One day soon enough I will look back on all this like I now look back on my time in quarantine. In those moments, I was devastated. Sitting in a room by myself in South Dakota, locked inside for 17 days straight, my head spinning with how I was going to manage this. I spent time staring out the window, with so little to do I was watching the shadows on trees move. It was hard thinking of what everyone in Boise was up to in the midst of a gorgeous June. Camping, mountain biking, spending time with loved ones. I also had very little – institution issued clothes, a few random books, and three meals a day in Styrofoam containers. While I never want to experience something like that again, I did get through it. I have since met many inmates who have gone through far worse. I can overstate this enough, some of the stories of what people have endured throughout this process astound me. I guess you can say that for anything in life, someone has always been through worse. While that doesn’t downplay what I experienced it does provide a healthy dose of perspective.
In those moments my perspective on what will make me happy changes drastically from what it once was. I so badly wanted to be out on the compound, shop at commissary for stamps and some food, and move about with even a minor level of freedom. Now that I am on the main compound I have those things. I can go to the gym (when a controlled move allows me to do so), I can access email and also talk on the phone. We walk to the chow hall for dinner and I have job in Horticulture that keeps me in touch with nature. But here I am still feeling restricted by controlled movements, wanting to be able to go outside for fresh air in the evening, and looking to have access to a library more often. I also, admittedly, have no basis of comparison as I have never been to another prison. I just have my expectations, hopes and what other inmates tell me pre-covid incarceration was like.
Does it start with “all I need is to be free, just let me out of here.” What next? What do we put in front of ourselves and say, once this occurs, all will be good in my world? I know I have done this in the past, but I want to be more aware when it is occurring. People say things like “if I could just take a vacation to this one place, I will be happy. Once I change out this piece of furniture the house will feel that much better. After I acquire this new item, I will be very satisfied.” When does it end and when does gratitude begin?
I recently moved rooms. I used to live on Range 2 – it was LOUD, constant noise. It’s dark as well. My room had a window where the bottom 90% is frosted glass and while the top 10% is clear, ours was covered with a piece of sheet metal for security purposes, hindering our ability to see outside. My “cellies” wanted to keep the blinds closed and the windows shut as well. So yes, it was actually pretty depressing, at least by my prison experience standards. It’s a summer day out, the sky is blue, the sun is shining and I’m in a dark, dark room staring at a concrete wall imagining how fresh the breeze must smell. My new room is on a different floor, and there are about half as many people on this range. It is somewhat quieter and it faces a different direction. While it still has the frosted glass window (all rooms do) this one does not have the metal panel over the top portion of the window. I can see outside! I can see the sky, a few trees, and the people I live with like to keep the windows open. This makes a huge difference. Plus, and here’s a big win, there is a DOG IN THE ROOM. Yankton has a dog training program and out of the 300+ inmates on the compound only 12 total live in rooms with a dog. I moved into one of the two rooms and the dog stays with us, 24/7. If I have a rough day when I get back to the unit I lay down on the floor with that cuddly good boy and let it all melt away, and sometimes I’ll do that when I have a good day as well. He’s a lover, really well behaved and has a sweet temperament. He adds a positive energy to the time in a place that can harbor negative energy.
An English essayist and poet named Samuel Johnson wrote that “The desires of man increase with his acquisitions; every step which he advances brings something within his view, which he did not see before, and which, as soon as he sees it, he begins to want. Where necessity ends, curiosity begins; and no sooner are we supplied with every thing that nature can demand, than we sit down to contrive artificial appetites.”
My situation has improved, but am I letting it improve my mindset, my attitude and my spirit? Once something good happens, I need to take time to enjoy it – even if I am trying to enjoy something about being here. For me, it starts with training my mind, and an awareness of what I am thinking about and what best serves me. I have the power to stop a thought – if I know it is a negative one why would I let it grow by ruminating on it? Why do that when I can instead focus on the positive changes I am making? I can’t use being here as an excuse, although it is a pretty good one.
If on the first day here you showed me what things would look like today, I would have been pleasantly surprised, especially considering my quarantine living arrangement. So as I sit here, I am focusing on more gratitude the best I can. I also need more faith, because if things have improved this much since my arrival, what might the next three months, three years or three decades bring? This is something I struggled with in my professional life at times. White collar work doesn’t always allow for tangible wins. Most projects take time and by the time they are complete there may not be something you can physically hold – it’s not a ‘maker’ industry. I used to tell myself that in lieu of this I should try and move the needle every day. Get something done, make forward progress. But once I made a sale, it was immediately on to what was next. Writing this, in this very moment, is a reminder to myself that I need to do the aforementioned in every way possible – I need to focus on moving the needle. Am I doing that in terms of my decompression, my health, my working for a bright future, and my letting go of what is out of my control? I cannot complete any of those tasks in one given moment, but I can contribute towards all of them in some meaningful way every single day. Then after enough days of that, I get to walk out of here not broken down but instead with a sound mind and a lot of gratitude.