It’s a challenging weekend. Very cold temperatures with winds making it feel like -30 Fahrenheit. Aussie, heavily furred and loving nothing more than to sink into a frozen mud pool, which she did yesterday, still runs out the dog door to bark whenever anything catches her fancy, wondering why I’m such a wimp and not taking her out for walks, while Henry, only 15 pounds with short, stubbly fur, barks from inside my office and leaves it at that.
The winds are blowing hard now, shaking the tall pines that are alarmingly close to the house. What happens if just one of them falls? What happens if we lose power, which we did for a minute earlier? I have no generator and we’ll have to leave here, I and two dogs, because the heat will cut off. I keep an eye on the birdfeeders; this is no time to skimp on birdseed.
My friend, Jared Seide, founder of the Center for Council, sent me this terrific graphic book called Leaving Prison Behind. It’s a fictionalized account of a prison inmate, Ray, who’s been paroled and is now contemplating going home to his family after 10 years behind bars. Before leaving, he assembles a council, a circle of people he sees only in his mind who express good wishes, but also their concerns about his coming home. They include Ray’s wife, two boys, his niece, a cousin, and also an imagined conversation with Bernie.
I couldn’t put the book down. I’d never served time in prison, but the book spoke to me very personally. It talked to how we grow up, who and what influences us, and what decisions we make in our life that have long ramifications not just for us but for everyone around us
It talks of sons who sound just like their fathers did 10 and 20 years ago, before going to prison, the pain of hearing that come back at you, knowing it’s a train wreck about to happen, and what can you do about it now after being gone for so long?
It talks of women who raise their families alone, earning a livelihood and supporting their children, growing more independent in their husbands’ absence and now not wanting to take any more shit from anyone. It talks of people who badly need to reveal who they are to the world, hear their own voice, be called by name rather than by a number, but who don’t dare to open up and show vulnerability or pain.
I certainly don’t think my life is like theirs, but as I read the book I still thought: There but for the grace of Kwan-yin …
Prison can happen to anyone. Violence, rage, and retribution are rampant inside and outside. The fact that I didn’t act out externally and actively break the law is a big deal, but not that big a deal.
Don’t carry prison back to your life, Ray is told again and again. When you’re paroled you put physical bars behind you, but not the mental ones, and that denies you real freedom of action no matter how much parole you got. You keep on thinking in the same old patterns, yielding to distrust, to braggadocio to cover up your insecurity, to aggression to cover up your fear, to denial to cover up your shame.
We don’t let ourselves be just who we are, being-changing-becoming all the time, empty in essence and still welcoming all the different expressions of life that go through us and ask to be revealed and made conscious. Instead, we prefer the prison of habit, of the mentality that what worked 20 or 30 years ago—or even 50 years ago—still works now though the world has moved far, far from where it was then.
“You can’t bring these four walls back to our house, Ray,” his wife, Sylvia, tells him in the mental council he’s having on his last night in prison.
I find something in common with Ray. I wasn’t in prison per se, wasn’t hurt, called a number, dehumanized and humiliated, but I think I know about bars that have kept me in place. And I, too, wish to go home.
You can order Leaving Prison Behind here.
I feel my own vulnerability as the winds howl and the tall trees bend this way and that, the freeze that’s just one wall away, electric wires shaking between the house and the road. Rationally, I know things will be fine. But a piece of me resonates with the fear of winter from years ago, when people lived in caves, built a fire, and wrapped up babies in blankets. Many didn’t survive; winter was something to be afraid of.
I’m still raising funds to help immigrants pay for fuel and electricity this winter. I now pay $100 more monthly for electricity than last year, and the fuel bills have practically doubled. It’s fortunate karma that I can pay my bills; I think of that when Henry dives under the blanket to cushion himself against my body at night. But many families can’t. As I wrote once before, they get $200 worth of fuel if that’s all they can pay, they don’t get a full tank. Which means that come these kinds of weekends, they won’t move their thermostats up and instead will stay under the blankets in bed. Like long ago, when humans fought a war against the cold.
Please donate to the immigrant fund so that they can stay warm and free of illness. Thank you.
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Please write on the memo line whether this is in support or immigrant families or of my blog. Thank you.