Another holiday season has come and gone. This year I had the chance to notice something, and not for the first time. I see how we attach our own value to money, belongings and gifts both on the receiving and giving ends. It was easier to see and call out as ridiculous in my roommate, of course but that made me look in the mirror and reevaluate.
My roommate was raised by parents who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion requires that they not celebrate Birthdays, Christmas, etc. So my friend never had the Christmas experience that so many of us grew up with and does not observe those practices as an adult. She admittedly tries to make up for what she feels she missed out on. She buys an outrageous amount of presents for her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews etc. Her sister does the same thing. She has gone as far as to take out loans to pay for presents in past years. This year I watched her and her husband bring a procession of bags up into their room, only to make a trip to her sister’s to pick up another carload that she had stored there. She recognizes that it is too much but it has turned into a compulsive habit. It’s a virtual runaway train. I know my friend and her family dynamic well enough to know that the blame can not be exclusively laid at the doors of the Kingdom Hall. My friend grew up with and still deals with a mother that is abusive to her in a multitude of ways. A mother who is an alcoholic who judges her daughter’s drug problems very harshly without seeing her own problem. Her mother who would abuse her physically and verbally, would then come and bring her gifts to make it all better. So now although she is somewhat aware of its origins she has a difficult time with the concept that love is not bought. She is a smart woman and understands this on an intellectual level. However, there is some innate part of her being that can’t seem to unlearn those lessons that were so deeply ingrained.
I recently also had the chance to watch a similar story unfold with a family member; let’s call him Grant. Grant has a 7 year old son and has spent the majority of that time high, or coming down from methamphetamines. Grant will disappear for days or weeks on end only to come home to sleep for equally long periods of time. They do have brief time periods of sober normal living. It scares me to think that Grant’s son is learning some really bad behavioral patterns from this. Add to that, Grant recently got a job. He hasn’t had a legitimate job for several years. Grant stayed sober for close to two months in the process of getting this job and I, along with the rest of his family, once again had big hopes that THIS would be THE time. Unfortunately that was not the case and he has only been trying to juggle his use with his job. It saddens me because I know what the most likely outcome will be. However noble his intentions may be, the drugs take over. He had made plans a few weeks ago to spend the weekend with his son, but on the way to pick him up, got high. He didn’t wind up spending any time with his son that weekend. He did buy his son some clothes and a movie and a baseball and glove. He doesn’t see what I can see from the outside. That those things do no good, if he has no one to take him and play. Those presents are no substitute for being present.
All of this transported me back to one of the times when I was the person who tied my emotions to money. It is easy enough to see it and call it out in someone else’s situation. Recognizing it in your own life, that is enlightening.
In jail, and prison everyone starts out on equal footing. When you arrive there you are stripped of all personal belongings and given state issued clothes, shoes, and a small hygiene bag which includes toothpaste, toothbrush, small bar of soap, some pads, and toilet paper. Doesn’t matter how much money you have, this is how everyone enters. Once you have been there and your living quarters’ turn comes up for commissary then, if you are blessed enough to have someone put money in your account, you may purchase things from the commissary. Things sold on commissary range from Ramen Noodles and junk food, to coffee, to writing and nicer hygiene supplies. Since a lot of the food served leaves something to be desired it is nice to have something squirreled away for the days when the menu is not something you can agree to eat. In Travis County you fill out a form each week, and a few days later they wake you up to give you your order. In prison, you get to go about twice a month and you wait in a line at the door to be called out to stand in another line and then carry it back to your dorm. Once a month you get a statement telling you if you have had deposits or withdrawals from your account. Other than that the only way of knowing if your money is there, is by taking your chances and making a list and getting in line. The thing about that is, you only get two trips for each spend cycle which usually encompasses a 2-4 week span of time. If you go, and there is no money in your account then you have essentially wasted a spend.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have people who will send them money. Having been that unlucky girl most of the time, I can see how this disparity raises or lower your social standing . If you happen to have any marketable skills, then prison does have its own economic system and you can barter services for items. Some people wash clothes, do hair, draw cards, etc. But for others like me who really aren’t talented in any of those areas, there is a bad feeling associated with commissary day. There is only one feeling worse than having nothing and knowing it. That is thinking you might have something only to return empty handed.
It goes beyond the gossip that happens occasionally when the haves whisper about someone pretending they got money coming. It is this empty feeling and sudden drop of heart and spirit when you are standing in line and hear the lady call you to the window to tell you you have no money. Because that isn’t what she is really saying. Or more to the point is isn’t what it sounds like. It sounds more like she said, “Ma’am no one cares enough about you to send you any money this month. You have been forgotten, NEXT.”
The truth may be a million other things: the money order got sent back for an incorrect zip code, it may be still sitting on the desk waiting for a stamp to be mailed, or maybe the loved one had an unexpected expense and wanted to, but couldn’t. None of those things matter in that moment. In that moment there is an isolated forgotten feeling and you just wish you had a hole to crawl into.
On the flip side of that, when you go and they begin to fill your bag with the items on your list, it is almost like a rush or high. I have thought about this on occasion and have come to realize that it isn’t as much about getting those items, as it is feeling like some one out there is thinking about you. Commissary happens to be the catalyst for many problems in prison. People manipulate each other, hustle each other, fight about the line and who gets to go next. From the beginning of commissary day and up to the point where everyone who wants a chance to go, gets to, tensions run high. Those days tend to turn otherwise nice ladies into selfish, mean monsters. Money is the root of all evil. That is the often misquoted saying, but the verse actually says the LOVE OF money is the root of all evil. That is when we focus our feelings on the money and what it buys whether it is for ourselves or someone else.
In all of these situations we give money more value than it deserves. Money is only paper after all and possessions fade. Things are consumed. However, I think that a lot of the reason for all the drama, isn’t because a HO-HO is worth fighting for, it’s what the items represent in the back of our minds.