Monday, January 19, 2009

Go straight to jail, do not pass go

"Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells, and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You'd just like to have a little happiness, you know, just gimme a break!
"But the more you think that way, the more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what's outside your room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door. To begin to develop compassion for yourself and others, you have to unlock the door."--Pema Chodron

This holiday weekend I've spent a lot of time reading, ignoring the vacuuming and dusting I should be doing. Last night I finished a book of essays from women in prison called Couldn't Keep it To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution. One of my worst fears (and I have many fears!) is going to prison, either for a crime I didn't commit, or for a crime that wasn't intentional (like getting distracted while in traffic and crossing a median.) I'm not saying this fear is rational--I don't even drive except for the few times I've gone out with M. riding down clear country roads in Maine. My fear is being confined, unable to make choices or walk away from bad situations. The women in York Institute's creative writing program manage to talk so eloquently about a place that's designed to stamp out any individuality and any notion of personal space. They are able to capture the dread and despair while managing to rise above it.

Normally I'm very black and white in my thinking about crime and punishment. "An eye for an eye!"I say, thinking of the harm I would want to cause anyone who harmed me or any of my loved ones. But these women's stories touched me. Not only were the essays articulate and honest, but they were never justifications for what these women had done, even though from my view, women who kill their abusive husbands don't deserve a 10-20 year jail sentence. So many horrible crimes had been committed against these women before they ever picked up a gun or a 2x4--from incest to physical and mental abuse, abandonment and betrayal--it wasn't really surprising that the women had snapped. I'm not saying it's OK to kill someone, but reading these women's stories made me more sympathetic toward them, people who I might otherwise simply dismiss as "bad," and never try to get to know or understand. It's easy to be compassionate toward your mother or husband or best friend, but try feeling compassion for a stranger in jail. I've questioned many times if I ever could dare feel compassion for "those evil people."

I also kept thinking how grateful I was to be on the outside of prison, looking in from the safety of my livingroom. I had a normal, happy childhood. I've never been abused or neglected by people I loved. There were small hurts here and there, but overall I would say I've been very fortunate. But as cliche as it may sound, I am aware that in some ways I've built a prison of my own making, and right now, with my attitudes and predjudices, I'm serving a life term if I don't do something to change.

My desire to make everything turn out right for me, my insistence that I only be surrounded by the things I like, the people who care for me, the setting that suits me--my desire to always be comfortable, comes at a cost. I've become more socially isolated and less open. Even a whiff of rejection sends me scurrying away to my self-imposed box. This is not a good way to live, this shutting down that I do. Things are not always going to go my way, people won't always agree with me or praise me; in fact, I have no control over anyone's reaction to me nor do I have control over my environment unless I spend the rest of my life hiding behind closed blinds. In order to let some light in, I need to open the curtains, let sun and let the rain come in.

We're so lucky as human beings to have the chance to experience this world, it's a shame when we limit ourselves because of fear. It's the toughest challenge I've ever faced to tear down those bars. I feel like I don't know where to start. This blog entry is a small step, I guess.

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