Who would have ever thought anyone could feel elated arriving at a prison camp to serve out her sentence? But it is true. As I sit on my narrow bunk in the four-person room at this 300 plus women’s camp, I reflect on those wretched days at the contemptible Sacramento County Jail, and remember anew my delights on arrival at the camp in Dublin, California.
Spring has arrived. The trees in front of our buildings have awakened from their winter repose and are presently sporting proud young leaves of that soft color green that had always stirred me so. Innumerable varieties of birds dwell here, flitting among the leaves of the cottonwood, from branch to branch, chirping noisily to celebrate the return of life. While squirrels peek from their nesting hollows and frolic among the grass which is verdant still from the sweet rains of winter, the trees sway and bow their heads to the passing breeze as if paying homage to the perfection of nature. None of these creatures seem to know they are on prison ground. But perhaps they do, and their song and dance is both consolation and counsel, a balm and a reminder, to the inmates, that in spite of the high wall, the wires, the hardships and privations, that the most precious things in life are still within our reach - things such as the liberty of our minds and the sights and sounds of life.
The days are becoming more sunny and bright. Plants shoot free of their earthy confines in wild abandon, vying with perennial blooms for a favored spot under the sun. Inmate landscape crews have done a good job on the yard. Where there used to be dirt and skeletons of last summer’s blooms, now violet and blue flowers preen and flutter over lush, green limbs which move sinuously to the silent rhythm of the wind.
I enjoy the scene with all my senses, like a child might, at her first awareness of nature. Alas, I also behold it with desperation, like a very old woman would, on her last breaths, knowing how quickly scenes as common as this could be taken away.
I still remember my first touch of a rose petal after the distance of almost two years. The velvety feel soothed my soul but stirred my heart with remembered pain - it had been far too long since I’d touched it last.
While my senses re-acclimated to life outside a cage, my emotions rose and dipped in breathless wonders under the gentle ministrations of nature. My body rejoiced in knowing again the warmth of the sun, the gentle touches of the wind and the invigorating lashing of the rain - all the spectacular bounty of the earth I had once thought as belonging to all men, in all circumstances, for all times.
My first job upon arrival in December, 2004, was with the Camp yard detail. Naturally, I could not simply focus on the task of raking leaves. In moments of self pity, I would lift my head to show the familiar Mr. Sun from childhood my pale, pale face, to let him know what had happened to me. Day after day, placid rays reached down from the heavens in tender caresses, as if to reassure me that all was well again. After a few short days, brown blotches animated across my face, from forehead to chin, ear to ear, making me look like a gypsy, a happy gypsy at that, or as Ma would have said, a dirty, endearing little savage.
Away from the netherworld of the jail, I can finally reflect without the prejudicial colors of pain. Perhaps the county jails of the world are necessary, insofar as their cruelty generates that absolute despair which forces a man to retreat within to ponder, and at the right moment in his life, find the meaning of existence and the purpose of his life. Or he might just come away with a finer sense of what’s important in life.
If conditions had not been so oppressive, if prisoners had been treated with human decency and not as animals captured and caged, I would not have sunk so deep, and in that place of misery, found my Self and God. But for this experience, I would never have known the simplicity of life, and the complexity I’d made of mine.
The relative absence of cruelty at the Camp has restored reason to my once-insensible mind. I work hard at the teaching job Ive gained following short stints with the yard then the kitchen work details, obey the rules, write, and generally exult in the peace Ive found even though my immediate surroundings continue to roil with contentions, as befitting a microcosm of the turbulent world outside the fence. Anger and tension flared as the women rail against one another, the system, and their own lots.
From the serenity of my spiritual perch, I watch the fear being perpetuated - moving from the system to the inmates, from the inmates back to society, then from one inmate to another. The cycle of hate goes round and round, gaining strength with each new salvo of aggression and counter-aggression.
Inasmuch as love and compassion for our fellow men is the only answer for us, both individually and collectively, I wonder what it would take for us to banish judgment from our mind and hate from our heart.
I think now of the war that took up the whole of my formative years. If the Buddhists had responded to Diem’s oppression with good will and forbearance, if President Diem had bestowed on the people like compassion, it would have altered the course of the war. There might have been no war at that, for there would not have been a need to launch a revolution. Even if an aggressor felt the urge by some misplaced idealism, he would not have been able to generate enough fear and popular discontent to start the deadly conflict.
But again, perhaps all the cruelty and inhumanity are meant to be, themselves are nothing more than the dark side of our consciousness. The bad, the good, they are created by us, for us to experience, to know and to make a difference, or not. We would change the bad and improve on the good, or perpetuate the hate and the fear, all according to the call of our conscience, the beats of our own drums, as we move to fulfill our interconnected destiny.
The darkness on my path was there no longer. With peace and clarity, I could now let go of the grievances of the past, condemnations for the present and expectations of the future. On finishing the final leg of this incredible journey, I will be heading home.
On that December day when I left Sacramento, colors and light burst from the morning sky as if the heavens, too, rejoiced. When the call came to the cell, I jumped up from my bunk and rolled up the bedding as I had seen countless of my cellmates do before. I ran around the pod, glancing at the reflective mirror all the while, mouthing apology to the deputy in the control booth so I would not get reprimanded for talking to others outside of day room, the only allowed social” hour. I tapped on doors around the horseshoe-shaped pod to say goodbye to the old timers who had been through it all with me while tears streamed down my face, tears of joy, for leaving the saddest place I had ever been, and my heart ached, for the men and women I left behind, all fellow travelers on the darkest journey I had ever known.
There they were, in those awful, bright orange uniforms, aligning their faces on the narrow strips of glass on the solid steel doors so I could see their heartbreaking smiles. I heard their shouts through the doors, Have a good life,” don’t come back to this place,” and felt my heart fracture.
I could not have done it without them. And as I now reflect, seventeen months from those final goodbyes to the occupants of that county jail, I realize that for our collective suffering, for all the pain and the relentless assailing on the psyche and the soul, I had gained answers, answers to questions I’d never known to ask. From the darkness of despair, I found the illumination of God. From the most miserable of human conditions, I understood men and learned more about me. From the pitiless jail cell, I found the meaning of existence. Out of suffering, I discovered unbridled happiness.
In Dublin, whenever the inmates complain of the Camp as being less in comparison to the better-equipped camps, camps such as the exalted Camp Alderson in West Virginia, I thank God for His blessings, for I remember the dark days at Sacramento. I’ve realized that even the darkness itself was a benediction, for I would not have appreciated the grandeur of its opposite so well otherwise.
I have resolved never to forget. I had come, and I had seen. I know now what happiness is. It is being true to me and others, and giving the people I love and the world the very best of me. I have learned that life is to be lived in all its glory and sorrow, that experiences of every nature are to be embraced, and that the paradoxes are gifts from God. I’ve also discovered that suffering is a state of mind, and that understanding and accepting it is the key to man’s peace and happiness.
When the Campers” complain of the long wait for the showers, I remember those times when we were locked down for several days at a time in our cell, where my cellmate and I made use of the little stainless steel sink to keep ourselves clean, giving each other a minuscule measure of privacy by taking turns facing the wall. When my fellow prisoners decry the tastelessness of the meat served, I remember the inmates in Alexandria and the scrawny chicken drumsticks that comprised the long-awaited feast. When there is a dinner of mystery meat, I remember my Ma digging into the slop bucket for precious pieces of meat - any kind would do - and how my heart jumped with joy for every morsel she salvaged. When they bemoan the dismal condition of the cracked, uneven quarter-mile track where we walk round and round to drain sadness and sorrow, I remember looking out the slivers of window of my jail cell and seeing spring and summer pass me by. Oh how desperately I yearned then to feel the softness of grass under my feet, to breathe in the almost forgotten freshness of spring and to know again the mustiness of the soil after the sweet touch of a rain.
I am not as content as I could be. I still feel intense longings for my children, whenever my thoughts find them. Sometimes I cannot breathe for missing their touches. I remember the little bouquet of wild flowers that Tyler picked for me on our walks, and the feel of Zu’s frail, little body against mine. I remember her sorrowful whimpers when she needed water in the dark of night and couldn’t make me understand.
Whenever the pains come, I would feel weary and tired. I would be tempted to withdraw from the world, to find a little corner of the earth where I could live my life out in simplicity and peace, to a place where I would no longer be bothered by this tiresome, capricious life.
But most of the times I know I am, and was, cherished by God, by life. What a good run I have had, what a journey! From the depth of poverty, that abysmal fringe of society, I rose to the top of privilege and affluence then survived the descent to stand shoulder to shoulder with the dregs of society. From the horrors of war to the life of a jetsetter, to the world of the downtrodden, I have been privileged enough to know the lowest of conditions and the highest of glory, and somewhere in the abyss of my shattered spirit, discovered the key to life and my role in it.
This tragic, cosmic journey had turned my life upside down and yet given me peace. I have much farther to go, but I am not afraid. I will neither seek success nor fear failure. I will neither indulge in complacency nor surrender to worldly ambitions. I will live everyday as if that’s all there is, and embrace the journey with a peaceful and lightened heart. The future beckons. I now approach it with a certainty, a sureness of knowing that whatever it holds, it is the best for me.
I know how to live now. There is no longer the wistfulness of if only,” but simply the total and glad acceptance of what is. From the soothing calm of autumn, to the vibrant stirring of spring, there is a time to ponder, and a time to grow. Spring was late in coming, but what matters is that it did come, in the wake of the most powerful storm of my lifetime. Magically, in withdrawing deep within to seek refuge from the storm, I discovered my mystical self and found the path to that rapturous, illusive utopian state of being called bliss.
There’s no sunset as stirring as the one I will be watching with my family, no walk on the beach as joyful as the one we will take together, and no road as tranquil as the one I now follow to eternity.
Like the most worthy of antagonists, adversity has brought out the best in me. I am ready for whatever come, ready to experience more of this amazing life, my celebrated journey.
It is true. Life is what we make of it, and more. To be more, it also has to be less, for what is Life but a continual unfolding of the Self, ridding itself of the superficial, the ego, the pride … until only the virtuous heart of matter, the Divinity that is in all of us, remains.