Our Lady Smokes a Hookah

May 24th, 2017

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people that you do.” – Ann Lamott

“Without the voice of reason, every faith is its own curse.” – Sting

 

St. Stanislaus Catholic Church is in Anderson, Texas. It’s an old church. It’s old enough that you have to walk across the parking lot to get to the bathrooms. The building itself is beautiful, and it is surrounded by huge oak trees. Inside the church there are stain glass windows showing various saints. The names of the saints are written in Polish. For instance, the window holding the image of St. Paul says, “St. Pawel” underneath. The window with St. Andrew says, “St. Andrej”. It’s an old school parish founded generations ago by pious Poles, who somehow thought that Texas resembled the Old Country.

Karin and I try to go to daily Mass. Whenever possible, we did so on the endless road trip. Since we often stayed at retreat houses or at monasteries, this was not usually an issue. When we were staying with Hans, we had to look around for a local Mass. St. Stanislaus had one on this particular day at noon. We got there when it was already hot and sunny.

I should have picked up on the weird energy. When Karin and I arrived at the church, we noticed a family whose members were all dressed the same. The kids all seemed to be in uniform. I figured that they were from a local parochial school. It turned out that they were from overseas, Venezuela or maybe Colombia. This isn’t a big deal. Hell, Karin and I came from Wisconsin, which is damn near as far away from Texas as South America is.

Most Catholics do not go to Mass on a daily basis. Most American Catholics don’t even go to Mass on Sundays. Daily Mass attracts a strange breed. That includes Karin and myself. Most people who go to Mass each day simply have made it part of their core practice. It is like when a Muslim prays five times a day, or when a Buddhist sits zazen each morning. The Mass becomes part of the rhythm of a person’s spiritual life.

Daily Mass also attracts a certain portion of the Catholic fundamentalist population. That’s a tiny slice of the Church, but it exists. Often these are the people who long for the return of a religious golden age, a time when the Mass was celebrated in Latin and the priest faced away from the people. They are convinced that Vatican II was a hideous mistake, and that nothing has been right in the Church since the 1950’s. These folks are not necessarily old. I have met young fanatics. There is a quiet ferocity about these people, and a rigidity. They can be very friendly, at least until the moment arrives when they realize that you don’t agree with them. Then things get a little tense.

People were reciting the rosary when Karin and I entered the church. The rosary is a beautiful prayer. The first time I met the abbot of the Zen Center, he remarked on what a good meditative practice the rosary was. That’s an interesting comment coming from a Buddhist. Even just listening to people praying the rosary helps put a person into a more open frame of mind.

After the rosary, I noticed that there were quite a few people in the church, more than I had expected. One family was there with young girls. The mother and her daughters were all wearing veils. I’m betting that the kids were being home-schooled, seeing as it was still May and these children were not in a classroom. Just before the service starting a couple men carried in a rather large statue of Mary, and placed it near the altar. This particular service was in honor of the 100th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Fatima.

It would take too long to explain what is all involved with Our Lady of Fatima. Suffice it to say that in 1917 three small children in Portugal had a vision of Mary, and they received instructions and prophecies from the woman in the vision. After that, things get very complicated.

The priest welcomed everyone to the church. Karin and I had been with him before at his church in Navasota. He was a short, stocky man. He was originally from the Philippines. After the reading of the Gospel, the priest gave his sermon.

The homily started off well. The priest spoke about God’s love and the amazing story of three children being visited by the Mother of God. He gradually grew more agitated in sermon, speaking more loudly and more quickly. Then he kept talking about the evil in the world, and about human sinfulness. Things started to get intense when the priest began talking about the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Apparently, the woman in the apparition had ordered the Pope at the time to perform this consecration in order to usher in an age of peace on earth. After one hundred years, we aren’t quite there yet.

The priest just went off. The sermon turned into a full-on rant.

“Why hasn’t Russia been consecrated to Our Lady after one hundred years!? Why the delay? Why do the bishops and the Pope not obey the Blessed Mother? Do you know what apostasy is? It is the denial of the faith! Even popes and bishops can be apostates!”

Wow. That sounded a lot like this priest had just accused Pope Francis of apostasy. That’s pushing the envelope. I didn’t think the priest could go much further, but he did:

“And you! Do you and your families pray the rosary together every day as Our Lady told us to do? We have all this evil in our world because families are not praying the rosary! Why do you ignore the words of Our Mother?!”

Well, Karin and I don’t pray the rosary together. Maybe we should. However, I can’t imagine getting our children together with us to do that. I can’t even imagine getting our kids together in the same room without the possibility of a fratricide. That’s just not going to work.

The priest went on, ”There will be an accounting! We cannot ignore the will of God without eternal consequences! And I must speak out about these things! If I do not, God will hold me accountable!”

I was ready to bolt for the door. Karin was nervous. I glanced at the other people in the pews. I didn’t notice anybody else appearing to be uneasy. They all seemed to be totally into it. I had the impression that this is exactly what they wanted to hear, and what they had expected to hear.  I had the feeling that everyone besides Karin and myself was looking forward to the Apocalypse. This was an End Times kind of crowd.

The priest ran out of steam. Moral outrage requires enormous amounts of energy, and the man looked worn out. Fortunately, the rest of the Mass followed a specific formula, and there was no room for editorial comments. That’s the beauty of ritual.

Karin and I left the Mass drained. A few people greeted us and hoped that they would see us at next service. Yeah, for sure. We got into the Toyota and drove to Yankee’s, where chicken-fried steak, large salads, and cold beer awaited us. Karin and I spent a great deal of time discussing that liturgy. The whole episode was kind of scary.

It’s strange. During the course of our journeys, Karin and I stayed at four monasteries, a convent, and three retreat houses. We spent time with monks and nuns, and with other people who have given their entire lives to God. Never, not once, did we hear any of those folks talk like the priest in Anderson. None of the monks and nuns showed any anger or bitterness. They never judged us. They were consistently friendly and hospitable. They showed us love.

On our last day in Texas, my sister-in-law, Shawn, wanted us all to get together at the Babylon Café in College Station for supper and hookah. I had never smoked a hookah before. I have never smoked much, period. Shawn was excited about it, so Karin, Hans, and I met Shawn at the café.

“Ahlan wa sahlan” (Welcome) was written on the window of the café. I was pleased that I recognized at least that much Arabic. We went inside and sat on cushions around a low table. Shawn ordered a hookah for us all to share. She decided to try a flavored tobacco called “Sex Goddess”. Why not?

Shawn’s daughter, Roise, was with us too. We ate and talked and smoked. I can see how a hookah could be addictive. Its smoke is smooth and water-cooled. I told Shawn that I would feel more natural if I was wearing a fez, like Sidney Greenstreet is Casablanca. Oh well, I made due without it.

Shawn and I discussed the incident at St. Stanislaus. She told me something interesting. Shawn said that the Catholic churches in Texas seemed to be gradually getting more conservative and traditional. It’s like the Catholics are following the lead of the local Protestant fundamentalists. Since Catholics are notorious for being biblically illiterate, we can’t get hung up on Scripture. However, we can obsess about prayers and ritual and all the other things that really don’t matter. Apparently, that is what is occurring among some of the southern Catholics. It’s like we have to prove to the Protestants that we can be hardcore too.

Shawn and I agreed that it is strange that this should be so. “Catholic”, by definition, means “universal”. The Church is supposed to be open to all sorts of diverse ways of finding God. Unity through diversity. It is good that some people are devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. It is good that other people actively pursue social justice for the poor and oppressed. There should be a place for everyone and every talent. The Church is at its best when welcomes all the varied gifts and traditions of humanity.

I bet Our Lady would smoke a hookah.

 

Like a Refugee

August 1st, 2017

“You don’t have to live like a refugee.”

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Here it is at 4:19 AM, and I am writing about refugees. In particular, I am writing about refugees from Syria. To be even more specific, I am writing about Syrian refugees that I know personally.

I teach English to some Syrian children. They live in a big, old house on the south side of Milwaukee. The neighborhood is a little rough. The area isn’t really scary (to me), but I wouldn’t be shopping for a home there either.  The house itself feels familiar to me. It reminds me of the rundown, former farm house in which I grew up. The Syrians live in a building that needs a lot of work and a lot of love. It has to be at least one hundred years old. The house has a history, and maybe a future. I will probably be long gone, and the house will still be standing there on Scott Street.

I went there to teach the kids yesterday. I got there in the afternoon. I rang the bell, and Ibrahim opened the door for me. He’s a young boy. I don’t know his age. He has sandy hair and a ready smile. He looked up at me and said “hi”.

I walked into the living room. The television was on. Um Hussein was standing in the small room. As usual, she wore a black robe and a matching hijab. She didn’t smile. She seldom smiles. Um Hussein is living in a strange country, she doesn’t understand English very well,  and she trying to raise eleven children. If I were her, I wouldn’t smile much either. However, the woman is unfailingly polite. For some reason, she trusts me.

I asked the kids, “You want to learn some English?!” They smiled and said, “Yeah!” We went upstairs to a large empty room. We use that for our class every Monday afternoon. The kids have a whiteboard and erasable markers. We all sat on the floor. I brought a couple books along with pictures. My wife and I had visited some of the American national parks. So I looked at photos of the parks with the kids. I asked them what they saw.

“I see snow!” cried out one little boy.

“Okay, then you go to the board and write: ‘I see snow on the mountain.’ ”

Another child yelled, “No me! I want to write!”

“Let Nizar write first, ” I said.

The boy I had spoken to first said, “I am Ibrahim. My brother is Nizar.”

“Yeah, right. Sorry. Ibrahim, you write first.”

A girl said, “Then I get to write!”

“Yes, Yasmin, you write next.”

She frowned. I am Nisrin. She is Yasmin”, and she pointed at her sister.

“Goddamit”, I mumbled under my breath. “Okay, Nisrin, you write the next time. Okay?”

She smiled at me. She was a pretty girl, with dark hair, grey eyes, and freckles.

This sort of thing went on for a while. At any given time, I was working with six or seven children. That reminded me of my childhood. I had six younger brothers. I’m used to family chaos. Um Hussein came upstairs at one point. She always brings me hot, sweet tea. she brings it up on a small metal platter. There is a teapot and a glass.

Amar, an older boy with black hair, asked me, “You drink tea?’

“Na’am, ashrab ashay.” (Yes, I drink tea.) I know a little Arabic, so that helps a bit. Sometimes my minimal Arabic helps us to keep going, if we get stuck on some words. I take a dictionary with me. I bought it several years ago, and the words have somehow become smaller on the pages, so it’s getting hard for me to read the Arabic translations.

It was hot in the room. The kids were restless, but they were also very interested in what we were doing. After awhile, they wanted to read a book. We all worked on that together. It was slow going. The children are very smart. The problem is that they don’t have enough vocabulary yet. I sometimes try to use an English word to explain another English word, and that doesn’t work well. Often we resort to hand signals and pantomime. That’s just how it has to be for now.

After an hour, I was tired. The children weren’t. Maybe I’m just getting old. They are great kids, but I can’t keep focused much longer than an hour or so. I told them that we would read a book together next time I come. They were good with that.

I went back downstairs.  I spoke with the mother.

“I will be back next Monday.”

She frowned. “Tuesday?’

I said,” Yum ithnain”

“Ah, Monday.” She nodded.

“Okay. I’ll see you then.”

Um Hussein still didn’t smile, but she said, “Shukran. (Thank you)”

“Afwan. (You’re welcome).”

I left.

Later, I spoke with Hans on the phone. He called me, and we talked about his job. Then I told him that I was tutoring Syrian refugees. He groaned audibly.

“Something wrong with that?” I asked him.

“Well, these refugees got to obey the laws of our country. I heard about some Syrian refugees, maybe in Tennessee, that took over a church and held some Christians hostage. It was on the news.”

“Hans, what news were you watching?’

“Fox! It was on the BBC too.”

“Oookay. I didn’t see that report. Hans, I’m teaching English to school kids.”

“Well, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but these people got to obey our laws. They aren’t back in Syria any more.”

“You’re right. They aren’t. That’s why they’re called refugees.”

“Dad, I know that! I’m just saying, they have to follow our laws.”

“I think the five-year-olds will obey the laws of the United States.”

“Yeah, I’m just saying they are in our country and they have follow our rules.”

“Hans, I agree completely with that. I’m just teaching them our language.”

“Well, if they are going to live here…”

“Hans, how is your Harley running?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Boys Living Outside of the Box

October 26th, 2016

Last night I went to visit the guys in the psych. ward of the VA Hospital. I went with a small group of people from the American Legion who have been going there almost every Tuesday night for the last ten years. We brought the patients a wide variety of unhealthy snacks, which they all greatly appreciated.

One guy came up, and I asked him if he would like something to drink.

He said, “Yeah, could I have some of that cherry 7-UP? But not too much ice.”

 

I filled a cup for him. “Sure. How’s this?”

 

“Yeah, that’s good. I’ve never had cherry 7-UP before. I bet it tastes good. Can I have one of these doughnuts?”

 

“Sure, have a doughnut. Have a couple of them.”

 

“This popcorn looks good too.”

 

“Go ahead. Take some. Knock yourself out, Man.”

 

“Okay, cool. Thanks.”

 

I talked with a skinny guy with long hair and a beard. He had been in Vietnam. He told me, “I’ve been here since yesterday. I came in myself. I had been hitting the bottle a little too hard.” Been there. Done that. We talked about the Army. He had been an artilleryman in Nam. Then the man told me about what he had done for a living. He had retired a few years ago.

 

Suddenly, he got up and said, “I have to walk around for a while. I get nervous.” I apologized to him for talking too much. He said, “Oh no. It’s not you. I just got to move around.” He rushed off.

 

I spent some time talking with a man named Paul. I had met him once before, during a previous visit to the ward. He’s sixty-one years old. He’s a Marquette grad, and he went through ROTC there. Then he served as a Military Intelligence officer in the Army. Now he’s staying at the VA, wandering around wearing maroon-colored pajamas and a knit cap that is a couple sizes too big for him. He has glasses that keep sliding down his nose.

 

I noticed with Paul, and with some of the other guys, how childlike they are. It’s like they’re kids again. I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. It’s just interesting to me how excited they get about simple things. A chocolate chip cookie is like the whole world to them. They are fascinated when I tell them my lame stories about flying helicopters back in the day. Some of them want to talk, and some of them just shut down after a while. They are in no hurry. They have no agendas.

 

I think about these guys, and I try to understand who they are right now. They have been stripped of all the crap that we usually need to maintain our identities. They have no rank. They have no status. They have nothing to prove, nobody to impress. They have placed themselves in a situation where they are totally dependent on other people to care for them. They just are. How does a person get to that state without following the white rabbit into its hole? They not only think outside of the box. They live there.

 

Day without Latinos…or Immigrants

February 20th, 2016

The rally in front of the capitol in Madison on Thursday was truly impressive. I was amazed by the sheer number of participants, and by their collective enthusiasm. I could feel an intense energy among the people. It was wonderful to see people from every age group there. It was also great to see that people had come from all across the state of Wisconsin to protest the proposed legislation. The demonstration accomplished what it needed to do: it got the attention of the media and the politicians.

 

One thing did bother me about the rally. The population in attendance was overwhelmingly Latino. In a way this makes sense: after all, the two pieces of legislation (AB 450 and SB 533) would primarily affect Latinos in our state. However, these proposed laws would have a negative impact on others residing in Wisconsin. Opposition to these racist bills is not something that is solely the concern of the Latino community. These laws would hurt all sorts of people.

 

A casual observer of the rally would be impressed by the size of the demonstration, but they would also notice the tribal nature of it. I did. I was one of the very few whites in the crowd. Somebody watching the news on television might look at the scene and say to themselves, “This is just about the Mexicans.” The largest flag that I saw waving at the rally was a Mexican flag. That sends a message. Many people could look at the rally, and then easily dismiss the entire protest as being “somebody else’s” problem. That “somebody else” would be the Latino community.

 

The official name of the event was “Day Without Latinos and Immigrants”. That’s a good title, but the “and Immigrants” portion of the name seems to be an afterthought. The ugly nativist sentiment in this country does not restrict itself to Latinos. Other people are also under the gun. The Muslims come to mind. There are all sorts of communities in our state that experience prejudice.

 

My question is this: “Did anybody reach out to other immigrant groups that might be feeling same discrimination that Latinos experience?” Did anybody talk to the Muslims? Or the Sikhs? Or maybe the Hmongs? Racism and bigotry affect all sorts of people, and maybe others, especially other immigrants, should be involved in the struggle to combat these things.

 

Politicians aren’t stupid. They may not be good for much, but they sure know how to get themselves re-elected. Let’s imagine the thoughts of one of those Wisconsin legislators staring out of a capitol building window on Thursday afternoon. What would impress a legislator more: a huge crowd that is purely Latino, or a bigger crowd with an ethnically diverse population? Some lawmakers might not make the connection between their own political future and the sea of Latino faces looking up at him or her. They might need to see some faces that look more like the majority of constituents in their own district.

 

Voces did an awesome job of mobilizing people for the rally. Voces energized its base. Excellent. So, how do we get beyond this base and involve more of the public? What is the next step?

 

Politics of Hate

March 30th, 2016

When I arrived at the offices of Voces de la Frontera, I picked up a sign to carry during the protest march. I found a piece of cardboard with a handwritten message that said, “Stop the politics of hate.” The words appealed to me, so that sign was in my hands during the entire walk from 5th and Washington to the Riverside Theater on Wisconsin and Water.

 

I don’t know how many people were in the march. I do know that the crowd stretched back for a several blocks. I noticed that we had a diverse group. Most of the marchers were Latinos, but there were also blacks, whites, and Asians. The protesters chanted slogans in both English and Spanish. There were people of all ages: young folks, older men and women, families with little kids. There were people from all over the Milwaukee County, and perhaps beyond.

 

It is remarkable to me that such a large number of people, many of whom were strangers to each other, would gather and then march together. It reminded me of what Pope Francis said and did last week during his Mass on Holy Thursday. The Pope washed the feet of twelve people, some of whom were not Catholic, or even Christian. Then he remarked to them that “we are all brothers”. It occurred to me during the demonstration that the Pope’s words were true. We are all brothers and sisters. Despite our differences in culture, language, and beliefs, we all have the same biology and we share the same destiny.

 

Those who practice the politics of hate always picks out the things that divide us from one another. They always try to ways to separate humanity into “us and them”. They look for the aspects of “them” that scare us and ratchet up our anxiety. It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand, and then to hate what we fear. Ignorance and fear are forces that give power to the politics of hate.

 

How do we stop the politics of hate? We can start by focusing on the things that we all share in common. We all want peace and safety. We all want our children to have a better future. We all wrestle with our fears and doubts. We are all mortal. We all want to be loved.

 

In a way, it is easy to recognize the common humanity of the people we like. It wasn’t hard for me to connect with the other people at the demonstration. The challenge is to be able to see the members of the opposition as our brothers and sisters. Does it do any good to compare Trump with Hitler? Does it do any good to mock Trump’s supporters? If I really want to stop the politics of hate, I need to realize that those people with whom I strongly disagree are also part of my greater family. I have to show them respect, even if they do not reciprocate. That is the only way to stop the politics of hate.

 

 

Ribs and Moonshine

July 4th, 2015

Karin and I were invited to Ernie’s house yesterday for some barbecue. Ernie works with me. We’ve been together for about twenty years. He’s 63-years-old. Ernie was at our anniversary party last year, but Karin never got to meet Ernie’s wife, Merry. I didn’t know who else was going to be there besides Ernie and his wife, but Karin and I were pumped to go. Ernie lives in a bungalow near 18th and Capitol. The neighborhood is nice, but some of that area of town is very hoody. Karin and I drove up to the north side of Milwaukee, fully expecting to be like two grains of salt in a pepper shaker.

 

Ernie was in the backyard when we showed up. He was busy grilling ribs and listening to Albert King on his stereo. Ernie loves the blues. I brought some beer with me. Karin went in the house to talk with Merry and her daughter, Tanya. I stayed out back with Ernie. We sat under his canopy. Ernie gave me tips for barbecuing. We drank some Sprecher beer, and talked smack. Ernie is recuperating from a hip replacement. He’ll be off from work until Labor Day. He can get around well enough to flip the slabs of ribs, but otherwise his hip is still too tender for walking around.

 

Ernie has a beagle. It’s the fattest dog I’ve ever seen. Its belly almost drags on the ground. Well, he’s been getting leftovers from the barbecue for years. That explains it.

 

I mentioned to Ernie that my grandparents made wine in their house during Prohibition. Ernie said, “Frankie, don’t you be telling me about bootleggin’. I’ll tell you about it. Hell, my family down in Hattiesburg, all them bootlegged. Made damn good money too. All them folks in Mississippi was makin’ moonshine. Hey, you want some? I got me some in the house.”

 

I agreed to have a sample. He told me to have it with ice.

 

Ernie brought out two glasses, and a bottle that said “Patron” on it. Ernie said, “Now I know this bottle say ‘Patron’ on it, and I do drink Patron, but that ain’t what’s in the damn bottle. This here’s moonshine. Now I don’t pour other people’s troubles for them. You got to do that yourself. You pour your own problems.”

 

Fair enough.

 

Well, I never had moonshine before, and this stuff was fine. It looked and poured like water, but there was no other resemblance.

 

Ernie gave me more moonshine tips. “Now Frankie, I never store moonshine in anything but glass. One time, I was talking on my HAM radio and I smelled something funny in the house. The moonshine had eat through the plastic jug. So, I only use glass bottles now.”

 

Good to know.

 

Ernie likes to tell stories. God knows, he has some good ones. He moved to Chicago from Mississippi when he was a teenager. He had some wild times. He told me about drinking Mad Dog and smoking weed with his buddies. He talked about packing heat on the south side of Chicago back in the ’70’s. He talked about bringing moonshine up from down south.

Ernie told me about his sister working at Speed Queen, the source of the best barbecue in Milwaukee. Ernie said, “Your brother, what his name? John? Man, I ain’t never seen somebody eat Speed Queen like your brother. Damn. He love that food.”

 

By that time, Karin and Merry were outside with us. We ate ribs and potato salad, and cake that Merry had baked. There was a ton of food. The ribs were amazing. They didn’t need any sauce. They rocked.

 

Ernie and I kept talking and drinking. Merry looked at Ernie, and she shook her head and smiled. She loves the man. They have been married for thirty-two years. Merry and Karin both married crazy men, so they got along just fine.

 

Well, it got to be about 6:00 PM. Karin looked at me sweetly and said, “Well, maybe we should be going.” (translation: “You’ve had quite enough. Let’s go home.”). So, we got ready to leave, and Ernie and his wife insisted we take home food with us. I sliced off a slab of ribs for Stefan. We also grabbed some cake. We all hugged, and Karin drove me home. No surprise there.

 

Before we left, Ernie talked to us about a retirement party. “Frankie, when you gonna have your damn retirement party? Tell you what: I’ll do all the grillin’.”

 

Done. I guess we’re having a party next summer.

 

 

Re-entry

September 16, 2016

“My mother is dead.”

Carl Fields told me this as we were driving through Racine to the church where he volunteers. We had been talking for over an hour already, and he mentioned this fact almost as an afterthought. The story of his mother was important in order for me to understand Carl, but somehow it had never come up before in our conversation. Carl impressed upon me that the death of his mother was a crucial piece of his life story, but somehow it had slipped his mind until that moment. He remarked that some things are easy to forget, because they are so painful to remember.

Carl’s mother died when Carl was barely out his teens. Linda Field’s death was violent. She had been strangled. Carl realized after his mother’s death that she had been a drug addict. That made things even harder for him to handle. When the police informed Carl and his family about Linda’s murder, they somehow indicated that her death was partially Carl’s fault, that he bore some responsibility for this tragedy. Carl was filled with an impotent rage, along with his intense grief. He was overwhelmed by emotions that had no focus or direction.

It is impossible to overemphasize the impact that Linda’s murder had on Carl. His mother’s death was the most painful event that Carl ever experienced. Nothing else even comes close. It completely changed the trajectory of the rest of his life.

Carl went to see his girlfriend. He wanted to go on the run. He wanted to take his young daughter out of town with him. Carl’s girlfriend was deeply opposed to this idea. They argued. They fought. Other people got worried. Somebody called the cops.

Now Carl had a target for his anger. He shot at the police. They shot back. Nobody was killed. Nobody was hurt. But the damage was done. Carl had set off a chain of events that would take him to prison in Waupun, and years later would bring him to my kitchen table.

As we sat together, I asked Carl, “So, they didn’t see the humor in all this?”

Carl looked down at his coffee cup, and shook his head slowly, saying “No, they sure didn’t.”

Carl was charged with multiple counts of shooting at the police and recklessly endangering public safety. The judge slammed him hard. The judge told Carl straight to his face that firing at the police was not going to be tolerated, and that he was going to make an example of Carl. The judge wanted the whole world to know that shooting at a police officer had serious consequences. The judge gave Carl eighteen years in prison, of which he has recently completed sixteen of those years. Carl has only been back in the outside world for the last six months.

Carl is a self-described introvert. He is active in the world, but he knows that the real action is inside of himself. Carl is an intelligent man and prone to self-reflection. He told me that when he was young, prior to his conviction, he understood pieces of himself, but he never had the whole picture. After sixteen years, Carl has had the time to put the jigsaw puzzle of his life back together. Carl understands himself now, and he is comfortable with that knowledge. He knows his strengths and limitations. He knows how to let go.

To me, Carl seems to be a man in a hurry. He had sixteen years to think things out, and now he’s ready to get things done. He is passionate about social justice, about politics, about the needs of other people. He’s ready to make up for lost time.

While listening to Carl, I thought about his re-entry into “normal” society. It’s obviously been a struggle for him. He has had difficulty finding work. Carl relies on public transportation, because he has none of his own. Carl even told me about the adventure of learning to use a smart phone. So many things that I take for granted are currently out of reach for Carl. Carl is working to find his niche in a culture that he might not completely understand. This same culture certainly doesn’t understand Carl. The fact is that this culture isn’t interested in understanding Carl.

I asked Carl about his experiences with solitary confinement. Carl had never been in solitary himself, but many of his friends went through that abuse. Carl found it frightening to see a close friend go into solitary confinement, and then later see a stranger walk back out. He described the people coming out of solitary as being like androids; uncommunicative, distant, and often heavily medicated. The people that Carl knew came out of solitary confinement mentally and spiritually damaged.

I got out of the Army thirty years ago. I thought about my experience with re-entering the civilian world, and I considered that with regards to what Carl has to endure. I realize that I am comparing apples with oranges, but I noticed some odd similarities. Both Carl and I left environments that were highly regimented, isolated from the vast majority of people, intensely masculine, and occasionally dangerous. We returned to interact with people who, for the most part, simply cannot understand our experiences. I can’t adequately explain to a civilian what it was like to be a soldier. It’s even worse for my son, because he is a combat vet, and how can he explain the experience of fire fight? How can Carl explain to a person who has never been involved with the Department of Corrections how it felt to be a prisoner? Some things cannot be learned vicariously. Some things can only be lived.

Let’s look at it this way. Imagine that re-entry into the greater society is the subject of a new video game. The player has to attempt to re-integrate into the world at various levels of increasing difficulty and decreasing probability of success. Let’s say that a returning veteran is at one of the easier levels of the game. After all, some people will cut a vet some slack because of his military service. A higher level of difficulty would be for a returning combat vet. A guy, like my son, who has killed somebody, will have trouble adapting to the lifestyle of the average American. A level above that would for ex-prisoners. They too are coming back to a strange world, but very few people will give them a break. The highest level of difficulty might be for ex-prisoners who endured solitary confinement. These guys come out of prison as emotional wrecks, and nobody gives a damn about them. Game over.

Carl told me that his time in prison changed him forever. It has left an indelible mark on him. Just like my son’s combat experience has changed him permanently. Men like Carl, or like my son, Hans, will always find it difficult to fully integrate back into society. Returning vets and returning ex-prisoners can and should become valuable members of our communities, but it is a struggle for them. That is probably why Carl is involved with EXPO, in order to get support from other ex-prisoners and to give support to them. Likewise, Hans is a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association. Carl needs to be with people who can relate to him. Hans needs to do the same thing.

It is our society’s interest to help bring ex-prisoners back into the fold. Men like Carl can be assets to our society. They can help to rebuild our communities as they rebuild their own lives. They can build new lives, but they need help to do that. Presently, we, as a nation, aren’t interested in providing that help. We are content to watch them fail and return to prison. Actually, we aren’t even willing to watch them fail. We prefer to ignore them completely.

Carl is going to make it. I have no doubt of that. More importantly, Carl will help other ex-prisoners make it. I don’t doubt that either.