Replace the thought with an action…..
In an interview, an inmate from Alcatraz spoke about his time in solitary confinement. He described the dark room as damp with a horrible smell.
He called it, “The hole.”
Perhaps the room was named after the hole in the floor, which is what the inmate was told to use as a toilet.
After being thrown in the cell, the inmate fell to his knees. Then he tore off one of the buttons from his shirt, tossed it over his shoulder, and then he waited for the object to fall.
After the shirt button hit the ground, the inmate searched in the darkness. On his hands and knees, he felt his way across the floor, which was covered in the worst kind of filth.
He checked every corner and ever crevice. And when he found the button, the inmate sat up on his knees, and then he tossed the shirt-button over his shoulder to repeat the process.
He lost his freedom. As punishment, the guards took away his light and his space; however, the inmate was determined not to let them take his mind. Rather than succumb to the darkness, he closed his eyes to imagine the beautiful things he had seen in his life.
I assume he felt the darkness behind the walls of his eyelids were better than the absence of light inside The Hole.
As he searched for the lost button, he kept his mind occupied.
He ran his hands across the floor through dirt and piss…..just to keep his sanity
“So long as I kept my mind,” said the inmate, “They could never take away my freedom.”
In my early years of working in building maintenance, I was on the wrong side of an argument with an old boss. As punishment, he sent me to the building’s steam room with a dustpan, broom, and a mop.
“Clean the floor,” he said.
“And after you clean it, then I want you to paint it.”
This was his way of explaining, “I own you.”
This was his way of saying, “I can make your life miserable.”
The steam room was filthy and dimly lit. There were large pipes covered with broken insulation; there were automatic valves, which controlled the steam pressure throughout the building, there were condensate lines, and steam traps, and while the steam rushed through the pipes with the sound of a loud hiss, sweat rolled down from my forehead and splashed on the dirt-covered floor.
As a regulation, I was to wear my uniform at all times. And, it was against those regulations to roll up my sleeves, or have my shirt unbuttoned.
But the room was unbearably hot, and though I was alone, my boss would check in on me.
I was not allowed to listen to the radio or have headphones. All I was allowed to do was sweat, clean the floor, and then paint it.
I did as I was told.
I cleaned the floor and then I mopped it. I painted the corners with a paintbrush, and then I used a paint-roller on the main section of the floor.
Rather than succumb to the heat and give into the punishment; I quietly recited the lyrics of every song I could think of.
If I lost my place in the lyric, I started from the beginning, and I continued this with beads of sweat running down my face. And while being careful not to hit my head on the low-hanging pipes, I held onto this discipline.
I did not break and I did not crack. But more, I did not quit, which is what my boss wanted.
After I finished the floor, my boss had me fix the broken pieces of insulation around the steam lines. Then he had me paint the steam lines yellow and the condensate lines orange.
He had me paint the walls a silver-colored white, and the doors were painted French gray.
The stairs were painted black and so were the valves.
Drain lines were painted seal brown, and because I spilled some of the different colors on the newly painted floor, which was battleship gray, I was told to paint the floor again.
After the steam room, I was sent to the switch-gear room. This was the main panel, or electrical distribution room.
From there, power was sent up through a series of pipe, otherwise known as conduit. The conduit was to be painted blue, the celling was to be white, and the electrical distribution panels were painted blue as well.
Like the steam room, the switch-gear room was uncomfortable and warm. Instead of listening to steam rushing through pipes, I was accompanied by the loud buzzing sound of electricity. The same regulations applied. There was no music allowed, no rolling up the sleeves of my uniform, and or unbuttoning of the shirt. And like the steam room, the walls were painted a silver-white. The doors were French gray, the steps were painted black, and the floor was battleship gray.
Each day at work, I punched my time card in the time clock, and went to my locker room. I changed into my paint-covered uniform, and then I proceeded to carry out my punishment.
When I needed, I took new paintbrushes and drop cloths. When I asked for them, my boss usually answered, “Clean the ones I gave you and use them.”
This was his way of saying, “I own you.”
This was him saying. “I’m going to make your life miserable until you quit,” only, I never did.
The surprise inspections were scattered, and then eventually, they became less frequent. But I never changed my discipline.
Rather than give in, or quit, I continued to recite the lyrics of my favorite songs.
As I saw it, so long as I kept my mind, my boss could not take away my freedom.
Essentially, I had to do the same thing as the inmate from Alcatraz. He tore a button from his shirt and kept his mind occupied by searching across shit-covered floors.
I kept mine be silently recalling the lyrics of Pink Floyd.
I will close with this:
I was asked to help a friend in the hospital. He was afraid.
He lay in his bed and wished he could sleep, but at best, he only slept until the nurses came into his room.
“I’m afraid,” he told me. “I don’t want my children to see me like this,” and then he asked me to pray for him.
The stroke had left my friend with a heavy stutter. The right side of his body was numb, and the brace around his neck was uncomfortable for him.
“I tr-tr-tr-try to pray,” he stuttered. “Bu-bu-but….I ca-ca-can’t….get the words out of my…..ma-ma-ma-mouth.”
“Do you stutter when you think,” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
“Then try it this way; close your eyes. As you breathe in, I want you to think the words, ‘Hail Mary, full or grace, the Lord is with Thee.’ And when you breathe out, I want you to think, ‘Blessed art Thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of Thy womb, Jesus,’
And when you breathe in again, think, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,’ and when you breathe out, I want you to think, ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.’
Keep your eyes closed and keep thinking with every breath.”
I am not in prison. I am not in solitary confinement, or sick in a hospital bed. But there are times when I struggle to keep my sanity.
Perhaps the inmate from Alcatraz had it right. When all else fails, and the world is at its darkest, the best thing to do is hit your knees and keep your mind intact