Stories are Everywhere

Grandma and Grandpa

My incredible grandparents – my family, my friends.

I met Ron at the Bookman’s in Mesa, Arizona, between wedding site tours. I was sitting on a red leather couch near the checkout while my fiancé wandered around the store. I scrolled through Facebook posts and Instagram snapshots, looking for something meaningful. As soon as Ron asked if he could sit beside me, I could immediately sense his desire to talk to someone. That longing emanated from him like heat waves rising up from asphalt in the middle of July in the desert. I dropped my phone into my purse, turned toward him, and prepared to listen.

Ron is 79. His wife passed a few years ago, and he was in Bookman’s trading in a bowling ball he’d had specially made for her, because no one uses it now. Ron was a rather competent bowler back in the day. In fact, one of his first jobs as a teenager was as a pin setter in a local bowling alley. This was before the process was electronic and automated, so Ron set all the pins by hand. When leagues were short a bowler, they often invited him to fill in.

Ron was in the Navy and by virtue of his service, he’s quite the world traveler. Many of his adventures took him to South America, where he recounts temperatures that soared upward of 140 degrees. I teased him, saying that Arizona must be “cool” to him, and Ron agreed, saying he’s pretty immune to any kind of pain bourn from sunburn. One time, in South America, Ron got so sunburnt that he passed out from heat exhaustion in a small pond—in his full whites. (He tells me this story laughing and smiling, by the way.) When his comrades found him, they dragged him back to his bunk to rehydrate. When Ron woke up, the black of his boots had stained his uniform, and he had to get a new one.

Ron’s wife was Native American, and they have a pretty incredible meet cute. The first time they met, Ron’s wife (I didn’t catch her name) pulled out a knife and threw it toward a tree, where it stuck in the bark. Then, she asked him, “Can you do that?” Ron pulled an axe out of a nearby lumber pile, threw it, and the axe found purchase in the tree, too. Clearly, that impressed his future wife, and I like to think that’s how they knew they were finely matched.

Ron has eight siblings, and they were all named after important historical figures or movie stars. Ron was named for Ronald Reagan, one of his sisters for Marilyn Monroe; another, for Janet Leigh. There were others, but man, he went quickly through the list and I couldn’t keep track of the fanfare.

Ron’s favorite state in the U.S. is Washington. Many of his grandchildren live in Arizona. It was his first time in Bookman’s. He had a lovely smile and an even better laugh.

I didn’t want to leave Ron, but as the next wedding venue appointment grew nearer, I had to excuse myself. That’s when we finally introduced ourselves to each other. Before then, names didn’t matter, just the conversation.

When I walked away, I had the uncanny feeling that I’d just shared a conversation with my grandpa, who passed away when I was ten. Like Ron, Grandpa Caviness was also in the Navy. Both shared a kind of joviality and bright smiles. Both were beautiful human beings.

Ron didn’t know it, but my interaction with him made my day. It warmed my heart and brought back so many wonderful memories of my grandpa.

I am so happy Ron asked to sit next to me and shared his stories. It proved there is opportunity for human connection everywhere. There is beauty everywhere.

There are stories everywhere.

If only we take the time to listen.

Last Night, I Went to Prison

Photo by flickr user "mikecogh." Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

Photo by flickr user “mikecogh.” Note: not a picture of Perryville Prison.

So, what should I wear to prison tomorrow?

Trust me, it wasn’t a question I ever thought I’d be asking, but I found myself emailing that inquiry to my good friend, Sara, a few short days ago.

Her response: I should wear something I’d wear to a casual business interview. Dark jeans or slacks were good. Minimal jewelry. And I might consider wearing a sports bra, because underwire has the annoying habit of tripping the metal detectors at the entrance. Beyond that, the only things I would need were my driver’s license and my copy of The Book Thief.

You see, I wasn’t going to prison because I was in trouble. I was going to prison as a volunteer, a book club volunteer.

When Sara approached me about volunteering alongside her at Perryville Women’s Prison, there was an instant tug in my belly. Half of that tug was nervousness, because let’s face it, I’d be going into a prison to interact with inmates. (And you might as well nickname me Ms. Paranoid—just ask my boyfriend.)

But the other half of that tug was instinct, something in me that said, “Yes, this would be a good thing. It’s something you have to give. Share your love for the written word. And do something that challenges you.”

Last week, I got the email from Sara letting me know that my background check had cleared, they were meeting next week, and the group was reading The Book Thief, would I come?

Last night, it smelled like a petting zoo when we got out of Sara’s car, because Perryville is situated just down the road from a dairy farm on the west, west side of town. The sun was setting, painting the horizon pink over the coils of barbed wire around us. Little squat buildings sat behind gates and uniforms. And there were women on the yard, walking around in bright orange clothing, probably enjoying the cooler weather.

We made it through the metal detectors without issue (go sports bras!), got our temporary badges, and walked into the cafeteria.

What came next was not the scene from a horror film. It was not an episode of Orange is the New Black. It was pretty, well, normal.

It was a regular book club, a collection of women who genuinely love the written word, who pine for it. Women who are intelligent and have opinions. Women who smiled at me even though they knew absolutely nothing about me. Women who I had an easier time picturing as mothers, sisters, and daughters than hardened criminals.

As we dissected the love letter to the written word that is The Book Thief and pontificated on the healing power of books, the women of Perryville shared with us that books help them to escape. The book club is something they look forward to. It’s a spot of hope in a blanket of bleakness.

And I realized that these women each have a story that led them to Perryville. Some are stories of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are stories of terrible mistakes, the stuff of nightmares. Some are stories of struggle, addiction, and abuse. Some are about the women they used to be or the side of themselves they are fighting to overcome.

And I decided that we can’t let their stories end there. Prison shouldn’t result in blank pages for them.

So that’s what Sara and I and all the other Perryville volunteers are doing. We’re coloring these women’s pages with words and feelings and reminders of what it’s like outside the barbed wire. We’re making sure their stories continue to breathe and develop—so that when they get out, they can confidently continue to tell their stories and perhaps rewrite themselves into new, rehabilitated lives.

Last night, I went to prison. It won’t be the last time.

Are you listening?

downtown Phoenix

Yesterday, two important things happened.

My boyfriend sat outside from 2:30 to 8:30 pm in a parking lot near 2nd Avenue and Fillmore to photograph the same scene of downtown Phoenix during different parts of the day for a work assignment. Think time lapse but with photography instead of video.

I took him dinner around 7ish, proclaiming that we could have any asphalt picnic. Except there were ants everywhere. And the asphalt was still pretty dang hot at that time.

Instead, my boyfriend backed up his car and I was able to sit in the “trunk” of the hatchback, eating cold noodles and sushi while my legs dangled over the pavement.

Here’s the important part. People walking by stopped and talked to us.

I met a man named Andy who’s been in Phoenix for nearly 38 years, mostly working construction. Since he’s used to working outside in the heat and has acclimated to such, he’s earned a nickname: Old Lizard. He showed me a tattoo of his namesake on his arm, a gecko that looks like it belongs in a Geico commercial, though I’m sure it may be older than the commercials. Andy’s Scotch-Irish, he served six years in prison (though I don’t know what for), and he has a daughter who works internationally who he’s incredibly proud of. He was also involved in the construction of such historic buildings as the Westward Ho (the renovation) and the Chinese Cultural Center.

Andy stopped by and talked to us three separate times, and my boyfriend said he’d been by to chat earlier in the day, too.

One of the last things he said to me? “I really like talking to people—especially younger people—but a lot of times, they won’t talk to you.”

Another man who stopped to talk to us asked if we were praying folk. My boyfriend and I both said “no,” mostly, I think, because we misunderstood the question. I thought he was asking if we were representatives of a church doing church-work on that sidewalk.

Regardless of our answer, he asked if we would pray with him for his mother who has recently undergone hip surgery. Now understanding the larger situation, I said I’d pray with him. We never actually got around to that part, but he did tell me proudly that his mother was a Spanish lady who’d had six boys and no girls. “A tough woman,” he said, and I had to agree. Before he left, I asked for his mother’s name—Helen Avalos—and I said I’d keep her in my prayers.

All of this interaction occurred in less than an hour, between bites of buckwheat noodles and miso.

After we packed up my boyfriend’s gear, we migrated to the community lot on Roosevelt Row for a candlelight vigil hosted by City Square Church to honor those who’ve been affected by the violence that’s erupted in our community this week. A little background is probably needed here.

CandleOn Wednesday night, a priest at Mother of Mercy Mission was shot and killed and another badly beaten in what police are suspecting was a burglary turned bloody.

While terrible and disheartening, this act of violence isn’t the only one that’s hit too close to home recently. A couple days ago, a drive-by shooting near McClintock High School left three injured and the school in lockdown mode.

And this is just a taste of the weekly turmoil in the greater Phoenix community―which is just a snapshot of what’s happening nationally.

How many school shootings have been reported since Sandy Hooks? It’s an obscene number. 74.

The candlelight vigil wasn’t just for the priests who were attacked on Wednesday: it was, for all of us, a time to realize that violence in our communities is a pervasive issue; a time to grieve for innocent bystanders; a time for us to make our concerns known and to try to find some sort of solution.

Now, my two stories don’t seem to have a tie, but if you look a little closer, they do.

In discussions at the candlelight vigil, one resounding call to action became apparent. Pay a little more attention to the humanity around you. Offer kindness. Show people that you care.

Andy―the “Old Lizard”—told me that often people ignore him. They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to listen. And I imagine that’s because we’re afraid to connect with people that aren’t like us—who for some reason or another make us feel uncomfortable. We forget that everyone has a history and despite current circumstances, that history could be beautiful and meant to be shared. Every life holds some sort of purpose.

Perhaps we need to stop pretending to ignore the people around us―all of the people around us. Because you never know how much a conversation, a smile, a nod can mean to someone—perhaps someone who feels isolated and alone and who’s battling inner demons.

I’m not telling you to sit out on a curb late at night to converse with anyone who happens to walk by. I’m not saying this is an ultimate solution to a very large, very complex problem in our society. I’m not calling you a bad person for turning away or for feeling uncomfortable―that would be hypocritical.

But I am asking you to be more aware of those around you. Be aware of your impact, your ripple in the pond. Be aware of the power you possess for good. Because you never know. You never know.

Today, and hopefully tomorrow and the next day and the next, I challenge myself and others with this one simple question:

Are you listening?