By Ben Hall
October 22, 2010
I met my second cousin Jackie yesterday for the first time. The last time I saw her in a picture she was just a small child. We have been writing for a while. Jackie feels comfortable sharing her life with me she says, she knows I will not judge her. They pull me from a writing workshop in the chapel and the visit is unexpected. I am a little disappointed to leave the workshop but excited when I find out its Jackie. As I enter the visiting room I see a slender auburn haired girl sitting with her back to me. I approach knowing it’s Jackie and I’m reminded of the array of emotions I’ve felt over years for Jackie and her sisters without even meeting them.
I think about Collin serving his 20-year sentence for the years of torment he put Jackie and her sisters through. When Jackie was big enough she fought back, so Collin had his friend hold her down. What was wrong with this guy who couldn’t even admit what he did and had no remorse. I am one who believes in forgiveness, but it’s hard! Every day Collin gets to get out of bed when really maybe someone should have just put a bullet through your head. But I don’t want to think about you right now Collin.
Jackie looks up and gives me a nervous smile as we shake hands. Its always a little uncomfortable in person for the first time, especially inside a prison. Jackie is tall, beautiful, and only 21 years old. We talk like old friends cut from the same fabric of life, exchanging family war stories and laughing about our aunt’s mannerisms.
We take two photos together, one for each of us to keep. I am so happy to meet her, but my heart begins to feel heavy as she speaks of the “brothers,” referring to an outlaw motorcycle club she runs around with. Lifting her shirt, she shows me a tattoo I’ve seen on countless other convicts; it is a pistol on her waistband, the way gangsters do. My heart is broken as I leave the visit because I see what she cannot: the end result of a lifestyle that takes your beauty and sucks dry your vitality, leaving you betrayed and alone.
But I’m not going to be pushy. I simply tell her, don’t let anyone abuse you cousin, that she is family and always has a place with me. We hug and she tell me she will come again. On my way back to my block, I push my anger for Collin down and one thing I know for sure, come what may for Jackie, I’ll pray for her and I will be there if I can.
By Ben Hall
May 15, 2015
She must have been 8 or 9 in the picture sitting on carpeted steps the color of purple next to her mother with her little sister Britney and her grandma Her smile held the minutest traces of joy and pillars of a fragile hope for a future uncertain. Reunited with her mother recently from foster care she looked so happy and hopeful. She could never have known the horrors and cruelty that would hammer her in life. She searched for lovers who continued to tear down those poorly reconstructed and frail pillars of hope that lacked foundations. She and I felt a kinship because the world told us we had no voice and that we mattered less. I wrote about meeting her for the first time, eerily prophetic of her fate and my fear of the new lovers she had chosen who armored her skin with skulls, smoking guns, and “Property of” and “Joker birch” further encasing her heart with chain mail. Lovers of the “wrong sort” and those who live outside the borders of society, many would say. She warred with demons perhaps none of us could imagine. Those who have a prominent voice never spoke for her, they had names for her, names like whore, drug addict, criminal, outcast and rebellious. Those of us who knew her best called her lost, daughter, sister, and cousin. We called her loved. Those of us who have no voice speak the loudest for her. We called her child, and I called her friend and family from the moment I met her, up until May 9, 2014, when the Salem police murdered her by putting a bullet in her head and chest, silencing the already voiceless voice after just 25 years of life.
Those lovers of the “wrong sort” paid for Jackie’s memorial and showed up with some many motorcyclists it looked like funeral procession for a four-star general. They loved her. Jackie was loyal and kind. She once entered an oil wrestling contest and won so she could pay for a brother’s prosthetic leg after he lost it in a wreck, and her picture hands on the wall of the Gypsy Joker club house: one of the only two women there with the fallen since 1969.
Her search for lovers has ended as the Lover of her soul, who made her, welcomed her into heaven laying an eternal bedrock beneath the pillars of that childhood smile, never again to be demolished. Her name was Jackie, she was my family an I loved her. I love her still and she mattered. Will you speak for her?
Congratulations to Paul H. Grice, III, who graduated yesterday from Liberation Literacy and was awarded the Huey P. Newton Recruitment Award. Paul will help lead our outside reading group, which launches June 4th at the Mercy Corps Reentry Transition Center (RTC) on 1818 NE MLK, Jr. Boulevard!
By Ben Hall
Oh how I’ve longed to reach you, to give you clarity, but I’ve always been up too close to see clearly. The winds of time have pushed bitter cold carrying one hurt to follow, as another has ended. The side of my hair now spottily blending to gray as if the smoldering holes, my knees ache when I run and the years have started to corrode gray and brown crimson. I remember your bright blond hair and blue eyes, running care free from the fountain at Disney Land. I want to talk some sense in you and somehow imprint my experience on your young heart.
The storms of change can be sweet but so frigid. Please listen to your mother, obey the tender words that speak to you in the violent moments, express sadness in your heart. Look on your father with hope. I long to somehow promise you that the bottle of whiskey will not always be hidden behind that pillow on the couch, that the harsh words hitting you like bullets are simply the demon in the rusty liquid and it will not defeat you. I want to tell you that your father loves you and he is a good man. Don’t run out into 39th until the light turns green, when you eat all the strawberries under the cover of darkness by the light of the refrigerator, don’t wipe the scarlet evidence on your underwear, and don’t keep your eyes open when you kiss Tina for the first time.
Please look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are of value and worth, take courage that your weighty pain has purpose, the wounds will heal and not just you, but those you encounter. Remember that your own momentary pleasure is not worth the carnage of those who love you.
I would tell you don’t get into those cars with Jay and Dominic, or with Bones, but I know you will not listen and if you don’t get into those cars you’ll be robbed of a lifetime of friends who are family and that your scars will turn to stars. Remember you have purpose.
Finally, love your Momma now, cherish every moment. Those moments are life. Tell your Dad you love him and need him and remember everyone has a context of value. I have learned to love you and I’m sorry it took me so long. And remember to celebrate every moment you have with gratitude, because those moments slip away so fast.
My poem touches and caresses the paper
Words interlace and blaze on the sheet
Silent tears of ink,
bleeding emotion, soundless screams
I speak the words trembling, in fear’s face.
Their quintessence travel the breeze in a whisper of sound,
with rhythm, passion and metaphorically masked famine.
Speaking of where I’ve been, where I am stuck
and where I long to go but cannot.
Does the gaining impetus carry my cries to your ears?
Or will I again be cursed for this thirst?
Can you taste the salty mist on your tongue,
as my tears bend beneath the weight of the breeze?
Pulled in trickling sideways streams from the sea of my heart.
Can you hear what they say?
Screaming for someone to see past my worst act.
If you would only touch me with a hand of kindness!
And see my humanity.
Then, my heart would become a healing rainmaker,
released through my fingertips
and spoken through my lips.