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The land of misfit moments

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By Meaghan Downs

She seemed at ease with her cage, the barbed wire and tall fences surrounding the women’s prison.
I felt relaxed, too.
Maybe I should have been more nervous, sitting across from a convicted first-degree murderer.
On that crisp November day, however, I was more worried about my frozen fingertips, hanging onto that scribbling pencil for dear life.
It’s hard to translate someone’s life story burning in your ears when your numb hands refuse to cooperate.
But the only place we could freely talk was on that cold metal picnic bench in the middle of the prison’s recreation yard.
Well, as freely as you could talk with a corrections officer looking on.
Unfortunately, that female inmate’s full story never made it into the final article of our student newspaper.
The focus of the story was Shanelle, a classmate and corrections officer intern who let me be her perpetual shadow that evening at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women.
Not that I didn’t want to include more.   
Like the inmate’s upcoming in-prison nuptials, rare among those serving life sentences.
Her hope that the crime she committed at 16 wouldn’t be held against her forever.
The one trunk in her cell, filled with the life she had and the little she had acquired since her incarceration in 1994.
I’m not always the Pulitzer-winning photographer that I wish I could be, so I try to capture pictures with my words when the camera flash fails me.
Yet inevitably, there are those moments that slip away in between the shorthand of an interview: the extraneous stories, the fat carved away from the lean meat of a story.
It wouldn’t be journalistic of me, I suppose, to write a story with the voice of a poet.
There is no time in newspapers to wax romantic.
But I can’t help myself. I’m a sucker for lost causes, including forgotten stories.
They worm their way into my writing, eventually:
Love settled deep in the crow’s feet of a farming widower, remembering his wife.
A child’s fear of sleeping indoors after being buried in rubble during the Haiti earthquake.
A compliment from a camera-shy prison inmate on my bright blue shoes.
But there was no place for them as of press time, these misfit sentences and anecdotes, except for my head.  
Already in the three months I’ve been in Kentucky, they’re piling up.
I file them away, tucked in the recesses of memory, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to pull them out again.
They say most of what you remember about your life doesn’t include the highs or the lows.
It’s what you consider the “filler” moments, how you spend your time waiting for the next milestone in life.
For the inmate, her life was the cage.
A life of waiting until she was told to move, to work, to eat.
All she had now were the empty moments in between..
Moments she expected me to record, my pencil struggling to keep up.