Thursday, February 28, 2008

Advice From The Half-Dead

February 28, 2008 - 3:45 a.m.

These empty desert plains
that spread out
before my eyes, like
the landscape of a dead world
I know they do not exist
yet, they are
all I know
all that exists within me
Those who walk swiftly, carelessly
at my side
see Elysian Fields
cloaked by azure skies
At least, they tell me so
-and I believe them
I've always believed them
For long have I suspected
that my eyes look
and do not see
beyond the plague of my own vision...

-Gabriel Alejandro Moran-Gonzalez
"Espejos y Simulacra"
(My translation)

I think I live most of my life in a sort of haze. Wherever it is that I am living, whatever it is that I am doing, I don't feel as if I am completely there. Oh, I fake it well. I notice things, people. Details. I make an ignorantly caustic comment or two, or ten; I have a passing thought on the taste or smell of something, but this is all a function of my body. Increasingly, I do not feel as if my body is really connected to the idea of me-ness, and I wonder if this is a good thing or bad thing. My brain betrays me, confuses me, my body breaks down on me. I desperately want to do the right thing, but I constantly do the wrong thing, and afterwards, I cannot figure out why. I look back at my life, and I feel like I am watching a film of someone else. Am I alone in this? Is this maturity? Did I skip the middle chunk of life, determined to die as an old man? Am I alone in this? Maybe part of what it is to be human is to become numb to the ordinariness of life. I know this happened to me. I just don't feel I was built for this brave new world. Like there should be something more, and 401 (k)s and citrus hair products simply cannot fill in as a substitution. In all my life, I can think of only a few moments where I felt truly present, truly connected to the world, or something greater. I read about people who seem to live like that all the time. I'm working through a Larry Rosenberg work right now, and he gets to the now through meditative breathing exercises. I can't seem to make that work for me. I guess I need the world to kick me in the face to wake me up, and it happens so rarely that when it's gone, I forget about it. I feel it's absence, though I have no idea what piece of myself got left out of the box, or even if I am thinking rationally. I will admit to being guilty of over-thinking things to the point that I am poisoned by a sense of nihilism. I don't know why God always seems so far away at 3 in the morning. It's not Him, I know. The fault is mine, and my broken machinery that passes for a brain.

The way our recreation cycle works: on odd numbered calendar days, the guys on one-row go out first, while on even numbered days those of us on two-row go first. On Wednesdays and Saturdays my section has our "outdoor" rec times. You go in pairs, because there are two rec cages, facing each other. Today, the guards screwed up the whole rec cycle for the entire pod, so I was asked if I would prefer to go outside, even though it wasn't my day. This happens more than you would think, because managing 84 convicts is, apparently, like differential equations for some people. It was my day to go to rec last, so I asked who I would be going out with. The guard told me there was an odd number of recs left, so I would be going out alone. I've been feeling a little crazy and alone lately, so I wasn't sure I wanted to go out by myself, but in the end I decided the cold air would do me some good. At around 8 PM I bundled up, and pretty soon they came to handcuff me and take me downstairs. I don't really remember what I was thinking about when I first got out there. Something typically fragmentary, no doubt. I was walking around the perimeter of the yard, my mind off wandering about wherever it is my mind goes most of the time, when the overhead light burnt out. Suddenly, the sickly sodium vapor yellow was gone, and there was nothing but night sky above me. I couldn't even see the metal grates or mesh, only the sky. I had not seen a star in almost three years, until that moment. I just stood there, staring upward, my mouth hanging stupidly open. You are never alone in the dark in prison. There is always an overhead light, or a searchlight, or something, always in your face. I wish I could put into words how it felt to stand there, with the cold breeze on my face, and the stars twinkling their light down from the cosmos. I wondered about which stars they were. Did they still burn, or had they imploded and collapsed a million years ago? For some reason, the inexplicable desire to get closer to them overcame me, and I started climbing the bars, my bad arm and all, until I had my face pressed against the grate above me. I tell you this in retrospect, because I do not remember getting myself up there. I don't know how my cheeks got wet. After a few centuries, or a few minutes, I know not which, the picket officer finally noticed that the light was out. She popped the gates, and came outside, and did a double take when she saw me two stories up. I reluctantly came down, and shuffled over to the bars separating us.

Star Map of the star Thomas bought in his mothers name

"Whitaker, what the hell were you doing up there?" She looked concerned, because in a year on Death Row, I've never caught a case for anything (you don't understand the enormity of this statement, but maybe I will explain it someday). I didn't really know what to say. I think something awkward tumbled out about the stars, but it didn't make much sense, so I just shrugged. She must have noticed the look on my face, though, because she herself looked up, and then back down at me, and if I didn't know better, I would have sworn there was a moment of understanding and then something else, like maybe horror. To the few of you who don't come to this site for ammunition, you may have picked up on the fact that I am...extremely sympathetic to the emotive states of people around me. But I could have been wrong. It might have just been to check if I was sawing my way through the grate. I don't think she would have appreciated me telling her that I was talking to God.

Star Map of the star Thomas bought in his brothers name

I had to leave the yard, because inmates aren't supposed to be out there without illumination, and it naturally takes three committees and about twenty TDC employees to change a light bulb (that was not a joke). When I got back to my cell, I just sat there for awhile, trying to get my thoughts in order. I started thinking about how much I used to take things for granted. I never appreciated anything, not the feel of grass or sand under my feet. Certainly not the people in my life. I thought about my friend Tina, who is so faithful to God that she keeps nothing for herself. She told me once about wanting a pair of black leather boots, but that they lived on a very strict budget. She told me about how she finally found the perfect pair, brand-new, at Goodwill for seven dollars. I felt so ashamed. In my former life, I was a completely self-absorbed snob, who didn't think twice about buying shoes that were easily 75 or 100 times more expensive than her perfect boots. And they meant nothing to me. Just another piece of the camouflage that was Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. I started thinking about all the people who have no shoes. Or clothes. Or anything. I hate this cancer in me that makes all of the real world invisible. I have another friend, Brittany, who cooks for homeless people, in a program called "Food Not Bombs". She is much younger than me, but she is so smart I can barely hold a conversation with her. Tina and Brittany are worlds apart ideologically, but they are both better people than me. I wish I could be more like them, more selfless. I try to help the men around me sometimes, but I'm not even sure about my motivations. Is it pity? Is pity mine to give? Is it a sub-conscious way of positioning myself above them? Does that even make sense? I hardly think, in the grand scheme of things, that having a few more Ramen noodles than someone else qualifies me to feel superior.

Then I started thinking about grace. Sometimes, I think I understand the concept. You would think that after all the forgiveness that my Dad has shown me these last few years that I would have a handle on the issue. There is a part of me that doesn't like grace. I want God to be my loan shark, my gangster. I want to pay for my sin. It seems cosmically wrong not to have to. It all revolves around love, I'm told, and I guess I understand that on an intellectual level, but on a heart level, it's a complete mystery to me. I know how screwed up I am, and how unworthy of love.

I don't know if God still talks to people like he did Moses, or if that quiet thought in your head that comes out of nowhere is His voice. All I know is, as I was sitting there pondering my own worthlessness, I thought about what it would be like if God came down to my cell, and said that the Governor had pardoned me, and I was going home. I asked him what the catch was, and he said that somebody else was going to sit in for me on my execution. I was pondering the morality of this, when I realized that, if you believe in the Bible, this has already happened. I tried imagining how grateful I would be if I were freed, and I realized that I had never felt even one-tenth as happy at the offer of forgiveness for sin. I had taken it all for granted, of course, just like everything else. Sometimes you just have to fall on your knees. I seem to be doing a lot of that lately.

There are a lot of you who like to come to this site and point out to me the errors in my logic. You will probably think that a person like me doesn't have any knowledge that you would profit from learning. I admit to having no wisdom. Sometimes, though, life teaches even the dumbest of us things worth remembering. I guess my plea is this: stop living in a haze. Take your shoes off and go feel the grass with your toes. Hold your spouse or your kids extra tight tonight. I'm not being preachy. Appreciate this thing, whatever it is. Because we all have a date. Maybe yours isn't set like mine is, but it's there. Please don't waste it like I did. Please.

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that they didn't "club you over the head a few times" for climbing up there and throw an "attempted escape case" at you. You are right tho, it's very easy to take the smallest things for granted. I go to work, to the gym, go home to my wife and son and do it every day. I zone out on the toll road home and the beauty around me is constantly taken for granted. I will definitely work on stopping to smell the roses. -Ken