Friday, February 6, 2009

Blaming the Victim

Last week, there was a suicide in the prison where I work. I didn't know the young man but the incident has affected me deeply. We disn't know a lot about the victim because he was new to our prison but, as in all suicides, the staff is asking what we could have done differently.

I've gone through the gamut of emotions this week - from sadness to anger to guilt to grief. My husband tells me that I can't control the whole world - I am not responsible for the young man's actions and yet there's a part of me that says, "if only" and "what if." My control fantasies are enormous, I guess. I need to let it go.

In the Way, we were taught that suicides were caused by devil spirits possessing the despairing person. There was no understanding that they may be clinically depressed and caught in the vortex of hopelessness, causing them to feel so desperate and helpless that they take their own life. Unfortunately it's not uncommon in prison.

But devil spirits? This young man was an addict. But he was also a son and a father, a brother and a boyfriend. He had witnessed the tragic death of his brother when he was sixteen. Before that he was an honor student - after that, he turned to drugs. Did the devil spirit cause the brother's death? The Way would say "yes." That's an easy answer to the hardest question. Why do bad things happen to good people?

I don't know whether the man was "good" or "bad", "possessed" or not. I am not here to judge. But I do know that being alive means to grapple with these unknowns and to live in spite of the uncertainty. To live. Blaming the victim is the easy way out - as is blaming myself or blaming the system or blaming anyone for that matter.

What can we learn from this incident? That is the important question- not who is to blame, especially the victim.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Do Not Hurry; Do Not Rest"

I've been learning about two things. One is "verticality;" the other, its kinsman, is pace. This has to do not only with writing but with life.

What is verticality? It's a concept that emphasizes depth rather than breadth (horizontality.) In other words, one's writing reflects a more inward, up and downward flow, than expansive, back and forth, if I'm saying it right. Annie Dillard says it best in her essay on "How to Fashion a Text:"

"The interior life is in constant vertical motion; consciousness runs up and down the scales every hour like a slide trombone. It dreams down below; it notices up above; and it notices itself, too and its own alertness. Te vertical motion of consciousness, from the inside to the outside and back, interests me."

A life lived mindfully and "vertically," may I even say "spiritually," will be interesting, if nothing else.

I've always been more of a rabbit than a tortoise - given to great bursts of energy, only to break down and be out of the race for a while. Is it too late to teach an old dog new tricks? I hope not.

Which brings me to my second lesson: pacing. The great philosopher/poet Johann Goethe once wrote: "Do not hurry, do not rest." If one is going for the deep sea diving of verticality, pacing is everything. "Do not hurry. Do not rest." It saves energy and spends it wisely.

So I'm trying this on in life, as well as on the page. Yesterday, as I walked through the halls of the prison where I work, I was conscious of these two things. Slow down. Dive deep. Oh yes, and breathe.

Monday, January 5, 2009

When the Student is Ready

My prayer has been answered. I've been wandering around in the dark for so long, I've grown accustomed to it - writing-wise, I mean. I haven't known what I was doing wrong or even doing right. I was just doing what felt right to me. And that doesn't good writing always make.

So, I've finally found a guide - two guides really - two mentors to show me what's what in my writing, to separate the trees from the forest and help me "find my way" out of the thicket of my own voice. I've just completed my first week of residency in my low-residency MFA program at Western CT State University. It was incredible - meeting new, young, up-and-coming writers and old, seasoned, been-there-still-doing-it writers. I attended workshops and lectures, presentations and one-on-one sessions.

If you're an aspiring writer and all you want, what you ache to do, is write, then I HIGHLY recommend this program. The faculty are down-to-earth and very generous. They are working writers, not academicians. There is very little ego there - just writers writing and wanting to help and mentor other writers. I feel like I stumbled on my Brigadoon.

Okay, slow down, enthusiastic former cultist! I still have to do the work but so far, both Don J. Snyder and Danial Asa Rose, successful and award-winning writers, have e-mailed me responses to my writing within one day of finishing the residency. If this is any indication of what the semester is going to be like, I'd better hold onto my hat. Still, I know I need to pace myself for the marathon ahead of me. This is not a sprint even though I feel like a Thoroughbred sprung out of the box. At last I have two trainers.

"When the student is ready, the teacher arrives" as the old saying goes. Last September, long before I considered entering this program, I made the following entry in my journal:

"I think I need to be shown how to write the next chapters of my life - that I need a blueprint for the journey - two experts who will guide me."

Don't ask me why I said "two experts" but I guess dreamed them into being. This, too, is grace. An answer to prayer. Thank you, God.