But time also becomes malleable. As I walk into new spaces, time expands, I “wake up” to the new things around me. And as I revisit old places/spaces, ghosts and memories wave at me from corners of the past.
The place is the same, the time is not.
In the evening of Day 24, I walked for a mile, ending up in a neighborhood I went to frequently last fall when I lived in Portland for a couple of months. I recognized cafes, street art, signs, houses, a bakery. Everything is still there, or so it seemed. Had I even been gone?
But since the time I left, things have changed. Small things: there are new murals, graffiti has been erased and replaced, a new restaurant appears in my gaze when I look a little closer.
And big things: the woman who gave me a place to stay last fall unexpectedly died in the spring. I can’t walk this neighborhood without thinking of her, without thinking of how quickly life can change, or even end.
Prior to last fall, I didn’t know her, but then I saw her every day for two and a half months. I had assumed I would see her again.
Place is tied to memories, to people. Time expands and contracts.
My friend Mike was in NYC the last time I was there, just a few months ago; as I visit again this month, it will be the first time I can’t visit him. With the naivete of the high school girl I was when we first became friends, I had thought he would be in my life forever – his laugh, his encouragement, his unflinching support for me over the course of almost 30 years. I did not count on his brain tumor.
The place is the same; the time is not.
My friend Catherine also died this spring. I think of the projects we thought we would work on together. I walk with our mutual friend Lowell as he guides me through her old neighborhood, points out her old apartment; memories clouding his eyes and filtering into our conversation.
Time is slow and fast.
On Day 24, the men in prison were talking about time as well. Some people are in prison for crimes that are entangled in complicated lives of abuse, neglect, addictions, mental illness, or poverty, often over long periods of time, possibly beginning in childhood. For others, their seemingly stable lives changed in an instant. One bad decision sent them into a tailspin for years. All of us have made bad decisions at one time or another; some have to pay for theirs longer than others.
One man was originally arrested for a DUI. He did his time, he got out, he went to college, he got married, he had children. Time passed. But then one day, he drove with a suspended license, and back to prison he came. Life changed, in a moment.
“I tell my kids that prison is like a time-out. When adults do things like this, they get a time out,” he says.
Johnny asks if this “time out” has been helpful for him.
“No,” the man replies. “It hasn’t. You would think that people get put in here for doing terrible things. And some people do. But in this culture, people end up here for very small things. I was getting my life together. I was driving without a license. I did that. It was wrong. But now I might be getting a divorce, my life could fall apart again. I wonder if I am worth anything.”
And then he adds, “Art and music remind me that I am worth something.”
He found this group, and it helps him pass the time – in a way that reminds him who he is, as a human being.
Many of the men talk about “filling the time.”
Daniel* says his ex-wife told his kids that “Daddy is at work.” He received a heart-breaking postcard from his 4-year-old son: “Mr. Daddy, please come home from work.”
What can they tell people on the “outside” about where they’ve been for these months or years? They could have been anywhere, but they have been here. Time passed, either way.
Nicholas shares a long-form poem he wrote with the repeated phrase, “Where have I been?” What can he tell people about the past seven years? Has he been at camp? At college? Fighting off demons? In Las Vegas? Backpacking through Europe? He will be 27 when he gets out. How does he tell people where he has been and what he has been doing? The honest answer will put him in a box; people will make assumptions about who he is, and hold limited ideas about who he can be.
He hasn’t seen his daughter in those seven years. He is taking a parenting class, carrying a teddy bear around (like several of the men are doing) as part of the class responsibilities.
Many of them tear up when they speak of the years lost with their children. I tear up too.
Tom shares a spoken word piece about how people demonize them. People he doesn’t even know (and who don’t know him) hate him, in the abstract. When he gets out, will they hate him concretely? How can these men tell people where they’ve been, how they may have changed and grown, in a way that people will listen to their whole stories, will treat them as people?
Time passes. We all put one foot in front of the other, in one way or another.
I did not return to Portland for nine years, and now I have been back twice in one year. I had never been to New York until my early 30s; now it is familiar, I know it well enough that it feels like one of the places I can call “home.”
People are in prisons for huge chunks of their lives. People die within days.
We keep on walking, wherever we are. One foot in front of the other.
*names of men in the prison have been changed