26 January 2015

Be Not Provoked

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“Did you hear?  Linda Stone got fucking deported.  Immigration picked her up yesterday,” my friend Ivy whispered, leaning in as she passed me.  Surprise overtook me so much that I almost dropped my tray of Salisbury steak.image

“Deported as in ‘out of the country’ and ‘can never come back’” I asked.  Ivy nodded.

“Stone,” as the guards called her, worked with me as a janitor in the Assessments building when the warden dumped me there because I had to go to trial every day for weeks.  I disliked Stone immensely because I witnessed her dispatch inmates who received more attention than she did from the guards by falsely reporting them for threatening to attack one of them. She did it to my friend Denise. She told a guard Denise threatened her behind her back. It wasn’t true.  So when a correction officer assigned me to work with Stone, queasiness crept into my stomach.  I had no choice but to obey the guard’s order.

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Stone landed in her home country of St. Lucia, which is not a bad deportation if you ask me.

One day, Stone chatted me up in an unusually friendly way as we completed chores, sharing her girly secrets like the supply closet was our sorority.  One secret she told me – a bold and malicious lie – was that a certain guard had propositioned her.  I doubted her story but it took my focus anyway because the guard’s wife worked at the prison in an office approximately five feet away from us.  I pointed to the wife’s closed office door as a warning to Stone to shut up.

“Stone. Come on.” And I nodded my head toward the wife’s office.

“That door’s locked.  No one’s in there,” she said with counterfeit confidence.  Pause.  “There can’t be anyone in there, can there be?  I thought it was locked.  She’s not in there.  Is she in there?”   panic flooded out of Stone’s mouth, alarm that the guard’s wife could and would confront her.  Knowing that she had screwed up, Stone abruptly ended our cleaning session and I retired to my cell, relieved to end my stoning for a while.

I wasn’t in my cell two minutes when the housing unit manager Captain Demers called me to his office.  Once I was inside, behind his closed door, the Demers told me that Stone had provided him with a written statement containing details of my alleged confession to her that a certain guard whose wife worked in the building had suggested an inappropriate liaison to me.  Stone pre-empted her own trouble by blaming me for what she said.

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You have to control your anger in prison: no yelling, outbursts, punching walls unless you want to go to seg. Some inmates do explode when they’re angry, some don’t. All of us, however, fail at hiding the anger on our faces.

Demers continued to tell me that he had informed the wife of what I had supposedly said about her husband and she insisted – understandably – that he boot me from the building.  Demers exiled me for Stone’s sins.

Being banished in this way made me so rageful that I turned red.  After I moved my belongings to another housing unit, I went to the dining hall for lunch.  At the serving line’s end waited Mr. Packer.  I didn’t work for him so recognizing each other and exchanging pleasantries was the extent of our relationship.  As I extended my tray to one of Mr. Packer’s workers for her to fill it with a chicken patty and a baked potato, Mr. Packer noticed my fiery demeanor.

“Are you OK?  You look angry,” Mr. Packer asked.

“I’m OK.  It’s just… I just…” I stammered as silvery crescents of tears appeared on my lower eyelids.  In his usual gentle manner, Mr. Packer took me out of the line and I told him what happened.  A man of complete faith in God, Mr. Packer never let anything ruffle him and I was embarrassed that I let cattiness and gossipy betrayal undo me so completely.

image“I just don’t know what I should do, if I should write to the warden or ask my parents to call up here.  I guess I could resort to the courts…” I went on.

“Can I make a suggestion?”

“Sure,” I sniffled.

“Do nothing.  Do absolutely nothing at all.  Let it work itself out,” he offered.  Even though Mr. Packer did not know me well at that point, he read my body language and my speech closely enough to know that I was a woman of action.  He could tell that I was the type that responded to crises, the type of lady to take the lead.  Everyone knew that I got things done.  What I once considered a strength in my personality was beginning to look like a liability if Mr. Packer’s advice was sound.image

“OK, Mr. Packer.  I’ll do nothing.  But only because you’re such a nice guy.” I meant what I said; I would never have heeded the advice had it not originated in such a kind and gentle man.

“Thank you.  And read Psalm 37,” he added.

I nodded and pointed at him, telling him again “Only because you’re such a nice guy.”

After lunch, I went back to my new cell and extracted my Bible from my property, belongings that my move had upset as much as it had discombobulated my spirit.  I found Psalm 37 which read, in part:

“Do not be provoked by evildoers;… Those who do evil… will be cut off from the land.”

That’s nice, I thought.  Mr. Packer is such a nice guy.  And then, as if nothing had happened, I did nothing about Stone.  Instead, I ignored her lies for the following months until the day I encountered Ivy and her news that Stone had been deported, had been cut off from the land just as Psalm 37 and Mr. Packer promised. It is possible to surrender and win.

imageAll of my life before that day I had been a doer; I prized my fighting spirit.  “Scrappy” is what people called me and I smiled.  “A firecracker,” others chuckled.  If I saw a problem anywhere, I dove into its midst to solve it.  My intentions were always good, but my results?  Not so much, since this revelation was happening  smack dab in the middle of a prison sentence.  I know firsthand that ‘doing’ may fail you.

The compulsion to take action, particularly to help another person, is laudable but it can also land someone in trouble.  Particularly for modern women who juggle children, spouses, careers, hobbies and community involvement, the need to do, do, do and to go, go, go overextends them and often they neglect themselves, eventually wearing thin, losing stamina.

I am unmarried and childless, but I still recognize how doing can undo a woman.  I was the caregiver to my father after he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke.  I remain grateful for the chance to help my father and thankful that he survived his illness, but I refused to allow anyone else to help me shoulder the load.  “I will drive him to the neurologist,” I told my mother.  “I will close his law firm now that he is retired,” I said to my sisters.  “I will buy the broccoli, whip the cream, scrub the toilet bowl.”  Everything that needs to be done will be done by me only, I thought.

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Elsa has it right.

It never occurred to me that not doing something – either by permitting another helper to fill in for me or choosing to do nothing – was an option.  For too long, my self-esteem depended on another person’s depending on me – and only me – for everything.  Psychologists call this need co-dependence, but at the end of the day, it’s just chaos-causing busy-ness.

Sitting in the dining hall, toying with my Salisbury mystery meat the day Ivy told me about Stone, the revelation that doing, saying nothing was acceptable, might even work out in my favor, forced me to examine what a fuck-up I was with friends.  I always reserved the last word for me.  Small slights that were probably unintentional always invited and deserved response, at least in my opinion; I rarely let anything go and some of my relationships suffered as a result.

imageMy relationships that suffered less were not much healthier.  Even if I held my tongue with certain people, I contracted to do more than my fair share of the work in the friendship, thinking that I needed to exert extra effort to keep the other person in my circle.  Like I said, I was a doer.

I kidded myself to think that a woman can never be a responsible citizen, a good friend, a dutiful daughter if she picked her battles.  But the news of Stone’s deportation taught me that a woman will become undone if she enters every fight. No woman is nothing if she cannot do everything. She just might be blessed with everything when she doesn’t do anything.

When I went to work for Mr. Packer in the kitchen a few months later, I told him how Stone was cut off from the land.  Mr. Packer is as true and thorough a believer as you can find, but his eyes still wide with wonder at my story of Stone, Packer and Psalm 37.

“Amazing,” he said.  “Look what can happen when you just let go.”

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Posted January 26, 2015 by chandra in category "Lessons Learned

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