Thursday, September 24, 2015

How an Atheist Goes to Heaven

By Christopher Wilkins 

Note from Author:  This is not a religious article. Although symbols such as God, good, heaven, hell, faith, belief and others which are typically associated with the religion will be used in order to deduce, denote and describe the common concepts, this is not a religious article. This is no more so a religious article than is the Urantia Book a religious text. The Urantia Book is not a religious text and this is not a religious article. We may use terms such as “Atheist” and “Heaven.” So what? Atheism is a commonly held view concerning the concept of God. Heaven is a state of mind. Hell is a state of mind. In our minds is the place where we reside. It´s all inside. Whatever is to come next or not come next will take 

Now, the hell of it is that there is no place like the hell we make for ourselves inside our very own minds. The hells we create in our minds manifest for us in our daily lives. We actually get to live them. These are known as “Living Hells” of which prison is one.

I am coming to you now from the illustrious dibs that are Texas´ Death Row. And I have seen the light. Now, I would like to say that having come to Death Row has had nothing whatsoever to do with my having suddenly seen the light. But that would be ludicrous. Had I not come to Death Row, in Texas, I would surely never have slowed down long enough to ever have recognized anything concerning having seen the light. Anywhere else and I´d have blown right on through. And I know how terribly cliché it is to go to prison and get religion, but this is not a religious article. I did not say that I got religion. I said I have seen the light. Big difference.

Now, you might say: “It´s a little late, buddy,” and to that I´d say: “It´s better late than never.” And I am saying just exactly that. This is such a wonderful opportunity. No, really, notwithstanding the terrible pain and suffering I´ve caused over the course of my life, and notwithstanding the pain I, too, have suffered over the course of my life, it´s great to have finally found peace.

Look at me, look at me, look at me; see what I can do. That´s how it all starts. We´re just these obnoxious little people who want and want some more. Any attention will do. Any attention at all will suffice. Sadly.

My name is Christopher Chubasco Wilkins. There have been some scientific studies conducted and the results are in: children, by and large, tend to grow into their names. You´d think my folks would have known not to name me Chubasco (“wild wind”), but they did. But the aforementioned studies had not been conducted at the time I was named Chubasco. So, we´ll have to let them off the hook. But it´s no wonder I could not sit still with a name like “wild wind.” Who could expect a kid to do anything other than “climb the fucking walls?” Studies or no studies, we´re talking common sense.

Well, mommy got mad as hell at me for not being able to sit still. Not sitting still is a great way to get some attention. “Stop wiggling—sit your ass down somewhere.” “Fucking kid’s climbing the fucking walls.” My favorite: “Don´t move a muscle.” I´ll tell you for true that it´s truly hard not to do. Not like when I´d be told “I don´t want to hear another peep out of you,” and, invariably, I´d say, “Peep,” just to be funny. Of course mommy never seemed to find it amusing whatsoever. But it was most always good for a smack in the mouth or a whack upside the head. A great way to get some attention.

Cool way to get a sip of whisky or a shot of NyQuil or maybe a half a quay of something. Mommy hurt her hands a lot on my hard head. The booze and drugs in moderate doses helped me to “sit down and shut the fuck up.” I liked it, too. Saved mommy from having to continually smite me.

Now, lest you intuit that I´m blaming my poor dear mother for my having ended up here, let´s put all such thoughts as to these accusations to bed right here and now. My mommy dearest did not put me here. No how. No way. For that matter, while we´re at it, let´s put to rest all of the most common excuses: Society did not put me here. Bad luck did not put me here. God, as such, did not put me here. The devil did not make me do it. I accept full responsibility. I admit it. I put myself here. OK. So there you have it, not making excuses. Reasons are reasons, not excuses. Reason exhibits wisdom. In my maturity, experience has changed me. That I recognize the fact that others never get to mature, or got to mature, is of no question. Nor is the fact that I truly appreciate this opportunity…at any rate. I´m not making excuses. Just saying.

In order for one to have woken up in hell one would had to come to hell to begin with. And to begin with, I used to wiggle a lot. I got a lot of attention by wiggling. I don´t think I wiggled to get attention. Surely, I just wiggled because I could not “fucking sit fucking still.” The side effect was that it got me attention.

Quite simple, really. You have a boy called Chubasco, who craves attention and cannot sit still. Not sitting still is wiggling. Gets him attention. Attention is, however, trouble for him. For him, trouble is ever-after associated in his little mind with attention. To get attention Chubasco gets into trouble, which is not so bad when it´s just a smack in the mouth or a whack upside the head. When you´re just a little guy, it´s really no big deal. It´s as one grows, as you might suspect, that, so does the amount of trouble one tends to find oneself in. Next thing you know, you´ve even got yourself a label: “Trouble Maker.”

But, that, that was nothing. No, really. That was no big deal. It really wasn´t. Watch this, and this, see that; now, that´s something there, now ain´t it? But wait. You still ain´t seen nothing yet. And so that´s how these things grow. It´s all so elementary. You´d think that these smart, smart teachers, who are our betters would know about labeling kids. After all, studies have been conducted and the research is in: labeling children and treating children in just such a way causes them to become the epitome of said label. *Phew* It´s almost like they know what they´re doing. Like it´s all a part of some scheme. But you´d think your parents would know not to name their kid Wild Wind, then expect him to be able to sit still. I mean, really? Still, not blaming mommy, or the poor undertrained, underpaid teachers, for Christ´s sake. Just saying next thing you know you might find your ass in increasingly deeper shit. And it´s too late to say, “I´m sorry.” No one cares.

Herein lies our disconnect. It´s the way these things work. We know we´re just these little dummies because our mommies and our teachers tell us so. So we believe it. It´s even cool to see just how dumb we can be. Now, factor in the drugs of every kind. Every kind would include the plethora. A veritable smorgasbord contained in grand-mommy´s medicine cabinet, and that which was obtainable in mommy´s closet. Great stash there. Always the kindest bud. Now, factor in the meth and the coke Tommy´s older sister is turning you on to, and the glue, and now we´re really talking: older girl gives younger boy some attention (abracadabra). Bad boy says: “You ain´t seen n-o-t-h-i-n-g yet.”

To be sure, the shit gets deeper. And I´m not for a minute blaming the girls or the drugs or the Rock-n-Roll music. It´s been a blast. Just saying. Now we´re getting high and getting laid. Who give a damn about anything´s consequences? Not many young men who´re getting high and getting laid. That´s who. So by this age of thirteen we are well on our way.

Alas, some of us somehow snap out of it. We get lucky or wise up, or someone somewhere cares. Some destiny or some fate or something intervenes on our behalf. Or we get scared. But for the most part we lose, because we´re dummies. No matter how smart or clever or slick we think we are, or how intelligent we in fact may be, we are all just a bunch of dummies. All of us: every-single-one-a-dummy. And dummies with bad attitudes make for excellent cannon fodder, that´s for sure.

But the theories I could submit to you about how the powers that be (that´s who “they” always are) breed us all as dummies to be big dummies in order that they (the powers that be) may in fact continue to exhibit and to wield said powers is another subject entirely. We won´t cover it at all here. And besides, you´d be subject to dismiss these theories as “conspiracy” theories, which, in and of itself—is cause for dismissal. They´ve told you so, so it must be true. And besides that you´re subject to ask, why, if I can so clearly see all the conspiratorial threads and threats. Did I not extricate myself there from—and that would be a valid question—but I digress, and all the conspiratorial bullshit aside, it´s not all that difficult to wake up one day in hell. Just look what happened to Kurt Cobain.

Now, you might be saying: “Wait just a doggone minute. Being in prison and being on Death Row are a tad bit different.” And you´d be right at first blush. But hell is hell is hell, no matter which hell we find ourselves in. Prison does not have to be guard towers and razor wire, and electric fences. Any mind will do.

And so now we come to the heart of the matter. And I´ll promise not to get too preachy. I, for one, cannot s-t-a-n-d preachy. And let´s try not to panic whenever I say “God.” Jesus Christ—it´s a concept. Even a construct. Please. And before you say: “Wait just a doggone-mother minute. I do not believe in God,” or, “Don´t you dare blame God,” or, “But I thought you were an atheist?” I´ll just say this: You do not have to believe in or accept God in any way, form or fashion for purposes of this discussion, or ever at all, really. And I´m not even remotely blaming God at all, either. And you´re right, I once was an atheist. But that was before I went to Heaven.

I come to you now from such a place: No longer in hell, but in Heaven. Or “at peace” if you will. And that´s just it. The gist of it. Once the use of free will goes against a natural human instinct—or against “conditioning,” this reveals an unnatural act, or a supernatural event (abracadabra) the light goes on. You are being led, not by the mind, but by the inner spirit. And now we are talking. Now we are getting somewhere.

The problem for me with my atheism was the same problem I had with my Christianity and my Satanism and for that time I studied Kabbalah—and for Odinism, too. I just didn´t believe in any of it. I had no faith in any of it. I wanted to. You can be sure that I tried. It´s all just so “organized” though. Even anarchy has rules (go figure). It´s all so sad. Religion or the lack thereof should be a personal thing. Period. And I know this now. But at the tender age of thirteen in the TYC (Texas Youth Council) I didn´t know my ass from a hole in the ground. “Do what thou will is the whole of the law,” says Satanism, and that was right up my alley.

Now, in the Cy-Fair suburbs we fought. There´s the kickers and the jocks and the stoners, and we fought. We fought because “we” were a stoner, and everyone knows kickers and jocks do not like stoners. But fighting in the suburbs is somewhat different from fighting in the State School in Texas. In the burbs you can quit, or the parents or the teachers show up and stop the fights. In the TYC you cannot quit, and no one is coming to help. In the burbs, you´re fighting because you´re a stoner, or because of some girl who some jock´s pissed at you about. In the TYC you´re fighting not to be a girl, i.e., someone´s “bitch,” which is lots more incentive to fight hard. To fight dirty. And not to quit.

The idea of course is to make such a bold impression on others that they don´t want to mess around at all. There you don´t have to fight so often. But you´ve got to be fighting often in order to get good enough at it to have the luxury of not having to fight; stabbing people is much more efficient. And there´s your disconnect. Nothing we ever learn in the State School translates well to society. Now, we´re all set and truly on the road to perdition. Now, I´ve got this created image. I´m this bad-ass-don´t-fuck-with-me-motherfucker, and I´m stuck. I have to uphold this image. I want to uphold this image. I even enjoy upholding this image. It´s all the power and all the comfort I know. I´m too stupid and too blind to see anything else. For me, there´s no other way. I don´t even want to look for one. I´m all set. I´ve found my calling, and no one cares, least of all, me.

To be fair, the courts are not set up “to care.” They have a job to do. They say: “You´ll learn.” And they´re right. They are absolutely right. We do learn. They TYC taught me to be a killer. In the TYC I had two choices only: “fuck or fight.” I learned to fight. I learned to fight to the finish. You´d be surprised at just what you´re capable of when you´re absolutely afraid. Ack! Not blaming the courts and the TYC. Just saying, sadly, I´ve gone to great lengths and wasted many lives and caused w-a-y too much pain to uphold this sorry ass image.

It´s a damn good thing that I did not lose my ability to reason along the way. Reason exhibits wisdom which in turn exhibits understanding. But I´ll be damned if pride doesn´t argue with all the reason. I´m still working on this. But when reason finally recognizes right and wrong, it exhibits wisdom; when reason chooses between truth and error, it is demonstrating spirit-leading. Thus, the functions of mind, soul and spirit are functionally inter-associated. Reason deals with a choice that contradicts what environment forms is unnatural. Being led by the inner spirit that guides us beyond the limitations of animal instinct and the natural mind is a supernatural event.

It has taken me quite some time to understand that it truly is “never too late” and that the simple art of doing what is right and good to another, no matter where you are, is an act of love. And I know we´ve all got our own ideas about love, and I´ll admit it freaks me out a little bit to be talking about love—images and incidents and egos and all things considered. You might even ask what in the hell a person like me could possibly know from love, and it would be a valid question. Hopefully we can all agree that love would be opposite to hate. Hate would be the desire to do harm to others. All things considered, I think I know from hate. Hate is indicative of fear. Fear breeds hate. Love would therefore be the desire to do good to others, and indicative of not being afraid. This singular desire transcends all secular-, scientific-, religious-, and racial-beliefs. If it is true—love outshines all. I have seen the light.

So, like I said before: the simple act of doing what is right and good to others is an act of love, I do believe. This will necessarily hold true, no matter where we are or who we may be involved with. It´s enough to liberate you from hell. It´s enough to change institutions. It is enough even to change the world. This very missive is a simple act of love. Sharing is love, I do believe.

So now we get to the really nitty-gritty. This is not at all about making excuses or blaming everything and everyone and the whole entire world and even “God” because of and for my own ignorance and stupidity. It´s not even about blaming myself. I do accept the full blame and responsibility for everything, and there is remorse for it all, as well. But this is not about that either. It´s not even about me convincing you that I am a changed man and I´ve seen the light. Your personal opinion of me does not matter in the sense that my peace of mind—my so-called salvation—requires your belief in me. I will accept my fate, my punishment—as it were, my execution…I have. Escaping the death penalty is not what this is about. It´s about escaping our self-imposed hells. Getting on the right track. It´s about love. It´s never too late. There is a way out of whatever prison is. It´s called “being born again,” and it´s simple: wherever we choose to be led by love (our true inner self, spirit), we are reborn in the sense that we are no longer shackled by fear and hate. It´s a whole new state of mind and a whole new life.

And so you see, a good atheist goes to heaven. Though they may confess with their mouth: “no God,” but in their heart of hearts, acts differently. Because “God,” as it were, is love—it all comes down to semantics. Really. Call it what you will, be you secular humanist, agnostics, atheists, or any of the rest of it. When we discover the power of “Love” we´re well on our way.

Yours truly,
Christopher Chubasco Wilkins

I would like to thank the authors Wegner, Camus, Lovaglia; my tireless researcher Reinaldo Dennes; my editors at MB6; and those who conspired to write and bring us the Urantia Book.

Christopher Wilkins 999533
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dusty Orange

By Donald Ray Young

Early morning clanging of plastic trays, moving anxiously through metal food ports, signify breakfast time. Come and get it! The rusty, metal tray slots open, and a dusty, burnt orange tray slides into my isolation cell. As my stomach grumbles, awaiting relief, my eyes rest upon a single piece of stale, flat coffee cake, topped with a small mound of dark brown, fear inspiring peanut butter. Holding a “nickel slick grin" on his face, a young guard inquires, “Wanna trade your shower for an extra tray?”

Having recently relocated, from the East Block, into the Adjustment Center’s Solitary Confinement, minus my personal property, hygienic articles and stationary, I now exist within the cold shadow of the gallows. Who am I to turn down this unpalatable gift? Famished, my body craves nourishment. Why shouldn’t I barter away my five minute shower? After all, I am scheduled for three showers a week, but I have not showered in four days. It's interesting how our priorities change, depending upon our living circumstances.

As I hold the dry, hardened coffee cake in my mouth, hoping it will become moist enough to swallow, my thoughts take me back to a time when my pride was the only thing that had to be swallowed. I had once requested, from good friends, any amount of monetary support. Because we are not allowed to hold jobs in this part of prison, donations would have been my one opportunity to purchase food from the Canteen. I was soon assured, in a friendly letter, that the prison diet was quite capable of sustaining me.

As I swallow my pastry, I am hopeful that it will satisfy my intense hunger. Doubts whirl through the corridors of my mind. I ask myself how important that shower is. My self- discipline and fortitude are essential. I will take my five minute shower. “No thanks! I had better get under that water.”

The guards stop asking if I want to trade my shower for an extra tray of nourishment. Days slither into weeks. As they deliver my food, the guards start showing two fingers, in a backward peace sign. We are participants in a war of attrition. Proudly, my head moves from side to side, in resistance to their minuscule offers. I am now three weeks into this nutrition-less, unbalanced weight loss diet of no choice, and things start to look up.

As the dusty food tray slides into my cage, I discover eggs and potatoes are the daily offer. Immediately, I throw up the backward peace sign. I am gifted with two dusty, burnt orange breakfast trays. This time, my stomach is the winner of this struggle for necessity. Life is almost good.

Donald Ray Young E78474
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin Ca 94974

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Quiet Storm

By Eduardo Ramirez

I was nineteen when I started this road...though how long it would be I had no idea. And that it would be a road I had to walk at all was a surprise to me. I had been questioned by the police a year and a half before, but their parting words were only that I should be more discriminating when it came to friends—giving me every reason to believe that they had discredited the lies that had been told to them.

As if.

I would later come to learn that detectives suspect everyone until they rule those not involved. And when they can't pinpoint a suspect just about anyone will do. But why it had to be me I will probably never know. I have my suspicions, but I might
never know for sure.

But this isn't about how the road was paved. This is about how that road had been paved for sure—and that I would walk it for some time before it dawned on me how long, how difficult, how lonely, and how utterly frustrating it would be.

A little background info for the uninitiated: wrongful convictions are as real as the sun. And just like the sun, its brightness can either illuminate a reality that is desperately in need of resolution and reconciliation or blind the fearful into ignorantly shading their eyes. Here's an inconvenient truth: no one can deny that innocent people are in prison (as many as 50,000). Somewhere along the line, as you read this, you have to ask yourself how much does it matter? Not enough to check into or so much that you can't sleep at night without thinking about it. There is no in between.

I'll admit that twenty years ago innocent people in prison weren't even on my radar. I just didn't think that such tragedies occurred often enough for it to be a concern. I'll admit this too: I'm left restless at night thinking about all the people that might die in prison for something they didn't do. 

I know this kid who was a wannabe thug. I knew him to be the Sunday school type who had hidden hip hop tapes from his mother. (This was back in the day when cassette tapes were a thing. Do they even make those anymore?) Growing up in the neighborhood he started hanging out. And while other kids might have been bad seeds this kid still had Similac on his breath. He started to think he was real cool-like, got himself a little hooptie so he can rap to the girls. One day he gives a ride to a real gunslinger. Out the clear blue Johnny .45 spots someone who owes him money, so he jumps out the car and runs up on the dude and POP! POP! POP!—turns out the kids lights. He shot an old man in the process just for bad measure. This crazy mother fucker jumps back in the young boy's car and they speed off. Around the corner and a few blocks down youngin' kicks the shooter out the ride. He tries to calm his nerves. Maybe it was the wet that had him hallucinating, he thinks. He drives back to the scene of the crime except by this time he has his cousin and a few other kids in the ride with him. (Curiosity certainly did these cats in!) Witnesses at the scene couldn't identify the shooter. But they did identify the car. A year later the four of them were sentenced to life.

Here goes a bit of irony for you. The actual shooter was later picked up for a different murder. He pleads guilty to avoid a death sentence. Maybe he has a come-to-Jesus moment, but he starts to admit to other homicides. You would think that the guys convicted for those murders would get a fair shot, right? Wrong. The D.A. convinced the judge that he was only confessing to set other murderers free. And the judge bought it hook, line, and sinking four young boys who are growing old fighting their own injustice.

I've lost count of how many times I've thought of these guys over the years. I've thought of their families that miss them and of the opportunities they have missed out on. 

At first I didn't notice time passing by. Hope kept me busy and I kept saying to myself, "Any day now, Eddie. Just you be prepared to fly when the gates are thrown open." Of course, I thought it would be a matter of days. I expected bail or something. And when days turned into months I absolutely expected to prove my innocence at trial. But I turned old enough to buy a drink before I went to trial. My day in court came and went and nothing changed. That drink would have to stay on ice awhile longer.

All this was going on and I still kept thinking that it would all be over soon. A quarantine period had me waiting to be medically cleared before I could be assessed by the D.O.C.; then I had to wait another six months before I could enter the general population. Before I knew it I was twenty-two. But still I was as hopeful as ever.

I watched my mother's hair turn grayer and grayer; her skin softened and sagged like a pumpkin left too long on the kitchen counter. My father, remarkable man that he is, didn't appear to age. To this day I suspect that in some dusty attic there is a portrait that shows his bones bending and turning into petrified wood. My older sisters carried tears that left their eyes red-rimmed and always glassy. I have five nephews and one niece who were children when I left them. They are grown now and I am an alien to them; the years have forged a distance between us that has left us as strangers to each other.

These things happened in real time but I really didn't pay attention. I didn't mark time by the arrival of news from friends who had gone off to begin their adult lives: the marriages, the newborns, the mounting bills, the families that fell apart and into bitterness and divorce. I didn't take stock of my own aging body as my belly pouched out like a Buddha and my hair thinned to reveal a pale scalp beneath. These things escaped my notice for the longest time.

There's something about numbers that make things seem complete—or incomplete. Like, who buys three tires? A pack of socks always comes in even numbers. And this isn't an obsessive compulsive thing. We like for things to be orderly. It's why we look back on the past by the decade.

My teens were unremarkable in almost every way. I didn't play sports, wasn't a standout as a student, I did okay with girls but most of them were as blah, blah, blah as I was. I cannot look back and say that my high school years were the best of my life. I can hardly remember them anymore so they couldn't have been that great.

My twenties, though, now they were special. Not for anything good that came of them, but for the heartache and struggle that was playing out whether I noticed or not. And by the time I came to notice it was so late that there was nothing I could do.

I bounced around the state for a while. These transfers helped to "break up the bid," as we call it. But once I got settled into the fabric of Graterford—the hustle and bustle of progressive residents who politicked with local pols and set up charitable events—I stayed pretty busy doing the same. For ten years I shared a cell with another guy so the conversations and games of Rummy did a good job of keeping my mind preoccupied. It wasn't until I earned the "privilege" of being in a one-man cell that the quiet storm started to speak to me. I started to miss everyone so badly that I recreated the past in my sleep and in my waking dreams.

I remember the date: November 9, 2006. I was listening to a late-night love song dedication show on the radio and that old loving feeling started to tug at the edges of my soul. My homie tells me that he can't listen to R&B because it reminds him of things he'd rather forget. For some guys that's how it is: try not to think about what's being denied. 

But what kind of a life is that? A meaningless one, that's what.

No, I like to push up against those memories and—like a cat—rub my spine up against something warm and familiar. So there I was, cast in the dim glow of a 50-watt light bulb, barefoot and sprawled out on the concrete floor studying while the quiet storm played in the background. Man, I had to put the book aside as my skin went all tingly from the sounds of Lady T:

Dear Lover I hope this letter finds you,
Dear Loverrrr. And that it comes in time to
Say those C'est La Vies-
Ba-byyy ahhh oohhhh....

That lady could leave me in a puddle of my own tears. Always could, ever since I was a kid trying to be a playboy for the girls.

The host of the show was reading off a list of "Locked-Down Love" dedications. Her voice wasn't the sexiest but she tried. She leaned in close to the mic and warmed the airways with sultry breath and whispered the names of guys whose lovers had taken the time to send a little kiss over the cool, autumn air. 

Shawn, Lisa wants you to know that she misses you.
Teddy, Sandra says that a house is not a home if
you're not there. James, don't worry, boo, we're
gonna get through this together....

It was called "Locked-Down Love" because the segment was dedicated to guys like me who were in the pen. (Although, truth be told, it would have been nice for some of the ladies on lock to get a few shout-outs.) It's a lonely experience being locked up. You see the same group of faces day in and day out. Some of them play it real cool and others are as sour as vinegar. But deep down you know that, in addition to being free and rejoining their families, what most guys want is to be with a woman again. The hours of deprivation can feel like they're endless. The metronome-like tick-tock gets louder when a visit is anticipated. At least, this is how it was for me.

My love life wasn't all bad. I mean, I wasn't getting any mentions of the locked-down love variety but I still did okay. Maybe it was my personality or my way with words (I don't think anyone would say it was my looks), but as the years rolled by I did a good job of staying in touch with a lady or two. I know that these weren't the most ideal kinds of relationships—for them, at least—but I tried to make them work. I understood that they, being on the outside, had lives to live and that the last thing they wanted was a needy dude clinging to them. So like a Zen master I tried to keep them at a distance while playing them close. I never asked about any other guy they might have been dating, I just appreciated the moments we shared. I called frequently enough, but only when time allowed"—rarely first thing in the morning and at night only if a phone was available. I helped out with the bills whenever I had a few nickels to spare. One thing I made sure of was to arrange a meeting with my family. When asked why this was important I would say because my family is important; if you don't cut with them then you don't cut it with me—and I always tried to reciprocate this level of involvement. Honestly, I didn't want these relationships to be just physical, romanticized notions of what a relationship could—or should—be. It wasn't all sappy kissy faces (even though I wrote plenty of love letters). 

While I always tried to keep my cool there was one woman who practically had me losing my head. I mean, I would have done anything for her. And my family liked her, too, which had me thinking that all signs were pointing up. 

Her name was Lily and from the first moment I saw her I knew she was what I had been looking for. I imagined that some people took her beauty for granted. She was short and on the pleasantly plump side—but that was part of what attracted me. Her face was one of those from old Italian frescoes—soft, round cheeks, with seductive almond-shaped eyes and an impish smile. Her short dark hair reminded me of Danica McKellar in The Wonder Years—and what boy didn't crush hard on Winnie Cooper! I wanted to be her Fred Savage (the fact that I can't remember his character's name just goes to show who I really thought the star of that show was).  

Lily was a Social Services major at a local college who was taking a criminal justice class here at the prison. That's how we met. On the surface of things you might think that this was a sweet meeting; the very definition of serendipity. But the prison frowns on these kinds of relationships. It can be debated whether our cozying up to one another was a breach of security or if we were treading unethical ground. But I'm in the camp that says that preventing relationships between prisoners and volunteers is just another way of dehumanizing prisoners.

Our class met up every Wednesday. I would spend the days in between waiting on pins and needles for class time to come around. If ever I hated school—and I did—she gave me a reason to look forward to doing the work. For starters, I knew she looked forward to seeing me. But I really solidified how she saw me when I rolled up in class ready to discuss the subject like a pro. I really made myself look like a boss in that room. Of course, I wasn't; there were others in the room who knew the subject better than I did. But there were only maybe one or two others who could articulate the subject as well as I could. All modesty aside, I was probably the shiniest star this side of Alpha Centauri.

As much as I wanted to be close to her, the obvious wall between us was the distinction between prisoner and visitor. I knew that until the day came when I could prove my innocence I would remain the bad guy trying to manipulate the situation with my big words and welcoming attitude. She held on for a couple of years—battling her own doubts and fears. I wanted her to wrestle with whether or not I was worth waiting for, worth fighting for; so I shared every detail of my case with her. I didn't want her to make an educated guess. I wanted her. She eventually gave in to the social pressure that pulled her in a different direction.

I never told her about my late-night R&B sessions. I never wanted her to listen and maybe set herself to worrying about my emotional state. Worse still, I never wanted her to pity me to the point of sending an insincere shout-out my way. 

It was a double-play Tuesday, and Tina was hitting me right where it hurt most.

If I were a bell, baby I would ring
Just to let you know that you're my everything

In the low light, and surrounded by the echoing music, the clock struck twelve. Midnight Love danced its way out of my thoughts as I realized that it was my birthday. I had just turned thirty. Another year had passed, and with it passed any chance of being a twenty-something ever again. More importantly, I realized that I had spent every last day of my twenties in prison. It was done. I'd grown old in prison, and while I wanted to hold on to my youthful disposition I knew that when I woke up in the morning a new kind of pressure would start to wear me down. The clock would speed up and my desperation would see me crack and crumble. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the walls did seem to become tighter around me. There was no one to talk to so I thought out loud—praying to a God I wasn't even sure I believed in. What I wanted to believe in most was that I would get out while someone still cared. But there was no way I could be assured of that. 

I'd loved other women before and none of them could hold on for that long. Being in prison rips to shreds the delicate tendons that hold a relationship together. For all my congenial dealings with professors and volunteers, I knew they would go home and soon forget about me. While they might have wanted to be sympathetic to my cries I knew that they doubted me to some degree. It's so common to hear prisoners protest their innocence that most people discount these claims as unbelievable. But I think they'd rather not believe because it's easier to dismiss the guilty than it is the innocent. Besides, knowing would make them responsible for doing. Something. The guards didn't care. They'd been at this job for so long (and had actually witnessed a few exonerations!) that in some way the madness had infected their brains. Don't believe me? Ask Philip Zimbardo what happened with the Stanford Experiment.

God! What about my family? How powerless must they feel every time they get a call from me or a letter? What will power it must take to visit me and then to leave without crying every time. My father once told me that he didn't like to talk about my situation because he didn't know what to do about it. I'd be lying if I said that the thought didn't cross my mind that he—they, my loved ones—don't feel powerless so much as they have made their peace with the idea that I might die in prison. Damn it hurt to consider this possibility. But I guess better people than me have suffered worse and made their peace more readily than I have.

I wish I could say that I spent the rest of the night crying my eyes out. But after ten years I was All Cried Out (thanks, Lisa Lisa). I closed my books and wrapped things up. I knew that no matter how intently I dwelled on the circumstances I couldn't change a single thing at that moment. So I went to sleep. No biggie. I just closed my eyes and let the darkness roll over me as Sade sang me a lullaby:

She cries to the heavens above
There is a stone in my heart
She lives a life she didn't choose
And it hurts like brand new shoes

Nine years have passed since that night. And I can tell you with absolute certainty that these latter days have been harder on me than the earlier ones. Back then I thought I'd be home at a young enough age that I'd still be able to enjoy a long and vigorous life. I was never really interested in having kids, but who knows. If not Lily, then maybe someone like her would have come along and I would have had a change of heart. At the very least I would have had the opportunity. But, no. I have to deal with the aches and pains in my muscles. Now that this is the way it is, it's kind of hard to think about the future. I want to, but the tragedy of having your life unjustly taken away changes the way you think about that future. Maybe when I prove my innocence I'll feel differently. But I'm about to close out my 30s and things aren't looking too bright.

I used to be so lovely. But that was half a lifetime ago, before the weight of time pulled me into this black hole.

Edward Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterfprd, PA 19426

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reaching For the Outstretched Hand

By Christie Buchanan

I know people mean well when they spew forth trite expressions like: “God won´t give you more than you can handle,” and “Fake it till you make it.” But sometimes it´s just not the time for all that. Sometimes silent acknowledgement of misery is quite powerful. It can be comforting, steadying, especially for those folks who tend to be closed-off and shut in with their emotions. Like I am. I said recently that I don´t know where to turn from here. Things, bad things, have been piling up on me faster than I can process and I don´t know how to slow them down. Life is speeding by totally unaffected while I´m trying to figure out where to put my foot down again, and take the next step. O.K.

My grandmother died toward the end of March. She would´ve been 98 in June. “She´s not suffering now.” “She lived a long, full life.” “She´s with your grandfather again.”

That´s all good and well but . Owwww!! I hurt. How are frilly empty—albeit well-meant—phrases supposed to make me feel better? I can´t just forget about how sad I am, how much I miss her and how crappy I feel for being here instead of with her when she died. I can´t just put all that way deep down inside where it´s dark and cold and echoey, so it can fester and swell and eventually explode in a toxic rage on some poor undeserving person who just happens to be within firing range. No thanks.

That´s what I used to do—shove it all away and act like everything was rainbows and butterflies. The only emotion I ever let go of was anger and that was really just target practice. Weee! I never cried, I never felt, and I sure as hell never talked about anything deep and/or emotional. My first prison nickname was “Ice Queen.” Nice.

I didn´t want to be that way but basically had no coping skills or decision making skills…or skills. I just sort of floated through my life like I was away at a Girl´s School or something. I stayed up reading all night and slept all day. Eventually I was given a job (in the kitchen, of course) so I shifted into “work-mode.” I´d be in there 14 or 15 hours every day. It was an excellent distraction. I could be a robot. I slept through the remaining 7 or 8 hours of the day. But that can only go on for so long. Even the most stubborn, locked-down person will eventually spring a leak. The pressure builds up to the point that, like it or not, the seams bust.

I literally begun to come unglued. It was horrible for me because I had all these emotions and stuff beating the hell out of me but no earthly idea how to handle them. And it was horrible for the people around me because I just unloaded on everybody. It was intense and irrational and scary. Looking back, it feels like I left a swath of devastation and destruction a mile wide and ten years long behind me. It´s a miracle I actually have friends. I´ll get to that in a minute.

I managed, by the grace of God, to pull myself together. I finally hit a wall that slammed me down so hard I had no choice but to get my butt in gear and it took years. It´s still happening. I broke down and asked for help—first for my temper, and then slowly everything else. The D.O.C. slaps band-aids on stuff with what they call “Treatment Programs.” These are usually 8 to 12 week long expeditions into the myriad problems that led us all to commit our crimes. The counselors run the programs, which have informative hope inspiring names like “Breaking Barriers” and “Stop and Think” or “Anger Management.”

The problem is everyone is burned out and jaded. The system doesn´t work and we all know it, so while these so-called “treatment programs” look good on paper, in reality they are akin to hollowing out the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon. The counselors are under-paid and over-worked and just read straight from the book or show a video. The inmates sign up to get a certificate and satisfy certain prison requirements. But there´s no real substance to any of it. On occasion someone will really put forth the effort to learn and change. But the effort is solo and private. I was sort of like that. I wanted to get healthy—to find a peaceful place in my head and my heart where I could settle down and do something valuable with all this time I´ve got. I got out what I put in. But those groups were merely a jumping off point. Over the years I have endeavored to get involved in various groups and counseling because I can´t do it on my own. That was the biggest hurdle for me to get over—pride (or is it control?)—thinking I didn´t need anyone to help me. Now, years later, I am healthier than ever.

This became clear to me the night I found out my precious grandmother had died. I got a letter—it was horrible, but there was no other way to contact me. My roommate was at work and I had what passes for privacy and cried my face off.

First point of healthiness: I cried—really, really hard. I remember thinking at one point how awesome it was that I just cut loose like that.

After 15 minutes or so, I smeared my face back on and went to the phone. My sister answered on the second ring. She talked—I cried. It was awful. Dizzy came over after a bit and held my hand.

Second point of healthiness: I let her. When the call ended, I gulped air and managed to tell her what happened. Then I called back.

The housing units (wings) aren´t that large considering this is the only maximum security prison for women in the entire state. So, out of 65 women, there were only about 15 in the rec room. Everyone else was in for the night watching Black List or something. Dizzy managed to discreetly let someone else know what happened—never once letting go of my hand. I was slowly surrounded by my amazing friends, all concerned and saddened. My awareness of the events which occurred during that second phone call is sketchy at best. I was crying hard and trying to inhale all while intensely focusing on what my sister was telling me. However, some things do stand out to me like shiny tear drops caught in my eye lashes. The warmth of their hands on my shoulders and the comforting closeness of them…a hand reaching over my shoulder and collecting all of my snotty tissues. It was such a gentle, unexpected thing I had to inhale sharply, which filled my lungs with much needed oxygen, and looked up into Tracy Lynn´s sad and smiling face. She lost her grandmother too, and not that long ago. I knew she was feeling all that again as she empathized with me. Erin was kneeling beside me with her hand on my knee and tears on her face. She lost her daddy about a year ago and I could see every day of her grief in her eyes.

Third point of healthiness: awareness of someone other than myself. My friends were grieving with me but also over their own losses. Tracy Lynn moved around behind my chair and took my hair down and combed it with her fingers. Elizabeth brought me cold, damp paper towels. These women who I have lived with and worked with—survived with—were supporting me with love and care. I was so grateful to have them all with me.

As I hung up the phone, Sharon lifted me out of my chair and wrapped me in a hug. Then Elizabeth hugged me…then Debby, then Tracy Lynn. Then Erin and Lauren and Jenna. Then Dizzy, who never let go of my hand. Watch command called count and they (my friends, not watch command) asked me to come back out afterward to sit and talk or whatever.

Fourth point of healthiness: I said I could. There would be no denial of or shoving my emotions in this time. These women who I love were reaching out to me and by Jove I was reaching back. I was not going to pretend that I was O.K.

We sat together for a couple hours talking and even laughing. I told them what happened as told to me by my sister. I have always talked about my grandparents a lot, so they were fairly familiar with her. I cried some more, although not as hard. They shared their own grief with me and I was comforted by not only how easily we talked, but also by how completely they understood all the different emotions I was grappling with. It was an amazing experience for me, but I struggled to tell them how much I appreciated and needed them. We broke it up close to midnight. I was exhausted and wanted to sleep for several days. As we said goodnight I was showered with more hugs and Tylenol and offers of “…anything you need…” No one suggested I “fake it till I make it” or brought out how “long and full” her life had been. And although we discussed God and Heaven and our faith, no one pressured to tell me how much God would or would not give me to handle. I fell asleep that night still crying, still feeling from the horrible news, and yet somehow okay. Genuinely okay.

I once said we have a choice in here: survive or succumb. What I didn´t say was what that means. I see people succumb to this way of life all the time. Usually women brand new to the system do it pretty quickly. They just give in and adopt the behaviors they see around them. Perhaps it´s easier that way for them. Going with the flow is always easier. I was too pissed off at the world when I came into the system to succumb to it. Surviving, however, is a long, difficult process involving determination (stubbornness?) and a desire to get healthy (sheer willed), maybe with a bit of confidence (pride?) in there, too. If those things aren´t already present or don´t at least show up pretty soon after you´re sentenced, you will ultimately “yield to something overwhelming…” and succumb.

Cruelty is a living, breathing, “liquidy” thing that ebbs and flows with the current mood of the day in prison. Cruelty abounds and dictates which way you fall when you enter the razor-wired gates. I have found that surviving starts with how you respond to cruelty, because your first experiences in prison will be cruel. Indifference can be a powerful weapon against cruelty. And I managed to grab on—and hold on—with both hands. It helped me find ground solid enough to step out and begin to change…to survive.

Surviving is more than just getting by relatively unscathed every day; surviving is finding the room to stretch and figure out what went wrong (what led you to prison) and then making changes because you care about more than just canteen or getting over on the State…because you care about your relationships and your future. Surviving is not compromising so much that you lose yourself or conforming because it´s easier than putting up with the cruelty that comes after those who´re different. Surviving is leaving behind the person you were and becoming the person you want to be.

It has benefits, too, surviving does. I have met some incredible people over the years. People who want to live and not “just get by.” People who would probably be indifferent towards me if I´d caved-in way back when. They are my friends. I love them. Some have been with me a long time and were there when Doug was executed. Some have been with me a little more than a decade and were there when the turn downs started rolling in. And some are relatively new, but were there when I was told I only have the right to die in prison after doing a hell of a lot more time. All of them have gone through their own struggles and losses and I have tried to be there for them when needed. I have learned how to hold a hand and clean up snotty Kleenex. I´ve learned how to listen and be a steady presence in the middle of the chaos. I´ve learned this from them. I´ve learned that it´s part of surviving. So is letting them do those things for me—so is reaching out for the outstretched hand. 

I grew up very close to my grandparents. I adored my grandmother and talked to her every Sunday of my incarceration. She was the last one to go. I´ve lost them all while I´ve been in prison. But this one hit the hardest. I think because I let it.

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974