Enjoy these selected works submitted by local authors, featured in our most recent print edition of The Corvallis Advocate:
By Tina Stalberg Taylor
Last Night at the Prison: A Dangerous Presence
I sit here this morning with my beyond-sadness, a grief deep and gnawing, eating away at me, interfering with my ability to have breakfast. Last night was my prison night, my weekly class for the inmates that I volunteer to teach.
My class is on Compassion. I teach how to compassionately perceive the self and others, and the reasons people do what they do. I teach that everyone is always just trying to live, to get their needs met, and that there is no point in criticizing, or in punishing. Not an easy message to get across as they sit there in their seats inside a crowded concrete box for twenty or thirty years with the arcing razor wire always between them and the sky. As they sit with their memories full of pain and rage and bewilderment. Especially when they’ve also been told that hating themselves is the right thing to do, if they ever want to be accepted by society, or by God. Of course, that hating of themselves is what they learned very, very early anyway, making it very, very hard to uproot.
Last week was the beginning of the part where the guys are invited to tell about their crimes, or some other challenging moment in their lives. This sharing of their hardest histories, after nine months of weekly classes, is the acid test. Can they stay the course, see their own reflections in a softer light, find the empathic explanations for how they treated and were treated?
I heard three stories last week, two more last night. There’s five more to go. Each of those stories was a big one, heavy in its landing in my gut, in my heart. Childhood beatings, school failures, foster homes, street life; drinking, drugging, gangs, guns. Long stories of tragic strategies piling one upon the other, so many miserably desperate attempts to just make things right for once, to just get safe. Failure.
I’ve been here before, heard the stories, the gruesome details, the gore and senselessness, the rage and fear and hopelessness. I’ve been teaching in the pen for over five years now. But this time, strange symptoms have started creeping up on me, taking me by surprise: I feel I’m falling apart, grasping for supports, gasping a bit for air and light, can’t locate my center of gravity. Empathy bank overdrawn. I am sickened with my grief. This time it’s hitting me harder, and I think I know why.
Because this time there is Tony. The star of the program, the first graduate of our peer trainer class, he’s been my co-trainer now for two years. In for over 25 years already, he, like so many others here, committed his crime when he was barely 18. After a decade or so of angry and hurt resistance, he turned it around. Now he’s worked programs, ours and lots of others, for years and years, and has positions of responsibility in several. He’s become a joy for me to work with, a gentle, humble, insightful, and effective teacher and friend. So on this night when I heard his crime story, and his self-hatred about it, my heart was just a bit too open, and I forgot to defend myself; forgot to duck, channel, or preemptively harden. I was accidentally present.
And then they all got in, all the stories of all the guys, and I started trying to outrun them; but I couldn’t, and so there I was, gone all sensitive and vulnerable, just when the shrapnel started flying.
By Margie Nairn
I don’t do it enough. Give thanks. Often I act like George Bailey and wonder why everyone else’s lives are so much better than mine. I’m glad that there is one day a year I am forced to remember the true cornucopia of bounty that is my life. But gratitude can be a 365-day-a-year endeavor.
A week ago, I was walking my dog around Portland State University enjoying the beautiful fall colors on the campus. I noticed a gentleman who reminded me of Santa Claus. Portly and sporting a full white head of hair and matching beard, he wore a pea coat and carried a satchel in one hand. At the end of the other arm swung a pink Hello Kitty lunchbox. The scene gave me pause, then I caught sight of an elfin child with curly brown hair, skipping one or two steps behind him, singing to herself.
I smiled and said, “You make a precious picture with that pink lunchbox you’re holding.”
He laughed and answered, “Yes, well I thought I might need a snack later in the day!” He gave a wink. Gesturing toward the little girl he continued, “She said ‘Pa-Pa can you carry it?’ so here I am!”
I was thankful that I ran into the pair because it brightened my morning seeing that love between granddaughter and grandfather. It reminded me of childhood and Saturday Million Dollar movies.
That same morning, three different students stopped me on campus to pet my dog, Riley, despite the morning drizzle. One girl confessed that she really missed her golden retriever at home, now that she was away at college. Riley wagged his tail in thanks for the petting, and I was grateful for the chance to brighten their day.
Later, at the tennis courts, where I was tossing the tennis ball to Riley, a woman joined us, and introduced her seven-month-old poodle, Rory. We chatted while the dogs were getting acquainted, and I learned that her husband was wheelchair-bound from an accident. She was caring for him daily, and the new puppy was a comfort for them both. Watching the youthful dogs prancing around on the tennis courts, I was mindful that my life seemed comparatively easy, and felt blessed that my husband and I were in good health.
George Bailey was lucky. He had Clarence to show him why he needed to give thanks for all the blessings in his life. I have to remind myself to take note of the moments of grace that I experience every day. I always find it, if I choose to look. Giving thanks matters because it offers a chance to pause and see why it really is a wonderful life.
By Kathie O’Brien
It’s Not Complicated
Dad died over 20 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
I was there when Dad said clearly, “I’m ready to go.” He was at peace.
I was there when his essence left his body, although his physical self kept fighting for life.
As his spirit left him, an unexplainable, wonderful, tranquil energy filled the room. It was beautiful… and confusing. I could not comprehend the intense calm I felt in the wake of losing dad.
How could I ever reconcile that incredible serenity with the terrible anguish of a life without him? The answer came unexpectedly—it was pure… simple. I learned to stop focusing on loss and start seeing death through the lens of a very special man. That man is my brother, David.
Terminology to label David and his peers has changed over the decades, but “retarded” was acceptable in the 1960’s so that’s what my family used. Since then, there have been various iterations—developmentally delayed, special needs, challenged, exceptional… Frankly, I’ve lost track of the jargon of the day. To me, he’s my little brother. Nothing more, nothing less.
In many ways, he is childlike and innocent. He cannot read, and he can barely write his name. In other ways, he’s just like many 62-year-old men. He follows sports obsessively, loves junk food, and gets grouchy when he doesn’t eat or sleep enough.
For the most part, David feels and reacts emotionally like the rest of us. He’s quick to show happiness, anger, empathy, fear, etc. But there is one exception. He does not feel sadness. He has never cried. I don’t mean he can’t physically cry. I mean he is never sad… ever. It’s difficult for most people to comprehend, they just don’t get it.
Think about it — no sorrow, no grief, no regret. It’s inconceivable, mind-boggling. Consider life events that cause most of us overwhelming emotional anguish. David simply accepts those experiences without heartache, without suffering, without pain.
David has taught me compassion and joy. He has shaped and impacted my life, but it was never so evident as when Dad died.
It fell to Mom to explain to David about Dad’s passing. He sat at the table while she told him, “Dad is gone, David. You won’t see him again. Ever.”
David was confused. “Where did Dad go? Why won’t he come back like always?”
Mom calmly and patiently explained, “Dad is in Heaven, David. He can’t come back from there.”
David asked just two questions: “Where’s Heaven? What’s Dad doing there?”
Mom smiled, pointed to the sky, and said, “Heaven is up there. It’s a place where people are always happy.”
David thought just a minute. “Then, Dad is playing golf. What will you do in Heaven, Mom? Go bowling?”
She laughed. “I suppose I will.”
On the day of Dad’s funeral, David tapped me on the shoulder. “Why is everyone crying?”
Through my tears, I tried to explain. “We’re sad because Dad is gone, and we’ll miss him.”
He said, very logically, seriously, and like the rest of us were crazy, “Dad’s happy. He’s in Heaven playing golf.”
I smiled. That “aha” moment will stay with me the rest of my life. Dad was not here on Earth with us but was somewhere wonderful.
My six brothers, including David, were the pallbearers at Dad’s funeral. David beamed as he walked down the aisle, proud to be one of the boys.
At the reception after the funeral, with his hands full of cookies, David asked me, “Want to know how people get to heaven?”
“How?” I couldn’t wait to hear.
“In that big, black car. You know, where we put Dad.”
For years afterward, David refused to get in a big, black car.
Two and a half years after Dad, death claimed my sister, Elaine. Six years later, a stroke took Mom. While the rest of us struggled with these losses, there was no sorrow for David, only joy.
If anyone asks him about loved ones lost, he’ll be happy to explain that they are all in Heaven.
Pointing to the sky, he’ll say, “Mom’s bowling, Dad’s golfing, and my sister is cooking dinner for everybody.”
And, as I listen, I smile and think to myself, See? It’s not complicated.
By Emily Dashiell
The first ten years of marriage, my husband, D.J., and I lived in a southbay suburb of Los Angeles. His father, John, and his second wife, Mildred, and two teenaged daughters lived in San Fernando Valley, 35 miles north.
D.J. and John, both carpenters, often worked on the same job sites in Los Angeles.
Occasionally, after work they’d sit in one’s car and have a beer. They didn’t go to bars. Mildred did not allow John in bars.
During those ten years, there were no shared holidays, no birthday celebrations, no dinners with John’s family.
We were, however, invited to play poker on occasion, always on a Friday night. We would drive to the Valley; they never came to our house, which I preferred since John smoked cigars that smelled like untreated barnyard waste.
They played hardball poker, they played to win. To get in the game, chips were two for a penny. There was a three raise limit. I drove them crazy betting into any hand, betting even on suspicion. I gambled my half-cent chips with abandon.
They didn’t tell stories, joke, or discuss politics, movies, books, or world events. They were there to play cards, and win. They did play according to Hoyle’s Rules. If a player miscalled a hand, they insisted the cards spoke for themselves.
I tried to liven up the action. I occasionally tried to tell a funny story or a joke, but that went unappreciated.
I was a hopeless player, needing frequent reminders of what beat what. It drove John mad and I learned accidentally that Mildred thought me simply stupid. Over time, I loved making John mad and it didn’t matter to me what Mildred thought, it was, after all, just a game.
Despite my dazzling lack of poker expertise, I seldom went home a total loser.
I early learned one fun skill – how to “sandbag”, a sneaky and annoying ploy – and for that I gained a bit of respect. To “sandbag,” if the bet was yours, you passed, then when the bet came back to you, you could bet like crazy. Because I didn’t use the skill consistently, and erratically, they did not trust me. My motto was, “If you can’t beat ‘em, keep ‘em off balance.”
Sometimes I brought a dessert; or Mildred made a dessert. Mildred always made one pot of coffee. When we finished playing cards, the dessert was served, with no seconds offered. We got one cup of coffee. When the coffee was gone, we were escorted out the back door.
We always played on the kitchen table, never on the dining room table. In ten years, we sat in the living room perhaps twice. We always entered the house at the back door, never the front door.
One Friday, in late November, we were invited to play cards. We made the long drive through rain and fog.
Traffic was light and we arrived about thirty minutes early. When we arrived, there were several cars in the driveway. We parked on the street.
We walked on the outside edge of the driveway, in the rain, to the back door and knocked. Mildred answered our knock and let us stand just inside the door while she pointed out we were early. She suggested we could drive around for a while, or go wait in the car. In late November, it can be close to freezing in the San Fernando Valley. And it was.
Heading back to our car, walking on the inside of the driveway, we stopped and stared in the window of the dining room. There sat ten people laughing and talking, the table littered with remnants of a dinner. Dismayed, we returned to the car.
In the car, we pulled our coats closer, sitting in the chilling quiet. When the windshield began to fog up, I said, “If you go in and play, I’ll wait out here. I’m not going in. We should leave.”
The rain had stopped, the fog had vanished, the moonlight glittered on the wet street. The clarity was brilliant and not only atmospheric: We were not and had never been a part of that family. We drove away.
On the way home, we debated why we had been invited but excluded. I asked D.J. if he’d argued with his dad; no, he had not. Then why were we invited and then left sitting outside in the cold? D.J. had no answer. I said, “You do realize we are not welcome, simply tolerated.” He sighed and nodded.
We never again played cards with them.
D.J. saw his dad only once more. Within a year we moved to San Diego.
When John died suddenly, his elder daughter called us and we went to his funeral in Los Angeles. Mildred had a bequest for D.J.: a cameo ring of John’s; that was the only thing his father ever gave him. As she handed it to him, she said she was surprised to see us since we had ignored her when she had had a heart attack.
How would we know? No one told us. We were not part of that family.
And it no longer mattered.
By Peter Sanford
As a Sophomore at Georgia State College (now Georgia State University) in 1964, I was a cub reporter on the campus newspaper, The Signal – a responsibility I was completely unqualified for. This was at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Also, civil rights protests were rocking the South. Protests on both accounts happened almost every week. Our paper tried our best to cover them all, but my “beat” was the state legislature.
The Georgia state capitol was about four blocks from the campus. The “Old South” still held sway in the state legislature of Georgia, little having changed from Reconstruction. Blacks and other non-white citizens, a little less than half of the state population, had almost no representation. The state had 164 counties, most small, rural, and solidly conservative. Even most of the majority black counties had only middle-aged white male representatives more “selected” than elected. As a result, middle-aged conservative white men had a virtual lock on the legislature which operated effectively on a one-county-one-vote basis rather than one-person-one-vote. That was a huge problem.
I was in the legislative chamber one day when the bill being discussed was about strictly segregating all schools in Georgia. The legislation on the docket stated that if even one person of the “Negro Color” was admitted to a school, it would be considered a “Negro” school. That would effectively cut funding to the school drastically, though that was not explicit in the wording of the document. That would effectively close the school in most cases. The bill was headed for sure passage.
Suddenly, someone realized the bill would shut down the University of Georgia, because it had a sizeable contingency of black students from Africa and all around the USA. In fact, several prominent, well-thought-of professors were black. The University was the largest single political entity in the state, bigger even than the Southern Baptist Church or Georgia Tech. The bill would have removed substantial funding and virtually closed it down. I could feel the air go out of the room. Within an hour the bill was quietly withdrawn. Schools in Georgia did not close.
On the evening of the last day of the legislative session, I was on the floor of the house trying to make sense of the commotion going on. They were arguing, quite loudly, about congressional redistricting that would reduce the influence of the rural counties while giving more power to rapidly growing (and more liberal) cities – such as Atlanta. The proposed legislation had racial overtones. Times were changing. Fulton and Cobb Counties, mostly Atlanta, were rapidly growing and becoming more diverse. The small counties’ representatives saw no benefit for themselves in the proposal. If the bill failed, it could not be reintroduced for two years. But the contentious bill needed resolution. There had been large demonstrations around the capitol that were not completely peaceful about the bill. The legislators feared violence in the streets if they didn’t pass something. Violence, looting, and fire had already happened in other cities across the South when similar peaceful protests got out of hand.
The legislature, by law, had to end at midnight on the last day of the legislative session by the clock that hung in the legislative chamber. No compromise had been reached as the time ticked down. At 11:12 p.m., an old-fashioned rural Georgia politician, suspenders and all, one Denmark Groover, climbed over the railing of the gallery and grabbed the clock. He was going to set the clock back so that a compromise could be fashioned before midnight by the clock. But it slipped out of his hands, and it hit the floor of the chamber with a loud crash, barely missing a legislative clerk. The fall shattered the glass face of the clock and dented its side. Rep. Groover and the Speaker of the House swept up the pieces. He returned up to the gallery, changed the time to read 10:00, and hung it back up on the railing using a leather belt he borrowed somewhere. When he plugged it in it still ran! By 12:00 by that clock, a compromise of sorts had been reached. It was 2:12 a.m. by my watch. The counties kept majority power, but just barely. And Atlanta did not burn.
By Eric Austin
You want to scatter your father’s ashes. You’ve decided this. You fear it’s unkind to think about him this way while he’s in the ICU, but it’s something you work through in your mind without meaning to. You’ve known for nearly a year now that he has a malignant tumor, surrounding an important artery, arranged in such a way that it can’t be operated on without compromising the entire artery. Compromising – this is the doctor’s word. Everyone’s telling you how well you’re taking it.
You’re going to drive to the Oregon Coast and walk out onto that jetty he took you to when you were young. When you finally see the jetty from your car, you’ll also see two men in dirty flannels fishing off of it. You’ll squint and frown. You’ll wish for more seclusion.
You’ll carry a backpack containing paper cups tied to balloons – twelve helium balloons that won’t all fit in the trunk and will block your view in the car and then make you feel clownish on the beach as they bob and nod at the ends of twelve metallic red ribbons that disappear between the zippers of your backpack. A couple your age will be walking back in from the jetty as you walk out. You’ll avoid eye contact and then you’ll feel embarrassed. How you’ll appear to others is not something you’re going to consider until you’re out there. And you’ll have assumed it’s not in your nature to feel ashamed about this. But you’ll be wondering if they’re judging you, this couple. They’ll gather that you’re going to let the balloons go from the jetty, but they won’t know the balloons will be carrying your father’s remains out to be deposited wherever God or the weather wants to put them. They’d probably approve knowing that.
The surface where you’ll walk is level for a stretch, it’s like gravel road, and then it becomes a ragged strip of boulders piled on each other to make the shape of a crooked finger pointing out into the sea probably a quarter mile.
“It’s all manmade,” your mom said once, and though it wasn’t her intention, this subtracted some of the wonder of it.
You’ll place delicate steps on the huge black rocks once you get out far enough that there are gaping openings to navigate over. You won’t fall. You will try to reserve this time for warm reflection. You’ll creep over the jetty and pass what you estimate to be the halfway point, testing with one foot each chunk of rock before putting your weight on it. As the waves recede, echoing under your feet, you’ll feel pangs of regret. You’ll look back at the place where you and Mom stopped decades ago to watch Dad crawl out farther, nearer the passing sea craft.
You’ll stop about where you remember seeing your dad stop. Emptying the urn into the ballooned cups will be harder than you expect. You’re not thinking about this now, but a sharp wind will blow, like it always does. You’ll be cold by then. Some of your father will get away while you work – you’ll taste it in the salty air – but that’s okay. There will be three cups, and four balloons fixed to holes punched around each one. When you have two of them ready, you’ll have to let them go to get the third one prepped. Until you let them go, you’ll worry that the cups will be carried back over the shore, but they won’t. The wind will thrash them, and you’ll watch them swim and spasm, and soon the balloons and ribbons will be tangled above the paper cups, but even through all this, you won’t see any ashes escaping. It won’t look the way you expect, but as you watch this and listen to the invisible beach sounds, even as it still doesn’t hurt any less, you’ll feel something lifting with those balloons. You’ll watch them until they get so far apart that you can only watch one, and you’ll watch that one until you can’t see it anymore.
Back in the car, you’ll blow your nose. On the tissue, your snot will have black traces of your father in it. Despite your efforts, some of him will have come back with you.