Two Days

J.C. Amberchele

Mullah Nasrudin, standing on the bank of a river, watched as a dog came to drink. The dog saw itself in the water and immediately began to bark. It barked and barked all morning and into the afternoon, until it was foaming at the mouth. Finally, dying of thirst, the dog fell into the river – whereupon it quenched its thirst, climbed out, and happily walked away.

Nasrudin said, “Thus I realized that all my life I had been barking at my own reflection.”

 

So goes one of my favorite Sufi stories. And it was Douglas Harding who said, in reference to some imaginary problem, that the whole day had come and gone in his huge Single Eye, and he’d called it a bad day! Here, then, is a so-called “bad day” in prison:

It’s 6:00 am, and reveille blasts through my head. The speaker for the PA system is just outside my cell, and once again I have awakened to a nightmare. Why do they scream into the microphone? Don’t they know it hurts our ears!

I have fifteen minutes to make it to chow. My back aches. I curse the metal bunk, the thin pad they call a “mattress”. I’d do better with a rock for a pillow, but for security reasons there are no rocks in this prison, nothing larger than a pebble. Which reminds me of something else I haven’t seen in the last twenty years – dog shit.

I throw on my state shirt and pants and state brogans. I live in a 12 x 7 bathroom, so it isn’t far to the commode. This commode happens to be metal and seatless and freezing cold, but luckily I don’t have to sit on it now, so I stand and do my business and worry about the toilet paper getting low – our allotment of one roll per week is hardly enough.

I brush what’s left of my teeth. God forbid I should get a toothache. It takes up to three months to get an appointment with the dentist, costs nearly half of my monthly salary of $12.00, and having it “fixed” too often means having it pulled.

Chow call. The cell doors pop, and I hustle down the tier with everyone else and crowd near the pod door. Frankie’s breath stinks. The man should at least wash his face and brush his teeth – I mean, once a week would be better than never! The cop in the Control Center is playing games again. How is it he always lets the other pods out first? Why do we have to go last every damn day?

Finally! Here we go, cattle in a chute, through the vestibule and out the cellhouse door, down the sidewalk towards the chowhall. In a moment we’re lining up outside the west door, more than a hundred of us. Hundreds more are inside. Fortunately, it’s not raining and it’s not cold today, or I’d be two rungs lower on the misery ladder, and I’m already miserable enough.

Inside, the noise is overwhelming. Stepping into the chowhall is like stepping into hell. A friend from New York said it’s like eating on a crowded subway platform while the “express” clatters by, non-stop. There must be 300 men in here at any one time, all yelling just to be heard. Now I know why the old prisons used to enforce the “No Talking” rule at meal times. I want to scream, “Shut the hell up!”, but I don’t want 300 thugs ruining my breakfast. Finally I get to the serving slot, and an inmate shoves a plastic tray towards me. There’s a hair in my grits, but so what, I don’t eat them anyway.

Back to the cellhouse. A half-hour later the PA is blaring “Gangs Out”, a term left over from the old days when there were chain gangs and such. Translated, it means, “Convicts To Work Assignments”. So I am off to work, and since I am employed by the cellhouse, I don’t have far to go; I am a janitor, and my job is to clean the staff offices and bathroom. When I arrive I see that Officer Monroe is here; I thought this was his day off, damnit. He likes to taunt me. He won’t unlock the cabinets or open the office doors for me, so I have to find someone else to do it. He thinks it’s funny. I’d quit this damn job, but to be out of work means being locked in the cell all day, with no gym or yard or library privileges. To hell with that! I’ll clean their foul toilet and take the best of two worsts!

Now it’s late morning, and I am back in my cell. It’s “Count Time”, an hour of lock-up while they yet again count us (five times a day). I’ll use the time to nap. I’m exhausted by 11:00am. Not so much from the physical strain as from the mental, what with all the crap I have to deal with. If it isn’t the inmates, it’s the staff, and if it isn’t the staff, it’s the cleaning supplies running low or the outdated floor machines breaking down. I’ve got to lie down. Hopefully, this headache will go away.

Chow call! Damn. Have to hurry or I’ll miss the door! Lunch is beans and rice and some sort of shredded meat, not worth rushing off to, but I’ve got to eat. I hate this meal. I hate all the meals, but I can’t afford the junk from the weekly commissary. Two-fifty for a bag of chips! A week’s pay, and half the time they’re not even chips, they’re smithereens! It’s a rip off, and I just know that some fat-cat politician is making a bundle off of us. Jesus, I’ve got indigestion even before they feed us. What next?

Sometimes the best part of the day arrives in the afternoon when I can get out to the yard or the gym for a workout, or maybe visit the library or even just hang out in my cell and loaf. Sure, it sounds good, but why is it never like that? I mean, I know we have no control over our lives – they tell us when and how to do everything – but couldn’t we have just one routine day we could count on? Just one day when things would happen the way they’re supposed to?

I decided not to go to the yard or the library because when we do we have to get there within a ten-minute “Controlled Movement”, and in the case of the yard, once we’re there, we’re there all afternoon. So I remained in my cell this afternoon, thought I’d read a book, and now there’s a goddam fire alarm and I have to file out of the cell house and stand on the sidewalk like a moron with all the other morons while some uniformed morons drink their coffee and pretend there’s a fire. Shit, if there were a real fire we’d all cook like chickens in an oven. There’s a hole in the roof where the guards can drop tear gas canisters on us if we get too rowdy. The word is that, in the event of a nuclear attack, the army will come and shoot us in our cells – how’s that for removing a thorn in their side! I worry about these things, sometimes.

Now it’s almost evening Count and I’ve wasted the whole afternoon pissed off about one thing or another. You know what pisses me off? When I don’t go to the yard, I worry that I’ll get ill and out of shape. Then when I do go to the yard, I worry that I’m falling behind in my reading or letter writing or some other thing I should be doing. I’m pissed at my neighbor because he taps his pen on his desk, which, since the desk is metal and attached to the concrete wall separating our cells, sounds like he’s tapping on my desk. The pod TV is too loud, there are inmate plumbers hammering at the pipes in the utility trap, and my laundry came back missing a sock. Jeez, I could be on the beach in Puerto Vallarta right now. I could have money, a nice home, a good retirement on the golf course. Talk about regrets! Why did I have to screw up my life like this?

Once again I am in the chowhall for the third lousy meal of the day. This time the building is even more crowded than before and I can’t find a place to sit, so I and several others wander up and down the aisles with our trays. This game is similar to “Musical Chairs”, the idea being to stall as long as possible while passing a potential “target” (someone who is nearly finished eating), then dash for his seat when he gets up. I’ve seen more fights in the chowhall than anywhere, so I am careful about who I beat to a seat. Why is it that I have indigestion already, when I haven’t yet taken a single bite of this meal?

It’s evening, and I’m back at work for another round of wiping and mopping. The toilet is unusually nasty tonight – one of the officers must be ill. Still, the evening chores are light compared to those of the morning. Already I can feel myself winding down for the day. And yet there is always the threat of some unforeseen calamity: The staff could move me to another cellhouse or another facility, or I could get sick, or one among the thousands of angry inmates could for no reason attack me – who knows?

Nothing on the tube, as usual. One more count at 9:30 pm, and I’ll hit the sack. I wonder why I’m so tired? Actually, it’s been a pretty good day, considering. I mean, no one stabbed me or stole anything from me, and I didn’t receive a disciplinary report for breaking any of the zillions of petty rules here. Still, there is this general sense of unease, like something is missing. And this heartburn… I really must buy some antacid, next paycheck.

And here is a different day:

Reveille. The PA system is LOUD, like cymbals crashing everywhere at once. Three walls of the cell appear, a hand, another hand tossing the blanket aside, and I look down and see feet, down farther and see knees, undershorts, a tee shirt, and below that – Nothing! I am wide wide open, floating, and the walls, the hands, the bunk, the feet and the shorts and the tee shirt are all inside of me! Oh man, what a way to wake up!

Now I am sitting, now standing, a dozen sensations at once: sounds and aches and pressures and more. I look down to check – yes, as always, I’m upside-down! Pants go on, shirt’s on, the room swaying this way and that, and now everything slides towards me, the far wall and sink and commode growing larger. It is all so bizarre and amusing, this First-Personhood. I look down and see that I am peeing up!

The face in the mirror is not my face. To prove it I take out my razor and watch from a yard away while that older fellow in the mirror shaves himself. Here there is no face, only sensations in this vibrant emptiness. How extraordinary! I never have to shave!

And now to prove I have no teeth and no mouth in which to house them, I take up my toothbrush, squeeze toothpaste on it (so effortlessly – how does this hand do that?), and there is the taste of mint, and a plethora of cool sensations to accompany it. Remarkable, this brushing-of-teeth.

Chow call. The cell doors pop, and magically the door frame passes around me and disappears. Various sizes of men hurry down the tier. I, however, remain perfectly still, while the tier hurries past me, doors on one side and railing on the other, slipping into oblivion. In a moment I am outside the cellhouse and on the sidewalk. The air is crisp, and there is the scent of pine from the mountains. The sidewalk slides by, and when I look down, I see my feet moving to stay with it, and I notice that, strangely, the sidewalk now appears out of nowhere at the top of my visual field and disappears into nowhere at the bottom – my feet seem to be climbing this vertical treadmill, and yet I am not growing tired!

The chowhall grows larger, and I am approached by a long line of men, descending in size, all with their backs to me. A man turns and begins to talk to me and I see that he is talking to empty space here, looking at and talking to no one – I have taken on his face; I have become him; truly, I am talking to myself!

Inside the chowhall the scene is both wild and hilarious. Now I have hundreds of faces, hundreds of bodies of all sizes and shapes, and a veritable concert of voices, fortissimo. There is no sense of heaviness, no gloom in here, despite the pockets of anger and frustration I detect. The tray arrives, and within minutes a seat at a table presents itself. The food looks unreal, but when this hand lifts it on a fork and places it into literally nothing above my shirt, taste appears! How does that happen, and why ever did I once take that for granted?

At work I notice (in retrospect) that I am no longer Seeing, that I have attached myself to this body and this job and these thoughts of how to do this and what must be done next so that things will go “well”. And yet behind this cascade of third-person thinking, and popping into focus from time to time, Seeing continues unabated, as if waiting to catch me should I fall. These doubts that appear – at times I am surprised at their audacity and strength, their ability to capture me and carry me into the “world” as if it were separate from Who I Am. I’ve got to hand it to them, they’re good at what they do: for a while, they can actually get me to believe them. But at the same time there happens to be a wonderful and quite natural mechanism for recognizing when I have attached to one of these thoughts. It’s called a “feeling”, and when there is unease, when something begins to hurt, I know that my alarm clock just went off and I need to come Home to Who I Really Am. How easy is that! Still, I sometimes wonder: How is it that God falls asleep and pretends to be anything but God?

It is afternoon and I am at the recreation yard. From here there is a splendid view of the mountains to the west. These are not the tall, majestic mountains one usually associates with the Rockies. In fact, with my thumb and forefinger measuring them at arm’s length, I see they are only about an inch high, and even smaller if I measure them closer to their Source. Clouds of various sizes scud by, and since the prison is located beneath a commercial air route, I am invariably treated to the contrail streams of tiny jets slowly passing above. Seeing from and as the First Person Singular, Present Tense, seeing exactly what is given, as it is, is true seeing – I have no doubts about this. Looking Here, I see no-thing, awake and luminous. But I also see that I am brimming with all manner of things, that I am this empty and aware Capacity for the world. Looking up, I am the cloud-filled sky; looking out towards the horizon, I take on the tree-covered mountains; looking down, I don this oddly-shaped, headless, upside-down body. Truly, it is all my body. I spread my arms wide to hold this colossal Eye that accommodates all. This is Who I Am: No-thing and Everything, all of it Here and infinitely deep.

Back at the cellhouse, 4:30 Count happens, after which, and for the third time today, the chowhall arrives and I am inundated with tables and bodies and voices and tastes. Later at work I clean the bathroom and empty the trash, and now again at my cell my neighbor arrives with a book in his hand. He is reading “A Course In Miracles”, and from time to time he recites a paragraph out loud, which I greatly enjoy. While he reads, I notice that I have his face Here, and his voice Here, and when I speak to him, I have my voice Here as well – one face and two voices in this amusing Void! I am God discussing Himself with Himself!

Just before the last count and lock-up for the night, I turn on the television and browse the channels to see what’s on in the two-dimensional TV world, which, when I consider it, differs little from the so-called three-dimensional “real” world others claim I live in. Regardless of what they say, I know better, for I see – actually see – that the so-called “real” world lives in me, much as that sitcom now playing lives on the screen of the TV. I turn the channels and the scenes change, but the screen remains unaffected; my whole day passes through, but the Pure Awareness that I am remains unaffected. This is Who I am. You say I am a man in prison, but it is different from my perspective, for I see that it is the other way around – prison is in me!

Truly, as Douglas Harding and others remind me, the entire day, every day, comes and goes in this huge Single Eye, and to call any one of them a “bad” day is to bark at my own reflection.


FEEDBACK

What a wonderful article by J.C. Amberchele. We could all probably write similar versions, but his is particularly meaningful given his circumstances. It reminded me of what William Johnston, the Irish Jesuit who has written about Zen & mysticism, wrote in Letters to Contemplatives: "Every day is a good day", quoting a Zen koan. I always had a hard time with that, trying to force my mind to accept this, especially on days that weren't going especially well. Suddenly though, when I could See life from the 1st person singular, the reality that every day is a good day became evident. From that perspective, I could learn to say "Yes" to all of life, and everything can become a joy. There's only a lack of joy when I slip back into 3rd-personhood and start seeing from that viewpoint again. Obviously your friend Sees this light. Thanks and best regards. Every day is a good day! (B. USA)


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