03 March, 2022

Not the End

If loving parents, not well-to-do but rich in culture, take their young son backpacking through Europe and Mexico for thirty days at a stretch, if they tour the American South with him in a van, if the three spend a month in a tiny tent on a Jamaican beach, rising each morning at sunup to the calls of venders hawking peanuts, pastries, and fruits, what will that boy come to learn about life's bounty?
          If a mother nurtures her only child's inborn talents by keeping him out of public school and, instead, teaches him herself so his precocious mind can feed as avidly as it wants, on real-world exploration and studious reading alike, how wide will the son's knowledge about life grow?
          If a sensitive seven-year-old's pet hermit crab – a creature few might find lovable – dies in its terrarium overnight, what will the ensuing three days' crying jag do to bring the boy closer to grasping life's incomparable preciousness?
          If the same youth, a decade on, loses his two closest friends to gunshots, and his father to HIV sixty days later, how fervently will he then believe that life must be lived with urgency, since it could at any point end?

Whatever ideas I had about life by age twenty-two proved largely worthless after the third day of trial, when the judge pronounced my sentence: life without the possibility of parole. In the state of Missouri it means exactly what it sounds like, and it's mandatory in cases of first-degree murder when prosecutors decline to pursue execution. I hadn't killed anyone, and staunchly maintained my innocence, but this was beside the point.
          A prodigy, a skilled artist, a gifted writer. By the time I stood in the courtroom that nightmarish morning, I'd been called all these things. Joining the workforce hadn't been my only priority when I tested out of high school my freshman year. My motivations lay elsewhere. Reading science and philosophy texts, coding JavaScript applications in my bedroom, debating political theory at coffeehouses, and frequenting local art gallery openings are not the pastimes of your typical dropout. Up until that day before the judge, everyone – everyone – promised me a bright future, saying I had my whole life ahead of me.
          My whole life. Suddenly it felt like a threat.

The initial years in prison were a hell. A nervous condition I developed made my legs itch so fiercely that I often went without sleep. The long stretches of inactivity were punctuated by periods of mortal dread, as I weathered the kind of storms all pretty boys encounter when they first come down.
          One night as I sat reading in my cell, a sexual predator barged through the door and grabbed my throat. "Fuck or fight," he hissed into my face. I dropped A Brief History of Time and obliged him with Option B, the first fight of my adult life. I came away with five pink crescents on my neck from his fingernails, but no significant physical wounds.
          Arguably, the tedium was more damaging. There are any number of ways to combat boredom, and I tried many of them. Crossword puzzles, drawing, writing letters to friends and my mother, watching TV, making tapes off the radio, playing SCRABBLE with my cellmate, sleeping long, and daydreaming about the reversal of my conviction that just had to be in store were enough to get by on. In the world of prison but not of it, I had no desire to join the drug or gambling circles, which felt beneath me. But my occupations were scarcely different from those, in principle. Everyone in prison is just looking for distraction, ignoring the fact that, even if we succeeded in passing today away, there would still be tomorrow to contend with. And what then? What was the point?
          The prison offered programs with names like Cognitive Thinking, Pathways to Change, Impact of Crime on Victims. All were insultingly remedial and lacking even a modicum of interest in participants' improvement. I vowed never to attend one. Surely I could do better on my own.
          Job opportunities were scant and, where available, often sad. Paying ones were rarer yet. And working as a line server in the chow hall, scrubbing shower stalls in the housing unit, or handing out sheets on laundry days were simply different meaningless preoccupations. When I took a position in the visiting room, snapping pictures of prisoners as they stood beside their loved ones, my twenty-five-dollar monthly paycheck bought some instant ramen and snack crackers from the canteen, but nothing meaningful or lasting.
          Patterns emerged in the pockmarked concrete ceiling above my bunk. My dreams took on unsettling vividness. I dwelled on memories of pleasures now denied. The people I love stared back from the pages of my photo album, untouchable and far, far away. Always something of a masochist, I held tightly to these moments of grief and near-madness. However bittersweet they tasted, they were unequivocally mine. No one could take them away.

The poet John Berryman, writing about the role of suffering in art, said that "the artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he's in business."
          I took my misery and turned it over and over, probing each crevice and raking every point of its topography. Prison, an environment like none I'd previously experienced, threw all distinctions into stark contrast. As an inveterate observer, I couldn't help but hone my perception to a razor sharpness. The edge of it cut through everything: priorities, expectations, delusions, certainties, desires, and all manner of bullshit. Gradually, I flensed away the superfluous, like a butcher removing fat from meat. I wanted to see how lean life could get.
          Spartan living became the norm. There was a petulance behind it, admittedly. I thought that this choosing to do without was how I loosened my captors' hold. But mostly the deprivation games were tests, challenges to myself. And to prove that what I wanted and what I needed weren't necessarily one and the same. I quit smoking, cold turkey. I gave up coffee for no other reason than to enjoy it more whenever my abstinence ended. I went on a multi-day fast, to see how long I could go without eating.
          Know thyself, says the ancient maxim. Prison offers more opportunity for this than anyone but the most obsessive ruminator might want. By experiencing pain and unease an introspective soul grows. With a deeper knowledge of myself came insights about the world.
          I committed almost all of mine to paper.

"How do I know what I think," asks one author, "until I've written it?" Ordering words to articulate thoughts leads to countless minute discoveries. The process is an intellectual delight even when the realizations are less than friendly.
          Unlike the Sisyphean effort of time-passing, the rewards of writing endure beyond the here and now. After the process of composition – which is, for me, always meditative – my essays, poems, fictions, and letters find their way into the world and are read. From this comes a sense of accomplishment, and, consequently, one of purpose.
          I could say that writing saved me, but oversimplifying my salvation that way would be as fatuous as it would be misleading. I saved myself. Writing is just a facet of who I am, inseparable from the whole. It's the outcome of long years of contemplation and suffering, testament to one man's journey through himself and the world that up to this point has helped shape him. It's also the product of that precocious youth's travels around the globe and his development of an early sense of value and discernment. It's both a distillation and an expansion, a means and an end.
          What will tomorrow bring? Will my wrongful conviction be overturned? If it is, what shape might my days take? How easily will I adapt to that brave new world? While these are natural questions to spring to mind, I'm not preoccupied by them, because they're pointless.
As a human being, all I can do is venture to stretch my limits a little each day and maybe help someone else do the same. If I get a tomorrow, I'll do it then, too. Ditto the day after that. Whatever comes, comes.
          I've got my whole life ahead of me. It feels like a promise.

1 comment:

  1. A hard one to read but still hopeful that you will come home.


Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.