One of the Dinner Guests Served Three Years in a Women’s Penitentiary

Credit: Robin Breeding

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There are times when it’s hard to know where to begin or where to end. When the memory of the things that bring joy to our lives is overwhelmed by an onslaught of sadness. The incomprehensible is real, and the light at end of the tunnel is nothing more than the faint glimmer of a lone candle flickering in the heart of the storm.

These are the days we live in, when fear and worry is as certain as the autumn maple leaves that cover my yard, red and ominous, with winter on its way.

No matter how it’s delivered or where we look, there is scarcely a break from death and destruction in our world. The war that is newsworthy today will surely and quickly be replaced by another that is looming on the horizon. It is how we live: on the edge, worried, nervous, baking cookies and breathing air that somehow, in these horrible and uncertain times, sustains us.

As Americans, we are thousands of miles away from the worst of everything, although the constant barrage of news from media, old and new, brings every battle, crisis, threat, virus, crash, and explosion to within inches of our reality. We send prayers, money and love, and hope that the people in control, those whom we have elected or chosen, can find their better angels and encourage others to do the same. It seems so simple to be good, and kind, and empathic, but often it is the simplest of things that require a herculean effort. Nonetheless, we persevere, seeking and finding hope in each other’s stories.

Nations may be intractable, people are not. People have the will to overcome and survive. It is in our nature to ensure that our personal flames radiate the best in each of us. When our flames are not fully ablaze, we still endeavor to illuminate our aspirations for happiness.

For many, achieving those aspirations is a long and difficult climb.  Consider the 19 million felons – American citizens – living our country. They have been punished for crimes ranging from victimless white collar to serious violence against humans. Most have been incarcerated, but now they walk among us. None of them have it easy. They have been punished, fined, and imprisoned, but, most importantly, they have paid their debt to society. They are told that as free persons they can once again pursue the American Dream. But that’s not so. Not even close. If you are felon, the roadblocks to happiness are many.  This is America, after all. Why should anyone have it easy?

The other night, three of our nation’s 19 million felons were dinner guests at my kitchen table.  All had done time, from months to years in jail or prison (there is a difference), and each had been connected to a serious crime as either instigator or accomplice. And if that wasn’t enough, two of the three are recovering drug addicts. One of the three is my son.

What they all have in common, what I admire most in each of them, is that they have figured out a way to make it in a world that wishes they would disappear. It’s not an easy life. Most doors are closed before they have a chance to knock. Yet, they laugh; they joke; they smile; they know that whatever the world has to throw at them, they can take it. In their own unique ways, through slow and often painful perseverance, they have figured out how to live in a world that can be callously unfair. Most importantly, they have plans for happiness.

One of the dinner guests served three years in a women’s penitentiary. If you’re curious to know what that’s like, consider watching a few of episodes of “Orange is the New Black” on any of the major streaming channels. What you’ll learn –  what you likely already know – is that it can be a frightening and uncomfortable experience.

When asked about her time in prison, her response was surprising. She said, “It really wasn’t that bad.” That may be true compared to what it took to put her life in order since she was released. Yet, I can’t help thinking it was a whole lot worse than she let on.

I also can’t help but think that these three thirty-somethings can teach us a lesson in survival and getting along. They are done being at war with themselves and others. They are now honorable citizens who want nothing more than a good job, a nice home, and a warm bed to sleep in at night. Their lives beyond incarceration epitomize the wish fulfillment of every person alive today.

They are my heroes. They give me hope.  

When I think about the catastrophic events that surround us, I always come back to these three. If they can do it, so can the rest of us; so can the world.

It’s naïve. It’s foolish. It’s lacking a sense of the world’s barbaric history. But it’s all I have, and I’ll cling to their stories like a baby opossum glued to its mother’s back. Their belief in themselves assures me that despite insurmountable barriers, good things are possible in my kitchen and in the world.