A bead of sweat drips from my forehead. I finish up a set of pushups and notice a man standing next to me. “Are you Jim?” he says. I am bit taken back at first. Wondering how he knows my name, and why he is approaching me in the middle of my workout, in prison. His non-inmate appearance is warming. He is obviously new. Jonathan introduces himself with a formal handshake over the typical prison fist bump. One of the many behaviors I’d rather not get accustomed to. There is also the table knock. A gesture given before you get up from finishing a meal. Or the “Coming in!” and “Coming out!” proclaimed before entering and exiting one of the shower stalls. My bunkie and I find humor in the constant Mother F’er’s that is such an ordinary part of the vocabulary throughout the prison. We counted 7 of these lovely vulgarities in just one sentence a few days ago. We didn’t have to listen too closely as the volume levels are usually rather high.

Jonathan had just surrendered into the camp a day before finding me. Ironically, not only is he also from the Chicago area, he is also the only one I’ve met who had the same Federal Judge. “I read your blog” he says smiling with a sigh of relief to have found me, yet also a bit on edge. I was curious to how he knew what I looked like. He reminded me of my photo up on the blog. Although my hair is quite a bit longer now. I haven’t cut it since my surrender now over 14 months ago. He tells me how his friend found my blog, and how helpful it was for him to have had it. It felt great- such a rewarding moment, to know that through my writing I helped even one person out during their struggle. A struggle he is now facing head on as he spends time here at Pekin, away from his wife and children. In addition to him, a couple of others here mentioned they read my blog before coming in; and how there is so little information available, of any kind, when trying to get answers before the inconceivable moment of surrender. He mentions to me the feeling of shock he is experiencing, and rightfully so. How this is all so bizarre.

He is in the shock phase. One I had gone through myself, and which I find to be expected from anyone who undergoes such a challenge. That initial shock period, where one has yet to comprehend their environment, and its inner workings. The adjustment period. To learn how this world works. Reality begins to set in that this will be a way of life for a period of time. A chapter in ones Book-of-Life. For me what came to mind quite often, during my early days here, was the thought of disbelief. The, “No way, I’m not in prison. Prison if for those really bad people. This cant be true.” He will now learn over these beginning weeks and months of acclimating there is life in here, yet how vastly different it is. Finding his own routine, just as everyone in here does at some point, will help him overcome each day. One day at a time.

Some people get here because they crossed the law. Others more randomly based on the way of the system. All walks of life, completely different races and cultures, now forced to live together in confined spaces. Adjusting the best way possible. Finding ways to keep the mind busy and pass the time can be a challenging task. Its not one thing in particular but the minutia, the ground hog day affect, over and over that builds discomfort. Its a revealing time. A time of revealing. Showing ones “true colors” as you may call it. What was once buried by the busy-ness of modern society. When all luxuries are taken away, when basic freedoms gone, it sheds the layers of worldly gunk to allow one to re-focus and look out a clear window. A vivid benefit, appreciating the simple joys in life. From the morning sunrise to the cool air that fills your lungs on a cold day.

For myself its also a time of centering. Of gaining balance. As if pulling one completely off track. As a speeding train we chug along burning fuel, barely stopping, unable to switch tracks or turn around. To be completely knocked off the rails. Then, there it is. Possibly the first time in ones adult life, to stop. To take that step back, completely back with no distractions from the world. I often ponder upon this thought. How is it we get so dependent upon material property, and how else can one be set free; released to the pleasures right in front of us.

Knowing this man just came off the street, his first time in prison, he is experiencing hell right now. I see some who lack the meaningful purpose and are stuck in a rut. Men who have risked a year of time off their sentence, and lost it; for frivolous things such as taking food from the chow hall, smoking a cigarette, or running to get contraband. Time and time again I wonder if the same choices would be made if they had a purpose to focus onto and strive for. Luckily for Jonathan he has purpose and I see this as not only his first, but also his last time in prison. This brings back a memory from my day of surrender. It’s a bit foggy, but I sat in a chair in front of the officers station right after saying goodbye to my Fiance’ Anna. An inmate comes by, drops off a bag of laundry and boots, and scurries away. The C.O. then asks, “Is it your first time?” A rhetorical question I’m sure. I didn’t hesitate to respond. “Yes, my first, and last.”

Going back to the book “Mans Search for Meaning” brings a powerful quote into this blog. “Taking a challenge as an opportunity. To make a victory over these experiences. To turn life during those times as an inner triumph. Or one can simply ignore the challenges and vegetate wasting not only time but an opportunity of a lifetime.”

We are all faced with unique challenges. They may be for hours, days, months, or years. Small, large, difficult, or extreme. No matter the challenge. Its our opportunity to overcome, to accept the challenge. To triumph. To reach deep within and release our source of strength. Its within us all. May we all be victors of the challenges along this wild incredibly beautiful ride of Life.

-JV

First & Last
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