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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Unguarded Moments

Men's prison has a smell that is indefinable. Layers of life's smells intermingled with the bubblegum fragrance of institutional floor cleaner. Every sense is assaulted. The damp, darkness of an old Victorian wing blends with the moist heat of the radiators. From the ground floor you can see the 2 floors above through a mesh of iron mesh floors and stairs. Wearing a skirt was never an option.


Heavy doors clang loudly and your keys and chain jingle in time to your walk. I don't remember the first time I met Tony*. I do remember it was early on in my time in HMP Chelmsford. I was there as a drugs worker. I didn't really know what I was doing, but carried myself in a way to assure others that I did.  Just days before I met Tony I remember praying, thinking - how on earth can I help these broken, hardened men. I remember the reply clearly....just listen.


In the early days I was still able to use the 'listeners' cell on the wing. Tony came to see me. A big bear of a man with prematurely white hair and pale blue eyes. His hands were large, and as I looked at them I tried to block out the thoughts of why he was inside. I was not there to judge him, that had already been done. I was there to assess and counsel. I decided not to say much at all, just to listen, and over the weeks I visited with him, he began to share and cry. He poured out the darkness in his soul, some sessions he said little, he just wept.

He discussed suicide and eventually I had to inform him I would be required to open a 2052SH - suicide watch. Thankfully this didn't breach the therapeutic relationship that had been developed. Over time as he unloaded and worked through his darkest fears, I could see he was shifting. He was lightening up and he had the beginnings of joy in his face.


One of the last times I saw him he told me he had read a book from the library, Tony gave me this book and asked me to return it to the library for him. He said he'd earmarked a page and that he wanted me to read it after I left the wing, that it captured his feelings about me perfectly. I left the wing with the book and opened it. He'd underlined this passage where a troubled  psychologist wrote about his time with his counsellor, and how she just accepted him as he was, and just listened and simply was, and how he credited that seemingly simple act - or way of being - with saving his life.


Tony was shipped out not long after. I don't know what happened to him, he still had 4 years left to serve. But I know somehow in those unguarded moments in a cell, his life, and mine and been changed irrevocably.


An unguarded moment - a moment that transcends time and place - a willingness to be open and vulnerable, life's masks removed - albeit briefly. True listening, not muddled by your own perceptions and expectations. At those times I feel a sense of oneness, a world truly connected, knowing someone's pain and fear, the core of their soul. Time has no relevance, you just are. Reaching forward and seeing the human condition in all its ugly glory.


As time and this crazy world speeds up, I noticed these moments became few and far between and we are left with a lonely space that the busyness of life just doesn't quite reach. But the taste of these moments still linger in my soul. Wanting no more or no less than true connection.


In this time of darkness, I see this with such clarity and purpose. It is a light that shines, sometimes so bright that others turn away, unable to be so exposed, but I know that others who have the same demand in their heart will be drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Being too exhausted to maintain an exterior and the masks of a busy life, I sit exposed, transparent, swinging between despair and hope.


I spent years putting up barriers to the true essence of self - too busy doing to be - until this illness made it impossible to be busy, and I am left only with be-ing and choosing to hope.


I remind myself of those unguarded moments, where life spins on its axis. I feel the privilege of being a part of them and am thankful of the results - knowing that an unguarded moment can cause a life to change in an instant.

*name changed

1 comment:

  1. beautiful...the bit about doing and be-ing had me nodding away and the last line will stay with me.

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