Sometimes, a soft stroke on the back from The Universe.

Rene Magritte The friend of order, 1964Hi.

Yeah, it’s been awhile. We’re all aware of that.

Nuttin’ much. How ’bout you?

And I know — I promised you another post entirely. On Wordcamp. Like, four months ago. That still will come.

But need to clear the head and cleanse the palette first.

This first post is about clearing the slate and head after feeling much like you got stomped for not much of a good reason.

The other is a call to arms & love for a friend in need. That’ll be after this.

Please read both. And then, a bit thereafter, the WordPress/Wordcamp posts.

So first — going into this weekend, I was feeling pretty crappy. Shit on a shingle, I’d say. To the point where I was telling friends I would have preferred to hide under the comforter on my bed the whole weekend, starting Friday night, with my iPad running Netflix (shameless advertising placement) and watching old various Star Trek series re-runs until I came to Monday. Maybe.

The reason? Well, not really important. To explain briefly: I’ve been trying my hand at various creative endeavors lately, of the yuk-yuk funny-ha-ha variety. And there’s a big festival here in Portland in April many in this community try to get in. And there’s only so many spaces, even for the best of the best. 

So on the off-chance many do not get in, on a social media group a number of us involved in this activity frequent, I suggested an idea from other such events I’ve seen happen in the past, where those who do not get in pick an off night, so as not to interfere in the festival, and have a Salon de Refusés, so they can strut there stuff there also. I thought it was just a inventive (well, o.k., well-worn and re-used many other places) idea — you know, get creative rather than bitter or disappointed.

Little did I know the poop-storm of sniping, character assasinating assault I was in for for just suggesting such a thing, not only for myself, but also for anyone else who might not get in.

I was called selfish. I was called, by people with some heavy weight in the community, “trying to make that whole week just about me.” I was basically told not to try and buck the system if any of us don’t get in, don’t offer creative alternatives, don’t think outside the box, etc., etc. And dogpiled on, verbally, from several directions, including by people I thought usually friendly to me. I tried to make the case that yes, of course, I would want to do such a thing, if I don’t get in, that’s why I suggested it; but i was trying also to have something fun for the whole community and be encouraging, not bring down the other established event. That I had given time to the event as a volunteer in the past and planned to do so again this year. After a couple of brief tries of that and reading people dogpile on me even more, I just let the thread spin-off into it’s bitchy ether without further response. And this from a local community that prides itself in how supportive they are of their local scene.

Oh well. Performing artists. Wotcha gonna do?

So this was leaving me feeling pretty crappy, and like I didn’t want to pursue anything ever again, never wanted to write or present my work, just wanted to retreat completely.

Then came Sunday.

Sunday, at the zen center here in Portland.

And a sudden big surpirse.

What some of you may not know about me is I used to do prison volunteer work here in Oregon for the Department of Corrections. I was a volunteer through the zen center. I helped occasionally with one group supervised by a priest at the biggest institution, Oregon State Penetentiary. And I eventually led a group out at the Oregon Youth Authority prison, Maclaren in Woodburn, Oregon, working with the prison chaplain there. I basically helped with groups to teach inmates about meditation and answer questions about buddhism or zen, if they were interested. Sort of a “dharma pal” to them.

I don’t share this to toot my own horn or make it sound like what a great, selfless person I am (even I throw up a bit in my mouth at that statement). I got my personal issues like anyone else. And I don’t have many illusions of the prison system or the work we do out there. We give them a couple hours every week to two weeks. Of those coming out of the prison who had been in our groups, the list of mistakes made in recidvism on the outside are numerous. One got back into drugs and died of congestive heart failure as a result. One who admitted to killing two people for which he was convicted and two more on the inside in prison fights, was later killed in prison himself. One got it in his head (trust me, no real zen center person ever tried to encourage him to do this) to live as a monk on the street, walking in robes everywhere, begging from people in Salem, even though he was not connected to any zen institution and would not take instruction from any local teacher, with the teacher he wanted conveniently three thousand miles away. He was picked up for vagrancy and pandering. See, in India, China & Japan, there’s a cultural paradigm of monastics who beg for alms as part of their practice in those cultures. Over here? It’s called begging and you do it too much and bother people (this fellow was rather large and imposing, especially in the black robes), you get arrested. Yeah, that guy was nuts to begin with. One, who I worked with transitioning on the outside, teaching him basic computer skills in the public library to check his e-mail, search the web for apartments, etc., who I became close with, he secretly started using stolen methadone after over a decade of sobriety, o.d.’d and died. A woman who some other zen students had befriended while in prison seemed to be doing o.k., only to take up with a man she’d been prison pen pals with (he was in another prison!), married him, moved far away to Eastern Oregon, and he ended up taking her on a three state grand theft auto crime spree where they shot up one poor man after stealing his vehicle. They’re both now in federal prison, probably for life, though she says she is still in love with him and hopes to be with him again one day. Ugh. One of the youth who got out of MacLaren came to the zen center came for a while, but stopped because he was still under probation and had developmental issues, was required to have a family member with him, and his mother just couldn’t hack just sitting there during silent meditation. One youth who’s story I had gotten to know well at MacLaren got out and was in a youth transition program here that was pretty strict, was very happy to be coming to the zen center, sitting and learning. He bid me a good night after a Wednesday night zen center sitting and asked if I’d be there for him when he came for Sunday service. I said, sure, of course. The next morning he took off, probably because he had contraban in the transition program. He was picked up after turning himself into Salem police, fifty miles south of here, a month or two later, and is now probably back serving out his term at a O.Y.A. Work Farm in Eastern Oregon.

Yeah, I have no illusions about our effect in these programs.

At the same time, statistics do show that because of the high amount of volunteerism to help turn inmates around in Oregon prisons, our numbers are the exact opposite of the rest of the nation. Everywhere else, most prisons have about a 2/3’s recidivism rate of those who get out on parole or just finish their sentence. In Oregon, thanks to the volunteer programs (and this is coming from the folks training us at the D.O.C., not me), it’s about 70% who get out and stay out and rebuild their life, and 30% recidivism. 

So maybe I’ve just had more than my share of the 30%.

And one of the youth at MacLaren O.Y.A. once shared with me that the main reason he and a lot of the other youth came to the meditation group was that it was the only place a lot of them could find peace and quiet and just sitting silently in an otherwise turbulent, dangerous world for them. In their cottages where the lived in rows of beds with other youth, there was nothing but stress. Stress of other youth challenging you, threatening you or your family outside through gang affiliations, if you didn’t carry contraban, pass messages or do things they wanted. Stress of toeing the line for the Staff who constantly accused all of them as having “criminal mindset” and constant threats of having them put in the Crisis Intervention Unit, the O.Y.A.’s version of solitary or “the hole.” Stress of being pulled one way or another in a constant barrage of youthful energy and noise and what you can get away with. The meditation group for them was just a break — a place where you just talked about compassion quietly and learned about mediation for an hour seemed like a vacation to them. To which I said: fine. I’ll take that. If that’s all they ever get out of the group, I’ve more than done my job of alleviating just a little bit of suffering, even if momentarily, from their lives.

So anyway — what does all this turgid prison transition drama have to do with me getting verbally beat up by my fellows? Ah yes — the surprise. At the zen center. Last Sunday.

So I’m at the zen center for service, when who do I see sitting in the rows amongst the various drab attire and black robes, but… one of the other youth I knew from the group at MacLaren. 

In fact, one I had already seen around town, riding bus routes on Portland TriMet and such, who had even told me he had no interest in pursuing zen or meditation any further.

And there he was, sitting in the rows silently, with everyone else.

We talked a bit after a break — he was there with a… friend? partner? Don’t know, too brief a time and chat to pry. But his friend was feeling a need to be “more centered” in his life, so where did he take him? Right to where we stare at walls and watch our breath. That very place he said he wasn’t interested in any more. He did say the chanting we do in service still drives him crazy, which we smiled about. I said that’s o.k. He looked good, as did his friend, like he was succeeding and surviving, perhaps even thriving on the outside. At least, by appearances and a brief conversation. You never know.

We exchanged info, and I wrote him an e-mail today saying how good it was to see him and meet his friend, gave him some zen center information and my contact info, and let him know I was there if he wanted to talk.

I don’t know what will happen with this guy or his friend: if he’ll be back, ever, if his life will go well, go tits-up, or go wrongly side ways. Who knows? I certainly don’t. 

But he and his friend looked pretty good that day. And he knew to take his friend to this place, when they were searching for being more centered. 

O.k. I’ll take that.

So again, not trying to toot my own horn. But sometimes, when you’re at your lowest, when you feel like friends have lined up around the block to kick you in the ribs while you’re on the ground, and you just don’t want to come out from under the bed covers, the Universe turns around, gives you a few soft gentle strokes on the back, and finds a way of saying — you’re o.k., kid. A bit weird and confused at times, but o.k. You’ve done some good out there. And occasionally, if you’re lucky, you might see it come back.

Don’t know if I’m still feeling up to jumping back in the creative fray quite yet. But I wrote some last Friday night. We’ll see.

O.k., more on how we all can do some good to give back to someone who has put a lot out there for years and could use some help in a couple of posts. And eventually, the promised Wordcamp posts, for reals.

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