24 March 2012

Saying Goodbye to George


You could have retired
    to the sound of trains
    and made all your stories
    include lessons about
    going off the rails
        and getting sidetracked.

You could have built houses,
    shaping habitat for others,
    sheltering dreams
    that go beyond
a final resting place.

You could have---
    but that's a longer story
    than we could tell here.

Instead, you came to prison
    and fell in love
    with characters
who had gone
    off the rails
    longed to go straight
    and designed hopes that
    tumble down.

Everywhere you went
    you bragged about
    being on the inside.
You laughed at the shocked looks.

"It's the best place I've ever been,
    --the best place I've ever worked
    --the best experience I ever had."

George, you were the best thing that
    ever happened to us,
    a persistent gift,
    a faithful love.

We already miss you.   

Shannon O'Donnell, March 2012.

George's Memorial Mass was held yesterday in the parish where he spent his later years with his wife, Nancy. Friends and coworkers from the Forestry Service and trains gathered on a bright spring morning that was warm with the fragrance of new grass and early flowers. George died January 23 and in the weeks between then and now, his body was taken by train back to Pennsylvania where his children and grandchildren live and he was buried there.

When George died in January, the weather was cold, rainy some days, snowy others. It was miserable. Now it is spring. We seemed to need the time to get used to the fact that George has gone to something new.

George became a volunteer at the prison when he was well into retirement. Prison might have been new, but his concern for others was lifelong. Habitat for Humanity, the local food bank, and many other things had been a big deal for him. To the men in the prison, he was almost a dad or a good uncle. He saw without judgment, spoke without scolding, and loved them deeply. For men trying to make sense of their lives, attempting change on a grand scale, George offered them a chance to see a life lived with joy and service. He became a gift beyond measure.

One of the last books George read was Fr. Greg Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart. The stories about former gang members remaking their lives resonated with him and reminded him of the men in prison. He recommended it more than a few times to his friends. It's a suggestion I pass on to you. Thank God for people like George who teach us that hearts are made to be broken and loved in all that brokenness.

14 March 2012

And Now for Something New

I've written about working in prison and jail for the last few years, using this space to explore the issues that arise when some of the consequences of bad behavior includes time away from family, job, society and whatever else we take for granted. What I've come to learn is that people who are incarcerated are like the rest of us, sometimes more so, and that I have a lot to learn.

Recently there has been some other news on the prison/jail front. I read this post at Salon.com and then heard a story on NPR based on the original. With everything else that comes up behind bars, Alzheimer's had to be there as well. Here's a link to the Salon article.

In another part of my life, Alzheimer's is a big deal. Jail and memory loss don't intersect too often--or do they? Experiences with my mother over the last 10-12 years make me wonder how frightening Alzheimer's must be in a system that doesn't understand when you get caught in a memory loop or you think you hear children crying under your bed or you can't understand what someone says when they're yelling at you for not following directions. All the more reason to pay attention, no matter what it costs.

07 March 2012

The Conundrum of Grace

"How do we learn to bless
     rather than damn,
           those with whom we disagree,
           those whom we fear,
           those who are different? . . .

All of Creation groans in travail.
All will be redeemed
in God's fullness of time,
     not just the small portion of the population
     who have been given the grace to know
          and accept Christ.
All the strayed and stolen sheep.
All the little lost ones.

To look for hell, not heaven,
is a kind of blasphemy,
for we are called to live in hope."

--Madeline L'Engle, Stone Pillow*

Test screen patterns showed up
after the national anthem.
We'd call it a screen saver today
but when I was a kid
it was the absolute sign
that there was nothing more to watch
you might as well go to bed
There were no infomercials to cajole
credit card information,
no "call in the next five minutes"
for an extra bonus
or free shipping.
There was just that test pattern,
the profile of an Indian, why?

Simple, straight-forward,
no guesswork allowed
or needed.
Ten Commandments easily memorized.
Right and wrong simple to identify.

We learned the nuances later,
if we learned them at all.
Some got caught in a permanent fog.
Others lived within the sharp borders
of certainty, control.

At the jail
I carry a message of freedom
and take note
of the pages of rules
     taped to the walls
and the court-ordered time
and the institution-issued clothing.

How valid is the message?
Do I even believe it?

"All will be redeemed,"
the poet says.
the grand totality
every thought
every word
every action 
ever intention

all of it
all of us

A saint once said, "We won't get to heaven
until we all get there." 

Every day I spend at the jail
I believe it
more and more.

*Madeline L'Engle wrote this as prose. I broke it into poetry to savor the words. And I borrowed it from The Mercy Blog where Mike Farley writes exquisitely about God's mercy.