27 June 2010

Directionally Challenged

All I had to do was go to the courthouse, get my fingerprints done, and get my badge.

I went to the wrong building, after sitting out in the courtyard, smugly enjoying the fact that I was early.

I found an office with a title that seemed to fit what I was looking for--but I was in the wrong building. Uh huh. This was the County Administration building. I needed to be across the street in the Courthouse.

I also needed the bathroom. Spotted the familiar blue and white sign down a poorly painted hallway. Zipped inside and went into the stall.

"And tell me, Shannon, what was your first clue that you might be in the wrong bathroom?"

Maybe the fact that the toilet seat was up? Or that the contents hadn't been flushed?

It's a public bathroom, I told myself, get used to it.

I heard someone else come into the bathroom.

I noticed the shoes first.

And then the direction in which the shoes were pointing.

They were not pointing forward like my feet were.

I waited til he left and then hurried out before anyone else came in.

No, I hadn't noticed the urinal right next to the stall with the door. And no, I hadn't really read the sign outside that clearly said MEN with the appropriate drawing. And there wasn't any cloying perfumey smell that sometimes inhabits the women's room.

Went to the courthouse, found the right office, filled out the forms, hoping they wouldn't ask if I'd done anything illegal in the last ten minutes. Fingerprinting done. Here's the badge. Have a nice day.

Back to the office without incident.

24 June 2010

"There is no fresh air in this facility." UPDATED

That was the the important lesson last Wednesday night when I went through orientation for the jail. We were a mixed group: some AA/NA volunteers, several women who work with women in transition, a health care provider, a mental health care worker, an Americorps volunteer (who looked like he was just out of high school, but I'm sure that was due to my failing eyesight) and me, the new Catholic chaplain.

We had four hours to learn the ropes and the important stuff and take a brief tour. About the physical plant: no windows can open, if you're lucky enough to be in a room with a window. There is some fresh air in the exercise yard, but, the jail is built right next to the freeway, so the "yard" is all concrete and the air smells like exhaust. "There is no fresh air in this facility," we were told.

On our tour, we went to a floor that housed about 20 people per section. Everyone was dressed in red jumpsuits. They spend all day in that room. The calendar has turned to official summer, but it hasn't been very warm in Seattle yet. I could imagine a hot stretch of days in August, sitting in the same stinking clothes. I remember what my brothers' rooms smelled like. I'm sure this isn't a pleasant spot.

There are 1200 people in the jail, stacked up in a building that is 12 stories high. The top floor is dedicated to the fixing of electronics. Otherwise, the higher you are in the building, the more security there is, the more serious the offenders. It is a delicate balance to place people where they will not be hurt, or do harm to others, or be an occasion of uproar. Things shift often.

We got hustled out of our multi-purpose room because "we're bringing in a bunch of people." So off we went to the booking area to get our pictures taken for badges. Two dozen people were on their way to be booked into the jail--no, not the new volunteers, two dozen of the protesters who had closed down a busy downtown street at the height of rush hour for three hours. (Immigration reform is a hot ticket here.) Pictures taken, on to the tour.

We were done just after 10.

The end result for me? Friday I got my badge, in what I hear is absolute record time. As of Monday, the computer chip will be activated and I'll be able to get into the bathrooms! Even better: I'll be able to go above my office floor, start helping out with services, and start talking with the folks. That's what I've really been missing.

And now you know. "There is no fresh air in this facility." That's why I keep the office door open and the fan going.

13 June 2010

Bless me, friends, for I am homesick...

A couple of other bloggers are talking about sin and reconciliation today, and as I read and pondered, the familiar opening to the Rite of Penance and Reconciliation came to mind, except it began with what I put in the subject line: I am homesick!

Not homesick for home because that's where I am right now, typing away. So homesick for what? It took a few minutes to figure it out, but here it is: I am homesick for ministry.

Three Sundays have passed since I said my goodbyes at the prison. I went to my home parish the first Sunday. I was at my sister's in Oregon last week. Today, I pulled the blankets over my head and went back to sleep.

I have finally moved the four boxes of things I brought home from work into the office space, freeing up the floor in the living room. I'll go through them tonight; to file or to toss will be the question. (Given the fact that it has been 12 years since I left parish work, and that there are still at least four of those boxes jammed into a closet after a move where I tossed out 75 percent of what I owned, this is a major attempt on my part to start a new job with far less clutter than I could.)

I am missing the conversations I had with the men I worked with, usually something that began simply enough. "How are you?" "Fine." "Really? You're not looking fine." "Well, actually---" and we'd head for my office and the box of tissues and close the door.

"I just stopped in to tell you that I passed my GED." "Where are my gold stars when I need them? That's terrific!"

"Could I talk to you for a minute? I don't want to take up your time." "It's your time. That's why I'm here."

I miss preaching. I miss saying things that build a sense of connection and recognition, I miss the arched eyebrows and suppressed laughter when I nail something that more than a few people have been thinking. I miss the profound silence of a room full of 70 people bending their heads in prayer. I miss the raggedy band who come forward for communion with their various responses: A-MEN, Sister! Thank you. Glory to God. And also with you. Peace, Sister. What am I supposed to do now? (Eat it, I say.)

I miss the grace-full moments that are always a surprise, even as I always expect that God will provide.

The upside to all of this is that I will be starting work on Wednesday at the jail in downtown Seattle. Time to brush up on why I do ministry and how I do it.

You are a beloved child of God.
And so is everyone else you meet.

Help me, help me, help me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
(with thanks to author Anne Lamott)

I'm grateful for all the people who share their ministries in so many different ways with so many different people. In a world aching for God's touch, what a reason to celebrate the gifts of all God's people.

10 June 2010

Valley of the Inbetween


Three full weeks of vacation and I'm still fidgety about it. I haven't taken this kind of time off since I was a school teacher back in the 70s and 80s. In those days, the ten weeks of summer were a time to catch up on some required course, haunt the local library, and one year, spend 10 delirious weeks in Assisi, Italy.

Every doorway in this town is related to something in Francis' life: here's the stall where he was born, the post office was once a church where he was baptized, this hole is where his father threw him for a time out, this bishop's courtyard is where he stripped himself naked and renounced his father... I came away from that summer knowing that every town is holy, carries the marks of the holy people who live there. While you can find your way from one end of Assisi (Basilica of St. Francis) to the other (Basilica of St. Clare) by following all the souvenir shops, the paths through our modern sainted towns is not always so easy.


High above the city is the Hermitage, originally a series of caves cut into the hillside used by Francis and his followers as retreat space. The walk up the hill from town is steep, but manageable. The woods are gracious and inviting. The only "say what" moment you might have is when the limousine almost runs you down on the hairpin turn. (It's a taxi.)

And this is one of my favorite spaces in Assisi. It's beneath the basement of the Basilica of St. Francis. On the top floor are the famous Giotto frescoes. On the middle floor, a wealth of artwork that includes what is probably a good representation of what Francis actually
looked like. And then, down a steep stairway made of rock, to a chapel that fits fewer than fifty, there is the resting place of St. Francis. He was buried here, secretly, because his bones were worth big money and the Franciscans didn't want to lose him to Rome. Notice the bars around the casket, as well as the stone. No chance of an escape from here.

I loved to go down into the cellar and sit in a pew, watching the pilgrims come and go. Dozens of different tour groups speaking every language under the sun came throughout the day. Whatever else we might have had in common, we shared a love for a man who defied the convention of his day and chose Jesus as his friend and companion.

Tonight I look at the image again and think how seriously connected are the different pieces of my life. I didn't know thirty years ago that prison bars would be such a big part of my life in the new century. The fact that Francis spent a year as a prisoner of war has always been part of the story, as has that piece about his father tossing him into a home prison.

Assisi came to mean a breathing space for me. I found fresh delight in the ordinariness of human life lived in the midst of war, politics, art, family squabbles, church craziness. When I moved into prison work, I discovered that rare joy again. No matter the circumstances or the really bad decisions, here is a place where the Great Dance happens at all hours of the day and night.

This last picture is taken from the plains below the town. Assisi stretches across the hill, but you're standing at the gates of the Assisi War Cemetery--and it says that in English, not Italian. Hundreds of Allied troops are buried here. Not many people visit, but it is part of the mystery and draw of Assisi for me.

Three weeks between prison and jail have been a kind of Assisi for me, allowing me to remember Who loves me, Who calls me, Who I serve. I cannot wait to pass through the gates into another city-on-a-hill and to start looking for the souvenir shops full of stories.

01 June 2010

Cloud Watching

First, you should take some time and read Sherry's post about "Looking up and finding clouds." That's what put me in the mood to respond here. As I make the adjustment to having LOTS of time on my hands between jobs, I'm hungry for some good cloud-watching time. (Unfortunately, the weather as it is in Tacoma these days, if I turn my face up, I'm likely to get a bucket of rain in it. It's JUNE already. Knock it off!)

There was a day, some time back, when I had a string of guys in my office at the prison. All of them were struggling with being in prison, the length of their sentences, the time they hadn’t heard from family, the sameness of the routine. By the time the seventh one had come in, I was ready to suggest a support group.

Instead, I made the same suggestion to each: When it’s time for yard, go out and lay down in the grass and look up.

The clouds were particularly wonderful that day, scudding across the sky and turning themselves into shapes begging to be named.

At prison, when you’re walking around, the concrete and the fences are always part of the picture. The trees, although there are many, are far beyond the fences. (“I haven’t hugged a tree in six years,” one of the men wailed.) There’s always a reminder that you’re locked up and that fact isn’t going to change any time soon.

Flat on your back, looking at the clouds, there is no concertina wire to be seen. The sky can look like the ocean and you can sail away on the clouds.

I wondered later if I might have caused some trouble, if a group of guys had taken my advice and just laid down in the expanse of grass and looked up–would someone take that as behavior needing discipline?

I noticed as the weather got warmer there were more guys basking in the sun during yard. Some of them were watching the clouds.

What do you do when your soul needs a stretch?