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Letter to Bill the Inmate


I received your note yesterday, and it was a great pleasure. I’m glad your getting some reading in and the number of volumes you’ve been able to consume. I would like to read some of the things you’re into. Except the Harry Potter books. They drive me crazy and I’ve not been able to get into them. You’re a better person than me.

It’s also sad to hear of the drug problems in the prison. I can imagine being in your situation and being presented with those opportunities. You’re approach in keeping things simple will certainly help you stay on the beam. Keep the faith, my friend. You’re stronger than you think. Have faith in that.

I have another friend in a federal medical incarceration facility, the kind of place built and operated for prisoners who find it difficult to stay away from the drugs. The problem you face also exists there. The prison is riddled with drugs–and these are a bunch of addicts who are allegedly trying to get themselves together. He’s not nearly as centered in the program as you are. His drug problems run deep and have quite a colorful history. It’s an immense struggle for him to stay sober. Imagine if you had not had a good program before you landed where you are.

As far as the boredom goes, remember you need only hang on for another three months. That’s not all that long. I realize that time passes much more slowly when you are bored or dealing with tedium, petty personality issues, and behavior issues. But for us here on the outside, we are pulling for you and see that you’re over the hump now. It’s a matter of just hanging on.

The fear issue also interests me. You mention you are embarrassed by the fear you once had about incarceration. I know from my own experience that the fear is often much worse than the actual situation I’m so frightful of. In the end, I find every time that I deal with things as they come up and I’m much better about facing situations than I give myself credit for.

A good example of this was my experience walking to Montana. Every morning, literally almost every day, I woke in my sleeping bag paralyzed by fear. The uncertainty facing me froze me. I would have to think my way out of my bed. First, I told myself, I’d find a place to clean up and wash my hair—be it a public bathroom in a small-town park or a mountain stream. Then, I’d set about boiling water for my tea. While that was going, I’d roll up and stow my sleeping bag. Just one thing after another until I found my backpack packed and shoes on. The only thing left was to take off into the day. As I bounded down the highway, the fears that plagued me fell away, shed like old bark. Then, I’d walk thinking what a silly thing it was to fear what faced me.

I’ve learned to walk into the fear, setting my selfish-self aside, remembering that not everything is about me. I discovered that most of my fear is that of being uncomfortable. Funny that discomfort of any kind can motivate a man. I want a good place to sleep and am afraid I won’t. I want people to like me. That approval brings me deep psychic comfort. Fear of not getting affirmation makes me do incredible things. But if I can get over myself, I find I’m just all right. Nothing turns out to be as terrifying as it seemed in my mind. Even if it is, I am capable of doing the next thing, whether it’s right or not.

As another example, last week, I had the book party/release for my new book of poems. I was very anxious. In the day and the hours leading up to the reading, I put too much thought into what was going on, what might happen. I arrived at the bookstore (Prospero’s) early, nervous and fidgety. But as people began to arrive, I greeted them, shaking hands, hugging some. Time came for the reading to begin and I fessed up to the crowd. I told my audience I was nervous but that it would pass, please stick with me for a few minutes.

I started telling stories of the poems and reading them. I read from the book and from new poems I’ve been writing. After about the third story/poem, I realized the anxiousness and fear disappeared and I got into my groove. I wowed the crowd of about 35 people. They enjoyed themselves, congratulated me on the book and how strong the poems were. They bought books, slapped me on the back, and went away happy. Nothing but good reviews.

So, how this relates to your experience: I find that if I try to write a book and think of it as a book, I can’t do it. I’m so small and the work is so big. So, I break the labor down to its smallest pieces. I can write a sentence. I can write a paragraph. Before I know it, I have a page, then a chapter, then two chapters and so on. Soon, I have a book. (Then comes the work of rewriting, which takes months.)

I try to do the same thing with everything that faces me, whether it’s a book reading or fixing the faucets that tend to lead around here from time to time. Steps, one at a time. Get out the tools. Make sure I have the gaskets. Turn off the water to the faucet. Take apart the faucet. And soon, bing, the thing is fixed. Virginia is happy. Water is under control.

I also realize I have to do the same thing with a day. At night, I sit down with my journal. I’m sure you have one in there. I always refer to the Eleventh Step, pages 86-88. There are a number of questions I ask myself about what’s happened since I woke up in the morning. When was I angry, selfish, dishonest, or afraid? Where do I owe an apology? Did I do my best or did I try to half-ass it? What can I do better next time?

Then comes a contemplation about the twenty-four hours ahead. I take it easy. What I used to find so difficult comes to us intuitively. I think about what I’d like to accomplish in the coming day. I write all this stuff down every night in my journal. I go to bed without thinking too much about the difficulties I face, as my mind is clear and my thinking easier with the clutter out of the way.

The next day begins and I have a rough idea of how I want it to go. In all instances, I’m operating in a way in which I don’t think about the day as a whole. That’s too big. I start with the smallest detail. I get a cup of tea, sit down to the E-mail, think about what I’d like to write, and what other duties or responsibilities I have in front of me. If I have school, then I attend to that. One thing, one little bit at a time.

I don’t know if this will work for you. I hope I have not been pedantic in my writing about the course of the day. But if you have a journal and some time, you might want to look into doing some of this same stuff for yourself. It might help get through the noise of the prison, the problems of drugs in there, and the occasional mercurial behavior of the guards..

Again, have faith. This time of your life will be over before you know it. You will have learned some valuable lessons that will help you in your walking-around life and volunteer work.

Around here, there’s not much to report, except for the successful book event. I had a presentation yesterday to the Kansas City chapter of the Lewis and Clark Foundation. I really didn’t know what I was going to talk about. I have given my river presentation enough times that I could rely on that. I put on some good clothes (and was overdressed for the event). I sat through the luncheon, talking to the wonderful people around me. Then, it was time for my talk. I had a powerpoint with a number of pictures of my big river trip and subsequent journeys.

I have a good friend, Eddy Harris, who is so confident, he doesn’t prepare for anything, any presentation or talk. He just gets up and talks. It comes to him. So, for my talk to the Lewis and Clark people, I Eddy Harrissed it. I didn’t plan or think about the event until I arrived at the restaurant. Then, I just got up and started telling my story, without thinking too much about where it was going. I just let the inner mechanism work. It came off well. I got them to laugh and didn’t put anyone to sleep. I was as successful with my presentation as any talk I’ve ever done. Again, people bought books and went away happy that I’d shared with them some things they didn’t know before.

School has gone well these last two weeks. The students are all young and seem ready to absorb. I have a couple of problem children and I will have to convince them. But I lecture well and have impressed the whole of the classes so far. I hope to keep it up.

But then again, I always start a semester with a certain kind of optimism. What I find is that no matter what I do, I wind up with the same percentage of As, Bs, Cs, etc., as I do every semester. I have one class with 28 people. Of them, I might get four or five As. I have a much smaller class of 10 people. That class will do much better grade wise. At the end of the semester, I will look back and see again that student/teacher ratios matter. I wish I had small classes all the time. Alas, I deal with the cards I’m dealt.

I look forward to your next missive. I hope to get word from you about the inmate visitor form. Just let me know to whom I have to send it. I miss you and look forward to your return.


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One Comment

  1. Margaret lightfoot Margaret lightfoot

    Satisfyingly ramble…u should think about comparing politics of today and in the past…so much at stake now..I guess there’s no comparing..hi to Virginia…

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