Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beyond Bars

"The outside world," says Karen, in a comment below, "can be such a harsh place."

How did that happen, that the regular world became the outside world? So fast . . .

Last Monday, I heard an interview on Talk of the Nation with two law professors who've written a book entitled Beyond Bars. It offers advice on how to take up life again after having been released from prison, and the discussion with the authors and the callers was fascinating. One of the major topics of conversation had to do with the difficulty of finding employment; in this day of the internet, it is virtually impossible for someone to dispense with even an expunged record. One heartbreaking story: a gentleman who, finding most doors to employment barred, started his own business, eventually employing 50 people. When the bank where he maintained a large line of credit asked him to apply for a SBA loan, the requisite criminal records check finished him off ~ his bank withdrew its longstanding loan, and he was forced to close.

It was one of the smaller issues that caught my attention, however. There was some talk about the need for former prisoners to re-learn the simple means by which common societal interaction is eased: how to walk, how to make small talk. In a hostile environment, one learns to walk defensively or aggressively, depending on the context, and to avoid eye contact. And small talk, needed for job interviews and most employment situations, is entirely avoided.

I listened intently.

"I'm just like 'them,' " I thought. In what I have come to refer to as the parallel universe which I now inhabit, certain skills are now elusive. I am fine -- usually -- when the conversation is serious and focused, but I have lost most capacity for the fluff that eases our way through life. I now often avoid groups of friends because I realize that the most inappropriate things come out of my mouth ~ they think we are talking about a baby shower, and I think we are talking about the death of a child; they think we are talking about home renovation and I think we are talking about rooms that echo with the sound of a voice now gone. I can speak in seminary classes, I can do spiritual direction, I can write sermons ~ I can engage in interactions in which the topics are weighty ones upon which lives depend ~ but I can barely manage a wedding reception.

(Or perhaps I am simply struggling, in an atmosphere which seems far more dense than previously, with some of the same issues pertaining to ministry that I found so disconcerting last summer. I recall writing about an encounter when, on a brief break from CPE in which I wanted nothing more than a walk and an opportunity to think about anything other than what goes on in Giant Famous Hospital, a neighbor on the street asked me why there is suffering. Now, with my combined persona of soon-to-be-minister and bereaved mother, people decide that wedding receptions are good places in which to address matters pertaining to both.)

At any rate, I am going to be looking at Beyond Bars for insight in the same way in which I look at books more obviously centered on theology and spirituality. Because grief is its own prison, and I am guessing that "their' experiences have much to tell me about my own.

There is, of course, no 'they,' which is why I place the word in quotation marks. Even the people whom I now think of as "them," the people with what appear to me to be lives of normality, have their own hidden sorrows. And I need to find the same degree of patience and insight toward them as I long for for myself.


MikeF said...

Isn't that remarkable, how fast the regular world can become the outside world?

It's odd that I should be reading your post here, because I had just the experience you describe with "the smaller issues" at church this morning. Of course the end of a marriage is not to be compared directly with the suicide of a child, but still... I suddenly realised that I was living in a slightly difference space than the people I was talking, and that, like you, I'd have been perfectly comfortable discussing serious, focussed matters; but here I was, completely lost with the ordinary trivia, not knowing how to answer the most innocuous inquiry as to "how I was?"

Fortunately I was rescued by a wonderful woman of prayer, who asked me "No, seriously, how are you really doing?" Then I could answer, then I could tell her about this odd new landscape called being alone.

Thank you for this, GG. And thank you especially for the parallel with life after prison. Having had a little to do with prison ministry at one time, I could make sense of what your two authors were saying, and of the ex-prisoners' experience. It is a very real parallel, I think...

(The verification test was "umositi". A kind of pickled brine shrimp, popular as a garnish in the Tohoku region of Japan?)

Gannet Girl said...

I can't say that thge thought of pickled brine shrimp is an appetizing one. But solidarity in this other universe -- that's kind of nice.

Your experience is why I didn't go to church this morning. I'm up to once a month or so, but mostly it's just too hard a place to be.

karengberger said...

This feeling is very familiar to me; thank you for putting so clearly into words, and for being (as always) honest about it. It is vitally important not to feel cut off & alone in life, yet community of any kind poses many difficulties in this space of grieving. I'm glad that this book has provided a way of seeing the situation that resonates with you.

Karen and Joe said...

We've just started at a new church, and the necessary process of getting to know people/introductions/small talk are laborious at best, and at worst they can precipitate tears, disjointed confessions of grief, and hasty apologies. I hate that people get such an odd look on their face, and kind of step back. I am helpless to stop it, yet also hoping people will be patient with me and not just write me off as the unstable newcomer. I feel like a stranger in a strange land. GG, your analogy is a good one. Many thanks.

Gannet Girl said...

At the wedding last week, one of our neighbors, after speaking to our daughter who used to babysit for his family, looked quizically at our little family and said, "Don't you have another son?"

Note to self: a conversation like the very brief one that ensued should be followed by a visit with a note and a plate of cookies, not by avoidance at said wedding reception.

Karen and Joe said...

Oh,oww, heart squeeze, deep pain in chest...just reading about that wedding encounter hurts so much. A hug for you, friend.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

"Grief is its own prison." That's insightful, and what you write about needing to relearn social skills makes sense t me too.

Anonymous said...

Have to disagree about avoiding the wedding reception. You were caring fully for yourself. Good for you.

Also, the note and plate of cookies would be most appropriate -- for the neighbor to bring to you!

Holding you and all of yours in prayer,
Gracie, a lurker

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