Prison of Shame

22 Aug

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. In the year and a half she was there, I never visited her. During her first month at Chowchilla, she sent me forms to fill out for visitation rights. The procedure was more complex than the one at the local jail. You had to request visitation dates weeks in advance and wait to get approval. My mom’s friend Bob, who was in love with her, pressured me to make the trip but I refused. Although he offered, I felt uncomfortable making the ten-hour drive with him. And I felt incompetent to make it alone.

Years later, when I was teaching a public mental health course nation wide, I spent one week in Modesto, California. To get there I flew into Fresno and rented a car. When you walk from the gate towards baggage claim, you pass a replica of a Sequoia. It gives you the feeling that you have just arrived at Disneyland instead of near Yosemite National Park.

As I maneuvered my rental vehicle towards the highway, I gave a sigh of relief as I adjusted to the various gadgets of the unfamiliar car and found a station on the radio I enjoyed. An hour into the drive, I saw that the town of Chowchilla was a few exits away. I had never looked on a map to see where it was. Now I saw the barbed wire fence of the prison along the side of the highway. A flight from San Diego to Fresno was inexpensive. I hadn’t realized. Yet at the time, new in my career, I was struggling to make ends meet. The cost of a flight, car rental, and hotel would have all gone onto a credit card.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

She had pleaded with me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in. I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a pain in the ass. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

The Final Laugh

14 Aug


One of the risk factors for suicide is having a family member who died by suicide. I have this risk factor. My mother took her life six years ago after a long battle with depression and alcoholism. She was imprisoned by the disease and by the legal system. She drove under the influence one too many times. 

When I was a little girl my mother and I watched “Mork and Mindy” together. I remember she thought Robin Williams was very funny. She and I also watched “Little House on the Prairie.” I don’t have many more memories of watching television with her though. As my mom’s illness took over, she slowly began to lose interest in things like television, movies, and novels. She also stopped playing the piano and didn’t laugh as much. Depression will do that to a person. So will spending time in jail. 

Robin Williams’ death hit a nerve for people this week and struck many people’s hearts. He was a comedic genius and gifted actor plus had a kind face with soulful eyes. When I heard the news I couldn’t help but think of my mother. She would have been sad that Robin Williams took his life. He died at 63. She died at 62. 

Watching the news briefly, I couldn’t bear to hear the talk about waiting for the coroner’s report and the fact that the police were called. These types of details are simply too close to home. Later this week I heard that a Fox newscaster said Williams’ act was selfish and cowardly. After my mom died someone said it must be difficult knowing that my mom is in hell. 

People were surprised – shocked to hear of Williams’ death. I wasn’t. When a person battles depression and addiction, there is a risk for suicide. I waited for the call about my mom for many years. 

But when you do really get the call the loss hits you like a hand grenade. If you’re lucky, the love of other people pieces you together again. 

In my fantasy life this week, I saw my mom greet Robin Williams at the Pearly Gates and she thanked him for making her laugh. 

On Taking Calculated Risks…

6 Aug

Lately I’ve been learning about investing and am surprised by how financial principles reflect aspects of life. It’s quite interesting actually. Had I realized this I might have pursued a degree in economics and made considerable more money than I do now…. But that is besides the point. 

As I sat listening to my financial guy, I jotted down some notes. “Most people are either risk adverse or take risks that are way too big. But anyone who plays the stock market for long will know there are ups and downs and you have to just ride out the trends.” I nodded. 

“Diversification is key.” Well, that makes sense. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

“Take those company shares for sure but do something with them.”

“Nothing is a sure thing but it’s not good to pull out just because the climate seems a little rocky or unstable. You have to look at the big picture.” 

Apparently Warren Buffet once said, “Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.” 

The point that most struck me is that people who do not invest, rarely experience financial gain. Without calculated risk, there is no growth or advancement. One continues to live pay check to pay check and perhaps in the negative. To reverse this, attention and patience can yield long term dividends.

Risk is key for abundance can be measured in domains far outside the financial market.  

On Cultivating Stillness

20 Jun


This week a few people have posted vacation pictures on FB. A couple photos in particular stood out to me. A friend in Maine has been posting images of seaside landscapes and quaint houses with flowerbeds. Another individual, visiting in Alabama, has been posting pictures of the Tennessee River, including the image above.

When I look at this Blue Heron everything in my being seems to stop and calm down. I am temporarily arrested by its beauty and the stillness of the water. The photo calls to mind a different pace – a time when summer was deeply intertwined with a slower rhythm. I remember when summer was a period where children felt occasionally bored and adults sat on their porches in the evenings with a glass of lemonade or a gin and tonic.

Our calendar year is broken into seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall. Yet unless we live in a region where the climate truly dictates what we can and can’t do, we often lose track of nature’s cycles and rhythms. Instead, the show goes on. Electricity allows us to work until late in the evening and snow plows clear the roads so people can get to work despite terrible conditions. So like the Energizer Bunny, we go and go and go too. Until we are possibly on the brink of collapse.

Yet in some European countries, it is customary for people to take the entire month of August off. For them, summer is a time to pause and to be a little less productive. For me, I think about my childhood summers and how even though I enjoyed school, it was nice not to have to be up early every morning and to follow a set routine. I enjoyed reading books in bed, watching re-runs of “Leave It To Beaver,” and spending hours outside. Though an adult now, and without the luxury of discretionary free time, my spirit still pines for it. My soul wants a period of less structure and more spontaneity. It wants time for rest, a little boredom, and no agenda. Although a challenge, I think it’s possible to cultivate a bit of stillness within the chaos of summer activities, family gatherings, work, and social commitments. It might be that we spend a weekend reading a novel instead of running endless errands. Maybe we get take out food or eat peanut butter out of a jar, if we don’t want to hassle with the grocery store. Perhaps we do more exercise or spend time in nature to break the pattern of our never ending racing thoughts. Then again, we might simply look at this photo and for a few seconds, stare out at the greater expanse of existence where we can be still and know God.

The FB Prism of Fatherhood

15 Jun

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The other day on the radio, I heard an announcer say that the most important job in the world is being a father (or mother) but as this weekend is Father’s Day, the man was speaking about dads. And I couldn’t agree more that the shaping of another human being is probably the vocation people should take most seriously. That does not however mean that everyone does.

Whenever we have one of these national honoring of parent days, it’s impossible not to think a little about the role of mothers and fathers in our lives and what it might mean to be a parent (or not to be). Most Father’s Days I am on auto-pilot. My own father died in 2002 and prior to that, I had been estranged from him for fourteen years. But with the advent of FB, I can’t fully forget about the day if I log on, which happened this morning. I had temporarily forgotten that it was Father’s Day. FB reminded me.

A dear friend of mine, who I have known over twenty years has just had a baby. I see his groggy face as he holds the tiniest of babies next to his physical frame. My boyfriend has a picture of he and his teenage girls as his banner photo. And another friend has posted a collage of photos of she and her dad, including the fact that he wrote her daily while she was away at boarding school. My own dad, who I saw for the first time in years while he was dying of cancer merely asked me what kind of car I was driving. He didn’t acknowledge all the years lost in-between or ask what I did for a living, whether I was married, or if I had kids. He didn’t seem too concerned with whether or not I was happy because upon no longer being an extension of him, he didn’t recognize me. Yet at one point, I had been the apple of his eye.

I could be sad over my own relationship with my father. There were years when I was down right livid and there are still times when subconscious feelings seep up out of the depths showing me that no matter how much I think I’ve moved on, there are more layers to this onion. But for the most part, when I feel pain, it is in tandem with witnessing a more legitimate form of fatherly love. So it’s a mixed bag. While it’s difficult to acknowledge what one didn’t get, it’s hopeful to see that there is a another way of doing things. I am also keenly aware that nothing in life is black or white. I remember what it felt like to be loved and someone’s daughter, even if it was a highly distorted version of it. Most parents are simply doing the best they can. And at some point, if we can, we forgive them their humanity and the sins of the fathers.

I am due to go to church today and I will remember, as I always do, that there is a Supreme Father/Mother/Creator and that s/he will not let us be orphans.


6 Jun

In yoga there is a balance pose that entails wrapping one’s leg around the other while standing with a semi-bent leg and then placing one’s arm over the other arm and twisting them into a pretzel-like shape. The only way to hold the pose without toppling over is to stare straight ahead at a point on the wall and not dare take your gaze away – not even for a second. I am actually quite good at this for some reason. Perhaps it is because I learned a similar technique as a child in ballet where in order to turn without getting dizzy you have to “spot” somewhere on the wall as your head and body spin around in rapid succession.


Activities like yoga help us practice more than physical actions; they help us apply some of these concepts into our lives. How do we find balance? And how can we execute and accomplish anything when so many things compete for our attention?

I am finding that in this day of cell phones, email, multiple social and work circles, personal relationships and all of the things that compete for our attention, moment by moment I have to ask myself, “Where is the spot on the wall?” There are times when I simply have to tune out everything but the one thing that needs my focus be it a person, a loved one, an animal, or a complex task. Yet more than anything I have to focus on God as my source. He is the spot that keeps me sane and when I remember that, it is easier to concentrate during the day.

Related, Stephen Covey in his very well known book, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” writes about the importance of centering one’s life around key priorities vs. abstract tasks. The latter is endless and will always bleed your life force while the former will actually help you stay centered and efficient around what really matters.

I must remember that as long as I spot, I can find my balance. And I must remember that this is a spiritual practice vs. yet one more thing I am attempting to control. Here’s to focusing so intently, the paradox results in surrender.

Longing for Simplicity

31 May


Last week I spent time in Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish and much beautiful farmland. What drew my attention wasn’t the attire of the Amish or the sight of horse drawn buggies chugging along the shoulder of the road. Instead, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape and the image of families working together in the fields.

I spent my childhood summers in Wisconsin so this terrain is not entirely unfamiliar. While staying with my grandparents, I had the opportunity to visit many a farm and sung songs to myself while playing in cornfields. Witnessing the Amish tend their farms reminded me of this and left me with a haunting longing for a life more attuned by nature and its rhythms. Looking at a group of cows sitting in a field of yellow flowers, I thought, “Wow. What a nice life.”

This morning while reading the Twitter and FB feed, I stopped for a moment and said to myself, “What the hell? What the hell is this all about? This constant need to press myself into the world all in the effort of building a platform? My only intention with these efforts is that perhaps one day my voice will be loud enough for a publisher to notice me and to bet on an unknown horse. But to what avail and at what cost? On my deathbed will I care how many followers I have on Twitter? Or will I instead be glad that I produced quality work even if it never gets recognized and out into the world? I have no answers because as much as I longed for simplicity as a child, I also longed to be recognized and to influence. But I wonder if ambition causes us to miss the mark all together.

This week the gifted Maya Angelou passed away – a woman of remarkable talent and endurance. How did this woman live her life and how did she generate her influence? When I think of famous people of dimension, integrity and talent, I wonder if they longed to be players on the world stage, or if simply living their truths led to this phenomenon. Is it possible that if we embody the vision, visibility follows organically?

And in the end, what is it that we’re living for anyway?


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