I spent the majority of this winter in solitary confinement.
I was in solitary because I have not been as together as my books and essays have convinced many people I am, to the disappointment of some folks I care about.
These past few years of my sentence have been the emotional equivalent of chewing iced iron for me. After 24 years of living in this pit of hell on earth called the American penitentiary system, the time had really begun dragging me over the coals. It was straight up fucking with my mind. I began to lose the will to inspire men in here to believe they can do better and be better because my heart grew bitter.
Over half of my life
Twenty four years is a long time. Babies grow up and become adults that marry and have babies in that kind of time. It is generational time. Careers rise and fade into retirement in that kind of time. For me it means that I’ve spent more time alive in prison than I have free.
I’ve given the state over half of my life and sometimes it doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight. I’ve lost, found, and again lost hope in these decades I’ve spent in this hell. In that time, at my most hopeless and apathetic I’ve made some questionable choices and have held one hell of a pity party. Still managed to get some work done despite my descents into temporary hard time induced madness but there’s no real value in the work if I can’t walk it out through the despondency and bouts of hopelessness.
Before Agnes died she started admonishing me to bust open The Manual, which we donate to prisoners across America in an effort to plant seeds of restorative and holistic justice in fertile ground, answer the questions at the end of each chapter and do the work.
Boy that used to get to me.
“I ‘wrote’ The Manual, Agnes,” I’d tell her. “It’s who I am.”
“But you’ve forgotten some things,” she said that last time. “And you need to go back and remind yourself.”
That hurt coming from her. It meant that I was not living up to her expectations of me. She was also quite gently calling me a hypocrite.
I didn’t see it that way at the time. I was too busy dancing at my pity party and couldn’t hear her clearly over the noise of things in my life breaking.
Then she died on me. While I was partying to the pity. And nothing will ever be the same.
I swore the pity was over after that. I would not dishonor her legacy, I said, by wallowing in the mire. I would represent what she taught me, make good on the gifts she gave me. All that sounded good but I’m in the box now over some graceless bullshit that could’ve been avoided had I held firm to that resolve.
My failure has been a slap across the cheeks. Throughout my journey I’ve deemed authenticity as key to maturation, healing, and the transcendence of dire circumstances. This season of solitude in the box has provided me with the time I’ve needed in order to get a grip on this.
All that damned time
It is said that over 14 days in the hole amounts to torture and this is true. The stone walls collapse on you, the ceiling and floor inch closer every day. The mind obsesses on those matters that hurt and shame you the most. The deeper you get into the time, the more disconnected you become from people, from your life, from sun and rain and sky and earth until all that remains is stone, steel, and time. All that damned time. Time like that big assed serpent I once wrote about in one of my earliest published essays: Time crushing the breath from your lungs with its coiled, constricting embrace.
But I decided from the start of my season in the box that the time would not break my back and squeeze the life from me like that. I resisted its tyranny. I grasped it by the tail and throat and commanded it. I practiced yoga and tai chi. I studied Resma Menachem and Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk to get a handle on how to heal more penetratingly from the trauma I was haunted by. I wrote my wife almost daily and she answered. I worked to do my part to lay the foundation for the healing of our relationship. And she did hers. I finished the book I’d been working on for over five years, American Penitentiary. I planned and dreamed and envisioned and wrote. I prayed. I hoped. I got real.
I chose to let go of the pity and shut the lights out on the party. It was a stain on Agnes’ legacy that I had to clean up in my life. Staying in that zone would’ve meant that Agnes’ faith and investment in me and all we had spoken to the world would have been misplaced and in vain. And I wasn’t willing to let the story end like that.
I survived and overcame by beginning my season of solitude by taking Agnes’ advice. I opened my own book*. I began with chapter one and read it. I answered my own questions and rediscovered myself right there between the lines.
* Note from KT: Leonard speaks of The Manual