Still Here, And For a Reason

We’ve been talking for about twenty minutes when Jack recalls a pastor’s statement to him that God has him here for a reason. But “God and I aren’t on speaking terms right now,” he says.

“Why?”

“Why would you think?”

With the quiet helplessness of a person whose faith has never been tested the way his has, I remember. I’m talking with someone who has been viciously wronged by a supposed holy man.

We hear stories about older mentors whose words stay with a kid his whole life, and make him strong. But Jack’s story shows the lasting damage that one person can do to another. A teacher and priest molested him, he says, when he was 12 years old at Catholic boarding school. Continue reading

Messed Up In a Good Way

I instantly have a desire not to piss Joe off. Not because I worry he will physically hurt me, but because I don’t want to be exposed for the guilty liberal, sheltered, naïve soul that I am. This is the type of guy who does not abide bullshit. In the middle of my questions, he asks me if I’m a counselor. I say no, why? He tells me it’s my questions. I’ve just asked what his biggest hopes are for his life – one of my standard lines of inquiry for attempting to get to the heart of things – and now, I feel foolish. But he does have an answer.

“What I hope for is always anything good. I love my family, I love my friends. As far as the future goes, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I live day to day.”

Joe fought in Iraq during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and comes from a long line of military family. He doesn’t say much about his experience over there, except that he “used to jump out of planes and shoot people,” and has seen his share of dead bodies. Continue reading

Faith or Mental Illness?

I want to apologize to Mary for having acted as if she made complete sense to me. But how else was I supposed to hear her story if I didn’t believe it, at least right then? The fact remains, though, I am uneasy with Mary. She says things that, to me, could not possibly be true. And she says them as if they were true, with utmost confidence. This is actually familiar. It sounds a lot like faith.

Among Mary’s claims are that she is in law enforcement, that investigators are looking into evidence of a potential bombing plot that she uncovered next to a trash can outside the T station, that she is an advisor to President Obama. She recently suffered a stroke, caused by “abuse from the Department of Transportation.” Her watch is purposefully set 30 minutes ahead.

One of Mary’s most-wished-for goals in life is to publish a pamphlet she wrote a long time ago on mental illness and “psychiatric rights to informed consent.” She cares about the government following regulations, and about the rights of patients. She also makes afghans for babies who are in the hospital, and carries bright yarn with her. The T-shirt she wears reads “Grow Strong Faith, Harvest Hope, Show True Love.” Continue reading

The Hardest Thing to Lose

Of Walpole State Penitentiary, Jim says, “I grew up in that bitch.” He scissors his arms while he talks, but I don’t sense rage, even though, after hearing him describe his ordeals, it is tempting to recommend an anger management course. Listening to him, I contemplate solutions the way I might for a maladjusted 8th grader. But Jim is 54. He has been in and out of prison since he was middle-school age. And I’m not here to fix his problems, anyway.

Jim says people keep starting fights with him. He has quit everything else: cocaine, stealing, hard liquor. “That’s the only thing I can’t solve,” he says. He is small and trim. Moves quickly, despite a broken shoulder from the last scrap. He tells people, “come at me again like that.” What if he tried not saying anything? I think this, but don’t say it. It feels like a suggestion that comes only from my perspective, one that can’t easily imagine the kind of life he lives or the people who surround him.

Solemnly and with great passion, Jim describes what it is like to be without women in prison. Continue reading

What She Knows

When I first glimpse Dawn, I see a young woman in thick black eyeliner, plucking her brows using a pocket mirror, coin cup beside her. She looks healthy and strong, with nice coloring and lots of wavy blonde hair. She tells me later that she feels ugly without makeup.

Dawn is a former landscaper and political activist. A body piercing artist with 28 holes. A poet and bass guitar player. The future owner of a shop selling natural herbs and oils. An advocate for awareness of the abuses of women’s human rights, especially in Africa. She knows how to walk away from a cruel man. She knows how to gauge who she can trust by whether, if you give someone a little, he or she just wants more. She also knows how to solve her depression.

I lean in for this one, seeking wisdom that has eluded me so far in life. Continue reading