Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Questions Inmates Ask

As part my workshop with female inmates I ask the women to think of one question they would ask everyone they meet.  I often set-up the exercise by saying that they could pretend that they might not ever see the person again—having time with them at a bus stop, stuck on a train, whatever, so that it is most likely that they would get honest answers out of a stranger who would simply walk back into their own anonymous life.
I have gotten many fascinating answers during the years I’ve been doing this. Some recent standouts have been, “How do you cope?”  “Are you happy?” “What one decision would you change if you had the chance?”
As often happens, they ask these questions of me, curious about this white, middle-aged woman standing in front of them for 45-minutes a week.  Usually by that point they’re quite comfortable with me sensing that I don’t sit in judgment of them and that I’m genuinely interested in everything they choose to share.  This week I was asked, “Do you believe in God?”  I hesitated before answering, and said that that was a really tricky question for me.  One woman said, “It’s a yes or no question.  Either you do or you don’t.”  Others came to my defense understanding that it might not be so black and white.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior?” a woman wearing a plastic prison- issued rosary beads and cross necklace asked me, as if this would definitively answer the question. 
“Oh my God, hell no,” I think I may have answered, my filter apparently taking a nap.  This got a few chuckles from the ladies.  “I’m Jewish,” I added, which led to some sounds of understanding from the women.  It’s sort of a stock answer I give, because quite frankly, no, I don’t believe in God and the deflection seems to make sense to others. “It’s not that simple for me.”   I have found that a lot of women of all ages, races and ethnicities have a tremendous belief that God, whoever that is to them, will get them through their sentences and whatever comes next.  It’s hard to know if they entered prison with their beliefs or if they were formed behind bars.
I am often asked if I am or ever was an addict.  I would say that 75% of the women I see are.  I usually point to the coffee I have with me as the only thing I can say I’m “addicted” to. (They are often not too happy that I’m up there enjoying my drive-through iced latte while they haven’t had time to have their instant yet.) I always share, when the subject comes up, that my best friend is a crystal meth addict and that to the best of my ability I understand the struggle he and other addicts face.  I emphasize that I couldn’t possibly ever know what it’s like, that I live the flipside of the issue.  I have read the piece below about my best friend’s struggle which always leads to some very poignant conversation:
After reading it last week, a woman raised her hand and asked me this:
“Have you ever been curious to try heroin or meth just to see what it’s like?”
I paused and thought about how to answer.  I’ve seen enough documentaries and heard first-hand accounts about how heroin, for example, is like taking your best orgasm and multiplying it by 1,000 or that pain, physical and emotional, instantly disappears.  I’ve heard that meth makes you feel like Superman for days on end.  I’ve heard that your first hit is never your last.
“I’d be curious about how something may feel that good, but no, I’ve never been tempted to try them.   Plus, I need my sleep.  I couldn’t stand being up for 4 days in a row.”  They laughed at this. 
My answer was an honest one.  They have asked me things that I will not answer but somehow this didn’t seem to cross that line.  In many ways, it levels the playing field between us.  They never seem to stand in judgment of me and wonder how I could possibly understand them, and vice versa.  I always say to people that at the core of it all they are women, just like I am, who have made different choices and undoubtedly been dealt the cruelest hands imaginable.  We all turn to things to help us cope, whether it’s drugs, religion, food, shopping, whatever.  I have insurmountable credit card debt and they have track marks up and down their bodies.  They are different “blemishes,” different “blights,”  but they are the results and reminders of the choices we’ve made.

40 Years in 4 Hours

No, no, no, this was NOT my 40th high-school reunion.  I might not admit when that one comes around.  It was my 30th, making me sound old enough.  I remember, when I was younger, hearing people wistfully mention such high numbers and I just assumed they’d be dead soon.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I was unexpectedly whisked away in the middle of my first year of high school ( for those who never knew why, see my below post):

I spent my childhood on a nice, upper-middle-class street from kindergarten and followed the trajectory of elementary school through junior high with friends I adored. I rode my bike until it got dark when kids still did that, playing with my neighbors before parents checked with other parents that we’d be supervised.  I liked my life, I fit in, (despite always being the tallest and the biggest in elementary school).  When I was forced to move to Los Angeles at 16, I lost touch with all of my Long Island friends.

The beauty of Facebook (and to me, it has been miraculous in bringing back that part of my life) has re-introduced me to people I barely knew, those who moved in different circles.  It has also been responsible for reconnecting me with those whose houses I slept over and spoke to on the phone for hours at night.

In many ways, I felt like an interloper at the reunion, since I missed those awkward and fraught high school years with those who were there.  To me, in my day, I looked at life as there were the Jews and then there was everyone else.  (Read the below post about my 30th boarding school reunion, where I spent my last two years of high school, one among a smattering of Jews.):

I felt slightly disappointed not knowing the football players who looked at my face registering not a bit of recognition and moved right past me. Everyone had meshed and merged in those two years and I had missed that part.

I felt most rooted reconnecting with my elementary school friends, those who appeared in the school photos I had uncovered and brought with me.  There were three who lived on my street in houses I have memories of pretending we were the Partridge Family.  We took the school bus together, a short distance, but memorable just the same.  Seeing these boys who had turned into men, had me hugging them the hardest, staring at their faces and marveling at who they’ve become.  I’ve become particularly close with one who lived around the corner, all through Facebook and words.

There was the smallest boy in the class who actually let me put my finger into one of his dimples (well, I never asked if I could), what I remember him for.  I heard stories about lunging to kiss a boy in first grade only to have him throw me off in a panic.  I learned that a sweet boy gave me a coin from his collection and that my mother, thinking I had stolen it, called his mother and forced me to return it.  I learned that one of the nicest boys laughed at me when I stepped in dog poop and he’s felt guilty about it for all these years.  I learned that I always had a nice “aura” in junior high.

I drank wine and laughed with a woman who I had totally confused with someone else, another Facebook friend who I never really knew.  We have shared written quips and laughter, found many things in common, and I breezed into her hotel room as if we were best friends.  Another connection who I barely knew has turned into masked mush over his incredible work with urban kids.  We stole away for a few minutes having discovered so much about each other through my writing and constant Facebook posts.  He’s wonderful and I hope he never has to compromise his love and passion for the lives he changes.  And of course, there were a couple of my very dear friends who I would occasionally whisk past during the night and whisper to them and move on, confident just knowing that they were in the same room with me.

There were many people there who I know read my blog and many others I had no idea did.  Throughout the night I was sought out, hearing praise for my writing that was unexpected and beyond flattering.  A man made it a point to come over to me to compliment me and on the teeniest, tiniest, itty-bittiest scale,  I felt like a real writer.  As I was leaving a lovely woman who hasn’t aged one second said “You better write about this,” and well, here it is, my homage to my roots and the lovely people I had to leave behind.