“Would you like a blue star or a gold star?” Ten words spoken to me earlier today by a stranger that I didn’t know but will never forget.
I was standing in the commissary line, a snaking tail of sweating men in what was half functioning air-conditioning. It’s always like this. The air-conditioning I mean. Every year. On the first hot week of the year the air-conditioning is turned on in the commissary building and it NEVER works. And every year there’s surprise and amazement by the very same guys in maintenance that shut it down for the winter and start it back in the Spring.
“Would you like a blue star or a gold star?” The man asked again. He was sitting at a small table with another fellow, older than me to be sure, both vets who once risked life and limb in previous wars of American empire.
Once a year the UVA and incarcerated vets here set up shop in the commissary to collect donated goods for homeless veterans. As a thanks they fill out colored paper stars with the name of someone you know who is a veteran. The stars are then proudly displayed in the visiting room for all to see. Covid prevented the UVA from setting up their table the last two years, and this is the first year since my brother passed away in 2020 where I’d met up with their table.
“Uh,” I began, “what does the blue star mean and what does the gold star–” I broke off mid sentence because I realized I knew the answer.
“The blue star is for living vets,” said the man, “and the gold star is for deceased vets. Which star do you need?”
“Blue is for living and gold is for deceased,” the man said again looking up at me, pen at the ready. His buddy was now intently watching me.
“I need two blue stars,” I said, and bit down on my bottom lip, “and, uh…a gold…uh, a gold…star.” The word “star” came out in a whisper.
“Okay,’ the man said. ” What name do you want on the blue stars?”
I told him the names of my father and one of my twin brothers Jim.
“And what name for the gold star?”
I looked away as if doing so could hide my anguish. I’ve been doing much better these days since losing my brother John. After all it has been a year and a half. But every once in a while I have moments where I crash. Triggered by a photo or an old memory or in this case, a gold star.
And so I somehow choked out John’s name. I really don’t remember much else other than the looks on the two vet’s faces. Looks of recognition that something terrible had just happened, some kind of mental assault unseen save for in the mind of the individual before them.
Having managed to give them 3 names I went back to the line and bought my commissary. Each year I usually donate one food item for each star. But this time around I found myself buying all kinds of stuff, thinking what would a homeless vet want or need? And then absurdly thinking, What does John need?
I returned to the table to unload a bag of food items and this time saw a different look on their faces. Appreciation. Understanding. Empathy. As much as it hurt to be back at their table, I found a moment of healing because I knew these guys understood. We were part of the same family of grief.
So that’s how my day began first thing this morning. They’re going to bury John in Arlington National Cemetery in a couple of weeks. It’s gonna be a big affair, and it tears me apart to not be there. His passing is the second family member to pass since I’ve been locked up. My grandfather passed early in my bid, and I’ve felt shame and guilt ever since. I often think about visiting John and granddad because I need closure. It’s something that’s a priority for me first chance when I’m home again. But more than closure, I just want to talk to them. I need to tell them I’m sorry that I let them down, and that I hope they will forgive me for not being there for them in the end. Wow, just writing that sentence was tough.
I used to watch the guys around me from afar as they suffered through loss. I saw how the holidays changed for them and I saw how time changed them. They smiled less. Laughed less. Now I understand the things that I hoped I’d never have to experience while locked up. Does anyone care? Sometimes I ask myself this and sometimes I hear an answer in my head, “No Christopher, the world doesn’t care.” I don’t want to believe that it could possibly be true.
When I was free I never gave the incarcerated a second thought. They were simply the discarded citizens of society. I saw them through stereotypes shaped by Hollywood and prime time crime shows: Those who murdered were cunning sociopaths; those who committed sex crimes were sly predators; those incarcerated for DUI were drunkards and spouse abusers; those incarcerated for drug crimes were just “junkies” and the list goes on. I’m ashamed even admitting this to you. I was quick to judge everyone around me, and sadly most people out there are quick to do the same. It’s the society we live in, and somehow it became acceptable to label and stereotype those behind bars or who once were. Easy to see them as less than human. But it’s wrong. It’s not the reality of who we incarcerated are.
Whenever I catch myself judging someone, I arrest the thought with a question: Who am I to judge this person? And nearly every time this is followed by the words of a man who once gave his life for us all who said, Who among us is infallible? No one.
Incarceration is eye opening. It humbles you and it opens your eyes to the humanity around you. Sometimes you discover this by getting to know those stereotyped humans around you, and you realize that they are no different than anyone else. Human beings like yourself with similar hopes and dreams. Humans with families who love them and that they love. Many of whom struggle with personal demons wrought from childhood abuse or from addictions. Rare is it to meet someone here who doesn’t have a difficult past or who struggles with personal demons.
On some days when I wake in the mornings it’s difficult to get out of bed. More so as the decades tick by. A bed for me is a steel bunk, hard and unyielding. So, I don’t sleep well as most of us incarcerated souls don’t. When I was 23 and new to incarceration it was a different story, but I’m far from 23 now and time has taken those things that we all lose to time. Yet I push onward. Why? I push onward because Of those around me who don’t possess the strengths that I have. I “do” because I “must”. I’m still able to discover purpose and direction in this purposeless and direction less world of prison. Even if my purpose and direction is to be the voice for those who have long since lot theirs.
There’s a song by Lukas Graham called “7 Years” and it’s about making the best of life by appreciating life and pursuing your dreams. It’s a great song. Music sustains me, sometimes encourages me, but always puts me where I want to be mentally. And this is true for most of us behind these razor wire fences.
I’ve been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’d have never guessed it would have taken me on the journey that it has. Through this platform many incarcerated men and women have written about their experiences and their stories have impacted readers in ways I could have never foreseen. The network of organizations and individuals that have coalesced around us as a result is inspiring. Like a snowball rolling down hill it continues to grow.
I recently came on board with the ACLU on a literary project after they reached out to this blog. The project is about drawing awareness to those impacted by the criminal justice system. It aims to educate and inform a misinformed and none the wiser public, by publishing the individual stories, poems and artwork of those impacted. It’s about helping those who submit writings to become better writers, to develop strong self expression and to advocate for truth. In many ways it’s similar to what I do with this blog, but far more organized and with greater reach. There will be community workshops, projects and writing contests. All of it with the sole purpose of bringing a group of humans together that share a common interest and desire, to make a difference. I’m humbled to be involved with the project and it’s just another example of how our stories are impacting and reaching out to others. The project will be up and running by years end. So exciting.
When I tell my peers that we must take control of the narrative, that nothing will change unless we take action, I’m sometimes met with expressions of defeat. Statements like, “We can’t possibly make a difference? Who are we?” or “It has been like this for so many years it’ll never change.” Within these statements is embodied a sense of impossibility, and if we believe something to be impossible so it shall be. So I always reply with a quote by Dorothy Day, a tenacious woman who was a social activist and the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement (1897-1980):
“People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words, and deeds is like that.”
Each story on this blog is a brick laid one at a time. Their words ripple in all directions, like pebbles cast into a pond. When we look at a brick it’s sometimes hard to see the castle it is a part of, but with enough bricks and enough collective effort it becomes apparent to all.
Lettersfromchristopher is written by the forgotten men and women of America’s penal system. This blog exists to draw attention to incarceration in the United States and is an advocacy effort.