Monday, July 17, 2017

Marooned and toasted cheese

That’s how I feel right now. Marooned. Ironic for a Ben Gunn….

For much of my time in prison I had the luxury of a stable, foundational set of ideas and values. In times of difficulty, uncertainty, I could withdraw back to these and be slightly assured that I was at least attempting to move through time with some coherent direction. 

It baffles many that my chosen direction wasn’t release. For much of my sentence, release was not the goal at the top of my list. That place was occupied by “try to do the right thing”. This was a complicated reaction to my own crime, and the reality I was living in an institution resting on naked State violence. That mishmash of morality, history, politics and daily life would take a lifetime to explain; but the end result was, doing what I perceived to be “the right thing” came before pragmatic steps towards release.

This didn’t perturb me, and I hadn’t accepted never being released. I wasn’t indifferent to freedom, only that “the right thing” came first, release came second. In my forties, then, the future appeared to take shape. To complete my PhD. To then take its concepts and apply them to prison. To make the prisoners union – the AOP – an actual living body and not a legal sideline. Then to potter about and probably fall off my perch somewhere before I was sixty. There is also my cancer weaving its thread through this potential future, adding a wrinkle. 

So I knew what I was doing. I knew where I was heading. And I knew what values and ideas drove me forwards. As I now appreciate, this made me an exceptionally fortunate person. The human condition more frequently suggests blind stumbling through the days. Having a coherent structure, internally and externally, gave me purpose and strength.

And then I fell in love. That changes everything. And I knew that I would have to put gaining release at the top of my list of priorities. This made manoeuvring through daily prison life far more difficult than it had been. My broad approach had been so simple – If I saw power, then I would resist it. Regardless of the cost on my time to release. 

With gaining release as the overriding priority in my new relationship, this lodestone was gone. I had no reference points, the moral and intellectual structure that had sustained me for nearly three decades was of no use. This made prison far more distressing for me. I knew I was making deliberate efforts to walk away from all that I had been working for for so many years. To rush to release was, to me, a decision to also rush away from making a mark, to give meaning to all of those years.

My relationship became the lodestone that guided my new approach. The prison service barely noticed that I was growling slightly less frequently, leaving me grinding my teeth. Only now, years later, do I really appreciate how profound a shift this was. I had took a deliberate decision to abandon everything that had informed my life, to abandon all I was trying to achieve.
Obviously, my relationship was that important. It offered a different future to the one I was facing. And it was a future I couldn’t particularly understand, only approach with hope. Because I sure as hell didn’t have experience to guide me. We both blindly assumed that I was able to build and maintain a long term relationship…an untested proposition. 

I re-entered the World, then, in a condition of hope but pretty complete uncertainty. I had no idea how I would deal with actually living with someone else, sharing a home, a bed, a sofa…a life. I left a path of confidence and certainty and jumped blindly over a cliff.

Here we are, five years onwards, and I sit amongst the wreckage of my relationship. And have no doubt, this has been the result of my inabilities, my selfishness, my flaws. The relationship was the ship in which I was exploring life, the vessel that would carry me forward.

Having pressed the self-destruct button, I swam to the nearest rock and there I sit. This was not the plan. This is not where life should find me. I walked away from a constructive path and now find myself with nothing.

Such, I gather, is life. The emotional pillar at the centre of my being has crumbled. I find this harder to deal with because I realise that my relationship was more important than anything else, and so as I failed to build a good relationship the effort I was making diverted my attention from the rest of life.

Prison can be monastic. It flows at its own rhythm. It is a limited existence, sometimes a meagre one. In that strange environment I could vanish into Solitary and take the time out to muse on my situation and its potential. It was in that environment that I took a lengthy moral and intellectual tour in order to distil my “operating principles” of “doing the right thing” and “resist abuses of power”. And these principles gave me a certainty and solidity in the face of an otherwise overwhelmingly oppressive institution.

These parameters made sense in prison. I had killed someone; trying to do “the right thing” seems a bit of a moral imperative, the least I could do. And in an institution built on violence, “resisting abuses of power” was an imperative. These things made sense…in prison.

On release, I was too busy to reflect. Five years on and I still haven’t unpacked my prison paperwork. Only now, as rubble from my exploded relationship rains down, have I  been compelled to reflect. And realise I am bereft on every level. I have been exploring this world of freedom without the compass, the values, that guided my prison life.

I don’t know where I am going. Or why. And unlike in prison, Life out here doesn’t pause to allow me time to muse. I am told that this is all quite normal, the human condition. Perhaps I was very fortunate to have an idea of what the hell I was doing in life for so long. That doesn’t help me in this moment. I literally don’t know what I am doing here in freedom, what I should do, what I can do, and most importantly for me – why and to what end.