The windows here at the MCI Norfolk Security Housing Unit extend from floor to ceiling, about eight feet high, and only five inches wide, impossible for anyone to escape through. The Plexiglas is clear. That surprised me, because most segregation units I’ve landed in have cell windows that are frosted over from the outside, making them impossible to look through. Here, there are trees and lots of wildlife. I see the occasional hawk looking for a bite to eat or a blue pickup truck driving ever so slowly along the perimeter fence. Here, we’ve got a view.
This morning I got in a good workout and took a birdbath in my sink. As I hung up my laundry on the clothesline beside my bunk, a golden stream of sunshine poured into my cell. Drawn to its warmth, I sat down yoga style and crossed my legs at the base of my window, looking out at the nearby gravel and moss. As I peered through the glass, I noticed a small insect climbing up the window’s sheer face. An ant was on the inside of the pane, a rare visitor to my cold prison cell. I gave it a closer look, aided by the sunlight outside that illuminated his semi-transparent body. He was red. Should I crush him? I’d hate to lose track of him and later awake to find him gnawing on a piece of my leg. Plus, he was likely a scout! What if he found a crumb and rushed back to tell his army that there was food in my cell?
Twice I held my finger poised above his fragile body, and twice I aborted the assault. The longer I stared at him, the more I was impressed by his tiny, intricate design. Surely, in a thousand years, I could never create something so amazing. So, why should I crush him? It’s not like cutting down a tree and knowing I could plant another. So, I let him live, and he continued his journey up the window pane.
“A Stupid Little Bug”
About halfway up the window pane, he slipped and fell, dropping a few hundred of his own body lengths and smacking his tiny self against the sill. Yet, within a matter of seconds, he was back up and remounting the glass. The fall didn’t even daze him, though it would certainly have bruised the life out of me. Extremely interested now, I sat watching him scale the glass again, even cheering for him, as each attempt ended in disaster. He climbed, slipped, and his plunge ended, once again, on cold steel. I couldn’t help but smile at how stupid the little bug was. As I watched him try, yet again, my vision refocused onto a blue pickup truck driving by, past the electric barbed wired fence perimeter, driven by a prison guard making good money for driving in circles all day. Maybe we’re not so much better than the ant? At least he was trying. At least he was moving forward. Quitting wasn’t a part of his vocabulary, I realized, as I watched the blue pickup disappear from view. The idea of giving up wouldn’t make sense to the ant. He was programmed to always keep going, keep trying… How come we humans don’t share the ant’s drive to conquer the hurdles in our own lives?
Anyway, the ant made his way about two-thirds up the pane, and I decided to play human helper and not let him fall again. I grabbed a yellow envelope and held it flush on the window, a few inches below him, like a safety net. My arm got tired just holding the envelope. He fell twice – once about a foot from the top and again a few inches further up. If he had chosen to explore the yellow envelope rather than remount the window, I would have simply blown him out under my cell door and sent him on his way. But both times when he hit the paper, he was back on the glass before I could even get a good look at him. His enthusiasm made me happy. I was intrigued to see what would happen when he reached the top of the window.
“A Journey to Nowhere”
And, he did reach the top. I held my face within inches of him as his antennae touched the black sealant. He examined it briefly, then turned and scurried off toward the left side of the window. When he reached the sealant there, he turned around and headed for the right side. This went on for about ten minutes. Finally, I told him he was on his own, and I pulled the envelope away from the window. Of course, once the safety net was gone, he slipped off the glass and plummeted to the bottom. I leaned down to see what shape the fall had left him in and found him crumpled up in a grave of sealant. He was still moving but only a little, so I left him and decided to eat my lunch.
There wasn’t much to the lunch. SHU time gets even harder when you’re living on state food. As I finished off my oatmeal cookie, I looked over to see if my hurt ant was healthy enough to enjoy a sliver of my second oatmeal cookie. But wait! He was back on the window pane! I couldn’t believe it – four inches up from the bottom and moving along like it was the thing to do! I examined him closely and noticed that all of his parts seemed to be working just fine. Since I was by myself, with no books or a celly to help pass the time, I had nothing better to do than watch this little guy climb the window for about an hour. In between, I cleaned my cell, drank some water to hydrate myself for the next workout, and sat down at my desk to write this essay. All the while, I intermittently watched the ant.
It didn’t make sense. He had fallen about a dozen times and reached the top twice since I ate. But he still kept on climbing. Shouldn’t he have, by now, figured out that there’s nothing up there for him? ‘Why does he keep climbing?’ I wondered. I stood looking at him, my face just inches from his. At one point he stopped moving and twittered his antennae at me. It was as if he were saying, ‘I just like to climb, buddy! It’s all about the climb!’
At that moment I came to realize that we all, at one time or another, fail and fall down in life, but like this determined ant, we must never stop fighting, never stop climbing. Regardless of the destination, the climb is what it’s all about. And when we are unwilling to give up, a new beginning awaits us all.
Written by a man serving life.
Darrell Sharpe #W80709
P.O. Box 43
Norfolk, MA 02056