“Sorry it took me so long to respond. Time really gets away from you, doesn’t it? I have no idea where February even went!” When you’re in prison and get letters from people on the outside, they often start like this.
These people mean well. What they’re saying is simply a reflex. Or, perhaps, code for “I’m sorry I don’t write more; I don’t really know what to say or how to talk to you while you’re there and please don’t hate me for going on with my life.” I get that. But it’s still hard to hear. Because when you’re in prison, time never gets away from you. Months don’t merrily evaporate. Instead they do long, slow drive-bys with watchful eyes. Days linger over free refills; weeks cook from scratch.
I was sentenced to two years in federal prison for Conspiracy to Distribute Ecstasy. While I was guilty as charged, it’s worth noting that this sentence came down a solid three years after the crime was committed. Three years I had spent not selling or using, but learning yoga, having a baby boy and mashing up things to feed him. But whatever. All of that doesn’t matter, because even though I had let it go and moved on, it didn’t go away, and the punishment for carrying five thousand hits of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, was time. The judge handed over two whole years to me and then smacked his gavel down to make it official.
Collectively, we’re all aware of this process. It’s common to say that someone who’s incarcerated is “doing time.” But this whole concept struck me as strange very soon after I regained my composure (meaning after the first three days of ceaseless sobbing over the child I had to leave behind, which I never, ever actually got over). This time I had been given as a punitive measure was a thing that, outside of this environment, people are constantly wishing they had more of. If only I had more time, more hours in a day, ran out of time, time flies, beat the clock, burning the candle at both ends, no time to lose, hurry up and wait.
If it weren’t for the prison part, being given two years of time would be a real gift. Imagine! “I bequeath you with two years to read many books and crochet delicate, butterfly-shaped bookmarks for them with tiny threads!” Gavel smack.
Maybe it was the shock and horror of it all that made space for me to see this clearly. Something about having your heart cracked open allows old things to surface and release, making room for new ideas. Pain breeds creativity; it just does. So, I saw this dichotomy all clear and profound and wondered what was stopping me from just deciding that I’d been given a gift regardless of its ugly wrapping. What if I thought “thank you” instead of “fuck you” and went on behaving as if this bit of time were as rare and precious as all of that time that’s always slipping through everyone’s fingers? How would that change the way I spent the next two years locked away? This idea and the thought of acting on it felt far more rebellious than selling drugs ever did.
Not to say it was magic, poof, done, or that it came easily. No and no. I remembered and forgot many times. I hated and raged and seethed my fair share. I had plenty of sadness, and many pity tears were shed in a fetal position on my thin mattress, under my scratchy wool blanket. There are layers and dimensions to this story, many of which include me acting in terrible and clumsy ways that just won’t fit into this essay. It’s incredibly important to me that I don’t make all this sound trite or elementary. There are too many women trapped in a system that fosters more of a need for itself than true reformation, a system that orphans too many children. So know that it was huge, this something that shifted. It was despite, not because of, a system that is in dire need of reformation.
This was nothing short of a catastrophic meltdown of paradigm that was about to change everything for me.
This time-as-gift-instead-of-punishment concept roiled around in my brain through shitty meals of mystery meat and tiny packets of sugar-free powdered grape drink. It popped up while I watched women smoke banana peels and lettuce and fight with their girlfriends over the last tab of Benadryl. This thought continued to come back to me again and again until it transformed into a right practice, a real revolution.
I couldn’t change my place in space. No amount of denial or prayer was going to get me out of prison. But changing my perception, negotiating my priority list – that was all me. I could absolutely change that.
And I did.
From 2003-2005, I read many books. And I actually did crochet delicate, butterfly-shaped bookmarks out of tiny threads. I studied humanities, psychology, history, religion and Spanish. I taught well woman classes and yoga and started my teacher training requirements. I ran. I sought out like minds and laughed ardently over Scrabble games. I learned to deal with being screamed at, hit on, and challenged by officers. I got used to having little and needing less. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
These are the things that seemed like the only appropriate response. If this time were actually a gift, doing interesting things was my thank-you note in action. These weren’t just any two years; these were two of my little boy’s very first years. They were incredibly valuable years, and I had to be stalwart in my refusal to hate or resent them.
But it should not be forgotten that, no matter the largess of my intentions, I was still living in a place that brought the ticking second hand to a near-screeching halt. The rigid schedule and monochromatic environment infused each moment with slower-than-slow. I forgot what it felt like to take a bath, sit on a sofa, eat what and when I wanted, have sex, drive a car, shut the door, turn out the lights and tuck in my baby, holding my cheek to his sweet breath after he finally fell asleep. Mostly, my out date was an invisible speck on a flat horizon. So finally, to one of those letters I received from some surely well-intentioned, non-felonious type person whose opening paragraph bemoaned the transient nature of that outside-of-prison kind of TIME, I couldn’t help but respond, “Wow, it must be nice for you to feel that things are moving so awesomely fast. That crazy rogue February getting away from you like that. Where did it go? Well, I’ll tell you where. February came here, to Bryan Federal Prison Camp. And it lasted for a year. Love, Meg.”
The out date on the horizon finally did make land. The years of having to reacclimatize are mostly over, though I will never be the same. My little boy is fine. He’s nine now, and he drives me crazy. He is also the coolest person I know. While we have had to have a pretty sophisticated, ongoing conversation about the drug war, I’ve raised him to have no shame about our story. I don’t see how that will ever serve him. Instead, I’m trying to share with him the strength that I earned and help him navigate his side of the experience. My shifting perception of time while in prison has made a difference in the way I’ve handled challenges since that out date finally arrived.
Here’s what happened: I learned to persevere with grace.
Which is proof enough for me that the time I was given by the judge – in fact, all of my time – is what I decide it will be.
Image by Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons License.
Meg Worden’s stories have been published, read and told in a variety of places including Ascent Magazine, Moon City Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Fertile Ground and BackfencePDX. She is currently working on her memoir project about the two years she spent in federal prison. Find her at megworden.com and on twitter @megworden.