Why I May Need To Go To Prison

gardenhouse roofA little over a year ago, I moved off an island and into a condo close-but-not-quite to Seattle.  Though idyllic, the small island 58 miles northwest of the city was intensely isolating for a sort-of single, 36-year-old.  I was in good shape then. A few nights per week, I ran along a beautiful beach, not far from my shoebox-sized apartment.  My commute to work was 4 minutes by car. Evenings consisted of picking up sundries at Wal-Mart (the largest retailer on the stretch of rock), putting in 45 minutes on the elliptical machine at a well-kept gym, and attempting to become Julia Child with an oven the size of a campstove.  And while this simplicity is coveted by many, I was aching inside. Friends, and a culture that sparks my soul, were on the mainland, which is a ferry ride away.  The island was casting a spell on me–I made questionable choices out of loneliness.  I drank more than I needed to out of boredom.  I worked most weekends that I didn’t have plans on the mainland. (Note: Don’t do this. It is never worth it.)  After many an outpouring to a city friend over the telephone, I made the decision. It was time to move. Time to begin living more like….me.

Not long after I settled into the condo, a long-time relationship moved to the next step and I abandoned the cute Ikea-decorated space and began a happy cohabitation.  All was well, until the 3-hour per day commute to the island for work began taking it’s toll on my body.  The friends I thought I would see more often never materialized–my commute doesn’t fit with their schedules.  The culture I was ready to embrace, is too far away after a 12-hour day.  And worst of all, my body can’t keep up. All this to say:  when I have a physical and mental collapse, I watch (sometimes) terrible TV from the couch.  And two weeks ago, while flipping through my options, I discovered “Orange Is The New Black” on Netflix.

“Orange Is The New Black” is based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman. After graduating from Smith College, Piper began a relationship with a female heroin dealer and, many years later, was indicted on trafficking and money laundering charges.  She was sentenced to a year in prison.  Her experience is chronicled in her memoir and the hit Netflix series.  For the faint of heart and parents of young ones:  the series is raw and unfiltered. It throws in your face a lot of nudity and every ideological argument, every question about self, and the terrible realization of being a fallible, fucked up human being, even when you have the best intentions.  It’s fantastic.

For those of us lucky enough to have jobs and the opportunity to work toward our hopes and dreams, we rarely take the time–or have the time–to really place ourselves under a microscope.  Self-introspection often comes in fits and starts, in well-marketed books and Pinterest witticisms.  Perhaps we feel better or more enlightened for a time, but then the toll of our lives and our histories reappears. I have a thought:  What if we started with being naked?  What if we began to be better by really taking a look at how flawed we are?  Is this a good thing? To strip away the daily comforts, the minute-by-minute cheerleading, to ask a friend to stop glossing and be real.  What would we feel? What would we hear?

Off and on, I become pretty angry at the world.  I go through periods of feeling trapped and lonely.  Precious free time is spent trying to make a plan to get out of a physically debilitating work cycle. Other slivers of time are spent thinking of ways to be a better human being.  My old friends have vanished and some others are trapped in their own worlds.  Some new friends have appeared and I’m so very worried about not measuring up, that I rarely participate.  The cycle is rough and the relief I need just doesn’t seem achievable.

Unless I commit a crime of some sort.   After watching 13 episodes of OITNB, I wonder if going to prison could be the place that puts me back to center.  Believe me, I understand it’s not ideal.  But it’s almost as if I need my own “scared-straight” moment.  Show me the real and the raw. Get me out of my own head.  Put me in a place where I can learn to really understand true friends–who have your back, see you at your worst—and the friends who will turn when you have nothing to give.  Show me all that, unfiltered by Facebook, by token pleasantries.  Let me learn to be that kind of friend again, blood sisters, to the end.  And let’s not forget survival.  Most of us out here know nothing about it.  Our cars take us where we need to go.  We shop.  We eat out.  We use GPS.  We avoid thinking about the hard tests of life.   Those confronted with them–the loss of loved ones, financial free-falls, failing health, surviving war–are often put in a different category altogether, and for all of the kindnesses of friends-they still attempt to endure as we are all expected to endure.  The hardest is confronted in the darkest of places, usually alone.

Why is it that we must shine all the time?  Be beautiful in your drudgery. Be strong in your weakest moments.   There is value in the fall, in the hurt and the bruised pride, in the loss of one self to find another.  It’s gets us to our most real selves.    Yet, in what safe space here are we allowed to be so honest and scratch out the truest of what life can be?  In this cycle of living–career, love, family, interests, happy social network statuses–there is no platform for seeing what is really working and what must be fleshed out and confronted in our lives.

I should probably say that this writing is, of course, partly satirical.  Difficult lessons can–and should–be learned outside of prison.  It’s probably true that some of those serving time would trade lives with me–my world would appear good and whole. Prison should not be paralleled with some mystic, dirt-floored yogic ashram. But each one of us has our own road to walk, our own battle to win.  Some of us are more fortunate than others.  But it doesn’t change the fact that self-awareness, self-preservation, and the need for real relationships exists in all of us.  It’s just a matter of finding the space to create it–and then live it.  Getting real with who we are is terrifying, inside or outside a fence.

*******

“…I knew that I would have to be brave. […] Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my ground quietly.”

                                                                 ~Piper Kerman


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