A few thoughts about the cell

Markhasev, Mikhail

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Mikhail Markhasev Corcoran, CA I wrote this essay in 2003, while I was in the hole (SHU). It was printed in The Beat Within, a youth outreach in the S.F. Bay area. I want to share it with A.P.W.A. You have my permission to post it. A few thoughts about the cell The cell... for some, it is a taste of hell — where single day is an eternity to dwell But as for me, when I’m in the cell a sweet serenity upon my heart it spells my doubt and uncertainty it quells my fear dispels — amidst the noise, the madness and the yells... It may be strange and absurd to praise a concrete box; to speak sweetly of confinement and to exalt its benefits. Yet, this is exactly what I’m inclined to do as I reflect on my existence in the cell. She’s been my companion for some time now (not a proud fact, but a fact nonetheless), and as I enter my mid-twenties, the honorable law of the State of California guarantees that some small cubicle somewhere in the state’s penal system will be mine, for better or worse, ‘til death do us part. Plain and simple. Naturally, this may seem to be a curse, but actually it’s been a blessing (especially in contrast to my pitiful and pathetic life prior to the cell). This is somewhat amazing even to myself, because my perception of the cell has evolved throughout the years. From my teens ‘til now, the cells haven’t changed — their cold, concrete faces remain as somber as ever — this much is true. But the difference has been in myself, and as a child who with surprise and amazement looks at an old pair of baby pants which he has long ago outgrown, wondering how did he ever fit in them, even so am I, as I recall how everything within me bucked and kicked against the choking restraint and limitation of this institutional straightjacket. It’s painful and embarrassing to remember my life before the cell. To be honest, it wasn’t much of a life, but a mere skeleton of what life ought to be. I mean, could I call my physical liberties “freedom,” when shackled and chained by drugs, a criminal mind, and stupidity? What man is “free,” when his path in life not only has no hope for the future, but is even without a present? My chosen path was a quick slide to an early grave and I was a slave to the things which brought me to prison. The fetters of my ways and habits tightened more and more with time, and I was no better than a withering tree — willingly embracing death - waiting to get plucked up and scattered by the wind. That’s hardly freedom. For one, the cell gave me an outlook on life that “living on the outs,” among the many distractions of “freedom,” had failed to provide. Some folks are awakened by a smell of coffee; l’m among those who are roused from slumber by a beating, and it was only after much time in this stone classroom of life that I carefully considered my mistakes, wasted opportunities, wrong choices and an entire truckload of “what ifs,” “could’ves,” “should’ves,” and “would’ves.” Of course, I tried to harden my heart with indifference and cloud my mind with foolishness, shooing away my frequent failures and similar pesky thoughts, but these images floated up as a dark, blown-up carcass in the murky waters of my past. By artificially depriving me of my freedoms and keeping from my grasp what I thought valuable and dear; by revealing to me my own limitations and helplessness in my “box,” I was faced with the reality of things, the naked truth apart from the wishful thinking and self-deceit that I had previously embraced. The cell enabled me to truly appreciate what I had in the outside world and taught me that a man’s life is immeasurably enriched by the people in it. How blessed was I to have people, family who loved and cared for me; and yet how foolish — because I forsook that love for a lifetime in a cell. At the time, I didn’t think I had much, but time in a cell helped me to realize the riches of my loved ones‘ care, which I took for granted and neglected. Indeed, those are the true riches! I likewise learned that a man’s life isn’t measured by possessions but by what he possesses within himself. All that I own in material property may be easily placed in a medium-sized box, yet all that I am can neither be contained nor measured — no box is large enough for that. The cell helped me to recognize that my focus in life had been warped and twisted, all the while being preoccupied with small stuff and with material things which can be quickly taken away, yet forgetting about and misusing the important matters — what I had within, leaving my soul to rot. The cell helped me to acquire patience towards others, to become more considerate towards a cellmate, and taught me as much about myself as others. At times, when seeing faults in another, it was I who had to change — not the other man. My own flaws became evident and I understood that a person who never learns to live with others will have a very difficult time in life. Oftentimes, I blamed others for my problems, but in the cell there was no one to blame but myself, and this allowed me to focus on myself, rather than others. The cell, for me, became that oracle at whose entrance was imprinted the famous slogan: Know thyself. It is in her silent embrace alone that my soul was awakened from the sleep of death and revived. Only here was I forced to face reality, obtained courage to administer the changes which needed to be made, and reformed my mind. This didn’t happen overnight — no, I’m only beginning, but it’s doubtful that what I learned in the cell would have been somehow attained otherwise. A Russian proverb says: “Only the grave will straighten out a hunchback,” but a cell has straightened out a fool. Sure, miserable is the state when we owe our wellbeing to some misfortune (like a sickness, or prison, for instance), yet I’m not ashamed of the fact that my soul’s alive thanks in part to the physical restriction of a box. Better to be straightened out by a box than a casket . . . Living in the outside world doesn’t mean “freedom,” since freedom has little to do with space. As my lifestyle “on the outs” proved, a man may find himself “chained anywhere, and though everyone despises the closed atmosphere of a cell, at times the “tyrant” within is worse than any jail warden in here. How many times have we seen people escape the cell, only to plunge right back into that same life that imprisoned them to begin with? Is that “freedom”? No, those are the chains, dragging the individual right into the jaws of destruction, while he or she helplessly looks on. It would seem that such a person was more free in a cell — where, at least, the reality of life was seen and understood, mistakes acknowledged, beauty of ordinary things appreciated and personal potential realized. Isn’t that the sum of life, the goal of freedom? And truly, when this understanding has set in, it wasn’t difficult to part with the world, which only recently I had embraced with both hands. Life imprisonment became a liberation, not a condemnation. A liberation from the caricature of myself in that other universe, a setting free from twisted thinking and decaying way of living. Perhaps this isn’t the most comfortable or pleasant life, yet it is the one which enables me to do good, empowering me to reach unto higher peaks. This cold reality is more clear to me than a warm, fuzzy fantasy. I’m not endorsing anything, nor saying that this is for everyone — far from it. My only authority is to relate that which I’ve personally experienced; that’s all. Here in the hole, all of your time — whether you like it or not — is spent in a cell. There’s no “dayroom” time. Your “dayroom,” night room, gym, chow hall, bathroom, classroom, laundromat, post office are all simplified by a state provided capsule of stone and steel — one body length across and two bodies long. Voila! You shower in a special cell, cut your hair in a holding cell, and go out for fresh air in a 9 by 12 cage, pacing back and forth like a lion in a zoo. There’s no escaping the cell, but it certainly doesn’t have to be a hell. Physical confinement to a small space does not mean that the mind has to conform to the body’s restrictions or that the days are wasted. It’s up to the individual to help himself. The cell makes it possible. I compare my cell to the barrenness of the desert or the solitude of the wilderness, where the soul may flourish before God. The austere ruggedness of the cell is an ideal place to study, to grow mentally and spiritually. Sure, there may be outside distractions or inner cares, but if a man truly wants something and focuses on that goal, then it’s easier to clear away all of that dirt, soul and rocks of worldly cares, which choke the living waters of the heart that try to stream upward, towards the surface. A focus and a desire for something positive will ignite a passion in the heart which will withstand distractions and the surrounding noise. Try it. Be it art, writing, studying, learning the law or simple contemplation — once you discover that spark, once the heart is set, what will prevent you from casting all of your time, attention and energy into it? But this is something that each person has to discover for himself. Are you in a cell? Fine. Search yourself — what is it that you want? The worst thing that you can do is fall into the comfortable falsehood of complacency — simply “relaxing” by floating through time and doing nothing to better yourself. That’s not what the cell’s for. You’re not there to “relax,” but to examine yourself like God. called out to a hiding, shivering Adam, “Where art thou?” even so does the cell ask each of her occupants, “Where are you? Where are you in life? What are you doing in a cell? Where is this path leading you? What are you doing to your family, parents, children? Why are you wasting your life?” The cell’s a reality check for each of us, and if you want to be like someone in his forties who hasn’t yet learned to answer these questions (which he should’ve answered in his teens or twenties), then relax all you want; waste your day, your life, since you don’t care about anything anyway. Where are you today, what are you doing there, and what do you plan to do to get yourself out of that mental and spiritual rut? It’s a sad sight at the zoo: a caged lion, broken by a prolonged captivity, forced to dwell in a cage and unable to reach his potential. Yet it’s even more depressing to behold a human being, who’s infinitely greater than an animal, pine away in a cell, acting no better than a houseplant. A “body in a box,” without desire to lift a finger to better himself, to learn to do good or to help anyone. He comes to his cell, gets his TV and a stack of trashy novels and magazines, and gets “comfortable.” Yeah, that’s making progress! The place of potential and reformation thus becomes a dwelling of relaxation and devastation. Anyone can “sit” through years in a cell and not learn a thing — people do it all the time in every prison in the world — but not anyone can squeeze something positive out of nothing. “I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves,” said Albert Einstein, “This ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty.” And I agree. Wake up! Shake off the dust! Are you waiting on the state to bring you a golden plate with a silver spoon? Don’t hold your breath. The cell is a school of the realities of life: the struggle, the strife, the suffering. Here is the separation of the false from true, fake from real; here is your true worth — what you possess when everything is stripped away. That’s right. The cell is an excellent teacher, but it is we who are less than perfect students, failing to learn and sleeping through her instructions. I often think that the only time I ever thought soberly and saw clearly was through the bars or the thick glass of a cell’s steel door. It was then that the bitter reminders of wasted time and plain stupidity were clear, in their grotesque light. Ironically, only in the cell was I also reminded that there’s a whole lot more to life than this here. Isn’t it interesting how, in prison, almost everyone you talk to says they’d love to travel . . . Yeah, all of a sudden everyone wants to be Marco Polo when they find themselves in a cell! As I’ve stated, the cell is, first of all, a place with potential. As a tiger traps his prey under the full weight of his body, even so the cell traps a man in her solid grip and causes him to utter such moans and groans that even he is amazed. Truly, hours, days, and years in a cell will do that. A man, alone by himself, will find himself and, in turn, will help others to do the same. But first he may need a cell. I know I did . . . And if it is only here that such changes have taken place, then I’d much rather embrace the cold walls of the cell and remain human than be let loose into the arms of outside freedom and revert to being no better than a wild animal. Nowadays, people come up with all sorts of wise sayings and slogans. When speaking about the cell, I often hear: “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” and, “It’ll never break me,” and a multitude of other empty words which mean little to those who say them. The reality of the cell is that if you spend your days in her abode without accomplishing anything positive or bettering yourself in some way, then you are already “dead,” already “broken” — and the cell has done her job in reducing you to a “state-paid vacationer” whose sole desires are to gratify his desires. A man may be “dead” even while having all of his senses. He is spiritually sad and mentally defeated, without even realizing it. If you find yourself in a cell today, don’t ignore her voice. “Where are you and where are you headed?” What have you accomplished today? How has the cell benefited you? What have you to show for your time in her class? If the answer is “nothing,’ well, friend, it’s your life on the line — do what you must. And don’t get discouraged, because it’s better to start later than never and, in the cell, each day is a brand new beginning. The worst anyone can do is leave her school unchanged. . . 9.49/9.50

Author: Markhasev, Mikhail

Author Location: California

Date: 2003

Genre: Essay

Extent: 4 pages

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