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in the shadow of the valley of death

When I return to the men’s camp site dinner is ready and people are scattered around eating and talking. The conversation drifts over a variety of topics, as it always does in large groups. One man is expounding volubly on the difficulties of negotiating life in prison. He is discussing the conflict that exists between different ethnic groups in jails and goes into some detail about violent incidents and the complexity of avoiding involvement in stabbings.

He pauses suddenly and then, although no-one else is speaking, exclaims, “Stop it! We’re scaring Anna.”

I assure him that if nobody is actually coming at me with a knife then I am not scared.

He falls silent for a short time and then starts questioning one of the volunteers, whose day job is as a policeman – clearly a resilient man – about the use of force during arrests. As the subject of enquiry turns to the potentially fraught one of police brutality and a recent shooting of an unarmed young man on the subway in San Francisco by a transit officer, a volunteer calls the circle to order and hands out hymn sheets. The men sing religious songs and then the circle is opened for each person to speak in turn.

I listen to each man tell his tale. They are all tales of pain; of violence and abuse suffered as children, of lost loves and estranged families, of time spent in jail, of harsh lives lived on the streets. Some men speak with a more practiced ease, clearly programme veterans, while others are more halting, some are garrulous, others speak slowly and painfully – but they all speak of hardship and loss.

Most, however, also mention small acts of kindness – sometimes from total strangers, sometimes from old friends, sometimes from sources as unlikely as their ‘connections’ or parole officers – which were often pivotal moments in their lives.

The desert night is cold and the evening passes slowly. Eventually the time comes when it is my turn to speak and I find that, even here in the desert where everything is exposed, I cannot be as open as these men have been. I sit in silence for a few moments and I wonder what the story of my own life means.

It is all such old bones now but I, too, can tell stories of a violent abusive bullying step-father, a viciously misogynist alcoholic father, an indifferent inept absent mother. I can give an account of being a child in the care of feckless immature adults so self-obsessed and self-centred that the only clear message they can convey to the children in their care is that they are an unwanted and intolerable burden. These are all stories I could easily share in this context but I wonder if I have anything to say that these men don’t already know.

One young man, had sat slouched down in his chair, a bandana covering his face, until his turn came to speak. Then while he was narrating the story of his childhood, he paused and swallowed hard before announcing flatly, “I was molested when I was ten…,” looking darkly inward, as he continued, “…and it affects me still.” What could my own experiences possibly add to this boy’s knowledge of childhood pain and humiliation and its insidious and persistent influence?

And, later, all the self-inflicted woes – a life adrift in the treacherous waters of addiction, the overdoses and suicide attempts, nights spent in emergency wards, arrests, evictions, homelessness, poverty – all this, I don’t doubt, these men are already familiar with. I sit and wonder what it means to have left it behind and I discover that the narrative thread of my own life escapes me. I can’t see the connections. I can’t tell a coherent tale of the pathway between here and there.

In the end, I can only state the barest itinerary of my youth and then simply tell the circle of men that a time came when I had had enough wallowing in despair, when I was done with half-heartedly toying with death, when I realised that I wanted to live. I didn’t have any idea how but I knew, quite suddenly, that that was what I wanted.

When everyone has said their piece and the circle is complete, the man with the beard, officiating, says that he would like the group to lay hands on me and pray. I draw the line, unequivocally, at any laying on of hands but I let them pray for me, if that is what they feel the need to do. I try not to judge their beliefs, even though I don’t share them and I am uncomfortable with such an inflexible, proselytising religion. I hope that they extend the same forbearance to people whose choices, behaviour and beliefs they don’t understand or agree with.

One thing is certain: I have no argument with anyone here that addiction is a spiritual affliction or question the power of love and kindness to alleviate it.

Most of the men pray, on my behalf, for travelling mercies and although I am not exactly sure what it means it sounds quite nice and potentially useful. When the circle breaks, everybody crowds eagerly around me to shake my hand and bid me goodnight before I walk into the darkness towards my own camp half a mile away.

{ 2 } Comments

  1. Lucie | November 27, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    This is a very moving story Anna. I can understand your hesitation to speak openly about everything, especially if there were no other women there (really? was that a coincidence or does it mean the group is strictly male?). On the other hand, complete strangers are usually good partners for an open conversation because you can be almost sure you will never see them again, and they might contribute to your thinking about your life with a point of view you have not yet discovered… Don’t know…
    The pictures of sand dunes earlier were fantastic! So sharp and alive, you an feel the wind that formed them.

  2. anna | November 27, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    I guess, Lucie, that the group is male only but I am not sure. I have wondered if the same organisation runs programmes for women and, if so, what form they take.

    I also wonder if I could have spoken more about my own experiences in a mixed or women only group.

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