It has been a hard week. Early Easter morning my uncle died. At almost 90, his death was not a tragedy; but we will miss him deeply. And then came news of the death of a friend’s teen aged son. This one was much harder to take in and accept. In this season of rebirth and resurrection, I am reminded that there is still suffering and death.
So I decided to look for signs of hope, small instances of rebirth and resurrection taking place at the prison where I volunteer.
At first it was not promising. There are few flowers, although even there the trees still bud. The office where I spend most of my time was cold. The windows do not open, and in the winter it is sauna-like, as the heat cannot be regulated. But mid-April is the time for the heat to be turned off. So with no heat, the room was cold, and I was glad that I had brought a warm wool shawl with me. Perhaps my impulse to bring warmth with me was the first sign.
The first woman I saw told me of her own impulse that morning to walk beside a friend who was feeling vulnerable and at risk. With surprise she described other friends joining them, so that the woman at the center could feel safe. None of this was requested or planned. It was a spontaneous demonstration of support, of community. Definitely a sign.
I have been meeting regularly with an inmate, let’s call him Sam, who has started transitioning from the female identity, with which he was born, to the male identity, which has been his inner reality since early childhood. His most recent journey is a reminder that New York State’s policy of support for transgender inmates is itself a resurrection of compassion. Sam has been getting hormone shots for a little while now; and this week, in some way I could not define, he has begun to look more male, particularly when he speaks seriously and furrows his brow. He has not yet reached the moment, described by one of his friends, of suddenly recognizing, “I feel like me! I feel like the real me – for the first time in my life!” But for Sam, each day is a moment of rebirth, of new birth, into a self in which he feels whole and at peace. More good signs.
In the afternoon, in a bible study class, we talk about where death and resurrection are occurring in our own lives. And we reflect on a poem by W. H. Auden:
We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
The women discuss the illusions that they must allow to die in order to be reborn into the new lives they long for: that I can drink for fun without consequence; that getting high will make the pain of a lover’s suicide – and all the other pains – go away; that my worth is shown by beautiful, expensive clothes and a lovely apartment; that being controlled and even beaten by my partner is a sign of his love; and the most universal, and most deadly – that I am pretty worthless and have little to offer the world.
The recognition, the naming, of these illusions are the first steps in their death. The movements toward resurrection in that group do not make me miss my uncle less; nor do they bring back my friend’s son. But they are evidence that God is still at work, that this season does contain rebirth as well as death, and that hope and the possibility of joy do surround us.
May it be so.
Dorothy Muller is a Chaplain at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and a Parish Associate at Bedford Presbyterian Church.