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Prisons, Flood and Cancer

Jul 25, 2011

C.S. Lewis wrote, “We read to know we’re not alone.” So we all need to do more reading. Or we could put the books down and reach out to neighbors trapped in their various prisons.

One day this summer, I visited the Federal Prison at Yankton to speak to inmates about writing and publishing. That same afternoon, I learned that one of our best friends was diagnosed with a serious cancer.

Later, at the office, I asked a co-worker who has survived cancer, “What’s it going to be like for her?”

“She’ll feel all alone at times, no matter what people do to help, because it’s something you have to ultimately face alone,” said my co-worker. “She’ll walk down the street and feel sort of disconnected from everyone else as they go about their daily routine, smiling and laughing.”

That same week, I also traveled up and down the Missouri River, meeting with victims of the historic 2011 flood. By coincidence, one landowner used the same street analogy as he explained his predicament. “You walk down the street and you think, ‘these people have no idea I might be losing my house and farm. They have no idea what we’re going through.’”

I’ve spoken to classes at the Yankton prison for a number of years, and on every trip I leave with somewhat the same message that the flooded farmer and the cancer survivor expressed. Prisoners are crammed on a campus or cell-block with hundreds of other inmates as well as guards and staff, and yet there is a palpable atmosphere of aloneness, despite the hail-fellow camaraderie.

As the summer wore on, friends and total strangers came to help the flooded homeowners and farmers — including state and federal prison inmates who filled thousands of sandbags in June.

Hutterites, who live on communal farms in South Dakota, came to help neighbors they’d never met. Just when one particular fellow was feeling overwhelmed by the flood, some large four-door pickup trucks came and parked on the nearest dry spot, and then, “eight large men got out of each pickup ….” He was referring to the arrival of the Hutterites.

The flooded fellow was also overwhelmed with the assistance and generosity of Native Americans who lived in his area. He hadn’t met most them, even though he grew up in the same small county. They showed up in droves, working and sweating alongside the Hutterites and the white farmers to save a stranger’s property.

A few days later, the homeowner was refueling his vehicle at a local gas stop when he saw a Native American coming out of the store with a twelve-pack. “I thought, man, I’m fighting for my life and this guy has nothing better to do than drink beer,” he admits to thinking.

He was surprised when the Native American stopped by his pickup and asked how the battle was going with the river.

         “Do you know where I live?” asked the surprised homeowner.

         “Yes, I was out there helping yesterday,” said the Native American.

Prison. Cancer. Floods. Droughts. Fires. Poverty. Alcoholism. Mental illness. There are a hundred types of prison cells. We are on solo paths, but perhaps we’re seldom as alone as we feel.


06:51 am - Tue, July 26 2011
historyrules said:
What beautiful attention to the lives of those around us. That we could all see with such eyes.
10:12 am - Tue, July 26 2011
farmer's wife said:
what a great observation Bernie..... loved it.
11:41 am - Tue, July 26 2011
Inez L. Harris said:
First of glad to see ou back on this page.
What a provocative accounting of LIFE. Thank you for giving me time
to pause and pray for all of those who bear these kind of burdens. Inez

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