Saturday, November 19, 2016

2016, the year I went to prison

I have to wonder what he ordered at Applebee’s the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. Was it the Fiesta Lime Chicken, whose name invokes a celebratory tone appropriate for the $364.25 purchase of new shoes? Or the Three-Cheese Chicken Cavatappi, with Crunchy Onion Rings to start: heavy, dense comfort food to soothe and bury any guilt that may come with the use of someone else’s credit card, right before she awakened in another time zone and dressed in black.

Wondering. Standing witness at events I can't control. Sadness, grief, humor; you can see my year reflected in that story of fraud, which, by the way, happened twice in 2016--on a card that was difficult to get, thanks to my new financial status.

The year began with all the things breaking.

Smoke filled the January morning I was to start a new job. My older son, having offered to start my tea, chose to place the electric teapot on the stove. I descended the staircase to a cloudy room. Have you seen my open floor plan with the high ceilings? I couldn't, for the smoke. That same stove would decide to flash sparks through the air, just a day after the light fixture fell from the ceiling below. And the sinks refused to drain, and the pipes wanted to drip, and the toilet demanded to be replaced. I chose the "comfort-height" model, upon learning that comfort was something you could buy.

The new job would end in the emergency room. Maybe it was an Aston Martin the man decided to run beneath our employee break room, and maybe he was polishing its sleek curves when he forgot to flip the ventilation switch to ON. The new job would end with me standing mid-store, attempting to cross the room but unable to figure out how to use my legs. Carbon monoxide poisoning, if it doesn't kill you, is a funny thing: I was somewhere deep inside that standing person, knowing that by all appearances I looked ridiculous but was unable to explain myself. Or move. Once I could maneuver my legs and make it to my destination, I cried and held my head in my hands. So carbon monoxide poisoning, I now see, is a lot like divorce, which also happened this year.

Do not have a knife in your purse when visiting the courthouse to file divorce papers. Security looks at you, a seemingly sane middle-aged woman, quizzically, and you give them that look in return, because you've forgotten about the knife. And then they pull you out of line and say, "You can have this back when you leave."

The divorce became legal in the same ten-day period as my root canal. Never had I required as much dental work as I did during that time, including a week or so before. I had scheduled all of these appointments to occur before the court date, to make full use of my soon-to-end insurance benefits, but then was accidentally taken off of the policy by someone who thought the divorce was final, only to face some very large bills.

And then there were the two months when I had no health insurance. I didn't talk about this.

And the month when I thought I would exercise at home, having left my gym, community and job, all one package, right when the man of the house moved out, just before the turn of the year. But then came the purchase of a day pass to The Salvation Army Kroc Center. Next a day pass punch card. And then a membership, which was soon unnecessary because the day I saw, though the glass walls of a studio, a group of senior citizens running relays and smiling, I had to compliment the teacher, who turned out to be the fitness manager looking for personal trainers. He offered me a job.

But before that, I went to prison. Not for the knife, but because of a book I wrote--you can read here about my visit to the Life Change Book Club, right when my own was getting an overhaul. An inmate sent me a poem a week later, through an outside contact, and you can see that here.

(Other events, both lower and higher on the dramatic scale, were notable this year, but personal, too. This post can be considered a list of the more outrageous moments, which sometimes felt as if they grew in absurdity as their count increased.)

Throughout the tumult, The Kroc Center has been just that for me: a place where I feel centered. The senior citizens continue to impress me. Their high level of fitness is proof of what can be achieved when you refuse to accept what you've been told is your ceiling. When the person next to you is not someone who has given up, but who keeps trying new avenues; you then know that's possible for you. These same lessons have gotten me through 2016. I have been surrounded by people who tell me to keep going, who pass the baton and cheer me on. Who push me to use the parts of myself that have been buried for too long. Have they always been there, and had I needed this kind of year to learn to accept such a strong undercurrent of support? There is a freedom of movement now, a newness, a new name; but even this is continually under threat of smothering, like a thick cream sauce being spooned over more and more of the cavatappi. And yet I am not broken.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What I Read in 2015

Thirty-two books in 2015, the year I took notes so I wouldn't forget what they were about. Also, the year I turned 45. These events are related.

The First Book I Made Notes On, When I Realized That Already My Memory Was Failing Me
Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh
This book, by a Buddhist monk, made me see Jesus's death in a completely new light. Comparing the crucifixion to self-immolation, he says this: "I shared with Dr. King my understanding that when Jesus died on the cross, he made the choice to die for the benefit of others--not out of despair but out of hope and love, using his body in order to bring change to a desperate situation."

Books I Talked About On My Job Interview At A Bookstore
The types that work at bookstores are very different people who nevertheless fit squarely into these categories: reader and introvert at heart. And yet I wonder if maybe I was the first one to pull out my book journal on the interview and read aloud the mini-reviews I had written for... myself. Like this one:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
She did not create a new world, but simply the absence of the old one. But how do people live? Think differently? Why did it take them twenty, thirty years to get electricity working again, when many had encountered it before? The plot points wrap up by the end in an interesting way, but it was a long, tedious route getting there, and I'm not sure why I stuck it out. I'm confused as to why this book has become popular; apparently another of her books, Last Night In Montreal, is worth the time.

My Iceland Kick
My Iceland Kick began when I discovered that most of the biggest, strongest men in the world came from there, so I needed to know what was in the water. Then I picked up some of their fiction.
Butterflies in November, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
The Greenhouse, Audur Ava Olafsdottir

The Extent Of My Young Adult Kick
Two words: Rainbow Rowell. A 13-year-old client of mine got me started on her, thankfully. Some of her novels are adult fiction, but to me, they all fell into the same category: great.
eleanor & park, Rainbow Rowell
Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Fan Girl, Rainbow Rowell
Landline, Rainbow Rowell

Alexander McCall Smith, Naturally
Doesn't matter what happens in his books; what matters is that the books happened. Only one this year, and I'm currently finishing another.
The Novel Habits of Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith

Books By People Trying To Be Alexander McCall Smith
The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri Murari

Books I Was Meant To Read
Some books are not to be read until certain phases of our lives. I've bought books only to crack them open years later, at what appeared to be the right time. Here are some books I was meant to read this past year, not necessarily because a plot mirrored my life's circumstances or a character reminded me of someone I know, but because they touched a place I couldn't articulate before I found them.
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
Slow Emergencies, Nancy Huston
Sick In The Head, Judd Apatow

An Assortment of Nonfiction
Grace Unfolding, Johanson and Kurtz
Discovering Your Soul Signature, Panache Desai
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
Girl In A Band, Kim Gordon
Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the first 10 years of StoryCorps, Dave Isay
Do No Harm, Henry Marsh
Creativity: The Perfect Crime, Philippe Petit

Books That Were Enjoyable But Not Literary Masterpieces
Midnight In Austenland, Shannon Hale
The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Books That Were Literary-ish And I Liked Them
Bark, Lorrie Moore
Faith, Jennifer Haigh
Mislaid, Nell Zink
The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber

Books That Were Literary And I Could Have Done Without Them
The Gathering, Anne Enright

Books I Don't Really Remember and Hadn't Taken Notes On
Moods, Yoel Hoffman
Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

Books With The Words "Things," "Fall" and "Apart" in the Title
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
Disclaimer: I did not actually finish Chodron's book until early 2016, and I look forward to telling you about it next year. But for a long time in October, these books sat together on my end table, consoling each other in their brokenness.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

This Poem From An Inmate Blew Me Away

My last post recounted a trip to Handlon Correctional Facility, where I met with 14 prisoners who had read my book, FRAMES: a picture of death, drugs, and forgiveness.

The discussion was rich but some of them were quiet, so I suggested at the end that anyone who wanted to write down their thoughts about the book should do so.

I never expected this.

The following is a poem one of the men sent to me through the people who run the book club I visited. Even if you haven't read FRAMES, I think you'll catch that the sheer number of details he includes is astounding. The moments that spoke to him appear throughout, and he wraps up with what I know from our discussion had hit him the hardest: that Kevin was told he had done a good job. Everyone needs to hear that, he said, and when they do, they can move on.

Mr. Williams: You, too, have done a good job. One that blows me away.

Catch a recent radio interview with Amy here. Purchase FRAMES here. Visit our facebook page here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Getting Life

He raised his hand. He looked quite young but had been there 20 years, a juvenile lifer due to a mistake at 17.

"I have questions for you, Ms. Scheer," he said, glancing down at his paper. He sat tall, an earnest man with intelligence.

How did you choose this story. How did the story make you grow as a person. Which character did you most identify with, and why.

This was the Life Change Book Club at a Level 2 prison in west Michigan. Here was Kenyatta who had prepared for my visit; Marcus, too. And others among the 14, who fidgeted through my introduction with their papers, so eager to say what they had written down that they asked what I had already just answered.

"They're calling me a 'speaker' tonight," I said, "but I'm just a person who had this book happen to her," I told them. I had passed through a barbed-wire fence wearing a device with a red emergency button that had been tested after I attached it to my belt. I had been frisked, and so unaccustomed to this had to be told where to put my arms. I was just a person, sure, but I was a person sitting in a prison with 14 men who had read my book, who quoted it back to me, and asked me about sentences I forgot were there.

I would hope I matured some while writing my book, which is about forgiveness and love and second chances, and I said as much to answer Kenyatta's question. "But let me turn that back at everybody," I added. "How did reading the book help you?

I realized that my crime affected lots of people, not just my victim. The family members, the emergency workers. The people who read the newspaper article: I'm worried they will be troubled, too.

The therapist told Kevin he did a good job, and that's what he needed to hear. He said, "You did everything right." People need to hear they're doing a good job.

I saw that forgiveness is a process. You took us through that; it's not quick. Rick said he didn't know if he could have done that, offer forgiveness. He sat across from Kevin with his wife and saw that Kevin was alone, and didn't think he could forgive someone like Kevin forgave him.

"Life is not tidy," I said. "It doesn't wrap up neatly with a bow. Maybe it didn't feel in the book like Rick changed enough. But he recognized he had been given a second chance, and we end the book knowing he's grateful. Real life has more of that kind of thing than straight-up happy endings."

I was talking too much, but they leaned in--as I did, careful not to bump the red button with my elbow. For I was not in danger. This--our discussion--was not the second chance Rick had received, but it was a living thing in a flourescent-lit room. Life surrounded by wire, burning inside those doing endless time. By now the men whose eyes had scanned the floor were with me. I knew they responded to my book and to the fact that a criminal was set free, but who cares, really? It's just a book, not a 12-step program.

Can books really make a difference? I asked. Because I wasn't sure.

"I can't go anywhere," Mark said, "but through books, I do. I travel places when I read. I've done a lot of drugs, but this is the best trip I've been on."

"I was right there in your book," Kenyatta said. "I blew the weed, I hid it in my pocket. I walked through that church with Kelly. Kelly was a strong woman. I know this was real life, but she was my favorite character. A strong woman, how she could leave those pictures up there, walk when she knew people were watching her."

"I was Rick. I was Kevin. These were instrumental moments for me."

We wrapped up before it was over; the men were so used to being shuttled out of a room at a moment's notice, they wanted to be sure to have an official end. A man there for killing his wife closed us in prayer. Another who hadn't spoken yet that night said, "Can I ask a selfish request that I know everybody's thinking. Could you sign our books?"

I always turn awkward when asked for my autograph, so I've taken to writing "all the best!" or "thanks for your support" on the title page, then signing my name.

I wrote my usual on Marcus's copy and handed it to him. "Could you make it more personal?" he asked, handing it back. "'To Marcus,' right there?"

Mark stood in front of me. "Mark with a c or a k?" I asked. He looked surprised. "A k," he said. "Thanks so much for asking."

The quiet man came up to me with his book opened to a page in the middle. I started to flip back to the title page when he stopped me.

"No--sorry--could you sign it right there, please?"

He found the page again, which has just one phrase:

Thy will be done

"To Andre." "All the best, Amy Scheer." Thy will be done.

Dwayne, the group's resident poet, read a piece he had written for Martin Luther King Day. He wanted to give the paper to me, but I could only leave with the book I brought, and which had been logged onto a form, which was then copied in triplicate.

The officers couldn't know I left with so much more than I had walking in.

FRAMES is available at Schuler Books & Music,, and on the shelves of Hearts and Minds bookstore. Visit our facebook page, too.