When I was in fifth grade, and stupid, I went down to the train tracks with a couple of friends and threw rocks at the window of a caboose. The window broke (that being the goal) and triumphantly I returned home with the friends. We may have shot hoops, eaten some food, and watched tv. I'm pretty sure that was the plan.
The next day I was called out of class and into the principal's office at school where the police were waiting to ask some questions, like, "Why did you throw rocks at a train, young man? Are you aware that vandalism is illegal?" It was enough to scare the hell out of me. And with the exception of a brief altercation during college with a bike cop in Madison who attempted to arrest me for not stopping fully at a stop sign, threatening incarceration if I didn't stop lecturing him and hand over my driver's license (I'm fairly certainly I quoted Thoreau at one point) it's the closest I ever came to being jailed.
Until today: when I visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility with a couple members of our community and representatives of the Osborne Association, in order to learn about the incredibly awe-inspiring work being done to rehabilitate incarcerated women and their families. I met people today who had clearly done the worst things they had ever done in their lives, were jailed for it from anywhere from 8 years to life, and are currently leading some of the most thoughtfully profound and redemptive lives of any people I've met in my life.
Living, breathing, struggling examples of what it means to face the worst in yourself and, despite its painfully acute awareness, decide to transcend it and commit to overcoming it, habituating oneself to a new life, and making a fully cognizant but nevertheless clean break from the past.
To go from the nightmare of poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, street crime; and, in the midst of one of those many-runged dimensions of hell to the further darkness of incarceration, is nothing if not totally and existentially life-threatening. That's axiomatic.
But the stories of triumph I heard; the heroic demonstrations of transcendence; the tear drenching inspirations of the raw, skin-scraping insistences of facing one's worst demons and taking responsibility for oneself as a person, a parent, a child, a friend of another; had the cumulative effect of creating what the tradition sees as the highest levels of spiritual service: awe and humility.
I was awed by these imprisoned women's steely resolve; by their ability to smile through their own lives' borders of the antiseptic, unfeeling, encroaching hives of razor-wire; and humbled by their need to find the sacred in the mundane, the light in the darkness, hope in the face of despair. Situations for which such seemingly simplistic cliches were made.
For more than a year, our community has escorted children to visit parents at Albion, at Bedford Hills and at Rikers Island. We've led book drives for family rooms in NY State prisons and we've painted those rooms as well. Today I learned that NY State budget cuts have eliminated a transportation program that helps deliver kids to and from family visits--an essential and humane torch of hope in the night of jail's darkness.
I met women today who will never leave prison; women who hope to one day leave; and women whose release is imminent. Each were bound to one another by hope: that no matter where they sat they could stand; no matter how dark it was, they could make light; that no matter how constricting the oppression of imprisonment, there could be seas that would part, offering that promise, that hope of redemption.
How I shivered in fear that day in the principal's office in 1974. How terror struck me for the imagined consequences of throwing a rock through the window of an empty train's caboose. But the force of that cowering amounts to nothing compared to the awe and humility of these inspired lives I met today.
Bless these women and the earth-moving resilience of their hopes and dreams for redemption. Rarely do we start out in life fully imagining the consequences of our actions; but rewards endure for those willing to set aside the rocks and to lift one's aim, one's heart, even higher.