Is it really work?

When I first get onto my computer for the day, I check my emails, read Heather Cox Richardson, Huff Post, and respond to anything personal or important.

Both of which are very rare.

Usually there are several messages in my in-box that say, “Hello from Jpay. You received a new message from your loved one.” And then the name of the prison inmate who has sent me an email.

Jpay is the communication system that many prisons use to allow inmates’ contact with the outside world. It’s like gmail in a lot of ways except that it costs money to send, there is a word limit, only teeny tiny photos can be sent to the prison (no attachments coming out) and, every word is read and filtered by someone in a position of authority armed with a uniform, a weapon, and freedom.

There is no privacy. Not much dignity.

I look forward to opening my Jpay inbox every day. Some of my messages are strictly business, “Can you help me make a Freedom of Information Act request?”

Others, from my more regular clients, become more personal.

“My auntie died.”

“My daughter graduates today.”

“How was your river trip?”

“I bet on the Steelers because your kids like them. I lost.”

These are the conversations that have me scanning my inbox early in the day. I look forward to them. I want to know my clients as human beings.

I enjoy them getting to know me too.

Within limits. I have learned a few boundary lessons in my years at this job. Treating an inmate as a complete human; someone with likes and dislikes, interests, family, dreams, hardship, intelligence, insight, and humor, brings me joy.

I have one inmate who has 3 kids in college. Another that helps his teenage daughter with her homework on the phone each night.

One man has the same name as one of my sons. He always askes about my boys. Wants to hear what they are doing.

Another man has asked if I will take him on a river trip when he gets out.

And yet another said he wants to live in Colorado after the confinement of a Detroit childhood and the Michigan Department of Corrections because he wants open space and freedom to roam.

They treat me with respect, they tease me, joke around, express concern for the losses that we have endured recently.

They want to see photos of Elvis the Wonder Corgi.

I love these interactions. I so often say, after a phone call or an email, “He is the sweetest man.”

Those who have never interacted with a convicted murderer may question if there is anything redeemable or even remotely humane about a man or a woman locked away for life.

No, 90% of my clients are not saints. Often there has been some sort of criminal activity that helped get them into the position they are in today.

Often, but not always.

And the ones I deal with are claiming innocence (innocent of murder) and I tend to believe some of them wholeheartedly.

I work with one man who most definitely was a major street dealer. Drugs, guns, gold jewelry, exotic animals, dog fights (eww), but he is not a murderer.

If I judged him for his pre-incarceration lifestyle, it wouldn’t matter to me if he shot someone or not. But who am I to judge? I didn’t grow up on the streets. Didn’t have to learn how to survive, protect my family, make a living with no education or opportunity.

So maybe the exotic animals and dog fighting disgust me a bit, but they’re part of a culture that I am fortunate enough to not have to navigate.

My thug with the alligator on the couch sends me a thoughtful essay about the horrors of being locked up during a pandemic. He expresses fear and grief. The alligator doesn’t change those feelings and shouldn’t eliminate him from receiving compassion.

I guess what I am getting at is that these men and women are human beings – no different than you or me when it comes to emotions and love and sadness. They deserve to be treated with as much dignity as I do.

And so very often they receive no semblance of respect from the outside world.

So I see it as my duty and my privilege to do right by them, which means, first, getting to know each person beyond their (alleged) crime.

And a privilege it is. The responses that I receive after showing just a tiny bit of interest in who the inmate is and what makes them tick, is overwhelming. It sheds a glaring light on how infrequently someone is kind to a prisoner.

Their gratitude is palpable.

I am astounded and honored that someone who has never met me and has absolutely no reason to trust the do-gooder that they have never met, would open up and treat me as a friend.

And it brings me so much joy to be a source of humanity. Someone asks about my boys – I return the question. Someone wants to know what the weather is like in September in Colorado – they tell me it’s raining buckets in the Upper Peninsula.

I laugh when a joke is made, I ask about the sick cousin, I grieve when a loved one is lost.

I will certainly tell the one not to ever bet money on anything my kids suggest.

Knowing that I have given someone an ounce of kindness fills me up. Makes my day. Gives me pause to ask the question, “If I enjoy this so much, is it really work?”

walking away from a friendship

I think, as we age, at least in my experience, we learn the lesson of letting go of friendships that no longer serve us.

Kind of like cleaning out the closet – getting rid of the skinny jeans that I will never, ever fit my muffin top into again or the sweater that I loved in high school that is full of holes and I only keep for sentimental reasons.

Today, I am making the decision to remove someone from my immediate world, a treasured friend, a trusted companion, a person who has been in my life for over 20 years and has helped me through many a painful moment. Someone who has shared in the goodness and the harshness of my life.

And vice versa.

I have committed to no longer engaging publicly in Facebook debates. I am even, once again, considering dropping Facebook altogether but for a hermit, it’s my only contact with the outside world, so it really is a resource for me. The compromise is to read, and maybe “like” someone’s photos of puppies, and not respond – especially from a place of pure emotion.

Because oftentimes the emotions are anger, frustration, and disappointment.

Like today.

I bit my tongue.

Sort of.

Because here I am, publically bemoaning someone’s ignorance, although I won’t say who and I won’t reveal what.

But since the pandemic and during the years of the last presidency, I have often avoided reading this person’s posts because of my disbelief that my dear friend actually believes what they are regurgitating.

Worse than that: in their belief in what they are putting out there, they have demeaned and ridiculed those with differing opinions.

I am shocked and devasted. I believed my friend to be better than this.

If this were a casual friend, I would write them off as casually as I have many others during this troubled time. “Yeah, we were never that close anyway, ” or “I’m not so surprised.”

But this friendship is different; it has been deep and trusting and fun; now I am seeing ugliness that I thought this person incabable of.

I am loath to let go of this friendship because of our loving history, but I have to look at it like my closet:

This friendship has holes in it. This friendship no longer fits. This friendship may even be out of style.

If I saw this friendship in the thrift store, I would NOT buy it.

And that’s the thing – if, on meeting them today, I wouldn’t gravitate anywhere near this person because I know there are fundamental differences that would prevent a true and honest and trusting relationship, then can I let history be the only thing that binds us?

In other words, if I wouldn’t like this person upon meeting them today, then what does it matter if I liked, even loved, them once?

It is so painful to consider letting go. Even more painful to find out that my friend is not the person I so admired and respected, but…

At some point it’s time to shed the friendships that no longer serve.

It’s time to clean out the closet.

a little bit of Abbey wisdom

Anyway–why go into the desert? Really, why do it? That sun, roaring at you all day long. The fetid, tepid, vapid little water holes slowly evaporating under a scum of grease, full of cannibal beetles, spotted toads, horsehair worms, liver flukes, and down at the bottom, inevitably, the pale cadaver of a ten-inch centipede. Those pink rattlesnakes down in The Canyon, those diamondback monsters thick as a truck driver’s wrist that lurk in shady places along the trail, those unpleasant solpugids and unnecessary Jerusalem crickets that scurry on dirty claws across your face at night. 

Why? The rain that comes down like lead shot and wrecks the trail, those sudden rockfalls of obscure origin that crash like thunder ten feet behind you in the heart of a dead-still afternoon. The ubiquitous buzzard, so patient–but only so patient. The sullen and hostile Indians, all on welfare. The ragweed, the tumbleweed, the Jimson weed, the snakeweed. The scorpion in your shoe at dawn. The dreary wind that blows all spring, the psychedelic Joshua trees waving their arms at you on moonlight nights. Sand in the soup du jour. Halazone tablets in your canteen. The barren hills that always go up, which is bad, or down, which is worse. Those canyons like catacombs with quicksand lapping at your crotch. Hollow, mummified horses at night, iron-shod, clattering over the slickrock through your camp. The last tin of tuna, two flat tires, not enough water and a forty-mile trek to Tule Well. An osprey on a cardon cactus, snatching the head off a living fish–always the best part first. The hawk sailing by at 200 feet, a squirming snake in its talons. Salt in the drinking water. Salt, selenium, arsenic, radon and radium in the water in the gravel in your bones. Water so hard it bends light, drills holes in rock and chokes up your radiator. 

Why go there? Those places with the hardcase names: Starvation Creek, Poverty Knoll, Hungry Valley, Bitter Springs, Last Chance Canyon, Dungeon Canyon, Whipsaw Flat, Dead Horse Point, Scorpion Flat, Dead Man Draw, Stinking Spring, Camino del Diablo, Jornado del Muerto . . . Death Valley.

Well, then, why indeed go walking into the desert, that grim ground, that bleak and lonesome land where, as Genghis Khan said of India, “the heat is bad and the water makes men sick”?

Why the desert, when you could be strolling along the golden beaches of California? Camping by a stream of pure Rocky Mountain spring water in colorful Colorado? Loafing through a laurel slick in the misty hills of North Carolina? Or getting your head mashed in the greasy alley behind the Elysium Bar and Grill in Hoboken, New Jersey? Why the desert, given a world of such splendor and variety?

A friend and I took a walk around the base of a mountain up beyond Coconio County, Arizona…On our second day there I walked down the stream, alone, to look at the canyon beyond. I entered the canyon and followed it for half the afternoon, for three or four miles, maybe, until it became a gorge so deep, narrow and dark, full of water and the inevitable quagmires of quicksand, that I turned around and looked for a way out. A route other than the way I’d come, which was crooked and uncomfortable and buried – I wanted to see what was up on top of this world. I found a sort of chimney flue on the east wall, which looked plausible, and sweated and cursed my way up through that until I reached a point where I could walk upright, like a human being. Another 300 feet of scrambling brought me to the rim of the canyon. No one, I felt certain, had ever before departed _____Canyon by that route.

But someone had. Near the summit I found an arrow sign, three feet long, formed of stones and pointing off into the north toward those same old purple vistas, so grand, immense, and mysterious, or more canyons, more mesas and plateaus, more mountains, more cloud-dappled sun-spangled leagues of desert sand and desert rock, under the same old wide and aching sky.

The arrow pointed into the north. But what was it pointing at? I looked at the sign closely and saw that those dark desert-varnished stones had been in place for a long, long time; they rested in compacted dust. They must have been there for a century at least. I followed the direction indicated and came promptly to the rim of another canyon and a drop-off straight down of a good 500 feet. Not that way, surely. Across this canyon was nothing of any unusual interest that I could see – only familiar sun-blasted sandstone, a few scrubby clumps of blackbrush and prickly pear, a few acres of nothing where only a lizard could graze, surrounded by a few square miles of more nothingness interesting chiefly to horned toads. I returned to the arrow and checked again, this time with field glasses, looking away for as far as my aided eyes could see toward the north, for ten, twenty, forty miles into the distance. I studied the scene with care, looking for an ancient Indian ruin, a significant cairn, perhaps an abandoned mine, a hidden treasure of some inconceivable wealth, the mother of all mother lodes.

But there was nothing out there. Nothing at all. Nothing but the desert. Nothing but the silent world.

That’s why.

Ed Abbey…The Great American Desert

Man. Of. My. Dreams

I’m sitting on my deck in the dark gazing at the stars and enjoying the night air.

And the sound of 10,000,000 cicadas; so many that you can feel the air vibrating.

And I think that it would be silent in Utah.

Then I start thinking about all Utah-related things that I would enjoy right about now.

And I decide that I want to go to Utah and sleep there. Wake up there.

Not tonight. Too dark. Feral horses on the road.

Tomorrow night. Yes.

But here’s the good stuff…

It’s late, I send a text to TAM, thinking that he probably won’t get it until tomorrow, and say,

Let’s go sleep in Utah tomorrow night. No tent. No stove. No fuss.

Dinner here. Bivy out. Pre-made iced coffee in the morning. Breakfast here.

He said yes.

None of the others would have said yes.

This man knows the way to this woman’s heart.


conversation with my life-long friend

“Your marriage was so abusive.”

“It was?”

That was me asking…about my marriage.

“Wait, do you not know how abusive it was?”

“Well, I mean, I do, I guess, sort of, but go on. Why do you say that?”

She then described what it felt like to be at my house, with our kids, when he came home from work.

“It was like a hurricane.”

“He walked in the door and stirred shit up.”

“The screaming and the yelling and the tears – it was you and the kids trying to meet him at his level. He demanded that.”

“He always brought drama with him everywhere he went.”

“No my friend, it wasn’t you that created the chaos.”

“The piece that you are responsible for is that you stayed. Not the rest.”

I know this and yet I don’t know this.

I carry the weight of being the crazy one; the one that created the drama, the insanity, the unhappiness.

I carry the burden of hurting my children because of being that person.

I have such deep fear of being out of balance these days because it will prove that I am that person.

If anyone actually has to share a room with my feelings, then it will confirm what everyone already believes:

I am a problem.

The problem.

So here is someone letting me off the hook. Someone who witnessed, first hand the reality of my life, not the twisted, skewed perspective that I had been manipulated into believing. And I still shake my head and say, “Oh it wasn’t that bad, was it?”

I ask her to repeat herself. Tell me more. I am soaking this up like water in the desert and yet I still can’t quite wrap my head around it without thinking that I am either being a drama queen or playing victim.

And instead of it being a relief, it feels like a weight.


my underwear drawer was full of dog food

my linen bin had kibble layered between the sheets and towels

my silverware drawer contained piles of raisins

in my shirt drawer…mounds of soft, creamy colored fluff – something unidentifiable had been chewed

and stored

I am missing an earring

this was no ordinary mouse

this was a creature preparing for armageddon

I saw him out of the corner of my eye once or twice, scurrying into the kitchen

he was tiny and gray and seemingly harmless

I thought it was sweet for a while; I texted my friend with photos

“how cool” she replied


after googling pack rats and seeing how big they become I decided that there is not enough room in this house for the two of us

three if you include Elvis the Wonder Corgi who apparently is not a mouse hunter

last year’s 7 foot snake was, but she didn’t return this summer

I put out traps with peanut butter

packrats can’t carry that away for storage so it didn’t work

then I went away for a few days, making sure there was no dog food available

I came home and immediately sensed that my roommate had left

with relief I went on with my days, grateful that I didn’t have to commit murder

then, last night, as I was closing up the house, I saw a creature hanging onto the screen of the front door

splayed, flat, arms and legs spread in a fearful grip on the mesh

startled, it took a minute for my mind to grasp what I was seeing

he looked like a lizard hanging out

why wasn’t he on the floor where a rat should be instead of scaling the screen door like a reptile

I let out a yelp and he ran under the washing machine

it’s time

he’s getting bigger by the day

I hate being startled

elvis won’t eat out of the same bowl that the rat has

determined, I set out two traps; one with the standard peanut butter, just in case

the other had kibble

I closed the laundry room door, blocked any potential exits with blankets and towels and went to bed hoping to hear the SNAP of a trap, the snap of a neck

this morning, there he was, splayed again like a lizard, arms and legs straight out, little fingers spread wide, neck flattened under the guillotine of the trap

the kibble trap

do I feel badly having killed


but I can’t afford to keep feeding him