Skip to content

Dum spiro spero

dandelion-windIn my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, one of the protagonists, Ezra James, often references the universe when it comes to inspiration. Even the title of the book, which Ezra lifts from a President Obama speech, is more the result of serendipitous coincidence than meticulous plotting.

Like the story’s protagonist, I too am a big believer in the universe. This is the source from which creative magic flows. There’s a reason why so many artists shrug off compliments regarding their work: It feels like a scam to accept credit for something that is clearly ether-born. Sure, the writer provides the discipline by sitting in front of a computer for hours, as does the painter at the easel and the musician strumming the guitar. Sentence by brush stroke by chord, we plod along. Progress is minimal. But if we sit there long enough, lightning cracks, the sky opens, our eyes glaze over and the Bradburian effect kicks in. “…and when their souls grew warm, they were poets.” We can take credit if we want, but the truth is, in that moment, we are plugged into something greater. Something mystical. We are conduits. The universe is moving through us.

I came across the Latin phrase dum spiro spero in a Merriam-Webster dictionary a few years ago while searching for a cool tattoo. The meaning, while I breathe I hope, resonated with me. So much so that I wove it into the novel as a plot point regarding lost love. At least I thought that was the purpose.

Here’s where the universe comes in. It wasn’t until the book was finished and on the shelf that I learned that dum spiro spero is also the state motto of South Carolina. Blew me away.

I’ve never been to South Carolina, don’t know anyone in South Carolina, but like most Americans, I was heartbroken and outraged when Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and murdered those nine black parishioners. Pure evil. But what was also shocking was the reaction of the people of Charleston. There were no race riots, no rumors of retaliation, no violence. Just a candlelight vigil for the victims where people of all races mourned the loss of their neighbors. Even the survivors of this heartless, senseless, spineless execution said they were praying for the killer.

I’m honored that On the Shoulders of Giants, a novel that deals largely with the topic of race, contains the state motto of such beautiful people. Although it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t coincidence either. As Ezra would say, it was pure universe.

Dum spiro spero.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com earlier this year.]

 

Blunt force trauma

Doggy doorI got punched in the face the other night. Long story. It didn’t knock me down, but I was out on my feet. Hurt my pride more than anything. Thankfully, in the parallel universe of prison, standing up for oneself supersedes wins and losses and after spending so many years in a cage, I’ve at least got the standing up part down pat.

But in the groggy aftermath of the fight, as I lay in my bunk with a vicious headache and a wet rag attempting to staunch the blood flow, it occurred to me that I had probably just suffered yet another concussion.

I’m paranoid about my brain. I’ve been that way since I started writing books. Any minor lapse of memory is immediately suspected as a precursor for dementia. I mourn the loss of brain cells I once squandered sucking on crack pipes and water bongs and I even meditate in the neuroplastical hope of rejuvenating gray matter. I’d take three broken legs over another concussion at this stage.

Head-shots, like felony arrests, have been a recurring theme over the first couple semesters of my life. When I was five years old, I had to be stitched up after running full speed into a wall in our apartment. Then there were seven years of head-on collisions in Pop Warner football, then juvenile hall lumps, prison yard lumps, a metal bar stool across the head in my mid-30s… But the most memorable concussion of my crash test dummy life was the car wreck that preceded the above photo. That’s not Frankenstein up there, that’s me. And those are 70 staples in my head.

Luckily there were no other cars involved. The roads were slick, my tires were bald, and my Pathfinder hydroplaned, flipped, and crashed through a fence, smacking an oak tree. The metal roof collapsed on my head.

I awoke two days later in the ICU of Sacred Heart Hospital. The neurosurgeon told my mom that I could be deaf, blind, slow, or paralyzed post-surgery, but that my brain was swelling and if he didn’t operate immediately, I would die.

That was 14 years ago and much has happened since: heartbreaks, hair loss, addiction, a lengthy prison sentence, and yes, more concussions. But in the midst of all this dreariness, something transformative has also occurred… books! And with these books, discipline, honor, maturity. I think even the most skeptical reader would concede that a brain-damaged, crackhead, ADHD high school dropout summoning the concentration to write full-length novels longhand is pretty unusual, if not miraculous. Sometimes I wonder if that near-fatal head injury back in 2002 caused some undeveloped part of my brain to light up and assist me in becoming a normal, fully functioning human being.

My third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, is now available on Amazon. If you read it, you’ll find a character with a scar very similar to my own. This was done not only in adherence to the author’s axiom write what you know, but also as a tribute to my lifelong, toxic love affair with blunt force trauma and banging my head against things.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in 2016.]

The radical choice of militant kindness

The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real world — honesty, generosity, friendliness — are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the façade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenly — no, not suddenly — gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous. Only kindness matters.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in October 2014. It was picked up by Huffington Post and appeared on that website in November 2014.]

 

Party animal

I live on a steel bunk in a warehouse. Everything I own in this world is in the footlocker beneath me. It ain’t much; a photo album, a stack of letters, a few books. I’ve been in prison 10 years this time. My release date is 2032. A few hazy, drug-soaked months of strip bars, casinos, and fast living cost me most of my adult life.

I run across old friends and associates from that era on the yard sometimes. They look bad — rotten teeth, track marks, gnawed nails on shaky hands. They give me news of other old friends who weren’t as lucky: overdoses, shootings, suicides. Occasionally I’ll recognize the names of women in the arrest report of my hometown newspaper. Those wide-eyed college girls who were just beginning to experiment with coke and ecstasy in 2003 are now haggard streetwalkers, hardened repeat-offender prostitutes.

This is the natural evolution of drug abuse. Cause and effect. I know you’re thinking it won’t happen to you. I thought I was an exception too. Believe me, no one plans on destroying their life and coming to prison. No little kid daydreams about growing up to rob gas stations for dope money, or getting doused with pepper spray and beaten half to death by abusive guards in a confinement cell, or dying alone in a motel room with a needle in his arm… We call getting high “partying” and like any party, there’s always a mess when the party is over. In fact, the bigger the party, the bigger the mess.

The irony is that the kids we label squares and lames and dorks because they refuse to party grow up to be the doctors who resuscitate us when we overdose, the psychologists who attempt to help us put our broken lives back together, the lawyers who represent us in court when we’re arrested, the judges who sentence us to prison, and the men who step into our families and become the fathers and husbands we failed at being.

So if you’re 15 (or 17 or 24) and you’re popping bars, snorting Roxys or dabbling in meth or molly or whatever, this is what middle-aged drug life looks like. Guaranteed. And if you think it won’t happen to you, we can talk more about it when you move into my dorm. The bunk behind mine is open right now. We’ll leave a light on for you. The one from the gun tower.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in February 2015.]