Freedom to Choose

Someone once told me, “I don’t care what you do in your life, whether you choose to be a carpenter, a doctor or a bum. I care that you have as many tools as possible so that you are free to choose.”

Though I lost my way and made terrible mistakes, I am still shaped by those words because wisdom has no expiration date. It was waiting for me when I became ready to listen.

It makes me think about the men I’m incarcerated with, about their opportunities, or lack thereof.

Some were like me. They had choices and futures but got stuck in a bottle or a bag of dope. Lost their moral compass in animal craving and spiritual darkness.

Others seem cursed. Born addicted. Burned with cigarettes. Bones broken. Bodies violated. Spirits shattered. Shuttles from one foster home to the next. Starved of food, comfort and love.

Most were somewhere in between. Limited opportunities and bad choices led them here. Not inevitable but certainly understandable.

I grew up believing I would be a lawyer or counselor. Many grew up believing they’d be dead by 18.

I have been blessed to find teachers, inside and out, who helped me take responsibility for my choices, discover my options and grow into the man I am today.

In turn, I have been grateful to teach, mentor and share my experience. I have watched men blossom and change. Others have been unable or unwilling to depart from long-held habits. I can’t control their choice. My hope is to help them see they have one.

There are days life feels like a tragedy. Other days a comedy. A joy. Working with others reminds me I’m not the center of the universe. It keeps self-pity at bay and gratitude near.

Life is not fair. The playing ground is not level. I don’t know how to change that. Each day I wake up and try to share the love, support and wisdom that have been so freely given to me, so maybe one day we can all find the freedom to choose.

A Prayer Answered

For years I have started each day on my knees with two prayers. The first essentially says “Thy will, not mine, be done.” The second is a prayer for the people I have hurt.

I’m not sure what I’m praying to. I’m not sure if anything is listening. I am sure that my selfish will and best thinking landed me in prison for 32 years with a mile-wide wake of destruction and a long line of people I had hurt.

Starting the day on my knees is a reminder that life is not all about me. I am not in charge. I am here on this amazing planet and I have the opportunity to be of service rather than live selfishly.

It has been a struggle to live that first prayer lately. I have been afraid. Being locked in a concrete and steel box with Corona Virus running through the institution, hospitalizing and even killing guys is difficult to accept. I want to go home. I want to be somewhere else. I want all sorts of things that are not in my control.

The classes I teach are cancelled. The guys I work with are locked in their own boxes. Meetings are cancelled. The ways I find peace and offer service have been limited.

I have fought with the way things are. I have lost.

Then today, after weeks locked in the cell, we were allowed outside for an hour. The sun warmed my skin. The breeze cooled it.

In the fresh air I found acceptance without thought or question. I was able to be present and grateful and OK.

Testing in the Middle of the Storm

We’re locked down here at the prison so time doesn’t matter much. Without a schedule I find myself rising with the sun. Something primal wakes me up. I watch out the window as a distant mountain slowly turns purple. Orange and yellow spread into a blue sky.

At 9am yesterday the main door opened with a clink. I walked to the window in my cell door to see. Habit these days with so little going on. I had been up for hours but wondered if I was still dreaming.

A group in full hazmat suits and sealed respirators walked in. A gruff-looking Sergeant type in full camo with a face mask was directing things. The National Guard had arrived.

Our Covid-19 outbreak started two weeks ago. Six, then eight, then twelve men isolated. Four ended up in the hospital.

A week ago mass testing for affected units was done. Prisoners herded onto the rec yard to wait for hours. Finally tested in a long line. A whole day affair.

But something went wrong. None of the tests came back. Or they were lost. The stories vary.

Without results, the infected were not quarantined. Thirty two men in the honor pod live in single cells. The other more than 1100 men live in double cells the size of your bathroom. Cells with shared ventilation. Blowing nearly 40 years of dust and mold. No way to social distance.

So someone called in the National Guard. I always thought that was just a line from the movies. Or something that happens with hurricanes and tornadoes. Now we were in the middle of our own storm.

One by one they called us out of our cells. I was disappointed when I could hear them clearly. Had expected a Darth Vader hiss and distorted voices. The young Guardsman told me to lean back. That he would insert a swab two inches into my nasal cavity. It might be uncomfortable.

I laughed. Told him my nose has been uncomfortable since I destroyed it with cocaine 18 years ago. He laughed and swabbed away.

That was it. Back to the cell as they tested down the line. A few of the Guard working. Most standing around. Talk about getting all dressed up for nothing.

The idle Guardsmen and Guardswomen looked sideways at us. Not judging. Just curious. Men locked in cages were as alien to them as young men and women in hazmat suits were to us.

They left and we went back to the new normal. Locked doors. Lots of reading and writing.

Sometimes it’s scary. More often boring. Today it was at least exciting.

Sorry and Grief

It has been a week of grief. A scene on tv. A new smell. A passing memory. It all sends me near tears. Like forgetting a burden until my knees buckle.

I don’t know why. I just know there is a need behind the sadness. Something to be heard and honored.

Crying is a great hollowing out. Sometimes gentle. Sometimes violent. It washes away resistance to what is. Ushers in room for acceptance. Sometimes we have to accept terrible truths because terrible things happen.

Twelve years ago the man I call my grandfather lost his son to suicide. There are no words for that suffering. As much as we have talked and shared, I cannot begin to imagine his pain.

He would never be the same. A piece was lost forever.

But something grew in him. That hollowed out center now holds space. For love. For compassion. Even, eventually, for happiness. Not a moment taken for granted. He has done something beautiful with his pain.

I think of my grandfather when I cry. I thank him for showing me how to live, even in the face of the great and terrible.

Facing the Pandemic in Prison

Guards in Tyvex suits lead a diaspora of prisoners carrying trash bags with their meager belongings. They file onto the rec yard and spread out to claim a corner. They flee an enemy that cannot be seen.

These men live in units where the outbreak began. They walk, knowing their fate but clinging to hope they will not soon fill the gym. If the rec yard is a refugee camp, the gym is a field hospital.

They await test results. Marched through cramped hallways. Locked in cells breathing the same air. Cleaning the units after an outbreak is too little too late. The prison holds double the men it was designed for. Already inadequate ventilation has collected dust and mold over almost 40 years.

Virginia is projected to face more than $1,000,000,000 shortfall in its budget.

The Department of Corrections costs taxpayers $1,300,000,000 each year.

Staff and guards are underpaid, the turnover rate is as high as 90%.

Virginia abolished parole in 1995. There are no second chances for prisoners who turn their lives around.

Judges have complete discretion. One defendant can receive six years and another forty. Sentencing guidelines are regularly ignored.

Victims have few rights and regularly fail to receive compensation for their losses.

The system is broken.

The only hope is that, when we restart the country we take a hard look at things that weren’t working. We don’t have to go back to a broken way of life. Stopping means the freedom to start off in another direction.

Groundhog Day

People keep saying quarantine is like Groundhog Day. What can the movie teach us?

Bill Murray’s predicament and antics are funny. Stuck in the same routine he tries various approaches. Hedonism is fun but empty. Chaos is cool but gets boring. He fails spectacularly over and over. He loses hope. He can’t take it anymore so he tries to end it all.

After beating his head against the wall, Bill Murray realizes there is no escaping the way things are. What does he do next? He decides to live well.

He learns to ice sculpt. He plays piano. He opens his heart to beauty and art. He falls in love.

It’s a movie about finding hope in hopelessness. It’s about making the best of situations we can’t control. When he stops fighting and lives in the moment he’s freed from his prison.

All of us on quarantine and all of us in our various prisons could learn a lot from the movie.

Running from Self

I spent half of my life trying to be someone else. I talked like they talked. I dressed in their clothes. I did the same drugs. I tried to xerox my way to happiness.

Every strategy was about change instead of acceptance. None worked. I was still me and I still never felt like enough.

The best advice anyone ever gave me was to sit down and shut up, to be quiet long enough to see beyond my thoughts and feelings. I was desperate so I listened. And listened. All I heard was a roaring in my head. How could listening to this chaos bring me peace?

It got better. It got worse. To this day I never know what meditation will bring. I do know that life is different. I do know that I’m actually OK today.

Something terrible was always chasing me. I ran from it, numbed it, drowned it. It always grew stronger.

When I finally stopped, defeated, what walked in wasn’t a terrible creature, but my wounded self gone feral. I was running from a monster that only needed my love.

Who am I without the roles I play?

Under normal circumstances I teach two classes, mentor guys one on one, work as an electronics tech, attend vocational class and set up for programs each week.

Quarantine has largely taken those roles away. So what is left? Who am I without the roles I play?

Feeling unmoored helps me realize how much I rely on the structures and service opportunities in my life. It’s a shift from the selfish way I lived on my way to prison. It keeps me grounded and humble. It also keeps me busy.

There are still opportunities to be of service without the classes I teach and guys I work with. They just take a little more effort and sometimes I have to accept being me without the things I do.

Underneath it all there is love. It’s clouded by fear and impatience but it’s here when I sit still long enough.

Attitude and Acceptance

Early on in prison I learned that it’s all about attitude. Guys with life sentences and no opportunity can live well while guys weeks from release can’t appreciate or enjoy a single thing.

I was blessed. People showed me what Ram Dass taught – wherever we go, there we are. We can fight facts or we can work to change them. Fighting facts is like trying not to fall once we’re on the ground. Far better to stand back up.

Accepting that I was in prison meant not having to hate each morning I woke up and saw bars. It meant not hating myself despite my many mistakes. Acceptance allowed me to choose my attitude. Choosing my attitude allowed me to be free.

So much time

Quarantine is a great opportunity to do, yet I feel stuck in place.

Writing is one of the ways I connect with myself and try to connect with the world. I value the truths that I don’t even realize until I put them on paper.

Sometimes I don’t know what to write. Initially quarantine provided me with a wealth of topics because it’s something I’m familiar with that’s new to the world. A few weeks in and I’m still not able to teach classes, work with my mentees or set up for programs. Without the activities that recharge me I feel like I’m running on empty.

I’m still keeping to my schedule. I’m meditating and exercising and connecting with others. I feel good most days. I enjoy the sunrises and give thanks before I go to bed each night.

So maybe what I’m feeling isn’t wrong after all. Maybe we’re allowed to have breaks in productivity and focus. Maybe we’re allowed to grieve softly and be numb. Maybe this is all the way it’s supposed to be and we’re supposed to learn from this too.

I long to get out and run around. I long to sit with people I love. I can’t do that right now but I can focus on the connections and joys I do have.

Everything special happens in the now. Whether it’s watching a beautiful sunrise or hugging a friend, the rest of the world slips away. So, instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we can try to bring that attention and fullness to everything around us, choosing to make everything we do special.

This is a new moment. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. We’re all just doing out best, and that’s ok