Uncomfortable New Normals

Originally written March 19, 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak

While I was in the county jail facing a life sentence, my attorney visited and said to me, “Matt, I’m going to do everything in my power to save you from spending the rest of your life in prison. But we have to be honest here. You aren’t going home any time soon. I don’t know how long that’s going to be, maybe ten years, maybe twenty, but this is your home now. Now, you have a choice here. When you come out on the end of this, there are so many ways you can be. I suggest you take a look at who you are, who you want to become, and decide how you want this to go, because whatever happens is going to have to happen here. This is your home”.

His name was Steve Cougill. He died while surfing in Santa Cruz the following week. Those were the last words he ever spoke to me.

We all remember more vividly the last time we see somebody important to us. We recall their last words. Perhaps we try to decipher if there was any hidden meaning, something written into them about the future. We think about looks, gestures, nuances. Anything to make our last meeting with them more meaningful. Fortunately for me, my last time seeing Steve didn’t require much unpacking. He’d had a heart attack a couple of weeks earlier and was already in the emotional space of reflection and gratitude. He was searching for meaning. In fact, he even said during our last visit together, “You know, Matt, I feel like maybe the only reason I’m here right now, the only reason I survived that heart attack, is to save you one more time”.

Well, he didn’t get to save me from life in prison; that task would fall on others’ shoulders. But his final words may have saved me in ways that neither he or I could have imagined. It was shortly after he passed away (from a second heart attack) that I started, in earnest, to rethink my priorities. I started to see more clearly where I was, that there really wasn’t any escaping it, and that the best I could do was to make the most out of it. Lemonade out of lemons, as the saying goes. The rest is history.

Prison prepared me for the world we live in today, in more ways than I could have thought possible. I lived in an 8′ by 10′ cell with another man and the bare necessities for many years. Even when I moved from a cell to a dormitory, I still managed to pack most of what I needed into the maximum allowable property of six cubic feet. I even managed to have a little bit of what I wanted, like books and stationary for writing, along with the things that I needed. We don’t need much.

I say all this while in the midst of “The Sheltering”.

We have to be honest here. Things may not be returning to normal any time soon. Don’t be particularly attached to the idea of a two-week or three-week quarantine or “shelter in place”. Realize that this could last a lot longer than we want or expect. How many months of quarantine would make it such that we find a way to be present for this, as it is, without thinking about how and when it shall be over? Three months? Six months? More? At what point does this become the new normal?

I’m going back to work today because, apparently, my work is essential. I really do need to go back to work, as do most of my fellow humans around me, and I am grateful that I will be able to keep some of our income. Yet at the same time there is a part of me that regrets it insofar as I know how much potential lies in the time that many of you shall have alone, and together.

The sooner you realize that this is your home now, the sooner you will make the most of it. How many of us have been filling our days of cabin fever with activities specifically designed to kill time? I suggest thinking that over just a bit. Killing time is akin to killing oneself. We do have choices to make, and this one is yours.

Photo Credit: Matthew Hahn

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