399 | Out with the Old, In with the New Cellie

September 6, 2015
Sunday, 7:00 p.m.
Letter #399: Out with the Old, In with the New Cellie


Dear Family,

I know I wrote just two weeks ago about my old cellie, Duffy, who just transferred back to California in preparation for his parole. My new cellie, Andrew, with nearly six years left to serve, was a great choice as I looked to keep someone a bit longer than my recent trend of under-a-year cellies.

Well, it turns out that God and the State of California had other ideas for Andrew. With no advanced notice or special committee to tell him he might be transferred back to California soon, an officer came to our door yesterday and told Andrew to pack up all his stuff and prepare to leave this week.

To say that he was disappointed that he couldn’t stay at La Palma would be an understatement. He was really hoping to remain my cellie for the foreseeable future. Funny thing is with that whole foreseeable future thing, you can’t really foresee much of the future. So, in that regard, I guess we were cellies for the entirety of the foreseeable future, a whopping two weeks. It’s starting to feel like I’m running a bed and breakfast in Vermont, without the frilly bedding, good food, or view.

With Andrew leaving, I realized I’ll need to take on his piano students. In fact, I was hoping to have my other two students-turned-tutors help take on some of the load, but no, they won’t be available to help at all. One of them will transfer back to California this week with Andrew, awaiting his parole date next year, and the other, my dear friend Robbie, will transfer to the other compound here at La Palma so he can attend the three-month Carpentry Class like I did over a year ago. With his drive, attitude, and expertise gone, I am facing some tough days ahead in the piano part of the Music Program.

Each of these excellent students of mine will be missed, but not just because of their skilled contributions to the program. Each of these three took time with the most basic, bone-headed, challenging students, and they did it because I asked it of them. Neither one of the men who will go back to California or Robbie, who will stay at La Palma, really wanted to take on newbie students. Preferring to practice on their own and increase their abilities, none of them were too excited to teach, but I knew how beneficial it could be, so I enlisted their help to handle the load of sixty piano students. This forced-labor idea they later referred to as my “Pyramid Scheme,” since I was the only one getting paid at the top.

As each of them announced their imminent transfers out from here, I realized that my little pyramid scheme of sorts had been flipped upside-down, and now I’d be at the bottom of a funnel of students needing lessons. So much for my brilliant ideas. It looks as if I’ll be doing a lot of piano lessons in the days ahead, for which I thank God for the privilege, of course!

Realizing I have but a few days left with Andrew, I made sure we revisited some important topics we’d covered in the past nine months. Raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness home, Andrew has a belief in God, but he’d begun to systematically remove God from his life once members of the church played a role in his incarceration. His deep resentment fuels his woe-is-me self-victimization and minimization of personal responsibility for wrongdoings. This is extremely common amongst us prisoners, and though I don’t claim to have all of the answers, I’ve certainly learned a lot these past several years, and I know Someone who does have all the answers.

At times, I was the one Andrew could just vent to, and at times he listened while I encouraged him to focus his hunger for vengeance inward. Feeling abandoned by society and his own family, he hopes to live on his own, secluded from the rest of the world once he is released. And while I understood his motivations for such feelings, I couldn’t just let him dodge being accountable for his part in fouling up his past, nor could I just sit and listen to him making plans to keep his past as an ever-present part of his future.

I don’t know that what I shared with him will sink in and make a difference, but I pray it does. I can’t control or steer someone else’s life, and that’s probably a good thing. I wasn’t too great at steering my own life. However, I am grateful for the way God uses my colossal mistakes to put me in contact with so many broken guys who so desperately need to get in touch with their loving Heavenly Father. He cares about them more than I ever could, and He knows just what they need, beyond two weeks with me.

As I considered who I should get as my next cellie, God brought Richie to my mind, a guy I’ve been discipling and going through studies with. Right after thinking of him, he came to my door and said his cellie had been told to pack up and leave. I told him Andrew is leaving so it seems God is putting us together, and he agreed. I’m grateful for a God who cares about the details.