The Apple Tree:: Chapter 4: Connections

Bridget knew remaining sober was the only way she would ever regain custody of her two youngest children. She did that and more, but it still wasn't enough for her ex-husband. Their relationship, even as co-parents, disintegrated, and she was left without even the legal right to visit her children. At least not without a vicious court battle. 

Despite the difficult circumstances, sobriety stuck this time. With her feet firmly underneath her, Bridget managed to provide stability for herself and her oldest daughter. It took time, but by 2012 she had moved from Rochester, MN to Pepin, Wisconsin where she was living in a house with a picket fence along with her fiancé, her daughter, and her daughter's boyfriend.

Then, as it often does, history repeated itself. This time her fiancé, Dylan, led Bridget down the path of no return and on November 17, 2012, just shy of her six-year anniversary, Bridget traded her sobriety for a hit of meth - one of the most addictive and dangerous illegal drugs in the U.S. (see footnote 1)

Before the end of 2012, drug charges led to Dylan's arrest and incarceration. Bridget's daughter, Brittany, now a legal adult, returned to Rochester wanting nothing to do with her mom's drug use. Alone, Bridget lost the house and in January 2013 moved into a trailer. 

Prior to his arrest and continuing from behind bars, Dylan connected Bridget with people involved in the under current of drug activity. Bridget, acting on Dylan's behalf, found herself in the middle of drug transactions which helped feed her habit.

In the process, new people came into Bridget's life with some regularity. And relationships among drug users are fluid. One day you may be best friends, sisters, or brothers, and the next day one of them could turn criminal informant, in the interest of self-protection, despite the stereotypical "thicker than thieves" mentality. Such was the case when police caught a woman selling drugs in Eau Claire, WI. She said she'd bought the drugs from Bridget, but that she hadn't actually paid Bridget for them, yet. Police set up a sting so money could change hands between the woman and Bridget. An arrest couldn't be made otherwise.

The woman, wearing a wire, met Bridget at an Eau Claire McDonald's parking lot under the close surveillance of ECPD. Once the money changed hands, officers moved in and arrested Bridget. 

In Wisconsin, it seems drug arrests can occur based on hearsay but remember this is the same state that convicted Steven Avery. Wrongfully. Twice. Of course, Bridget was involved in illegal drug activity, but this scenario reeks of forced guilt.

Upon questioning, Bridget admitted to giving the woman meth and was charged with delivery of methamphetamine. She was released pending a future court hearing. 

Because of the arrest, she got kicked out of her trailer house and, with nowhere to go, found a place to rent in Winona, MN with help from Dylan's connections there. Once settled, she reconnected with her AA sponsor and committed to going straight.


But, it wouldn't last long.

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I was struggling. Not only with lyrics and melodies, but also with an internal crisis of belief. The more I heard Bridget's story, the more I had to come up against my own preconceived notions of what constitutes a "good" person or a "bad" person; or what makes a person worthy or not worthy.

I liked Bridget despite her mistakes, shortcomings, addictions, and failures. If we had met outside of jail, I was convinced we would have been friends. Now, because of knowing her on a personal level, whenever I saw a mug shot on the news, I knew that underneath the grim expression was a history and story of a real person.

The thing is, us humans have a tendency to make judgments, to rank one another, sometimes by looks, success, wealth, fame, actions or relationships. Most of these rankings don't have much consequence, but when we place value on a person based on those rankings we have entered dangerous territory. 

In terms of Bridget's life, I knew that she had worth despite her mistakes. If this wasn't true, where, then, do I draw the line on who is worthy and who isn't? Are there people who are not worthy? What makes someone more or less worthy than anyone else? If one person is worthy and another person isn't then who or what is it that determines worth? And, what about me? Am I worthy?

These questions plagued me for weeks. As I drove in the car, made supper for my family, sat in front of the piano, during my few quiet moments in the evening, or when I prayerfully considered my life and Bridget's, I wondered about answers.

Ultimately, no matter the scenario I created in my mind, I concluded that the only rational, logical, and compassionate answer is that every life has worth. If we say that even one life doesn't have worth, then we have already made judgments based on arbitrary criteria for what makes a person worthy or not. 

This conclusion - that every life has worth - also came about because I believe that life is given by a Creator God who has formed each person to bear his image. Let me say that again...absolutely every person bears the image of God. 

This inherent worth is something we can either recognize or deny. When we deny our own worth, we reject that which is good, lovely, holy, and pure. When we deny the worth of others, we go down the path of racism, classism, violence, hatred, and injustice. To see how we truly feel we only have to look to our biases and actions as they are the litmus test of who we consider worthy. (see footnote 2)

With this new found ethic and theology of worth, I wanted to take the words spoken by Bridget's boyfriend, Wyatt, and flip them on their heads to mean something good. I would eliminate the analogy of the butterfly entirely and focus entirely on the apple tree. Once I made that decision, the chorus came easily. 

I sketched out the lyrics fairly quickly and brought them with me to my fourth session with Bridget. 

We were sitting at one of the library tables towards the back of the room. This time, without thinking, I sat with my back to the door. The assignment had been for Bridget to create a list of things she'd like to do upon release. We spent time imagining and dreaming.

Finally, in the last 10 minutes, I pulled out the lyrics I'd written for the chorus. 

"Well, Bridget, I was able to write something."

"Really!?!?" She seemed so excited. "Do I get to hear it?"

"Yes, well it's only the chorus," I cautioned, "I don't have the verses down yet. It ended up being too difficult to use both the butterfly and apple tree analogies, so I focused solely on the apple tree." I hesitated, "I hope that's okay with you?"

"Sure. Songwriting is your department." She took it better than I expected.

I sang for her the draft and when I got to the line, "Beautiful, sacred, and strong...I am the apple tree," she began to cry big fat tears amidst a smile and expressions of disbelief; maybe joy.

I addressed her directly. "Do you know this is what I see in you?"

"Yes, but I don't know how." She dabbed tears from her eyes.

"Bridget, despite everything, you are beautiful because you have not only outward beauty but an inner beauty that shines when you speak of your children, your family, and those you love. You are strong because no matter what has happened in your life you keep fighting, keep trying, keep living and breathing. You are sacred because God has made you and He loves you. He has given you life and grace and hope. This is what I believe."

My own eyes filled with tears. To see the impact my words had on Bridget touched me deeply. Humbled me. Blessed me. In that moment, something happened inside of me. I knew that from then on, what I wanted to do was affirm the good in people's lives. To point it out and champion it. To see the same sort of transformation I was seeing in Bridget happen in others. I knew it wasn't my doing, but I was lucky enough to see it.

"I'll work on the verses this week," I said as I brushed my own tears away. "I think rather than continuing to expand on the analogy, I'll literally tell the story of how it came about...and for your assignment this week, I'd like to know what part faith has played in your life. Would you be willing to journal about that?"

"Absolutely. I can't wait to hear what you come up with next week."

"Well, don't get your hopes up too high. I may disappoint." 

With just two sessions left, I hoped that wouldn't be the case. 


2. But, what of those who commit heinous crimes such as pedophiles or serial rapists or serial killers? Are they still worthy? Rightly so, a sense of justice appropriately leads us, in these cases, to protect the vulnerable and punish the wrongdoer. But, how should we look at these individuals? When is a person without hope or redemption? I leave those judgments in the hands of God. Until then, I chose to treat each person as worthy of hope and redemption. We must continue to affirm the worth of every human life even if they have rejected their own worth and the worth of others. Otherwise, we run the risk of being guilty of the same in-humane behavior.