Even a jailbird adds song to the world
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
A 21-year-old convict squatting in the grass 10 yards away from me has me thinking. As he describes his years in prison, I imagine what his shoes are like: bars of metal, bars of soap – all straining out the gutter-bits of society’s flotsam like hair in the shower drain. I imagine how many of those men and boys must feel like they’re drowning in the muck that can make them things they are not, as they linger for another hour of wasted life. Lee is doing remarkably well, I think. Landscaping and weeding gardens leaves time for some crazy discussions, and I’m continually surprised at what young “Mr. Reynolds” has taught me about myself without realizing it. It’s safe to say I have a soft spot growing for this person five years my junior.
A raven flies overhead. I belt a “caw” from the back of my throat. My boss calls me a dork for this habit, but I feel free when I do it. Lee does, too – he feels the mountain wind blowing up the rocky slope, hears it pulling through the grass and leaves and feathers that stand watch upon this moving moment of life as it fades along like a wake in the water. I know he understands my call because he has come out of his shell recently with his own version, and now our boss doesn’t say anything because the chorus of birdish calls is catching on with the crew. “Aawaahh!” Lee chirps. It’s his own brand of sound – a “jailbird” I first called it (to which he laughed). “Caw,” the raven responds, twisting its eye to the ground before dipping its wing and disappearing over the roof of the empty mansion. When I’m alone I can sometimes get one of those glistening, black-feathered messengers of magic to hang out for a while; Lee’s participation hinders the effectiveness of my practiced call – and it annoys me a little, the fact that he always follows my call with his own – but I will not stifle this soul reaching for a better life in all its apparent intentions. No, in fact I’m flattered, as I should be. “I want to be like you, D-rock,” he has said a couple times. It makes me shiver. My first inside reaction was, “No, you don’t know what you’re asking. … I’ve got problems, like anyone, like you,” but then I catch myself. Admittedly, I have had a life as standard, as bland, as exciting as many people’s, but upon reflection I see the sweetness that I eat daily is a fruit Lee has barely imagined throughout his entire existence. Until recently, it seems. Little by little, I can almost see his sober eyes adjust to the light. He is taking an important step I must encourage – he wants to BE something. We’ll work on the “what” as we go along, I figure.
Lee came to work with me on a landscaping crew as part of a release program at a halfway house in Rifle. The first day I met him he sat quietly in the truck, his hoodie pulled over as he stared straight ahead, resistant to share much about his past. It came out soon enough that he had been a hard-drug dealer and addict, caught up with some violent characters. My instant reaction was a slight recoil in my gut: “Watch out for this guy.”
What amazes me is how quickly I came to trust him. All I see now is goodness in him and it’s tough to picture him as something less. He loves people and is fiercely loyal, which has sort of been his downfall – he needs to break into a different circle of society, away from his old network of user friends that keep him tangled in that shower drain merely by association. His rap sheet makes it difficult to gain acceptance among the “clean,” however. So it’s been my little goal to help introduce him to a life with a future, even make some of my friends his own. After last week, though, I don’t know what will happen. Lee is going back to prison for another year because of small lapses in judgment that would be inconsequential for most people. From what I understand, it has been things such as not calling his facility on time and allowing himself to end up in the wrong place through lack of foresight. I’ve been stressing to him how important details are: Whether mowing lawns or calling on time, the details add up to the big picture. He’s learning, I know – his lawn-mowing has greatly improved, for example. Still, I’m sad. What do I tell a person who has come so close only to be washed away in the splashing tide he’s had to swim?
Lee wrote me a note on Facebook before he dropped off the map, last words, in a way. There were no capital letters or punctuation, which wasn’t surprising for a guy whose thinking seems slightly slow and who hasn’t graduated high school. But his letter demonstrated some incredible writing skills in the rough – his articulation was so clear it reached me in a way that made me sit back in the chair, astonished I had previously missed this quality in him; I have educated friends who use proper grammar and can’t convey a point so well.
Now I think I know what to tell him: Lee, I think I know what you are – write! write! write! Write your own book. You have your own voice, your own light to add to this world. Do it. Wherever you are. Be the bird you are and fly, far above the sticky mess. I’ll listen for your call …
Derek Franz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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