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From fear to joy

Last week I went through some routine eye tests at a facility fifty miles north of my desert home. The trip probably wouldn't have been an unusual experience if "my home" was not a prison cell, the excursion my first taste of freedom in three and a half years. . . .

We departed at sunrise, an officer and myself, my hands and feet securely braceleted with silver chains. I was a little apprehensive, a line of sweat already tracking my forehead.

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After what seemed like just a few minutes, the highway signs announced the city limits of Phoenix, the beginning of civilization. The transition was disturbing. I'd become more out of touch with the world than I'd expected. The changes were immediately apparent. The style and design of cars, fashions, haircuts. It was like coming out of a cocoon, I thought, or a hole in the ground. There and a half years was a long time.

Walking just ahead of me, the officer cleared a path through the crowd of people whose glances at me were curious and direct. This closeness with the world I'd been separated from for so long was disorienting. I proceeded uncertainly, my steps shortened by the restricting irons, rattling now with a bright metallic sound.

People's reaction evoked reciprocal feelings in me: waves of fear and anxiety , a deep sense of alienation, the old prison isolation. Lowering my eyes, I followed the deputy inside, down a long white corridor.

In the waiting room I sat beside an elderly woman wearing dark glasses.An American Indian, I thought, and then stared at the floor. I wasn't paying attention the first time she spoke, I was still absorbed in my own feelings, my fear. She spoke again and I realized she was talking to me. She wanted to know how the sky looked today.

I was confused. "The sky?" I asked.

Then I understood: she must be blind. I wasn't sure how to answer the question though. I really hadn't seen much of the sky today. I was too nervous.

"It was blue," I stuttered. "A few clouds. The sun."

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A few moments later I mentioned to her that I was a prisoner, that today was the first time I'd been outside the walls of the prison in several years. She seemed to understand. It was nothing to be ashamed of, she assured me. Her grandparents had been prisoners of the government; their reservations had been a kind of prison.

Having established this common bond, we began to talk more freely. She'd heard the voices of children in the room and asked if I would describe them. The question forced me to take another look around, to make a reassessment. "The children are very beautiful," I said, and then provided a more detailed picture, describing both the room and its occupants. The pale blue of a baby's eyes, the pure deep green of a plant leaf, a Mexican painting on the wall, the somber plaids of her own sweater.

When I finished she smiled, extending her hand. We both felt better, I think. The world certainly looked better.

The brief conversation brought me to some very deep realizations. I realized that our emotions operate as lenses through which we view our surroundings, each emotion adding a particular tone, light or dark, to what we see. Fear and distrust are the darkest of lenses -- they have an unnatural, distorting effect on our vision. Joy, trust, and love are the most natural lenses, allowing us to perceive the beauty of the world as we were meant to see it. It's splendor, warmth, and inherent grace. The wonderful thing is that we have the freedom -- in or out of prison -- to see through whatever lens we choose. The world and everything in it is exquisitely beautiful. Furthermore, no one can tell us that it isn't. No one can dictate how we must feel, how we should react, how we must see something. The choice is ours.

The return trip was more interesting than the previous one. In the parking lot, a blond child of about six offered the deputy and me a lollipop. It was against regulations but he allowed me to accept it. We hadn't eaten anything all day anyway.

And the desert! Driving back I sat silenced by the magnificent desolation, the stems of saguaros darkening against the darker mountains, the flowering desert plants. I hadn't seen it like that before. I liked the new lens.


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