15 Years

Fifteen years.

I used to shave using the stainless steel mirror bolted to the concrete wall of my cell. My distorted reflection stared back at me between the swirls of scratches and etched graffiti that marred its surface. I could barely see my face, much less the edges of my beard or mustache or sideburns. I hated shaving. That was in the county jail.

I graduated from the stainless steel mirror to the handheld plastic variety. When the mirror was brand new, my face was mostly visible but only in fragments. The mirror was too small to get an idea of what everything looked like together. I could set it on a shelf and step back, but my cell wasn’t even large enough for anything beyond a single step. I could put a bunch of mirrors together, side by side and above one another, but that was like looking into a disco ball. I still hated shaving. That was in Folsom State Prison.

I was part of a Buddhist sangha that met in Greystone Chapel every Tuesday night. Volunteers from the free world delivered a Dharma talk and held space for a silent meditation. Sometimes guests accompanied the volunteers. One night, a monk came in.

“Be mindful of everything,” he said. “Be mindful of your eating. Be mindful of your pooping. Be mindful of your shaving.” Not understanding, I chuckled to myself.

While shaving, I thought about the end of shaving a lot. I thought about how shitty my mirror was. I thought about what I needed to do once I was done shaving. I thought about how miserable shaving was and how I couldn’t wait to be free to never shave again.

And then, one day, a droplet of shaving cream and warm water trickled down my neck and into the crevice beneath my Adam’s apple. “Be mindful of your shaving,” he said to me. I never hated shaving again.

Today, I must shave more than my face. Time passes and aging happens. Fifteen years happened. Fifteen years since the last time I got loaded. Fifteen years since I surrendered, literally, to the police and, metaphorically, to life itself. Fifteen years since this journey took a very sharp turn.

I see my reflection in a fairly standard mirror today. It is made of glass. I can see most of what I’m looking for and all of it at the same time. My face shows the wear of the elements. My body bears the marks of the journey.

My image is still distorted. Less so, but still distorted. Getting there.

Fifteen years and a day.

{As published as “An Imperfect Mirror” at my other website, Dirty Hands Clean Dharma.}

7 thoughts on “15 Years

  1. Very nice. I can relate. Brought back painful memories but in an odd way I’m glad I went through it.

  2. Thank you matt. A reminder to be mindful. Even in quarantine at home there is a need to slow down…..

  3. Congratulations. You gave and hopefully continue to give hope to a loved one along through your narratives of a life incarcerated. An understanding when they return home and the changes in habits and behaviors….like shaving…like why the light needs to remain on….like when he was small he always snuggled under the covers…only to toss the comforter to the floor or see him sleeping on the floor. Crowds…PTSD from having been blindsided in the prison cafeteria and beaten into a coma and a life forever changed with a TBI….and a family no more only through the comfort of knowing…oh yeah, he is not alone. Thank you.

  4. Beautiful and full of spaciousness. almost like walking it with you (at least the recognition if not the time done). Thank you for writing your life in these bits. best to you Susan (eric’s mom)

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