“Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was? I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place! But since it came to good, I will recount all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.” (The Dark Wood of Error,” Dante’s Inferno)
I received some snail mail recently from Liz Feuerborn who frequently comments on my posts at These Stone Walls. At the very end of her letter was a scribbled P.S.: “You haven’t mentioned Skooter in awhile. Is he okay?” Several other readers have also asked about Skooter in their recent comments, and it’s odd that his name should come up right now.
It’s odd because on the day I received Liz’s letter, I had just spent an hour outside in the freezing cold prison yard talking with Skooter. The short answer to Liz’s question is “No,” Skooter is not okay, but I’m pretty sure he will be.
Newer readers of These Stone Walls may need to be introduced to Skooter whose story was told two years ago. My post, “In the Year of the Priest, the Tale of a Prisoner” told a gripping story that many TSW readers found to be both deeply sad and triumphantly hopeful. Skooter came into this prison a few years ago handicapped by trauma – a lot of trauma – and the entire infrastructure of his life had crumbled in response to it. Sometimes, the road to prison is paved with far more sorrow than evil intent. I have learned that Skooter is a lot less capable of evil intent than most men, but his response to sorrow needs some work.
Skooter’s story was revisited last July in “The Tale of a Prisoner Retold: Skooter at the Beginning of Wisdom.” The person I described there looked like Skooter, but with new direction, new goals, and new tools to reach them. It was an important post that I hope you will re-read if you need some Lenten hope.
In that post, I informed readers that as I was writing it, Skooter was moved to a minimum security prison outside these stone walls, and was gone from our sight. Skooter left with his hard-earned high school diploma from the prison’s “Granite State High School.” I described the day Skooter left:
“Skooter walked out the door that day carrying two plastic trash bags containing the sum total of his possessions. The mountain he must climb still has some peaks yet to be conquered. Prison rules allow for no further contact, by mail or otherwise, with anyone Skooter knew here. He is on his own.”
Well every mountain with peaks also has valleys, and Skooter has tumbled into one. Skooter, who despises being picked on by others, and sometimes has a short fuse, broke a host of prison rules. So eight months after telling Pornchai and me of his gratitude for our help and example, Skooter was sent back inside the prison. The path from the minimum security unit to the prison gates is not-so-affectionately called “The Road to Perdition,” and it’s not misnamed. Skooter received a six-month banishment back within these stone walls, and was once again ready to give up on himself and everything else – but only if we were prepared to let him. We were not.
GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS
Pornchai came back to this cell from a woodcarving project one day last month and said, “I have good news and bad news.” “What’s the bad news?” I asked, always wanting to get it out of the way first. “Skooter’s back!” Pornchai said. I just groaned. “And what’s the good news?” I asked. “Skooter’s back!” Pornchai said again.
I saw his point. When Skooter left us eight months ago, I told him that if he ever ended up back here, we would not know him. Technically, he committed no new crime, but that’s a moot point. I am seldom able to keep such hard-nosed resolve. So I was both glad and sad to see Skooter.
It took a month for Skooter to be processed through all the steps to end up in the prison’s general population again, but he arrived in the building in which we live a week before I received Liz Feuerborn’s letter asking about him. Skooter is on the uppermost floor, in a tier housing eight prisoners per cell. Things are not made easy for those who come back. Our only chance to speak is by spending an icy hour shivering in the prison yard.
THE END OF THE WORLD
You might remember my post, “Pre-Apocalyptic Prison Paranoia” last year. It was about Reverend Harold Camping’s expensive full-page ads in USA Today predicting the end of the world on May 21, 2011. I learned of the prediction when Skooter came bursting into my cell one day brandishing a copy of the full-page announcement of doom in USA Today. My first reaction was to sigh at the expensive waste. Just one of those ads could probably have funded my entire appellate defense that Ryan MacDonald wrote about two weeks ago, but that’s beside the point. It would also have funded some housing and a head start for someone like Skooter. He could then parole out of prison instead of jumping through all the hoops that bring poorer prisoners without families back inside here. Skooter found Harold Camping’s silly end-of-the-world predictions too easy to believe, and maybe even too preferable.
Skooter’s own world, after all, has abruptly ended many times. The idea of faith has been something Skooter just hasn’t been ready for. The last time he was here, he dabbled in the nativist religion of his Norwegian ancestors. I listened to his stories of Odin and Thor ad infinitum. Like the experience of lots of Catholic parents I know with clumsily searching young adult offspring, I also knew that forcing a discussion about the Catholic faith would alienate Skooter even more. So I waited. Skooter had to believe in us before he could believe in what we believe. Like Pornchai once wrote so movingly in “Pornchai’s Story“:
“The priest in my friend had not been extinguished by his own years in prison. He never asked me to become Catholic. He never even mentioned it. It is the path he is on, and I was drawn to it by the sheer force of grace.”
Once Skooter was back “inside,” however, I subjected him to what some might consider cruel and unusual punishment. I sent our friend Donald Spinner out to tell Skooter of his own story of conversion and his life of faith, and of how this has transformed and sustained Donald in all the ways that matter.
More importantly, however, Donald was to also tell Skooter of his post-conversion failure that be described in “The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship,” and that sent Donald to “the hole” for a time out. Donald’s story of emerging after months in “the hole,” of standing upright again, of being forgiven, and of being reconciled with God and the Church and his friends struck a chord with Skooter. I am grateful to Donald whose zeal for his faith, like Pornchai’s example, has a ripple effect on other prisoners as I described “In A City on a Hill.” In fact just last Sunday morning, Donald was sponsor for a prisoner who has returned to the Church and was Confirmed.
So the reason I was outside shivering in the yard last week was to hear Skooter tell me of his decision to become Catholic. I always knew this was coming some day, but I did not know it was to be this day, and in response to yet another setback.
Another world for Skooter is coming to an end, and a new one is beginning. There is a Capuchin priest, a very fine man, who comes to this prison monthly to hear the confessions of Catholic prisoners. Early last Friday morning, I met Skooter on the Road to Emmaus, and asked him where he is going. “I’m going to confess that I have believed in false gods,” he said. I told Skooter that he isn’t obligated to confess since he is not yet Baptized. “Can I still go?” he asked. “The past feels heavy, and I want to get it off my chest.” This was nice to hear. Two years ago, it was the future that felt heavy for Skooter.
As we walked across the prison yard through all the barriers and barred doors toward the prison chapel, I told Skooter that I’m very glad he listened to Donald and that it had some effect on him. “Actually, you planted this tree,” Skooter said. “Donald just threw in some fertilizer.” Donald is not entirely enamored of that analogy, but it’s the story Skooter’s going with.
I wanted this to be a shorter post than my usual in the hopes readers will read, or re-read, “The Tale of a Prisoner,” and, if you have time, “Skooter at the Beginning of Wisdom” along with today’s post. Together, they are the story of a soul, and an account of conversion and grace worthy of our Lent.
And of Pornchai and Donald, well, Scripture has something to say of them, too:
“My brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from “the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (The Letter of James 5:19-20).
But don’t tell this to Donald. He’ll start dragging in the downtrodden, and the spiritually lame, and the brokenhearted. There’s no shortage of them here, and Donald Spinner – like the flawed Apostles of old – will want to bring them all home.
I’m not really sure now whether this post is about Skooter or about Donald. At the age of 41 and in prison, Donald has opted to live “In a City on a Hill” as I described in my Ash Wednesday post. If he knows that Saint James is promising frequent flier miles, Donald might just put me out of a job.