14 September 2009

Running Into Famous People

Sunday afternoon, the final service of the day. I'm looking out the classroom window at the garden below. It is half harvested now. Still hundreds of pounds of potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and cabbage yet to be pulled, but close to 9,000 pounds of vegetables have gone to the kitchen and to four local foodbanks already.

Into the classroom comes a young man. "Catholic service?" It is. He sticks out his hand. "I'm Chuck Norris." I bite my tongue and resist making a crack about his famous namesake, certain that he's heard it all his life. He's bright, chatty, full of questions. The room fills up.

Later I run across Gary Cooper who has decided he is Pagan this time through prison. Who knew?

Today, I got to talk to Carole King. Turns out she's the mother of one of my guys. No, not that Carole King.

Names are a great fun thing around here. Perhaps because I was a teacher for 10 years, I tend to notice names and can make a fairly good guess at how they have been mispronounced over the years. Growing up, my last name was Cain. Every English teacher I ever had in high school, on the first day of class, would take roll and get to my name and say, "Cain? Where's Abel?" And there was an Abel. Carol Abel. Junior year she sat two rows over and one back. She probably got the same question in other classes.

I've made phone calls for guys whose entire family had names beginning with T. (Note to self: Do not ask if their dad is "Mister T.")

More fun is trying to extricate the name of "my baby's momma's momma's sister." Does she have a name? Or does she go by "Hey you?"

Some of the Hispanic men are impressed when I can spell their names after hearing it the first time, but I grew up in Southern California and it isn't such a parlor trick as it might seem. One of my brothers had a good friend while we were growing up. We often came home to a message that read, "Geoff, Jesus called."

"What am I supposed to call you?" The man was truly puzzled as he was leaving my office today. There are so many choices! Twenty years ago, my students in New Orleans called me "Ms. O." These days I answer to "Chaplain," "Sister," "Shannon (or Sharon or Janet)."

But I do love running into famous people. Gary, Chuck, nice to meet you.

04 September 2009

Discovering Nature

I'm infamous for not "doing" nature. Going for a walk in the woods or on the beach is not a meditative or restorative experience for me. Chalk it up to physical awkwardness or just plain fear that I will fall and not be able to get up. Whatever. I found a kindred spirit in a pastor named Kathy last year. Kathy said she was a couch potato and couldn't understand why one would want to "go for a walk and talk" when one could just as easily sit on the couch and talk.

I do the "ooooh and ahhhhh" thing from time to time, but it is rare.

A pastor I once worked for was going on about his summer vacation, a month on the coast of Oregon. I looked at him and said, "I couldn't do that. The ocean never shuts up!" True.

I live in a beautiful part of the country, and April to June is wonderful with waves of new colors appearing. The streets can be awash with rain and looking quite dreary, then one day the cherry trees blossom--and there's never just one standing alone, groups of cherry trees in shades from white to almost red.

At the prison, there's a severe lack of nature. Much of the campus is paved over with cement. There are great stretches of green, but it is not lawn. It is yard. By mid-August it is brown and stiff and there are deep grooves where the softball games have gone on too long. The only green left is around the flower beds which are relentlessly cheerful in color and variety. And the green of the vegetable garden which holds thousands of pounds of the good stuff for the local food banks.

Lately, though, I've been sending guys "out into nature" to get a new perspective on things. It feels like a strange suggestion.

If you stand anywhere on the prison grounds, you can see the evergreen trees that surround us. The ground itself was once covered with trees, but they were cleared out to build the prison back in the 1960s. The evergreens that are visible are far outside the perimeter, across the road (and you wouldn't dare go hiking in those woods because they are covered with treated sludge from our wastewater treatment plant). The Olympic mountains are visible, snowcapped for a good part of the year. But there are no trees within the fences. The flower gardens start their journey in the greenhouse, as do the vegetables. One day there is nothing, the next day, flowers and vegetables.

If you stand anywhere and look out at the horizon, you see concrete. You see chain link fences. You see something standing in your way of the view. I think those visual limitations cramp the soul, but most people don't realize it. I can't send restless men out to "take a walk." Too often that's just an invitation to be in the wrong place and get a write-up for doing it.

So I've been telling them to find a spot in the big yard and lay down. Look up at the sky. Watch the clouds for a while. See the big expanse that can't be seen when standing vertically. Shift the horizon.

The suggestion has been met with quizzical looks. I'm not surprised. But after I'd given that direction to the 12th or 13th person, I added, "You won't be alone out there staring at the sky, I promise."

And they haven't been.

I'm on vacation this week and listening to the rain outside my window falling onto the broad leaves of whatever-it-is growing out there. I like the sound. It's peaceful. It's about as close to nature as I get. But it's good.