Welcome at the blog of Dini Commandeur. I've written quite a lot of columns for various magazines. I also write short stories every now and then. These columns and stories are available for everybody at this blog. I'll release new columns and stories periodically.


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About cookies, discussions, death and a grain of sand

Tuesday 03 June 2014 One Sunday evening I was watching the TV show ‘Buch in jail’.  Fascinating, but not a show that makes you happy. So much going on in prisons. As a visiting volunteer you don’t really notice all that goes on behind the walls. The few times I took part in the church services I had not witnessed any arguments nor senseless verbal abuse and screaming matches like shown in Buch’s show.
I experienced warm interest and concern for each other when I took part in the discussion group lead by the humanist counselor who works in our prison a few years ago. For the ‘fresh view’ she was looking for a participant who was not incarcerated. And that is how it happened that I was waiting in the chapel while the counselor went to pick up the other participants one stormy Wednesday afternoon. I was so curious how this meeting would go. Discussions are fun!
Listening to someone else’s view on life and talking about everything which has to do with our existence, it is simply fascinating. So I was looking forward to the discussion hour. The only thing that bothered me was my left eye. See, a grain of sand had blown behind my contact lens, which did not just sting, but also made my eye bright red. I looked a mess, like I had been crying badly.
The discussions were held in the chapel, and just when I wondered if I dared play a tune on the church organ, I heard people in the corridor. One voice said: “I hope there will be cookies with the coffee.” And another voice mumbled an answer I could not understand. Two gentlemen came into the chapel, one correctional officer and one of the discussion participants. The correctional officer left again immediately, and I introduced myself to the young man. I saw him look at my hurt eye and answered his unasked question: “No, I have not been crying, there is a grain of sand caught behind my contact lens.” The other participants arrived and during our introductions I repeated: “No, that red eye is not from sadness, honestly”
The compassion shown by the group was heartwarming, they felt that grain of sand to be such a nuisance to me, and repeatedly asked if it really did not hurt. After we had coffee, with cookies, we started our discussion. First we were shown a drawing and we had to tell what we saw or recognized. I saw a failed duck. Someone else thought it to be an odd teapot. And someone else again made it into an animal unknown to me, and one of the gentlemen thought it to be a piece of abstract art. We could not see anything in common. The counselor explained that that was exactly the point. We all saw something different, as so often in life. And those varying views can lead to differences of opinion or conflicts.
The discussion started, but other topics were addressed as well. They were very interested in me, the volunteer, and they wanted to share their stories. During the break, the man sitting next to me told me he had been living on the streets for many years, not an easy way to live. “So what do you do in here all day?” I asked. “Recuperate,” he said. He spent a lot of time lying on his bed, watching TV. He did not have to go looking for shelter now, he could shower, was fed. A younger man in the group asked what I did in my daily life, and heard I correspond with inmates with death or long term sentences, wanted to know all about prisons in the US. I don’t think he had all that much trouble with the death penalty, but to be locked up for life…..  I’d rather be dead he said.
Another man told of how he was waiting for a place in a clinic for mandatory psychiatric evaluation and treatment. But that such treatment would be pointless. He was ill, and he only had a few more years in him. He was at peace with that. The way things were now, peace of mind, friends and family to visit him, that worked well for him.  “But aren’t you scared of death?” asked the man sat across the table from him. No, he was not. Death was not some gruesome monster to him. He looked back on a turbulent life, but had reconnected with his family again in this last part of his life, that was so important. And then he directed his attention to my red eye again. “No pain, really?” he asked. The seriously ill man, often in bad pain himself, was concerned about the grain of sand in my eye! “No, no pain,” I said deeply impressed by his story.
Another cup of coffee was poured. The boy who so liked cookies was allowed to take one more from the biscuit tin, and then the discussion continued.
Soon the hour was up. I cleared the table, went to wash up the cups while the counselor accompanied  the gentlemen back to their wing.
I had to think of this special afternoon after watching an episode of ‘Buch in jail’. That aggression, the shouting matches and name calling, what a contrast to my visits, the church services and especially the discussion afternoons. The compassion for each other during those afternoons. The warm welcome I received on that stormy Wednesday and the concern for my eye.
I recall the counselor later telling me during tidying up that the homeless man had asked her if I was being paid for my participation in the discussions. “No,” she had answered. “She is a volunteer,” And he, a man who had had dealings with ‘paid’ social workers his whole life, could barely belief that. “So she comes over to be with us, drink coffee with us and talk? Just like that, without getting paid?” he asked just to be sure. He was deeply impressed, thought it was so special. And how can you explain that some things cannot be conveyed in a monetary value? Like those fascinating discussions and solidarity within the group. I found his reaction also very touching. So touching that my eyes began to tear up, and because of those tears I finally got rid of that blasted grain of sand.

Dini, May 2012
Translated from Dutch into English by Moni Hines

Note by translator: Menno Buch is a Dutch journalist who has made several television programs.

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