I don't fear death. It's inevitable for all of us. What I do fear is being forgotten or nobody caring that I'm gone. I fear leaving a legacy of pain and regret instead of cherished memories.
When I die, I want people to remember me, hopefully fondly. I want people to reflect on the ways that I may have positively impacted their lives. I want my legacy to be that I helped others to thrive. I want to be remembered as an overcomer, too.
My desire to help others shouldn’t stop upon my death, so I want anything useful to be harvested from my body to help others. If my heart will help another live for years to come, I want them to have it, especially if that heart will still beat for someone who gives compassion. I want my eyes to help another to see, especially if they will see those who feel invisible. If my larynx can give someone a voice so they may speak up, especially for others, please take it. If my organs can give people life, doing good even in my death, then this is how I want to live on.
I'm not a saint by any means. I simply want to keep doing good because I have amends to make that I'm sure I'll never complete in this life. Maybe I can help someone live long enough to right their own wrongs.
If harvesting what is useful from my body does not make it impossible, and if the circumstances of my death don't prohibit it, I'd like to have an open casket. I don't relish being remembered dead, but others, I think, may benefit by the closure an open casket affords. I don't need to be made up ridiculously, it's only temporary anyway. I'd like to be cremated instead of buried whole. A burial plot feels like a waste of land to me.
During my funeral, two things are important to me. I want Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" to be played by a string quartet. No other music has ever moved me like this piece has. I want those who attend my funeral to feel, even a little bit, the stirring in their hearts that I feel from this masterpiece. Please choose skilled musicians because this piece deserves to be played with the utmost respect.
Second, I don't care for eulogies. If I've done anything in life worth praising, let it speak for itself. But I do want people to share with each other their favorite memories of me. I've often found it healing when a loved one has died to recount, out loud to others, my favorite memories of the person. I want people to smile at my funeral, because of the fond times they share. I'd like these stories to be recorded so people can stir up in themselves, anytime they wish, memories that will make them smile.
If anyone attends my funeral who is still angry with me, let them hear the memories of others to hopefully find forgiveness and healing. If anyone attends my funeral who harmed me in this life, let them know that I take no resentment with me. I forgive them. Either way, I hope forgiveness will free these people to live their lives with joy and purpose.
Finally, if anyone sticks around, I'd like to be taken outside to a funeral pyre, laid out on a mix of woods. I want at least some cedar since I've always loved the smell. Cremation has always seemed like the right choice for me. I feel like it holds tremendous symbology, including an invitation to others to let their lives burn brightly. I hope this helps them make a positive impact so that others remember them fondly.
My ashes may be disposed of, buried, or scattered any way my loved ones see fit. However, I don't want my ashes to be a memorial. I also don't need a headstone, though I would concede to a small plaque if so desired by my loved ones. Let memories of me be my memorial. Let me live on by helping others to live on. Mourn my passing however you must, but honor me by living your life the best way you can.
Depth to Depth
From warm depths I rise
Stretching to embrace this life
Bloody from the fight
Impatient I grow
Searching for carnal pleasure
Resolved with passion
Seeking to conquer the world
Shouldering its weight
Patient I retire
Striving for significance
Wisdom now prevails
In cold depths I lie
Straining to accept the end
Shed this bloody frame
Fish Out of Water
Following the guard's directions out of intake, I make my way outside and towards the large, brick building across the yard. My cheeks still burn from the humiliation of my recent strip search and the impersonal and accusatory questioning I encountered. I feel judged all over again, though I'm not sure if it's because I don’t belong to a gang, or because I have no tattoos or substance abuse history to report. I guess I'm not the "typical" prisoner. I suppose that should make me feel good about myself, but instead I feel like an anomaly.
As I cross the yard, I see other men jogging, doing pull-ups and push-ups, and congregating in clearly divided racial groups. I've already been warned by prison staff to avoid certain areas of the yard, and I can't help but sneak glances in those directions. I also notice the line of men gathered by the antiquated telephones, waiting for their turn to call home. I've been told the phone rates are high, and I soon find out that everything costs more in prison.
It will later shock me that a total institution run by a supposedly democratic government should support monopolies in prison industries. After all, the same government regulates and penalizes monopolies on Wall Street. For now, I begin to worry about the financial cost of my incarceration on my family, beyond my inability to provide for their needs. Now, I'm in a system that will cause me to be a drain on their limited resources.
Finally, I enter my assigned housing unit. I carry my bag of linens (sheets, pillow cases, and blankets) to the desk to check in with the unit officer. I stand at the desk for several minutes before the clearly bored guard looks up and gives me his attention.
"Who are you?" he asks accusingly, as if I haven't been sent to his unit.
I tell him my name, and after consulting a paper on the desk he points to the right.
"Third gallery, cell 52, top bunk. Up those stairs. Don't hang out in front of other cells. No passing anything to other cells. Yard times and chow times are posted on the bulletin board over there. Be ready when your door breaks. If you miss your door you miss your chance. If you have questions, consult the bulletin board. Don't ask me any question that can be answered there. I hate answering questions I don't have to."
He glares at me as if I ought to be gone already. I have a list of questions in my mind, but his glare makes me hesitate.
"Thank you," I mumble, wanting to say more but thinking better of it.
I trudge upstairs with my linens, wondering when I'll get the rest of my clothing assignments, when I'll be able to take a shower, how soon I can order hygiene necessities, what the commissary prices are, how to even order commissary, how I make phone calls, and a host of other questions. I decide to scope out my situation before asking questions, and I figure I'll find other prisoners to answer most of my unknowns.
Careful to avoid looking in other cells as I pass, I use my peripheral vision to locate the numbers on the cell doors. I'm overwhelmed by the cacophony of prison noise permeating the housing unit and distracted by the activity of prisoners bustling about the unit. I hear a few cat calls and whistles, complete with "Fresh meat!" hollered out by a few, but I avoid looking around to see if I'm the object of their lecherous shouts.
When I finally locate my cell, I look through the window and see someone lying on the bottom bunk watching TV. I stand by the door until the guard at the end of the gallery breaks the door so I can enter it. I step tentatively into the cell as my new bunkie looks up with an indifferent glance. He looks back at his TV without a word. Oh, this will be fun, I think. Shutting the door behind me, I'm surprised by the instant muffling of prison noise.
"What's up?" I venture carefully. "I guess I'm your new bunkie. Is this my locker?" I gesture towards the clearly empty locker, knowing I just asked a stupid question but not wanting to step on toes.
My bunkie swings his feet over the edge of the bed, resigning himself to introducing the new guy to his cell.
"Yes, that's your locker. When you have stuff you want to lock up, you can buy a lock from commissary. I'm not a thief though, and I don't tolerate thieves, so don't touch my shit. I don't lock up my own shit in the cell." He glares at me like I've already been scoping out his coffee and ramen noodles.
"If you have to shit, do it when I'm not in the cell. You can do it at yard times, or chow times, or when I'm at work. When you use the sink, clean up after yourself. I'm not your mother and won't clean up after you. We clean the room every other day, including sweeping and mopping. Keep your shit organized so it doesn't draw the attention of the police."
He continues, "Is this your first time down?"
I nod in the affirmative. "Yep, first and last, I hope."
My new bunkie snuffs his nose like he knows better. "Look, I'm not going to babysit you, but don't bring any heat to the room. If you have beefs, handle them out there. This feels like a dumb question, but are you affiliated?"
I groan inwardly, feeling like I'm being interrogated all over again. "No," I reply. "I'm solo."
He looks down and shakes his head. "Me too, but I've been doing this for a while. Just stay away from gang shit, and don't get conned into anything stupid. If it feels questionable to you, don't do it. Ask me if you have questions about something. I can advise you, but you'll do whatever you decide to do. I'm not going to bail you out. If you've got money on the outside, don't tell people. Don't buy too much too soon or people will notice."
I can tell there's going to be a lot to learn about prison life, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. I have so many questions about basic things like phone usage and commissary orders, but I don't want to bug my new bunkie.
He stands up from his bunk and moves towards the door. "Go ahead and make your bed. I'll wait for you. I don't wanna have your shit in my face. And by the way, don't hang your feet over the bunk. I don't want your feet in my face either."
There seems to be a lot to remember, dos and don'ts, but I just focus on the task at hand and start making my bed.
I quickly finish, thank him, and climb into my rack after kicking off my shoes. I had noticed my bunkie's shoes neatly arranged under his bunk, so I slide mine in neatly under the opposite side under his bunk. My new roommate climbs back into his bunk, presumably to resume watching the television show that had his attention before I diverted it.
I lay back on my pillow staring up at the ceiling, my stomach growling quietly because I'd only eaten a sack lunch on the ride to the prison. I notice the graffiti on the walls and ceiling, some barely muted by a thin layer of cheap paint. I see a lot of what I assume are gang symbols, penises, and the word "bitch" scratched in various handwriting. What a legacy to leave behind, I think. Signs of ignorance and destruction.
Our solid window, barely eight inches wide, looks out behind the housing unit. I notice there are two parallel rows of concertina wire topped fences surrounding the prison. The space between is packed with huge bundles of the razor wire, doubly ensuring there is no escape. I wonder if anyone has tried what looks like an impossible feat. For a moment, I imagine the gruesome results.
After a while, I hear a loudspeaker announce "Five minutes to count. Catch your doors." I wonder if he means us, but my bunkie doesn't move. A minute or two later, the clanging of shutting doors is punctuated by an eerie silence that follows. The overhead light turns on, even though it's still bright outside, and the loudspeaker crackles to life again. "Count time. On your bunks. Be visible to staff."
I sigh quietly, turn on my side, close my eyes and try to shut out my new reality for a few minutes. What the fuck have I gotten myself into? I think with despair. Is this really my life for the next few years? I start feeling sorry for myself, and as I think about all that I've lost and all the people I've disappointed, I feel tears begin to push their way to the corner of my eyes.
Toughen up! I tell myself. Don't show weakness! Crying is weak. You've got to survive this hell hole. I pep-talk myself silently, sucking back the tears and pushing down all the emotion that longs for escape. It's crazy, I think. I have to imprison my emotions because I'm in prison. I'll have to process my grief, my shame, my losses some other time. Right now, my job is to make it to tomorrow alive.
The emotional exhaustion catches up to me, overcoming my worry that my bunkie could murder me in my sleep. He doesn't seem like a killer, but you never know. I drift off to sleep, the raw pain of loneliness enveloping me like a blanket. I don't know how long I sleep, but I am soon awakened to the sound of the doors popping open and my bunkie calling out to me.
"It's chow time. If you're going, you better get moving. Pull the door shut behind you."
I watch him walk out the door as I scramble down from the bunk and quickly put on my shoes. I still want to shower and call home, but for now I know I better go eat or I'll be hungry all night. I slip through the door and shut it behind me, merging into the herd of men making their way towards the stairs.
Keeping my eyes down, I can feel all the other guys staring at me as I walk with the crowd. For now, I know, I'm an unknown quantity to them, but soon enough, I'll know some of them, and some of them will know me. Soon enough, I'll be one of them, watching the new guys walk through the door with their own looks of bewilderment and fear. Soon enough, I'll feel like a veteran instead of a fish.
After dinner, I finally get to shower. I don’t yet have slides so I have to bathe in my dirty socks. I’m going to have nightmares about the foot fungus growing in this place. I brush my teeth with a cheap indigent toothbrush and barely effective toothpaste before climbing back into my bunk for an early bedtime. I can't wait to purchase some necessities and settle into a routine. It’ll make me feel more human than I do right now.
Over the next couple of years, I'll need to figure out how to make a life in prison without making prison my life. When I walk out of these walls, I am never coming back. This is just the first day of my long journey home.
You say that you loved me,
but your absence spoke loudly.
It's hard to comprehend
how you didn't stand proudly.
When I made my life shine,
you kept your distance still.
When my life imploded,
you left a hole to be filled.
I needed your counsel,
but mostly, I needed you.
I needed your presence,
to help me make it through.
Whatever your reasons,
they died along with you.
No hope now for some day
to be good enough for you.
You buried your father
with the same realization.
Now I carry the burden,
the undeserved shame
Of knowing my father
did not really want me;
No other conclusion
your absence has taught me.
Black Sheep Gone Missing
May 17, 2023
Hey, y'all. I know we haven't talked in a while, but now it's my turn to check out of your life. I'm disappearing for a while. I'm sure you don't actually care where I'm going or even how long I'll be gone. Just know that I'm out. Thanks for all the pain you've brought to my life over the last few years. I plan on using it as a basis for a new novel. Call it fictionalized reality, if you will. I doubt I could dream this stuff up without you first making it true. If in the future you decide you want to hear about what's happened in my life, don't bother calling. You can catch up with me by buying my novel. I'm sure you'll recognize who you are in the story (hint: you're either a minor character or an antagonist). If you don't recognize someone in the story, it's probably someone you've never met. You don't know who I love now. I haven't figured the whole story out yet. If the protagonist lives in the end, maybe you'll see me again. Otherwise, don't bother looking. Ciao!
The March of Hades
Du-dum, du-dum, du-dum,
My heart races wildly.
The pounding in my ears
Grows louder, and louder.
My chest squeezes tightly,
Punctuated with pain.
A constrictor of fear
Steals my life-giving breath.
Stand my ground and battle?
Or flee to shake the foe?
My mind races quickly,
But endless thoughts unhinge.
"Be rational! Calm down!"
I command, unheeded.
"Breathe deeply, and let go,"
A pointless order, too.
My eyes covered darkly.
My ears extinguish sound.
Escape this existence,
I seek my happy place.
No control? It wakens.
Distant fears? It rises.
Pressing crowds? It appears.
Lost hopes? It shows its face.
It's finally here.
Panic envelops me.
It overwhelms, consumes.
It steals the man I am.
I lie broken inside.
Hades is here.
Soon, I rise, strength returned.
Hell will not hold me down.
It had its moment, but
I draw my inner peace.
I am here.
Until Hades returns.
Free Speech is Never Free
Free speech is a misnomer. We Americans are so obsessed by money that we apply economic terms to non-monetary things. Hell, in the '60s we even deluded ourselves into thinking love was free. Love always costs us something, even if it's worth everything we give.
Speech, too, always costs us something. It is never free. Speech can cost us our reputations, our friends, our livelihood...even our freedom. Now, that's ironic!
Thinking ourselves somehow above the baseness of punishing speech, we Americans remember Voltaire for his political dissent. It earned him time in the Bastille, on several occasions. We remember Fyodor Dostoyevsky who dared to challenge Russian political elites. He faced a mock execution and excruciatingly harsh imprisonment for his "free speech." We pat ourselves on the back as an enlightened culture that celebrates free speech. But do we really?
Let's ask William Lloyd Garrison, jailed in the late 1800s for his free speech condemning slavers (they called it libel). Or Emma Goldman who was arrested for opposing conscription during WW I. What about Rose Pastor Stokes who was sentenced to ten years for writing in a private letter, "I am for the people and the government is for the profiteers"? Not even private criticism is free.
Oh, we're far more advanced now, you might argue. But are we really? Isn't our "cancel culture" on the ass end of a wave of very public cancelations for free speech? At least I hope we're nearing the end. Still, some in society will always be intolerant of difference, no matter what it says to the contrary.
Nevertheless, those with the boldness to say what others will not, to voice dissent, to point out injustice, to spark rigorous debate by sharing contrary views...these people count the cost first, and willingly pay it. These speech pioneers are often measured harshly while they live, but then posthumously championed for their courage.
Today we honor such champions of "free speech": the Founding Fathers, William Gladstone, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Alexei Navalny. Each of these courageous people paid a high price for their disruptive speech, and it would dishonor them to call their speech free. For some of them, it cost everything.
Let me throw out a caution flag, though. Honoring free speech is not the same thing as defending verbal vomit. Some people really ought to shut their pie holes. They ought to count the cost of spewing their mental cesspools into our ear holes.
Some speech must be disruptive because, well, much deserves to be disrupted. But some things are better left unsaid. Or unthought. We might all benefit by following this little nugget of wisdom shared with me a few years ago--"Before speaking, ask yourself these two questions: Is it kind? Is it necessary?" If the answer is "no" to either one, well then...zip it!
Disruptive speech is absolutely necessary, and it very well may be kind. It's far kinder to speak up against injustice than to let it continue unhindered. But not all speech is kind and necessary, and in these occasions things are better left unsaid.
We don't have to open our mouths to confirm others' sneaky suspicions that we're fools (wise words, Prez Abe!). We won't say everything right, but that's okay. We simply must recognize that our words are costly. And if our words are costly, then let's let them count for something real. Let's let them shake social apathy. Let's let them disrupt the status quo. Let's let them rescue the oppressed and defend the defenseless.
Perhaps if we first count the cost, we won't speak so freely. Perhaps if we comprehend that speech is costly, we'll be sure we make our words count.
Man of Words
I'm a man of few words.
But when I speak, I want my words to count.
So, I think deeply about what to say,
How to express my thoughts in the best way.
Then I take out my paintbrush—-the keyboard—
And dip into the well of my heart.
Using the precious pigments of pain, joy, and hope,
I trace an outline of thought.
Combining light and darkness,
I create shades of meaning.
My subject is sometimes obvious.
But, often I use the background
To draw one's eye to the subject.
My subject sometimes lies in rhythm and rhyme,
Sometimes in fantasy and lore,
Sometimes in pontification.
Yet, every pixelated word, every crafted line,
Seeks to inspire, to motivate, to heal.
What’s So New About Loving Each Other?
God's command that we love one another is nothing new. In Leviticus 19:18 He commanded his people to love each other, 1500 years before Jesus' incarnation. Jesus had even said that this earlier commandment was second only in importance to the command to love the LORD your God (Matthew 22:39). So, why then did Jesus say he was giving a new command? What is so new about our mandate to love each other?
What's new is the standard behind the love. The old commandment's standard was to love others "as you love yourself." We like to use ourselves as a measurement. After all, we could justify not loving someone else by claiming we don't even like ourselves. So, Jesus elevated the standard. Now, we are to love others as Jesus loves us. That standard can't be manipulated. It's a completely selfless, self-sacrificing, and unconditional love.
Jesus also said that others would know whether or not we follow him based on our love for others (John 13:35). Our church attendance, scripture quoting, tithing, and the myriad other "religious" things we do don't demonstrate our faith. It's our Christ-like love for others that shows we are disciples of Jesus. It's the Samaritan rescuing, leper healing, adulterer forgiving love of Jesus. It's the kind of love that compels us to lay down our very lives, even to rescue those who hate us.
That's not just a new commandment, it's also a new and superior kind of love! Lord knows, this world could use a little more love like this. Two thousand years and counting, and we still haven't figured out how to love like Jesus did. Maybe we ought to try something...well, new!