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Redemption and the long drive to prison

Long drives make you think. Twice a week on the way to teach in prisons gives me nearly four solid hours of think time.

Sometimes I wonder if everyone can be rehabilitated—if everyone can be reached through the arts, if a thorough immersion in the humanities can save the soul. Sometimes I don’t know how to explain to incarcerated students that until they are willing to be vulnerable to themselves, and to take big risks, the work will never get where they want it to be.

Two weeks ago the impeachment hearings started and that’s been my drive to Susanville each time.

Two weeks ago I was still memorizing my lines for the Laramie Project — a play about an LGBTQ hate crime, two homegrown small town murderers and a town’s and perhaps one of the killer’s redemption.

The murderers in the play are vile and at least one of them, Aaron McKinney, was beyond my capability for empathy. As small towns often do, some characters in the play made excuses for the behavior of the criminals and damned the victim for his.

There’s a line one of my characters says about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard that always grabs me. The character, Dr. Cantway, recalls the night Shepard was brought into the emergency room.

“You’d like to think that it’s someone from out of town, who comes through and beats somebody like this.”

Another character, Jeffrey Lockwood, said “My first hope was that the perpetrators were from somewhere else. We don’t grow children like that here. Well, it’s obvious we do grow children like that here.”

What we are willing to look the other way for and what we are not?

As my incarcerated students say, if you get a free pass you keep going.

This summer and fall, near my office in downtown Greenville, there were any number of small crimes and misdemeanors: a backpack full of drugs found near a recycling dumpster. Empty syringes found near the library. The backdoors of a few downtown businesses had been busted open and merchandise stolen. Sterling Sage had its front window shattered and vandalized. Hunter’s Hardware got hit and merchandise also went missing. Indian Valley Fitness had its sign vandalized, too.

I follow the hearings on the radio, on my drive, thinking surely this time no one will look the other way, no one will be okay with him getting away with x,y,z. Surely we’ve learned that a free pass won’t make it stop.

My incarcerated students watch lots of TV because the televisions are always on in the day rooms — there is no silence in prison.

They tell me there are two types of criminals: those who chose crime because of circumstances were they feel they have no control and those who have that criminal element in their very DNA and chose to be themselves rather than overcome their urges.

They tell me they know which kind they are and that they know which kind the president and his men are. They recognize how they think — and that they think like criminals.

Crimes and transgressions are all around us — we have our local petty crimes, the national ones, and the global ones like man-induced climate change. For some, we look the other way — for others we scrutinize. Our justice and sentencing is as haphazard as our emotions.

Maybe we know the family of those who broke into downtown businesses. Maybe we realize someone who could separate a mother from a baby isn’t to be trusted to govern. Maybe we don’t.

The Laramie Project taught me that not everyone values everyone else’s life the same. It demonstrates that good can come out of evil, that redemption is possible for a small town and a nation and some — though definitely not all — criminals. There is nothing that can be done with grifter DNA except prison time for public safety, so the public can catch its breath. Impeachment feels like its own redemption.

We can admit we are wrong and still be good people.

I wonder about our local criminals and where their stopping points are and if they too can be redeemed.

I wouldn’t drive to Susanville twice a week if I didn’t believe the arts couldn’t lead to redemption of the mind and spirit. I have that hope.

You have to admit you’re wrong for redemption to take place. As Zubaida Ula says in the Laramie Project, “We have to own this crime. We are LIKE this.”

To live peacefully in this world is to not live with blinders on, and to own our crimes and our responsibility for our role in others’ crimes — in both how we enabled and how we respond to what is right and just.

This has been a dispatch from the road to prison — Happy Thanksgiving.

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