Living on a Prayer

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In my last post, I wrote about losing my faith. But if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t lose it. I turned away from it. Because following it had led me into more pain than I wanted to bear. Perhaps more pain than I felt was mine to bear (which sounds like privilege/entitlement when I think about it).

Before I ever set foot in a prison, I asked Spirit for something that now feels like a pretty crazy thing to do. I said,

I turn my life over to you. Lead me where I can be of the most help in healing the world.

This vow, and my general relationship with Spirit and wanting to be led, isn’t something I talk about very much. I’ve always felt afraid to share my faith. I grew up in a very atheistic household, and any nascent spiritual leanings were ridiculed.

But beyond that, while many people talk about Spirit, few really seem to want to surrender completely and be led into the unknown. And looking back, knowing what happened next, it feels pretty reckless. But it also feels like the only relationship with Spirit that makes sense in my heart.

I had also asked, separately, to find love again.

My life completely changed over the course of a year.

After a chance meeting with the leader of the Oregon Prison Project, I started volunteering in prison. I met my eventual husband, and became immersed in the reality of prison. I went from being solidly in the woo-woo Portlandia bubble to living in Salem, visiting my husband in prison several times  a week.

I quickly became completely overwhelmed by the pain of loving someone in prison.

Overwhelmed doesn’t really cover it. I was drowning. I was underwater and I could barely see the light from the sun above. I have written about the pain and alienation of being a prison wife, but I was also experiencing the pain of losing my bubble. It wasn’t just the fact that my needs for community and connection were met far more easily in Portland. It was the ability to believe that everything was basically OK in the world, because it was OK in my world.

When I dove off the cliff into this prison-wife life, I dove into a sea of suffering.

The amount of injustice and pointless cruelty is so vast that it’s hard to explain it. I don’t have the words to say how much wrong there is, and how invisible this suffering is to most people. The gap between most people’s understanding of prison and the understanding of people who experience it feels like a vast chasm, and the disconnect can be jarring.

For example, I was a bit bewildered about how strong the objection was to Trump’s policy of separating kids from their parents at the border. There were interviews with child psychologists on TV talking about the traumatizing effects on kids, and how some kids will never be the same.

But this is just how prison works. All kids get separated from their parents. It happens every day, all over the country, and those kids are never the same either. I see them in the visiting room, growing from toddlers to teenagers, their faces gradually hardening over the years. Their pain has nowhere to go. There is no monster to fight; they must just learn to endure an ongoing trauma.

It’s heart-wrenching. But it’s also just normal here. And there are no protests, no marches, no signs, no outcry. There is nothing but the grinding pain and the impossibility of it changing.

The family of every inmate is also punished, having done nothing wrong.

The idea of putting someone in prison is always seen as a punishment of the person imprisoned. It is never framed as a punishment for the spouse or children or other family or friends or the community the person was taken from.

It seems like everyone in prison is thought of as having no family. But of course they do.

I believe this is because our culture fundamentally does not value connection, or even see it as a real thing that can be lost. It is not counted as a cost, because it is not quantifiable. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

Most prisoners will tell you that losing their family was far worse than losing their freedom. To change our system, we must treat loss of connection as a real, tangible cost of incarceration.

I’ve been doing this for 5 years. I have learned to endure.

In that time, I’ve grown more resilient. I’ve gotten used to things I never thought I could handle, like him going to solitary for three weeks and losing our contact visits and having to visit behind glass for 6 months. Somehow I can endure having very little physical contact with anyone for months on end. Somehow I can endure only being able to see him for two hours a week.

I can endure. And that is all prison is. It’s enduring pain you cannot change. And I know how to do that. Everyone in prison learns how to do that.

But what good does that do? Why on Earth would we build such a horrible system? Why would humans come up with this, and let it get so bad, so disconnected from life, so dehumanized and rigid? At the core, this is a tragedy. This is a pointless loss of human life, love, joy, meaning, potential…all the things that get sucked out of you when your primary connections are not honored or supported.

This is a pain that has no name.

There are prison wives all over the country suffering the same pointless punishment. There are millions of kids growing up with a parent that is perpetually just out of reach. These people do not have a voice. Their anguish is not seen as a consequence of prison. There is no ribbon for families of prisoners. It is a pain we just silently endure.

I did not want to feel this. I did not want to go through such a thing. Nobody should have to feel this.

My faith led me here, to more pain than I wanted. So I said no, I’m not listening to you. I know I asked for this, but…I just can’t accept it. Some part of me is just angry. Writing it out, it feels a bit childish. But I have to be where I’m at.

I know that a huge part of why healing the world does not happen is because those with the resources to do it have no clue what’s really happening. So it makes perfect sense for this to be the answer to my prayer. But for fuck’s sake, really?

I think about Jesus in the garden, saying, “Thy will be done”.

I’m not a Christian, and I wasn’t raised as one, but some stories resonate no matter what shape your faith takes. Surrender means accepting any outcome. With gratitude. I know this. I’m just not quite there yet.

This isn’t the first time I’ve lost my faith when my life felt too painful. But a better phrasing would be that I rejected my relationship with Spirit. Spirit does not go anywhere, so if you don’t feel the connection, it’s you that left.

At rest, when I’m not resisting, I can feel this connection in my body, flowing through my cells, connecting me to the movements of the stars. It’s strong, and it’s simple, when I’m not blocking it. In the end, my resistance always coalesces into the same question: “Why does life have to be so painful?”.

But there is no answer to that question besides, “Because humans made it that way”.

If your family is free, hold them close tonight. Be grateful. And make a prayer for all those who are kept apart from the people they love and simply must endure it, until humans collectively decide to stop treating people this way.

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Hi there! I’m Emma and I write about self-liberation. My writing is meant to share my process & inspire your own. If you want more frequent/current writing, visit my Substack Sparkly Dark, where I’m unpacking my neurodivergence.

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Also! I’m also looking to start a community of people looking to build authentic connnections & grow together.

Thanks so much for reading! ~Emma

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  1. I am in tears as I read this. I am grateful for your amazing honesty and articulation of this. My best friend was murdered 13 years ago. The young man who shot her is serving a life sentence in prison. I went once with my friendks mother to a support group meeting of parents of murdered children. I felt sick to my stomach because their entire focus seemed to be on seeking justice by obtaining harsher prison sentences as a way to finally heal. I knew in my heart that ensuring someone else’s suffering would not ease mine. Sometimes I wonder about going and visiting him… I heard a story on NPR about a woman who went to jail and visited the person who killed her son and they developed a relationship and became very close. Both of their lives were transformed in amazing ways. It doesn’t take away the pain but it does allow the miracle that is possible in any situation to unfold. I heard of a practice done in another culture where the community literally surrounds the person who committed a crime and affirms all of their true qualities until they are able to heal and redeem themselves. The prison system isolates and shames the person who commits the crime and this shame extends to their families. Shame is the biggest barrier to healing. For this reason, I’m really grateful to you for sharing your personal story, your courage and vulnerability. You have opened some places in me that have been closed for a while. I pray for a miracle for you and your husband. I feel so sad for all of the people behind bars and the families that suffer. Sadly, several of my 11-year-old son’s friends and classmates have a father or mother in jail. Please, if you have ideas for how we can all work together to change this destructive system, share. For now, I believe how we treat ourselves and others is an important first step. Compassion and empathy is the way forward.

    1. Thanks for reaching out. If you google “restorative justice” or “transformative justice”, you’ll find people working on this. There are a lot of victims that also prefer a restorative approach, but that’s not widely known because punishment is just taken for granted in our society as the only fair or just option.

      There is also a great program called Houses of Healing that might interest you if you ever wanted to volunteer in prison. I think getting first-hand experience is the best way to understand the system. There are also probably local groups wherever you are if you search for them.

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