Owen was obsessed with the little stickers that college football teams put on their helmets. Over the course of the season, players received these stickers for their accomplishments. Owen didn’t have a clue what the specifics were, or if the reward system was individual or team-based? Season after season, as the unquestionable summer sunshine gave way to the crunchy crumbling of orange and brown and yellow leaves of fall- Owen felt like nobody cared but him. Would each tackle by the defense produce a sticker? Or just sacks on the quarterback? Forced fumbles? Owen grew tired of just grunting like a linebacker tackling a running back. Everybody else shrugged him off between plays and sips of beer and awkward crunches of Tostitos. So he did the only logical thing he could think of: he decided to develop his own sticker reward system. Since he didn’t have a football helmet, he used his ’97 Volkswagen Jetta. And since he was sick of stickers, he superglued little toy figures to the hood of his car whenever anybody on his “team” accomplished anything. For job promotions and raises, he glued little army men to the Jetta to symbolize the soldiering through that transpires in places of employment. Whenever his friends announced successful first dates, one-night stands, engagements, pregnancies, marriages-he stuck to the old-school red and blue cowboys and Indians to represent the eternal tension in relationships. And when anybody had the chutzpah to ask him why all those toys were on his car, he would reply “Why do college teams put stickers on their helmets?!” And only the keys in the ignition of the Jetta could break the awkward silence.
I remember red and blue illumination dancing wildly off of tenements. I remember stale air, old tennis shoes and long forgotten Febreze. I remember Jefferson and Lincoln old and crisp. “Keep the change.” I remember metal smooth and cool air running in bringing along bickering pandemonium. I remember Timberland soles meeting city asphalt. I remember a herd of different faces, animated mixed emotions, a collective mumbled gumbo. I remember parting a sea of stale beer, cigarette smoke, friend fish, greens spearmint wafting in the air. I remember dark blue uniforms with “City Of” patches, squawking radios dispatching codes and destinations. I remember a mass of blue hovering over a spiritless form – Black Male, Mid-20s, 6’2, Identity Unknown. I remember warm tears stinging my cold face, a shattered heart, weak knees and a broken spirit. I remember 1,2,3,4,5,6 shells from a service revolver. I remember a black space, endless space. I remember footsteps 1,2,4,4,5. I remember silence. I remember tears. I remember life.
“You have to die a few times before you can really live,” – Charles Bukowski. Truly, anyone who has suffered a loss of all things has a good understanding of this quote by Charles Bukowski but especially for anyone who has been incarcerated for a long periods of time – it means a lot. Not only has the offender died a few times, but he dies daily – to friends, to family, to the simple comforts of life. The cliché becomes reality: it’s the simple things in life that matter. A walk in the woods, listening to the thunder, sitting on a front porch – these things become as unreachable to us as life is to the dead. Of course, aren’t these the very elements of life? These simple pleasures remind us of who we are. When we lose these “simple things” we cease to be alive in any real sense of the word. In essence, we have died to the world and it to us.
I have died many times in my life. My soul no longer knows the pleasures of simply being alive. It has gotten to the point in my existence that the only way I can truly feel alive again is by having these simple pleasures restored. As Ebenezer Scrooge discovered, I have also learned not to take these things for granted anymore. Unfortunately, what it took the old miser to learn in one night, it has taken me three decades.
On a wintery day in February 1972, I sat in my living room looking out the window at the weather and drinking JW DANT one-hundred-proof bourbon. I sat with my bottle in-hand talking to God as I often did. The alarm beeped on my watch and startled me. It read 9:30am. At 25, I wondered: How in the Hell did I arrive at such a miserable existence? But, my thoughts evaded me. My father drank most of his life and I hated it, and swore I’d never do it and yet I drank. It had been that way since Vietnam – the drinking and hallucinating. Booze helped ease the pain I felt inside. In my state of mind, I didn’t understand how the pain came, but it did. It clung to my life like a millstone around my neck – ever pulling me down deeper into darkness. In my own wretched state, I vaguely remember telling God: I’d rather be dead or in prison than live like this.
No wind blew because snow flakes fell straight down rocking back and forth as they floated to the ground. One had to be careful because a windless day made the likelihood of an ambush very real. In the yard, snow stuck in some places but melted in others – leaving patches of white snow and green grass on the ground. A perfect place to dig a pungi-stick with its sharp-tipped stalks covered in poison, I surmised. Deep potholes in my paved, black-topped driveway filled with melted snow and quickly formed a thin layer of ice around the edges, but I knew they hid landmines under the water. The sky had low-lying gray, dark snow moving clouds. The sentries, naked trees, stood in my front yard with extended limbs ready to defend me against unseen enemy intruders. All in all, looking out my window, my day reeked of gloom. I felt only pain inside as I looked at the couch where a black ski-mask, black gloves and gun lay.
I’ve been in prison for a long time – almost thirty-three years since I was sixteen years old. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. I’ve shuffled in and out of four different facilities: two with walls obstructing my view and two without. I prefer the ones with walls.
When I was at the Indiana State Prison, they had to repair the walls that surrounded the prison. I thought I would enjoy seeing out beyond the walls after not being able to observe the scenery for so long. I was wrong. It was too painful. I couldn’t wait for them to put the walls back up. Now I understand why they kept the walls up. Really, it was an act of mercy. It would be pure torture for someone with a life sentence or even a long sentence like mine to have a look at what he may never be.
I’ve learned to keep the walls up. I see only fences around this prison, but the walls of my mind remain today. It’s the only way to deal with the pain.
My biggest fear is that I’ll be released from prison after two years and my daughter will not recognize me.
I felt an unimaginable amount of weight lift from my shoulders the day I sign my release papers. This is the end of what seems like a never-ending journey of incarceration. I knew the day would come, but couldn’t see, touch, smell, taste or hear it. All I could do was dream.
In my dream, I pull up to her mother’s house: my stomach churns with butterflies while she plays in the front yard. I get out of a car. The sight of me, makes her stop everything she is doing, she hesitates as if she thinks she knows who I am, but she’s not sure. After all, she was only 2 years old the last time she saw me. In my dream, she hears me utter the words, “Hi, stinka butt”, and it must warm her four-year-old soul to the point of pure euphoria. Her eyes light up wider than the first time I introduced her to strawberry milk when she was one years old. Her “pink” is what she calls it. In my dream, I bend down on one knee, brace for the joyous impact, wrap my arms around her, “I missed you Da’da,” she says, a glimmer in her eyes. Then I reply, while trying my damnedest not to cry, “I missed you too, baby.”
Here’s what really happens. In early October 2018, I pull up to her mother’s house. My daughter isn’t playing in the front yard. In fact, no one is outside on the entire block. I get out of the car. Before I ring the doorbell, a rainbow colored hummingbird appears on the front porch’s hanging flower pot. It hovers for a few seconds, then disappears. I take a deep breath and ring the doorbell. My daughter’s mother answers. Her beauty is breathtaking, and rounds up all of butterflies I had just managed to shake off. I take five steps and there is my daughter sitting at the kitchen table eating a snack. She waves and says, “Hi”. She looks at her mother and asks, “Who is that?” My heart drops. Her mother asks her, “You don’t know what this is?” She replies, “No, who is that?” I take a few steps toward her and say, “Can Da’da have a hug?” She runs off, scared, as if I am a complete stranger. Her mother encourages her to give me a hug. She replies, as tears well in her eyes, “But, I don’t want to.”
I want to run – run far away from the pain, fear, anger, frustration, embarrassment and the guilt. I want to run fast. But, I don’t. I have to be there for her. Despite my mistakes, lost time with family, and the fear of being an inadequate father – I must try. I love her more than anything. My daughter’s mother is supportive and understands how hard the transition is. Thank God for second chances: to rebuild broken relationships and to be a better father. I’m going to prove to myself that redemption is possible and that my worst deeds don’t define who I am.
by: Phil Roberts, Contributing Writer & Indiana Prison Writers Workshop Participant
“We’re all just walking each other home.” –Ram Dass
It’s well into October now so there was no sun to squint into as I drove away from prison after my third visit. Instead a heavy dome of steel fog walled off the horizon and made things seem quiet and distant, like after the first snow of the season. As has been the case with my previous visits, this drive home becomes a brief time of reflection, and I think of the last few minutes of tonight’s session. We discussed what brought each of us to the writing group, a question I asked in an effort to help us get to know each other better, and more covertly, to help me remember their names. We took turns politely sharing as new members of this group, fumbling our way toward mutual respect and trust. They seem just as aware of that as I do.
Two of the guys are “bunkies,” another term for roommates, as I learned tonight. They had decided to come together, explaining they spend their time both arguing with and encouraging each other. They shared with us their friendly debates, such as their ongoing disagreement over which is their greatest demon: a society that oppresses black men or the minds that embrace their own oppression. One quoted Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind.” I nodded and listened intently, ever weary of adding unnecessary opinion to such difficult conversations. Also weary because I have taken great efforts to begin to understand the nuances of such a paradox, but I suspect not nearly as much effort as they have.
In the end, I did talk a little about why I am there, though I struggled to put this into words, despite knowing the answer well. I mentioned wanting to spend more time writing, as well as discussing and reading others’ works. I mentioned the synchronistic reconnection with Debra, finding out about the program, and wanting in. But I stopped prematurely. I know how to tell them the ways that I’m there for me: that it will help me be a better writer, that I will learn from it too, and how I live for reading the beautiful revelatory moments that every writer discovers at least once if they surrender to vulnerability.
But I am lost in how to tell them why I am here for them. That my personal beliefs compel me to feel that my own redemption depends on theirs. I don’t know how to explain that I don’t want them to feel forgotten, that I worry that we are only as strong as our weakest link. That I don’t think they are our weakest link but society seems to, and I want to shift the spotlight enough to help their strengths shine. I don’t know how to say I want to lift them up and see them for more than the mistakes they’ve made, because I’m afraid of sounding like a white hero, and even more afraid of acting like one. I want to tell them that I am not here to tell their story because I want them to tell it. I have my own stories to tell.
Sometimes as a mother and employee and citizen, days grind away at me and I feel weighed down by all the work to be done. I don’t know how to share with them that tonight, the weight of the world empowers me. I think of one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” And though I left them behind, inside those cement blocks and barbed wire fences that are out of sight in seconds from the darkness and fog, still they have carried me home.
As I rush in, late always, for my second visit to the Plainfield Correctional Facility, I’m amused that the majority of my nervousness is related to the security check-in. It’s a little unnerving, like figuring out the ordering process at Chipotle on my first visit. I dart around wondering where to set my bag for inspection, rubbing my wrists and neck for jewelry that I never wear, and expressing silent gratitude to God that I remembered to wear socks with my shoes this time. I start/stop several times outside the metal detector, remembering the procedure from my first visit but still anxious that I’ll get it wrong and make a scene. The guards have the same friendly, amused expression as Chipotle staff as they guide me through the process and motion answers to my fragmented questions. Finally through the ritual of it, I’m in. I can breathe again as we wait for the students to come in.
They come into the visiting room from different directions, depending on where they reside. Some arrive in small groups, some in pairs, and a single late arrival apologizes. They remember me from before and I relax a little. We review some agenda items, the word of the day and some reading examples, before splitting off into smaller groups so I can get some experience leading a discussion after our first writing prompt. It’s hard to focus at first from the noise of the fans-no air conditioning makes them a necessity, but the heavy humming makes it sound like we’re in a small airplane and trying to casually converse over the mechanical buzz.
I worry a little that the prompts I chose are too heavy, but they rise to the occasion. The men share their stories around the circle, discussing music, relationships, school, and memories from inside and outside. They laugh and encourage each other. I share my own story from one of the prompts and they empathize and encourage me. It strikes me how similar the whole procedure is to other writing classes I’ve taken, except most of those classes are made up of a much older and more female student body. As with the first visit, I am deeply impressed with their writing skills. They have all tried to incorporate elements of Debra’s sample readings, which focus on setting. When the groups join back together and they ask me to read my piece again, I am embarrassed but appreciative of the praise. I don’t take compliments well but I smile and read it again, making an effort to keep my voice steady in front of the larger group.
The time passes quickly and I’m thankful again for all they’ve shared. I don’t know when I’ll be back since I will soon start leading my own group at the Indiana Women’s Prison. I’m relieved by the ease with which we can make our exit from the facility, a significant contrast from entering. I’m lingering in the parking lot – already wistful for the camaraderie I feel anytime I’m part of a group of writers discussing writing – but Debra and I have families waiting so I keep my goodbye brief and head for home.
I run through the stories I heard tonight on the drive home, imagining the memories these men must cling to and I wonder how often they wish for a chance at a longer goodbye. I had expected before my first visit that trips to prison might dampen the spirit; instead I find they leave me hopeful. Seeing these men, whose trip to prison has lasted far longer than mine, bare their souls before each other and embrace the vulnerability that writing and sharing writing inevitably brings about, makes me a little buoyant. I feel lifted further by how large the sun looks tonight, fiery and swollen as it rests in the blue gray horizon, but I can’t catch all of it despite trying with every break in the trees. Finally the road rises up to the overpass I’ve been anticipating, but when I reach the peak and look over, the gauzy thin curtain of clouds has drawn itself over the orange glow. Despite the oppression, the power of its light is inevitable, and warm pink sky fills the space above the clouds.
Nobody warns you that empathy is an unraveling; that familiarity becomes untied when you’re no longer familiar to yourself – like when you arrive at a place where life gives new meaning. This happens to me each week in prison. I place my keys, purse, and book bag on a scanner for the first guard to search. I pass a second guard station. Then, I walk along a cold concrete floor where emotions are bare, where guard-inmate relationships are distant. I assume the felon position; arms outstretched and sign in with the purpose of my visit. Sounds of steel doors reverberate like a 12-guage shot gun. I settle in a classroom alone, locked in, waiting for eleven men to share their ideas, hopes, thoughts, dreams, and vulnerabilities with me. When I’m having a bad week one offers this advice, “While other people may be able to stop you temporarily, you’re the only one who can stop you permanently.” It’s true, and I use the advice through the week and it gets me through the next. They are at a crossroads in life but so am I.
My goal is to teach them how to write, so I make a list of prompts, but by the second class I find that I am the one learning too. “Scratch” means “money,” “wiped down” means “robbed,” “a dime” means “ten years.” And “The Slam” is the staple food of correctional institutions: Ramen, peanut butter, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and ranch dressing, and I learn how to connect papers by tearing off the ends to make a staple. I ask them to describe an everyday noise that drives them crazy. A favorite holiday. Amazed by the ease with which they open-up and their willingness to share secrets – I lose two students along the way to early release dates – and I feel the loss harder than I expected. And I wonder was there more I could have taught them?
The room has become a sacred space we created, a sense of home that moves us beyond the prison halls, away from our past and away from our troubles – into a place where only light grows.