Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Living Beyond the Label Part II: A Level 3’s Housewarming

Never have I felt a greater kinship with the online community of ex-sex offenders than when I wrote about my dream of building my own home (see part one below). The heartfelt messages I received showed me just how important personal dreams and accomplishments are for so many on the registry. For all those who wrote, and anyone struggling to live beyond the label, I wanted to post this special update.

Last September I had the pleasure of welcoming a crowd of guests from near and far—family, friends, craftsmen and many of my neighbors. A housewarming was a great way to bring together the many people involved in my life and creative ambitions over the last 3 years, to show my appreciation with a delicious outdoor feast, and to proudly present the final results.

All the compliments and loving hugs I got that day felt amazing. And the talk about submissions to architectural magazines was especially meaningful to me since I had designed every element myself. But as I told my guests, it was the help I got from local craftsmen that turned my visions into reality. This got me thinking again about how much my relationship with the community had changed since I arrived.

While creative expression has always come naturally to me, expressing my higher self in this community with a sex offender label was not so easy. Every time people reacted badly to my label--and there were plenty of disturbing incidents--it was a challenge not to feel depressed, angry or afraid. For quite some time I felt like getting as far away from this place as possible!

But once I decided to stay I saw that, for better or worse, this was the only local community I had. Was I going to isolate myself because of my label, avoid interactions, and live in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear? I never wanted a hermit’s life. And I sure didn’t want to give my label any more power than it deserved. I wanted to be a good neighbor and friend to the people around me. I wanted to be involved. And the fact was I needed help bringing my plans to fruition.

Eventually I understood that people weren’t reacting to me as I am, or as I could be, but to projections of their own fears. And if I reacted to them in the same ways—with fear, anger and condemnation—then nothing was going to change. How would they know there was more to me than a label if I wasn't willing to show them? Regardless of how I had been treated, or what I imagined people thought of me, I could choose to approach anyone I met with respect, openness and trust. I could be the change I wanted to see.

When Stan and Linda first heard about my label they feared it could cause problems with their rental property next door. But they’ve since told me the passion and dedication I revealed was more important than their doubts. Stan spent countless hours working on my property with his tractor and his engineering expertise. And Linda visited often with encouragement and praise for the progress she saw. Today they treat me with the warmth of an adopted son, and I am invited to all their family gatherings.

Ray had seen my sex offender poster on a visit to the sheriff’s office, and spread this information around town to people who didn’t yet know. But Ray also owned a lumber mill, and was one of Stan’s friends. So I put my fears aside and approached him about materials for my house. It was he who supplied all the old-growth cedar siding that was ideal for my cabin exterior, at a price that would have been double anywhere else.

Deborah was the detective who interrogated me when I first came to the area and was charged with failure to register. Since then she has retired from the Sheriff’s Department and opened a business as a professional seamstress. Today we have a friendship that would have seemed impossible before, and it was Deborah who made the curtains for my closets and the cushion for my living room couch.

Adam is the sheriff’s deputy assigned to make official checks on me. I used to feel resentful when he showed up unannounced. But showing him a grumpy face not only felt unnatural, it seemed unfair to the man forced to carry out this uncomfortable duty. So I began to invite Adam inside, show him my progress, and talk about whatever might come up. When I asked him if attending my housewarming presented a conflict of interest for him considering our “official” roles, he said: “We’re also neighbors.”

Do I still get rejected for my label? Yes. I’ve met people that had great potential as friends, only to watch them vanish from my life when they discovered my label. But by choosing to act out of compassion rather than fear, I just let them go without resentment and move on.

Four hundred years ago, poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, entire of itself...." Today his words are as meaningful as ever. I need my friends and supporters of the online community who are striving to fulfill their own dreams against the odds. And I also need my local friends and neighbors that bring richness and joy to my daily life.