Eating With Our Fingers


January 11, 2015 by rebelwithalabelmaker

“I’ve been out of prison for two years” said the speaker at Church this morning, “but I still eat everything with a spoon.”

It took me a minute to understand what he meant.  It’s been a long time since I thought about the utensils they do and don’t let inmates use.

But I have thought about it.


I have only once had one of those amazing meet-someone-talk-all-night romantic experiences.  It was in university.  A guy I met when I had a question about Unix (That’s how we roll.  Picking up guys in the computer lab.), and we ended up talking by the printer for an hour before the glares convinced us to go out for hot chocolate.  And, by two in the morning, we were the kind of soul mates that are only possible when one of you is eighteen, and the other has just…

“Can I tell you something that will totally blow your doors off?” he asked, nervously.  I remember the exact words, because they were so odd—like a foreign phrase.  Like he was from a distant land.  I grinned and nodded.

“I just got out of prison.  Seven years.  Armed robbery.”

He held his breath.  I leaned forward.

“I have so many questions,” I said.  “I have always wanted to ask someone about prison”.

There are very few things that will blow my doors off.  I have remarkably strong hinges.

Five hours later, I was still asking.  And he was still unfolding… hesitantly, joyfully.  I learned about how to rob banks (although, clearly, not very well), the mechanics of drug smuggling, racial relations in American prisons, rape, riots, music, cell mates, economics, Russian philosophy, evil, and redemption.  I wanted to know about every story, every nuance, every social norm.  Every question I asked, he answered honestly.  Every time he got the chance, he fired a question back at me.  At seven a.m., there was the first pause in the conversation.

Eyes burning with exhaustion, we were sitting side by side in the comfy chairs of the study lounge.  Close enough to touch, but not touching.  Our feet were on stools, our heads were tilted back against the wall behind us.  Both of us had our eyes closed.

“Are we, uh… friends, now?” he asked. “Or… what?”

“I don’t know.”  I said.  “I don’t know what I want or how I feel.  I don’t want to have sex, and I don’t even think I want to kiss you.”  (This is me, navigating the World of Romance.  There are ATM machines that are less direct than Liz-on-a-date.)

“And, I don’t love you,” (Seriously?  I sucked at being a teenage girl.) “But, I do love … learning you.” I answered.  There was a long pause before I continued.

“And I know that I keep thinking about your fingers.  And about how, in all my life, I have never wanted something so badly as I want to hold your hand.”

I can still remember exactly what it felt like the moment his skin touched mine.


When I got home to the one bedroom apartment I shared with my foster sister, her boyfriend, and her three month old baby, she met me at the door.  Hands on hips.

“Why didn’t you come h…  oh”.  Her nose wrinkled as I closed the door behind me, leaned against it, and pressed both hands to my heart.  “I see”  Her face had the expression she usually reserved for dirty diapers. “You are in love.”

I didn’t know if I was in love, but I did know that I had a secret.  For the first time in my life, there was something I couldn’t tell Jaime.  It was my first experience with confidentiality.

“There’s something I can’t tell you about him, so don’t ask me to—“

“What, did he just get out of jail or something?” she asked.

I suck at secrets.


Our first argument was about me telling Jaime about the prison thing, and whether or not she really did ask me a direct question about it.  It took us twenty four hours to have our first fight, forty eight hours to kiss and make up, and three days to clean out the hall closet of the apartment to create a little space for me that I called “My own room for me to have privacy when I am sleeping”.  It took us a week to say I love you to one another, and two weeks for us to start getting on each others’ nerves.

In the end, the prison thing was too much.  Not because I cared what he’d done, but because we couldn’t navigate the gulf in cultural norms between us.  The way he managed anger seemed coldly cruel to me.  I felt ludicrously immature to him.  We were both right, at least mostly.  But neither of us had the skills to bridge the gap.

It took us four weeks to begin breaking up, and a year to finish the process.  Other than Gary, he was the longest relationship I’ve had.  I kept seeing that guy forever.

Every time I closed my eyes.


When I hear the speaker talking at Church, I am reminded of the bank robber boyfriend.  Now I understand why he was so awkward with a knife and fork.  And with conflict.  We were not from the same culture, he and I.  Everything that fit smoothly into my palm was foreign in his fingers.  Like chopsticks.

The Prison Chaplain also speaks.  Because he is Christian, he tells a story from the bible.  About ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom, and how five prepared by bringing oil and five didn’t, and then the half that didn’t ran out and had to go for more and while they were gone, the bridegroom came and decided that five virgins was probably enough for him, so off he went and the other five got locked out.

I can see why he tells this story.  It is about being prepared, about dedication.  And about punishment.

My take home from this story is that the low-oil virgins dodged a bullet.  The bridegroom was clearly an asshat.  Who locks a person out because they take too long with the errands?  A douche canoe, is who.

It is the people with privilege who are able to arrive at the party well prepared.  Who have all the oil in the first place.

Maybe I am biased.  We all know that if I was in that story I probably would have forgotten to bring the oil, and the lamp.  And the directions to the wedding.  I would have been sitting on some street corner somewhere waiting for two thousand years for someone to invent smartphones and Google Maps.

I wish there was one character in the story who ran out of oil but stayed anyways.  There are worse things than not being able to see, than not knowing who or what is around you in the night.  There are worse things than being in a culture you don’t quite understand, having to grope your way along to find the hand of the person you are falling in love with.

Falling in love.  That’s what I said when I was eighteen.  Now, I would say “falling into deep, unexpected understanding of”.  It’s not the same thing, really.

But it’s closer than you’d think.


“Every program.  Every program has to have anti-oppression and anti-racism and gender and…” a friend is grumping about the Unitarian Universalist Association to me on Facebook. “I mean, at what point do we stop spending all our time widening the circle, and start doing what we came here to do?”


Photo Credit: Memphis Daily News

I get it, I do.  I have had these moments of exasperation.  What do you mean I can’t use the Guide My Feet song without learning the story behind it first?  What do you mean I shouldn’t use light-good, dark-bad language all the time?  Widening the circle is constant work, and uses up time we could spend on…

On what? See, that’s the thing.  Widening the circle is what I came here to spend time on.  I’m here to extend the light into the darkness, until— wait.  Oops.

I’m trying to be more aware of my light-good, dark-bad language.  And, in this case, it doesn’t even apply anyway.  My Facebook friend is right… We will never make the circle wide enough.  We are not the light that pushes out the night, we are…  something else.

I came here because I love the dark.  I love those moments when we are coming to understand one another over great differences, learning new norms, gently touching the places of pain.  When we cannot see so we reach out into the night and find our way by touch.

Guide my feet…

It turns out I don’t mind if I can’t see the path.  If you aren’t stumbling at least sometimes, you aren’t on a real pilgrimage.

Hold my hand… 

It is the touch of fingers against one another that guides me.  I don’t know where I am going, but if you reach out, you will find my hand clumsily reaching for yours in the night. In the night which I don’t mind sharing with you because … it is the darkness that makes my breath catch in my throat.  It is the darkness that teaches you that you can find the path by watching the sky.

To my Facebook friend, this struggle for inclusion is the prelude, the necessity.  The eating utensil.

To me, it’s the meal.

I will not waste time arguing about who does and doesn’t deserve a spot at the wedding feast.  I am more of a blow-the-doors-off kind of a girl.  I know it is messy and will take forever, but I’m up for it.

Let’s not allow ourselves to be thwarted by silverware.  Not when it comes to love and the breaking of bread.

2 thoughts on “Eating With Our Fingers

  1. Andrew Hidas says:

    This is lovely in every way—finely crafted, achingly funny, profound. Kudos!

  2. […] James shares her story of falling in love with an armed robber—and what it says about love and community and […]

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