Tuesday, October 28, 2008

An Autobiography

I can think of a lot things I would rather be doing.

  • getting my wisdom teeth pulled...without a pain killer!
  • walking over a bed of hot, burning embers
  • having my fingernails pulled out, one by one and dipping my fingers in vinegar
  • listening to a U.S. History lecture in eleventh grade

Get the picture? What is that I'm doing that is so painful?

I'm completing my "Autobiographical Outline" as part of my treatment program! I'm not sure anything can be more painful right now...and I'm only to age 6!!!

It's interesting to me how life seems to work. My life seems to be full of opportunities to reflect and look to past recently, when that is the last place I want to be looking right now. There is so little about my history that I want to remember, and those few memories that are good seem to slip further and further out of reach each day.

One of the questions that I was asked to answer went like this:

How did your family show feelings toward each other? a. Anger? b. Love? c. Closeness? d. Fear?

I was hoping it was actually a multiple choice question, but I don't think my therapist would see the humor in that perspective. Even as a multiple choice question, it would have been hard to choose any one of those feelings!

Part of my problem is that I remember so very little of my childhood. Sadly, I'm afraid there is a lot that I should remember and my mind continues to protect itself, so I stay in a perpetual state of fogginess. So how do I answer a question like this?

First, I think my family were experts at NOT showing their feelings...at least not their true feelings! I don't even know if my parents could honestly say that they loved each other, even though they lived together as man and wife for over 40 years. Even though they kissed (usually three quick pecks) and said "I love you", it was very seldom visibly displayed in any meaningful way. I learned that you didn't share your feelings because they weren't honored, and it usually resulted in pain or humiliation.

As I look back and try to picture that little boy growing up, I see an image of a child that was lost, or trying to get lost. I just wanted to be a in a cocoon where it might feel safe, but that place didn't exist. I learned to bury myself in my books and in my fantasies, but there was always a last page of the story or reality calling me back. These days, as I live a life that I would call "lonely" at best, I recall that I've felt this way before and it isn't a good feeling...and it scares me sometimes. Not in the sense that "I'm so lonely, I should just disappear!" It's more of a fear that in the past, I found relationship in chat rooms that filled a void left from childhood and that practice cost me everything. My wife. My family. My job. My career. My future. I never want to find myself in that place again.

My childhood was filled with loneliness. I never learned to be feel close to anyone. Even though I think I had a decent relationship with my sister and brothers, I can't define them as close. And there was never a true sense of trust there. I remember being upset about something when I was about 9 or 10 years old and I had planned to run away from home. I had written my note and stuck it in my clothes drawer in the dresser that I shared with my two brothers. One of them found it and shared it with the others. In a Disney movie, they would have tried to talk me out leaving but that didn't happen. Instead, it was an invitation to help me pack. I don't really remember what happened after that...I just know that I didn't leave. More than likely, I simply built up another layer of hardness around my heart and receded a little deeper into my own world...my own escape.

Remembering is hard...and it's painful. And it's not something that I really want to do or that I'm very good at. But on the other hand, I also realize that it is essential to my healing. In order to move forward, I need to understand those things in my life that formed and molded me. Not to point fingers or accuse. I know that my family loves me...and that even when we were growing up, they loved the best that the knew how. We just didn't know how very well.

But there is always hope...at least I believe there is. I believe in the greatest Transformer that ever lived, and I know that He will continue to bring healing and love to my life. He'll be there to help fill the void of loneliness that has plagued me for as long as I can remember. And He will continue to help peel back the layers of my memory and reveal my life's story to me.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Every morning I see him. I'm usually only about three blocks from work, but there he is. I would guess he is probably in the sixth grade because he is walking toward the local middle school. He could be in seventh, but if he is he is small for his age. Lately, his face is barely visible with his hooded jacket pulled up over his head....the draw string pulled tightly so that a circle of cloth covers most of his face. His too long jacket sleeves hang down over his hands, probably a blessing on the cold mornings as he walks to school. I've observed him now for nearly a year. As I look upon this young man...still only a boy, I see glimpses of myself.

He appears to be lonely. Just the other day, my heart ached for him as I watched him run up the street to catch up with another boy walking to school. The other boy appeared older, at least six inches taller. It was like the young boy wanted to be noticed...to belong to a group, even if it was only a group of two. In my heart, I was hoping that I would see the two of them walking down the street in the morning...talking...laughing...doing the things young boys should be doing at that age. But the next day, and every day since, the young boys walks alone.

On those morning when I take the short cut and drive up his street, I can see him walking toward me instead of only away from me...going in the same direction as I drive. I look into his face and I rarely see a smile. He has never waved, which seems strange to me. I would think if you saw the same car every day as you walked to school, there would come a day when you would wave, if only to see if the driver would wave back. It makes me wonder what his young mind is thinking. Is he afraid? Has our culture and society become so dark and evil that a young boy wouldn't even wave at a familiar car? Would that be me?

That young boy isn't the only one that I've noticed in the past few weeks. As I stand on the stage at church each Sunday in the choir, I have a chance to look out over the congregation. I can see the faces of each person as they worship...or don't. There's a young man, probably twelve or thirteen who sits next to his adopted family. I know his story. His father murdered his mom a year ago and he and his brothers and sisters moved here to live with his aunt and uncle. He has since been legally adopted by them. A few months ago he gave his testimony during a Sunday night service...about how angry he was with God when his mom was killed. He told how the sheriff came to school to pick up him and his brothers and sisters to tell him what had happened.

I watch him during worship as he struggles to try to praise a God who loves him and to enter a place of peace and worship. He rarely smiles...but I can understand that. I can see his lips move as he sings the songs and I smile inside that he is able to do that. Yesterday, his hands tapped a drum beat on the chair in front of him as he joined in the worship chorus.

Yet as I watch him there with his adoptive family, I see a lonely boy who should be with the other kids from the youth group. Most of them are over in the other venue with the guitar driven worship designed for a younger audience. It makes me wonder why he is here...in this service, where he is the youngest in the room. Does he need the presence of his new family? Is there a fear of abandonment in his soul that if he doesn't stay with his new family, they may be taken from him too? I long to see joy in his face, but it doesn't appear.

There is one more boy who has drawn my attention this week. I would guess him to be about five or six. He was singing...or more accurately, a participant, in the children's choir at church last night. I'm not sure what attracted me to him. It may have been his wild, black hair that reminded me of my hair in my senior portrait when I graduated from high school. He has a beautiful smile, but he rarely revealed it last night. He was concentrating too hard on the choir director and the sign language he was supposed to perform along with the song he was supposed to be singing. His dark eyes matched his olive complexion. I don't know his nationality, but he appeared to be Mediterranean.

It was apparent from watching him that he had probably missed most, if not all, of the rehearsals for the performance last night. His mouth barely moved, not knowing the words to the songs. And his sign language gestures were usually at least a full sentence behind, his head on a swivel looking to the right and left to see what the other kids were doing and trying to follow. There were a few moments when a smile would brighten his face as he moved in unison with the other kids.

As I stood in the audience watching the kids in the children's choir sing and perform, I felt an ache in my heart. That question that occasionally comes to mind, did.

"Why couldn't I have been a part of something like this when I was growing up?" I don't know if it would have changed my life, but I believe that it might have. It might have given me a sense of belonging...a sense of purpose in my young life. It might have given me the courage and boldness to stand up for things that I knew were right when I became a teenage instead of becoming a part of the "group", just so I could feel a sense of belonging.

When I look in the mirror of my life, I too often see the lonely boy walking to school alone...awkward and different. I see the boy who stays with his family instead of finding friends his own age...afraid of being alone, of being abandoned. I see the boy who is intent on being a part of a group...any group, even if he doesn't really belong in it. I see a boy who seeks to please others....even at the expense of himself.

I see...me.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

"Blue Fly"

I have to admit that there was a part of me that was still filled with fear as I walked through the steel doors and onto the main yard that very first time. Even though I knew that God had made promises to me to keep me safe, and to deliver me at the end of my sentence, my flesh was uncertain. I'd never been in trouble before, and I'd certainly never spent time around "felons". My vision of the men I was about to meet had come from the media only...and we all know how accurate it is. But I have to admit in this case, they weren't all wrong.

His name was "Blue Fly". I didn't know the origin of his name, but I'm sure there was a story behind it. If the casting director for "Law and Order" or some other mindless TV cop show was looking for a criminal to cast in one of their episodes, this man was it. He had "banger" written all over him. An African-American, his dark skin couldn't cover there abundance of tattoos that seemed to cover nearly every inch of his exposed skin. When he smiled (which never seemed to have the warmth that I looked for in smiles), the diamonds embedded in his gold teeth shimmered in the desert sunshine. There was a pretty large African-American population in the prison, and Blue Fly was one of the loudest, most foul-mouthed among the group. Even those men in his own gambling group got tired of his outbursts.

Like many of the men who lived beside me, Blue Fly was not a man that you would want to trust with anything that you might need the next day. He was a thief and a liar...and the rumors were, a snitch. Whenever he was busted for a violation and sent to the SHU...the "special housing unit", or as I like to call it, the "hole", he would soon be released back into the general population. And it seemed others would take his place in those solitary cells, compliments of Blue Fly's tongue.

I didn't have much contact with Blue Fly even though he lived in the same unit that I did. I intentionally stayed out of his way, as well as the paths of many other men like him. But a funny thing happened...he noticed me anyway and I didn't even realize it at the time. The truth is, I tried to stay invisible to most men in that dark place. If they couldn't see me, they wouldn't be able to ask me any questions. And if they didn't ask me any questions, I would be safer because there would be less chance that they would learn of my crime and why I had been sent here. But while I was trying to stay hidden and quiet, spending most of my time in my cube reading my Bible or in the Chapel at work, I was making myself stand out because I was different than most of the other men here. And in the end, it changed a life.

No one was probably more shocked than I was the day Blue Fly walked into the Chapel office.

"I hear you guys got free Bibles", he said. He stood there, not able to keep his eyes on me, glancing to the right and the left as if to see if there might be anyone who saw him in the Chapel.

I looked up from my work and took a moment to try to be sure I understood him correctly.

"Yes, we have Bibles for the men", I answered. "Would you like one?"

He said yes and I went to the shelf behind my desk and pulled out a brand new Nelson Study Bible that had been donated to the Chapel.

"I never read any of this before. Where's a good place to start?" he asked.

As I sat there, I was struck by a change in this man that I had been so uncomfortable with before. He didn't look nearly as scary or "hard" to me today. In fact, he looked somewhat vulnerable.

"A lot of people say to start with the Book of John", I respond "but I would start with the Book of Mathew and read all four of the Gospels. That way you can get a broader picture of who Jesus is."

He thanked me as he turned and walked out of the office. I am a little ashamed to say that I didn't expect Blue Fly to read more than two pages in his new book. I didn't know what had motivated him to come to the Chapel and ask for a Bible, but I was sure it wasn't because he was looking for Christ. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The next day, he was in the Chapel again.

"You got anything to help me understand all this stuff I'm reading?" he asked. He wasn't looking around sheepishly today. Something was different about him. He looked even less "hard" today and there was a determination in his voice and in his eyes that told me he was serious...even if only for a day. I told him about our library and some books that he might want to use as references. He would spend hours in the Chapel library each day pouring over his Bible and the resources that might make it make sense to him.

"Can I take any of these back to the unit?" he asked one day. "There isn't enough time here to be able to read all this stuff."

I told him which books he was welcome to take with him and which had to stay in the library and he was soon packing an arm full of books back to the unit like a college kid on any campus across the country. Each day as I left the unit to head to the Chapel to work, I would see Blue Fly at one of the tables in the day room with all of his books spread out...reading and studying. He was soon getting harassed by some of the other inmates for taking up an entire table for all of his stuff, but no one pushed him out.

About a month after Blue Fly first came into the Chapel for his first Bible, he came into the office again. He pulled up a chair and sat down across from me.

"How are you doing today, Fly?", I asked him.

"I'm not Blue Fly anymore", he said. "My real name is James and that's what I want to be called now."

It struck me what a change had taken place in this man in the past thirty days. I had seen a miracle of God performed in a federal prison in the middle of the California desert that I hadn't believed would occur. And I was to soon learn that God had used me to make it happen.

A few days later, "James" was back at the Chapel.

"I wanted to thank you", he said. "It's because of you that I started to read the Bible and learn about Jesus."

I sat there speechless. I quietly racked my brains trying to remember when I had ever talked to this man about Christ. And the truth is, I hadn't. I'd never invited him to church. I'd never told him he needed Jesus. I'd never told him he was a sinner destined to spend eternity in Hell. I'd made it a practice to not talk to him at all. As it turned out, it was my life and the way I was living in this little corner of Hell that drew his attention to me. The peace that I lived in. The calmness of my demeanor. My ability to smile when there was nothing to smile about and my unwillingness to fall prey to the lack of hope and futility that is bred in prison. I had simply done my best to "walk my (silent) talk" and live as a Godly man.

I'm not sure what happened to James. He continued to roll in and out of the SHU. He found himself more and more frequently persecuted by his "old friends" for seeking a way out of his old life. One day, he went into the SHU and he never came back out. The rumor mill said that he had been transferred to another institution. I pray that's what happened...that God in His mercy and sent James to a new mission field where he could start his life there as a Christian man who had been in bondage and had found freedom in a carpenter from Galilee.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Christmas "De"

Christmas season...2004! My first Christmas in prison and I had no idea what to expect. Some of the other inmates had told me about the Christmas "bag" that we would receive on Christmas eve, but for some reason, the idea of a bag of candy and cookies...and jalapeno flavor ramen didn't get me too excited. I knew that my contact with any family from the outside would be limited. Paula and I had agreed to cease any communication for about three months over the winter of that first year in prison. The months of December through February held too many memories...some of the happiest days of our lives...and some of the most painful. I honestly didn't know how I would survive! But God is a God of miracles...and God of great love. He always knows our deepest needs.

I had been singing in the church choir at church for about three months by now and each year the chapel put on a Christmas program for the entire compound. All of the different Christian
"churches" that were at prison were invited to attend and participate. As a part of the program, a combined choir was formed to sing a couple of songs together. And that's when God sent me a gift...a gift I will remember forever and who I occasionally think and wonder about. His name is De.

I had seen this young Vietnamese often in the chapel. He was a leader in the Catholic group and would often come into the chapel office to pick up their box for a Bible study or to get ready for their Wednesday afternoon mass. We had never really visited...just a shy smile on his part and a "howdy" on mine. I had never even bothered to ask him his name...he was just another face. But he is one of those people who have something about them that is attractive to me. It is probably the twinkle of his eyes...or the gentleness of his smile. Whatever it was, it had remained hidden from me until that first Christmas.

One of the songs that we did as a combined choir was "The 12 Days of Christmas" and the choir director assigned a part of twelve of us to sing the short verse about "our" day of Christmas. As it turned out, I had day eight, and De had day seven. As a result, I had to learn who it was I followed as I sang my little chorus over and over as we worked our way through the song. At first, when the director said that I followed "De", I didn't understand what he meant. I thought maybe I misunderstood what he said.

"Day?", wondered to myself. Does that make me "night"? But after a while, I figured out that De was the young man's name and we would often sit or stand next to one another during the practices. And it started to become apparent to me that this was a special young man. In my eyes, his smile began to blossom and his eyes shone like diamonds in the sunshine. I didn't know yet what a blessing this man was to be to me. I just knew that he was a nice guy and I felt good when I would see him or he would stop and say hello in the chapel office.

Prison is a very lonely place to be...and sometimes I think maybe it was lonelier for me than it might have been for some others. Because of my crime, I could never (and did never) share why I was there. What made it worse for me sometimes was the guilt that I felt because of the deeper nature of my crime...that the pornography that I had viewed was of gay teenage sex. My entire life, I've struggled with having any kind of feelings for another male...and those feelings virtually always resulted in feelings of guilt. I'm sure that's part of the reason that I had never been able to have kind of a healthy relationship with other men. My boundaries had been destroyed as a child and I never discovered where they were supposed to be. And I was to afraid..or ashamed...to ask anyone to help me find them.

But De helped to change that for me. De was a toucher...and my love language is touch. Deep within my being, my heart longs to be touched...to be caressed...to be acknowledged! I would find myself working at the desk in the chapel office when all of a sudden, I would feel firm, yet gentle hands, rubbing my shoulders as I sat at the typewriters. I would begin to melt under the touch of someones hands on me who was rubbing my shoulders simply because he believed it would feel good. No ulterior motive! No expectation of anything in return. Just a simple act of love that he will never know he demonstrated toward me.

Through his occasional shoulder rubs and his smiles....the gift of a hot cup of coffee on a cold January day...the package of cookies just because he appreciated all I did for all of the religious groups that used the chapel, he helped to define boundaries in my life when it comes to men. I would enjoy his touch without feeling guilt. I could accept his smile without wondering if something might be expected. I could return his shoulder rubs and relish in the knowledge that the closed eyes and the smile on his face were a genuine appreciation of the gift I was returning to him. A way of loving another man in a healthy way. Something I had never been able to do.

Christmas 2006 was the hardest Christmas I have ever experienced. I walked the track that evening with tears rolling down my cheeks, praying to God for Paula and the family that was having Christmas without me...praying that they might find some joy in this sacred day. And thanking God that He had not forgotten me in this unforgettable place. That He knew what it was that I needed...to know that I was loved, and how I needed to be loved. And He sent me a gift...a friend and new understandings.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


As a 52 year old man, my body has had it share of hurts and pains. My hands are a constant visual reminder of careless times with objects with very sharp edges. My thighs a constant reminder of offending my dad...and of the price felt at the end of a willow switch. There are times when it is a struggle to get up from my chair at work after sitting in front of my computer for hours and I remember days when the pain in my shoulders was so great I couldn't write on the chalkboard of my classroom. The four inch thick mattress on a sheet of steel that I slept on for three years while in prison will probably always leave a toll on my back and my feet. But there is an interesting thing about all of those pains. No matter how hard I try to remember what that pain actually felt like, I can't. I only know that it hurt at the time. I am sure that is God's blessing because we all fall down at times and we all experience physical pain...some of us more than others.

But there is another kind of pain that I am feeling today...and have been for the past several weeks. I compare it to the "phantom pain" that people who have had amputations feel. It is the pain that comes from looking at back at the memories from my past and knowing that they are gone forever. Like the leg lost in battle in Iraq, the "phantom pain" the soldier experiences is akin to the pain I feel at the loss of a wife, a family, a career...at at times, my own self respect.

Last weekend I travelled to my sister's to spend the weekend and pick of the remainder of my possessions that have been in storage with friends since I was sent to prison. On the one hand, it was a wonderful weekend spent with my sister. Her love and support for me have been beyond expectation! Driving down to her home on Friday night, I had no concept of the emotional roller coaster that was facing me. I wasn't prepared for the memory flood that I was going to experience in the next 48 hours, and I still haven't recovered from.

As we descended into the dank, musty basement when my "stuff" was stored and rounded the corner where the boxes were stacked, I was immediately overwhelmed. I just didn't remember that I had left so many boxes here. I thought I would find two or three boxes that we would quickly put in the trunk of my car, go have lunch with my friends Gloria and Alger and be on our way to a day of antique shopping that we had planned. Instead, it was a process of going through every box to sort and repack so I could get it home.

My sister described to some degree the process of sorting through the items in a recent blog she titled "Courage". A strange title as I think about it. I didn't feel courageous...only empty. My tears were constantly right at the brim of overflowing, but it seemed that I had mourned all of this before. Why was I feeling it all over again? Why did I feel like a shell...all of my vitality somehow drained away? Why was the pain coming back like torrents in the midst of a hurricane?

I can only describe it as "phantom pain". The pictures of the most beautiful women I have ever met and a woman that loved me beyond measure...now only a memory. Pictures of my kids that are no longer a part of my life...now only an image on paper. The memory of holding each of my grand kids in my arms within minutes of their birth...fading with each passing day with the knowledge that I may never, ever see them again, let alone hold them. Pain in my heart so overwhelming that I can't describe it...except to say that I can still feel it long after it should be gone! Memories amputated by poor choices on my part, no matter how long ago. A part of my life, but no longer a part of me.