Becoming Part of the Solution

I will never know the experience of being a person of color in the world. I have, however, known the experience of being a minority, in prison.

In 2006 I was one of six white men in a sixty-four man housing unit. At times it was profoundly uncomfortable, mostly because of a particular individual who made his racism toward whites well known. It was the first time I wondered if this was how a person of color feels everyday in America.

I was the first time I realized even a fraction of the privilege I had lived with for my entire life. I had never once felt afraid or uncomfortable because of the color of my skin.

In 2007 I moved in with Patrick. He wasn’t the first black man I lived with but he was the first man I started to open my heart and my mind to on matters of race.

Patrick told me about his experience. He was black, he was also huge – 6’6, 260 pounds. I thought he must feel strong and powerful. I never suspected he had felt angry, afraid and ashamed.

Being big meant, as a kid, no one would fight him. They would hit him with a bat or jump him. Being big and black meant people locked their car doors when he walked down the street. White men and women would cross the street to not cross his path. Cops always drew their guns when they pulled him over or stopped him on the street. One woman threatened to mace him when he asked if she needed help with the groceries and stroller she was juggling.

Patrick invited me to the Pan-African group he attended. He wanted me to listen. He also wanted me to share. He said guys looked forward to talking openly with a white man about race.

I never went.

I called Patrick my friend but wouldn’t take an hour out of each week to listen and share.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee I supported his right to do so, but it didn’t mean anything to me.

I thought not being racist was enough.

I was wrong.

I am sorry I didn’t take the time to listen and share. I am sorry I haven’t spoken up when faced with racism and injustice. I am sorry that by not being part of the solution, I have been part of the problem.

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.

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

Loss of Touch

We are all losing a lot during this pandemic. Lately I’ve been thinking about the loss of touch.

During the first nine months of my incarceration I was in the local jail and didn’t touch another person. I didn’t realize the effect it was having on me.

After sentencing I was sent to a DOC reception center where I could receive contact visits. Being able to hug my friends and family again made me feel alive. It made me feel real.

Over the past 17 1/2 years I’ve gotten used to cramming all of my physical contact into the one or two visits I receive each month. Now visits are cancelled indefinitely and we’re all in the same boat.

I encourage everyone to share and to grieve the things we’ve lost and our needs that aren’t being met. We can only move forward by acknowledging and processing these losses. Grieving the end of what was will allow us to make the best of what is.

We will be able to come together again one day. We will be able to hug and dance and love. It will be amazing.

I am Afraid

I am afraid for the man in my pod who is so eaten up with cancer he can’t climb the stairs anymore. I am afraid for the pregnant guard who walks through, no more protected than we are. I am afraid for my family. I am afraid for my friends. I am afraid for myself.

There is a ferocity to fear that makes me want to run from it. For years I ran to the numbness of drugs and alcohol. Sometimes I still try to eat, sleep or exercise it away. Today I am sitting with it.

Giving myself permission to feel scared and unsure means dealing with the root of what is going on. It means accepting the places I am powerless. It means giving myself permission to be human so that I can emerge whole on the other side and hopefully help someone else. More than anything else this experience reminds me how interconnected and interdependent we all are. We need each other. The only way to be there for each other is to be there for ourselves first. We need to feel. We need to share. We need to reach out. This too shall pass.