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Take Me to Church

Man praying beside a lake at sunrise.

The Florida Department of Corrections was established in 1868. It says so right on the logo. That’s 155 years of misery bound up inside these razor wire fences; 155 years of blood and tears and beatings and cover-ups, of roach- and rat-infested dormitories, sub-standard medical care, untreated mental illness, salmonella diets, and a workforce trained to hate.

Not complaining. People have been complaining since 1868 and it’s done no good. This is just the way it is. This is the prison system I grew up in. I first arrived at Lake Butler on a county van in 1993 to serve a decade. Then I returned in 2005 and I’ve been locked up ever since. I’ve wasted most of my life on the rec yards and in the dayrooms of the Sunshine State’s correctional institutions. Close to 30 years. Damn near one fifth of the Department’s bloody history. Lots of changes during that time: secretary changes, legislative changes, policy changes, uniform changes… But if there has been one constant over the years, it’s the good Pentecostal and Baptist folks that come in every Sunday to minister to my broken brethren.

“Fellers,” I remember one old country preacher saying as his wife beamed at us from the piano, “I could be wearing them blues just like you. And sitting in them same pews. The onliest difference is I didn’t get caught. And I found Jesus before that old devil could get his hooks in me good…”

Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, they would arrive with a message of love and hope and forgiveness. Some of the greatest hits: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, that Paul was a murderer and the Lord still used him to do great works in the early church, that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals and he promised them a place in paradise on that fateful day…

These people would hug you, call you “brother,” pray with you, make you feel less alone in the world. God’s love was more than just an abstract idea in those services, more than just some ancient mythology on a Dead Sea Scroll. It was a palpable presence that filled the room, emanating from their smiles and pulsating in their hugs and handshakes.

But then a darkness crept over the land. Religion and politics intertwined. God’s all-encompassing love was suddenly limited. There were terms and conditions to salvation. Sure, the Sermon on the Mount was still relevant and, yes, Jesus’s greatest commandment was still to love one another. But there was also Levitical fine print that could not be ignored. Certain restrictions applied.

At least this is what I assumed was going on in recent years. Especially when the evening news ran a segment in 2019 about a pastor getting booed by his congregation for calling out former President Trump on his lack of humanity. Compassion was dead and division ruled the day. No shelter, no quarter, no love. Even the Church had succumbed. Matthew 25:35-45 had no place in the modern American landscape. Not in these hateful and hyper-partisan times. But again, this was all conjecture. All theory. I haven’t been to church much over the last couple decades. Practically zero attendance on this bid. Up until recently. (More on this in a couple paragraphs.)

Everyone is Christian when the handcuffs get slapped on. God is like Momma—the last person you think about when you’re out there doing dirt and the first person you call when they throw you in a holding cell. Lord knows how many calloused and trembling hands I held in county jail prayer circles back in the day. Full of desperate men like me petitioning the man upstairs for a little mercy. Staring down the barrel of life in prison will make a born-again Christian out of even the most devout agnostic.

But then we get sentenced and sent down the road. And as we work our way through the post-conviction process, our hope and faith evaporate with every denied appeal, every deceased loved one, every unaccepted phone call and unanswered letter. Not everyone though. My friend Lester Wells has not missed a church service since he came to prison in 1983 for a crime he insists he did not commit. Forty years in a cage and his faith has not wavered. Even though he’s lost everything. Hard not to draw book of Job parallels when I see Mr. Wells praying in the mornings.

My situation is different. I am not an innocent man. I’m guilty of 99% of the crimes I’ve been charged with, and the list is substantial. Not proud of this but there’s no getting around it. No one to blame but me. In fact, that one percent that I’m actually innocent of is offset by the few things I managed to get away with. So it all balances out. Especially when you factor in the crimes that weren’t technically crimes but in many ways were worse than the burglaries and robberies that put me here—the women I used for sexual pleasure and ego gratification, the lost souls that I could have affected positively but instead infected with the miserable slavery that is addiction, the lies I’ve told, the people I’ve let down, the disgrace I’ve brought upon my family… So when that great white-bearded cosmic wish-granter in the sky opted not to rescue me from the colossal mess I made of my life, I accepted my fate with no hard feelings. After all, I’m the one that put me here.

But I haven’t been hanging out in church. For these last eighteen years I’ve just been making the best of this bad situation—playing soccer, playing poker, doing pullups and dips, gambling on football, hanging out with Momma on Saturdays, doing my time… Then, a little over a decade ago, I started writing these essays and books which proved to be a watershed moment on the timeline of my incarcerated journey. This led to an interest in self-improvement, the study of philosophy, mindfulness meditation, neuroplasticity. The Law of Momentum is not just the working title of book three in the Miranda Rights trilogy, it’s a powerful force that can carry us to both dizzying heights and crushingly low depths. It all depends on which way you get moving.

But momentum is also a strange and mercurial current. It can shift like the wind. This is especially evident in sports. Take football, for example. One team is racking up chunk yardage, going up and down the field, scoring almost effortlessly. But then the opposing team digs in and forces a goal line stand, then drills a long field goal just before the half, then forces a turnover to open up the third. Suddenly, they’re only down ten points with the ball at midfield and an entire half to go. What happened? Momentum shifted.

I experienced a momentum shift of my own recently. Things were humming along. I was working on my seventh novel, pumping out these essays, surging toward the finish line of this lengthy prison sentence, when I made a couple questionable decisions. Nothing major—a joint here, a bottle of buck there, cranking up my old parlay ticket for one last run. But it was enough to stall my momentum. And after a few repetitions of these old behaviors, I was moving in a completely different direction: backwards.

Things got real bad, real quick from there. (For a more detailed account of this unraveling, check out Divine Intervention Part Two.) The point is that I had to do something drastic to shift the momentum. I needed a goal line stand. So on Sunday, November 13th, 2022, I signed up for church. First time in forever. Just to change up the energy. Just to escape the hovering dope smoke of my unit and sit in a pew for an hour. Just to be around some positive people.

And do you know what I discovered? Those same volunteers are still showing up every weekend. Those same country preachers and their piano-playing wives. And they’re not interested in politics, or who’s Baptist or Catholic or a Messianic Jew. They definitely ain’t in it for the offering plate. They’re just living Matthew 25, spreading a message of unconditional love and hope to us, the least of their brothers.

I’ve been going for a few months now. I won’t pretend it’s always awesome. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes I disagree with the message, sometimes I’m grumpy because I have to miss football. But I always feel better for going, I remain clean, and most importantly, I got the momentum shift I was seeking.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite passages from Michael A. Singer’s The Untethered Soul.

“Your relationship with God is the same as your relationship with the sun. If you hid from the sun for years and then chose to come out of your darkness, the sun would still be shining as if you had never left. You don’t need to apologize. You just pick your head up and look at the sun. It’s the same way when you decide to turn toward God—you just do it. If, instead, you allow guilt and shame to interfere, that’s just your ego blocking the divine force. You can’t offend the Divine One; its very nature is light, love, compassion, protection, and giving. You can’t make it stop loving you. It’s like the sun. You can’t make the sun stop shining on you; you can only choose to not look at it. The moment you look, you’ll see it’s there.”

Groundhog Day

One desperate afternoon in 2005, a skinny and addicted version of myself was scanning the lawn care equipment and power tools in mom’s garage for something I could pawn for dope money when suddenly I was struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why deprive mom of her weed whacker when I can easily rob a neighbor? There was far more honor in that, right? I went in through the bathroom window.

First thing I found was a loaded 9mm. Fate crackled in the barrel. I tucked it into the waist of my jeans then made a quick check for jewelry and money before slinking off into the March afternoon to do what the broken people do. (Legal note—Since I armed myself in the commission of a crime, this simple burglary became an armed burglary. A first-degree felony punishable by life in prison.)

Over the next 36 hours in a dope-fueled tailspin, I used this weapon to jack various area drug dealers as well as two convenience stores. In the parlance of Narcotics Anonymous, this phenomenon is referred to as “a case of the fuck its.” Luckily no one was harmed in my unraveling. I never even fired the gun. And because I spared the State the expense of a jury trial, the State spared me the misery of a life sentence. (Legal note—According to Florida’s 10-20-Life law, brandishing a firearm in the commission of a felony carries a mandatory ten years, firing the weapon carries twenty, shooting someone triggers a life sentence. There is no parole.)

I ended up with twenty years in the department of corrections along with more than a quarter century in the federal system. For a more detailed account of the night of my arrest, check out the Divine Intervention essay at malcolmivey.com. But please do not mistake my tone as flippant or unremorseful. This could not be further from the truth. I am deeply humiliated by the weak and pathetic actions of that miserable little crackhead. It’s just that all this occurred almost two decades ago and when you spend so many years pacing cells, alone in your head, relentlessly scrutinizing your life and the moment things went south, over and over and over again, it all becomes a little mechanical. Like a movie you’ve seen a million times. Groundhog Day.

I am a gun criminal. Embarrassing to admit this with all the recent ugliness on the evening news, but my record speaks for itself. No getting around it. I was actually classified as an Armed Career Criminal by the United States government until a 2016 Supreme Court ruling resulted in my federal sentence being overturned.

Although the above debacle was my first taste of armed robbery, it was not my first rodeo. I’ve been sleeping on hard institutional bunks and eating cold food on dirty trays since I was a pre-teen in juvenile detention. I don’t pretend to know a lot about the outside world because I’ve been removed from it for so many years, but if there’s one subject I’m fluent in, it’s the criminal justice system. I’ve written six books and over 100 essays on life behind the razor wire.

With this recent spike of violent crime—not just the tragic and headline-dominating mass shootings but also gangland drive-bys, ambushed police, and robbery homicides—many old guard politicians are already dusting off their tough-on-crime speeches from the ‘90s. And the public will predictably respond at the polls. For good reason: something has to be done. But I would argue that the solution will not be found in tougher laws. How much tougher can you get than consecutive life-without-parole sentences? The death penalty? We’ve got that too. And the robberies and car-jackings and murders continue to surge. Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Another approach might save us from where we are headed.

All across this great nation, impoverished young people with mothers and fathers either in early graves or serving lengthy prison sentences are walking the same lonely roads as their parents. Why would anyone choose such a miserable existence? Maybe it’s not a choice. I know they’re not getting much help from their countrymen. Especially not our nation’s two political parties. The liberal message which blames systemic racism for every bad break and poor decision provides zero viable solutions and runs counter to American ideals of self-sufficiency and accountability. The conservative pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative is unrealistic as well. When you’ve never met your incarcerated father and your mother alternates between violent dopesickness and being slumped on the couch, when your world is confined to the project buildings and trailer parks where you were born, when most of your neighbors supplement their government assistance income with some form of hustling, when your normal consists of scrapping and stealing just to survive, when this is all you’ve ever known, you don’t just wake up one day, crack your knuckles, and decide to go to vocational school. It may happen occasionally. But as the exception, never the rule. So what? you’re probably thinking. Why should the average American care? Why should you care? I mean, we’re talking about a bunch of criminals and slum dwellers, right?

Well…

If Covid has taught us anything, it’s how interconnected we all are. Conspiracy theories aside, a virus from Wuhan China has circled the globe and killed millions of people. An incident in a laboratory on the other side of the world has wreaked that much havoc. And we’re still dealing with the aftermath—supply chain issues, factory shutdowns, inflation, mutations, political unrest. The shockwaves are inescapable. Even the remote Panhandle prison where I sit and type this essay is not immune. Outside my cell door is a beleaguered workforce, rising canteen prices, diminishing food portions, rampant drug abuse… But our interconnectedness is not limited to global pandemics. Look how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the price of fuel, and how the price of fuel has affected world markets, and how plummeting markets have affected people’s 401(k)s. Like it or not, we are all in this together.

So it follows that if events in Asia and eastern Europe can have an impact of this magnitude on Bible Belt America, then what about that other section of your very own hometown? What about fentanyl, what about meth, what about gangs, what about an ideology and culture that places no value on human life? It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to recognize that violent crime is spreading exponentially. And it is no longer confined to those neighborhoods across the tracks. A generation of unraised and unloved children are coming of age. You see their faces every night on the local news. And on their way to life sentences in prison and fatal gunshot wounds, they’re making babies who will also grow up fatherless, motherless, hopeless… America has extremely broad shoulders. But at some point she will collapse beneath the staggering weight of her broken citizens. And the world’s longest running democracy will finally come to an end. That is, unless we do something. But what can we do?

I have two suggestions.

The first is so simple that it seems inarguable. We need to love our kids. And by “our kids” I mean America’s kids. We need to teach them the value of honest work, discipline, and respect. All of them. No child among the 330,000,000 of us should grow up without a rock-solid support system, without consistent direction, without love… Imagine a coalition of teachers, athletes, business professionals, community leaders, neighbors, moms, dads, police officers, even reformed ex-prisoners committed to stepping up and assuring the abandoned and forgotten that there is love in the world. Not by throwing money at the problem or writing preachy and long-winded disquisitions like this one 🙂 but by rolling up our sleeves and investing our time and our hearts and our energy in the coming generation—and doing this with the same sense of urgency and conviction that Christian missionaries carry on their voyages to foreign continents every day. If we don’t, then the only ones who will suffer the consequences is us.

You will disagree with this second suggestion. And I totally understand. But I can only tell you the truth as I see it. And what I’ve seen every day for decades in prison is young unaffiliated men stepping off county vans, wide-eyed and green to prison life, ready to do their time and get home. Only to exit the system years later as full-fledged gang members with the requisite crowns, stars, and swastikas tattooed on their heads and necks. Why? First of all, prison is a dangerous place and there is always safety in numbers, but there is also the allure of dope, money, cell phones, respect, and brotherhood. Five years ago I wrote about this emerging crisis in a series of essays called Fixing a Broken Prison System. At the time, gang members made up about 10% of my dorm. Today it’s closer to 25%. Again, who cares about a bunch of prisoners and low-income trash, right? But these same hardened young men are returning to their neighborhoods as heroes home from war, and many are indoctrinating the young people in their communities. That’s not just a problem. That’s systemic failure.

The Florida Department of Corrections cites public safety as a top priority. This is emphasized in their mission statement, core principles, and pretty much every press release regarding prisons and prisoners. Yet on this, they are failing the public on a scale so spectacular that it boggles the mind. There’s a relatively easy fix for it, but it flies in the face of every stump speech being made by every tough-on-crime politician on the Florida Panhandle right now. Be tough on crime. Hell yeah. Be merciless on crime. But bring back parole.

Aww Malcolm… you’re just trying to get your buddies home.

This is true. And if you knew some of my friends (and their mommas) you would see why. Good people. Men who changed their lives decades ago and are now just hanging around, waiting to die. Many of the guards who work here would attest to this. But allowing men and women to earn their way home would have ripple effects far beyond my circle of friends.

Imagine a prison system where every person arriving at the reception centers—barring pedophiles and clinically diagnosed sociopaths—would be given a series of diagnostic tests to gauge IQ, reading and math levels, vocational skills, emotional intelligence, etc… Once their history and aptitude are established, a team of psychologists, educators, and trained classification officers would set a number of almost impossibly high benchmarks to be reached over time. A final meeting with the incoming offender would sound something like this: “Okay, young man, you’ve been sentenced to life in prison. Life means life in the state of Florida. This means you will die behind these fences. But that will probably be 70 or 80 years from now since you’re only 18 years old. During that time everything you love will be taken away. However… there is a faint possibility that you might be able to one day earn your way home. But only if you accomplish the following. Get your GED, get your bachelor’s degree, complete these 50 courses, log in 10,000 hours of anger management, keep a clean disciplinary record… And, by the way, if you join a gang you are automatically eliminated from the program.”

Something like that. If this idea were implemented, prisons would be safer, guards would have a legitimate management tool, and gang affiliation numbers in Florida would plummet within a decade. Amazing what a little hope can do. Of course, there will be some who try to game the system, but over time I think even those men and women would be converted. I know from my own experience that a strange thing happens on the road to education: the more learned you become, the less likely you are to do harm to your fellow man.

I mentioned all this to a teacher at the prison where I’m doing my time. Really cool guy—an Army Ranger with a bachelor’s in political science. He identifies as a fiscal conservative but leans slightly left on matters of social justice. His response: These are not kitchen table issues for the average American. People are worried about inflation, the price of gas, illegal immigration. Not the plight of inner-city kids or criminal justice reform.

He’s probably right. The human brain is not wired for distant threats. This is why things like rising sea levels, ballooning national debt, and evaporating social security are such a hard sell to so many. In his spectacular book, Focus, Daniel Goleman illustrates this phenomenon perfectly. “We are finely tuned to a rustling in the leaves that may signal a stalking tiger. But we have no perceptual apparatus that can sense the thinning of the ozone layer, nor the carcinogens in the particulates we breathe on a smoggy day…”

Ditto the long-term effects of the school-to-prison pipeline and the broken criminal justice system it feeds.

I’m guessing many of you disagree with all this. I probably would too if I hadn’t lived in here for so many years. But I can’t unsee these problems and potential solutions. Aside from writing books and enjoying the people I love, the rest of my life will be dedicated to improving this social condition. Maybe I can pay my proverbial debt to society in this way. A few years ago these concepts might have found more traction. There was an empty Supreme Court seat, bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform, and conservative politicians like Jeff Brandes roaming the Capitol halls. That time has passed. Violent crime is soaring and hardliner rhetoric is the message of the day. The pendulum has officially swung. But popular or not, I will continue to bang this drum until someone hears me. Groundhog Day.

Where Is The Love

“What’s wrong with the world, momma? People acting like they ain’t got no mommas.” Remember this lyric? Black Eyed Peas “Where Is The Love?” I’m not a big fan of the song or the group or the genre but it’s been on auto-loop in my head since last Sunday.

That morning, exactly one week after Mother’s Day, I took up my customary seat in the day room, instant black coffee sloshing in my cup, ready for some George Stephanopoulos. Like many Americans turning on their TVs that day, I was expecting the latest on Ukraine, the obligatory Congressional interviews, Covid updates, inflation outlooks, primary election predictions, maybe a little partisan back and forth between Chris Christie and Donna Brazile…

What I got instead was Tops Supermarket. Buffalo, New York. Where the day before, an 18-year-old white kid strapped up with Teflon and tactical gear and drove 200 miles to live-stream his massacre of a black community.

When the final shell casing hit the pavement and he dropped his assault weapon in surrender to the police, the official body count was ten. Ten moms and dads, ten sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, grandparents… Ten Americans, grocery shopping on what they thought was just another day. One story in particular hit me hard. A father went in to pick up a birthday cake for his three-year-old son. He never made it out. His kid is probably still asking “what happened to daddy?”

Brutal.

Moments like this—where we can all agree on the atrocious nature of a thing—are few and far between in these hyperpartisan times. But this is not a political issue. This is an American tragedy that is occurring with more and more frequency. Charlottesville, Charleston, the Pittsburgh Synagogue, the Walmart in El Paso…

One year ago, in his rebuttal to Biden’s address to Congress, Tim Scott—the lone black republican senator from South Carolina—famously announced “America is not a racist nation.” If you’re like me (white and middle aged) this was music to your ears. Not rap music either. I’m talking Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Michael Bublé… Finally, a person of color gave America express consent to move on from its ugly past and validated our progress as a nation. Thank God. Unfortunately, my brothers and sisters on the left didn’t see it that way. ”Uncle Tim,” they called him, dismissing his speech as right-wing propaganda and dismissing him as someone handpicked by the GOP to make white folks feel comfortable. Damn. He did actually make me feel comfortable. Or at least hopeful.

All this emphasis on race. Democrats seem hellbent on wringing every drop of distrust from past and present injustices and converting this into political capitol. Critical Race Theory immediately comes to mind. Across the aisle, more and more Republicans are coming to embrace divisive philosophies as well. Case in point: Replacement theory, the ideology espoused by the Buffalo shooter in his manifesto. Anyone who watches Fox News has probably heard host, Tucker Carlson, promote this same doctrine. According to the Washington Post he’s mentioned it more than 400 times on his top-rated show.

Here’s an alternate theory: We’re not all that different. And this relentless focus on race and identity politics has much farther-reaching consequences than the next election cycle or the culture wars being fought on social media. America’s children are being indoctrinated. Loners and misfits are being lured into shadowy corners of the web, places where their confirmed kills on Call of Duty are lauded and the promise of brotherhood is offered. Places where grown men whisper dark ideologies into the hearts of teens. Although the rhetoric smacks of far-right nativism, there is nothing patriotic about these groups. I have my doubts that they’re even based in the U.S. Our elections aren’t the only things our enemies are meddling in these days.

A few years ago I heard an interesting story about Tommy Davidson—one of the original cast members of the hit 90s show In Living Color and a hilarious standup comic in his own right. Apparently, he was stuffed in a garbage can by his biological mother when he was a baby, and a white woman who happened to be passing by heard him crying. She ended up taking him home, adopting him, and raising him with her own children in Colorado. For much of his young life he was oblivious to fact that he was any different than his siblings. His dark skin was a non-issue. Like the horses on the ranch where they lived, he just assumed some people came out black, some came out white, some had spots. No big deal.

Kids aren’t born with hate in their hearts. Hatred is a learned behavior. Racial prejudice is a learned behavior. The question is, who are they learning it from?

There is no them. Only us.

The secret of the middle way

The options are pretty clear-cut: either support defunding the police or support the murder of unarmed black men by law enforcement. Vote for Donald Trump or hate America. Throw Molotovs with antifa or march in lockstep with white nationalists. Kneel during the anthem or high-five George Zimmerman.

With all the publicity that the extremes have been getting, you would think that the radical left and xenophobic right are the only two paths available. Yet everyone I know—black and white, free and imprisoned, Republican and Democrat—falls somewhere in the middle. You may have an uncle who attended a Trump rally, but do you honestly know anyone who is hellbent on initiating a race war? There may be some peaceful protesters in your orbit, but how many people do you know that are talking about blowing up police stations? (WTF)

I’ve always considered the extremes to be polar opposites. Distant outposts on a straight line. At the far left would be communism, take a step toward the center and there’s socialism, another step and there’s liberalism, another step and we’re squarely in the middle. Keep moving right and there’s conservatism, another step and there’s nationalism, one more step and we arrive at fascism. Of course there are gradations and degrees of each ideology but I figured that, at least on a rudimentary level, the line was an accurate model.

I was wrong.

It’s not a straight line at all. It’s curved like a horseshoe. With each extreme on either end, far closer to its ideological opposite across the way than the middle which resides top center. The extremes have much more in common with one another than they share with those in the middle. This is true in every movement. Racial, political, even religious. Radical Islam and hardcore Christian fundamentalism share the similar concept of a harsh, unforgiving God, the same disdain for progress and science, the same subhuman treatment of women. Even though they are sworn enemies. The leftist idea of defunding the police could just as easily be pushed by the paranoid right, suspicious of government overreach and martial law.

Rabid fervor and intolerance are identical out on the fringes. Just check out those wreaking havoc at the protests. Can you differentiate one side from the other? Bloodlust cancels out any motive or cause and the violence hums on a frequency all its own. From the firebomb hurling neo-right to the cop car flipping far left to the police cracking skulls with batons. Extremes.

My own life is a study in extremes, although not in any of the aforementioned ways. But on a personal level. Drug abuse, risk taking, crime… The middle was strait-laced and boring. People were partying on the edges. Vibrant life was pulsing out there. I kept getting sucked in. But life on the extremes is unsustainable. I’m lucky to still be alive.

I was a decade into this prison sentence when I stumbled upon the secret of the middle way. I found it in Michael A. Singer’s brilliant book The Untethered Soul, a book that changed my life. In his explanation of the Tao, the invisible thread that passes through everything, he uses the following analogy:

“A blind person walks down a city street with the use of a cane. Let’s give that cane a name—it’s the seeker of extremes, it’s the feeler of edges, it’s the toucher of yin and yang. People who walk with the use of that cane often tap from side to side. They’re not trying to find where they should walk, they’re trying to find where they shouldn’t walk. They’re finding the extremes… The extremes create their opposites, the wise avoid them. Find the balance in the center and you will live in harmony.”

Hard to argue with that.

2020

They passed out masks at my prison last week. Triple-ply polyester squares made from uniform pants that are mandatory when we’re not eating, sleeping, or bathing. As if the barren, windswept Times Square footage on the evening news was not eerie enough, or the daily death toll on the GMA news ticker, or the images of shiny, late-model SUVs in five-mile-long food queues… Prison life just went from dark to dystopian in the elastic snap of a mask.

Although I’m convinced that a third of my dorm already had the virus back in February (myself included), the pandemic has not officially reached the prison where I am housed. Not since authorities began keeping track, at least. But it has ravaged two of my previous camps. Sumter Correctional had one of the biggest outbreaks in the state, and Blackwater Correctional has had four deaths with hundreds under medical quarantine. I have so many friends trapped in those places. We’ve grown up together in the prison system. Their families and my family brave the weather and the rudeness and the indignity on the weekends in order to spend a few hours with their sons and husbands and brothers. Or they did until visitation was canceled almost two months ago.

I’ve been hesitant to write about the corona virus. In this era of daily televised White House briefings, where Dr. Fauci is a household name and the president is faced with an enemy he can’t dismiss as fake news or a witch hunt, where the NBA playoffs have been canceled and the NFL draft is held online, where everyone is talking about hot spots and flattening curves and social distancing, what can I possibly add to the conversation? I’d rather talk about books and music and football.

But these essays are more than social commentary. They are chronicles. Mile markers. One day I will read over them as a free man and remember where I was when each was written. What was going on. And as much as I want 2020 to be known as the year Tua took his talents to South Beach, the year Brady became a Buc, the year I finally finished writing this novel… all these will be footnotes in the annals of history. 2020 will forever be known as the year of the pandemic. The year when everything changed. The year the handshake died, the mall breathed its last gasp, and the world was reminded of just how interconnected we all are. Rich and poor, black and white, American and Chinese, convict and guard, conservative and liberal. If we learn nothing else during these troubled times, hopefully it will be to put data and science before politics, to say “I love you” while we have the shot, and to take better care of our grandmothers and grandfathers. There is no them… only us.

Stay safe out there.

George

There’s this line in Eat Pray Love about Quest Physics. The idea that life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher, nudging us down the path to enlightenment. I believe this. My most recent teacher is Big George. He moved into the bunk next to me when my friend Menu went home. The exchange was about as seamless as the Obama/Trump White House transition.

George is a 300-pound, 47-year-old man, but mentally he’s somewhere around age 10. It took all of two seconds of conversation to realize this. From the moment he dragged his property down my row and plopped down across from me, I knew he was going to be a character. I had no idea…

“Can I borrow some cookies? What are you writing? Are you eating again? Who sent you that letter? The Dolphins suck!” Big George has not shut up since he moved in. At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Finally, it reached the point where I had to keep my headphones in at all times. Dude is driven by the compulsion to contaminate every precious sliver of silence with mindless chatter. He can’t help himself. Even as I write this, he’s sitting over there, two feet to my left, narrating the comings and goings of the dorm in his signature whiny nasal voice. Big George doesn’t talk. He squawks. The only time he ever shuts up is when he’s shoveling food into his face.

A few months ago he says, “You think you’re so cool just because you wrote a book. I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna be way better than yours.” Then a couple weeks later, “Hey Malcolm! You wanna be in my book? I’m a CIA agent with two samurai swords and I own a car dealership with a strip bar on the roof. Buy a car and get a free lap dance!” He’s been over there writing away ever since.

Full disclosure: I was dealing with a vicious bout of writers block for most of 2019 so it was especially infuriating to look over and see his pen gliding effortlessly across his notebook while I thrashed and groped for words. Occasionally, he would catch me staring at the blank page and hit me with that halfwit smile of his. “What are you doing over there? You haven’t written anything! I’m already on page 85.”

Grrrr.

“Wanna read a little bit?” he offered one day.
I did not. But there’s this egocentric part of me that looks in the mirror and sees a writing instructor, sent to assist the unwashed and illiterate. So I sighed and held out my hand.

It was worse than I imagined. Third-grader handwriting, atrocious punctuation, no indentation. The words that weren’t misspelled just trailed off into scribble. I looked up to find him smiling like an expectant chef who had just served up the house special. He raised his eyebrows.

I told him it was garbage. Told him he was trying to fly before he could walk. Told him he should learn the fundamentals first. He needed to write good sentences before he could write good paragraphs, much less good books. He was highly indignant, insisted that I read more. I shook my head and handed him back his manuscript.

“Write me one good sentence and I’ll think about it,” I said. “One simple sentence, but it has to be capitalized, punctuated, and spelled correctly. Can you do that?” He tore a piece of paper from his notebook and went straight to work, tongue out, brow furrowed in concentration as he made his letters. When he finished he passed it across the aisle and gave me the chef look again, obviously very pleased with himself. I glanced down at the paper. “My name is Georg!” Almost, man.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the dorm to smell blood in the water. Prison is similar to the schoolyard. Remember the bullies from your childhood? They didn’t have spiritual awakenings and change their lives. They grew up and came here, where they perfected their methods of cruelty. “Look at you,” one sneered at him the other day. “It’s people like you who make me realize that things aren’t so bad after all.”

He shrugged innocently. “Why? What’s so special about me?”

See what I’m saying? Clueless. Big George was born with a “kick me” sign on his ass. Of course, he doesn’t make things any easier by constantly drawing attention to himself. I’ve even gotten in on the action. One day when he wouldn’t shut up, Mr. Benevolent Writing Professor himself pulled back a rubber band and snapped him right on a fat roll. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?” It left a red welt. Not one of my finest moments.

But it may have been a defining moment. Quest Physics. Life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher. Even the Big Georges of the world. Especially the Big Georges. That’s not me. Prison is oppressive enough without some dick popping you with a rubber band just because you’re different.

Which brings me to New Year’s… The best holiday in my little corner of the universe. Way better than Christmas. Nothing like another year down, another year closer to home. I spent the final week of 2019 like many citizens of the world, taking personal inventory, getting my house in order, figuring out my goals and resolutions for 2020. For me, it’s the usual suspects — finish current novel, write more essays, build strength, increase flexibility, hydrate, read more, listen better, be more efficient with time… But this year, kindness and tolerance surge back to the top of the leader board. I lost my way over the last 12 months. It took a CIA agent with samurai swords to lead me out of the wilderness. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m fortunate to have crossed paths with Big Georg.

Love you guys. Happy 2020!

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.

Synchronicity, King of Coincidence

“Many miles away, something crawls to the surface of a dark Scottish loch.” – Synchronicity, The Police

Sometimes I fall asleep listening to AM radio. Knocks me right out. A few months ago, I awoke sometime after midnight with the cord wrapped twice around my neck and hanging off the side of my bunk. Coast to Coast was on. The guest was psychotherapist and quantum theorist Mel Schwartz. He was talking about synchronicity. Specifically about the tsunami of 2004, the humanitarian calamity it wrought and how, although it claimed roughly 230,000 human lives, there were surprisingly few animal bodies found in the aftermath. He attributed this to a sixth sense long atrophied in human beings due to lack of use. He went on to say that at the exact same time that he was typing an essay about this phenomenon on the other side of the globe, a bird flew into his room and perched on his chair. Synchronicity.

As I staggered to the bathroom, half-listening, half-asleep, an elusive plot point from my latest novel, Sticks & Stones, suddenly clicked into place. (If you’ve read it, it’s the part about the drone.) Now I was wide awake. It dawned on me that had I not fallen asleep with the radio on, I might have never awoken to receive this pivotal building block of my then-novel-in-progress. The fact that this occurred while the dude on the radio was discussing synchronicity really blew me away.

Coincidences … chance happenings or mystical experiences? I once heard someone refer to them as “God winks.” A 2015 Esquire article divides them into four distinct categories:

Synchronicity – Two unrelated events collide in a meaningful way. (See above)

Seriality – A series of seemingly unrelated events lead to a noteworthy event. You usually take the bus to work, but you spilled your morning coffee on your shirt, which made you miss the 7:15. You almost called a cab, but decided to try Uber. The driver is attractive. You ask her out. Two years later, you’re married and expecting.

Simulpathity – The simultaneous experience of another person’s distress. This one usually happens with twins, life-long couples, and parents with their children.

Serendipity – Something unexpected and beneficial arises from being at the right place at the right time. Pfizer researchers testing a drug called Sildenafil as a treatment for angina notice a curious side effect: erections. Eureka! Viagra.

Which is your favorite?

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 10/30/14 and was featured on Huffington Post on 11/29/14.]