009: Reminders to Mourn & Celebrate, Part 1: FOR CHRIS
2020 is COVID-19. 2020 is polarities.
2020 is devastation and opportunity.
These dichotomies have me thinking about a lot of things: including the fact that I haven't sent one of these "human-centered storytelling" newsletters in nearly a year. Writer's block, I suppose...
I'm also thinking about all of the individuals who are especially powerless in this current catastrophe, which certainly disadvantages the already disadvantaged. This includes those who are incarcerated and literally lack the proper resources and infrastructure to follow recommended public health practices—including inmates nearby in Monroe, Washington, who just two nights ago held a COVID-19 protest. Such actions may be illegal, but the reality is that illegality is often the only way for some populations to gain visibility.
That sad realization made me want to share and honor Darin and Chris, my two prison penpals of the past decade. My intention in sharing their stories is NOT to create more reasons for you to be sad in this time of strange society, but to use the tiniest glimpse into their lives as a means of of showing how—even when faced with exceptionally cruel realities—human beings can remain interesting, funny, talented, smart, creative, and, in many ways, become enlightened.
// THIS TIME \\
DEATH ROW + ORIGAMI
CROP CIRCLES REIGN SUPREME
i couldn't tell you what first drew me to prisonpenpals.com in may of 2018...
But I have some idea of what drew me to Darin and Chris.
They were two of hundreds on the site, but for me: two of five. Two of five I chose because they weren't looking for romance. Two of five who explicitly stated that they welcomed anyone and everyone who wrote to them. Two of five who were in prison for life... or the practical equivalent of it.
Of the five, they were the only two who became what I would call friends.
Thousands of words exchanged and dozens of letters exchanged.
The story begins with Chris, because he was my easy favorite. Thoughtful, cute, and quite philosophical, he candidly answered my many questions and wrote deep, engrossing personal novels about serious topics like politics, film, history, and spirituality... as well as silly topics like his strict work out regiment and how he learned to crochet on Death Row.
I sent him postcards from my international travels, and he'd spend hours folding me elaborate origami animals or asking me questions about other countries. Did they smell different? What were the people like? Were they friendly? Things he would never know, because he'd hardly even left the state of Oklahoma, and as it turns out, never would.
What I most loved, though, were our conversations about metaphysics. Chris was a voracious reader who studied all religions religiously, and though I wouldn't have known it then, our conversations were likely integral at a time when I was still coming to understand my own revised relationship to my beliefs.
Chris was a murderer, yes, but it never mattered to me that he was sent to Death Row for stabbing his aunt to death when he was 21. Something about the way my personal history intersected with his experience led me to sympathize rather than judge. Our connection challenged me to consider how complex circumstances and traumas, when exacerbated, might drive an otherwise "good human being" to murder. In a society that can often be so black and white, I found that in this context, no easy answers were satisfactory... yet I knew that even the process of asking myself these questions was a small transformative lesson in and of itself.
In our second letter exchange, Chris satisfied my curiosity by briefly sharing a summary of his incarceration story. It was the first and only time we spoke of it.
I was taken from my mother and step-father (never knew my biological father) at the age of 5 because my step-father beat me. I was placed in a foster home for a few months with my aunt and uncle. I lived with them until I was 15 and was then placed with another aunt and uncle.
My aunt was an alcoholic and my uncle became a cocaine addict. My uncle and I got along really well. I tried to go with him everywhere he went. He was a tall black guy and played basketball and softball. I'd go with him to all of his games. My aunt and I didn't get along well at all. She was a bitch, plain and simple. She was mean to me growing up and verbally and mentally abused me. I was always respectful towards her no matter how she treated me. The resentment was building, though.
My aunt and uncle eventually split up and got divorced. I had to live with my aunt and hated it. I kept running away and finally, my social worker realized I wasn't going to live with my aunt. It took me 5 times of running away before she did. That's when I was placed with another aunt and uncle.
When I was 21, I moved back in with my aunt, the one who raised me. I got a new job in the place she lived and needed a place to stay until I got my own place. The end result is that her and I got into an argument one night about the bills. I was giving her money to help pay them and decided I wanted to see some receipts so I'd know they were getting paid and my money wasn't buying her alcohol. She couldn't show me any and that's when I lost control. I stabbed her 6 times and watched her die before turning myself in to the police. We were both drunk, too. I drank on the weekends, worked all week.
It wasn't planned at all. I hated her but didn't plan to kill her. Two more weeks and I would've been in my own place. Things just went wrong that night. To this day, I don't feel as much remorse for killing her as I think I should. I feel regret only because of my loss of freedom. I think my lack of remorse is indicative of how much hate I held for her. I can't help the way I feel about it."
Many compounding tragedies led to this event, but for me, the largest tragedy is that Chris's actions at the age of 21 held punishments and repercussions which began almost immediately and will continue to echo on for as long as Chris is alive.
It's understandable, then, why his experience in prison has naturally oscillated between polarities of discipline and struggle; depression and joy; the eternal struggle between soul and self. In one darker reflection upon his past, he shared:
That was almost 14 years ago, and the memories are still very vivid. Sometimes it's as if that period of my life a was a dream. I have no connection to that part of my life, except a great aunt who will occasionally send me a little money. Friends have faded and family separated themselves from me. I guess they weren't really my family. What hurts me, or used to, about the entire situation is the fact that they never once attempted to talk to me and ask me what happened. They seen me as a murderer and nothing more.
Revisiting my correspondences with Chris, I have reminders of his humor and thoughtfulness, as well as adorable trinkets one might never expect from a prison inmate. He is sentenced to life in prison without parole, and I can't help but mourn the loss of who he might have been or what he might have been able to accomplish outside of prison walls.
Yet I also wish to recognize the ways in which he had been able to see the stars and evolve his thinking from within a confined space.
Midway through a letter from July 2009, he meandered from banal talk into a deep philosophical reflection, which continues to resonate with my thoughts around living:
I was thinking a couple days ago about what it is that makes me want to keep living. I know I'll never be released from prison, so I know somewhat what my future is. I've been locked up for almost 14 years now, so I know what spending the rest of my life in here means. I wonder why I don't just end it and want to move on, if that's possible.
So the question is: what is it about living that's so appealing? What if we knew for certain that when we die, we will be reincarnated as human? Do you think that would make dying any easier? I don't think so. People who believe there is a heaven still cling to life as if they are gong to hell. Knowing that death is a new beginning does not make dying any less scary. It's weird, unless you believe it is the breath of life from God that makes us want to live no matter what the circumstances. It's something; I know. Whatever it is, it makes me want to live in prison for the rest of my life!
At the start of 2011, nearly three years after our initial correspondence, I received my last message from Chris. On the first page, he shares his opinion about the impending Egyptian Revolution. On the fourteenth and last page, he asks me why I travel as much as I do, and closes out the message with his simple signature, written standard in his style of loose cursive.
Beneath it is a small rectangular sticker of a toucan...
And it is by sheer accident that my eye catches a glimmer of this sticker's secret.
It's holographic, like our universe.
When I tilt my head just slightly, one solitary toucan morphs into two, looking face-to-face at one another, just a few feet apart. Whatever their reason for connection, they're perched on the same branch—if only for a fleeting moment at a time.
The message from the above paper scrap reads:
These are 3 Swallows. It says they are "swooping in flight." Whatever they're doing, I like it a lot. It says birds signify the spirit, and this crop circle seemed to symbolize the "freeing of the spirit." It was done in Wiltshire, England, in 2003. Also, here's one of those napkins from the Netherlands.
(?) Crop Circles (?)
"This design of three flying birds was created on Aug. 3, 2003, in the county of Wiltshire in southern England. The birds, which resemble swallows, have ever-diminishing circles trailing behind their wing tips."
When Doug Bower and his co-conspirator Dave Chorley first created a representation of a “flying saucer nest” in a wheat field in Wiltshire, England, in 1976, they could not have foreseen that their work would become a cultural phenomenon.
Almost as soon as crop circles became public knowledge, they attracted a gaggle of self-appointed experts. An efflorescence of mystical and magical thinking, scientific and pseudo-scientific research, conspiracy theories and general pandemonium broke out. The patterns stamped in fields were treated as a lens through which the initiated could witness the activity of earth energies and ancient spirits, the anguish of Mother Earth in the face of impending ecological doom, and evidence of secret weapons testing and, of course, aliens. Today, one of the more vigorously promoted ideas is that they are messages, buried in complex numerological codes, concerning a Great Change connected to the pre-Columbian Mayan calendar and due to occur in 2012.
DON'T BELIEVE CROP CIRCLES ARE PROBABLY FAKE?
Please allow Supreme to shamelessly brand a frickin' rural English FARM FIELD!
Made by the team at circlemakers.org, because #capitalism X__x;;
WATCH THE VIDEO:
MAKING OF THE SUPREME CROP "CIRCLE"
How would you summarize your mental state during this COVID-19 time?
How did this particular newsletter or story affect that?
(HOLLA AT CHO GURL)
// NEXT TIME \\
A Reminder to Mourn & Celebrate,
Part 2: FOR DARIN
THANKS FOR READING,
VIVIAN HUA _ 華婷婷
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