Imagine being an intelligent 41-year-old, going to a restaurant and not having a clue what half of the items on the menu are. Having a curfew. Or getting excited by junk mail.
Jailed at 16 and paroled at 41, Bill Rasor missed out on a lot. More precisely, he postponed a lot. He’s been making up for it ever since.
Take the junk mail. “It’s hard for people to understand how I can be happy about getting junk mail,” he says. “It’s mine! It’s in my name. It’s coming to me.”
Or his first flat tire. “I had a flat tire and I called Jenny jubilantly about having a flat tire, and she said, ‘Why are you so happy about this?’ And I said, “Because I have never had a flat tire, I got to change my own tire.” Even when the new experiences extended to a worn-out transmission, Bill was undaunted. “You know, it was like, this is living,” he recalls. “I feel really alive.”
What most of us see as life’s little misfortunes, Bill experiences as an opportunity to exercise his hard-won freedom. For him the glass isn’t half-full, it’s a brand-new glass full of milk with a double serving of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. “Although I was making some decisions in there,” he says of prison, “I was not making life decisions. In there it was a routine and you just get up and do it. Out here, every day it’s decision, decision, decision, and I like that.”
Flat tires and blown transmissions – things that make you or me say “Oh, God, here we go again,” – are part of the big adventure for Bill. Even sleepless nights can thrill him. “There are times when I get up at night and I sit in the living room or I go get on the computer or I go pour a glass of milk or I go out in the front yard and sit in one of our lawn chairs and it’s like 2 a.m. and it’s awesome,” he says. “It’s really coming around. I’m getting to experience adulthood.”
To watch Bill play X-Box with our son Sam is to see a 40-something with a lot of 12-year-old left in him. But there’s something remarkable and admirable beneath the ever-present black hat and behind the boyish grin. He's been lucky the past five years, but to a large degree he has made his own luck.
Bill made a huge mistake when he was 16, and he paid for it. As a poor kid with a lousy lawyer, he probably paid too much and for far too long. But he’s done a lot right since earning his release from Orange Correctional Center in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in 2009. Beginning with a dead-end restaurant job with an abusive manager – one he left at some peril to his freedom – he moved on to carpentry work with a supportive boss and then to an increasingly responsible position with a nonprofit that helps people with mental illness learn how to live in the community. Without a college degree – he has a GED and a folder full of certificates from his prison time – he has become a successful professional. If anything, his luck in love and friendship has been even greater.
Bill credits TV a for some of his post-prison success – “The only good thing about commercials is they tell you what’s out there.” But mostly, he redeemed what could have been wasted years by paying attention. “I didn’t always have to make the mistakes that everybody just makes,” he says. “I could learn by hearing them talk about the mistakes they made, which is a gift. That’s not to say I don’t still make mistakes, but I don’t tend to make the mistakes that I’ve heard other people talk about.”
Bill saw many people leave prison, and too many come back. He learned that you don’t buy stuff cheap from a stranger on the side of the road, and that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. He learned what not to do. More important, he learned what to do. Piecing the parade of individual failures into patterns, he developed a list of five things he would need to do to stay free if he ever got out. ‘’Things,” he says, “that I saw people who were staying out were doing, the people who were coming back weren’t doing.”
First on Bill’s list was consistent employment: “Because that gave you goals, it gave you something to move forward with.” Next was building relationships: “It had to be healthy relationships, not relationships that were going to get you back in trouble.” Third was volunteering: “Just doing it, without any expectation, giving of yourself to something outside yourself.” Fourth, spirituality: Not necessarily a specific faith, but a belief system that teaches respect for others. Fifth is treating substance abuse problems: “I’m an exception, but most offenders have a drug or alcohol problem. They have to address it.”
Bill didn’t adopt his list from a self-help book for a successful life after incarceration. “I came up with it by talking to people, guys who I saw coming back over and over,” he says. “It would break my heart. I would be like, “If I could just have one chance.”
His chance finally came. He hasn’t messed it up.
He put in dozens of housing applications before finding a place that would rent to a convicted felon. He found a job, and then a better one. He volunteered at Carolina Tiger Rescue and began to mentor others who were making the transition from prison to life outside. He built an impressive circle of friends, many of whom spend extensive amounts of time and money at the Bean Traders coffee shop near Jenny and Bill’s house. Out on passes while he was still in prison, he began attending what he calls the pagan services at the Unitarian Universalist Church. Six days before his release, he met Jenny at a Celebrate the Circle ritual at the Unitarian Church.
It hasn’t all been easy. There were dark moments when he feared that quitting his job might be a violation of his parole. Getting backed into on his motorcycle in the parking lot of his next job led to physical pain and financial discomfort. And then there was Jenny.
Although he jokes that after 26 years in prison he was interested in every woman, Bill settled on Jenny very quickly. It took Jenny a little bit longer. Needing some work done around the house, Jenny asked one of Bill’s supporters at the church for his contact information. Already smitten, Bill explained that he was an all-or-nothing guy and it would be difficult to be at her house as a worker when what he really wanted was to date her. “There was no way she was going to date a guy who just got out of prison for murder,” he says. He asked her out, more than once. “She was like, ‘No, I just want some work done around the house.”
Bill took the initial rejection hard. “I remember laying on my couch, just crying, brokenhearted, every time she said no,” he recalls. “But I was not giving up. I know she’s a good woman and I’m not letting this get by me.” Finally, Jenny relented. Their first date was at his place, the only place they could meet without violating his 7 p.m. curfew.
Their early relationship was anything but smooth. “It’s a bumpy road,” says Bill. “I’m having to deal with issues and just coming out and learning what a relationship is really about.” Jenny was recently divorced and hesitant to commit to this self-confessed all-or-nothing guy. At one point the whole thing nearly came crashing down over the thorny question of whether a country music-loving man and a rock and roller could ever coexist happily.
But Bill is nothing if not persistent, and a year and a half ago dozens of us gathered at a rustic lodge by a lake to celebrate their marriage. The ceremony blended Bill’s Native American and Jenny’s Wiccan beliefs. The crowd – blood relatives, coworkers, the sponsors who guided Bill when he was first out of prison, the many friends whom Bill and Jenny have incorporated into a raucous extended family – told you all you needed to know about Bill’s awe-inspiring ability to build healthy relationships. During the ceremony, we stood and turned as one, to the East, West, North and South, celebrating the journey that brought Jenny and Bill together and promising to support them as they built a new life together.
Five years out of jail and done with parole as of Mother’s Day weekend, Bill Rasor is doing all right. He has a plan to celebrate his remarkable journey. He’s going to Disneyworld. He’s earned it.