02 November, 2012

Possessions, Prison Policy, and Grief

For over a decade I’ve been living out of a box — the gray metal footlocker that’s followed me for twelve years. Its limited space must hold everything I own (TV set, radio, and fan excluded), according to the policy of the Department of Corrections. Living under such restriction has forced me to weigh the importance of every card, every photograph, every meager scrap of paper I keep, because it’s the little things that are most apt to accumulate, quietly, into big things. I’ve been diligent, so my property has never exceeded my storage capacity. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

Never one for hoarding, I have always preferred to keep material possessions in my life to a relative minimum. What I do own, I keep organized. My childhood playroom was a neat space lined with crates and spruce shelves. My father’s space, the garage, was the opposite. A practical pack rat of the venerable, age-old This will come in handy someday!” school of thought, I can’t say it was from him that I learned what not to do, since it was, if anything, by the example of my German mother, whose memories of her formative years seem to involve an inordinate amount of polishing, that my inner neat-freak was encouraged. Any influence my father had on my aversion to accumulating stuff would have been posthumous, after his death, when I was eighteen and forced to make a salvage operation of his house — the home in which I grew up — and that damned garage.

In short, the things I have around must have real value, real importance to me on a practical or emotional level. I set the bar high. Here, in prison, I set the bar even higher. For me to keep something around, it must have passed the test. Some of what I keep is therefore precious.

Attachments beget sorrow, say the Buddhists. To divest oneself of material things is to take a step toward enlightenment. Unless they mean “enlightenment” in terms of a lightening of my life’s carefully selected cargo, then the last thing I felt when I lost everything and was locked away in a prison cell was enlightened. It must sound petty to you, but I still miss my pocket watch and my satiny brushed-stainless flatware. I don’t habitually complain about how much I miss the stuff of my former life, though, because I know that the absence of ticking in my pocket and the heft of those utensils in my hands are just symptoms of the larger problem, the perpetual state of loss that I’m finding prison life to be — perhaps no more so than life anywhere else, but certainly easier to dwell on than in other circumstances.

Obviously, though I live abstemiously, I’m no Buddhist. When we were teenagers, it was this sort of morbid stewing that led my friend Anna to title me Byron the Blackheart. Not that she had room to talk. Her favorite poem was that one by Stephen Crane, probably best known (though, I have no idea why) as the author of The Red Badge of Courage, “A man said to the universe.” You know the one:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
After struggling with a vicious depression for far longer than even our decade of friendship, Anna killed herself in the summer of 2008. The batch of letters and cards I kept, written in her minuscule cursive handwriting that was almost illegible in its perfection, took on talismanic power, as if the sheaf of papers were imbued with some essence of her. I imagined I could smell her in the creases of the cards, on the surface of the pages, which were nearly as white as her skin had been.

Anna’s correspondence, hidden safe inside a folder inside a ribbon-tied portfolio inside a sturdy footlocker for four years and four months after she told the universe she’d had enough, was precious. But the Buddhists are right about attachments. Having held tight to those mementos of my friend, I invited the sorrow of additional loss, almost like losing her all over again. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

New property limits were posted a few days ago, for all prisoners to read. No more than twenty-five personal letters, it says. As if I had not already lost enough. I took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the crumbling of more pieces away from what she jokingly called my black heart. I read her words one last time, then I tore them to bits. I poured this sad confetti into the thirty-gallon Rubbermaid trash can by the door of the wing, the pale sprinkles cascading over an empty bag of microwave popcorn and some candy wrappers. When I returned the empty portfolio to its place in my methodically organized footlocker, I barely noticed how much space I’d cleared up.

1 comment:

  1. As if they didn't take enough from you already; this breaks my heart. Is there anyway that you can send any leftover letters to your mother for safe keeping?

    ReplyDelete

Lacking computer access of any kind, Byron cannot respond to your comments but is relayed them and appreciates your kind remarks.