Perhaps the greatest art

The first thing you notice about John, my fellow prisoner, is his tattoos. Below the faded regulation denim is an intricate embroidery on both arms of tattooed flowers, serpents and dragons, and statements of personal philosophy, including the inevitable "Born to Lose." If you ask, he'll gladly roll one sleeve back to the shoulder, exposing a crooked column of Roman numerals. Ten vertical lines, each signifying a year spent behind the walls. I did a decade here, he might say. Ten years of my life. He's proud of the calendar tattoo. It's a symbol, the record of his life prison. He wears it the way some people wear jewelry.

There's another record of his imprisonment that's not obvious at first glance. He wears the emotional record of his confinement on the inside. It's chiseled there with even greater care than the crude numbers which darken his bicep. If you spend some time with him he'll let you see that record too -- a calendar of remembered feelings and emotions, his decade in the joint.

For nearly a year of that decade John has occupied a cell next to mine. Like neighbors in and out of prison, we share a regular conversation -- nights generally, after lockdown, after the random prison noises have subsided. Almost all of these conversations, regardless of the initial subject matter, manage to drift back to John's original crime, his trial and subsequent imprisonment after excruciating months in the appellate courts. The fact that it all occurred over ten years ago makes little difference to John. For him, it might have happened yesterday.

"I didn't do it," he insists, though I've never asked. He tells me anyway, repeating his denials nightly as if in response to a prosecutor's queries, as if I were a member of the jury.

Because we've endured this discussion so many times, I often fall silent when it begins again. This silence elicits a longer narrative, the telling of his version of the crime, how he was framed and convicted. With each repetition he forces himself to relive the entire agonizing ordeal, his bitterness becoming more apparent, an emotional cloud seeping beyond the bars of his cell. I can nearly feelm it, his permeating despair, as he proclaims his innocence of an offense that took place ten years earlier, an offense that no one remembers but he. My attempts to guide the conversation beyond this discussion of his crime -- and his feelings for the criminal justice system -- are met with resistance. He will not acknowledge the other aspects of his life; his childhood, for instance, his years of freedom, accomplishments, the happier moments.

Eventually I told him I didn't think it mattered anymore if he actually did it or not. I suggested that his bitterness had become an anchor he forced himself to carry, one he attached with his own hands. Trying not to sound like a parole officer, I stressed the importance of beginning again: "You might even consider forgiving them."

But forgiving them was impossible, he said. "They should be the ones to forgive me . . ." I countered and said that the initiative must be his.He disagreed and we continued to debate the issue for the next several weeks. It was still unresolved the day of his release, a conditional discharge by the board of pardons and paroles. On the morning of his final day in prison, I helped him pack his belongings and carry them to the front gate.There we stood talking a few moments as his papers were being processed, the conversation shifting eventually to his future outside the walls -- and the old question of forgiveness. He admitted for the first time that it might be necessary.

"But actually doingm it," he said, "scares me. I'm not sure that I'm capable of forgiving . . . . These run pretty deep," he added, moving his hand over the tattooes. The tattooed numbers seemed to stand out then, made incongruous by the new white Dacron sport shirt, the closeness of the prison gate.

I had to disagree though. "Forgiveness," I said, "is a kind of art. Sometimes a painful one, but never impossible . . ." I sketched an analogy then between the art of forgiveness and the more conventional arts. Unlike painting or sculpture, I told him, we all have the potential to become accomplished at this, to learn to forgive. It requires love instead of canvas and oil; an emotional letting go instead of marble. I finished and he smiled. We shook hands and I watched him disappear into a pocket of sunlight beyond the wall.

As I type this I don't know if he made it or not.It's possible that his tattoes, emotional and physical, will linger, that he'll be weighed down by them outside as he was inside. It's just as possible that he'll pursue the art of forgiveness, that ultimately it will set him free. He has the choice, of course , as we all have the choice. It's one of the nice things about being human!

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