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Same as it never was

A couple of months ago, shackled and numb from a three-hour ride in a mobile sardine can, I watched through the steel mesh window as the first gun tower of my new prison appeared above the treeline.

And by “new” I mean “next,” my seventh institution in the last 12 years. There’s nothing new about this place. It’s at least 40 years old, maybe older. It’s not even new to me. Two decades ago, a skinny, gullible, wide-eyed 21-year-old version of myself arrived at this same prison.

Memories came flooding back as I hefted my property and shuffled off the bus into the light of day. Aside from a few fresh rolls of razor wire and different guards with the same scowls, everything was just as I left it, frozen in a perpetual state of 1994.

I looked toward the visitation park where Mom used to visit each weekend, ever faithful, ever believing, ever seeing the best in her son. She was in her 40s back then. She’s 70 now. Still faithful, still believing, still seeing the best in me. I have a lot to be grateful for.

Over the gray-wash shingles of the chapel that I helped to build, I could see the confinement unit looming. Somewhere in time, my younger self was still pacing those cells, nursing swollen black eyes and busted lips from fighting off wolves. Prison has extra challenges for young, skinny, blue-eyed white boys.

Beyond the confinement unit sprawled the rec yard where, once upon a nightmare, I sat cross-legged in the softball outfield, acoustic guitar in my lap, shielding my arm from the gun tower while an older convict shot me up with cocaine. Before my arrival in prison, I had only smoked pot and tripped acid.

The chow hall where I saw my first rat, the dormitory where I witnessed my first stabbing, the bunk where I got my first tattoo… These landmarks spread across the panorama like monuments to a darker, more confusing time. Though smaller and shabbier than the imposing dungeon of my memory, the prison is relatively unchanged. The only thing that’s changed is me.

I’m almost a quarter-century removed from the naรฏve and inexperienced kid who once roamed this compound seeking himself in the opinions and acceptance of others. That dark-haired, fresh-faced, 125-pound boy is now a bald, bearded, 200-pound man. I no longer confuse manhood with brutality and judge myself to be lacking. I treasure my loved ones instead of taking them for granted. I understand that fear is just a voice in my head. Discipline and a hunger for self-mastery have taken the place of addiction and impulsiveness. Then there’s the books…

T.S. Eliot once famously observed that “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I’m not sure if I know the place any better, but I know myself and, in the words of another famous poet, “that has made all the difference.”