When I talk to people who have loved ones or community members who are, or have been, incarcerated in the United States of America, we always end up talking about forgiveness. What is, what it isn’t, and what it means to us. In most of these conversations, no two people come to their definition of forgiveness in the exact same way. But we all have a definition. When someone you love or care about has been incarcerated, you don’t really get a choice. Especially if that person, after being released, is welcomed back into your life. People want to know, “How did you forgive them?” And they only want the answer they can understand. But sometimes, explaining to another person how and why you’re able to forgive, is the same as trying to be able to explain the ever-evolving concept of grace. Not necessarily in any kind of religious way, but in the way asks how you give what you’ve never been given.
This is the season of second chances, sometimes third chances, a few final chances, and lots of first chances too. My favorite holiday movie (laugh if you want!) is a the VH1 Original film, A Diva’s Christmas Carol, starring singer and actor, Vanessa Williams. There are cameos from Chili of TLC and Brian McKnight. It’s…a lot. But I love it. It’s a fun riff on the classic Dickens story, and it’s filled with culturally specific nostalgia for me. It also fuels the fantasy of a world where second chances come just in time, and never too late. In this culture, there’s always the chance for a Christmas miracle.
I remember being a child, waiting on my Christmas miracle. We had some good holidays, and some not-so-good ones, but none ever went unmarked by the absence of my father. Because he was what I always wanted most of all. And he, along with many other wants and desires, never materialized. That’s how you learn to perform for the remaining parent. How you learn to smile through your pain and disappointment and choose, once again, not to ruin anybody’s Christmas. You can’t be ungrateful, but you know that the magic the movies promised wasn’t going to be real for you. Even if you still believed that it existed, that it must for some other children out there. Maybe they just deserved it more? It was easy to convince yourself that this could be true if you could find no alternative options, and no one helped you.
My childhood experience of this kind of Christmas morning was not unique to me. I know now that it was like this for almost all of us. A silent chorus of children who felt ashamed of our unearned circumstances. Most of us learned to perform the dance of gratitude as to not make our circumstances worse. But that dance cost us something too, even if it took us a long time to figure that out. Even when we’re still figuring that out. Our losses weren’t counted among the potential beauty lost to the carceral state, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t lost. We were silent to survive, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t fighting for our lives, for the second and third chances promised us by old stories about bad people who didn’t deserve Christmas miracles, but got them anyway in the end. We didn’t even have whole adulthoods that needed to be redeemed.
As I reflect into the new year, I wonder how we’ll make these oversights right in our lifetime. I know there’s a good chance that as a society we’ll never try. No part of me is looking for a Christmas miracle. But I still believe the children that have been and the ones to come, deserve their chance. Every chance. And many many more.
I hope you do too. Thanks for hanging out.