Seven Minutes

Seven Minutes

If I had remembered the olive oil when I first left the house I would have walked in on my grandfather’s death. 

My daughter and I went back for the mason jar of oil I’d filled that morning in a promise to Grampo.

He drank two tablespoons every day of his ninety-seven years.

“The hospital doesn’t have any,” he’d told me.

When we reached his room we were laughing about his stubbornness; we were saying “You know he’s flirting with the nurses.”

A woman wearing scrubs and a frown blocked the door; 

I thought she was confused about visiting rules. 

“No, no– it’s okay,” I told her. 

“We’re his family.”

‘He calls me ‘piccolina,’ I wanted to say.

‘We make raviolis together, and pick vegetables from the garden we planted; we make lunch with the tomatoes, onions, and yellow squash. I have his olive oil.’  

My daughter moved closer to me; I felt her hand rest on my back, and by that gesture I knew Grampo was gone.  

In the moments it took me to go back for the jar my Grampo danced to his death 

with a plump and pretty nurse

who’d escorted him out of his bed.

My daughter made calls and family came and we went into a room. 

A doctor explained the why

and the when.

He died seven minutes before I got there.

The dancing nurse sat with us. 

“He wanted to waltz with me,” she told us.    

A torn aorta took Grampo; pain hit him hard in his last moments. 

“But just before that, he was laughing,” the nurse said.

And then she cried, too. 

Grampo taught me to dance at the Italian Club, 

with my feet on top of his when I was little.  

He would reel me around the room, 

see-sawing his arms through polkas and tarantellas after red wine and pasta. 

When we were allowed to enter the room

where Grampo had danced, and died, 

I kissed his bald head we’d rub for luck when we were small,  

and then his cheek, which even now

smelled of basil, garlic, and brandy.

I still held the jar of olive oil; 

it was a gift of seven minutes. 

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Early Kick: My Time in the County Jail

On my first day at the county jail, after the interviews, background checks, fingerprinting, and the tour, I sat at the back of the room listening and watching. Fifteen or so female inmates sat at the tables with the attached benches, all facing towards the front of the small, gray room. Occasionally they would turn around to eye me suspiciously, whisper to one another, look at me, and then whisper again, which mostly ended with them either scowling or laughing at me, and I wasn’t sure which I preferred least. 

The subject of this class was domestic violence. Some of the women paid close attention; others passed notes back and forth or grabbed at one another suggestively. One woman whose largeness seemed stuffed into the small table, and who had her curly red hair in a bandana, had her arm draped around the shoulder of another woman, and kept turning around to glare at me. 

Lorna—their instructor and my immediate supervisor—had just informed us that our county has a higher rate of domestic violence than anywhere else in the state of California. Lorna asked the women what they thought were some of the reasons for so much violence here.  The woman with the bandana spoke out:

“It’s fuckin’ hot here, that’s why. I feel like beating the shit out of somebody every damn day in this town.” 

All of the women laughed, including me. When temperatures in our town hit the triple digits, car handles are too hot to touch and standing in the sun feels like a special sort of torture.  I’ve contemplated murder myself on some of those days. 

I was there to learn from Lorna before I was given my own classroom. A few months before, I had approached the educational director and the volunteer supervisor, asking their permission to start writing groups at the jail. No one has ever done a writing group in this jailhouse, at least to anyone’s knowledge. The only volunteers who work with the inmates here are clergy and AA leaders. Social workers like Lorna conduct topical classes on anger management, substance abuse, and domestic violence. 

I have no experience working with inmates. Nobody (including me) knew whether a writing group would work. But to the credit of my (now) superiors, they were game. The idea appealed to them: inmates telling their own stories in writing seemed like a healthy outlet and a good way to provide time away from cells for the inmates. We decided I should attend Lorna’s class, where I could pitch it to the women, and go from there. If my group went well with the women, after a while they would give me a class of men, too.

In Lorna’s class, the women separated into groups and began working on butcher paper posters, writing down all the situations they could think of in which domestic violence situations might arise. The group nearest me was comprised of four women. One of them was a pretty, tiny woman with a finely detailed face; her hair was braided close to her head, and she had her jail uniform pulled tightly, showing off her trim waist.     

“I’ll tell you what causes domestic violence,” she said. “Impotent.” She pronounced the word “im-PO-tent.” 

“What the fuck you say?” asked another woman.

“You know, some time when the guy can’t get it up, he blames his woman.”

This generated nods and mumbled agreements from the other women and they consented to add it to their list. When it was time to present their group’s poster to the rest of the class, the tiny woman volunteered to speak for the group. She stood in front, waving the marker around in her hand. 

“Now, I don’t know if you agree with us on this one,” she said, indicating the word with the marker. “It says, ‘imPOtent.’ You all know what that means, right?” 

A woman I couldn’t see called out, “Limp dick.”

“That’s right,” the tiny woman said, and here she made a motion with her hand, letting it fall lifelessly.

A chorus of “uh-huhs” and “you-know-its” broke out across the room, and I laughed a little too loudly. The bandanna-wearing woman in front of me turned around, stared at me for a minute, and then said, “You liked that, huh?” Then she laughed and turned back to face the front. 

When Lorna called me up to the front to present the idea of a writing group, all of the women listened quietly to what I was saying. I stood up there hoping I wasn’t saying anything offensive, hoping the outfit I’d taken two hours to pick out was okay, hoping that just five of them would want to take a chance with this unknown rookie woman, and sign on to get up early and sit around a table, just to write. 

My family and friends reacted differently when I first told them I would be working inside the jail. Their responses fell into two groups: excited, and fearful, with the latter holding approximately 97% of the members. I understood their desire to warn me, and their concern for my safety, especially after I watched the training videos in which jail employees and trustees acted out (rather badly) scenarios between inmates and staff. Would-be jail workers must watch these videos that contain warnings about keeping a distance from inmates, always watching your back, never giving anything to or taking anything from an inmate, and how inmates will try to con you into doing things for them.  

My son, who works as a security officer, has given me some stern talks about safety: about how I trust too easily, about how I have to keep my eyes open and be aware, and about how I need to take all the rules seriously. I promise him I will. And then I break that promise within the first month I am there. 

***

The county jail is spread out across downtown, with three jail facilities connected by an underground tunnel. The buildings are old, with dingy narrow hallways; everything is rusted or chipped or in some form of decay. The sign above the first door I walked through says: 

This detention facility is a no-hostage facility.

Employees will not bargain for the release of hostages.

I felt like I was in a submarine as Jack—my new boss—and I snaked through twisty narrow passageways with no windows and barely enough room for us to walk two abreast. Jack was taking me on a tour of the jail, briskly walking us through countless hallways and doors.  The sound of the doors that lock automatically behind you is a loud and sudden metallic clack. The first time I heard it a little yelp came out of my mouth involuntarily.     

“Yeah, you’ll get used to that,” Jack said, as he led me down the tunnel. On either side of us were cells with windows, where male inmates rushed to press their faces against the glass as we walked by. 

“Now, if you see guys in red suits,” Jack was saying, “that means they are being transported, maybe to court. Yellow-suits are the crazies; I mean, they have some mental issues. Don’t make eye contact with them.” 

Not making eye contact with the yellow-suits is difficult at my classroom door, which Jack shows me apologetically, because it is right across the narrow hallway from where the yellow-suits are locked up behind thick glass. The classroom itself is small—dingy, grayish white, with a few rolling bench tables, a stained white board, and a small cabinet. 

“You’ll have to be careful when the women come to class,” Jack said, as he unlocked the classroom door. “Sometimes, they see the yellow-suits over here, and they flash ‘em their JID number.” 

I’ll admit I thought he was going to say something else entirely. 

“Once a guy has their JID he can write to them,” Jack told me. “And then we’ve got trouble.” 

I was trying to figure out exactly why that would cause trouble when Jack looked down at my feet. “Don’t wear open-toed shoes anymore,” he said, with one eyebrow sort of cocked a little higher than the other. 

“Oh. Okay. Um, why not?”

Jack motioned me into the classroom. “Just don’t,” he said. 

We stood in the small room while Jack went over the rules and procedures with me. A very tall man, with a gray mustache, light blue eyes, and a straw fedora, Jack shifted back and forth on his feet, like someone who is accustomed to being on them for long periods of time.  He showed me what to do if a fight breaks out in the classroom, how to keep myself situated so the women never block my access to the door, and how to signal for the guard down the hall. 

“Get yourself a pen flashlight,” he told me. “In case you need to use it to signal the guards.” 

I was wondering why I wouldn’t just yell for the guards instead of flashing some tiny little keychain flashlight down the hall when Jack asked me if I knew the rule about the notebooks. 

“You can’t bring anything in to the class other than the composition books I approved,” he said. “No spiral wire or metal bindings. No glossy covers—just plain paper. Not plastic, either—obviously.” 

This wasn’t obvious to me at all, but I let it go, and asked him about colored pencils, because I wanted the women to do some drawing; I was taking a graphic novel class and thought they might get into creating their own graphic memoirs.   

“You can bring ‘em in, I guess. But you better count ‘em out when you hand ‘em out, and count ‘em out again when you collect ‘em. You hear me, Trouble?” 

I wasn’t sure, but I thought I’d seen—if not exactly a wink, then at least the hint of one. 

“Got it,” I said. “And, just curious here—why are you calling me Trouble? I haven’t even done anything yet.”

“I dunno,” he said. “But I know people pretty well.” He opened the door. “After you, Trouble. It’s sink or swim, now.”       

***

About 68-70 % of prisoners return to incarceration at least once. I’m surprised the percentage isn’t higher. For the past fifteen years I have worked at a community center in an impoverished neighborhood. I mostly work with children, and many of them have parents who are incarcerated, or were at one time.  I’ve watched them over the years struggle to get back into the now unfamiliar rhythm of life “on the outs,” as the inmates refer to it, where people have jobs, and vehicles, and are able to pay to keep the lights on and the phone connected. I get it—people don’t want to hire convicts, even those who have served the time required of them. And I also get it that if you can swing a drug deal and in one night make the same amount it would take you a month to make at minimum wage job—not that anyone will hire you—it’s hard to pass up the more financially lucrative opportunity. Especially if the rent is due, and your spouse took off with someone else but left you the kids, and your PG&E will be turned off in three days, and besides you’d get a taste of whatever you are selling and for a blissful bit of time it will take away all the shitty feelings you are having about yourself, and life in general.

I know a man—the father of one of the kids from the community center—who has given up trying to get a job to take care of his family; he was wild and violent in his early 20’s, and his arrest record shows it. To make a living he cleans up trash at construction sites, chops wood, and pans for gold. He told me once he feels the safest when he’s in the hills panning. “I have time to think up there,” he said, squinting his eyes against the smoke of his hand-rolled cigarette. “Nobody but me and the earth, working together. I’ve figured out a lot of shit being alone so much. And I think different now than I used to. Real different.”  

“The mind,” Emerson wrote, “once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” I think that for many former inmates, even though their dimensions have shifted, they discover that the world is too frightened and suspicious to notice. And who can blame us? We are all trying to live on this planet together, and we must share it, even with people who have done bad things—worse things than even we ourselves have done. Knowing our own potential for dark thoughts and bad deeds makes us look at others with a careful eye; we think we know what evil lurks there. 

My first day of class I came loaded with pictures torn from magazines for the women to use to decorate and personalize their composition books.  I carefully scrutinized each one, choosing pictures I deemed appropriate: nothing too violent, or erotic. I also tried to stay away from what seemed decadent: fancy clothes and shoes and cars that inmates can’t have. I chose a lot of landscape scenery, animals, flowers, mountains, sunsets, and the like. All of this was unnecessary. The women later told me they have a surplus of every magazine you can imagine in their pod. “Even ones you prolly can’t imagine,” one woman said. 

Pods are the housing areas where the women live. In this county jail, there are usually about 36 women in a pod. Cells line both sides of a center aisle with long tables running down the middle. Four women share a cell, which consists of nothing more than the four bunks, a sink, one shelf, and a toilet. The toilet is just inches away from the left bottom bunk. I learned from the women that typically the cellmates pool account money together to get a highly priced sheet from the commissary, which they use as a curtain to drape around the toilet. They call it a Courtesy Screen. 

I was allowed to bring in glue sticks (counted out) on my first day so the women could tear up the pictures (no scissors allowed) and stick them on their composition books. This way, each journal would be personalized. I’d gotten special permission from the administrative director for the women to keep their journals with them in their pods. 

But before the women even came to me I had to turn in the list of my class roster for that day. It gets printed out just before I get there, because at the last moment an inmate might act up and lose class privileges. The list has to be taken to the correctional officer on duty, who then sends the list down to the pod for the officer there to bring the women up. After that, I can go back to my classroom and wait for the women.  

While I was waiting I wrote a quote from Emerson on the smudged white board: “We are continuously invited to be who we are.” I arranged the composition notebooks, the glue sticks, magazine pictures, and the tiny golf pencils the inmates are allowed to use on the tables I had pushed together to make one big table we could all sit around. Five women and me. I took a deep breath. I said a prayer. Then the door burst open and in they came. 

I had already met most of the women when I visited their class a couple of times while I shadowed Lorna, but at the time I didn’t know which of the women would obtain clearance for my class. First, they had to be medium security. Not minimum, because those women wouldn’t be there long enough. Not maximum, because it’s too risky. Heather was first through the door and she announced their arrival. 

“We’re here—hey, what’s that smell?” she asked me. She walked right up to me and breathed in deeply. “Oh my gosh,” she cried out, turning to the other women. “She’s wearing body spray.” 

Heather is a 26 year old woman with long dark hair and a pixie face—she is very fair skinned, with a pretty, soft smile. “Come over here and smell her!” she said. 

And they did. All five of them gathered around me and breathed in. 

“It’s, my lotion,” I said. “It’s called Pearanormal Activity, because it, you know, it smells like pears.”      

Two women whispered to one another, then pointed at my feet. “We like your shoes,” one of them said. 

All of a sudden, for no discernible reason, even though I had a lesson plan of sorts written down, a small panic flapped around in my chest. I thought, for just a second or two, that I had no idea what to do or say next, let alone for the next hour and a half.  

“Well, how ‘bout we sit down and get started?” I finally said, rather weakly. 

We sat down around the table and I looked at the five women, all in green jail jumpsuits, all different skin colors and ages, all looking at me, waiting. 

I talked a little about what we would be doing in the group: learning to express ourselves through poetry, stories, and possibly even through sequential art, which is just a fancy way of saying comics, I told them. They listened to all of this patiently. When I explained that they were going to decorate their notebooks, and they could keep them in their pods, they looked at one another and made little excited noises. 

Reena picked her notebook up and held it to her chest. “Really?” she said to me. “We can take them back with us?” 

I’d been warned that some of the inmates might not want to keep their journals with them, as the threat of having it taken and read by another inmate is high. 

“Only if you want to,” I said to Reena. “I know you might not want to risk someone taking it.”

Reena is a small white woman with a wrinkled face; she is only 47 but I would not have guessed her to be so young. Her features are very small and all seem pushed toward the center of her face. She has thin, mousy brown hair she pulls back into a greasy ponytail. Many sessions after this particular day she unexpectedly told me why she is incarcerated—something I never ask inmates. 

“My trick tried to kill me,” she’d said. “So I killed him first.” 

On this day, she clutched her notebook more tightly to her chest and said, “Anybody tries to take my journal–”

She paused for a moment. “Let’s just say I’m not worried about that,” she said then, rummaging through the magazine pictures on the table. 

We all started picking out pictures and putting them in stacks. I realized that the magazine thing was a pretty good idea, because as they chose pictures they liked I got to learn a little something about each of them: Reena loves puppies and Mexico; her husband Juan (who is only 26, she told me twice) is from there. Heather likes hearts, and Jesus. Jennifer cut out the words BAD BRAINS, saying that phrase describes her perfectly. She also likes Bob Marley. Heather held up a picture of a shirtless man with a muscled torso, and Vanessa quickly replied, “”Don’t gimme no pictures of men.” She reached across the table to grab a picture. “What’s that? A chicken? Gimme that. Chickens are hella more useful than men. And that’s church.” Crystal had just delivered a baby two days before this class; she didn’t talk much but was looking for pictures of “mothers and babies together, not apart.” 

After we had chosen all our pictures, we glued them to our notebooks. Our journals were beautiful—artistic and unique. We spent a little time admiring one another’s artwork; we each presented our own journal to the group and explained the meanings behind all of the pictures. Then I told them we would try a little writing. Vanessa spoke up immediately. Vanessa is a pretty woman, with smooth olive skin, a funky diagonal haircut, square jaws, and eyes that dart and dodge at all times. Lorna calls her the “alpha female” in the group. I know I have to win her over or I’ll never get anywhere with these women—her influence over them is almost a presence at our table. 

“Just so you know, I hate writing,” Vanessa said. “And I can’t do it. I suck at it.” 

The other women chimed in, expressing their fears about writing. I explained to them this is not really a class; it’s a group. There is no wrong or right way. We are here to write for ourselves, to help ourselves, to better understand ourselves. 

“Well, we did sign up to do writing,” Reena said to the women, twisting her wispy ponytail around her fingers.  

“Alright,” Vanessa said, after a silent pause. “We’ll do it.” 

And do it, they did. We all wrote about a memory, for about 15 minutes, and then read our writing out loud around the table. Crystal wrote about holding her newborn baby for only a moment before the infant was taken from her; Heather wrote about giving her testimony at Teen Challenge—she talked about feeling proud of herself for overcoming her stage fright; and Reena told her story of walking the street late at night deciding to give up the meth that kept her in prostitution. As each woman spoke the others listened carefully, respectfully, sometimes giving one another a touch on the shoulder or handing them a tissue from the dusty box I had pulled from the cabinet. 

When I looked at my watch I was surprised to see that our 90 minutes had almost gone by. When the women filed out of the room, they promised to be back the next week, and I promised I would be there, too. I left feeling hopeful and excited. Then I got off the elevator on the wrong floor and stepped out into an area where I had no admittance; I was immediately confronted by a very large correctional officer, wh0—after examining my badge—told me I had better learn my way around or I might find myself in trouble. “And trouble,” he told me firmly, “is something you don’t want to be in around here.” 

***

I took the women’s journals home with me to give them what I call “ghetto lamination.” It’s just big, clear tape in strips that cover the entire surface: it protects the picture—waterproofs them, actually—and gives the notebooks the look of being laminated. Only Crystal didn’t send her journal home with me; she was called to court in the middle of our session and took her journal with her. She didn’t know if she would be sent to prison before our next meeting and she didn’t want to lose her journal. 

For the next meeting with the women I brought in colored pencils. The women had shown an interest in graphic novels, and I thought it would be fun to start out by portraying ourselves in drawings as super heroes. I also brought in a small tape gun loaded up with clear tape; I was hoping Crystal hadn’t been sent away and that she would be there, with her journal. Even if she was sentenced elsewhere, at least—I was hoping—I could fix up her journal to take with her. She was facing a twelve year sentence for car-jacking. 

That morning the women entered our classroom with a noticeable increase in energy, even though no one had slept much the night before. Three women had been pulled from their cells to be released. 

“They all got an early kick,” Vanessa told me. “We were so excited—the whole pod was helping them get ready to go and passing out all their stuff.”

“As soon as the guards told them to roll up, Sara gave me a red folder,” Heather said. “She didn’t have to do that, and I was happy to get it.”

Jennifer, who rarely speaks up, said quietly, “I got happy when I saw them leave. They get to be free now. Away from this bad place.” 

We spent some time talking about life in the pod, and I learned a lot.  Food is bad—very bad—so the women have found ways to make meals from the few items they are allowed in their prison packs that are available for purchase. Friends and family of inmates can have these snack packs delivered to their loved ones for about twice their retail price. The choices, available through Mycarepack.com, are as follows: Chocolate Lovers Pack (candy, cookies, and hot chocolate): $19.87; the Hot & Spicy Pack (hot sauce, refried beans, tortillas, chili sauce, hot sausage, and Flaming Hot Cheetos): $21.66; and the Holiday Pack (iced honey buns, two holiday cards, a Word Find book, one golf pencil, and hot chocolate): $22.26.  From these ingredients, and others they buy from the commissary at exorbitant prices, the women concoct all sorts of meals that they then share around the pod. 

Most of the cooking and socializing in the pod happens at night, and many women sleep during the day, unless they have a class to attend, or a court appearance. Breakfast and lunch are brought to the inmates at 3:00 a.m., and they can eat those meals whenever they like. Dinner is brought in later in the day and—according to these women—is always bad. 

One of the circumstances the women dislike most is their lack of warm clothes or bedding. The pod gets very cold in the fall and winter months, but the women still wear the same short-sleeved green denim jumpsuits they wear in the summer. 

“No warm sweatshirts or anything?” I asked. 

“We can’t have anything with long sleeves,” Heather told me, and then laughed. “I guess they think we’ll strangle ourselves with the sleeves or something.” 

“What about blankets?” I asked. 

Vanessa spoke up. “If that’s what you wanna call those thin, scratchy things they give us.” 

Most of the women wash their uniforms in the shower, because if they send them to the prison laundry they come back smelling bad, like mold and chemicals. 

“They don’t really care if we feel gross in here,” Reena said. “I mean, I get it, we did bad stuff. But we’re still people.” 

I had the women do a free write—just a few minutes of writing about whatever is on their minds. Heather wrote about being transported to court the day before. She read it to the group, stopping every few moments to fill in between the written words. 

“They were taking me in the elevator, these two guards, and they had me facing the wall, like always. And they were taking about me like I wasn’t there, saying ‘We should dump her off first, before we hit the other floor. That would be safer. Who knows what she’ll do.’  I was thinking, ‘Hey—I’m right here. I can hear you, you know.’” 

Heather twisted her hair in a knot on top of her head—without pins or clips or a rubber band—and went on: “While I was standing there I saw something written on the elevator wall. It said, ‘Inmate Car.’ And it just hurt my feelings, you know?” 

I told her I wasn’t sure I did know. 

“It’s like it’s a joke to them, that this elevator in the jail that they use to move us around is the only car we have. Which is true. And the elevator company put that there. Why would they do that?” 

Crystal was there, and she spoke up from across the table. “I’m getting on that elevator today. I have court again, since my public defender didn’t show up last time.” 

Crystal’s hair was all done up—not in the usual braids or ponytail. It was curly, and more red than I remembered. She told me her method for doing her hair before court. It involved using the coffee pot for straightening her bangs, which I still can’t picture. To get the desired curls, she coated her hair with strawberry jam mixed with the watery lotion available from the commissary, then diligently wrapped each strand of hair around her finger. Once it dried, it was stiff and shiny and red—amazing looking, really. Crystal told me she’d gotten up early to do her hair, so she could still come to the writing group. The inmates never know what time they will be called and she wanted to be prepared in case they came to get her during class. 

While the women were drawing and coloring pictures of themselves as super-heroes, I pulled out my tape gun to laminate Crystal’s journal. I was wrapping the journal with the clear tape, thinking about the fact that I might not ever see Crystal again if she is sent away to prison, when I realized the women had stopped writing or drawing and were all looking at me.

Heather nudged Vanessa and said, “Look what she brought in here. It’s got that jagged metal edge.”  

And indeed it’s true—my tape gun has a very sharp edge for cutting the strong tape. 

“Did they let you bring that in?” Vanessa asked me. 

The stupidity of my actions hit me pretty quickly. “”Well,” I said feebly, “not exactly. I just, I wanted to do Crystal’s journal. In case she’s leaving?” 

The women just kept looking at the tape gun, then looking back at me. I was halfway done with the journal so I finished wrapping it. Nobody said another word about it and I put the tape gun back in my bag and went on with the class, hoping I hadn’t blown it entirely. 

During that session I learned that Reena would likely be released very soon. She had signed a deal: a four year lid. A lid means that you sign a contract saying that you will not get in any trouble at all for the time set—in Reena’s case, four years. If you do get in trouble, you will automatically be sentenced to—in Reena’s case—25 years. Reena was ready to sign for that deal because she has worked very hard in her seventeen years of incarceration, keeping good behavior, attending all the classes, and even earning certificates for courses and training completed. She felt certain she would never go back to prostitution or using meth. It was the meth she was on, she explains, that made her go crazy when her trick tried to kill her. “I’m not making an excuse,” she said. “I’m just saying I learned from that and I’m not doing it again.” 

When Reena spoke of her upcoming release, her face changed. I tried to imagine her out of her jail uniform, wearing regular street clothes, doing ordinary things like going to the grocery store or having a family meal around the table. We all listened as Reena told us all the hopes she had—all the plans she had concocted in her head after too many nights in a cell. Everyone was wrapped up in her release—partly because she had already served those seventeen years, and partly because Reena is a nurturing woman, always looking out for the other women in the pod, often sharing her few belongings with whoever needs them. 

“She’ll do good out there,” Vanessa said of Reena. “She will.” 

***

Before the next writing group I received an email from Lorna, explaining that she had heard something about colored pencils, and wondered if I had counted them to make sure they were all there at the end of class. “Since I heard about it I have a feeling something might have shown up in the pod,” she wrote. “People have gotten stabbed with pencils before, you know, so we just want to be very careful.” 

I told her I had counted them, and I held my breath hoping she wouldn’t say anything about the tape gun—hoping she didn’t know about my foolish move. She never mentioned it and neither did I. 

At our next writing group Crystal was still there. She had gone to court but nothing had been decided yet. We started our group with a free write. Reena asked if she could share hers. She took a big breath, pulled at her ponytail, and then started reading. She was worried she had hurt someone; she had written about the guilt she was feeling. Reena cried as she read. I thought perhaps she was thinking about the man she’d attempted to kill, as I know he is suffering long-term injuries. But soon it became clear to me what Reena was trying to say. She was confessing, to me, that she had spoken to Lorna about the colored pencils. 

‘I feel so bad because I feel like I betrayed this person,’ she wrote. ‘But I really did it for her own good, but, I also did it in a selfish way, to be true.’ 

The women were quiet—they all knew what was going on. Reena looked up at me from her journal. Her small eyes were all puffed up, and her pale face was mottled red.  

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s just–”and here she stopped and started crying again. Vanessa—always the leader—stepped in for her. 

“It’s just that they could pull your badge,” Vanessa said. “And we don’t want that to happen.” The other women were nodding, and Heather placed her hand gently on my shoulder. 

Reena blew her nose and then said, “We already love you, and we don’t want to lose you.” 

Heather jumped in, “We’re just not sure if you counted the pencils. All it takes is for one of those to show up in the pod, and that’s it. You’re gone.” 

Vanessa spoke up again, this time with a harder edge to her voice. “And it’s not just you that gets affected. We look forward to this class. It means a lot to us, so we want you to be careful with it. You know, about what you bring in, for one.” 

The women all watched my face, waiting for my reaction. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I did a stupid thing.” 

We all knew we were talking about the tape gun, not the colored pencils. The women had helped me count the pencils out, so there was no way they were worried about one of them turning up in the pod. Clearly no one had mentioned the tape gun to Lorna. A colored pencil miscount is a lot different than bringing a potential weapon into a detention facility, and the women knew it; they’d found a way to warn me without getting me in any real trouble.     

“And also,” Vanessa went on, “when you let us go last time, you just left your purse sitting on the table. Anyone could have grabbed it.” 

Jennifer silently nodded her agreement. 

“You shouldn’t trust us,” Heather said. “Someone could be tweaked out on meth—they could do anything: attack you or whatever.” 

“We’re cons!” Vanessa added, and we all laughed. 

“Just promise you’ll be careful, okay?” Reena said, rubbing her wet face, her sallow skin reddened and blotched.

Heather bent her head down to write something in her journal, then lifted her hair gently and looked up and me and smiled. “We don’t want you to get an early kick,” she said.

The women set about giving me some pointers on safety. Safety from them: the cons, the inmates, the prisoners. 

In the time that I have spent with these women, listening to their stories, I have heard them talk about very ordinary things, things my friends and I talk about: our children, relationship problems, and worries about health or aging. I have read their poems and free writes. I know that they have been beaten and sold into prostitution by their boyfriends, or worse—their parents. I know that they have stolen cars, committed robbery, and even attempted murder. But I also know they love their children, enjoy gardening and cooking, and like watching the sun go down at the beach. I know they are funny, smart, caring, and sensitive. I know they are wounded—just like the rest of us. I also know they are more earnest in their attempts to better themselves than most people I know on the outside. 

As the women filed out at the end of class, I pulled Reena aside. I thanked her for having my back.  I still didn’t mention the tape gun; it seemed as though we had formed a silent pact. She broke out in tears again, and then she pulled me to her and hugged me for a very long time. The other women gathered around me and placed their hands on my arm or my back while Reena hugged me and cried on my shoulder. When the women saw the guard coming down the hall they pulled away from me, and he took them back to their pod. I stood there for a very long time after the women had already made the turn in the narrow hallway. I wanted to remember the moment. I wanted to play the tape of it in my head one more time. I wanted to tell the guard who was passing by that he had just missed an extraordinary moment. 

***

The next session only three women showed up: Crystal, Heather, and a new woman named Yolanda. Jennifer had been released. She was so quiet no one even knew she was about to go home.      

“Vanessa got in a fight,” Heather informed me. “So they didn’t let her come to class.” 

“What about Reena?” I asked. “Did they send her home already?” 

Yolanda is a light-skinned black woman with high cheekbones. She spoke up. “Reena told me to tell you. I’m her bunkie, and she wanted you to know.” 

Heather put her hand on my shoulder, a gentle gesture she often makes, but this time it made me feel as though I was about to hear something bad. 

“They gave her four years,” Yolanda said. 

“Yeah—the lid, right? A four year lid?” 

Yolanda waited a moment before she answered me. “Four years in prison,” she said. 

I knew Reena never wanted to go back to prison, where there is even tighter security, and more violent offenders than in this jailhouse. And worse—she believed she was cleared and ready to go home, but the courts or the gods or the paperwork played another card and her four year lid deal was tossed. 

My chest felt pressed in, and heavy. I honestly don’t know if Reena is ready to be out in the world. It’s a pretty rough place to be, especially when you are returning to a boyfriend who still uses meth, likely unemployment, even more likely domestic violence, and the threat of 25 years in prison if you screw up and use, and have to go back to hooking so you can use more, and finally, to likely get caught and end up behind other dismal walls surrounded by a whole new pack of women, whom you have to figure out in order to survive. 

Reena was too devastated to come to writing group that day. At the other women’s urging, she had tried to get up off her bunk to go, but she fell back crying and told them to go on without her. She may be moved to another county jail before getting admitted to whatever prison they have chosen for her. She will likely spend some months trying to fit in with all new women, in an all new environment, before she is moved to do the same at her more permanent confinement.

“I think we should pray for Reena,” Heather blurted out, and then added, “Is that weird?” 

“Fuck no it’s not weird,” Yolanda answered. 

Our class as a writing class, not a religious group; we’d never done anything like this before. 

“Everybody hold hands,” Heather said. “Let’s make this legit.” 

We stood around our little chipped Formica table, hands joined, heads down. For a moment no one spoke—we just stood there, holding on to one another. 

Then Heather nudged me in the side with her elbow. “You,” she said. “You pray.” 

So I did. I prayed for Reena, for her to feel comforted and not lose hope. I prayed for all the men and women in the pods, that they could find joy, even though they are separated from their children, their lives, their loved ones.  I prayed for all of us to find within us the resolve to push through in the face of pain, loneliness, and fear.

“Love,” Heather interjected, prodding me again with her elbow. “Don’t forget to pray for love in the pods.” 

So I prayed for love, too, and at the same time wondered when I’d seen evidence of so much outside these gray walls.

 

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They All Laugh

     

nightmare-shadowman

Lately I’ve been having nightmares.

I wake to find my sheets clutched

in my fists

my fists

drawn to my chest

my chest

caved in between hunched shoulders.

     In these nightly assaults

strange men enter my house

they enter my room

and they do not leave

when I

tell them to

when I

beg them to

they don’t listen to me

instead

     they all laugh.

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Trump, the New Year, and Me Too

I like the look of 2018 better than 2017. I don’t mean the year itself, because how could I know? Who can ever predict what will happen in a given year? I’m actually referring to the look of it. The last number–8–is all round and curvy–not sharp and angular like a 7– looking like it doesn’t know which way to to go, as if it starts out one direction and then says to itself, “Oh hey what the f–-this is not–-I need to go another way.”

The nice, soft, curvy 8 looks like something you could rest your head on. Something that will be more forgiving, and allow for some bounce-back. I want to love 2018 and by the looks of it maybe I can.

Or, it might look like a continuous loop. Just the same thing going around and around endlessly. I think this is my fear.

U.S. President Donald Trump tosses rolls of paper towels to people at a hurricane relief distribution center at Calvary Chapel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, U.S. October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Full disclosure? In 2017 I became something I do not like.

One autumn morning in 2017 my husband was putting on his shoes at the end of our bed–I was still halfway under the covers drinking the latte he brought me, which he does every morning, still, because he is a much better person than I am. I was muttering about something I’d just seen on my Twitter feed, maybe it was the Pocahontas comment Trump made about Elizabeth Warren, or that stunt where he threw paper towels at Puerto Rican hurricane survivors, or maybe I was just grumbling about Trump’s irritating inability to capitalize correctly, or his overuse of exclamation marks–honestly it could have been about a million things.

My husband, with his back to me, still sitting on our bed, randomly mentioned that he’d heard something at a lecture he had attended the day before. The woman speaking said something to this effect:

“Do you want to be defined by what you hate? Or by what you love?”  

After my husband went to work; I was left wondering just exactly how random that random comment was. I thought about it for a few days. And somewhere between my latest tweet to Donald Trump and my latest Facebook post  in which I plead for everyone else to see with me–and be horrified, and help me figure out what to do–how to fix this–SOMEWHERE IN THERE–I realized that I spend a lot of my day hating. As in, actually feeling hate.

I didn’t used to be this person. No, really, I didn’t. I’m all about love. I think it’s the most important thing and it can save the world and each of us individually and all that. I’m all in with Jesus and Buddha—and The Beatles—on this one. Love is all you need; love wins, it conquers, it’s why we’re here–I believe it all.

And yet.

I wake up hating.

I wake up hating the fact that Trump is still in office. I hate how he denigrates our women, our dreamers, our LGBTQ citizens; I hate his son standing there holding an elephant’s tail; I hate those pussy-grabbing-move-on her-like-a-bitch remarks and the fact that people–women even–still voted for him and I hate them for caring so little for themselves and their sisters and daughters. I hate how pathetic we appear to the rest of the world; when I was in Portugal and Spain and France just after Trump’s inauguration I hated feeling embarrassed of us, of our country.

I especially hate how my students whom I admire for their work ethic and determination are living in fear of being deported; I hate the things Trump says–I even hate the way he says them. I hate his facial expressions and his hand gestures and his ridiculous hair and I hate how I feel so sorry for his stone-faced wife who has to endure god-knows-what and I seriously could go on a lot more about the things I now hate on a daily basis.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you about this new leaf I am turning in this new year. Where I stand up and proudly proclaim “New year–new me!” Where I tell you about the tools I will have handy when these hateful feelings rise up in me.

But that’s not really the deal.

I try. I really do. Today I wasn’t even thinking about all the stuff going wrong, I was prepping for my classes and petting my dog like a normal person, but I accidentally learned about the Eric Trump/Ellen DeGeneres/Deep State bullshit and that ridiculous tweet from Trump where he brags about the size of his nuclear button. How was I supposed to not hate that? HOW?!

My daughter tells me I could just stop reading the news. Get off of Twitter. Don’t follow the links.

And for god’s sake, Mom, don’t read the comments.

I could do this, I suppose. I’m not sure I could do it for very long, though. Because it feels less safe to not know. I don’t want to be blind-sighted. I don’t like being surprised. Ask anybody who has ever startled me in a hallway; I don’t deal well.

A friend of a friend of mine just published a piece recently, in which she describes symptoms and feelings she’s had since November 8th, 2016:

“My long-ago post-traumatic stress diagnosis, the legacy of a past laced with violence and sexual abuse, is suddenly relevant again after years of relative peace.”

I think about this sentence for days. I wonder if it explains my symptoms as of late: insomnia, depression, edginess, simmering rage, and these inescapable feelings of hate.

When sixteen women come forward to tell us they have been kissed or sexually groped against their will by Trump, I am so angry I am inconsolable. Suddenly, faces I have not seen in years appear before me like apparitions, and I feel their unwanted hands on my body: the fraternity boy in college who–in the middle of a card game—grabbed my hands from behind and pulled in opposite directions, saying “Now we’ve got some cleavage, boys.” Or the man on the BART escalator—in my late 50’s—who grabbed me from behind with his whole hand and squeezed, digging his fingers into my flesh before he quickly took off, laughing over his shoulder at me; the guy in the Hallmark store in my 30’s  who stuck his hand up my dress while I was shopping for Mother’s Day cards.

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And I again see the pink fleshed hands and white hairs of the old man who placed his hand on my 13 year old breast and kissed me when I was babysitting two little girls who called him “Grandpa Bob.”

When I hear that during the Miss USA AND the Teen Miss USA pageants, Trump would often enter dressing rooms unannounced, and that he had told Howard Stern, “I can get away with things like that” I think of the distant cousin who entered a back bedroom at my grandmother’s funeral, where I was breastfeeding my infant daughter, and stuck his tongue in my mouth; I pushed him away with the hand that was not holding my baby; he later denied it.

They always deny it, don’t they?

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When Trump denied it, he said, “Nothing ever happened with any of these women. Totally made up nonsense… Nobody has more respect for women than me!”

And then, he became president.  And I became a person filled with hate.

Please don’t give me your kind recommendations to meditate or pray or do yoga or journal or smoke weed or get more sleep or eat better or whatever else you think will alleviate the bone-deep anger I feel right now. Not to belittle your great idea but chances are I’ve already tried it or am already doing it.

And besides, I am still hopeful. Anybody who is taking comfort from the shape of a number is definitely trying to be hopeful. Am I right? I have some ideas about limiting my exposure; I’m looking to involve myself in actions and situations that help, that contribute, that encourage. I have students at the college where I teach who are children of immigrants and need educational and outside help; I can march in protest to make my voice join with others and be heard; I can share my beliefs with others in ways that take their needs into consideration; I can encourage young women to see themselves as strong and powerful–capable of resisting, of advocating for themselves.

I resolve to try to hate less. To really try. Because I know sowing hate reaps hate and it comes back twice as ugly. I will do whatever it takes to stop hating, lest I become part of the problem. I want to define myself by love, not hate.    

But.

2018–no matter now welcoming it may look– still has a dangerous, inexperienced, misogynistic, immature, immoral little man as its president. He still has the button. We are still threatened by him. We still live in a country where people think he should be our leader–and I think that is the scariest thought of all–the one I hate the most. I think it has made me trust humanity less, and that is a sad, sad thing.

Both of the following statements are true in the new year: we can still hope; we are still in a frightening place.

So here’s to 2018 and the hope that it’s as good as it looks, that it welcomes in more love and less hate, for all of us, and that it is, after all, not an endless loop of the same.

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Apparently You CAN Go Home Again #ouchylovehurts

I’m on a train, headed back to the bay. Awaiting me is a classroom full of books and mementos to be packed up, and an apartment with more of the same. After about four years of living in the beautiful bay area I am moving back to Fresno.

This was not an easy decision. Have I mentioned that I love the bay? And perhaps you have noticed that I have fallen in love with the students at the private high school where they have miraculously allowed me to teach English and Drama the past two years.

And there’s the Fresno heat. My gawd, the HEAT.

But, the thing is: family. I’ve been away from them too long.

In the fall I will begin teaching English 1A at Reedley College. I’m excited for this job. Reedley College was my first choice, as I have always appreciated their focus on and attention to local authors. I’m excited at the prospect of being around other writers and professors. I’m excited to teach at college level. I’m excited to meet new students and colleagues.

The heart, though. It’s a tender muscle. These days it feels stretched, and pulled, and it aches.

I partly blame my students, who upon hearing of my departure began the process of torturing me. This took different forms: hugs, loving notes, and warm sentiments were dished out in a much lesser degree than sarcastic comments, messages on my white board about my desertion of them, and lots of comments like, “Hey Barker–maybe next year we can–oh wait, never mind. I forgot YOU ARE LEAVING US.”

Together my students and I have walked across Spain, studied the stories of others, learned each other’s stories, played games, pranked our principal, eaten meals, slept in cabins, toured San Francisco, put on plays–even Shakespeare (sort of), prayed, worshiped, laughed, cried, danced, and so much more.

I’m also leaving some amazing colleagues, who found various ways over the two years to show their love and support–not the least of them being providing transportation for me when riding my bike just wouldn’t work. They have made me laugh when I needed it most, showed immeasurable patience, and extended a lot of grace. I love them truly.

I’m pretty old now, and have said a few goodbyes in my day.  You’d think I’d be used to it. But nope.

On this day I am grateful for so many things. Perhaps, most of all, I am thankful for the people who live in my heart. I may have said goodbye to them, but they are still with me. They always will be.

 

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I’m Leaving the Country Today #mycamino

I’m leaving the country today. If I weren’t, I’d be marching in the city with other women in protest of the debacle that we all are bearing witness to.

But I don’t want to talk about that.

Today I am leaving the country with a fellow teacher and seven high school students. We’re walking across Spain on the El Camino de Santiago. 

Years ago, I learned about the Camino from my (most honored) English professor Craig Bernthal. He showed us stunning pictures of lush green hills, crumbling old cathedrals, and a long winding path marked with sea shells to help pilgrims find their way.

He spoke of a spiritual journey, a time to ponder, to test yourself, to question.

I thought it to be the most astounding thing.

I never thought I would do it.

The school where I work gave me the chance and I took it. In about two hours I leave for ten days. img_5682-1

We will walk long days in the rain, have lunch at cafés, and sleep in albuerges surrounded by people from all over the world.

I will be in Paris tonight.

I’m leaving the country today–grateful, expectant, and a bit troubled to leave my husband and family so far behind. I’ve written all their initials on the shell that is dangling from my pack; I’ll be carrying them on my back and in my heart.

It’s my 60th year. I’m walking across Spain.

I’m always given more than I deserve.

#mycamino

 

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Will

Just before I heard you died
just a moment before
I heard you’d gone
I’d been holding this
worn copy of Beowulf
and I’d laughed because
Remember?
how you loved Beowulf
and I didn’t?

Remember?
how you could
sit with a person
sit next to a person
and make them feel
so smart
and so significant?

Remember?
how you had such darkness
and such light
and one did not diminish the other?

And did you know that your presence
was so tangible
always?
I think,
because you had so much
mind and heart
that your body could not contain it. But–

Remember?
how you made me laugh
and made me think
and taught me
and pushed me
and Middle Earth days
and sonnets we spoke
and the professor we loved?

Remember?
the girl who struggled
in class and you–
no one knew it–
but you–
you got her through it,
didn’t you?

Remember?
how we–
my husband and I–
we danced to your music and
your soul was on your sleeve
and in the song?

but this is where I had to stop
because the thing is

it’s too hard
right now

to believe

that you

are gone.

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