By Shane King
It seems ironic that ~ facing life in prison ~ I learned to love life for the first time since I was a child. Not in contrast to this loss of freedom, but as the result of finding the light I’d somehow lost sight of all those years ago.
The person I was before I came to prison was essentially dead inside. I was hurting or trying to numb myself most of the time. How I got there and how that changed is a tale for another day. But when I began to heal I found my love for life revived along with my humanity. The world was beautiful in a way it hadn’t been for most of my life.
As notorious for a paucity of kindness and beauty as prison is, I decided I would have to learn to enjoy what blessings came my way to the fullest ~ no matter how small. To learn to find beauty wherever I was ~ in the way the light at dusk painted amber crosses on my wall, for instance. To keep an open mind and learn to appreciate foods and other life experiences that my prior self would have but noted, then dismissed. How many unnoticed sunsets had I driven right through?
And I do find beauty. After all, this ineffable presence ~ love, wonder, joy, light ~ whatever I call it ~ isn’t radiating in from without. It arises from within me. It is then mine, available to me, wherever I am. (Although I do wonder about the interaction with the external, of course).
After twenty-seven years of steel, concrete, and the odd window at a maximum security facility, I came here in 2016 to Fox Lake, a medium security prison where I can stand out in the rain, enjoy a thunderstorm, feel the wind wash over me, sit on a bench and watch the birds hop after the bread I toss or just sit out in the hush of snow falling to the earth. I spend a lot of time outside.
I am not thinking “This day is holy,” or “Thank you God for this day.” I’m not thinking at all. I am just a witness to the miracle of the moment when I awaken from my thinking. Feeling love and its kin rise within me. Maybe in response to the evolutions in a piece of music. Hearing a loved one’s voice or laughter on the phone or just feeling them beside me. I visit in my heart the people I love and would love to share it with. But there’s no thinking.
When I came to the Quakers I found people like me who believed in seeking truth via direct revelation, living simply (one thing prison makes easy), egalitarianism, speaking truth to power and, most importantly, that there is that of God in everyone; one of my most frequent prayers was that God show me why s/he loved someone I was having trouble loving or even tolerating. (There are a lot of wounded souls on both sides of the bars, myself among them.)
One thing I didn’t connect with was the practice of not celebrating one day as holier than another. Certainly every day is holy; I get that in principle, but I think I considered it a practice I could not honestly say I was proficient in. Some days I just can’t see the light. Many days.
Now I’m wondering if what I do isn’t just another way of acknowledging the holiness of each day.
In those moments I am not BEING grateful. I am, my being IS, this feeling I call gratitude. That is how I often feel in the silence beside F/friends.
Prison turnover means I’ve watched thousands of people come into and leave my life. And folks have expectations at Christmas and Thanksgiving. It seems like a slight to not send Christmas cards. I can’t correspond with hundreds or even dozens (and I certainly can’t go see them), so sending holiday cards is how I remind as many as I can that they are in my thoughts. As I write this, I recognize that perhaps I’m not as negligent as I previously imagined about applying to my life the Quaker recognition that every day is holy. I know it is.
Shane King is the first person ever to have applied for and completed the process of becoming a member of Milwaukee Friends Meeting from prison. He is a guitarist and songwriter, self-taught painter, an avid reader and writer and also a devoted fan of PBS. He lives in Fox Lake Correctional Institution in Fox Lake, WI. You can respond to his letter at the following address:
Shane King #127475
Fox Lake Correctional Institution
PO Box 200
Fox Lake, WI 53933-0200