metal detector, have our left hand marked with invisible marker and then go into a waiting room to receive our drug testing. A sort of circular wand is passed over our palms and the tops of our hands, and over our pants pockets. Then we wait to be called for our visit. This takes around 15 minutes or less if things aren't too busy. We pass through an automated door, walk down a long hallway out of which you can see the fencing and razor wire of the prison perimeter, like a large glass tunnel. We pass through another automated door, present a guard with our paperwork, have our left hands checked for the marker, and pass through yet another automated door into a large day room.

Once inside the dayroom, we again present our paperwork to the guard on duty and await our son's arrival in the room. Depending on the time of day, the room is quiet, and quickly becomes so loud you can't hear normal conversation with the steady stream of visitors. There are padded seats like a waiting room and round tables to sit at, eat at or play cards and board games. It is hard to not look around the room at the different types of people there, wondering why they are there and how they are related to the prisoners. Some are obviously girlfriends, mothers and children. Then there are others who don't seem to be related-especially white people visiting black prisoners. Some you might identify as pastors or religious people with Bibles or papers. Ordinary folks can't bring anything in with them except paperwork and money for vending machines. The long-time visitors seem to have a routine of eating and playing cards. Newbies seem to talk alot, or kiss alot!

Being that this was our first visit face to face in a year, we talked alot. Somehow the strangeness of the whole situation wore off very quickly and we fell into easy conversation about what's going on "back home" and in the new place. I came to understand this is a passage in my son's life, which would have had other rites of passage anyway. It isn't what I would have chosen for him, but he is becoming a man because of it, as he would have being separated from his home and on his own any other way. It seemed in that dayroom the whys didn't matter as much as just being in the moment, loving him, talking to him, enjoying him and reminding him we are there for him. Maybe some day those questions will be answered, but for now this is an ordinary day in our life.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

mistaken identity II

Worthless, hopeless, this the normal state of things? We tend to look at people who break the law as abnormal. Are human beings naturally law-abiding creatures, having no trouble living life unselfishly and purposefully? Suddenly this becomes a very relevant question. What separates the law-abiding from those who seem to never really make peace with society and it's expectations. Why do we have certain expectations of our fellow men and women? There is a longing on my part to return to this state of "normalcy", but when it is breached, it seems a chasm is formed that cannot easily be crossed. What is the true identity of humans?

We don't need to look farther than the morning newspaper to understand the reality of evil in the world, the force that exposes humans to harm. And that humans themselves are the only creatures on the planet capable of evil. The existence of evil proves that some type of "good" is the norm. Once again human beings alone are capable of reason and making choices to do good, or to do evil. What is the nature of good and evil? I could write endlessly and never find satisfying answers using human wisdom and intellect alone.

My offering on this dilemma is that our original identity was as children of a God whom the scriptures say alone is good. Nothing we do, good or evil, gives us identity. Our identity comes in accepting that it was established long, long ago, and humankind rebelled against their intended purpose. The question is resolved in receiving the kindness of a loving Heavenly Father through His means of final justice in the world-sending His Son to die once and for all for all evil. Humans will always be creatures of choice capable of evil...and long as they draw breath on this earth, but our worth and our hope come from the only Being capable of softening hearts and giving them true identity that is eternal.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

mistaken identity

I think one of the hardest things for me to face in everything that happened with my son is that we are now identified with a group of people that is marginal and unacceptable in normal society. We became subject to the authorities and our lives open to the most severe files, personal belongings, our home, all laid out for an army of police, detectives and experts to scrutinize like being made to lay naked on an examination table without question or redress. And then the public itself invited in through the eyes of the press, to judge, gawk and think the worst of whatever words on paper a stranger deemed worthy of print to describe my son, his situation and our family. The outside world imprinted a new identity onto us-the unworthy.

Then the institutions made to deal with those who cannot seem to live properly in society further attached a new dimension to our lives, as we tried to walk the halls of a hospital and then a prison, like this was completely normal. My brain would scream out as we walked past the failed suicide attempts, the children who cut themselves, the ones who couldn't make it through even a day without being watched 24/7, "We do not belong here. Our son is fine. This is a mistake..." when he was the one being watched most closely and everyone knew it. And to be treated as though this were all normal, all ok, everything will be ok, prison will be a place he'll be medicated properly, he'll learn things and be churned right back out into society like nothing happened. Once again, a new identity was pasted on as we hoped this was true and continually realized it is not from the professionals who really can't change anything-the hopeless.

And in prison, understanding that our son is now the property of an institution and a number, subject to any treatment the guards think appropriate for human refuse, yet more change happened. I realized this when a distraught mother came in, frantically crying, beggin to see her boy, who was in "the hole". When you are there you can't be visited by anyone. Part of me longed to hold and comfort her, and part of me scorned her weakness. I was becoming used to the new place I had-the hardened.

My art teacher used to say that it isn't the huge anomalies in the human appearance that make monsters of it. It's the slightly off, like 6 fingers, too-large eyes, improperly set ears. But in time the monstrous becomes the accepted. The same is true of our beliefs about life and ourselves if we aren't careful.

Monday, July 03, 2006

blurred reflection

The title comes from a scripture that talks about limitations of earthly knowledge being like looking into a mirror that gives a blurred reflection. Older translations say, "we see through a glass darkly". There is no place on earth this applies more aptly than the human justice system. The problem is, no human being alive can see into the human heart. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, but he, too was fallible and apt to improperly judge truth. It is not enough to have knowledge...even facts can fail to be the proper instrument to determine the outcome of a life gone astray. Human judgement is prone to personal prejudices, motives and outright manipulation, and even in the case of the most impartial judge and jury, there is still room for error. Being "human" precludes absolute justice.

How, then, do we know what justice is? Is the law a human invention, or is there a higher law? Where does a person find the mirror with an accurate reflection? The scripture goes on to say "when the perfect comes, the imperfect will be done away with", and "we shall see face to face". Justice requires a perfect standard of measure. The question is, was there ever a perfect life lived? History records one life so lived, and sacrificed to provide the ultimate justice for any human ever born who puts their faith in Him.

Still, humans are born with free choice, and sometimes the choices we make cause dire consequences, consequences that must be dealt with. It is my hope that a human justice fulfills the higher law and therefore is a clear mirror. In the end it is up to each heart to decide how to receive the justice of man and of God.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

trading spaces

I'm an artist mom, too, and as a mom I'm subject to the rules of limited space and use in a house occupied by five people and two cats. Well, four people and two cats now, and that is how I finally got my studio. There is a temptation I think, when something traumatic happens to someone in a family and they no longer occupy their old space, to make a shrine out of what remains-a study, a bedroom, a closet, some space that says "I lived here". My son's room was no exception. At least while his "stuff" was in the room, it was like nothing ever happened, or he'd return just anytime. And for awhile, you hold onto threads of impossible hope, believing somehow that it isn't that bad, that time could be reversed or some miracle might happen to alleviate or change the inevitable.

At first after he was gone, I cleaned. And cleaned. And rearranged stuff and cleaned. I did it so quickly after he was arrested the police were concerned I was hiding things. I wasn't. A mom can't stand people tramping around a dirty room looking for, well...I don't know what they were looking for-DNA I suppose. It was my son's room and I didn't want them to see it filthy or full of personal things they might jump to wrong conclusions about. Which they did anyway. I could not think of my son's room as a crime scene or a public display.

After all the cleaning, and then the sentencing, it seemed any miracle we were hoping for beyond the ones we had received were not forthcoming. It was then that I realized, really-why leave a room the same for five years or more? The boy that left will be man upon his return, and a man who has been separated from his "stuff" and memories for a long time. I had to make a choice then. I had to choose to move on and I had to choose to move on for myself. Something inside me was repelled by the idea of taking this space and making it mine, as though it were somehow selfish. Yet I began to feel the more selfish choice would be to not redo the room as a studio, a place I could be alone and work, accomplish what I was created to accomplish. I was already taking up space in the family living area, and this would allow me to have a private room. We sold the bed to a little girl who was ready for a "big girl" bed. I hope she has many happy memories in her room, maybe coloring on the bed or day-dreaming, filling out a diary, sleeping peacefully. I ripped up the carpet, painted the dark walls a bright blue, put up new curtains and created something peaceful.

I think now that maybe this room is more his than it ever was, because we share a space. He gave me his room, and I give him my hope of something better for him. A new space.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

a letter and a poem

When a child or a sibling is taken away suddenly, certain things that weren't important before become very important. When the possibility of visitation is non-existent or limited, what was taken for granted is now the focal point of a day. Words and things on paper, tangible things, replace the physical presence of the person and take on a life of their own. When those memories are all that remain, for a length of time or indefinitely, they are treasured, re-read, looked at and held to hang on to hope. And for a prisoner in particular, writing may be the only creative outlet and escape that they have. Here is a quote:

"The desire to write creatively has dropped off. The inspiration I had seems lost to me now. The inevitable outlet is the letters, and you become the unintended target of my increasingly misguided anger. Misguided is putting it lightly. But you understand. I just don't know what to do, I'm not sure how to preoccupy hor help myself at times. I end up zoning out to my drollery routine and ignore it. Then I end up exploding in one of these letters or pacing the cell, fuming and pulling out my hair until I get a nose bleed. This stupid stint is going to kill me if I let it."
The title says "a letter and a poem". The poem is a memory of a missing child who may never return, written by his mother.
I love you,
like no other child.
My broken winged,
April Robin
I watch over you,
from on high.
So many mishaps,
so many falls.
I shudder and shake
in disbelief.
You are too old and brazen
for your years.
I would like to cradle you
against my breast.
Protect you from the elements
"There are monsters out there,"
I preach.
"I have met all the monsters,"
You sigh.
Looking into your eyes,
I believe you.