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Remembering Amber

When I heard that 18-year-old Amber Robinson was beaten to death by a dude she met at a Rainbow Gathering, the story felt surreal. Oxymoronic. How does one reconcile the savage beating of a teenage girl with an event largely associated with peace and love? I would call it shocking but there is no such thing anymore. Not in this era of school shootings, church shootings, terrorist attacks, celebrity suicides, human trafficking, genital mutilation, and bath salts cannibalism. Each new atrocity is quickly drowned out by the next in the exhaustive 24-hour news cycle. The result is a sort of world-weary numbness.

Crushing? Absolutely. Shocking? Not at all.

I spoke with Amber a while back. My friend Amy was working on adopting her at the time and told me that she was an amazing artist. I offered to pay her to do the revised cover art for my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants. While I thought the current cover was well drawn, I regretted showing the faces of Izzy and Pharaoh, the story’s two protagonists. I wanted the reader to have the freedom to see the characters according to his or her own imagination.

I really liked the idea of Amber doing the cover because she was a foster kid, just like Izzy. I envisioned a simple image: a syringe and a pen crossed like the letter X.

She read the novel and sketched a concept. But it wasn’t what I asked for … it was a million times better. This highly creative kid saw straight through to the soul of the story and drew an angel impaled on a syringe.

When I heard she was murdered, I dug through my old photographs and found her sketch. Amy had written this on the back:

“I really hope they let you keep this. She’s sketching it on canvas. I snuck in and took a picture of it for you. I think she started to do the needle/pen image as requested but she got lost in this metaphor of her family. I know it will mean something to you.”

Hell yeah it meant something. She nailed it. The perfect cover. Then I lost touch with Amy, a new book came out, a few great-nieces and great-nephews were born and like most foster kids, Amber was forgotten.

Until Amy informed me that she was murdered.

So now I’m back to wanting that cover changed. And it will happen. Another artist will take her sketch and fashion it into the cover I’ve always wanted. Amber will be given credit for her idea on the copyright page, I’ll revise the acknowledgements to mention her name, and maybe add her to the dedication. “For the forgotten, the lost, the state raised and Amber Robinson.”

But she’ll never know how brilliant I thought she was because I didn’t tell her when I had the chance.

Say it loud.

 

 

‘Decide what to be and go be it’

I recently read that the hands of a human embryo begin as webbed, spade-like flippers until cell death sculpts individual little fingers.

Nature is a master sculptor.

Another master sculptor, Michelangelo, was once asked how he had created his masterpiece, David. His answer: “I looked at the stone and removed all that was not David.”

Writers do this, too. We pull details from the infinite and organize them in linear form to tell a story. Even the world’s oldest bestseller gives a nod to the creative process when, in chapter one, the Divine Architect fashions earth from the “formless and void.”

There is a powerful lyric from the Avett Brothers “Head full of doubt/Road full of promise,” a song introduced to me by my friend Sheena when I was still struggling to transcend the straitjacket of my criminal past and evolve into something more. It’s this: “Decide what to be and go be it.”

Simple yet powerful. That’s what’s up. As much as we try to convince ourselves that we are fixed and stagnant, that this is just the way we are, the way we’re wired; the truth is we are really the waveform in particle physics existing in a state of pure potential, primordial sludge, unwritten music, blank sheets of paper, unchiseled stone, works-in-progress tricked into believing we are finished products. It is our mission — and our inheritance as offspring of the Original Creator — to go forward and create our best selves.

In the timeless words of James Allen, “The oak sleeps in the acorn.”

A spectacular life

I have never watched Parts Unknown, never eaten at New York’s Brasserie Les Halles, never read Kitchen Confidential, yet I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain. I first heard of him on NPR’s Fresh Air. When Terry Gross introduced him as a chef, I reached for my radio to change the station.

“Anthony Bourdain, welcome to Fresh Air…”

I know the foodie movement is a thing out there in the real world, but here in the land of starch-grenades and watered-down pudding, the culinary craze never caught fire. I had better things to do than waste Duracell juice on some Yankee pontificating on the subtle art of five-star cuisine.

Then he began to speak … and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.

Dude was a natural-born storyteller. For the length of the interview, I was transported from my tiny prison cell in the Florida Panhandle to a bustling New York City kitchen, to a raft in the Mekong Delta, through jungles, across deserts, over mountains and beyond. To some of the most remote locations on the globe. To parts unknown.

Despite the diametrically polar trajectories of our lives, it became clear as I listened that Mr. Bourdain was a kindred spirit. This seems strange to say about a guy who’s eaten lamb nuts, wart hog rectum, and raw seal eyeball (especially considering that my soft ass won’t even eat an onion). Maybe it was his early struggles with hard drugs. Or the fact that he made more than his share of horrible choices as a younger man. If nothing else, we most definitely shared in the transformative power of the written word. For him, it meant a springboard to fortune and fame; for me, an identity other than career criminal. By the end of the interview, I was a fan.

When I saw his picture for the first time earlier this year in a Men’s Health magazine, he looked exactly as I’d imagined — tall (six-foot-four), tattoos, head full of gray hair, and a craggy, lined, lived-in face. The article was about him taking up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Check out this quote: “Look, I’m 61 years old. I have limited expectations of how I’ll do, but every once in a while, I get to feel the will to live drain out of a 22-year-old wrestler.”

Hell yeah.

Back to Fresh Air. I’ve listened to well over a thousand Terry Gross interviews during this prison bid. Musicians, rappers, actors, writers, athletes, activists, comedians, politicians, news correspondents, and other interesting people from all walks of life. Strange that my all-time favorite would be a celebrity chef. But it is. So I was pumped when NPR rebroadcast it a few weeks ago. I settled back on my bunk with a cup of coffee, ready to spend an hour with old friends… until they cut to break and Dave Davies explained that they were re-airing the interview because Anthony Bourdain had been found unresponsive in a Paris hotel room that morning, his death ruled a suicide. Just as I had been introduced to his life via Fresh Air, I was now being informed of his departure through the same program. Talk about full circle.

Mr. Bourdain was obviously a seeker, same as all of us. He overturned stones through art, food, travel, chemicals, relationships, and even jiu-jitsu along the journey. But what exactly was he seeking? What are any of us seeking? Meaning. Gratification. Connectivity. Belonging. That unnamed and ever-beckoning “it.”

I know many will judge him strictly on the nature of his passing. But the span of a human life is much too complex to be defined by a single instance. Though his suicide was heartbreaking, it was still a single instance, the final instance of a pretty spectacular life.

I continue to be inspired by him.

‘An international embarrassment’

In 2012, after serving over 15 years in the dilapidated and thoroughly inhumane state-run institutions of the Florida Department of Corrections, I found myself staring through the mesh-plated windows of a transport bus at the gleaming razor wire that surrounded my next home: Blackwater River Correctional Facility, a private prison in the Panhandle owned by the GEO Group… and I was thrilled.

No more un-air-conditioned, hot-box dormitories, no more meager servings of disgusting food, no more mentally ill cell mates, abusive staff, shabby laundry, inadequate supplies. No more misery. I had arrived in the land of milk and honey. Sweetwater. Arctic-level AC, hot edible food, ESPN, movies on the weekends, rec every day, a roll of soft toilet paper once a week. This was more like it. This was living!

Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Four short years later, I was back on the bus. Tears in my eyes, utopia in the rearview, headed back to that from whence I came. Another filthy, sweltering, state-run facility. Word was they were turning the privatized paradise into a psych camp and apparently I wasn’t crazy enough to stay.

Upon my return to the prison system I grew up in, it was evident that much had changed while I was away. New secretary Julie Jones had curtailed most of the staff abuse by installing cameras and audio in confinement units. The food was better, supplies were given out more frequently, motivational slogans were painted on the walls, and the department had changed its name from the Department of Corrections to the Florida Department of Corrections in an effort to distance itself from its own bloody, 150-year history. But even with all these upgrades, the state-run facilities were still ramshackle hovels compared to their outsourced, for-profit counterparts.

So I was blown away when I read a USAToday article in August of 2016, detailing how then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates planned to phase out all private prisons in the Federal system once their contracts expired. She said that companies like GEO “don’t provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources as the Federal Bureau of Prisons…”

Come again?

Was she really saying that my beloved Blackwater, with its edible food and air conditioning and ESPN was not up to Federal standards? And if so, how cushy was Federal prison? But as I read on, I began to understand. The Obama administration, along with the Loretta Lynch DOJ and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle didn’t want to be tethered to those who would seek to profit from the exploitation of human captivity. These are people who lobby to keep archaic mandatory minimums in place, donate millions to candidates who will keep the “war on drugs” going, who need fathers removed from homes so their at-risk sons and daughters will one day fill empty prison bunks, who have a vested interest in high recidivism and overcrowded jails… it’s their bread and butter.

It was no surprise to see GEO Group stock plummet 38 percent when Ms. Yates made this announcement. Nor was it much of a shocker when, six months later, the Trump administration immediately rescinded the order upon moving into the White House, causing the stock to soar again. After all, these same prison profiteers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Make America Great Again war chest, plus a million the same year lobbying Congress, targeting appropriations bills. And it looks like their palm-greasing is already paying huge dividends with this immigration crisis. Nothing spells profit like selling poor refugee detainees international phone cards at gouge-level prices.

Bernie Sanders nailed it: “It is an international embarrassment that we put more people behind bars than any other country on earth. Due in large part to private prisons, incarceration has been a source of major profits to private corporations. We have got to end the private prison racket in America.”

Today, I’m grateful for the gnats dive-bombing my food in the chow hall, for my lumpy, plastic-covered mat, for the lukewarm water fountain, even for the triple-digit July sweat rolling down my back as I pen this essay. I’d rather write about the struggle from here in the trenches than from some plush, privatized luxury box. Especially one that is owned by the very people who are betting that the land of the free will remain the world’s leading incarcerator.