The Good Ole Days

At a recent writing conference, I listened to an author relate why she felt motivated to write books about True Crime. As she spoke, I had flashbacks to a similar experience.

I was about 8 years of age, walking to school. My school was about five blocks from home, but I had walked by myself since I started school. All the kids did. Usually there were adults out doing errands, hanging wash, or otherwise engaged in outdoor activities. No one thought anything about allowing children the freedom to roam the neighborhood. I was headed home, and this time, I was alone.

As I was walking, a car pulled up beside me. “Hi,” he said. “Can you help me?” Being a good little child, wanting to help, I walked over to the car.

“I am lost. Can you tell me where is the Jaffa Mosque?”

I was standing a bit away from the car, and he called me over. “Could you come here? I want to show you something.”

I walked closer to the car and looked in. He was wearing a suit, a grey suit as I remember. Why that weird piece of information stuck in my 8-year-old head is beyond me. On his left leg, he had a white handkerchief, and on the handkerchief was something looking weird, and strange. It was spurting liquid as he stroked it.

“Can you get in the car, and take me to the Jaffa Mosque?” he said. As I looked at him, I backed away. I have no memory of what happened then. I suspect he rapidly drove off because someone approached. The author, at the conference, said she was saved because another car approached as the fellow was preparing to make a grab for her. She also backed away. However, unlike me, she was smart enough to memorize part of the license plate. Her report to the police resulted in the apprehension of her predator. He had killed six children previously, and she was to be his seventh. As for my predator, my guardian angel was working overtime.

Since I had never seen a penis, it did not occur to me this is what he showed me. It took many years of remembering to realize he was showing me a penis having an orgasm. I just remember weird fascination with this milky, whitish substance I saw.

Needless to say, the experience was memorable, as sixty years later I still recall it vividly.

This author, and I both agreed we hated receiving emails about the “good ole days.” You know the ones. The ones that tell you how innocent life was in the fifties. How innocent children were in the fifties. They tell you how mother stayed home with the children, and dad’s worked. Every home was a “Leave it to Beaver” paradise. And no one had to worry about children because molestation, and pedophiles did not exist.

I agree that I am very grateful I was raised when I was. I am grateful I had the freedom to roam the streets, and the woods. I had a private life no one, especially my parents, knew anything about. I left in the morning, and was gone until sunset. We played in the neighborhood, but we also roamed. I lived near a railroad yard, and we played inside of boxcars. We climbed boxcars. We hitchhiked on the trains driving between the Acme warehouse, and the meatpacking plant, where we watched them slaughtering cows. I collected eyeballs, and hearts for dissection in school. We climbed boxcars, walking across the tops of them. My friends had the courage to jump from one to the next. I could never manage to do so.

We climbed, and played in old abandoned warehouses across the street from where I lived. My mother came to the door one day, just in time to see me using a cable wire, we had found in side the building, as a repelling rope to come down the side of the building. Why she was so upset, I do not know. I was safe. I made it down. “You need to act like a lady?” she screamed at me later. “You need to stop playing with boys.” “huh???” I said to her. “Girls don’t do things like that.” “Oh!” I replied as I headed out the door to find my friends. “Girls are boring, and beside. I do not like to play with dolls.”

In many ways, this was an idyllic life. In many ways, it did fit those emails I receive, telling me how great the “good ole days” were. But there was a dark side. A dark side no one mentioned.

At twelve, one of my girlfriends was kidnapped, raped, and left behind the Acme warehouse wrapped in a sheet. The perpetrator was never caught. I am not even sure the police took it seriously. The gossip from the adults, I remember hearing blamed the child. “She probably did something to deserve it.”

I remember a case in the local courts, when I was about the same age. The woman had come to court to accuse a man of raping her. The prosecutor took a coke bottle, passing it back and forth in front of her. He asked her to stick her finger in the bottle. Of course, she could not do it. The prosecutor then said to the jury, “see no woman can be raped, unless she wants it.” Women are coke bottles; the woman must have lain still. She must have wanted it.” The man was found innocent of rape. The woman, probably permanently scarred for life.

At thirteen, my best friend was raped. The local minister from the church, across the street from her home, raped her. She was seeking a father, since she did know hers. Nancy would go to the church to talk to him. He was always warm, and welcoming to her, unlike her life at home. He made her feel loved, and cared for. She told me about him, and how she talked to him. She then told me what he did to her. She admitted she was afraid, as it had happened twice. I convinced her to talk with the people for whom she babysat, since she could not talk to her mother.

She did talk to them, and they tried to protect her. When they went to the police, they were told there were no witnesses, and they probably did not have a case. Nancy had told them about my being molested, so they came to my mother to convince her to let me testify. She refused. My parents were trying to protect me, in their own way. But I hated them for this, for years.

Meanwhile, the minister went to Nancy’s mother to talk. Convincing her mother Nancy was telling lies, he further convinced her mother to have Nancy committed to the local state mental institution where she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. I never saw her again. When she was released, she disappeared.

My parents remained convinced they had done the right thing, and besides, as they told me, it was my fault I was molested, and her fault she was raped. My mother called the preacher’s daughter over, after I had told them what happened to me. Mother spoke to his daughter, not to him, and in a very circumspect manner told her to tell her father to leave me alone. She was a very close friend of mine. We often hung out after school, at another friend’s house, watching American Bandstand, oohing and awing over the regulars, pretending we were there, as we danced. After this talk, with my mother, I never saw her again. The family moved not too long after, I understood, from his daughter, the family had been forced to move before because of the same reason. I lost another close friend.

When I was in junior high, and high school, I also walked back, and forth to school. Since I played in the orchestra, I had evening concerts to attend. I either took the bus, or I walked. My family did not own a car. Walking presented it’s own challenges. I Learned early how to be aware of my surroundings. We knew which houses were safe to run to, in case of being chased. We identified cars whenever they passed us, marking to see if the vehicle passed more than once. This let us know if we were being followed. Normally, when this happened, the driver would travel down the block for a bit, then stop, and get out to follow on foot. It was then time to run to the safety of a nearby house. Weird thing was, once it was felt the danger was passed, I was permitted to proceed on my own the rest of the way home.

Now one would think the school bus was a safe location. We rode the local buses often, and we became friendly with the bus drivers, always greeting them when we got on and off the bus. There was one driver named Charlie, who was particularly known for being a serious grouch. I always made a point of saying “Hello”, in the hopes of brightening his day. One day, as we reached the end of the line downtown, where I needed to change buses to go home, I started to get off the bus, and he had locked the bus doors.

Charlie started to come down the aisle towards me. I can still see him. His face was red and beefy, and he was salivating. He was breathing heavy, and his eyes looked weird. His body took up most of the aisles. Although I was a large girl, he outweighed me by at least 100 lbs., or so it looked. His face had morphed into pig like features with heavy jowls that shook. It also appeared to me he was salivating.

“Let me off the bus, “ I said, very emphatically.

“No, I am going to give you something to remember me by.”

“I want off this bus,” I stated again as he drew nearer. I was at the back of the bus, and by this time, he was about a third of the way towards me.

“If you do not let me off this bus, I will scream.” I drew a deep breath, filling my lungs and beginning to scream. Outside the bus were some people, and I hoped they would hear me.

“Alright, alright,” he yelled, “Just shut up, and I will let you off. “ He went back up front, and pulled the lever to open the doors.

When I arrived home, I did tell my mother about what happened. Looking at me, she said, “This is your fault, you are too friendly with men. Men are disgusting they only want one thing. It is your fault for talking to them. Stay away from them. Shame on you.” And we wonder why, it took years for me to work through these issues in therapy.

“The Good Ole Days” Eh?!?!?!? Before we refer to the fifties as the time of ideal living, let us remember there was much no one spoke about. Yes, police were friendly, as long as you were white, and not doing anything contrary. Police brutality was common, as were hangings and prejudice. My family, were immigrants to America. They came seeking a better life. They did find a good life for their children, but they also found prejudice.

I was raised during the McCarthy era in the USA. Teachers took loyalty oath to the United States. I had a teacher who explained to us one day in third grade, how anyone born in America was superior to anyone born in another country. Being the inquisitive child I was, I raised my hand.

“Teacher.” I said. “My parents were born in another country, and I was born here. Does this mean I am superior to my parents?”

She looked at me, and slowly said, “Yes, it does.” When I later told my mother she did not see it that way.

My sister was not allowed to join the Rainbow Girls, because her parents were both born abroad. The local chapter changed this ruling, due to the intervention of a high-ranking Mason. My sister then refused to join.

Prejudice, police brutality, racism and especially pedophiles were common but no one said anything. It was behind closed doors. Victim blaming was common. But today, with the advent of Internet and increased media, the public’s attention is immediately drawn to these events. I, for one, am grateful this has happened because it has eliminated, to some extent, the ability to “get away” with abusive behavior.

At the risk of being redundant, I repeat myself. I am grateful, I was raised during the fifties. Although difficult, I had one thing children do not have today, Freedom. We were able to roam, and we grew up independent. Although we ran into bad characters, we knew how to take care of ourselves. We were not coddled, and protected from reality. Every age has its difficulties, and this one seems to have brought significant fear. Maybe this is why we all want to look at the fifties as the “golden age,” the “good old days.” There were parts of it that were good but there were parts that were hell.” The golden beast had an underbelly of malice, and anger.

I write this to shine a light. We need this light to clean out the wrongs done to children. We need this light to clean out the wrongs done to us, as adults, when we were children. If we have a boil, we need to lance it, and then drain it, in order to heal. It looks worse before it finally heal. We are in a time when cruelty is coming to light. Many of us prefer to hide from, and to actively deny it ever happened. It will not go away. Change is at hand. If I am in a darkened room, and I hear what sounds like rattle snakes, shall I just turn my back in the hope they will simply slither away, or shall I shine a light so I know where they are, and therefore, protect myself from stepping on one accidentally. It is time for all of us to awaken, and to accept responsibility. As it is said, we cannot change the past, but we can learn its lessons to change our future, and to make a better world for our children.

I showed the above piece to a close friend of mine, and he wrote this response. Thank you Jay, for allowing me to share this with all of our readers.

An Insight About Insights

by Jay Kendall

It’s amazing how an experience can alter our perspective—how it can open our eyes and change the way we see the world. And by telling about it, writing about it, we help others become aware. We bring things to light. We are all teachers pointing out and saying, Look. Hoping they will see and understand.

But the fact that we can see and understand is in itself important, because that awareness changes the energy. Have you ever been with a group of people who are trying to solve a problem, and no one grasps or sees the merit in your idea? Then a few minutes later, someone else presents the same plan or idea, as though it’s an original thought, and that person is praised and credited with the solution.

And no one remembers that you had anything at all to say about the issue. If you try to take the credit, you’ll be seen as a pariah. But if we have the presence of mind to step away, we appreciate that the idea, the awareness, is what has importance, not us. We are the conduits, channels of energy—like lightning rods. The role of the teacher is to convey the thought—to provide the spark that will light the lamp.

Grateful for Angels

The day was hot and the roads in the market dusty. Casablanca was an interesting place for a visit, but the market inside the old city held the greatest attraction. The streets were narrow, but still the sun shone down hot and clear. It was a large maze of streets, winding for several kilometers. It presented unique people and even more unique experiences.

I was traveling with my companion from Kuwait. We had decided to investigate the market as often that is where the most interesting of items are found. It was a fascinating place. I stopped to take pictures of a bakery. It was built flush with the road. The walls were open so people passing could see directly into the ovens, and the young men working. The smells and vapors lured you over, demanding you sample the wares. The young men enjoyed hamming it up for my camera. They waved and talked with us, and tried to practice their English.

I turned to take pictures of street scenes, and as I did a man moved, blocking the view from my camera. I moved again, and again he moved blocking my view. I put my camera down, and he shook his head “NO!” He was making it very clear that all my efforts to take photographs of the streets were not going to happen. He would not allow me to accidentally photograph a woman. I gave up, and my friend, and I moved on down the street. We were the only foreigners in this market, as far as I could see. My companion was blond. Although I am of Arab descent, my skin is light and often people do not realize I speak, and understand Arabic. Here in Morocco, the language was a combination of French and Arabic, making it difficult to understand what was being said.

We peered intently down the street. The sun somewhat blinded our eyes and we had to squint.

”He’s beating a horse. “ My companion suddenly screamed. “He’s beating a horse. I can’t allow that” and she took off at a run.

“Stop” I cried. It is not a good idea for us to get involved. She refused to listen and ran ahead, with me right behind her. We moved quickly through the maze made of paths of cabbages, melons and various items of all types.

“I can’t allow it. I can’t see what he is hitting, but I have to stop it.”

My eyes focused ahead and I saw what had upset her. A man had two knives and was waving them over his head. He was chanting and screaming “Allah Akbar.” I knew enough to know that he meant. “God is Great” And while I could agree there was great truth in that statement, I was not sure I wanted to be involved. The knives flashed in the sun, and the way he was wielding them, gave me a fright.

He was not far head of us now, and as I watched, I realized he was standing over a large cart of fish, whole fish that had been brought in for sell. He was making sushi out of the fish. His knives were rising and falling, and was repeatedly cutting into the fish. He was totally involved with what he was doing. The poor woman who owned the cart of fish, looked on horrified.

I turned to my friend “This does not look good. We better get out of here.”

At that point he caught site of us, and started a renewed screaming as he looked at us. I began to catch phrases of “infidels, death” and again “Allah akbar.”

At this point I realized what phenomenal danger we were in. We started to back out, and looked around for an escape plan. The crowd had closed in around us, and there was no place to go. Our path was totally blocked by people crowding around to watch. Everywhere we turned to leave there mounds of fruit, and vegetables, and people.

I was beginning to have visions of becoming human sushi as I realized he was starting to come towards us. I could feel the panic rising in my throat.

At that moment two small, elderly people merged out of the crowd, and came toward us. Neither came above my shoulder. Their faces were kind and appeared to have an inner light. I felt comforted the minute I saw them. With a smile, the man took my hand, and the woman took my friend’s. They calmly moved us through the crowd. The crowd moved around us and quietly let us through. As we were escorted to safety, I saw men had crowded around the man with the knives, and carried him away from the group.

The elderly couple moved away from us as softly and quietly as they had come. No words were ever exchanged. When I turned to thank them, both had disappeared. We were safe.

We saw the woman who owned the cart with the fish, pushing the cart through the market. The fish had been cut into random sized pieces. The man’s frenzy had almost made ground fish. She would not be able to sell any of it. We passed the mosque where the man was taken, and heard chanting, and smelled incense.

Later, back at the hotel, we relayed our story to the man at the reception desk. We were calmly told it must have been our imagination, because things like this did not happen in Morocco. Ah, yes….. that was one overactive imaginative day. Thank God for angels.

Vulnerable for Love

I was recently visiting my friends with small children. As children will, they were becoming difficult and, yes, obnoxious. I watched as the parents began the process of trying to correct their behavior. I was curious as it brought back memories of experiencing discipline from teachers, parents, and so one. Not only personal discipline but stories related to me by friends, clients, students, and so on.

The first technique did employ ignoring, and when that did not work trying verbal encouragement to change their ways. Eventually, when all else failed, they were put in time out. As these children were young, time-outs were brief. As soon as the child reached out to the parent, the parent responded with a hug, a very reassuring hug and a kiss. The child was left knowing it was her action that was not approved, not the child itself.

This is in contrast to what I, and so many others remember about being punished when we were children. My mother was the disciplinarian and her fuse was short. Her favorite implement was the wooden spoon, which by the way, hurt, stung and left marks. I was then left bruised and crying. I was told that if I continued to cry, I would be “given something to cry about.” I stopped crying, and was left in near hysterics not understanding what I could have done to make me such an awful, terrible person. There were no reassurances, not then, and not for a long time after.

Not too many of us remember much reassurance after being spanked, or more appropriately, beaten for a transgression. My situation was not unusual. Many of my friends, as children, faced the same. We were left after being punished to “think about what we had done.” It often was a long time before anyone spoke to us. We were left with the impression we were very bad children, very bad indeed. These times took their toll. The primary lesson we learned is the love of our parents was conditional. Love was only granted when we were good and only provided when we fulfilled the terms our parents set forth. Unconditional love was not a term ever used.

I often hear adults saying children today are undisciplined, and what they need is a good beating.

“It didn’t hurt me,” they say. “Look at me, I’m fine.” And yet, the question remains, are they really fine?

This type of upbringing is called authoritarian. It perpetuates the dominant/submissive roles, master/slave, right/wrong. It is a power struggle, with one winner, and one left feeling like a loser. My friends’ children were left knowing they were still loved. They were left with confidence and knowledge their internal self was good and whole. They could readily say, “I’m sorry” and achieve forgiveness.

I, as well as so many of my generation, were left with a strong need to please those in authority, to gain their approval. We do what we are told in the hopes, someone will love us and provide us with praise and tell us “good job.” We are afraid someone will find us out and recognize us for the failures we feel ourselves to be. We lack confidence, even if we have managed to rise to positions of power. We struggle to break free of these feelings, and spend our lives reaching for the confidence to be ourselves.

Many are not even aware they are trapped within their own programming to seek approval. They see their rise in authority as finally being able to achieve the power exercised over them when they were children. Positions of authority become mistaken for finally receiving approval from their parent. Finally, they are able to do to others, what was done to them. It does not come with compassion, but is born of fear, the fear of never being “good enough.”

My friend once said to me, “I tell my kids, I do the best I know how as a parent. I am better to them, than my father was to me. It is up to them, to raise their own children the way they wish they were raised.” Fortunately, some of us are breaking the cycle of abuse. And yes, raising a child the way I was raised is abuse. We do not like to call it this. I remember being looked at weirdly the first time and being criticized. I was told I could not say this. I carried this for many years before I could speak of it. I did not really see it as abuse because it was the way my friends were raised. Even after many years of therapy, it was not easy to speak of. Strangely enough, it was only after I developed compassion for my mother, and her own abusive history, that I could deal with my personal history the same way.

I am grateful so many are raising their children differently. It is finally realized children are not miniature adults. It is finally realized, they are children with feelings, and they are vulnerable. Children are most vulnerable to their parents, the people who raise them. Children love their parents unconditionally. They will try against all odds to gain their approval, even when it is hopeless. This is never really outgrown. If it is not given by a parent, it will be sought from an authority figure. This is what it makes it so dangerous. This is what allows cults, religious fundamentalism in all its forms, gangs, and so forth to flourish.

Paradise Revealed part 6 (at last – the end, for now)

We learned that originally, the men were kept imprisoned in order to make money from them. The prison was paid so much a prisoner for their food. Part of it was being kept. The person in charge did not want to lose his source of income or be imprisoned. It became an avalanche where no one knew how to get out of the mess that was created by this scam. So these young men were kept and kept and kept.

And then came a call, from an anonymous source, telling me if I had any pull at all, now was the time to use it. This small African country was in an unacknowledged skirmish in the Congo. After two and one-half years of imprisonment, these young men had become such an embarrassment. No one knew what to do, so a decision was in the making, to send the prisoners to the Congo, to fight with the promise of amnesty when they returned. If they refused the soldiers were to be sent to the Congo anyway but without a gun. Quite a choice!

The prisoners were pressured to rejoin the army. Forgiveness was promised. It never made sense that the government would welcome back men they felt were deserters, and place guns in their hands. Michl refused. He said he was given a choice, and his choice was not to return to the army. He never really explained why. He only said “a choice to return is not a choice I can make.” As always, it was Michl’s quiet strength continuing to amaze and inspire me.

The existence of these men on the island was actively denied. Any official who visited was shown the side where delinquent boys were held and rehabilitated. Denial and silence were the words of the day, if there was any mention of the other side of the island.

I went to the American Ambassador, and met with one of his assistants but very little came of it. No one at the Embassy seemed inclined to do much so I went where it appeared someone might care – the British High Commissioner. He listened, and he cared. I was able to provide him with details about the men on the island, and he succeeded where all others failed. He went to the island, and although he was denied access at first, he was finally able to visit.

Soon after his visit, there was an article in the paper through the BBC, and soon after, the men were released. Slowly they were released, but they were released. Michl was among the last to be released. But, as he said, he was free. Michl believes strongly in God, and believes this happened for a reason. He always trusted God would ensure his release. Finally, after two and one-half years they gained their freedom.

As for me, when I tried to stay in Rwanda, my residency permit was denied, and suddenly the atmosphere around me felt very unsafe. I quietly, and as quickly as possible, left with the awful feeling of being chased by a pack of ghosts and not friendly ones.

 

Thank you everyone for reading — I hope the journey was of interest

 

 

a wonderful break

A wonderful break from the Michl saga with a poem by my friend Michael Newell. He is a published poet and it is definitely worth looking for his poems.

DO I KNOW YOU?
Who are all those people staring out there?
Relax, folks, but don’t sleep, keep your eyes on the stage.

Everyday I worry whether I’ll do my job.
A mob watches me slip and blunder on my stage.

Wind fills the long nights on snow-laden Tallinn streets.
Even in the dark, creeping home, we are on stage.

A swarm of abbayas and chadors swirls past us.
Try to ignore the sweep and rustle on this stage.

In midnight’s silence I recite apologies.
I expect no applause from the seats ringing this stage.

Not one, not two, but a multitude of faces
file in to fill the seats slanting round memory’s stage.

Every street, Michael, reveals faces lost for years.
Ah, the sweet cruelty of memory’s traveling stage.

Michael L. Newell

Paradise revealed part 5

One day, when I went to visit him, it was just his father and I. Michl sat between us. It was raining and we had moved under cover to try and stay dry.

“I cannot tell you both what it means to have you here,” he said quietly.

“I have a fear you both will stop coming and I will be forgotten. I will die here with no one to care.”

“Not true, “ I quietly reassured him. “Your friends come often and they deeply care about you.”

“True, so true, but it is you and Dad who keep me going. Keep me wanting to live. You keep me from losing hope and feeling lost. So many of the prisoners have absolutely no one. Some are in this prison for years and no one comes. Rwanda is a poor country, and the money needed to get to the prison is best spent on food,” he explained.

In his dark moments, he feared this happening to him. He feared we would lose interest and forget him. And I quickly reassured him we would not lose interest.

We went week after week to visit, and in between times we spoke to lawyers, started phone campaigns to the local radio talk shows. I even wrote to the President on his Facebook account. I had heard the military had acted independently, and I thought the President might not know what was happening. None of it did any good, and my letter went unanswered.

I was threatened indirectly. A “trusted” friend from the gym, where I used to work out, told me I was making a mistake visiting. He told me I was under surveillance by security.

He told me, “You are endangering Michl by going to see him. They will make it harder on him. They will not let him out easily. Stop seeing him. You will be in danger.”

I was told to be careful of SUVs’ with dark windows and to never, ever get in one. “People tend to disappear, when they do,” my informant said ominously.

Michl’s friends, from the gym, were told to stop visiting or lose their jobs. We were told we were only making it worse for him by visiting. We were told we were making it bad for ourselves by visiting. But visit we did. His friends and I arranged our schedules so we could visit, and keep him out of the prison proper for as long as possible.

The money, I gave him each week, was used to provide necessities for him, and to have someone cook for him, and clean his clothes. Everyone knew Michl had a white woman visit him, and this gave him status.

As I understood it, there was an internal economy inside the prison. Each week when we went, goat skewers were for sale, as was soda. Some prisoners made wooden stools; some cleaned for other prisoners. And, as was said to me, you did what you needed to do to earn money. Otherwise, life would be more hellish than it was currently.

I made friends with the people from the International Commission of the Red Cross, who were tracking the prisoners. They went to visit weekly. They too, were attempting to keep these young men visible. I had to be careful when I met with the ICRC. Fortunately, two of the people had children at the school, and I was able to meet with them casually under the guise of parent conference.

The first prison Michl was in was more visible, and it was reserved for the military. It was on the outskirts of a small village. Most of the visitors arrived by walking. Surprisingly, many were women carrying children on their backs. The children would play while the men talked, and the women usually just sat there. One man, who I met, was serving an extended period of internment for embezzlement. Since, there was no law making them repay the stolen money, it was worth a long prison term to secure the future of his family. He was an officer and once his sentence was complete, he would return to active duty. He actually only served about a year before being released.

Meanwhile, we could not obtain a trial for Michl. Nor could we find out what charges were being brought against him. The country had prisons no one knew about. There was always the fear he would disappear into one of these prisons, never to be seen again. They also had prisons, like we saw in the middle of city, used to house “common” criminals. It was amazing, for what seemed like a quiet country, to have so many, so many prisons. We would see prisoners sometimes on the streets. The prisoners, who were from the Genocide, wore pink uniforms like faded, very faded blood; the common criminals wore orange, and the military wore green. These last were rarely seen, and were rarely allowed out of the prison. All were used in manual labor throughout the country.

When I visited the ICRC, or the Embassies to plead for these soldiers. I had to make sure I was not seen. But, as I found out later I was tracked, and my whereabouts were known. They quietly waited. Rwandans are extremely patient, and none more so than the government. Foreign journalists in the country, made several attempts, to write the story, but all were blocked. People who tried realized they would lose visas, and other privileges.

We visited, every week for one and a half years and then suddenly Michl disappeared. No messages, nothing, just silence. Fortunately, these prisoners were resourceful and Michl had smuggled a cell phone with him. He called and told me he was on an island in Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is the fifth largest methane lake in the world. If it blew, it would completely destroy all life in approximately a three-mile radius around the lake.

One half of this island housed street children. There were numerous children on the streets begging for money in Kigali. Periodically the government would do a sweep and the children would be placed in re-education camps. These children were placed on this island. When the government was asked about the soldiers on the island, they would only admit to the children being there. They refused to admit there was anyone else. Officials visited the island for graduation ceremonies for the children and never saw the prisoners.

Our weekly visits were replaced by engaging in weekly shopping trips, and then taking everything to the bus station to be sent to him. Amazingly, he received these packages and nothing was ever stolen. The bus station in Kigali held wall-to-wall vehicles with barely any room to turn. Sam would take the package, and arrange for a bus to take it. I would stay in the car to keep shuffling, looking for a parking place. It became a weekly nightmare. We did this for weeks meanwhile receiving many, many promises that Michl, and the others, would be released.

Promises, promises

Again and again

Never to be kept

Treated as if never made

Human life insignificant in its meaning

Paradise Revealed part 4

Michl had on a kelly-green shirt and pants. The green was bright and against his dark skin he stood out. His muscular build made him stand out even among the prisoners. His gait was athletic as he moved easily out the gate and down the path towards us. I cried and hugged him. We sat uneasily on some chairs as nothing was very sturdy, and as we talked, he sat next to me so I could rub his back in the way any mother does with a favored child. We talked. He talked with other visitors, his father, and friends who were there. We bought meat on skewers for everyone. In a weird way, it almost felt like a party. There was even quiet laughter. We joked about how his muscles stretched the shirt, almost tearing it.

I asked about the guards, as I did not see any. He pointed out into the fields and, as he did, I began to be able to see automatic weapons, and guards behind them. The walls of the prison did not look too high to breach, but the prison suddenly became more sinister. I asked him if any tried to escape and he said “no” very quietly. He told me about an island in a major lake, where they put prisoners they wanted to hide. Only one person had ever escaped from there. It was in the middle of a Lake famous for its high concentration of methane gas.

He also spoke about how both victims and perpetrators of the genocide were housed side by side within the prison walls, and no trouble existed between them. He explained to me, they were disciplined soldiers, who did not create problems. I tried to imagine housing the “Bloods” and the “Crips” together, without serious precautions. I thought of how someone could bring a change of clothes, and the prisoner could quietly change into street clothes, leaving his clothing in the bathroom, quietly leaving, but this to my knowledge, never happened.

The prison interior was barren I was told, with absolutely no shade, no trees, no grass. There were nearly 500 prisoners in a prison built for around 250 people. 85 outhouses provided sanitation for the prisoners. These were not nearly enough. At dusk, these were closed. Any further needs were taken care of by large vats provided by entrepreneurial inmates. It cost to utilize these vats. I always marveled there were not major outbreaks of disease.

The prisoners slept on the dirt floors. Michl was considered fortunate. I brought him a mat and foam pad to sleep on. The roughness of the mat helped keep the cockroaches from his bed. As his area was kept clean, he did not have as many roaches. He once described a session the prisoners catching and killing the hundreds of roaches investing the camp.

Sam went with me for each of these visits, as I did not speak the native language, and the procedures could easily overwhelm me. Sam often had to translate for me when we were there. When favors were done, we needed to provide money, and so forth. We soon learned we needed to bring Michl food, as prison food was basically beans and a paste made from the root of a vegetable. This was a staple for many diets. The starchy flour was made into a very doughy and stretchy, glutinous substance eaten throughout Africa, in one form or another. It filled the stomach as it swelled when exposed to liquid, and provided minimal nutrients. It was used to soak up sauces. I always found it very filling and, for me, a little went a very long way. Prison diets had very little protein.

Michl was a body builder, and a physical trainer, and this would provide a poor diet at best. So every week I brought food, powdered milk, spaghetti, sauce, meat or fish. We brought water also, as the water he had was contaminated. His father brought him fresh milk. We brought sweaters, sneakers, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and whatever else we could to make his life more comfortable.

After a few weeks of visiting, we were limited to visiting once a week, and we could only stay for two hours at a time. Lifting a metal lid, and letting it bang against a cylinder, making an exceptionally loud noise, announcing the end of visiting hours. My visiting was making an impression as it was talked about, and looked at as a point against Michl. Several people tried to tell me I was causing trouble by visiting, and I was making it worse on him. However, I was also told, my visits protected him and the other prisoners, forcing accountability by the military. It was hoped, by government officials, people would forget about these young men. It became apparent, that the only hope was to keep them alive in the memory of the people. Michl was considered a danger, as he was too visible. He had myself, and several other “white” people visiting him. He was too popular.

Paradise revealed Part 3

We traveled a short way out of the central city into a small village with dirt roads and paths. The houses were built of concrete blocks and mud. Residences in the community shared toilets. Under the toilets were troughs running under the houses. and down a common pathway into waterway, or other drainage point. Buckets of water were hauled and used to wash the waste away. Like all villages in Rwanda, the street and surroundings were clean. I did not see trash of any sort. The streets looked like they were swept recently.

The first time I saw the prison was beyond culture shock. We parked in a dirt area right before a bridge and the car had to be parked just so. The guard on traffic duty guided me, and my car, into the exact position he wanted. Directions were brusque and provided in the voice tone of annoyance. Very few people drove cars. Most visitors were women carrying babies. In order to enter the prison grounds, we first went through a makeshift building, where I stood waiting to be searched. My handbag was searched thoroughly, as it, as well as I, were novelties. My cellphone was removed from me, and I was allowed to leave. Any food and water we brought, was clearly labeled with Michl’s name, and left to be given to him later.

Being the only white person there, I was easily recognizable. I came to discover they remembered everything about me. There I was, in a room was filled with women and crying children, each waiting their turn. Babies were crying, and usually mothers were balancing two or three children.

Each waiting her turn

Babies crying

Faces unable to understand what has happened

A routine to be repeated

For days and weeks on end

And by the end they even had my passport number memorized

And after being searched (and resisting the urge to smack the female guard placing her hands on my body), having my handbag searched, turning in my cell phone and any food I had brought, we were free to go on up the road. At this point, as I left the shack I could see the prison. It was a renovated tomato paste factory, and it stood at the end of this short road. It was like no other prison I had ever seen. In Syria where I was introduced to the word “zygen”, the Arabic word for prison, they stood on hills, were painted black, and were generally terrifying. They appeared foreboding and quite frankly, gave an aura of fear. But here, in a small African country with blue skies and a sunny day, it did not feel real in the least. It looked like a red brick fort. The walls also looked easy to climb.

Rwanda is a bit of a make believe land, as it is. It is easy to forget the phenomenal terror that took place during the genocide. The mountains are beautiful. The people, once you know them quite amazing. But there are ghosts everywhere. And as quiet as it is, and it is peaceful, it is not peace filled. There are frequent memorials to the dead located where there are mass graves. If you go to visit during the rainy season, the smell of decomposing bodies is strong in the air.

And there was a bit of this smell in my nostrils as I stood looking at this huge red brick factory building. It was high and there were no guards visible anywhere. It was a military prison. I do not know what I expected. Perhaps I was influenced by all of the prison shows I had seen, and thought the prisoners had cells with television and blankets and beds and shoes and socks and decent meals. I expected a large room where we would visit under armed guard. But, here I was standing in a large expanse of field; high with grass, and the road I was on was made of dirt, just large enough to transport trucks in and out of the prison.

We had crossed a small bridge over a stream, which I was told contained sewage refuse from the surrounding area. It was actually a very bucolic scene, and I learned, once again, appearances could be deceiving. Later, as we sat in the yard staring at the hills on the far side of the valley, I would learn hills housed a prison very few knew about, and one all prisoners feared. There were several of similar repute throughout the country.

In the beginning, when we visited Michl in prison we came on the weekends, and stayed the entire day. The rule was as long as a visitor was present Michl could be outside with us. The first time I saw him come out of the prison was devastating in many ways. We had formed a bond, he and I, and he called me “mum”. He often spoke fondly of his mom, and the life he had with his parents before the genocide. It appeared they were a happy family. His father had never fully recovered. I saw his father often during our prison visits. In the days when his son was first in prison, he looked broken. He had the look of resignation, I had seen so often. Shoulders bent over with hands twisting and huddled in his lap. The look that said, “there is nothing, nothing to be done. I cannot fight as I have no strength and no will.”

 

Ashamed To Be Me

 

I went with some friends recently, to a concert. We are all about the same age; about the age of trying to figure out how we had become this old. It made no sense to us. Many lively young people performed the concert. They come to participate in this concert series as a wonderful way to work with famous performers, as well as to build their resumes.

As we watched them perform their remarkable talent struck us as, but also we saw how scantily the girls dressed. One young woman, in particular, had a dress on with a deep see through netting on the front and sides, making it obvious that was all she was wearing. On the way home, we remarked about how immodestly they were dressed. I teasingly commented we were all jealous, as we could no longer dress like this and get away with it.

As I thought about it later, I realized something else. We did dress this way, when we were young. At that time, some fifty years ago, society did not accept it. I remember rolling my skirts up above my knees. I remember wearing miniskirts and I remember wearing a slit skirt that required careful sitting in order not to become an expose. However, I remember something else. The reaction of the adults to my dress was body shaming. I was told I was too big, too fat. I could not wear these clothes, as it was not appropriate for me. I was called immoral and looked at strangely. I was told I had to dress modestly, so I would not “give the wrong message.”

I am grateful we have come away from the body shaming. Sometimes, I wonder about the years I have wasted hating my body, because I could not love it; was not allowed to love it. I think about the waste of time and energy this has been. I remember hearing “you are so fat, no man will ever want you.” I proved my mother right. It took me so many years to realize that if I was to be loved based on my size, then, this was not the person for me. I also remember “friends” echoing my mother’s words “Good thing you are big, otherwise I would never let my boyfriend near you,” or “I do not understand what he sees in you.” Articles in teenage magazines, about how a girl had to lose weight if she expected to catch a man, supported my mother’s attitude, and the attitude of these “friends’”. Conditional love based not on the quality of a person’s soul but the quantity of one’s body.

Yes, perhaps these young performers were flaunting their bodies, but their bodies were strong and young, as was their passion and talent. They were not ashamed of their talent, their passion and not their bodies. It is about time. It strikes me; we were not allowed to be proud of our curves, our full bodies. And in return, we were held back from being fully ourselves, ashamed of our talents and our passions. We compromised. But no more, we come forth at 60 and 70, proud of who we have become and what we have fought for. We pass on to the women who come after us, this hard won knowledge of PROUD TO BE ME.

Attuned

Jay Kendall was kind enough to allow the publication of one of his poems here. He has authored two novels, The Secret Keepers and Flypaper Dreams. I highly recommend both of them.

Jay Kendall
When he plucked a string and it started to sing,
He was pleased and amazed he could play;
Then his thought touched a chord,
And it brought such reward,
That it seemed to turn night into day.
Then he heard a melody calling his name,
And telling him seek and you’ll find,
But he danced for so long,
So entranced by the song,
It was measured in time out of mind.
At the back of his head he could hear all the horns,
As they tooted the tunes that he knew,
Blowing sounds without end,
Till he rounded the bend,
And became all the notes that they blew.