August 11, 2014
I stood near the giant “M” near the graduate library at University of Michigan. I marveled at the beauty of the campus, and awaited my old professor.
In the distance, I saw the top of his bald head and the poof of white hair the stood to the side like he was just electrocuted. He was my professor, my mentor, and, my dear friend, Professor Buzz.
There was no other way to greet one and other, but with a hug. I still recall the seeds that he planted and watered years ago.
During my final year at Michigan, I chose to not finish my Math Major, and, instead, learn something different altogether — heart lessons. I chose not to enjoy the bliss of being carefree, and, instead, go to therapy three times a week. The conditions were set for over turning long unmovable stones, and shining light.
Buzz was a beloved professor that had changed the course of countless students’ lives. His famous class, English 319, was the culmination of 25 plus years of sowing tiny seeds.
English 319 consisted of a heavy emotional curriculum: On monday mornings, my class-partner and I, would go to Jackson Correction Facility at 6AM. We would work with incarcerated individuals in the most heavy armed and guarded prison in Michigan, and create a play with these men who were behind bars for 21 hours a day.
We begin walking in a direction as though we both knew exactly where we were going. I felt as though there was no need for pleasantries or acknowledging how long it had been since we had seen each other. Rather, it was like too old friends simply picking up on a conversation from the other day.
As we walk through campus, I see a young man sitting on the sidewalk meditating — I knew I was in the right place. We go to the restaurant in campus called Sava’s. Originally, it started as a hole-in-the-wall serving burgers, and slowly one burger at a time it expanded to what it is today. When I saw the beautiful restaurant, all I could think about the tiny growth that led to the lovely place that it is today.
We sit down, and he asks me to share. I share about the past two years of my life. I try to encapsulate my journey of quoting my job, breaking up with my ex-girlfriend, taking a road trip with my father, starting a company and walking across Spain as quickly as possible. My intention was authenticity so i attempted to go straight to the “mud.”
He listened with full attention, and processed my story. And, the he shared about himself: Buzz, was my “prison professor” — he watered the seeds of inner reflection and transformation. Years ago, I took his course, which entailed going to a prison on a weekly basis to work with in a level four corrections facility. Every week we would write whatever we needed to in a journal, and Buzz would write a single-spaced typed response to our reflections. He would ask questions, give his own stories and listen and share from the heart.
He spoke about one of his friends was riding his bike and was hit when two cars collided in front of him. And, how another student was walking on Plymouth road and was hit by a car and died. The certainty of death seemed to have supported him in moving on from his current work to focus on having the courage to take the next step. You really never what is going to happen to you, so you have to do the things that give you the quality to your life you want — whatever that may be.
He spoke about Uccikhan — Phil — a close friend and formerly incarcerated individual from the Prison Creative Arts Project, who experienced a lot of grief and depression from seeing a child die. He decided to bring together many people to speak about grief from different points of view: formally incarcerated individuals, family members of those murdered, a restorative justice lawyer and others. I am moved by this idea of focusing on a single topic and creating a space to focus there.
On Climate Change:
If the world’s climate increasing by 2 degrees centigrade, we will see drastic changes in the world. He taught a course on this and spoke of this as his most intense course. I tell him about my concerns about how to live in this world and we speak about neutrality, and how acceptance is taking a side. You can either be a part of the resistance or you can acceptance. There really no such thing as being neutral. I sat with these words a while: there is no such thing as neutrality.
On Secondary Trauma:
He tells me that he is encouraged to go speak to someone about secondary trauma. After working in prisons for 25 years, he had felt a lot of the pain from the incarcerated individuals, but, he had not recognized that similar pain within him. Secondary trauma is not acknowledging that trauma you have inside when you see pain.
On His Work:
In 24 years, he has had 291 students go through the Prison Creative Arts Project and 92% of them have gone into social justice as their life works. They are all doing things in the world — that is his legacy.
We finish up our meal and take a walk on this sunny day. We walk through campus to the edge of town, and I absorb his sacred wisdom.
On Instinct and Determination:
He tells me about how all of his life and experiences seem to support him in the next step. His life conspired to support him in his next step…there was somewhat of an obvious nature to what he was saying. As if it say, once there is a rosebud, blooming is natural next step. I sat with this for a while, and he shared a story about Goddard’s movie where a man made a decision based long and deep reflection.
He said it is always a fear of his children’s well being. And, it never goes away.
Life is about stories. Have 100 stories before you get married, and have 1,000 stories before you have children. He tells the story of a student and a teacher. The students stand up. He stands up. This then escalates to them standing on their chairs. He stands on his desk. And, in the final seen, he sits down with a pen and paper to be a journalist.
I tell him about Sarika, and he asks if there is a future with where this is going. I say yes and that I will be asking her. He told me to let him know when.