Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"I'm Sorry" is Enough

He had learned how to play the game. He knew what the therapist wanted to see and hear, and he gave him everything that was expected. "Ask lots of questions and be involved", he had told be after a session a few weeks before. "That's what he (the therapist) is looking for. It will look good when he writes up his reports on you", he added.

"So, what are you going to tell your victim when she asks you why?" he asked the man sitting across from me. He has been talking about his family and wife and past for more than 30 minutes and was telling the group how his stepdaughter/victim was doing.

The man didn't have a really good answer, but who could. He didn't want to tell her that it might be because he was harboring anger issues at her mom because she was bisexual and it was common for him to be a part of a three-some with his wife and her friend...though it was mostly hands-off for him when it came to the other woman.

The entire conversation had started tonight because he was sharing how insightful his stepdaughter was when she asked how he could do what he did and still say he loved her mom/his wife. It had led us down a long conversation about sex and love and questions left unanswered.

Then the therapist turned to me and asked me what I would want those who victimized me to say. Talk about being put on the spot. It was a great question, but not one I was very ready for. I hate questions like that because I'm a high achiever...and I struggle internally when I don't have the ready answer at hand.

I sat and thought for a few moments, really searching for an answer. What would I want them to say? What would I say to any that I had victimized in various ways throughout my lifetime?

My first thoughts went to my dad. I don't know if he sexually molested me or not. Without hard evidence I won't accuse, and much of my childhood memory is foggy at best. But he was my source of pornography growing up, even though I know he was an unwilling/unknowing contributor. (Maybe he should have wondered why he stopped receiving it in the mail, or why the 8mm movies had burn holes in them, but I'll never know.) I have thought about how he might feel today if he were still alive to see what I did that sent me to prison. I truly believe that he would be heartbroken to know that he might have somehow contributed in some way by having pornography in the house...never mind that it was often locked behind his bedroom doors. If he had known and had a chance to do it over, I believe he never would have brought it into his house.

When I first got married, I had pornography that I had collected while I was still single. I kept it in a box and had it stored deep under our bed. One of the teachers I knew from another school had even given me some porn VHS tapes that he had recorded. At the time, none of the kids were living with was just Paula and I. But our youngest would often visit and it haunted me that he might somehow in his curiosity come across my hidden cache. One day when no one else was at home, I took it all, put it in a double garbage bag and took it about ten blocks away and threw it in a dumpster that I was sure that he would never go diving in. For a reason I couldn't explain, I just didn't want to be the one that might expose that young man that I love so much to that kind of material. I didn't know at the time what kind of a hold it had on my own life, but I knew that I didn't want my son viewing it.

The neighbor boy who molested me when I was just a little kid...not even ten yet...was just a kid himself. While he was in his teens, there was no way he could know what impact his actions would have on me. No way of knowing how it might mold me. Perhaps he had been a victim himself, I can't even guess. I'd be surprised if he even remembered the event today if he was asked. I can't excuse what he did, but I can't blame him either.

The adult men who victimized me had to know what they were doing was wrong with a capital W! Even though child molestation and exploitation weren't the buzzwords they are today, fondling and engaging in sex with any pre-pubescent child is against the norms of nearly every civilization in the world, let alone the fact that it was with a small

I haven't thought a lot about those men. One I had blocked out of my mind for most of my life, but that probably had more to do with the threats he made than the sexual act. The vague memory that I do have has absolutely no pleasure associated with it. The other man simply fondled threats, and it was pleasurable. There was no pain nor guilt at the time.

Psychologists tell us that is one of the biggest struggles that victims of sexual abuse face. At a young age, they are the recipients of something that "feels" pleasurable and good to the physical body, but there is something deeper inside that conflicts with the pleasure. Somehow, even without being told, you know that it's simply wrong. The body wants it but the mind and heart don't. I know that tension was present in my body and mind from a very early age.

"I'd want them to say 'I'm sorry! I never meant to hurt you or cause you to be impacted by those things. If I could undo it, I would. I'm just so sorry!"

The words finally found their way to my lips. I really wouldn't want any more than that. I wouldn't want any of them to go to jail. I wouldn't want any of them to face the shame and ridicule of reading of their poor choices in the local newspaper or hear their names as the lead story on the 6:00 news. And I wouldn't want any of them to experience the pain and confusion that I've endured. Just to know that they didn't know...that they didn't intend any harm, would be enough. Simply "I'm sorry!"

Friday, July 25, 2008 the End of A Sheet

I could tell as I pulled myself from the cobwebs of the morning...that haziness that fogs my mind as it moves from the peacefulness of sleep to the reality of life in this place that something was different. It was much noisier than usual...not that being noisy was unusual in itself. This place was always noisy. That's why I had the soft rainbow colored earplugs tucked snugly in my ears. But it was unusual for there to still be so many men in the unit. Why weren't they at breakfast?

I've never been much of a morning person, and with the schedule here being so restricted, it made the most sense to me to try to sleep as late as I could and still get to breakfast in the morning. So my routine was to wait until about a half an hour after I heard the first P.A. announcement in the morning and then get up and wander over to the "chow hall". The first announcements usually started around 6:00 AM and they started serving breakfast about 6:05. Our unit was in the top five for chow rotation this week so everyone should be gone.

Our cube was tucked around the corner, so I didn't have a clear shot at the clock that hung above the officer's desk in the front of the unit. I slowly swung myself down from my upper bunk, my body screaming from the pain in my feet and shoulders from sleeping on a four inch thick mattress on a sheet of cold steel. I pulled my glasses on and peeked up at the clock. It read 7:05! What was going on? Had I just missed breakfast and everyone was back in the unit for some reason? That sometimes happened if there had been a fight on the compound somewhere and they had us locked down.

I pulled my khakis on and my flip-flops and wandered up to the front of the unit.

"What's going on?" I asked one of the men leaning against the wall. He just nodded his head and said he didn't know, but there seemed to be a long of action going on upstairs. He said there had been a lot of officers going up and down the stairs.

There are three separate dormitories here... three two story, cement block squares that are made up of four living units in each one. We're in building one and my dorm, or unit, is 1B. The unit upstairs in 1D and I have come to know quite a few of the men who lived up there. I couldn't imagine what might be going on. It seemed a strange time to have a "shake-down", but I never put anything past the people who run this place.

Another twenty minutes passed, and we were finally sent to breakfast. The talk in the chow hall was much more hushed than normal, at least among the English speakers. It seemed that everyone seemed to want to know what was going on and why breakfast was so late.

"I heard someone committed suicide in 1D", a young man at the table next to me told the men sitting at his table.

"Do you know who it was?"

"No, but I heard that they found him in back craft room. I guess he waited until after the 1:00 count and then took his sheet with him, blocked the door and hung himself. That young Mexican C.O., you know the one they say dances in the strip clubs when she's not working here found him is what I heard. Guess she's really messed up right now."

Suicide! I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Why would someone here kill themselves? This place was hell, but there were a lot of places that were a hotter degree of hell than this place was. My mind raced, hoping that it wasn't anyone that I might know. I couldn't fathom why someone would do that. One of the men in our morning Bible study lived in 1D and I would ask him as soon as I could.

An hour later found me in the Chapel, working in the office when J.J. (from our Bible study) came in.

"Hey J.J., what happened in your unit last night? I heard guys at breakfast say there was a suicide."

J.J. came over and sat down across the table from me. I could tell from the fatigue in his eyes that the rumors were true...someone in his unit had taken his life.

"It was Bobby", he said.

"Bobby?" I asked, disbelief in my voice. "Not Bobby who comes over to here every night at dinner rec move? It couldn't be him, he's getting out in six weeks."

"Yea it was him. He got a letter from his wife a couple of weeks ago that she wanted a divorce. I guess he didn't think he could go out there and not have her there waiting for him. He had a couple of kids's just so hard to believe."

I just sat there, my body growing numb. I didn't know Bobby as a close friend, but I knew him. Every night, he would come to the Chapel at the 4:45 rec move so he could sneak into dinner and then go down and watch the games in the rec yard. He was a quiet kid, probably in his late 20's. He was attractive and had the kind of smile that made you want to smile back. I would occasionally see him going into the Catholic mass on Wednesday's but didn't really know where he was in his faith and relationship with God.

I could feel tears welling in my eyes, but the sobbing didn't come. I'd learned to keep my emotions pretty well bottled up, but my heart was broken. Here was a young man with a crumbling marriage (most marriages in this place didn't survive) and young children who had completely lost hope. And he did what many people do when they don't believe they have anything left to live for...he died. Only he didn't just die...he took his precious gift of life and ended it at his own hands.

As I sat and thought about Bobby and depth of the despair that he must have found himself in, I couldn't judge him. While I've never contemplated suicide, I did know what it felt like to not want to live any longer. I remembered those weeks and months after I was arrested and Paula was gone the desire I had to just die. I would be walking on the icy, snow covered roads around the condo complexes and think it would be OK for an oncoming car to slip on the slick roads and run over me. It would be OK. Or if a wayward bullet from the hunters up in the mountains to find its way through the window of the condo and hit me in the head, that was OK by me. I knew what it felt to be without hope. I knew what it felt like to lose everything...and everyone...that I loved.

But I also had found an incredible gift during those months before going into prison. I'd found a relationship with One who is the giver of hope to all who will accept His gift. And as that relationship grew over the weeks and months, I came to trust Him and hear His voice and receive His promises. I heard His voice as He told me I would survive this Hell I found myself in on that cool spring day. And I heard Him that morning. I could hear the pain He felt at the death of this young man. I could feel the moistness of His tears that he wept because Bobby had accepted the lie of the enemy that life isn't worth living...that when it seems that all is lost, there is no other source of hope.

Bobby was gone. Nothing could ever bring him back. I have to believe his wife was heart broken, possibly wracked by feelings of guilt. The thought of two young children never seeing their father again was heart wrenching. But Bobby had lost the one thing that we can't live without...and left his life at the end of a sheet.

Love, Sex and ...

The question caught me off guard. It was my weekly meeting with a group of men that I share something in common with...a past. And not a past that many people can say they share and not one that I brag about. We are all ex-felons who are court mandated to participate in this treatment program.

One of the men had been talking about his relationship with his wife and his problems with anger throughout his life. The therapist had asked him if he felt his anger issued had contributed to his crime.

"Maybe. It's really hard to tell. It was also probably due to my alcohol abuse."

While it was interesting to hear another man's story, I have to admit that I wasn't really that tightly tuned into the conversation. Until the question was asked.

"I've never really connected sex and love together in my life", the man said. "Do you think that may have been part of the reason I did what I did?"

Wow!! It was a question that hit close and deep to my being because I have often struggled with the relationship between those two words...and more importantly...the two actions. As I reflect back on my life, especially growing up, I don't recall a great deal of what I would call love. And sadly, I had experienced too much sex at too young of an age with people I shouldn't have been sexual with.

"How do you define love?", the therapist asked the group. "You know, like Pilate asked Jesus 'What is love?', 'what is love?"

My mind started racing, not like it did when I was 10 and I wanted to impress my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walters. It raced because 'love' is a word that I thought I understood until I did the most 'unloving' thing a man could possibly ever do to his wife. How did I define love?

"It's when you'd give your life for someone else", one of the men offered. "I know I'd jump in front of a bullet for anyone in my family."

"I know I would," another said. "That's the only thing that I think's my kids. They're my life and I know that one of these days I'll get to see them again."

"Would you give up your life for a total stranger?", the man sitting beside me asked.

"Hmmmmmm....yea, I guess I would. Does that mean that I can love someone I don't even know?"

The conversation continued for a while longer with no real answer emerging. Not even the PhD had the answer to this one. The question has continued to haunt me for the past week.

I thought that I knew what love was. Most people who know me, and knew me before I was arrested, would probably have described me as a very loving person. By all outward appearances I was. I provided for my wife and family and met their every need. I was openly affectionate in appropriate ways to those that I "loved". I was always holding my wife's hand or stealing a kiss from her. Hugs with family and friends was a way of life. I said "I love you" at least 10 times a day and left cute little notes all around the house. I'd even call out of the blue just to tell Paula that I loved her or I was thinking of her. Or that I'd just seen a full moon on my drive to work and it was so beautiful that I just wanted to share it with her!

Isn't that what love is?!! Doing all those things...using all the right words...touching in the right ways? If it is, then how could I have done what I did?

We had a very good sex life as well, at least early in our marriage. At times, we would make tender love and at other times, it was sex. And we both enjoyed both. But there was always a tension in our sex life as least for me. I would rarely be the one who initiated...unless I was intoxicated. I was uncomfortable talking about sex and could feel myself flush with embarrassment when the topic was raised. There was too much guilt in my mind and I didn't want to open that door. I was afraid to share all of my sexual past because it was too "bad" and genuinely believed it would change the way Paula might feel about me. In hindsight, just that belief explains how little I truly understood what "love" was.

I have been sexual for as long as I can remember. Whether it was simply touching myself or engaging in sexual contact with other boys growing up or looking at pornography, sexual thoughts have been a part of my psychic make up. Once I had sex with a girl for the first time when I was 20, there was only one woman I dated until I got married that I didn't have sex with (and I'm not sure I would have really defined the one exception as a date). The sex was usually accompanied by great quantities of alcohol and was always consensual. And it was 'good' sex! But there were rarely ever any emotional strings attached for me with these women.

For me, sex and love weren't acts that were really connected. As I pondered that, it has bothered me a great deal. I believe that sex should be the most intimate act that can occur between two people. While biologically, it has a purpose to create new members of a species, it seems to have a much stronger emotional and spiritual purpose. And that's why I think it causes so much pain when there is a sexual betrayal in a relationship. And it may be why I have so much difficulty connecting the two.

Too many betrayals in my own life that I never wanted to admit. A pain deep inside me that I've repressed for so long I'm not sure I'll ever let it all out! It was easier to keep sex (that area where I was betrayed by those who never had that right) and love (which I'm not sure I ever experienced until I was married) separated in my mind. I could have sex with someone and not immediately form an emotional attachment. As I reflect, I think it's part of the reason it was so easy for me to continue to masturbate regularly after I got married (even after a night of great sex). Sex was, and not a sign of love.

I've done a lot of reading since I was arrested and lost everything that I valued in my life. I've learned about premature sexualization and how it impacts a person for their entire least until they deal with it. My therapist says that I struggle with cognitive dissonance...the tension that comes from having two conflicting thoughts in mind at the same time. While this is a good thing (from a therapist's perspective because it indicates I know right from wrong), it feels as though I am being torn in two at times.

I know intrinsically that sex and love are interconnected. I know from a societal perspective (at least in a Christian world view) that sex should be reserved for only one person...your spouse. But I'm not sure how to do it.

"How do you reconnect the correct association between sex and love in your life when they've been disconnected my entire life", I finally asked the therapist.

He sat there and looked at me for what seemed like minutes but I'm sure was only a few seconds.

"For someone like you who experienced the kinds of things that you did as a young you were influenced by early sexualization by other males makes it more complicated", he finally said. "You really need to determine who you are and where your sexual preferences are because I think you're struggling with your sexuality issues because of your past and your crime and you're not going to be able to truly reconcile your love and sex issue until you do."

I pondered his words for a few moments and then responded, "that's easier said that done." I have always hated that my sexual fantasies often focused on my early sexual experiences with boys while I believe in my heart that I'm as much heterosexual as the next guy. I don't have a desire to live a gay fact, I can't even imagine it. But my mind betrays me...and ultimately that mind led to actions that betrayed everyone in my life.

I'm not sure when, or if, I'll figure this out. I know what I be connected in every way...sexually, emotionally, spiritually...with a woman that I love. In order for that to happen, I still need more healing, and ultimately, a deeper understanding of who I am and how I became this person. I need a prescription for a whole life from the Great Healer above.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Rehearsing for a Choir of Angels

I was a little nervous as I sat in the chapel...there for my first church service behind bars. I had no idea what to expect. I was a little surprised to see that it was other inmates who were leading the service...everything that is except the message itself. The room was pretty full - probably more than 120 men sitting in the neatly arranged rows. A few Blacks. The majority Hispanic. Maybe about a third White with the occasional Asian sprinkled amongst the rest.

The choir was made up of four men, plush the young man on the keyboards. They weren't really very good, but it didn't really matter. I'd come learn that in God's ears, it all a sweet sound. The worship leader finished directing the congregation in a couple of songs...sung in both English and Spanish and then a middle aged black man gave a few announcements. And then he introduced an elderly Black man who was sitting in the front row.

"And now a special treat. Mr. Willie Griffin has a song to sing for us."

The elderly man with closely cut curly grey hair stood up and nodded to the young White man sitting at the keyboard.

"Dis is a song dat I wrote last week an I jis wanna share it wit all of you here today", he said as he took the microphone in his dark-skinned hand.

Soon, a "bluesy" sound began to come from the keyboard and Mr. Griffin began his song. He would occasionally look down at the sheet on the podium in front of his as he sang his freshly written song. The men in the audience were appreciative and gave him a solid ovation as he finished and sat down.

A few days later, I began my job in the chapel and discovered that this elderly Black man also worked there. I went up to him and extended my hand.

"Hi Willie. My name's Mark. I just started working here and I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the song you sang last Sunday."

He slowly extended his hand and quietly said, "Mr. Griffin. You can call me Mr. Griffin." and slowly turned around and walked into one of the offices. I stood there quietly for a moment, looking after this man that I was to soon learn would turn 70 in another couple of months. I wasn't sure what to think of his comment to me, so I walked back to the other office and went to work.

Over the next thirty plus months, I would get to know this gentle old man well. As anyone would expect in prison, most everyone is a little hesitant with new people. (I was one of the few who wasn't). Before long, I was invited to call him "Willie" and became one of his closer confidants.

Willie had grown up in rural Mississippi, the oldest of nine kids. He quit school after the fourth grade to work to help his dad support the family. He would sit and tell us stories of his past...the mule and the wagon, walking down the dirt lane barefoot, his Godly mother who he loved so dearly. He told us about how he was pulled into the allure of the "world" and moved to California to make it "big". He did pretty well for himself, but making it "big" came by bending a few rules that finally caught up with him.

Mr. Griffin struggled with his writing, and certainly his spelling, and he would frequently ask the other clerks or me to help him with his writing. Dave, the young man who had played the keyboard for him on that first Sunday in church, was one of the chapel clerks and he would type Willie's return address on about a dozen envelopes at a time for him. Mr. Griffin was a faithful writer to his family and ex-wives. He had several...I'm not sure if it was three or four, and he had stories about each of them. Amazingly, he still had a good relationship with them all. It was easy to see why...Willie was just a lovable man!

After I had been in prison about a year, Willie started to struggle in his singing. He seemed to constantly be hoarse. He went to the prison infirmary several times, but they would simply tell him to buy some cough drops at the commissary and come back if it didn't get any better. When the drops didn't help, he would go over to the infirmary at 6:00 AM and stand in line for sick call to let them know his throat was still hurting. Once again, cough drops were the prescription.

Several months later, Willie quit singing his songs for us on Sunday mornings. He had written over 250 songs while he was in prison (most sounding oddly alike) and he loved to sing. But his voice was giving up on him. He talked with a constant mouth full of gravel and seemed to always have a pocketful of cough drops and one in his mouth.

Finally, after nearly two years of going to the infirmary for help, the prison decided to send him into Bakersfield for tests. When Willie came back, we sat down in the chapel office and I asked him how the tests went.

"Der not certain. Said it might be cancer. Gotta do some mo tests."

I could tell from his voice and his body language that it had not gone well. I asked when he would learn more and he said they just told him to keep an eye on the "call-out" and they schedule him back to the infirmary when they got the results back.

Several weeks later, I saw Willie in the chapel and he told me that he was going back to Bakersfield in the morning for more tests. We prayed together and I went off to the rec yard to walk with a friend.

That night was the last time I saw Willie...Mr. Griffin. After he went into Bakersfield, the compound was ripe with rumors about him. Everyone knew Mr. Griffin and most people liked him...staff and inmates alike. We soon heard that he was in the hospital and that he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Stories circulated that his family been called to the hospital to be with him...and that the prognosis was not good. We even heard that one of the staff members who had served as the preacher for our mid-week services had tried to visit him, but was denied because he no longer worked for the prison and Willie was still a Federal prisoner.

I don't know what happened to Willie. I was released about a month after he went into the hospital. But as I think about the way he was treated, my heart aches. There was no reason that they couldn't send Mr. Griffin to a specialist when the throat condition didn't improve after a few months. Would it have made a one can really say. But it might have. Maybe he could have published all of his songs as he dreamed. Or transferred to a camp where he would have had more freedom and access to his family.

But he was only a prisoner...and inmates don't always have the same privileges as the free man does on the outside. Maybe that's as it should be. If we are in prison, it's because we didn't something wrong and have consequences to pay for it. All I really know is that I lost a friend in prison. A quality man who loved God and loved people. A man who loved to sing and had a desire to share his gift with everyone around him. A man that I look forward to seeing in Heaven where I have no doubt he will entertaining the angels with his heart-composed songs.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Quilt

There were a lot of struggles in prison, but one of my hardest was dealing with the inconsistencies. You could find inconsistencies in literally every area of prison life, from the size of the serving of the meals, based on skin treatment by the the types of crafts you were allowed to create and send to family or friends on the outside.

I was amazed at the skill and creativity of the men around me while I was in that place. The things men could create with sheets of typing paper could easily be sold in any craft show in America. My favorite were the sailing ships. They would start by taking sheets of standard typing paper, getting it slightly moist and then rolling it up into a tight stick. They ended up looking like the stick on a "tootsie pop", only 11 inches long. The men who mastered this craft would make up literally hundreds of these 'sticks'.

Then, they would paint them a solid color, let them dry and then 'marbleize' them with a second color. The final 'stick' product was a work of art all by itself. But then the real creativity would begin. In less than a day, the men would turn the stack of sticks into a model sailing ship, usually about 15 inches long. The ship would be complete with rigging, sails, wooden decks (made of Popsicle sticks), life boats, anchors...and in some cases, even a crew. They were truly amazing! Each weekend, you could expect to see two or three Hispanic men carrying these ships into the visitation area to give as a gift to one of their children.

Other men knitted. They were allowed to purchase and order their yarn and knitting needles through a craft catalog and when they received the order, the inmates would begin to create their art with their needles. They would make stocking caps, mittens...even afghans. Once created, they were supposed to mail them to the outside, although there were more than one or two inmates in the institution who sported 'contraband' stocking caps during the cold, winter months.

The indoor recreation area also offered opportunities for pottery and leather work. Each day, those craft rooms were filled...every seat taken, by men working their craft. It was one of the few positive opportunities for the men. And for some, it provided for additional income to their families on the outside.

While all of those crafts looked fun, I got hooked on quilting. I wasn't the only one in the compound. The quilting classes always filled up, with men turned away for lack of space. But the quilting program was different from all of the others. We weren't allowed to have fabric sent in to make quilts to send them back out.

Letters were sent to the assistant warden for programs, but to no avail. Even a plea to the warden himself fell on deaf ears. Even Miss Davis lobbied on our behalf, but in the end, we were only able to use the fabric provided by Miss Davis and donate the quilts to the institution or the charities that Miss Davis had established a relationship with.

I'm glad that every quilt I made went to a good cause...that's not the point of my frustration. My frustration is that I wanted more than anything to make a quilt for Paula. She loves quilts! We had several in our home, and when we would travel and visit her parents, she would always cuddle up in one of their quilts and sit in her chair or the couch as she visited with her mom. I had a picture in my mind of exactly what I wanted to make for her...the colors and the pattern. Sadly, I left prison without the opportunity to fulfill that dream.

But dreams don't have to die. While in prison, I would send pictures of my quilts to Paula and also to my sister. I think she was amazed that her brother liked to quilt...and was actually pretty good at it. When I got out, I was able to visit my sister at Christmas time and she gave me her extra sewing machine. Although I had hand sewn all of my quilts while in prison, she gave me a gift that would allow me to make larger quilts, with fewer mistakes...and to make them faster. I didn't have quite as much free time on the outside as I did while in prison.

She also allowed me to go through all of her quilting fabrics and take whatever I wanted. As I went through box after box of fabric, I felt like a kid in a candy store. She had well over a dozen boxes of fabrics, and as I sorted through the different patterns and colors, I saw them! She had a number of fabrics in the color palette I was looking for. Rich burgundies. Earthy browns and taupe's. It was like she had gone shopping for the quilt of my dreams and had stored them away for just this time.

As soon as I was back in my little motor home, I pulled out a piece of paper and sketched the pattern that was painted in my minds eye. The picture emerged and then I started pulling the swatches of fabric out...laying them out on my bed, placing each piece in just the right place. Deep burgundies next to a lighter shade. Fabrics blended with the royal color with the earthy taupe. It came together like a painting on a canvas. Over the next several weeks, most of my free moments were spent cutting the squares and sewing the strips. And the strips were sewn together to create the quilted top. Safety pins and binder clips holding the creation together as I tried to sew it together. Three times the same seam undone, only to be sewn again imperfectly.

At last, it was done! I tenderly laid it out on my bed. In my heart, I was amazed at this creation. It was incredibly beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful. It was exactly what I had dreamed of those months ago while in a dirty prison in California. It was exactly what I had wanted to make for Paula. I had hesitations about when to send it to her. I didn't want it to be a holiday gift of any kind. Valentine's Day was close at hand, and I knew that would not be the right time. Too many painful memories. So I waited and then just picked a day and mailed it out.

I told Paula that I was sending her a gift but gave her no idea what it might be. I kept it a secret here...not wanting any of our common friends to tell her what I was up to. Several days after I sent it, I made my near-weekly phone call to her. She said that she had received it and that it was beautiful and she thanked me for it. But there was something in her voice that was left unsaid. A hesitation. I didn't know what it was she wasn't saying, but I figured it had to do with what her folks might say if they knew I had sent her a gift.

And then...I received the most wonderful letter in the mail. It was from Paula, but it was more than just from Paula. It was also from God. It is a letter that I will cherish forever!

"The Quilt"

"I have loved quilts for a very long time. But, this one was extra special. When I first opened the gift, I was filled with so many emotions. Appreciation for the beauty of the quilt, admiration for the person who made it, and apprehension and fear that if I accepted the gift, there would be an underlying hope from the person that had made it. would I explain this beautiful quilt to those that would not be pleased about it. God, not wanting me to have any fear in my life, tenderly spoke this simple fact.

Paula (little one) you have nothing to fear from this lovely quilt. It was made by a man after my own heart. He made it with the purest of motives. Each stitch was a labor of love and with each stitch my love for him grew. See the way he paid special attention to detail, the way the colors blend and patterns flow together, even the imperfections he was mindful of.

I know you are wondering what to tell people. The ones that aren't as understanding about Mark. Say this: "This quilt represents forgiveness. Accepting this is a simple expression of being wrapped in God's forgiveness. 'Forgive as I have forgiven."

Bottom line...this quilt is a reflection of Mark's love and repentance, and by you accepting it, your forgiveness and love...

I'm proud of both my Kids!

The letter was unsigned, but I knew whose voice had spoken the words. Through the simple of act of following a dream, God had given both Paula and I a tremendous gift. We were both drawn deeper into our relationship with our Father who loves and guides us. Like the pieces of fabric of different colors and patterns put together into a beautiful quilt, it represents to me the broken pieces of my own life that God is putting together into a new life...serving Him and working each day to be restored to the man he created me to be...a man after His own heart.

Scaling the Mountain

I'm not a big hiker, but my sister and older brother have become avid members of that honored fraternity (or sorority in my sister's case.) It's not that I have anything against's just that I've never had (or taken) the time to spend hours going up and down steep inclines. But it's interesting how things in life work out. I'm not a believer in coincidence...but yesterday was an amazing day for me.

I live with an incredible view of Mt. Rainier right outside my home. In fact, as I sit here right now, the snow capped peaks of that majestic mount are visible. With our beautiful weather over the past week, the mountain has been projecting its glory everyday for me to wonder at. And it got me to reflecting on mountains.

There have been innumerable books and speeches written using mountains as an analogy. How large and overwhelming they can appear. How it is so difficult at times to summit. How it seems that every step we take leads us no closer to the peak.

But we also read and hear about how important it is to look back as you are winding your way up that steep climb. How essential it is to see where you've come from...that point where you starting this sometimes treacherous climb. And that's where I was last week. Not anything dramatically new for me. But I believe it was God's way of reassuring me that I've come a long way on this trek I started over four years ago when I was sent to prison. He was whispering in my ear not to be discouraged...not to focus on finding the summit because He will lead me there. He wanted me to see how far I've come, and He lifted my spirits through His gentle reminder.

And yesterday, He gave me a new lesson of the mountain. He reminded me that the same mountain can look different depending on which side you are climbing. For the past four years, I have been working on "me" and "my" mountain. Believe me, that mountain is huge! Mt. Rainier is probably a mole hill compared to the size of the mountain I feel like I'm trying to scale.

My older brother called me yesterday and asked if I'd like to go up to Sunrise with him. We could stop and have a lunch and then go up to that side of the mountain. I'd never been there before, and with the overcast morning we had, I wasn't sure we would see anything, but I said "yes" nevertheless.

Frank and I have had a strained relationship, to say the least, for the past seven years. Eight years ago, I would have described him as my best and closest friend. Paula and I would spend our summer vacation time together with Frank and his wife Deb. Frank and I would probably be described as inseparable during those summer weeks. Each New Year, we would drive over the pass to celebrate the coming new year at Frank's place. But then both of our lives changes.

I buried myself into Internet pornography and didn't spend much time focusing on what was going on around me. Frank found himself lost in his marriage...feeling hopeless. Neither of us shared what was going on with each other. I really can't say would think that best friends would share problems with each other, but we didn't. For me, I know now it was my pridefulness. I didn't want to share with anyone my weaknesses...not my wife...not my best friend. I'm sure Frank had his own reasons. So, when Frank told me that he was leaving his wife of 28 years, I was shocked and hurt. Betrayed would probably be the best word to describe my feelings. The fact that there was another woman involved made it all the worst. I just couldn't understand what had happened to this apparently Godly man whom I loved and respected. I couldn't understand how he could suddenly say he had never loved his wife. I couldn't understand his side of the mountain.

But yesterday, as we drove and talked, God opened my mind and my heart. For the first time since Frank left his wife, I was hearing Frank's story from a different perspective. It didn't make what he did all right. Sin has no excuse! But I heard a man who was truly sorry for the pain he had caused many people...his ex-wife...his kids...even me. I heard him talk about how he has loved and worshipped God for as long as he can remember, even when he left his wife and not really understanding how he could be blind to God's power for healing and reconciliation and his feeling of hopelessness at that point in his life. I was able to understand how he felt that he did the only thing that he felt he could do and survive...emotionally and physically.

We talked about how it is so easy to respond to our flesh when someone falls...or fails, especially if they are Christians. We tend to become judgemental and often times push them away from us. We look at their situation and they actions through the lens of our eyes and not through the eyes of God. We let our pain and emotion direct our actions instead of falling back to the Word of God and loving unconditionally. As we talked, I relected on my own actions...not only toward Frank, but toward others that I knew and judged as well.

As we drove and talked, I did something that I never really did when he was my "best friend". I challenged his thinking in some areas. I didn't agree with everything he said. I shared my views and perspectives...and my feelings. I didn't let him do all the talking or agree with everything he said. And it was OK. He was accepting my point of view and admitting his mistakes at the time. He was showing true remorse and I was being the kind of friend I should have been seven years ago.

When I got out of prison almost a year ago, I didn't think it was possible to reconcile the relationship with my brother. I believed it was too fractured, that the schism was much too deep to get across. I believed that mountain was too large to ever overcome. We had drifted a long distance apart...actually I had pushed him as far away from me as I could. But like the mountain, God is so incredibly big that there is no relationship that He can't heal and mend. No challenge that He can't help me to overcome! No bondage in my life that He can't break!

Frank loves the view of Mt. Rainier from Sunrise. He told me he thinks it's the most beautiful view of this majestic mountain peak. I love the view from my front door. In my mind's eye, I think it's the more magnificent view. The reality is, we are both right. And with God's grace and mercy in our lives, no matter which side of the mountain we are looking at and trying to scale, the summit is in sight.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Splash of Color in a Sea of Drab

Each morning as we would gather down at the rec yard for our daily "Men in the Morning" Bible study, if you looked out across the compound, you would be greeted with a sea of khaki and white...the official attire of the residents of this "gated community." Occasionally, you would see an inmate who was wearing a contraband khaki shirt, but those were pretty rare.

The officers, or CO's as they are called, were also clad in drab uniforms...grey trousers and grey top. It seemed we all blended in with the colorless desert that surrounded. That is everyone except Miss Davis.

Even without my glasses on, I could tell when Miss Davis walked onto the compound. She was a large woman...tall as well as a little on the heavy side, but that wasn't why she stood out. She walked with her head up, seemingly unafraid of the "dangerous felons" that populated this small, fenced enclave. But that wasn't what brought her to your attention either. It was the way she dressed.

I'm a child of the 70's, graduating from high school in 1974 and university in 1979. I remember the burnt oranges and the lime greens that seemed to dominate the fashion scene. Apparently, so did Miss Davis, only she never rid her closets of the wardrobe of the disco era. Each day, she would walk across the compound with the most unusual (and most uncoordinated) color combinations imaginable. One day it would be burnt orange pants with a flowered blouse of totally unrelated colors. The next it might be lime green pants with a polka dot blouse. There was no rhyme or reason to her choice in dress.

Though not gifted in choosing her clothes each morning, Miss Davis did have an extremely valuable gift to those who took the time and effort to get past the appearance and get to know her. She liked us! We didn't find many of "those" in this place. Most of the staff openly disdained the inmates, and didn't pull any punches about it. But Miss Davis was different. She actually cared and wanted to help us improve ourselves in any way that we could.

One of the things that we were encouraged to do while in prison was "program". As an educator I tend to laugh (or possibly cry) when I see what the institutions definition of "programming" entailed. Essentially, they wanted each inmate to be involved in some kind of activity and they would give you a nice pat on the head and an "attaboy" every six months when we met for team. But that's a different story. Miss Davis was a part of the vocational program and she taught several of the classes that counted for "programming".

Bill, my friend from the Chapel, asked me if I'd take a quilting class with him. To be truthful, I hesitated at first because that ugly "pridefulness" that I liked to keep buried began to raise its powerful head.

"What would the guys think if they knew I was quilting?" "Isn't that something old women do?"

The questions passed through my mind as quickly as they entered and I agreed to take the class with Bill. It started in January and we spent the first session learning how to thread a needle. (For me, it was just trying to see the hole in the needle...let alone try to get a little thread through it. My eyes aren't what they used to be.) She moved on to fabric types and how to match colors and patterns (I decided to do as she said, and not as she did).

Soon, we were sewing 4" squares together and showing off our handiwork to this remarkable woman. She was filled with words of praise for us...even when our work didn't deserve it. I have worked around a lot of teachers in my lifetime, and Miss Davis was definitely a "teacher". She wanted her students to be successful...and to feel successful! The number of staff in this place who could do that could be found on a leper's nearly fingerless hand.

Over the next months, Miss Davis would encourage us and push us to make larger and more difficult quilts. She would bring in her own quilting magazines and patterns. Each month, she would go to the fabric stores in the area and ask for donations of fabric for the men at TCI in her quilting class. By late spring, our creations were hanging in the main office of the institution and each day, visitors would pass by and see our handiwork. Soon, the corporation that operated the prison had an article and pictures of our quilts in their monthly magazine.

But the most heartwarming thing that Miss Davis did was to establish a relationship with the Women's shelter in Taft. Each month, she would take in the quilts that we had made and donated them to the women who were staying there. She found a way to allow each of us in her program to feel worthwhile, while the rest of the staff did their best to convince us of our worthlessness. She was such a gift in this drab and cold place...and allowed me to acquire the skills to achieve a dream of my own once I got out!