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In Greek Mythology, there exists Persephone. Daughter of Zeus and Demeter (Goddess of the Harvest), she was abducted by her uncle Hades, God of the underworld. Before being rescued, she ate of pomegranate seeds offered to her by her host however, and was thus bound to him for four months of every year. These four months, her mother grieves resulting in Winter.
My most recent trip to hell wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. The bunk beds were pretty bad but the faces had a lot more hope than I remember having on my first trip through Hades. I even saw a few smiles. My face might have worn one. It was the best I could do to be polite, not because I wasn’t happy to see my fellow tormented souls but because it’s hard to smile in hell. It’s hard to smile while exorcising my demons all the while watching others spawn their own. How much brutality and lawlessness will erupt from them I don’t know, but I do know they’re in it just like I am. Those boys and I are all on our journey through hell together and yesterday they were coping much better than I was. They were playing basketball. I was staring at the bars.
Yesterday, I visited a juvenile detention facility for the first time in 32 years. My first trip, I told you about (see My First Night In MacLaren Hall). A friend from high school whom I hadn’t spoken to in years contacted me out of the blue here in Heaven. She offered me an invitation to Hell. It was as though she were Persephone offering to share in her pomegranate seeds or a Siren calling me to wreck on her shore. I couldn’t help but wonder why Jenn would invite me to revisit many of my nightmares; even knowing if Hades ever need offer invitations for a return trip, I was at the top of the list.
In truth, it’s not that visiting Juvy is anything like seeing the dead nor is it not a noble request. In fact, when I told friends about the invitation they were excited. They thought it an honor to spring hope to suffering souls and they’re right…for anyone who hasn’t already been to the bottomless pit. For me, however, it was revisiting my vomit. It was going back to my shackles after I had finally broken free. Once I reminded my forgetful friends of this, they changed their tone. I think it’s easy to see why a kid wouldn’t want to go back to his bruises or a freed soul its cell.
Nevertheless, I went because I had to go. It’s the same reason I write, because I have to. Some things in life I have to do. Wake up, go to work, be responsible, pay bills. These same things I get to do. Jenn’s invitation reminded me of that. I get to go back to Juvy.
On the way in, we stopped at locked gates, buzzing doors, various barricades and walked on paved paths beneath trellises trimmed with razor wire. I also saw the other paths, the ones others didn’t likely see. They were overhead and I recognized them immediately. They were the trellises only they weren’t providing shade to the paths below, they were providing a route on which to roam. At Five Acres (the place I moved after MacLaren Hall), when kids ran, they didn’t dart out an open gate into a dangerous world where they wouldn’t last, instead they ran up and out of the routine. They left the cottages (as they were called), the head-high-closets between their beds and the overall confinement and they sought the sanctuary offered on the tops of the roofs of these overhead routes. There, they’d roam, run and have fun (imagine roaming being referred to as “fun”) until about midnight or 1 or 2 AM when either the cold or their hunger would get the better of them. Five Acres might give boys until midnight. This prison made no such concession. Very simply, there was barbed wire and there was routine.
I remembered my months at MacLaren Hall and a few stories that I’m willing to tell now that I didn’t think to share then. It’s funny how blank spots sometimes appear on my canvas painting or unpainted tiles occasionally show up in the middle of my memory mosaic while at other times images flush to the surface so freely and completely; images like of the boy in my dorm whose father had held his hand over an open flame on the stove as punishment for stealing before folding his fingers and sealing it shut, or the boy who had his arm broken by one of the house parents while the boy was being restrained and subdued by a team, or the older girl I didn’t know who picked me up and carried me to safety in the comfort of her enormous bosom after I had been injured and was crying my first week in incarceration. Some of these images I can’t be blamed for forgetting. I wonder if the boys I talked to will remember their images and whether they will have unwritten stories and unpainted pieces and whether they’ll share them thirty years from now when they’re invited by a high school friend to relive their past for their soon-to-be peers.
Like Persephone, I’ve spent a third of my cumulative months bound to a base I’ve been trying to forget. That base is my base, my most basic, the beginning of my abuse. The beatings that began with my dad, continued through commitment to all kinds of facilities filled with foreign faces until those beatings became part of me. But rather than my dad raising a hand, I carried on and continued the abuse for him. I stepped into and filled his shoes. Long after dad was dead, I was still marching to his orders, exacting my revenge…on me. When no one was around to hit me, I hit myself as best I knew how. I’d play and replay my tape and I’ve been playing it for years. My father’s beatings had me bound though he’s buried in the ground.
And how many hours of days and days of weeks and months of years have I spent sojourning back, eating a trail of pomegranate seeds, to a bleak and brutal time in my life I continue to call hell, holding rather than hugging myself captive in chains of my own making, reliving rather than relieving painful memories and long suffering rather than satisfying an empty ache yearning to be embraced, encouraged and loved?
You see, the way past my hell of fear is through the fire. But for years, I thought it was by walking away from it. And I’ve been doing everything I could to forget it, as though hell can ever be forgotten. Deep scars aren’t much different; they can be covered up but they remain…
…until its time.
Jenn did just that, she let me know it was time. Her call was an invitation out of a hell I always walk into and clamor at but can’t manage to find my way out of. Because in trying to avoid the center of Hell’s vortex, I’ve stayed around the edge, near the opening not realizing the door was on the far side of the ring. So, when Jenn invited me, all I saw were the many concentric circles in between. I saw Persephone and her pomegranate seeds. I heard the Siren and her song. Except this time, the offer wasn’t to bind me to hell by way of a seed, it was an invitation to be freed.