Cry Baby, Santa, and the Easter Bunny

Someone once asked me what the holidays are like here. I chuckled to myself before answering. That’s actually a very good question. Well, I thought, there’s many ways I could answer this question and none of them are short and sweet. So I simply said, “If you only knew.” I was part serious and part kidding. Nothing here is normal during the holidays!

This is originally part of an entry from my journal from 2017. Before I wrote for all of you, I used to write just for myself. It’s a form of self-therapy and my way of staying focused. After some consideration, I’ve decided to share it with you in this post. So, let’s get on with it I say.

The holidays are the hardest time of the year for anyone incarcerated. Guys get depressed and irritable. They mope. They drift. This time of the year magnifies the truth of your situation; that you cannot be with the ones that you love because of your actions. For most guys, the holidays are the exclamation point behind this fact. Mercifully, the holidays become less painful as time progresses, especially if you’ve been pulling a long sentence. It has nothing to do with caring less, but everything to do with learning how to cope. You learn how to control your emotions and how to distract yourself enough from always thinking of home. You also learn how to deal with those around you better.

As I write, it’s Thanksgiving 2017. The holidays have arrived again. I always throw myself a celebration, usually centered around making something to eat. Inmates call it making a ‘break’ (which, to thoroughly confuse all of you, in This World can be meant as a verb as in “He’s breaking,” or a noun, as in “I made a break,” or even an adjective, as in “Let’s break.”). This year was no different. I made burritos and ate enough food to feed a small village, me and a couple of guys, and I’ll do it again on Christmas and New Year’s. It’s how I celebrate the holidays and it’s how I stay grounded.

It wasn’t always like this for me though. Several years passed before I stopped feeling sorry for myself during the holidays. This time of the year used to be very depressing and I loathed it. But once I took responsibility for my situation, and began viewing life through a new lens, the holidays became happy for me again. Yeah, I’ve had my bad moments over the holidays. There’s tension amongst the inmate population and it is easy to run into someone who is irritated or pissed off. As an example, using the phones during the holidays can be downright harrowing. At my institution there are six phones in every cell block, all of them situated in a tiny room that’s shaped like a gas chamber. This is better than some institutions in the country, but still crappy because there are only six phones for hundreds of inmates.

Six…phones.

On Thanksgiving, everyone wants to call home. You’re lucky to get a hold of a phone let alone one when you need to. As a result emotions run high for some guys. It’s common to hear arguments. Yet, Thanksgiving pales in comparison to one other holiday: Christmas.

Christmas is the worst! Not only does everyone use the telephone, but there’s always guys who are visibly irritated. Throw in that one idiot who is always on the phone yelling at his wife or girlfriend and you have a powder keg awaiting ignition.

Then you have those that are simply grumpy because they hate themselves and they hate life. You may not notice them at first but they’re around. I always keep an eye out for these types. These are the men that go from zero to Cry Baby in the blink of an eye over the stupidest things.

“Hey, you grabbed the phone I wanted!”

“You’re talking too loud!”

“You’re redialing!”

Wah-wah.

I can’t begin to tell you how annoying it is to hear someone cry because you’ve redialed. First off, the phone system here sucks. It’s like this at institutions the country over. Calls constantly get dropped for no apparent reason; the phone you’re on decides to work intermittently; the sound cuts you in and out; you can’t hear your caller, and the list goes on. Every offender in the country can attest to this. Redialing has become almost a recognized finger sport it’s so bad.

There will never come a time where I will forfeit talking to my family just because someone doesn’t like it. Not going to happen. Sometimes this becomes confrontational. Early in my incarceration I literally fought, had to hit Cry Baby with the very receiver my father was on over something like this. All the while I could hear my father wondering what was happening on my end. I could hear him calling my name!

Then, when it was over, I went back to my conversation. It may sound crazy, but I tell you this is common during the holidays. Everyone expects something to happen, that’s how bad it is. You get used to it though.

What about other guys?

Many times I’ve been the one on the phone as the man next to me fought someone over the exact same thing. This always makes talking on the phone an adventure. There’s little space in the phone room as it is. When a fight erupts, those of us on the phones engage in a type of dance, moving and weaving around the two men fighting. Every time this happens I find myself thinking that hopefully they finish soon—there’s only 15 minutes per call.

Of course, the holidays are what you make of them. Guys around here can be a joking lot, and contrary to popular thought, there is a lot of laughter that goes on.

It seems like every Christmas someone dresses up as Santa Claus, or the festiveness of the holiday sparks someone to decorate the area. During years past, my institution has even held holiday decoration contests where we are encouraged to participate in decorating the housing unit. When I was at the higher security levels, this consisted of decorating your cell door or perhaps a community area in the cell block. It is awkward to be sure, as hardened cons resolutely refuse to participate, and you are guaranteed to hear about it if you participate.

However, in minimum security it’s different. The old school inmates here are men who have earned their way down, and most of them have long since shed that type of mentality. Holiday decorating consists of decorating all the communal areas as most facilities at this level do not have cells but open dorm bunk style plans. Frankly, it’s quite a sight to behold. Convicts tattooed from head to foot, rapists, thieves, and drug addicts all together in a shared common purpose: to celebrate the holiday season. The other 51 weeks of the year half of these men wouldn’t dare talk to the other half! Let alone cut out a construction paper snowflake. I smile thinking about it.

One more story before I go. Last year at Christmas, I went outside to walk in the freshly falling snow. Most guys stay off the yard when the weather is like that, but for me it’s a moment of peace and beauty in a dark and violent world. When I returned from my walk, I had barely thawed when I noticed that there was candy on my bunk. Out of fear of perpetuating a stereotype (‘never accept the candy on your pillow!), I was immediately suspicious. Who in the world would do such a thing? I wondered. At the moment where I had convinced myself that I had to get to the bottom of such a lewd joke, I turned and noticed that ALL the bunks had candy on them! What in tarnation, I thought, is going on?

“Hey, Christopher!” someone shouted from across the way. It was my friend Miami (and yes, he’s from Miami).

“What?” I said, but didn’t look.

“Ho-ho-ho!” he replied.

I looked and to my chagrin, there was Miami, his laundry net bag in hand full of candy as he went bunk to bunk passing out the bounty. He had made a Santa beard out of what, Lord only knows, and he had a red stocking cap with a poofy white ball on top that he had obviously knitted himself. “Ho-ho-ho,” he bellowed as he faded into the far distance. I stood there marveling. Just when you think you’ve seen everything you realize you haven’t.

There’s something about the holidays that brings out the better sides of guys. It isn’t always negative. One Easter some of the old schoolers created a sign informing everyone of an Easter egg hunt on the yard. They then posted it onto the cork message board in the units and what do you know? Dozens of guys showed up on the yard ready to hunt eggs! It was hilarious. I sat alone off to the side at one of the benches, drinking from a cup of coffee as I marveled at the scene. At first I was surprised at how gullible grown men can be, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that gullibility had little to do with it. Deep down, we all remember what it’s like to be a kid. The thought of an Easter egg hunt and the subconscious desire to mentally flee from This World was enough. Nevermind that it’s ludicrous that an Easter egg could ever find its way into a prison yard!

I know I started this post talking about how the holidays are stressful for some guys, but most men are able to make light of it all. If you can’t smile and laugh during the holidays, what’s the point?

—Christopher

The Quality of Your Thoughts

Early in my incarceration I came across this quote by Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” The more I thought about this statement, the more I realized how true it is. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was at the time, but his words sparked my lifelong interest and desire to learn about the teachings of other great philosophers. In many respects, to learn its numerous variations is to learn about yourself and those around you.

The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts. Such an undeniable truth. Many years ago I believed that my problems in life were bigger than I could handle, and as a result they became so. For most of my teens and part of my early adult life, I dwelled on the negatives. I seldom noticed the beautiful or the good or that which gives you inspiration. I saw the clouds on mostly sunny days, saw what was missing in a half-empty glass, and found the cold on Spring afternoons. The first half of my life I was often unhappy, frustrated, and angry and didn’t understand why.

The second half of my life has been spent incarcerated. Yet, I am the happiest I have ever been. This may sound hard to believe, but I tell you it’s true. I now have a strong relationship with my family, something I was too self-centered to notice let alone deserve when I was first incarcerated. I see the future as immensely positive and exciting. I literally spend every day of my life pursuing projects that are meaningful to me and my future.

I constantly educate myself. I wanted to learn about the world’s major religions, so I studied them. I wanted to improve my memory because I was terribly absent-minded and so I did. I taught myself the mnemonic techniques that the world’s best use in competition and daily life, and now I member everything I tell myself I will remember. I wanted to understand global politics and the interplay between nations, so I observed and learned. I was curious about Russian history and politics, so I studied and learned. I love learning about people. Every day I seize the moment whenever it presents itself. I mentor guys that need direction and encouragement in their lives and I love it. It’s especially rewarding when I see positive change take root in their lives. I tell this to everyone that will listen to me: how we choose to see the world has everything to do with how we see the world. When we seek happiness and beauty, we find happiness and beauty. When we hate, hate finds us. It’s that simple. I don’t feel that my life is on hold; quite the opposite. I’m living my life every day.

Incarceration is what you make of it. I live in a world of angry men, of human beings stuck in their negative thoughts, addictions and self-pity. They complain about the staff, about the food, about the selection at commissary. They whine about recreation or lament their boredom. They choose to live in a hell that they have created in their minds. By actively looking for the negatives they successfully find them.

Like incarceration, life is what you make of it. If you choose to see the negatives in your spouse or significant other, you will find them. If you come home from a long day at work and all you choose to see are the things you dislike, then you will be mad and you will be miserable. Tell yourself you are unhappy and it becomes true. This is my experience in life. When I’m outside I see the birds and the beauty of the sky. I see sunsets with renewed awe every time.

Lao Tzu once said: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future.” And, Jesus once said: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” They, just like Marcus Aurelius and every great sage throughout history, understood this simple truth about life, that life is what we choose it to be.

Years ago I made the decision to let go of anger and negativity. I forgave everyone I ever felt had hurt me. It has been liberating, and now I see the good things in life and in others. And you know what? It’s a wonderful feeling. You can achieve the same things, you only need to believe that you will. Won’t you take that first step? Come journey with me.

-Christopher