I had become ugly. The impact of this realization hit with the force of a sledge hammer. Instead of it being a blow to my chest that would have knocked the wind out of me, it was more to the base of my skull driving in. It was a shock that pushed me outside of myself. Like how your body can create and contain all of the festering puss from an infected wound, as your immune system fights to deal with the infection that feeds on your flesh the process creates a refuse that is as vile and dangerous as the foreign invader itself. The process of fighting has its own purpose and its own insistent pressure. And this pressure will build. If the anatomy is right it will find a way to reach the skin that separates it from the outer world and jettison the poison leaving the host body poison and invasion free to heal. If the anatomy is wrong then the pressure forces the fight in and the infection moves along with the cause, deeper in.
I stood and looked helplessly into the mirror that allowed me to see myself alongside this new horrific truth and I wanted to scream. This is what I had become. All the adrenaline that reliving the experiences of how I got here constantly dumped into my system was now an acid bath eating away at every cell of my being. The fight of that biological survival mechanism was now in full reverse and I wanted nothing more than to flee. I wanted to smash that mirror allowing me to see and run, surrendering to wildness and simplicity of just being a creature and reacting, surviving by natures rules, but I didn’t. I stood my ground frozen by this unwelcome new addition of perspective. I had trained myself to be able to look into the abyss and take what truth it showed me, or that is still a convenient self-empowering lie I tell myself not fully acknowledging I was being held against my will and there was no escape from this deeper inner monologue you are faced with in prison. I faced my part in how I got there and what my life had become. And I am grateful I had gotten to where I could see what I needed to see no matter how horrific or nasty. I was still in very real danger and this new insight wasn’t the way out, but it was a hand hold to keep from sinking deeper.
Barney was just staring at me. I have no idea what this inner implosion or revelation had looked like to the outer world but it was plainly visible to him that something in me had changed. He smiled into my unsettling. The brother was deep in many directions. There was wisdom and an animal way that could only be called cunning. We were developing a bond that was frowned upon. He was a black and I was a wood, but we also both were monsters and heroes which does register at the deepest soul level of recognition where you can see the facets of yourself in others in a way that most people can’t relate to. Don’t feel bad if I lose you here. It is better to get used to it or just stop reading.
This was my first residency in county jail and at this point in the story the time I was looking at could have been considerable. As far as accommodations go I had already ridden things through some real hell holes up to Southside. That is what we called it and it was the luxury suite of incarceration destinations in the LA county prison system. Yes, even hell has its own rating system. I was into my seventh week and this was my home for now and up to years and years of my unknowable future. I was there, deep inside the disgusting knot society becomes where individuals meant nothing in a language of statistics, just something that is thrown into the gears of the big machine. That place will rain hell on romantic notions of right and wrong, which were my last defense now that fairness and justice were gone. Nothing was resolved. Swallowing bitter truths, I burned. Nothing was gotten to the bottom of. No one cared. What really happened? That was nothing against the sophistication my advisories had in working the system. All I had left it seemed was my story and this understanding of how I had been wronged. My behavior was justified. I stood trapped in jail innocent of what I had been accused of.
Now let’s loop back to that sledge hammer blow that knocked the old me out of existence. Barney had just helped me see how I was completely complicit in whatever had gotten me there. That story of injustice that currently had me in jail was one among many fractured splinters in my mind that my psyche had encapsulated and was actively fighting. Seen alone it was a major or minor infection. Viewing the totality of my soul as a pin cushion full of splinters with each carrying the heat and poison and sickness of its own active infection and I could see I had a polluted soul. So many battles over abstract principles, won or lost, it didn’t matter. I had been missing a perspective allowing me to see what these fights had been taking. All that residual debris was left floating deep inside me. I had no peace. I had become ugly.
Someone else had taken the time to help Barney get to where he could see himself from the outside like that. Doing this involves the separation of seemingly similar topics and that requires a delicate touch; as if we were to try and separate what is seen from how we see. The overlap of subject matter makes it a challenge to stay on point. Barney had been there so he was able to guide me to that place where I could see myself like that. Barney reached me.
I got it and simultaneously inflated and deflated all at once. Barney knew I had finally heard, not the words, but the shift of what he was trying to communicate to me. I looked into his eyes through the wetness of the tears that were forming on the outside of my inside. Such a curious savior. I knew Barney was also on my side. Here I stood with this teacher and friend and he was someone I could not share food with, borrow from or owe anything to without openly getting educated by the fists of my set in the back shower area of where I now had as a home. He was a black and there are strict social rules of conduct in jail that nested like prisons inside of prisons. Woods and blacks didn’t socialize. Certain rules gain no traction on me which is an extension of a different problem. However, the end result is the same: Being different is dangerous. As always, I slip through the cracks of things. Barney knew this.
Parts of my soul sickness had been exacerbated by this never belonging. While the people who conspired and successfully got me arrested and put in jail felt it was the place for me, I did not belong there. I was far too realistic to try and front in such a way to the lifelong inhabitants of the California penial system. They recognized me as the outsider I was and echoed back at me their own conclusions; I didn’t belong there. But, there I was, stuck in jail, with what felt like no control over my history or my future. My present was also no longer up to me. Where I belonged was where the court ordered me.
And there I was, incarcerated, out of place, outnumbered and alone with the scant handful of choices left to me. I was completely cut off from any available aid my money would provide me if I was on the outside. I was in real and constant danger of many things on many levels. Seeing my few available choices as only the refuse of a freedom that my foes had successfully deprived me of was an accurate view of one particular character’s interpretation of one particular story. And that character had a deep and burning righteous anger. Of course the character I am talking about is me. I was choosing to be right. Now, the righteousness that resulted from this choice to be right made me ugly. Are you following? Was being ugly going to help me do my time?
And this is where you, my reader, are possibly feeling ripped off. I did not take you down a micro path of particulars allowing a vicarious thrill of excitement, horror, and danger. That is all too easy and to what end? You already know the particulars. They have been laid out in our history, literature, cinema and reality tv. Better yet, insert any comparable details from your story. My particulars would only entrench me deeper in something I am trying to escape. So feel let down. Instead I give you our story. Of how in the bleakest of times we are still left with choices, our story is how the world and society shaped us. And while we may take false credit for opportunities given we also take undeserved blame for circumstances driven. Along our lives we are conditioned to react in certain ways. These reactions can be changed. Or, these reactions can be reinforced by the power we give to our stories. I was right about everything. The things I was right about were the bad behavior of others and the things that had been done to me and this took me to righteousness and anger. You already have all the details you need. That righteous anger was something that fueled a reaction in me that made me ugly. Without that flaw no one could have touched me. I was in jail for the reaction of ugliness that was visible above and beyond my ability to out maneuver the people that were accusing me. It just was what it was. So, I was in jail for what I had done after all, and Barney helped me face this.
With this new way to see my situation I inherited a new set of choices. Finding this new possibility for peace I understood the wisdom in pleading no contest and I accepted a sentence for something I didn’t do. I still had to finish my time and I managed to do this without the system pulling me in deeper. It is a slippery trap of quicksand. Our jails now serve as housing for many who have nowhere else to truly fit in. Many of these were born very real and dangerous criminals. Others had been shaped. I could be them given the narrow choices allowed by their stories. My friend Barney was one of these. A criminal, a gang member and enlightened in a way that can be forced upon you left with all the introspection time of incarceration. He asked me if I could see myself while I told him the certain particulars of my story. He asked me in a way where my eyes became his and the tense rage of my fury as the result of retelling my story was accessible to me. Right there, right then, we both agreed I was furious. Only I could be doing that, becoming ugly, and I was doing it with a story. Barney could show me because he had been and still was me.
While fighting my monsters I had become one, so I have changed my role. There is gratitude for Barney who would not have been able to spare me if there had been any race riot while we were inside. Even if we had been compelled to bash each other’s skulls in I know it wouldn’t have been personal. This impersonalness of the universe is the horror that was Barney’s gift to me. As something personal my fight was a story that was rotting me out from the inside. So now that I am literally back on the outside I can feel the imprisonment I create for myself whenever I pick up my old story. Doing that brings into the present all the battles that come with that old story and how that poisons me. I spent 47 years reinforcing patterns of behavior resulting in righteous anger that will not just change overnight. I move forward with no deeper understanding of the transient nature of being. I have discovered the real freedom of being able to control the thoughts in my mind. I was at that place where my mind was all that was left to me. I live now in the practice of preserving this true freedom, the only one I have ever had; how I react to the outer world of stimuli with as complete a set of choices as my limited point of view allows me. I completed 24 hours of court appoint anger management classes and continue the suggested practice of writing about my feelings. I do this to help find my way back.
I had become ugly.