The Status Does Not Make the Man


Some of my friends throw the phrase, “check your narratives” as a 155mm artillery shell at their opponents with the hope that it will shut down the debate. It is supposed to be a knockout punch. They mean it to say that the hearers of the phrase should examine their narratives to see where these diverge from the accepted orthodoxy. It is thrown assuming that the target knows what the orthodoxy is and that the target will demurely come into alignment.

These friends don’t like this space. If anything, reader, being asked to check my narratives triggers a screed like the one in my “You ‘Spose To” post. Y’know, paragraph 2, starting at sentence 4 and continuing to the end of paragraph 3? The problem is that there is a lot of recitation of predetermined points spoken like memorized Psalms and not a lot of humble listening. The talking points are assumed to be 7.62mm rounds that will either bludgeon you into silence or get you to cower and acquiesce. If you drink blue Kool-Aid you are supposed to talk the talk and wear the uniform. Ditto drinking red Kool-Aid.

I have narratives that are not helping. For me, a “normal” life is a cis-hetero couple, the man works at a union, white collar job, the mom stays at home, there are kids, they live in a house in an upper-middle class neighborhood, are church going, volunteer at the Rotary or are maybe Masons, and so on. It is what I hold up as a contrast to the follow-my-nose, up & down life I’ve had.

I look at my sister and my brother-in-law and assign them an image of that life, of college educated, upper-white middle class normal. From a few hundred miles distant, barely communicating with them, they seem like the American dream life I alternately envy and mock. My sister graduated from M.I.T. with a degree in math in 4 years. She worked for many years at one of the nation’s leading research labs on pattern recognition and speech recognition software. She has two kids, one graduated from college and one just starting. She and my brother-in-law are still married and own a home in one of the nicer areas near Boston, MA. Her husband is also a graduate of M.I.T., finishing with a Ph.D. there. My sister sings in the choir at a nearby Episcopalian church.

It’s the good life, I guess. For my friends in the Occupy Her Pants cadre, it is the privileged life needing to be checked. It is the life I said I didn’t want almost 40 years ago. With all that is right in their life they should be happy. They are not. I’ll get to why they are not always happy in a bit. I am a graduate of Boaz & Ruth. They are an NGO located in Richmond’s Highland Park. The promise is that Boaz & Ruth has what ails an ex-offender. They offer housing and jobs for their clients. They conduct life skills classes for two hours each morning for the year long program. So, success, right? Lots of happy, employed, housed, off-the-radar graduates of the program, yes. Nope.

The big failing of Boaz and Ruth when I was there was aftercare. Ex-offenders are at greatest risk of re-offending in first 3-5 years after release. Landlords won’t lease to them, employers won’t hire them, their probation and parole officers give them grief for returning to the people, places and things that put them in jeopardy the last time they caught a case. Boaz and Ruth was a one year program that did little to find stable, post-program housing and employment. Far more of my fellow program participants relapsed or reoffended within the 3-5 years of release than made it through to jobs and housing. It’s been almost a decade since I was a client of the program. I hope they are doing better.

Check your narratives, people. I have had an odd life. I am a source of worry for my family. Many like me don’t get it together. They bumble along through the decades, rotating between shelter, jail, transitional housing, the street, rehab, and hospital depending on what befell them lately. They are shunned by many who lost patience and gave up. Some die like Anthony Morrow in their sleep, their last known address a cot in a church social hall. I am one of the rare ones that climbed higher than that. I don’t fit the trope. I’ve won enough to be where I am and it is only half-time.

Us three, my sister, my brother-in-law, and me, are more technicolor, more interesting than the black & white fixed image you (I) have painted over us. My sister and her husband are all that is praiseworthy about their lives. They are also complicated, at times tormented people whose success didn’t protect them from the blues. I’m supposed to be like Tony Morrow but still alive. My story, according to some, rattles down the street serenaded by the wheels of a grocery cart I fished out of a dumpster. To be here, typing this in a warm house, beans simmering on the stove, is against type.

We are too busy pushing our images of what we think people’s lives are to listen to them, to what their lives are. We behave toward them through our own telling of their story rather than through what we can learn by befriending them. A lot can be accomplished simply by shutting up and humbly listening to people. I had a mistaken image of my brother-in-law because I only knew that he had married my sister. I knew bits and pieces of what had filtered through the stories told by my Dad and others. I visited last year and still hadn’t shed my image of him born of my own broken story and little knowledge.

It was this year, as my brother-in-law began to relax around me, that I got a little more of his back story and his pain. It broke my heart a bit. He has much about his life that is praiseworthy. Yet he is bedeviled by anxiety. The devil toys with him like a captured mouse. That the hoard of old togo containers collected in a drawer was not uniform in size and didn’t have enough lids was worth bickering about. I peaked into various corners of the house and found faulty outlets and extension cords run from the good outlets. They can’t use the bathroom to bathe because of a hole in the wall. His house reflects some of his invisible, interior life. He has not escaped the blues just because he can check off many of the items on my “good life” bucket list.

Remarkable things happen when we shut up and listen. Our own loud declamation of the narrative we assign another may just be the reason we have trouble loving and serving. The longer I study, the more I listen, the more I realize how much I don’t know, how much more there is to learn, how much my brother-in-law and sister need prayer.