Thursday, October 10, 2013
"You know I'm a PA, not a doc," She said, over her glasses, pen poised above her clipboard.
"Yeah, but Doctor B. sounds better," I said.
She was finishing a screening for skin cancer. Routine stuff, and I had to be careful. She looked at me sternly and asked about sunscreen. She also asked why I refused to get new briefs. The light and spyglass travelled up and down my back, neck, arms, legs. She was not real happy about my tan lines and keratosis. I had some history -- squamous cell carcinoma, family melanoma, fair skinned, lax with sunscreen -- and had agreed to regular visits to my friendly dermatologist.
"You ever go to E-X-O?" I asked, trying to change the subject. Iwas referring to a new, happening coffee shop downtown, one that was getting lots of buzz. I had never been, but friends had pointed the place out me repeatedly. It came up in conversations that had nothing to do with coffee but that touched on exciting or energized ideas.
She perked up, stood taller, and stared at me. "I own it."
"Do you know anything about the film being shot near there?"
Another jerk back. "Yes, I know the film-maker. His wife is my best friend."
"Well, I run the workshops that the story they're filming came out of."
"Get outta here!" She said, and gave me a tentative punch on the shoulder. "Get outta here."
"Yeah, I know Troy and the camera guy and some of the crew."
"We had the wrap party at the cafe on Sunday. My band and I played for them."
"No way. What do you play?"
"You're too small to play upright."
"But I've got strong hands. I'm a rock climber."
"My son's a rock climber... Name is Sean."
"I know Sean. We work out together."
Now it was my turn. "Get outta here!"
"No, really. He comes to our coffee shop too."
"How come I've never been there?"
"What? Why did you ask me then if I'd been there?"
"I saw you downtown once and EXO just came to me. I don't know why."
"Get outta here. And you can call me Doc."
I wasn't supposed to be there, but I was waiting for a reading to begin at the Poetry Center. It was the only time all year that I had stayed late here, on a Thursday
I was thinking about how hard it had been to get the Daily Wildcat to give some publicity to the prison story and the film that was coming out of it when Leslie and a friend walked in to the Little Chapel office. Leslie picked up a glossy magazine on the table.
"What is this magazine doing here?" Leslie asks with her usual why-the-hell tone.
"Oh, I had a piece published in there and gave the office a copy."
"It is any good."
"It's OK." I say. Leslie flips absently through some of the pages.
"You know Maggie wants to write," says Leslie, pointing at the other young woman sitting in the office.
"Really," I say.
"Yeah, she's into journalism, in the program here."
"Oh... Do you do anything with the Wildcat, the student paper?" I ask her.
Maggie nods. "I'm a reporter, and I'm looking for a story."
"Have you heard about the inmate who wrote a story that is being made into a film?"
She hopped up, walked over, and pulled out a chair, notebook and pen at the ready.
"Give me everything you've got."
J. was never late and today was no exception. Her hair was wet though. She had just finished her workout and the wavy, shining, yellow cascade of it bounced as she walked up to our table. She wore tight, low-cut jeans and a sheer muslin blouse. The weave was loose so her outline shone through. It, like all of her, never stopped moving. She was on fire, lit from within, burning with vision.
Ten years before, her son Ben had died suddenly from an acute case of croup. She had been broken, but turned her grief into a crusade of sorts. She was the Grand Dame of Kindness. Hers was not a flaky, white light and butterflies for those who can afford a nice living kindness. No it was quite the opposite -- a gritty, street-smart kindness that is hard won. She had no time for meaningless fluff.
Both Troy and I stood for a hug.
"It's been a long time," she said, setting down her chai tea.
"I haven't played soccer for quite a while, and I don't see much of your parents now that they live in the Northwest."
"You still writing?" She asked.
"I loved the poem we read at Ben's memorial service... What was it? 'On the Brink,' or something like that?"
"Long time ago. I don't know, don't even have a copy of it anymore. I lose all that stuff."
"I read the story though -- 'Acts of Kindness' -- and loved it. It's perfect to take into the schools to talk to the kids about learning that there are other ways to respond to trouble."
"We loved it too," said Troy. "So much so that we are making a film. It's really a simple but amazing story. We want it to go big."
"Well, I can help you with the funding," said J. "I have donors lined up right now looking for something like this. If I give them the word, you should have what you need."
"I want this to go to Sundance, to the Academy Awards. We're going to throw everything we have at it," Troy went on.
I sat back and watch the movers and shakers share contacts and strategies. They had energy and knew how to organize, network, make things happen. The two of them were now like a merger of great nation states and the momentum for the project grew.
"You know the kindness is not easy. And when you need it most is when you want to kill somebody. The point is to know that there is another way, that there are different possible outcomes to those crazy, critical, dangerous moments."
We shared about flipping people off on traffic and how that resulted in more flipping and more road rage.
But then there were some others times when we noticed that an apology went a long way, that when we each received one, we brushed off the offense as if it had never happened.
"Hey, I didn't see you back there. Sorry I cut you off."
"No problem! Have a good one......whuh?? whuh just happened?"
"Yeah, things can completely reverse course, change everything, flip a situation on its head."
"In the film," Troy continues, "the main character enters a struggling skate shop with the intention of stealing a board. Both characters eye each other and it looks like something bad is about to come down. That's the moment. And then, we don't know who, but one of them extends a hand, in a way, and the other responds. The guy in the shop gets a kick out out of helping and the kid gets a board. Then he pays it forward, for a while, til he forgets. That's where he gets caught."
"That sounds exactly like what we are looking for," says J. "I can't wait to hear about this."
"We start shooting in three weeks."
Both of them look at me and I excuse myself.
It's time for me to go to class, to teach.
He is driving down a busy avenue in central Tucson when it comes on. A local radio show is featuring some writing by state prison inmates. A voice reads one of the stories. It is about a homeless kid who is angry. He can't find a job. He is out of money, has no place to stay, has just had a run-in with some thugs. He is hurt, and desperate. He is in Phoenix in the summer.
The only things he has that offer any relief from his spinning chatter of misery are his CD player and his skateboard. The CD player battery just died, so the kid is practicing tricks, hard. He is flipping, jumping, grinding, and cutting. On one landing, the board breaks.
It is hot, silent, dark.
The film-maker pulls over to listen to the story. It has cast a spell over him. He decides to make a film.
That week, he contacts the radio station, who puts him into contact with the reader, who puts him into contact with the inmate writer. The film-maker and the writer send letters back and forth. They work together on a screen play. The writer will be paid.
He gets released the day filming begins.
"All right guys, your assignment for next week is to write on the topic 'acts of kindness' unless you are working on something else. You need to write something though."
Twelve men, all wearing orange jump suits write down the words of pads of lined paper. The circle, if you could call it that, is made up of broken desks, and the plastic chairs creak against the linoleum floor when the men scoot back.
"Now the idea here, is to tell a story, not just talk about how nice kindness is, or what a bad idea it might be. If you decide to write on this, you need to make a moment in your life come alive with your words. You're going to have to pick some experience and re-create it. Then bring it in next week and read to the group. We'll talk about how to make it better then."
"Right now, right here, I want you to think about a time when kindness showed up in your life, either from you or to you. Anything. Even the smallest thing. Sometimes those are the best things."
Some of the guys look out the window. The Arizona blue sky is blinding if your eyes are not adjusted.
One of the younger guys in the back says "I have an idea for that."
"OK," I say, "What is it?"
He starts out slow, but builds momentum telling us about a time when he was broke, homeless, out of friends, luck, and hope. Then some help was offered and he took it, took it to heart.
The men in the workshop nodded. One of the old timers, a leader, broke the silence. "I hear you bro. You got to go with that. It's good."
The door was open, and I stood there in a quandary. Should I step in to his office and introduce myself or just continue on with my work day. After all, I was just another grad student teacher and he was Pulitzer Prize nominated author. I had admired The Bus to Veracruz for both its lyricism and humor. This guy spoke to me, was good. But he was also busy. Too many people wanted a piece of him.
I don't know what propelled my feet to stand in the doorway or what possessed my mouth to smile and then say "Hey. I was wondering if you had a moment." But they did and I met the gaze of Richard Shelton.
We talked about the desert and about teaching. I told him I had been living in Mexico, was volunteering with the Sanctuary Movement and worked for Pima County Adult Education at the Federal Prison. I had a hard time telling him that I wanted to write. I had a hard time telling anyone, most of all myself, that. Good God, what if he threw me out with a sneer, saying "You know how many people approach me saying they want to write, looking to me as some kind of stepping stone for their petty, dilletante-ish pursuits?!
Instead, he looked at me with a hard, sharp gaze, one that was sizing me up somehow.
"You want to go out to a prison workshop sometime?" he asked.
He pointed at a box full of glossy magazines, copies of Walking Rain Reviews, and said, "Take one. Let me know what you think."
He has been doing the workshops for over twenty years at that point and continued to do them for another fifteen or so. Men from his workshops have become famous poets, teachers, and activists. I use their writing as texts in the classes at the University of Arizona.
So, I did take the journal. And we went to the prison. And I worked on my writing with Richard, now Dick.
I am nowhere near the teacher Dick is. I am nowhere near the poet. But I show up. I follow something that I can't explain, but that I know in my bones.
If you asked me why, I would say I do what I do for all the wrong reasons, but that doing so is what matters.
Thank you to all who have connected with me on this crazy Earthwalk. You have given me gifts that neither of us can fully understand, but that live within, through, and around us. Your connections have been a blessing. Now that is something I know.