21 December 2008

Life Is What Happens...

It's after 11 on a Sunday morning and I'm in the office. At home. I am not at the prison having finished two services and taking a break before two more. I am home. In nine and a half years, this has happened fewer times than the fingers on one hand.

The reason? Snow. A big wallop of it.

I was in Tacoma when it began, planning to head to Shelton on Saturday afternoon, back to the place where I'm housesitting and taking care of a couple of cats. I was all set to walk out the door about one when I couldn't find my keys.

My keys. My nemesis. The keyring holds: my front door and mailbox keys, the key to my brother's house (he's in California right now, but asked me to check on the birds), the keys to the place I'm housesitting, and the keys to the church where I pick up communion every week. A big clunky set of keys. I couldn't find them.

I checked the desk where I'd plunked down the mail. That was the last action I'd taken with the keys. I tore the sofa apart. I cleared off the dining room table. I went through my pokets.

I called my sister. "I can't find my keys and I feel like I'm losing my mind." My sister brought her psychic powers to bear and made me walk through all 834 square feet of my place. No keys. Our Mom has Alzheimer's and this fact is always lurking in the back of my mind, "Maybe this is it, maybe my time has come." Not helpful. I told my sister I'd call her back when I found the keys.

I took a break. I read a paper. I checked my dresser where I'd picked up a few more socks. No keys. I went back to the living room, looked at the two boxes of recycling that I'd already gone through. I looked at the wicker trash basket and picked it up. I shook it. Keys.

I called my sister.

At this point, it was after four and there was no way I was going to drive in the snow and the dark. So I stayed home another night.

We had a big fall of snow on Thursday and I'd exchanged emails with one of our volunteer groups who had decided to not attempt the trip on Sunday morning. I listened to a few weather reports and called the Catholic volunteers. We were staying home on Sunday.

So that's why I'm home. The roads are too slick to be fussing with. And I couldn't find my keys. I get it. Take it slow. And go feed the cats.

Back at the prison, the only defense against the cold are heavy jackets that absorb moisture and never really get dry again. The guys are wearing cotton jumpsuits. No thermal underwear. Their shoes have plastic soles. Not good for navigating the cleared walkways.

Have a good Christmas. We'll be celebrating it next Sunday.

05 December 2008

Advent in Prison

I begin the Sunday Word and Communion service with, "Happy New Year!" Some of the guys look startled. Those who have been around a few years already know the joke. It's one of those "teaching moments" that work well.

I get to talk about Advent, the start of the new church year. I say a bit about the gospel of Mark that we'll be listening to this year, with good chunks of John thrown in because Mark is so darn short. Someone notices that last week we had the sparkly red spandex table cloth and this week we have the shiny purple, to say nothing of my matching blouses...

We all gather around the Advent candles, four dark purplish fist-sized things that I found at the Dollar Store (no pink...I'll keep on looking). We bless the candles and ask God to bless the time.

For the homily, Mark's "Be alert!" draws me back to a neighbor's bumper sticker, "Jesus is coming. Look busy!" and because we had the reading from Matthew recently, I ask what kind of busy work Jesus might be looking for. The guys are great. They remember: Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the prisoners.

Today I did a good bit of spiritual accompaniment (can't call it direction--I never know where God is going!) and found myself saying again and again, "Do what is right in front of you." And so I am.

It's Advent. I get it. Really. I do.

and PS: you really should go back and read the post from December 9, 2007 for the fun that happens during Advent. (One of these days, I'll learn how to make a link!)

26 November 2008

A Few Updates

#1. About the atheist who wanted a non-kosher diet: I went to see him in his unit last Sunday. He wasn't there. He's sitting in the Closed Observation Unit (mental health area, monitored 24/7), wearing a smock, not talking to anyone. Seems he made that comment about kosher food while he was working in the kitchen and someone took offense. Smacked him over the head with a mop handle. Two black eyes and 14 stitches later, he'll be spending Thanksgiving in a very bare room. (The smock is so he can't use his clothing to harm himself.)

#2. My car: has not been heard from since it was stolen. Although a bank teller may have heard one of the thieves on the phone. Go figure. A young woman called wanted to know about whether a certain account was active. The bank doesn't divulge that kind of information. Young woman hung up--or thought she did. There was some further conversation about "We need to get another car soon. This one's only good for a few more days." HA. Tabs are up December 1st.

#3. One of the fun things I get to do: deliver backpacks to two local schools. The local foodbank that sits in our parish block established a backpack program for kids who might not have enough food for the weekend. They pack up Top Ramen, mac and cheese, breakfast bars, juice, things kids like to eat and can prepare by themselves. There are at least two dozen kids at each of five schools getting those backpacks. It's sad that they need the food, but great that we can provide a little something.

Last Friday, I was on a delivery run and hauling backpacks into an office. A girl, probably eight or so, was on her way to the front office but stopped and said, "I'm one of the backpack girls." I told her I was delighted to meet her. "I sent you a thank you card," she said and went on to describe her backpack. What a jewel.

#4. Other things that could explain why I haven't posted much lately: I'm in school. It's a pastoral leadership program, two days a month. Should be easy, right? HA! It was a day when I was supposed to be headed to school that my car was stolen, remember? There's a lot of reading to be done, and papers to write. Today it was the paper that got me. I've known about this assignment since September. We got more explicit instructions back on Nov. 12th. When did I decide to write this 5-8 page paper that had to be postmarked by Nov. 26th (and not emailed or faxed)? Why, today, of course. I actually function fairly well under pressure and I'd been chewing on the "case" to analyze for a while, but putting it together with the information we'd gotten in class and in the readings... sheesh. I kept sending my sister email updates: "It's 1:30 and I've written 3.25 pages." Lucky for me, the paper was done, printed, stuffed in an envelope and hauled to the post office before 5pm.

I plan to spend a good part of the next three days doing the reading for class that is next Tuesday. And how did I end up without a Bible in my house? Are they all at the office?

If you think dysfunctional families are fun during the holidays (witness the slapstick comedies that come out about now), try being in prison. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, it's going to be a bumpy ride, as some famous actress once said. We try to walk a fine line, having events that focus on families and kids, which irritates or depresses the hell out of people who don't get to see their families, and we have to carry on as if one day is just like another, except that it's way too easy for the staff to get cranky for being away from their families.

I look at the calendar and wonder where 2008 has gone. I had such good intentions. Maybe I'll sort the bills, clean off the dining room table, haul out the recycling, and put on "Amahl and the Night Visitors." I'm almost ready for the season.

19 November 2008

It Takes All Kinds

The requests from offenders have multiplied in the last week or so. Many of the requests are from people who have been gone for a while and are now back because they violated their community custody (aka parole). Things have changed since they were last here.

#1 request: "Please send me some Thanksgiving cards. I need 10 for my family and girlfriends." The chapel doesn't do cards anymore, I have to tell them. Order them from store--where, it's reported, they get lousy cards.

#2: "Please send me an address book. I don't want a piece of paper. I want an address book." Okay, truth is, we've been out of address books for a couple of weeks, so my solution was to make up a sheet of paper with address labels on it so people could at least collect all their information in one place. Once we got the address books back in, they could just transfer the stuff.

#3: "I want a rosary cross to wear, please." Do you want a rosary (with beads, cannot be worn) or a cross (wooden, can be worn). They are two separate items. Please indicate your preference.

#4: "My counselor isn't talking to me. I need to see you NOW ASAP." You and about 50 other folks. Take a number. Get in line. (Okay, I don't really say that, but there are moments.)

This one took the cake today: "I am an atheist. I do not believe in any religion. I notice that some of the food we are served here is kosher. You are infringing on my rights and forcing me to follow the practice of a religion I don't believe in. I want a diet with non-kosher foods. Please make this happen NOW." At least he said please. I wrote him back that I'd see him on Sunday and discuss his diet issues.

I was asked to review a Safety Plan and Calendar for the Holiday Season today as well. Sigh. Although the document was labeled "2008" none of the dates matched what was on the calendar. There were events listed that aren't happening this year, events that happened last year and no one has said they want to do them again this year, and somehow my name was on the spot that said, "Will provide inspirational thoughts and stories for the season." I think my first posting will be the list of 125+ friends and relatives of offenders who have died since January 1, 2008, with the note, "Be grateful you're on this side of the grass today."

21 October 2008

It Had to Happen

Okay, God. I get it. I work in a prison with all sorts of people who have done all sorts of things. I listen intently to the stories, even the ones that begin with "I didn't do it."

But tonight, I have my own story.

I was headed to Seattle this morning for two days of classes. My carpool buddy showed up at 6:30am so we could get on the road for the 8am class. I grabbed up my bags and books and we were out the door. So far, so good.

There's a small parking lot in front of my building, six slots. I'm #1. The #1 slot was empty. (You saw this coming, didn't you?) I looked out onto the street where several silver-colored cars were parked. None of them was my 2004 Toyota Corolla.

I went back inside and called the police. Because the police didn't get there before we had to get on the road, I cancelled the call and went to school in my buddy's car. (She has a 14-year-old Toyota. Go figure.)

I told the people in class about my car. Another woman talked about the fire at her workplace over the weekend. And a man shared the news that his wife had accepted a job in Maine and they were going to try the bi-coastal thing for a while.

When we got home at 6 tonight, I was entertaining thoughts that the thief might have had a change of heart and put my car back in its place. No such luck. So the policeman has been here-- he looked 12 but was wearing a wedding ring.

He asked about identifying marks on the car. Crunch marks on the right front panel, from the day I was moving out of the house where I'd lived for 17 years and for the first time ever, I angled the car out of the garage too sharply.

I told him my Department of Corrections ID badge was in the car. His eyebrows went up. I told him the prison where I worked. Then he wanted to know if there were any weapons in the car? A bullet-proof vest?

"I'm a chaplain," I said. "I don't use that kind of equipment." And no, it's not used to access anything. My face has to match the picture or they won't let me in. (While the badge is missing, I have to show my driver's license, then I get to wear a temporary badge--if I'm lucky, it's #1.)

He gave me a card with all the important information to relay to the insurance company. I started making a list of what's in the car that I'm really missing:

--My last can of diet Pepsi.

--My handicapped parking placard, which just cost me a $250 ticket because I forgot to hang it when I was at the bookstore a few weeks ago.

--The back seat was loaded with boxes of books headed to the prison from a local library book sale.

--Some CDs.

Everything else was just stuff.

When I go to work on Sunday, I'll put the word out that my car is missing. I'm sure someone knows someone who knows someone else who knows where my car might be.

Or maybe it will just show up again.

Like that's going to happen!

15 October 2008

The Things I Hear

My first summer at the prison, I walked out to one of the units to check on someone. The units are all one-story concrete and rebar ugly buildings, painted with a god-awful not quite teal trim. (Someone got a GREAT deal back in the 70s, I'm convinced.) Walking up the sidewalk, you can't see into the cells because the windows are covered with decorative brick, but those inside can see out.

So I was on my merry way, looking at the scenery (not much) and rehearsing in my head who it was I needed to see. Suddenly, I heard a long wolf whistle followed by, "Yo, Mama! Where you been all my life?"

Another voice scolded, "Shut up! That's the chaplain!"

A chastised voice replied, "Sorry, ma'am." I tried not to laugh.

Lately I've had to tell far too many people that someone is sick and in the hospital, or that someone has died. I can't just go and hang out in any of the units because as soon as I show up, the word goes out, "Uh oh. The chaplain's here. Who died?"

As a chaplain, I've heard a lot of stories, many of them beginning with, "I didn't do what I'm in here for." It's not my job to judge the truth of that. I have to go with the fact that everyone here either agreed to a plea or was convicted of a crime. We go forward from there.

But I hear all sorts of stories: about a man molested and raped by his camp counselor when he was ten; about the guy who attacked the man who had raped his daughter; about the family that seems to have moved and left no forwarding address. Those stories go on and on.

And then there are the good stories: pictures of a new baby or grandbaby; celebrating a GED--the first success with schoolwork in more than 15 years; getting two brothers together who hadn't seen each other in more than four years (and one of them said, "I haven't been to the chapel in all the time I've been here. Why did I come in here today?"); the man getting interviewed by a team of people who are willing to help him restart his life in society.

I hear confessions of all sorts, get asked marriage advice, give Prison 101 talks at least six times a week, and get to accompany people on their journey to discover who is God now that everything has fallen apart.

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Though I must admit, I could use a good wolf whistle now and then.

04 October 2008

Feast of St. Francis

"Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

That's a line often attributed to Francis of Assisi, though I don't have the time to look it up to see if he actually said it. There are many things attributed to Francis, like the famous "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" prayer that he didn't write. But the quote is a good one, nonetheless. I am often prone to saying that our lives may be the only gospel some people will ever read.

My favorite cross is the one that spoke to Francis at the little church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. "Go and rebuild my church, which you can see is falling into ruins." Frenchy took that literally and went out collecting stones and started his home improvement project. He also took some of his father's bolts of fabric, sold them, and used the money. This did not make the old man happy. Dad hauled his son into the bishop's courtyard and demanded that the bishop make his son behave, to honor his father as the commandment said.

Francis stripped off his clothes and declared, "From this moment on, Pietro di Bernadone is not my father. I say instead, 'My father who art in heaven.'" The bishop had someone throw his cloak around the naked guy and Dad went home in a huff. From the stories written about Francis, one is missing: he apparently never reconciled with his father.

That part of the story makes me think of the inmates tonight, many who are estranged from their families, from their communities, from themselves. Maybe there is a bit of hope along with the sadness. Francis went on to do some amazing things, cajoling people to fall in love with God who is infinitely patient and merciful.

I have a poster of the San Damiano cross hanging in my office. It's big enough to see all the detail, even the rooster at Jesus' left knee. It captivates men who sit in my office for any length of time. They probably aren't aware that the Jesus on that cross is risen, that behind his arms you can see the two angels at the empty tomb, that cloud of witnesses above him, and those tiny people? His enemies.

Isn't that much of the truth of our lives? There is a great deal going on and all sorts of people around us. The fundamental truth is that we are beloved children of God and the sobering truth is that each of us is capable of great evil. This cross gives me hope, but the story of Francis does so even more.

When I was 20 and going to school in Rome, one of our professors took us for a long weekend to Assisi. Francis became a real person that weekend, someone who partied all over that lovely city, prayed in its churches, and desperately wanted to be like Jesus. He wasn't perfect. He was a bit eccentric. He lived in a time of war--suddenly the crusades weren't just dates in the history book--they were a real cause! And he was a poet. He made being a Christian possible in ways that other saints never quite moved me.

Here's another quote, one I've never seen on a poster or a bumper sticker. Francis wrote it in a letter of advice to a minister of the Little Brothers: "There should be no friar in the whole world who has fallen into sin, no matter how far he has fallen, who will ever fail to find your forgiveness for the asking, if he will only look in your eyes. ... And should he appear before you again a thousand times, you should love him more than you love me, so that you may draw him to God."

May God bless you and keep you.

May God's face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May God look on you kindly and give you peace.

26 September 2008

In the Strangest Places

There's a bus pulled up in front of one of the buildings, the one marked "Reception." Another load of folks from some county jail has arrived.

We use that word "reception" in so many ways around here. The prison itself is known as "The Reception Center" because every man who gets at least a year and a day to serve starts at county and comes here for assessment and classification. The units into which those people are placed are called "The Receiving Units" or, more often, "The R Units" and they number from one to seven. Units 1-3 are called "The Lower Rs" mostly because however you get there, you have to go down a flight of stairs and through a long tunnel. Men down here wear grey jumpsuits. (Remember this. There will be a test at the end!)

Guys placed in R 1-3 are intensively involved with orientation for a couple of weeks. They get seen by the doctor, the dentist, the optometrist, mental health for a quick assessment. ("Are you breathing? Can you move on your own?" are the basic questions.) They also get a chemical dependency assessment and questions get asked about their school background. State law says that if they are under 24 and don't have a high school diploma or a GED, they will have to get the GED before they leave prison.

At some point, they will meet with a counselor/case manager who will interview them and give them some options about where they might be assigned, according to their custody level.

When the basics are done, those in the Lower Rs move to the Upper Rs, usually to R units 4 and 5. They exchange the grey jumpsuits for orange ones, and get called "pumpkins" to go with it. In 4 and 5 they wait for bedspace at their next prison. When it's time to move on, they'll troop back over to that building where they first arrived and get loaded on to a bus.

While I often see groups of offenders moving from that Reception building to other parts of the prison, I don't usually go inside. It's a hectic place and guys are in various stages of dress and undress. I like to preserve at least the illusion of privacy but sometimes, things can't be helped.

Yesterday I called the Receiving Sergeant to ask when the bus from Spokane was due in. When he told me 2:30, I said I'd be over. There was a man on the bus who was going to get some bad news. I gave them til 3 to be settled into the receiving process: photographs, fingerprints, "do you need protection?" --not a question about condoms, but about actual physical protection.

At 3, I was inside, saying hello to the workers I know from our long-term unit, waving to a guy who recognized me because he'd been in before, and trying desperately to keep my eyes at above-the-shoulder level because most of the new arrivals were wearing only very badly fitting underwear, no boxers in the bunch. I grew up with four younger brothers, but a roomful of nearly naked men is definitely outside my comfort zone.

The man I needed to see was in line for something else, so the sergeant told him to come into the office when he was done. A couple of minutes later, in he came. The sergeant pointed to a chair and asked, "You going to be okay?" The guy shrugged with a "and just what do you think I could do about it" look on his face.

I introduced myself and then told him about the news the county jail had received earlier in the morning. His uncle was on his way to work in Montana, and trying to save gas, chose to drive his small economy car instead of his truck. A moose jumped out on to the road, the car crashed into it, and his uncle was killed. (I didn't tell him what the jail officer had told me, "The moose won.") He wanted to know which uncle, but the jail hadn't been that specific, so we got his sister on the phone and he talked for a while. I put my jacket around his shoulders.

When he was done, he shook his head. "Last time I was here, my grandfather died."

He left to finish getting processed. I checked to see where he'd be housed. On my way out of the institution, I called the R1 sergeant and filled him in, asked him to keep an eye on the man who had to learn about his dead uncle this afternoon. Another bus was pulling up.

I've had to do death notifications in all sorts of places, usually fairly private, all parties fully clothed. But sometimes you just have to be in strange places.

31 August 2008

Does God Have A Sense of Humor?

Every now and then, I just have to ask the question.

Today was a fine day of contemplating Jeremiah's complaint, "You duped me, O God, and I let myself be duped." Except that "duped" isn't in the usual offender vocabulary. So at various services it was "dupped" and "du-ped." And I offered other words: You tricked me. You seduced me. You sold me a bill of goods. Put in those terms, the guys got it. And we went from there to talk about why Jeremiah complained.

Being a spokesperson for God should be a good thing, right? Except people yell at him, chase him out of town, throw rocks at him, toss him down a dry well. Where's the reward in all that?

And Peter, who has only lived with his new name for half a paragraph, hears that his Friend is going to be killed in Jerusalem and goes sideways. "God forbid anything should happen to you!" Jesus slaps on a new name, "You Satan," and goes on to talk about the suffering to come.

You thought becoming a Christian would make your life easier? WRONG Thank you for playing. Becoming a person of faith means you get to know the great secret: in good times and in bad, God is with you. You are not alone. Your suffering means something and, linked to Christ, you may be able to understand that you are linking to all people who are suffering, whom God wishes to heal.

After Communion in the R-1 dining room, a time of silence followed--except for the chatterers who just don't get it. So I offered to teach them a prayer that one of the jail chaplains uses often.
I spoke a line and they repeated it.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still [at which point the ice machine over in the corner kicked into high gear and belched out a bucketful of ice]

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.


Does God have a sense of humor? You bet. Especially when we are taking ourselves far too seriously.

12 August 2008

Square Breathing

Being a chaplain requires all types of arcane knowledge. For me, having worn the crown of Queen of the Lint Trap Brain for many years, I'm often jazzed when some little thing I learned years ago becomes important in the work at hand. For instance: square breathing.

I heard square breathing described when I listened to Dr. Joy Browne on her call-in advice show. She's far more helpful and far less caustic and toxic than another Dr. I could name, but won't. At any rate, the caller was having problems with panic attacks and Dr. Joy talked about square breathing. I filed the information away, much like I have filed away in that same lint trap brain the particular Catholic feast day we might be celebrating.

Enter prison chaplaincy and the opportunity to work with all kinds of people of all sorts of faith practices and none to speak of. Many of them are first-timers and all they've really seen of prison, besides their weeks or months in county jail, is that they've seen on "Lock-Up" on MSNBC. Not the best of examples.

So a guy is in my office, his head filled with stories about prison rapes, weapons made of sharpened toothbrushes, and the memory of some tattooed guy who told him he was "going to learn a lot" at the prison. He's scared witless. He hasn't been sleeping. He may (or may not) have discovered a need for God--at this point, most of them are looking to hire a bodyguard and I'm more likely to recommend St. Michael the Archangel. But he wants something he can do or use.

So I teach him about square breathing.

I draw a square on a piece of paper. I label the upper-left corner with "Inhale 4." The next corner is labelled, "Hold 4." The next, "Exhale 4." And the last, "Do nothing for 4."

Then I make him demonstrate. "Inhale for a count of four." He looks at me as if I'm crazy, but he can count to four, and he does what I say.

"Hold it for four counts. One, two, three, four." Some have a hard time doing this.

"Exhale for four. Take your time. Not all at once. One, two, three, four." We have to practice this one a few times.

Finally, "Now do nothing for four." I tap out the count.

By this time, just trying to follow my directions has refocused the guy in front of me. Doesn't matter if he came in crying about the letter he got from his girlfriend or the bad dude who just moved into his cell. For the moment, he's concentrating on breathing and counting.

And that's all there is to it. Square breathing.

You can increase the count as you get better with the breathing, but most of my guys start with 4 and use that. They can spend 10 minutes--or even 5--doing that kind of breathing. The oxygen remembers the pathway to the brain. The heart rate slows down. The noise of prison fades away. Panic takes a back seat.

Learning not to panic in prison is a big deal, but it's not mentioned in orientation and none of the guys who have "been there, done that" think to pass it on to the new guys. I use it myself, when the days are too full of "do this NOW" moments. I stop where I am. I close my eyes. I inhale for a count of four, and hold it for four, and exhale for four, and do nothing for four.

I don't know if Dr. Joy Brown is still teaching people about square breathing, but I've hung on to the lesson and thank her every time I teach someone else the simple technique.

10 August 2008


A word about George, for all you who've been praying for him. His wife called yesterday to say that George went for surgery Tuesday, as planned, and two more times. Things were dicey and he was on a ventilator. But Friday and Saturday, he was sitting up, off the ventilator, "marching in place," and hankering for a walk. All of this is good news.

I let the men know at all the services today. We had gathered around George at two of the services last week and prayed for him, supplementing the Anointing of the Sick he'd celebrated on Saturday evening. I am always moved by how personally the men in prison take on the task of praying for others, near or far.

Today's readings about Elijah in the cave and Jesus on the water were especially fitting. In the great storms of life, what do we most need to hear? "I am with you."

27 July 2008

Aloha! Aloha!

Sunday evening and I'm learning how to breathe again after the First Day of the Week with all its attendant stuff.

On my voicemail this morning, a request from a woman that I ask her nephew to put her and the grandmother on his visit list. She did not leave his name or Dept. of Corrections number. She did leave her own phone number. I called and left her a message: "If you give me his name, I can give him your message." Next?

One of the Catholic volunteers had an angiogram last week and the news "wasn't good," he said this morning. "Three veins go into the heart. All of them have some kind of blockage, and one of them, the doctor told me he had no idea how any blood was getting through." George goes to Seattle again tomorrow to consult with doctors. Added him to the prayer lists.

Email and voicemail from one of the mental health psychs, asking me to see a man who just found out he has renal failure. Could I talk to him? I'd forwarded the email to a colleague who is here on Fridays and Saturdays when I'm gone, hoping he could do an initial visit. But the colleague was home with a sick wife and child, so I went to see the offender in the hospital. I asked if he'd understood what the doctors had told him yesterday, if he knew the name of his condition. "They told me, but I don't understand." Lucky for me, I'd googled "renal failure" before I went to the infirmary, just enough to know there's "acute" and "chronic." I told him his kidneys weren't working 100%, that he'd need to talk to the doctors about living with something that couldn't just be "fixed." He wanted to talk to his mom. I need to find her phone number.

Back to the chapel and there's another voicemail. "This message is for John Smith, DOC number XXXXXX. His mother died at ten minutes to ten this morning." Click. No name or number for me to call to verify the information. The offender has been moved to another prison in the last couple of days. His mother's phone number is disconnected. I look on the computer records and find notes that his mother had been at a hospital in Tacoma recently. I called their Medical Records. No record of a patient by that name dying today. Further investigation shows that his mom was elderly, had had a fall, was taken off life-support a couple of days ago. I write an email and send it to the man's chaplain and counselor at the new prison, giving what information I've found. From the notes, he's known that his mother was not in good shape, so this may not be news for him today.

So what does all this have to do with the title of this post? We do five Word and Communion services for the Catholics here on Sundays. We have a worship sheet in English and Spanish that comes out of Los Angeles, a new one every week with all the prayers and readings. It's very useful, and very portable, which is important because we have long distances to cover and can't be hauling books around.

The inmate population is very transient, so, needless to say, I don't train any lectors, nor put them on a schedule, and no one gets to see the readings until right before the service. I ask for volunteers to read in whichever language is comfortable for them. Sometimes it takes a bit of coaxing (remember what it was like when you were in school?) and sometimes people volunteer very readily.

There are sometimes funny twists on the readings which can come from typos or misprints in the worship sheets or from a seriously unskilled reader who felt called to read today. A famous reading from Exodus once had "Moses went up to the mountain of Go." The reader confessed afterwards he didn't know how to pronounce the word. He'd never run into it before. When I told him it was the "mountain of God," he laughed and said, "Here I thought the Catholics had come up with a new version of Exodus!"

And then there are days when we are in the groove of things, moving right along, word perfect, and the gospel reader stands and says, "Aloha! Aloha!" and the gathered assembly says, right on cue, "Aloha! Aloha!"

Well, why not? It's a greeting, isn't it?

PS: You're going to pray for George, remember?

16 July 2008

Why Vacation?

16 November 2005

I talked to man today whose 20-year-old son was killed earlier this month. The young man had been walking on some train tracks in Arkansas. Maybe he was high, his father thought. He was planning to go to college in February. His father is broken-hearted, trying to make sense of it. "Everything happens for a reason," he said. He didn't find much comfort in the words, and he already knew his son's death was not God's Plan A.

He was concerned about his anger that was simmering just below rage. We talked about the stages of grief. The intellectual knowledge may help for a bit, between the waves of grief.
One of my colleagues talked with five men last Sunday, each with some kind of emergency or disaster. Maybe with a population of 2000 I shouldn't be surprised. Maybe those are just the averages. Some days it seems a bit much.

Another man who stopped in today had good news. He'd gotten to see his son for the first time in ages this past weekend. He has been reading books on tape for this son and was so thrilled to have the human connection at last. What a contrast with the father who'd lost his son.


I found those few paragraphs in a tablet I picked up this morning, intending to do some writing while I took a friend on errands. I'd forgotten about that day. It happened almost three years ago. I remember at the time I thought I would never forget, but I do. In the past few months, several men have thanked me for helping through a difficult time: a parent's death, a child in the hospital, finding someone who'd gone missing during Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the faces are familiar, sometimes the name, but more often, I am meeting a man for the first time.

I'm on vacation this week, but not away from my work email. From one of the staff came word today that a man's child had fallen from the fourth floor of an apartment building and died. It was hard not to get into the car and drive to the prison. It's one of those rare days when no chaplain is present. But I know that the staff in the man's unit is very capable and can make sure he gets the support he needs for the moment. I know that a chaplain will be in tomorrow and can meet with him.

I find it hard to take a vacation--though I know that life goes on and people will survive if I'm not there to remind them to breathe. It's not that I think I'm so crucial to the process. My concern is that people get good, thoughtful care. Bad news or good news cannot be rushed. The body has to physically absorb information before it has time to sink into the brain and the heart. We've all known people who are quick to say, "It's been a year already. Get over it." The men I work with hear, "She was your EX. Why do you care?" "You haven't talked to your dad in 20 years. Why are you crying?"

Although they don't like to speak of it, hope is a deep river underneath much of the bantering, teasing, and general guy-talk. Hope for love that really will last past a prison sentence. Hope for reconciliation when he's done the worst thing imaginable. Hope for resolution. Hope for the last word. Hope for something beyond the silences.

Taking some vacation makes me stop and ask what I'm hoping for, what I long for, what I need so that I can keep doing this work. Vacation reminds me that I need to breathe deeply, that I must know my own emotions and deal with them, that ultimately I must let go and not carry every story with me.

That's why I write. I give the stories a place to live on their own. That's also why I keep a book in my office of the names of those who have died who are related to the men I serve. That book of names is a witness to the stories both spoken and silent.

Vacation is the space between the lines.

25 June 2008

Another Day Like This and I'll...

Full stop day. Be ready for anything. I think it will be usual and then it isn’t. Which part was out of the ordinary?

When I came through Minor Control, both superintendent and associate superintendent were standing talking. Great. Nice to be noticed when you’re coming in later than usual.

Make a run through the infirmary. Anyone in the hospital? Anyone on a suicide watch? Everything is looking normal. So far.

Into the office. Lights out. Nobody home. Okay. Now it’s close to 10. Paperwork. Mail.

Worker from TOP arrives at 10 with several dozen envelopes. Can we find where all these people are and get the envelopes into the mailbox before 10:30? Of course we can.

Track down addresses of a couple of county jails. Check on people out to court. 11am. Building closed.

5 after. Phone call. Doctoral student in Colorado calling to do an interview. “Should a person not worry about feeling safe in a prison?” HA! Where would you get that idea? Chaplains sometimes have a golden halo around them. Mess with them, you’re messing with God, but that doesn’t keep you safe. Have to be on notice, all the time.

Difference here: receiving prison. Everything is very well regulated, walkways with fences, but never let down your guard.

After 12. Still doing paperwork, sorting mail. Phone call. “There’s a chaplain here to see you.” “Send him in.” “Can’t. The door’s locked.”

Door’s locked? It’s almost 12:30 and the place should be buzzing. What’s going on? Let Fr. Joe in the front door.

He tells me that the place is locked down; they’re looking for a screwdriver. Okay. That explains the lack of movement.We chat in the office. Ten minutes later, a couple of people from HQ show up. A few minutes after that, another volunteer. Still no offenders.

Finally, well after one, offenders start trickling in. Call the units. Cancel that group. Find the inmate volunteers. Wouldn’t it be helpful if someone would send out a general email and say, “The place is locked down. If you’re expecting anyone, he’ll be late”?

Chapel fills, presentations and interviews start. Officer at my door with offender who needs to see me about a death in the family. Fr. Joe leaves to hear confessions. Native American Offender and I talk for 45 minutes about his grandfather and the stories he told and the rituals around grieving. He leaves.

Another one takes his place. Another grandfather dead. Wants to talk to his mother but she isn’t home. Fewer stories. He wants to go to the funeral. Send a note to his counselor to start the paperwork.

Set the timer for 10 minutes. Write this. Another day like this one and I’ll have a book in no time.

****special thanks to http://www.10minutewriter.com/ and http://www.conversiondiary.com/ for the inspiration to get some writing done today... Plus I have something to read at writers' group tonight!

21 May 2008

It's Always Something

The upstairs officer came by at lunchtime on Monday. "Do you know who uses Room 206 on Sunday?"

I do.

She held out a plastic garbage bag. Inside I see the paper that was our service sheet for Sunday. And a bright red splotch all across it.

I knew what the problem was right away. I asked, "Did it spook you?"

"Well, I was just going to ask if you could change the color of the candle you use on Sunday," she said.

Not a problem. I can find a white candle for the Feast of Corpus Christi.

That red candle I'd used the last two weekends was a really dark red. I dumped out the excess wax so it wouldn't drip on the carpet or the stairs as we went back to the chapel. Didn't know the darn stuff dried such a bright red.

No deaths, no injuries, just the chaplain's candle wax.

All is right with the world.

19 May 2008

Pentecost Party

Last Sunday, I did not begin each service with, "Happy Easter!" The men were starting to look a bit jaded with that greeting after seven weeks. Things were looking a bit different. I wore a shiny red blouse. The altar cloth was sequined spandex, red, of course. There was a new red candle and dark red (dried) tulips. And a birthday cake.

It was really a Mother's Day cake, but I'd taken off the little plastic doo-dad that said, "Happy Mother's Day" and brought along birthday candles.

We talked about the origins of Pentecost, the spring harvest and road trip festival of Jesus' time. The volunteers who'd tackled the first reading in each service were congratulated for getting through the "Parthians, Medes, Elamites" and assorted others.

I'm grateful for the similar experience every Sunday we gather. We're not "Parthians, Medes, or Elamites," but the truth is that we come from every one of the 39 counties in the state, from a wide variety of states, from different countries (Russia, Cambodia, Mexico, and Belize were represented that day), from different gangs. We speak different languages, had different life experiences and run-ins with the law. Yet, on this given Sunday, we're all gathered in one place, wearing grey or orange depending on the unit, listening to God's word, praying, and sharing communion, no matter what might divide us at other times.

At the end of each service, I lit the birthday candles. Everyone stood and, in our best Spirit-filled voices, we sang "Happy Birthday" to the church. Best singing I've heard in a long time. Very fun.

Plenty of Shoutin' Goin' On

Easter in prison--always a challenge--and always fun. While many churches see a swell of congregants on Easter and Christmas, we have the irony of Mass only on Easter and Christmas. Catholic services here are on Sundays and priests are few and far between and any who are still upright and breathing are busy in parishes. No extras for the prison.

But on Easter and Christmas, we are gifted with a retired priest, Fr. Joe, who comes to celebrate with us. He's here other days as well, offering reconciliation to the men who seek him out. But Easter is fun.

First, will Fr. Joe and the other volunteers make it in to the chapel by 8:15am? Will there be a problem with mainline, officers busy in the dining room and no one to check folks in through the scanner? Will we have fogline? Will we have electricity?

Second, there's the challenge of celebrating Mass in the same amount of time that we usually celebrate a Word and Communion service. With music. We didn't baptize anyone this year, but in past years, in has been a tight squeeze!

After the gospel, Fr. Joe asked if I had anything to say. I did. I'd been caught by the image from Paul about "all of creation groaning" for the week before Easter and I wondered out loud about Jesus being raised from the dead. Did the angels roll the stone away and then did all of creation stand at the edge and yell with one voice, "JESUS! COME OUT!" Did creation yell as loudly as Jesus did a few weeks before, summoning Lazarus from the tomb? So much poetry and art paints the scene in early morning silence. I'm more convinced that it was a noisy event. "JESUS!"

I think I knocked a few people out of their seats when I yelled. In church. More than once. Hey. Why not?

29 April 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Okay, it's still the Easter season (even if I did mistakenly tell the guys that next Sunday is Pentecost already. Silly me) but that song has been in my brain since last Sunday.

Sunday mornings are a rush, trying to get everything done and everyone into the chapel by 8:15. I usually pull into the parking lot at 7:30, turn in my car keys, hike down the long hall to pick up my prison keys, then out the door and a ten-minute walk to the chapel. (I'm slowed down a bit these days because my broken foot, which has mended, is still a bit stiff.) Once in the chapel, I flip on the lights, set up the altar, find the worship sheets, get matches out of the safe so I can light the candle, and try to remind myself of anything else that might need to be done or announced that day.

At the same time, the first of the volunteers are arriving. Some are coming in for the Catholic service, others to pick up materials for Protestant services in other parts of the institution.

This last Sunday, a volunteer named Mike picked up address books and Our Daily Bread devotionals, and headed out to Receiving Unit Three. We started the Catholic service. Somewhere between the first and second readings, Mike was back, unloaded his stuff, and was gone.

I found out later that he'd gone to Unit Three, but there'd been a problem and the service was cancelled. Mike went home.

Since activities in that part of the prison are very limited--people are locked down about 22 hours a day--it takes a lot to get a service cancelled. So I called and asked.

Which brings me to the title of this piece.

It seems that a cell phone was heard ringing in the unit on Saturday night.

Staff aren't allowed to bring in cell phones. One of the things I really like about services and meetings at the prison is that we are never interrupted by the ringing of a cell phone.

When offenders arrive on the bus from county jail, they are delivered to a building marked "Receiving." Inside, they are strip searched, run through a quick physical, answer a bunch of questions and fill out a few forms, and then they are assigned to a unit. They bring with them only their addresses and phone numbers and their legal work. Nothing else. Not even that well-worn bible that they got in county.

So Saturday night, a cell phone rang in Unit Three.

Sunday morning, every man in the place was getting strip searched. All the cells were searched. Breakfast was running very late. Church services were cancelled.

Today is Tuesday. They still haven't found the cell phone. The staff raises their collective eyebrows and wonders why the phone wasn't on vibrate... There are only so many places such an item could be placed if it were smuggled in... And the guys don't have contact visits while they are in this unit, so it wasn't in the baby's diapers...

Never a dull day. Always entertaining. That's prison for you.

20 April 2008

Number, please?

I announced that Fr. Joe would be in to hear confessions this week and asked the men to see me after the service to sign up. Half a dozen were at my door. One by one, I asked, "Name? Number?"

When I got to the fourth guy in line, he said, "Korinsky. 5092748553."

"Too many numbers," I said, not looking up from my scratch pad. He repeated them. I looked up.

"Should only be six numbers," I insisted. He blushed. "Ah, you're new." I explained, "I need your Department of Corrections number, not your phone number."

The other guys laughed. They'd done it themselves when they first came in. We're so used to rattling off addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, passwords. What else would "Number, please" mean but "I want your phone number?"

27 March 2008

Easter Aftermath

I'll write about Easter soon, before I forget it. Really. Although today is Thursday, it is my Easter Monday and I took the day off. I spent two hours this morning at a workshop on "Vicarious Trauma." Doesn't that sound like a load of fun?

The workshop was sponsored by the Domestic Violence Center where I volunteer a few hours a month as a chaplain to the clients (and sometimes the staff). The main point? People who work in helping professions have a peculiar hazardous condition that comes with the job: we tend to take on the suffering of others. That "taking on" can go in different directions. Either one puts up the wall and nothing touches the soul, and we lose touch with our humanity, or we go the other way and overreact to things without knowing why.

Why go to a workshop like this on a day off (when it was SNOWING, for heaven's sake, at least in and around the area!)? It actually came as a result of Easter, the day I juggled three church services and three death notifications. There were two more deaths on Monday and another on Tuesday. Wednesday I looked at the log I keep online at work of the death notifications that we do. From late February through yesterday, there were more than 2 dozen deaths. That included my good friend Paul and a woman who was on the custody staff for years who died after surgery.

I checked my innards and I said, "Self, it's time for a little outside help here."

And that's why I went to the workshop.

It was good. And I'm shaking off the stiff shoulders, listening to classical music so I don't have to strain to understand the lyrics, and reading through a pile of entries for a writing competition. The soundtrack of "Juno" is playing in the car--and I love those lyrics.

Wednesday in my office, I pulled a CD off the shelf and set it to play. Several times over the next few hours, men appeared at my door, puzzled looks on their faces. "It's a Meatloaf kind of day" was the only explanation I gave them. I got caught once singing along, "Life is a lemon and I want my money back!" Not that I was feeling that way exactly, but they were big loud words and I was having big loud feelings. (Same explanation I give to the guys who are deep in a conversation with me and swear, and immediately apologize. Sometimes those are the only words big enough to capture the feelings...)

09 March 2008

Just When I Think I've Seen It All

I've written before about the tattoos I see in prison. It's amazing what people will write on their bodies. Some of the work is wonderfully artistic. Some of it is cheap and looks scary. I'm always looking to see what might be inked around a man's neck.

I've seen the girlfriend's name, the gang nickname, a rosary (just how does one pray a rosary that is tattooed around the neck?)

Today, though, today was something else.

The man came to communion. "The Body of Christ," I said and noticed the ink around his neck.

Before he left, I was able to read: - - - - - - - - - - CUT HERE - - - - - - - - - -

I'm wondering what he's thinking tonight after hearing me go on about Ezekiel and that valley of dry bones, about Lazarus and his stinky tomb, about those places inside us we'd rather not explore or even name because it is just too nasty and we know that even God isn't going to take a chance on that toxic waste. "I have promised and I will do it."

Okay, God, surprise me.

06 March 2008

29 February 2008

Last Friday night, some friends and I were talking about a priest we know. His mother died on this day in 1996 and at her funeral, two of her sons, Frs. Jim and Paul, joked that it was just like their mother to die on Leap Day so they could only fuss about it every four years.

On Saturday night, one of those friends called me. "Paul is dead."

Saturday morning, he didn't show up for something at the parish and someone went to check on him. They found him dead at home, probably of a heart attack.

"We have another friend in heaven," was a message on my voicemail Sunday morning. It was Fr. Joe calling. Between Fr. Joe and Fr. Paul, I learned some of the best lessons about ministry. The overriding conviction that every person I meet is first and foremost a child of God--that's a lesson I learned from both these men.

Paul found great delight at every parish he served. He loved the people and made them part of his family, even as he and his family continued to love, play, and support each other through the years. I met Paul before he was ordained a deacon in 1977. Through his various parish assignments and my various careers in ministry, we talked often. He got to know a lot of the stories about my family and when my grandfather died in 1995, Paul was the natural choice to preside at the funeral. I think he was the only one who could sail the choppy dysfunctional waters that were my family in those days.

And after days of not wanting to believe it, last night and today we said the words, prayed together, and said goodbye.

There were many loving tributes last night and today, but one of his brothers said it best, "Paul's best work is right here, all these people gathered together." There were over two thousand people at the funeral, from every parish where Paul had worked, every group he'd given his time to, every walk of life. In Paul's life, he kept saying that the Church had to be big enough for everyone. There was room in his life for all of us and I know there's still room for more at God's great banquet table.

15 February 2008

Rest in Peace

Just before I left work yesterday, a phone call came, letting me know that one of the unit sergeants had died. He hadn't come to work, hadn't called. Not typical behavior for him at all. Law enforcement was notified. He was found dead at home. Not suicide. No foul play. Just dead.

The superintendent and other administrators made the rounds during that shift, letting staff know what had happened. The face to face notification is just as important for staff as it is for the offenders I see when I have to tell them someone they know has died.

For the staff, this is a difficult time. It's the third officer to die in just over a year. And a well-loved support staff person died last winter as well.

While there is sometimes a stiff upper lip attitude among staffers, there is always the awareness that we work in a dangerous place, that stress can and does become unmanageable, that each day could be the last.

When a staff person dies and there's a funeral, people turn out in droves. If it's an officer, the honor guard will be there. Sometimes there is also a memorial service at the prison, but that depends on the family's wishes. We find ways to grieve and mark the memories. There is a set of benches out in front of the facility, facing a stone with the names of those who have died carved into it.

This week, there's a new name to add. Remember Steve.

09 February 2008

What's For Dinner?

There's a five-week schedule of menus for all the prisons in Washington State. I don't usually know what's on the menu, though there are days when I know what's NOT on the menu. I look out the chapel windows to the yard enclosed by chain-link fence. Are there seagulls on the field? No chicken on the menu tonight.

You laugh. But it's true! When chicken is on the menu, the seagulls are not to be seen. Out of reverence for their cousins? or fear for their own lives? Hard to tell. Sometimes the seagulls are a thick crew. Other times, you'd never know they come around.

I'm aware of the limitations of the menu when the men complain about how small the meals seem, or how limited in calories, or how starchy it all is. Some make the effort to have a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet, but doing that is a job in itself and the menu is even more limited. And most can only get those diets if they practice a particular religion that has a specific diet. There are few of those.

In segregation, kosher meals are popular. They come packaged. Less chance of someone messing with a tray of food. For people who lean to the paranoid side of life, it just seems safer.

Some years ago, a group of inmates incorporated themselves in a new religion and then petitioned that their diet be recognized by the Department of Corrections. It was fairly simple, just an accommodation for Friday nights when they wanted to have steak and wine. It didn't happen. One of the rules is that your religion has to be recognized out in the public arena.

Every year, some of the Catholics and Episcopalians will ask about a special diet for Lent. Most of them aren't old enough to remember the days you could go to hell for having a hot dog on a Friday. There isn't a special diet for Catholics for Fridays in Lent, so what's a guy to do?

Because he has no control over the menu, he can: skip whatever meat is served, choose to give up something else, or realize that sometimes it is more of a penance to eat and be grateful for what is in front of him. Men choose what they can.

When we were a smoking institution, a number would give up smoking. But no one, including the staff, has smoked on the grounds in years.

At a Lenten gathering last week, some talked about giving up snacks from the store or writing a letter to loved ones without haranguing about "when will you send me money/pictures/a letter." One man is going on a virtual pilgrimage, saying one prayer for every mile between Shelton and Arlington National Cemetery where the Tomb of the Unknowns lies. He is a veteran, and I know the effort has meaning for him on various levels.

Meanwhile, we laugh about the seagulls and gripe about the menu. It's all good.

08 February 2008

The Big Lie

People sometimes ask if guys at the prison lie to me. I'm sure they do. I've been known to tell a few lies myself. Why wouldn't any other person tell me a lie?

The lies are easy to spot some days. I ask how a guy is doing. "I'm fine," he says, but he doesn't look me in the eye, his chin is a little wobbly. "Liar." Usually he looks sheepish. Then we close the door and he talks. He's used to saying, "Fine," because that is what you say. The word maintains the facade of a guy who can handle anything that gets thrown at him. "Fine."

Other lies? They may be less than the truth--about a crime that was committed, a domestic dispute gets wrapped in 4th degree assault, a death in a traffic accident that fails to mention the death. "You got five years for a car accident?" Just asking the question lets him know I know he's lying.

Some offenders lie about why they are in prison altogether. When the prison pecking order seems to glamorize murder and assault, the bottom of the pile is the sex offense, especially those against children. If a man is going to survive the first few months of prison, he finds another charge with an equivalent sentence and claims that as his own.

Behind the door of my office, I hear the truth, or at least more truth than another offender is likely to hear.

I don't go to my work thinking everyone is lying to me. I expect they are telling the truth and if they're not, the truth will eventually come out. I've advocated for a man on occasion, only to discover that he hadn't told me enough truth for me to be a credible advocate. But I go on.

01 February 2008

What's that you say?

When I was in the third grade, attending St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic School in central California, there were fifty students in my class. Sr. Terence managed us all quite well, though how she kept track of us, I don't know. It was my first year at that school, but I'd scored the role of Mary for the Christmas play and got treated to raised eyebrows from the guy who played Joseph every time we prayed the Hail Mary.

Sr. Terence was unlike any other nun I'd known up until that time. When we had special petitions, she wouldn't just pray, but she'd use her own words. In a time when everything was memorized, she stood out. She also jumped rope with us, 15-decade rosary clattering in rhythm, and was quite at ease during folk dances. But it was those spontaneous prayers that really stood out. And, third graders that we were, we angled for attention.

Which brings me to my story. In the early spring of that year, probably in April, a group of us were at Sr. Terence's desk, getting ready for class. A few spoke their requests to her. Me? This is what I said: "My brother died." She gave me a long look, but when we prayed at the beginning of class, she prayed for my brother.

The next Sunday, as my dad and I were walking to the car after Mass, she happened to come out of the convent. She greeted us and asked, "How's your little boy doing?" My dad said, "He was pretty sick for a while, spent a couple of days in the hospital, but he's home now and doing fine." She looked at me and then went back inside.

Our home was a number of miles from church. Dad didn't say anything about my brother. I think I pretended to be asleep.

Some time that afternoon, both Mom and Dad came into my bedroom and closed the door. Mom sat down on the bed. "Why did you tell Sr. Terence that Geoffrey died?"

"I didn't!"

"She says you did."

"She must have me mixed up with someone else!" (Fifty kids in the class, surely she could be wrong.)

I don't remember anything else of the conversation. I'm sure my parents were rational about it all because I don't remember getting spanked for lying.

In later years, I think about how inadequate third-grade thinking is. There was one Catholic church for the whole town. The sisters, who lived a block away, would have known about any funeral. I never missed a day of school--it wouldn't have occurred to me.

My brother, who lived through the event, has asked me why I tried to kill him off. How do I explain that I just wanted some attention from a nun who used her own words to pray?

So why do I tell this now?

Over the last couple of days, I've dealt with an offender who received horrific news, that his 6 year old daughter had died of injuries sustained in a bad fall down a stairwell. He was, after several years, getting ready for a visit with her, and now this. When I talked with him, there was more to the story: his brother who'd told him on the phone that their mother had taken the news so badly that she'd had a stroke or heart attack and ended up in the hospital. And she was dead.

But two days later he got a letter from his mother who'd heard about what the brother had said and was furious.

Today, I had an email saying that offender had gotten news last night that his ex-wife had committed suicide.

How can one person hold all that pain?

I talked with him again. Sorted through the things people were telling him ("Well, she was your EX, so it can't hurt that badly") and check with him about a referral to mental health. He's not feeling suicidal, but he hasn't been able to sleep.

Now, in this early evening, I read a note from mental health, saying the coroner was called and has no record of a six-year-old dying in the past several months and there had been no suicides.

I begin to wonder. I'm standing in a third grade classroom again. I know I've told the big lie. Did someone else?

UPDATE: 2/8/08 I talked with a couple of other people who'd also listened to this story and finally called the man who is in charge of investigations. "Something just doesn't seem right with this. Can you use your law enforcement contacts and check it out?"

The short end of the story: the offender came in last night and said, "You know all that stuff? It was a big fat LIE." Someone new was dating his ex-wife; she didn't want to see him again. What better way than to say she was dead?

I don't know all the details. I don't know if I want to know.