A few weeks ago a bunch of powerful religious leaders felt the need to assert their power in a loud and flashy reminder that they hold they keys, they are the doorkeepers, and only they decide who's in and who's out. This loud and flashy reminder was named, "The Nashville Statement" and when I read it I desperately wanted to find a way to be louder and flashier than the powerful guys. I don't have loud and flashy but I have my own messy, beautiful, terrible story. The following is the story of how I used to be like the powerful religious leaders with the keys and how that experience has both destroyed me and healed me.
My visitation appointment was for 11:00 AM so I left the house at 7:00 AM because you never know what the supposed to be two hour drive to L.A. will actually entail. Also, I’ve never been to a correctional facility before and I have no idea what I’ll need to do before my appointment. I’m a complete and utter ball of absolute nerves. My stomach aches, my heart aches, my skin even somehow hurts. It’s like every part of me registers that this is horrible, this is not how it’s supposed to be.
Colby kisses my forehead and says something sweet about how he wishes I wasn’t going to do this alone but all I can think is that I need to, I have to, do this alone. I’m not sure in the moment what the mission is, why it has to be this way. There’s just something deep within me, far beyond the conscious mind, that compels me to go see my baby brother in jail by myself. This is something I have to conquer and I cannot conquer if I’m coddled. So I plug my iPhone into the car and I type in the name of the correctional facility while carefully compartmentalizing in my mind what I’m about to face because if I think about it, I’ll never make it.
A long car ride by yourself makes it impossible to compartmentalize, though, and soon my mind drifts to a different time entirely. A time when my little brother still goes by the name “Bubba” and wants to be everywhere I am. A time when my Mom’s head of curls are never out of place, not for a second and her lipstick is always perfection no matter what she’s doing, even when she’s digging up trenches in the backyard and planting trees and moving boulders. A time when my big brother and I always have differing opinions but even that is comforting and reassuring. Eventually we’ll agree to each other’s schemes anyway, like freezing G.I. Joes in cups of water or jumping from heights that could kill us. A time when my Dad doesn’t want any more animals in the house and he’s firm in his position but every new animal that comes through the door anyway endears itself to him. Those times feel so close to my heart I could choke on the memories, they stir within me something fierce, something far worse than nostalgia.
The wall I’ve worked so tirelessly to build around my emotions, to save me from myself, it’s cracking. I catch myself, though, and wipe away the solitary tear making its way down my cheek. Deep breaths. I cannot go there. I must stay strong. I am on a mission. I cannot lose control now. Some time that felt like twelve podcast episodes later and I’ve taken the appropriate exit toward the correctional facility but a wrong turn or two that lead me past the facility and straight into a stretch of land known as Skid Row, confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPhone map. I know I need to turn around but inside something compels me to just keep driving. I’ve allowed myself plenty of time and this feels like part of the mission. These streets were his home. These streets were a necessary part of my day, to take in the fullness of my brother’s story.
As I embark on a journey to take in my brother’s story, it is the story of humanity itself that stirs within me as my eyes move from street corner to street corner, surveying every broken window and makeshift tent, every pair of hungry eyes. These people who so often become nothing more than political soundbites are my baby brother. When the little boy who used to sneak into your room for an unsanctioned sleep over on your trundle bed because he just wanted to be near his big sister is now the guy on the street with the cardboard sign, it’s so much more difficult to pass by the guy with the cardboard sign. Every judgmental comment I’ve ever heard goes racing through my mind, my heart, my soul and I want to scream, “THAT’S MY BABY BROTHER YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! YOU HAVE NO IDEA!”
I’m haunted by every judgmental word I’ve ever heard spoken.
And I rage.
By the time I make it to the correctional facility my face has been decimated by the ugly cry and I don’t even care. I just want to get in there and see my baby brother and tell him that I love him and that I’ve missed him all of these years and that I’m so sorry for everything that he’s gone through and that I’ll help him, I’ll do anything. I just want to hold him and make it all okay again. Once I get in there and see him I know I can make it all better.
I stand in a long line to check in and as I’m waiting I’m overcome with a sort of neediness I haven’t felt in many years. All that determination to do this alone has passed away and I’m left with a desperation to be with someone. But I realize that I don’t actually long to be with anyone I know. I long to be with these people, here in this room with me, lined up to do the same thing I’m here to do. I see the woman on the bench clinging to the baby on her lap and I can barely hold myself back from running to her. I want to beg her to tell me everything, tell me every little detail of what brought her here today. I want their stories. I want every story of every human around me, these stories feel like they could serve as a shield to guard my heart. Perhaps if I know why they’re here, I can reconcile why I’m here.
My number is called and I go to the window to check in, they ask for the prisoner ID and I’m dumbfounded so I respond with my baby brother’s name instead. They look at me like I’m new here and I pause to collect myself. I pull out the paper I’d printed from home when I made the visitation appointment and quickly scan to find the prisoner ID. They check me in and instruct me to leave my personal belongings in a locker at the back of the building. I go to follow their instructions but realize I have no change on me. The lockers require quarters. I panic a bit because the room does not read ready to help the woman who doesn’t know how to lock up her purse. I stare at the locker for a few moments hoping for magic and then I realize there’s a change machine. I can use my debit card to pull out some cash from the ATM and then get quarters. In an absolute frenzy I take out way more cash than I could possibly need and I head to the change machine but I spend what feels like an eternity trying to get quarters when I finally give up and realize I need assistance. I hesitantly return to the window and explain that I have no quarters and that I’m struggling to make any of the machines work when the guard who first checked me in replies with, “It doesn’t even matter. He’s not coming out of his cell today.”
My whole body responds to this news she so casually and callously delivers.
He won’t come out of his cell today.
All I can muster up is a quiet, “what?”
She repeats herself and adds, “he’s not in trouble or anything, sometimes they just won’t come out. He won’t come out of his cell. They just called down to me that they’ve been trying and he won’t budge.”
“I can wait,” I offer naively.
She says, “He’s not coming out, miss.”
I don’t move. I cannot move. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.
“Miss, I’m sorry, but I need to help the next person in line.”
“Okay but I can’t leave until I at least know for absolute certain that it’s my baby brother in there. You see, he’s been missing for a very long time and my family tracked him down and we’ve been wrong before about where he is and I just cannot leave today without knowing for absolute certain that my baby brother is here. Can you confirm that for me?”
“Oh, sure, I’ll just show you his photo on file,” and she laughs. She laughs in my pain stricken face.
But I don’t catch it at first because I’m too stunned. So I reply, “That’d be so great. Thank you so much!”
She laughs again and says, “I cannot show you that!”
Another guard behind her must have been listening in because he quietly steps between the laughing guard and myself. He says, “You really need to know if your brother is here?”
“Yes, sir. I’m not leaving, sir.”
“I can show you his photo but you cannot take it with you and you cannot take a photo of it.”
“Okay, thank you so much.”
“This is going to be rough, these photos…. I mean, you might not recognize him. You sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Please, sir.”
He steps away and I think I might actually throw up all over the window.
The officer returns to the window and places a photo against the glass, a photo of my baby brother that is permanently seared into my consciousness… a photo that wakes me in the night routinely.
“That’s my baby brother. Thank you, sir. He won’t come out? You’re sure?”
“He’s not budging. They tried. They really tried.”
Somehow I turn and walk away. I don’t feel connected to my own body though. I’m not sure how I make it all the way back to the parking garage because I don’t remember the steps but as I cross through the entrance of the parking garage a man approaches me. He says, “excuse me, I just got out,” and he points back toward the facilities. “Do you have any change?” I open my purse and furiously rip open my wallet exposing all of the cash I’d so hastily pulled from the ATM minutes earlier. “Here,” I say quietly as I hand him everything. His eyes rapidly fill with tears and he says, “are you SURE?” I wrap my arms around him and embrace him like a mother who hasn’t seen her son in decades. He weeps and repeats, “thank you, thank you,” and I hold him tighter. Then, abruptly, I walk away and he whispers one more, “thank you," but it's clear that I needed him perhaps more than he needed me. In my grief, the embrace of a stranger meant everything.
I don’t know how long I sat in the car staring blankly at the steering wheel unsure of what to do next. Eventually I muster up the strength to text Colby and he responds with empathy but I have nothing in me that can receive empathy in this moment. I am only rage and emptiness. All walls around my heart have gone back up and they aren’t budging. I am lost and alone and absolutely sure that this is the fork in the road of my life that leads to me going off the deep end. I’ve never gone off of the deep end. I’ve stayed calm, cool, collected. I’ve kept my shit together, so so together, for so many years. When the whole world has fallen out from under me, I’ve done all of the right things and taken all of the appropriate building a grown up life steps. And I’m done. I’m ready to rage and destroy my life and leave my loved ones in the wake of all of my poor choices. This feels like a very rational decision, the only rational decision.
It’s settled then. I will drive somewhere to begin the first necessary step in ruining my life forever. I mindlessly drive to the beach, park, and walk over to the rocky cliffs that so irritatingly resemble the setting of every good and happy memory of my life. Why the hell did I drive here? I sit myself on a pile of rocks and stare ahead at the crashing waves, not a thought running through my mind. I sit there numb for quite some time but eventually I begin combing through the sand for smaller stones to stack against the larger rock beneath me. I form a castle of tiny beach pebbles and begin to sob as though these small stones have hurt me deeply. As the tears flow freely I begin to shutter at every horrible memory of mistreating my baby brother. Unlike the sweet memories I recalled on the drive to L.A. hours before, now I’m wrecked with the weight of memories previously tucked away in neat compartments of self protection. This time, I cannot hold them back.
I recall getting ready to go out one evening when I noticed that my eyeliner was missing and my powder had definitely been used by someone other than myself. The horror inside as the reality sunk in that my baby brother was the one who’d rummaged through my make-up and used it for himself. To be stolen from might have offended my moral sensibilities, sure, but to have that offense coupled with the truth that my brother was still obsessed with make-up, still dressing in that way, still so… different. It was the true offense, of this I’m now sure. If I would have had a sister it would have been perfectly normal and acceptable for her to use my make-up without asking and maybe even to forget to return the make-up where she found it. Maybe I would have yelled at a sister, but not like this. Not the sort of yelling that the memory of burns in your belly like acid when your baby brother has just refused to come out of his jail cell to see you.
I recall occasion after occasion of my wrath unleashed upon my favorite human on earth, my baby brother. I made the biggest fuss, I ranted, I stormed about, I accused and I demanded some sort of punishment and I called it all love. It becomes crystal clear for me, sitting on that rock watching the waves crash against the shore, that the most profound emotion evoked by memories of growing up, the emotion far worse than nostalgia, is regret.
I’m haunted by every judgmental word I’ve ever spoken.
They say that when you have a near death experience, your life flashes before your eyes. Maybe this also happens in the face of excruciating regret because I begin taking account of my life’s journey. I think about how I wouldn’t change who I am today for anything in this world. I am firm and steadfast and grounded in my truth. I stand for what I know in my bones to be Love and Mercy. That’s the entire deal, the whole story- Love and Mercy. I call them God. I recognize God in the rhythms of my daily life: sleeping and waking to a new day where I can try all over again. I recognize God in the very breath I take and the chance to dig my fingers in the dirt and grow something new. I experience God as simple and sweet, requiring so little-just longing to hold. More than anything, I’ve learned that Love and Mercy know no bounds; God’s arms are always only ever so entirely open to all. I’ve come to know God as absolutely, unequivocally standing on the side of the downtrodden, the oppressed, the left out, forgotten, burdened, powerless, defeated, weary ones. I’ve come to know God as fierce love whose only rage is against our very human propensity to treat each other like shit. I’ve come to know her as Mother and Father and friend and all that is pure and good in the world. God is swirling rainbows of majestic yet simple joy abiding in the heart of every human who has ever breathed. I rest easy in her grace.
But I remember how it was not always this way.
I think about how I used to believe it was imperative that everybody follow the rules and there were many, many, very, very important rules to follow. Everybody needed to be a Christian and everybody needed to say one extremely specific prayer. I was uptight and uneasy about the way of things, fearful that one wrong move would leave me damned. Believing that most would perish and only a few would know salvation, I felt anxious and overwhelmed, bogged down by the weight of religious encumbrance. How society’s rules felt like a sovereign god! Boys needed to dress like boys and girls needed to dress like girls. Men were to lead and women were to have babies. A man was only to marry a woman and a woman only to marry a man. The beauty of God I missed out on in those days! Oh she never restricted my access to her presence. Her love indeed knows no bounds, not even in the face of judgmental, pious, know-it-all religious people like myself. I missed out because I had not eyes to see. I couldn’t see the beauty in a God beyond gender and rules and religion. My baby brother lived his life beyond my absurd religious rules and I could not see him. I only saw him as lost and a project to be fixed. That is not love.
And then that old Maya Angelou quote came to me like a catchy tune, “when you know better, you do better,” but sweet Maya, what say you when by the time a dear soul knows better, it is simply too late? I’m so grateful for the way my heart softened over the years. I’m so grateful I’ve become a safe person who holds space for anyone and everyone who feels rejected by the world. I’m so grateful to be a Mom to four boys, four chances to do better by young boys. I think of little Huck’s love of purple eye shadow and my heart’s delight in helping him apply it. I bask in the memories of painting my boys’ fingernails pink and marching with them in the Pride Parade. There’s not a worry in my heart about how my boys might dress or who they might love-I’m thrilled to find out exactly who they are and to love them completely there. I’m grateful for a journey of becoming and for the grace to do better.
But by the time I had eyes to see and ears to hear, my baby brother was gone. Of course he didn’t want to come out of his cell that dreadful day. He couldn’t have known the changes in my life, how my heart would now be so open to his, how I’d gouge my own eyes out before judging him for a single thing, how very much I simply longed to hold space for him. And even if he had known the change in me, it would require great forgiveness to let me back in. I was not a safe person for my brother when he was in my life. But my life’s journey has been about becoming and a safe person is exactly who I’ve become. It’s the kind of life I’ve built, it’s the home I’ve created, it’s the church I’ve co-founded. There I am on that rocky beach taking account of my becoming, my life flashing before my eyes and I think, sweet God, I’m so grateful for your grace, but what of this regret? What of this grief? How will I live under the weight of it?
My mind then wandered back to the man I embraced outside of the jail after my bother refused to see me. How easy it felt to hold him, to give to him and to hold space for him in that moment of my own agony. And it occurs to me that this is the answer to how I’ll live under the weight of my grief and regret. I'll go ahead and let it break me because broken is the place where we become. I knew in that moment on the beach that my life was indeed at a crossroads but it was not the path of destruction I would choose. This brokenness, this kind of desperate, excruciating brokenness, it could only lead to one kind of life, a life absolutely drenched in grace.
When we come to the ends of our own bullshit, when we’ve run completely out of ways to convince ourselves we’re good, when we’re broken to itty bitty pieces, it is then that we become the conduit through which love works. My grief and my regret, painful as they are, allow me a lens through which to see people who aren’t seen by the world. I may never get the chance to hear my brother’s story and to tell him how sorry I am for choosing religion and rules over relationship. I may never get another chance with my baby brother but every single day people come into my life looking for someone to tell them it’s okay to be who they are. I revel in the grace that allows me the opportunity to hold them and assure them that they are wholly and wildly loved exactly as they are. And like the God who loves us all, I rage against our human propensity to treat each other like shit.