Dark As A Dungeon

Essential reading, Appalachia. And perhaps everyone else, everywhere, who gets this line: “And I thought about how for years, they’d walked away when they wanted to, when they were through with us; and I thought how gratified I was, at last, to finally see us begin getting in the last word.” #notenough #enough

Cultural Slagheap

Let the record show that Don Blankenship’s last public act in the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse on April 6 2016 was to reveal, openly and for the transcript, how far gone into delusion he’d become over the course of his career.  In his final statement to the court, Blankenship insisted on positioning himself as a man who’d been unfairly accused: “It’s important to me that everyone knows I am not guilty of a crime,” he said, after offering the feeblest and most general condolences to the families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch explosion six years before.  Yet that was precisely and exactly what he was now—a convicted criminal, albeit one convicted of a mere misdemeanor.  And then Judge Irene Berger, herself the daughter of a coal miner, hit Don Blankenship with the maximum allowable prison sentence of one year, and a $250,000 fine.

The court…

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Justice, Waters, and a Benediction

Photo by Shauna Hambrick Jones

Photo by Shauna Hambrick Jones

The end is reconciliation;

The end is redemption;

the end is the creation of the beloved community.

It is this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.

It is this type of goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age

into the exuberant gladness of the new age.

It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts

of humankind.

— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,” 1956

(Thanks to the Congregational Church of Middlebury UCC for the benediction, Sunday, January 19, 2014.)

Outside the Law: Persistent Memories of “The Star Chamber”

“Disgusted with criminals escaping the judicial system via technicalities, an idealistic young judge investigates an alternative method for punishing the guilty.” — IMDB, The Star Chamber, 1983

I saw The Star Chamber a long time ago, but the thing I remember most is being perfectly caught in the moral dilemma from the story’s first minutes. (Michael Douglas is above-average as usual; Hal Holbrook is amazing.)

Have we all not been there on some level?

You are doing what the system tells you is right. You follow the rules of the system, with the presumption that somewhere in all of your effort is justice. That outcome may not be obvious, but you just have to believe that following an agreed upon protocol is better than going rogue and making up your own rules.

It has to be. If it’s not, how are we to live?

If you are not familiar with The Star Chamber plot, you can read a good summary on Wikipedia. A young, idealistic judge who believes two child killers have been released on a legal technicality is recruited into a secret society of judges whose members order hits on criminals who “fall through the cracks” in the system. It is hard not to pull for this illegal but satisfying attempt to make bad men pay for their egregious crimes against humanity. You know from the beginning, however, that there is no way, no matter how much you want it to, that this can ever work.

It’s a classic tale of becoming the very thing you are trying to eradicate.

The writing is on the wall, but I still get drawn into this idea, the idea that we can fight a broken system by refusing to play by its rules. Beyond that refusal, we can create alternative systems that punish the corruption of the others. It all should work as long as no one screws up.

The thing I keep coming back to in these stories, the fictional ones and the ones I live in my own life, is the terrible mistake of believing that human beings can ever be part of something that isn’t flawed. It’s just the way we are. We want to be good, we want justice, we seek the right, but so often we are left bleeding from the shards of an imperfect world no matter how hard we try to fix things. It’s such an ancient understanding it fuels most creation myths, and yet somehow we struggle to accept what we know and have known since human beings started taking a look at ourselves.

There is no end to the debate over government vs. private business when it comes to which system offers the most ethical environment for decision-making. Government and public systems are fraught with rules and regs that often paralyze action and lead to limp results; by the time you schlog through all of the dos and do nots, you almost forget why you wanted to do anything in the first place. Private business can be efficient, but the efficiency can leave gaping holes in thoughtful processes, and cuts the time often needed to review a decision for consequences.

In The Star Chamber, a hit is ordered on presumed killers, only for the judges to learn the men were not in fact responsible for the death that prompted the order. That’s not a problem, they reason. We know they are bad men. They did something. If they are not to die for this crime, they surely deserve to die for other sins.

While my personal ethical lapses may seem minor compared to those in the movie, I know that they often trend around the same kind of thinking. This whole situation is wrong! It’s so messed up. Anything I do to fix some of this mess must be better than living with this broken situation.

Except it never, ever works that way. Ever. Not in the long run.

Prayers today for the family and friends of the slain U.S. Ambassador in Libya.

Prayers for my friend who is in the middle of an election year mess at work.

Prayers for my country as we continue to grieve and seek justice over a decade after the terrorist attacks.

Just….prayers for all of us.

(You can view one of the better movie clips available online here: http://www.artistdirect.com/video/star-chamber/55261)

“And You Know These Bad Men by Sight?”

Harrison Ford’s Witness is one of my all time favorite films. The Wiki entry includes these lines:

Witness was generally well received by critics and earned eight Academy Award nominations (including Weir’s first and Ford’s sole nomination to date).

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film four out of four stars, calling it “first of all, an electrifying and poignant love story. Then it is a movie about the choices we make in life and the choices that other people make for us. Only then is it a thriller—one that Alfred Hitchcock would have been proud to make.” He concluded, “We have lately been getting so many pallid, bloodless little movies—mostly recycled teenage exploitation films made by ambitious young stylists without a thought in their heads—that Witness arrives like a fresh new day. It is a movie about adults, whose lives have dignity and whose choices matter to them. And it is also one hell of a thriller.”

I’ve never been able to shake some scenes, and the clip above is one particular sticky example. It replays in my mind often, and lately every day.

Some critics dismiss Witness as “just another cop movie.” Others praise it for being “devoid of easy moralizing.”

This Sunday morning I am asking myself, what does my country want to be? Is the 21st Century U.S.A.  just another cop movie? Or will we be willing to go deeper?

Wishing you a day of peace and reflection.

Esse-a-Go-Go: The Regret Story

Regret: to think of with a sense of loss.

The above definition is how an online dictionary defines “regret,” but when I think about my own definition and took a quick poll, that doesn’t even come close.

Today’s story is about the one thing to date that I can’t shake as a personal regret. That doesn’t mean don’t I wish I’d done some things differently in the moment, it simply means this event is the only thing that lands squarely in how I define, “regret.”  That said, I honestly wasn’t sure how to define it in words but merely in emotion until I read this from a friend of mine yesterday and realized, that’s it, or as close as I’ve ever been able to come to it.

“A regret is something you did or said when you KNEW you shouldn’t do or say it at the time & you bullheadedly went ahead & did it anyway & have since seen the anguish it caused someone else or yourself. If you really did or said what you believed to be best & it just didn’t turn out well, I don’t think that is regret-worthy.”

This is not a happy story, but it is one that has haunted me for 3 decades. Perhaps ultimately that is my definition of regret, an unabated haunting.


Having regrets is a hobby for some people. I never cease to be amazed by the number of people I know or encounter who want to have lengthy conversations about things they’ve done they wished they hadn’t — or vice versa — and all of the attending angst.  I’d say I saw the greatest lumping together of American women’s most popular woes on a recent Good Housekeeping cover, something along the lines of “Valerie Bertinelli shares her weight struggles, what she learned from her failed marriage, and her biggest regret.”

How uplifting.

Suffice it to say, I am done with guilt and regret. I actually gave up guilt as a practice many years ago, and have never looked back. It became obviously self-important, neurotic, and useless. It simply had to go.

Regret has been a harder nut to crack. If I am honest, I do have a handful of things I wish I’d done differently in my life, but when push comes to shove I can’t say I would really want things to be other than what they are now. There is only one thing, one thing only that I truly regret.  I’ve only ever told my husband this story, and now I’m going to unburden myself to you, dear reader. My hope is that by telling this story I might make things different for someone else.  It is much too late to make things different for Alice.

Alice was a beautiful young girl at Camp Virgil Tate where I was a counselor for 4-H Kanawha County Camp one summer in the mid-1980s.  She and her brother were both campers that week, and even back then I recognized in them a fragility under their good looks and strong sibling bond.  Knowing what I know now about what so many kids experience growing up, I shudder to think what they might have left at home to come to county camp.

Alice’s demeanor was one of someone who had been beaten and psychologically abused. Because I was not much older than she was, and because at that point in my own life I had never encountered such a terrible reality, I didn’t understand her behavior. She was needy, and shy, and desperately wanted to be liked, but she did weird things. She clung to her brother when other kids wanted her to socialize with them, and though she was in her early teens (I think), she carried a baby doll everywhere she went. She slept with the doll, changed the doll’s clothes, even introduced the doll as her friend.

I was in charge of the cabin where Alice and a group of other girls were housed for a week that June. I knew the other girls were snickering about Alice’s insecurity and rolling their eyes over the baby doll, but I didn’t think there was trouble brewing.

I was wrong.

One morning I heard peals of laughter coming from the community bathroom.  “Come in here, Elizabeth, you have to see this. Oh my God, this is hilarious!”  A lot of pranks at camp were funny and good-natured, in fact I would say all of the ones I ever saw were that way, with the exception of this one.

I can still see it. My heart is pounding right now as I write this, and I feel sick to my stomach.

I walked into to bathroom to see Alice standing alone, crying, with a circle of girls around her laughing. She was trying to reach something, and the others would not help her. The others had hanged her baby doll naked from a shower curtain. Hanged as in noose around her neck, hanged. They tortured and killed the only friend Alice had at camp with the exception of her brother, and then they laughed in her face as she cried for help.

I remember being frozen. It was one of those terrible moments when your mind and your body refuse to connect. It felt like an eternity before I could move or speak. I told everyone but Alice to get out. I reached up to save the doll, and then put it in her arms. I think I told her I was sorry that  happened, but I don’t know that I did. My memory is that I wanted the whole thing to go away as quickly as possible.

I believe the one safe place that child had that summer was violated, and that I could have done more to prevent it from happening. I could have done more to reprimand the girls who did this awful thing. I could have done more to comfort Alice, but I didn’t. I moved on. I wanted it to never have happened, and I acted like it never did.

Without going into the weeds, I’m a middle-aged person, and I’ve dropped the ball a few times in my life. I don’t care who you are, if you live long enough and are honest with yourself, you know you’ve done or not done things that might count as regrets. After all these years, the way I failed Alice is the only thing I define as a regret in my life. Because that bar is so high — or low — I have never been able to define anything else as a regret.

I knew she needed a friend, someone who would do more than just take the doll down. I knew those other girls needed to be held accountable for what they did. I analyze this now because when I read about all of the bullying episodes nationwide, there is this same theme. Others are there, others are aware, but they do not get involved at any meaningful level. Why? My experience suggests that one reason may be that when you actually witness this kind of psychological violence against another person, it is truly frightening. I think if you have never seen it in action, it is hard to understand its power. It isolates and harms the direct victim, and it paralyzes the witness (often) with a cloud of desperation to make it stop. Talking about it seems to keep it alive.

Of course that’s just how it seems. How it is is that not talking about it keeps it alive. It would be convenient to say, “I know that now,” but I knew that then. I didn’t do what I should have done, and what I knew was required.

I don’t know why this event out of hundreds of life events haunts me the way it does. If there is an afterlife, my vision is that I will encounter a healed and whole Alice, and that she will forgive me.

Image credit: Daniel Ware

Collusion & Confusion: The “Loyalty” Crisis at Penn State

  1. a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes; conspiracy.
  2. Law. a secret understanding between two or more persons to gain something illegally, to defraud another of his or her rights, or to appear as adversaries through an agreement.

I once had dinner with a counselor who worked for a nonprofit organization that supports victims of domestic violence.  One of her programs involved recruiting men who did not have a history of DV to meet with and counsel men who had been identified as abusers.  I am fortunate to know a lot of quality guys who (I thought) would be great in this role, and I mentioned I would like to make some referrals.

Her words were slow and measured, and I can’t forget them.

“It’s not as easy as finding great guys.  It is a very complex dynamic when men talk, and it takes an unusual person to avoid colluding with the abuser.”

This was years ago, and I still don’t think I’m over it.  I was instantly very upset and even angry and defensive internally when I heard her words.  These were my best guys, my husband, my brother-in-law, lifelong friends I was bringing her and she thought they had the potential to collude with these horrible, abusive, violent criminals?  I was offended, and though I never said anything but, “Thank you, I’ll think about that,” I did not pursue getting involved with the program.

In my heart I know the real reason I was upset by her words, and that is because I knew instantly that they were true.

All of us have the potential to become lost when we get involved with very layered and complicated relationships.  This is because it can be overwhelming, and seems instantly easier in a tough spot to just deal with a small moment in time.

I’m counseling this guy, and he just said “Sometimes my wife just gets so mouthy it wears me out, you know?  She won’t do anything I tell her, I just lose it, I smack her around to make her be quiet.  You’ve been there, right, man?”  And I say, “Right man, I know.  Marriage is tough.”  Because I’m thinking, what do I say? Maybe I can help him by relating, by gaining his trust……

And as easy as that, you are IN.  I’ve seen it a thousand times, both men and women, people not wanting to ignite or exacerbate an already volatile situation and you just think, I’ll get past this and then we will figure it out.  I’ve done it, and I bet you have, too.

Sometimes, maybe it’s the only way, and I know we all do the best we can with what we have where we are.  But this very sad and disappointing scandal at Penn State is a reminder that even good guys, the best guys, can get lost without a road map with a very simple set of directions, and from which you never — ever — deviate.

When someone commits a violent crime against another person, there cannot be time to buy and layers to work through before we take action.  That action must result in the perpetrator being confronted and held accountable by law enforcement.  Too often we seem to think that our calling the police is what gets a person in trouble, and of course that’s crazy.  When you punch your spouse in the face, or when you engage a child in a sex act (either with or without their implied consent) you are in trouble of your own making.

We can’t rely on the minimum required by institutional procedures and policies.

Decide with me today that you will call the police when you have knowledge of a crime against another person, and especially against a child.  Don’t ask questions, and don’t wait.  Decide with me today that loyalty to a just and peaceful society that protects children is the only “winning team” you care to be on.

(Here is the most haunting article on this situation I have read to date: http://www.cbssports.com/mcc/blogs/entry/5881996/33197750)

Waking Up with a Stranger

John Henry Fuseli The Nightmare

Immediate disclaimer:  I’ve never literally woken up with a stranger.  Not my style.

But I am pretty sure I know what it would feel like, which again goes to why I’ve never allowed it to happen.  This week I had the bizarre feeling it had happened, but not in any way I saw coming.

Perusing a social media site, I found a comment by an acquaintance about the Occupy Wall Street protesters.  Her comment boiled down to, “Get a life, get a job, and stop irritating those of us who are trying to spend our hard-earned money on vacation.”  Discovering this comment was like opening a door into a lot of similar feelings expressed by people who I assume are decent human beings.  Some people who see the protesters this way are even my friends and family members.  It was like rolling over all warm and sleepy and realizing that head on the pillow was not any one I recognized.

This is bigger for me than individuals.  Everyone has a bad day, or says a dumb thing, or just needs to blow off steam sometimes.  If we all isolated ourselves from everyone who makes a frustrated comment we don’t agree with on Facebook or Twitter, we wouldn’t have much of a network.

The Stranger, it turns out, is the social mood, priorities, and values of my own country.

I have a three-year-old child, and am only just now emerging from what a friend calls, “The Baby Tunnel.”  The tunnel is  a place you enter about the time you realize you are pregnant, and you only go deeper, darker, and quieter for about 4 years after that.  Eventually, you see the light and begin to re-emerge, but the world and the people in it have changed while you were away.  I was born in 1968, and when I was in college I relentlessly quizzed my mother about Vietnam, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and The Beatles.  “What was it like?  Did you love them?  Did you march?  Who said what?  Did you go?  Were you scared?”

For years her answer was the same:  “Sigh.  Honey, I don’t know.  You had just been born.  I wasn’t paying attention to anything else.”

How is this possible?

Well, now I know.  And a deep description of The Baby Tunnel is more the purview of a true mommy blogger, so I’ll not go there.  But it is a real place, The Tunnel, and it can distance you from important cultural shifts.

Somewhere in the past 4 years, we lost a core shared vision as a nation.  Clearly, the roots of the loss go back much further than 4 years, but my experience indicates that the cement on this really started hardening between 2007-2011.

There seems to be an honest-to-God belief system that having a job is a reflection of a moral or ethical state.  Being employed is now a character trait.  But it’s weirder than that, it’s not enough to be employed.  It’s not even enough to have more than one job.  If that job or jobs does not pay enough to feed your family, then YOU are a failure.  YOU are at fault.  And if you feel differently, then YOU do not have the right to express those thoughts and beliefs because, well, YOU are the problem.  The problem is not allowed to speak.

Get a life, get a job, get out of my way.

No one wants to be on the outside.  It’s cold out there, and the kids are hungry.  It is not a complicated mystery that more and more people are growing anxious about how close they are to the edge.

But what is mysterious to me is the glaring refusal to acknowledge that the crumbling social architecture is not the fault of those most at-risk.  The closest thing I can piece together as logic is that if you are a guilty party — if you are part of the industry or power structure that has benefited from that which has hurt so many — you are pretty anxious yourself.  I keep seeing the prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he reads his own cross-stitched wall hanging:  “His judgement cometh, and that right soon.”

Those on the edge want an assured place inside.  If you want to be inside, you listen to those who already are.  They are the ones who, allegedly, allow you to stay safe.  If you are guilty, you want as many on your side as you can get.  You tell those who are trying to stay inside that those outside are wrong, evil, The Problem.  Don’t listen to those people, they just want to drag you down.  We want to keep you safe.  THEY are why everything is a mess.

I don’t feel good about waking up with whoever this is.  He needs to get his pants on and get the hell out of my house.  No pancakes, no coffee, no early movie.  Get gone.

Now, those faces in Occupy, for better or worse, they are familiar.  You folks, come on in.  I’ve got a pull out couch.