Ten days ago I got news that I didn’t feel ready to process until today. A young man I’ve known since he was a teenager was shot in Florida. I’ve come to dread phone calls at any time of day, most especially those that come late in the night. I’ve struggled to find the perfect ringtone to allay my anxiety. I’ve been unsuccessful.
So when my phone rang a few days ago and I saw that it was past midnight and that I didn’t recognize the number, I steeled myself for bad news. I answered with trepidation. It was the young man’s cousin and he said that Julian (not his real name) was shot while sitting in a parked car. It was a case of mistaken identity. After an uncertain prognosis, he recovered after surgery. A couple of days ago, I finally had a chance to hear his voice which was a relief.
I wrote about Julian a few years ago in this post:
I wanted to relay a story about a young man who I have been working with for the past few months. He has been struggling greatly since his release from prison in March of this year. He is ill-equipped for “life on the outside” as he likes to say. He is easily angered and raises his voice to make mundane points. Any suggestion is perceived as a criticism and a slight. His favorite word to use is “respect” and yet he has a difficult time showing any for others. I am not telling tales out of school since everything that I am writing about him, I have also expressed directly to him (more than once).
The Prisoner by Werner Drewes, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about integrity and grit from Julian. He chides me for being “too nice” and he worries that I’m going to get “run over” by people. I remind him that I am a grown woman in my 40s while he’s barely out of his teens. I can and do take care of myself. He says that he’s already lived two lifetimes. I don’t argue because I know something about the trials and struggles that he’s had to face and to try to overcome.
I’ve been reflecting lately on the young people who live in the world, unmoored. The ones who seem to be passing through and don’t have any expectations of staying for long. I’ve been thinking about the young people who resist ‘counseling’ because they know that their thoughts and behaviors are rational within the context of their worlds. Julian is one of the unmooored. And if I’m honest, I hold my breath for him every day, afraid that to exhale means he might disappear.
What do you do with a young person who resists the inspirational script of overcoming all adversity? What do you do with a young person who never had any bootstraps and won’t pretend that any amount of work on his part will provide them? What do you do?
We rode on the EL together once and Julian spoke with a booming voice throughout the trip. I asked him to lower his voice. He looked at me for a moment and kept loud-talking. I was embarrassed at his display and felt disrespected that he ignored my request. As soon as we got off the EL, his voice returned to its normal decibel level. Once I got over my anger, I asked why he spoke so loudly on the train. His response: “I want them uncomfortable and they need to know that I was here.” My anger dissipated and I’ve never forgotten his words. They are seared in my mind: “they need to know that I was here.” We’ve never spoken of what it’s like to feel “not here.” I don’t know how to broach the topic.
Julian is verbally gifted and I badgered him to write something that I could post here. He’s always resisted. When I asked him a few years ago what he might share with readers of this blog he answered succinctly: “Tell them that I am a human being.” He also shared a poem that he said best described his prison experience.
Julian is a human being who is passing through while contending with “not hereness.” He’s alive right now, lying in the hospital recovering. He’s alive and passing through. I am struggling to understand what this means for him and for me. I think back to a few lines of Julian’s favorite poem by M.A. Church that he says best captures his prison experience.
You ask what it’s like here
but there are no words for it.
I answer difficult, painful, that men
die hearing their own voices. That answer
isn’t right though and I tell you now
that prison is a room
where a man waits with his nerves
drawn tight as barbed wire, an afternoon
that continues for months, that rises
around his legs like water
until the man is insane
and thinks the afternoon is a lake:
blue water, whitecaps, an island
where he lies under pale sunlight, one
red gardenia growing from his hand –
After surviving that kind of an experience, it’s understandable that one would want to take up space in the “free” world, to ‘be here,’ and to remind others of our humanity. But I fear that the “free” world has no concern for those who return from this unspeakable place. So I’m still holding my breath for Julian, afraid that to exhale means he’ll disappear…