My favorite place to relax is in my front porch swing. I can’t think of too many other places where I have felt this content and happy. Of course, there is that one beach in the Caribbean and a certain cafe near the Champs-Élysées but I don’t think I’ll be visiting those places again for a long time. No, my life has certainly become more simple, more humble in recent years. This isn’t by choice, being a registered citizen has simply squeezed my life down to a much smaller scale. Anyway, I take my moments of peace and comfort where I can and my front porch swing seldom lets me down.
The huge red swing is hung under the grand porch that wraps around our 1920s Arts and Crafts pier and beam home which is nestled into an eclectic and diverse neighborhood in Midcity Baton Rouge. I enjoy living here. I feel a connection to this neighborhood, I see myself as part of the fabric. This is my home.
The view from my porch makes for good people watching but more importantly it allows me the opportunity to commune others. In turn, this communal aspect gives me a feeling of connectedness to the life thriving in my neighborhood.
From my vantage point on the swing I can regularly watch folks waking dogs, bicycling to work and school, tending to their yards or visiting with other neighbors. My consistent presence has often made me the default runaway dog rescuer and a resource for lost drivers in need of directions.
Some of my long time neighbors even tell me they feel safer because of my porch swinging habits. A routine that also happens to make me pretty familiar with the daily comings and goings on our street.
Seen as trustworthy and dependable by many of neighbors, I am periodically asked to intercept a FedEx package, hold onto a spare key or watch a house for suspicious activity while the owners are on vacation. It feels really good and I must admit I feel a bit of pride in this.
I used to have a pretty independent, free spirited personality. From a young age I rejected conformity, and was turned off by those who needed the constant affection and approval of others to feel validated. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy being appreciated by others, I certainly adored the sound of applause during my theatre years. I simply assert that my need to belong and be accepted didn’t even register on the charts until I became sex offender.
I used to think of “otherness” as a badge of glory. When I think of my “otherness” these days depression rolls in and the feelings of despair begin to weigh heavy on my soul. I fuss myself for spending countless hours daydreaming about the comforts of blending in. I hate that I wish for a day when I could be simply unremarkable. These kind of thoughts are not in line with my personality at all but I tend to return them for comfort just the same. I suppose it’s understandable that I have these notions when you consider what my present notoriety is based on. Not wanting the be the “someone” I have become, I guess it’s natural to want to be “no one.” What I really want actually lies somewhere in between. Finding that balance which allows one to be autonomous while also being a part of whole.
These days my semi-public interactions with others from the swing have become vital in helping me to understand who I am and how I fit in with others. Despite (what I believe is) common knowledge of my criminal conviction and my status as a registered citizen, many of my neighbors behave in ways that suggest acceptance; they speak to me as if I one of them. Keeping this in mind, it is almost possible to imagine myself as social asset, a valuable part of the civic network, a good person to live next door to. I welcome these moments of optimism and I work hard to put myself in spaces where my self confidence has a chance to grow.
For whatever reason, I am most confident about who and what I am when I’m swinging on the porch. Things are simplified. I can participate in the ancient ritual of exchanging greetings and news with neighbors and strangers. It is an exercise in anti-banishment I suppose. I extend myself to others in the spirit of good will and quite a few of those I come across reciprocate. I don’t have friendly or decent interactions with most folks but to say “quite a few” would be accurate.
Between the notification post cards and the public notices printed in the local paper and the registration website, (which I am forced to pay for) the government has done a pretty bang up job of letting the public at large know that I should be looked upon with contempt and fear. There are people who buy into this concept without any personal knowledge of me or any true understanding of how the ridiculous registry way the registry is put together. There are people who hate me and with the constant label and punitive exercises I’m forced to perform I occasionally struggle with hating myself. Constructing a strong healthy self concept is challenging for a sex offender.
While I have come to expect that most of the folks passing by my house will demonstrate the best in human behavior, I also have to remain vigilant. Even from the safety of my swing, people can donor say things that cause pain. There have been people who words hurt my heart or caused me to feel threatened or whose actions demonstrated their hate or fear. It’s only happened a handful of times but that doesn’t make it any less traumatic. On the contrary, when I feel attacked on my own turf it wrenches into me on a visceral level.
Dealing with these moments of social rejection is hard but I’ve worked hard to cope and accept and sometimes, let go. I no longer feel crushed when the elderly woman down the street obviously (and a bit dramatically) changes the course of her route to avoid driving or walking past me if I’m working in the yard. It just makes me feel sad. I no longer have an instant panic attack when a certain employee at the neighborhood grocery puts a “register closed” sign on the check out when I approach. It’s so absurd and mean spirited it’s almost funny. I’ve done my best to forgive the guys in the red truck who feel compelled to pull up to my house on numerous occasions and scream sexual obscenities before peeling out and speeding away. They obviously have issue of their own. I’ve learned not to cry over that gabby young stroller pushing couple as well. The ones who, upon realizing I’m outside, suddenly stop their conversation, favor me with an intense look of pity mixed with suspicion and then start hustling in double time until they clear my block.
Instead of dwelling on what the social rejections I described above “say about me,” I try hard to focus on the many elements of my personal life that seem to suggest I might actually be a good guy. I have a loving husband and a strong relationship with my wonderful daughter. I am also lucky to have many devoted and encouraging friends and a satisfying career as well. These things don’t prove I’m a “good person” but I think they make decent supporting evidence for the theory. After all, my spouse, family, friends, boss, coworkers and friends in the neighborhood know all about my arrest, my offense and my name on the registry. If they love me, accept me and see value in me, maybe I can feel that way about myself too.
Every day that I chose to go out and sit on that swing I’m “putting myself out there.” I don’t know what the moment will bring, who I will talk to or how they will react but I do it all the same. I will probably have a positive experience but the risk is there. I am driven by more than the simple drive to be a to be a part of the social network, I want people to see me, experience me and gain an understanding of who and what I am. By sitting on my porch instead of hiding in my house I’m saying, “I have purpose! I am one of you! I belong here too!” Because despite my occasional bouts of self doubt, all of that is true and no government scheme designed to shame and banish me can change that. So I wave, I greet, I help, I share laughs and I swing………….