Buddhism in Prison
The Martha Stewart verdict is screaming from the headlines as I begin to write these lines. Martha used to be something of an idol to me. Before landing in a TennThe Martha Stewart verdict is screaming from the headlines as I begin to write these lines. Martha used to be something of an idol to me. Before landing in a Tennessee State Prison on what I still believe to be a wrongful conviction, I was known among friends as a gourmet chef.essee State Prison on what I still believe to be a wrongful conviction, I was known among friends as a gourmet chef. Like Martha I was once a successful business woman, traveling the world from Germany to Hong Kong to Honolulu to China and LA. I loved to shop until I dropped and was very attached to having the perfect life. “Having” ruled my existence: career, clothes, books, friends, money. I understand Martha and the fears she is facing. May her experience be as revealing to her as mine as been to me.
To understand what brought me to where I am today, I first must tell you my personal story. As you read through it, you may notice that there is a lot of focus on career, achievement, and pride. From the time that I left school, protecting my independence was the driving force behind everything I did. As a result, I never married, never had children. Worldwide destinations and people were collected rather than experienced and when I look back now, I realize how much time I wasted on going places instead of getting to know places. It wasn’t until after I got charged with a crime that I turned inward and came face to face with myself.
I started my life as the first child of a young German couple who were madly in love at the time I came into this world. Later they had two other children, my younger brothers, who are both successful in their elected careers today. As a child I dreamed of becoming a teacher, but job prospects were dim by the time I was ready to embark on my studies. After the German “baby boom” of the early sixties, birthrates had dropped to record lows. So I put my bets on my linguistic abilities and enrolled in a commercial college to prepare for a career in international sales. In 1977, I was very lucky to get one of the coveted apprenticeships with ITT.
A few days after I started my internship, I learned that Elvis Presley, my favorite rock star at the time, had died in Memphis, TN. At the time I was in the process of saving money for my first trip to the United States, and I had intended to go see some of his concerts. It was a shock to the teenager in me. I had felt a strange kinship with him from the time I turned 15 and got one of his records for my birthday. Eventually I decided to continue saving and in 1978 at the age of 18, I booked a charter flight to New York, trekked down to Memphis, and fell in love with the city and its people.
The next two years I attended college and worked as an intern. Thanks to my performance, I was awarded a scholarship at Cambridge. Two years later I had my translator’s degrees. In 1980, on a third trip to Memphis, I was made an honorary citizen of Shelby County because I had begun promoting Memphis music with German radio stations.
My actual career was jump-started the same year when my supervisor left ITT’s export department. I was just 20 at the time, but because of a hiring freeze was immediately appointed junior area manager of the department.
In the early eighties, China was beginning to open the floodgates to much-needed merchandise from the West. In 1981, I first met Peter Tam, director of a Hong Kong-based distribution company. Together we negotiated a deal with Chinese government officials and in early 1982, ITT shipped 130,000 German-made color TV sets to the People’s Republic via Hong Kong. Peter was highly charismatic and I was amazed by his wisdom , which he applied to every decision he made.
When an older colleague left ITT to become the export director of a small German outfit, he offered me a job with the small electrical appliance manufacturer with the promise of extensive worldwide travel and the prospect of a better income. By the age of 23, I was an international sales executive handling the gigantic Far Eastern and North American markets for a company struggling to stay afloat. We needed customers like Peter Tam, and he came on board because he trusted me. I was assigned a secretary and allowed to work with lots of leeway. Only two years later, just in time for the Christmas bonus, Peter Tam and I landed another Chinese coup: 100,000 space heaters for the PRC. It even made the national news shows. I was now 25 and had enough money to take a sabbatical.
For the longest time, I had dreamed of spending an extended period of time in the United States. In the previous five years I had traveled to Tennessee, New York, and Arizona frequently as a tourist and loved Nashville in particular. By then, I was a huge fan of country rock.
I quit my job in March 1983, took my savings and spent six months in Music City, USA, hanging out with music-business types. I attended night classes at Belmont College, Nashville Network TV tapings, concerts, and other events. In other words, I had tons of fun.
I liked the fast-paced, materialistic American lifestyle and became a big spender. When I returned to Germany in September, I’d spent all my savings. It was hard to imagine going back into the regimented German job market. Before I left Tennessee, I made a trip to Memphis and submitted an application with Fedex. The company was slated to open International Operations within 12 months.
Back in Germany, I decided it was time to turn my translator’s degrees into cash. Almost immediately I found a freelance translation job with German TV’s Channel 1, a public network comparable to PBS. A lot of the material I translated was for commentaries the editor-in-chief presented during political shows. I was working with reporters on the scene in Beirut, which was the war zone of the day. Other assignments included Boris Becker and Steffi Graf documentaries as well as the famous Pink Floyd concert at the Berlin Wall.
About eight months later, FedEx came calling. I met the German sales directors for an interview. They hired me on the spot. In July 1985 I went to work at the Stuttgart station, located in a huge hangar near the airport. I sat in the middle of the huge drafty room and set up appointments with some of Germany’s biggest accounts. As major account executive, I was in charge of Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Hugo Boss, Audi, IBM, Hewlett Packard, Mannesmann-Kienzle, etc. I liked the FedEx culture and the incentives: a brand-new BMW 320 for a company car, training trips to Brussels and Memphis, sales bonuses and sales rallies. Three years in a row, I won top sales awards–trips to Memphis, Hawaii, and a Caribbean Cruise. I “dead-headed” to New York for free on the company’s freight planes and made $60,000 a year.
My successful sales performance then earned me a promotion to European sales training manager at the company’s Brussels headquarters. Finally, I was a teacher. Responsible for the training of the entire European sales force, I thrived on the challenges the position offered. It was probably the most fun I had in an employment situation.
By mid-1991, I learned through the company grapevine that FedEx was going to reduce its intra-European network. When the European VP Sales left to work for a competitor, I knew it was time to put my resume in the hands of head-hunters.
After sending out only 10 applications, I landed a job with a small electrical appliance manufacturer in Nuremberg, Germany. At the time I was dating Michel, a five-star chef and restaurant manager in Genk, Belgium. He was supportive of my career move but disappointed about the fact that I decided to move back to the south of Germany.
In January of 1992, I started my position as brand manager and export director for hair salon appliances in the medieval Bavarian city. For the first few months I made weekly trips to Belgium. Of course weekends were Michel’s busiest at the restaurant. The relationship suffered further when I had to cut my sojourns in Eastern Belgium to once a month because business took me to Hong Kong, China, Singapore and the U.S. six months out of the year.
Once again, I worked with Peter who had since moved to Australia. He’d been planning to leave Hong Kong before the Chinese retook the city ever since I’d known him. He helped me with some contacts in other Asian countries. Sales increased rapidly, which made me an instant asset to my new employer. The owner and I discussed business opportunities for space heaters, another product he manufactured, in the United States. This resulted in a six-month marketing research stint for me in the U.S. I chose to work out of Nashville, where I felt right at home. Before long, I had secured clients such as Lowes and Target. We shipped some 60,000 space heaters to these two retailers in the winter of 1994. Belgium and Michel, by now, were distant memories.
My U.S. success made business headlines in the tightly knit German appliance industry. Then one of our top guns, the technical director, left the company to work for a competitor. After I returned from the U.S., he convinced me to come to work for his new outfit. I was reluctant at first, but when the company offered to double my present salary and allow me to work in a place of my choice in the U.S. full-time, I was ready to sign on. Nonetheless, an inner voice that kept telling me that I was biting off more than I could chew.
My intuition proved to be prophetic. As VP of U.S. operations, I was left to start a U.S. distribution center with a starting capital of $50,000, full power of attorney and two employees. After digging in my heels, I soon realized that trying to launch an unknown consumer appliance brand in the U.S. is like running against a tidal wave. The market is swamped with cheap coffee makers and heaters from China that are private-labeled for well- established brands and drop-shipped into the retailers’ warehouses in container loads. I opted to go after specialty retailers, but the German boss didn’t like the approach. It didn’t produce the kind of volume he was interested in. We were at odds over strategy.
Landing an appointment with Sam’s Club in the spring of 1997 was a small miracle. At the very first meeting with the company, the buyer placed an order for 65,000 electrical grills, a $4.5 million contract. However, when I contacted the German production plant they could only produce half by the deadline. For months I negotiated with Sam’s Club who finally agreed to spread out the shipments. This compromise cost us the crucial promotional space in Sam’s Christmas catalog. Once our grills hit the store shelves, there was no promotional back-up. Consequently, they didn’t sell fast enough for a Walmart subsidiary. Hence, the company canceled the rest of the order, on hold in a Memphis warehouse or in transit from Germany. We already had a backlog of coffee makers and heaters from orders that had only partially materialized. Warehouse expenses were virtually eating us alive. On top of that, we had quality problems which led to recalls. By early 1998, I spent 80% of my time on the road trying to get additional customers. We had trouble paying our vendors and more than once the company could barely make payroll.
At the Gourmet Show in San Francisco, we had a visit from an overstock broker who initially agreed to buy some of our reject merchandise. Eventually, the company bought all of our overstocks, which allowed us to pay our bills, including those to Germany. During this period, the chief of engineering who had talked me into joining the company, left and became a director at yet another competitor. His new outfit was owned by a Croatian business magnate who had once been close friends with my current boss. For some reason they were now arch enemies. It wasn’t long before I got a job offer from the Croatian company. At the time, I had heard rumors that my boss was in the process of selling his company to a competitor in Boston and knew that this was putting my position in jeopardy. Consequently, I had started to prepare for my “exit.” Together with one of my employees, I had incorporated GPS, a company dedicated to selling specialty merchandise to television retailers, such as QVC and HSN. So I told my former colleague that I wasn’t really interested in working for yet another electrical appliance manufacturer, but that I might be interested in putting their products into the GPS portfolio. He invited me to come to Croatia at his company’s expense. A month later my partner and I flew to Europe and toured the small factory. A tentative distribution agreement was signed.
In August 1998 I flew to Europe for a what turned out to be the final “friendly” meeting with my employer and a two week vacation with my family. It was the last time I saw my entire family, and of course I didn’t know I’d be gone from Europe for as long as I have been without being able to visit. It’s been six very trying years.
A week after my return to the U.S., I came to the office one morning only to find the owner and two of his sidekicks in my office, which had been raided over the weekend. They had gotten wind of my “competitive” activities. My boss was furious because I was doing business with his arch enemy. After the brief meeting I was suspended without pay. As I left, the Germans threatened to file a lawsuit.
Back at my apartment, where I’d set up a small home office for GPS, I met with my business partner, who was so flustered I had to send her home. I soon began to panic myself, wondering how I could possibly stand up against a man as rich as my boss. Could the Croatian be trusted to help?
For three days, I didn’t answer any phones and stayed holed up in the apartment except for a few short trips to the store.
After many hours of reflection, I decided it was best to fold GPS and do something with my artwork. Throughout my childhood, and now my time in the U.S., I had been painting. Some of the work was gallery material and several experts had encouraged me to “go pro.” A lot what I do is inspired by Native American cave paintings of New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. Scottsdale, Santa Fe, and Taos were the major markets for this type of art. If I wanted to sell any of it, I needed to go out there. With about $25,000 in savings, I was well equipped to do give it a shot.
In late October 1998 I packed up my leased Ford Escort and headed out West. For the first time since the early eighties, I took my time on a trip and decided to take everything in. Along the road, I got off the interstate to travel on historic Route 66, checked into small motels and visited various museums along the road. Documenting the lonely yet enjoyable drive in pictures, I arrived in Taos five days later and felt like I had finally arrived at a place of total serenity. The small artist community is full of beautiful galleries, delightful little restaurants and the spirituality of the place can only be described as refreshing. There is always a scent of sage in the air, the sun paints the high desert in colors no brush can emulate and it is easy to understand why an artist like Georgia O’Keefe would move out there to produce some of her most remarkable paintings. I spent days at the Pueblo, admiring Indian art and taking photographs. A few days after my arrival, I was lucky to find a small guest house outside of town and rented it. Every day I worked on my own charcoal/handmade paper horse etchings. When I’d assembled a collection of twenty, I took them to a self-service framing place and framed them. It was a major investment, but well worth the risk. They were accepted into five local galleries. It was only a matter of time until they would find buyers and I’d get paid my share. At that time, I also began making greeting cards and aromatherapy bath products, which I sold to local gifts stores. Soon I had enough of an income to start thinking about moving to Taos permanently. It felt more like home than Nashville ever had, but of course I still had my apartment back there and had left most of my belongings.
On January 31, 1999, I was working in one of the galleries that carried my art. Around noon I took a break and went to the bakery two doors down. As I left the bakery, I saw a Taos County sheriff’s deputy walking around the parking lot, showing passers-by a picture of me and asking if they knew me. I walked straight up to him, wondering why he was looking for me. He informed me that a sheriff’s deputy from Tennessee was staying at the Holiday Inn downtown looking for me. An arrest warrant had been issued against me for theft over $60,000. I felt like I’d been struck by lightning. Of course I’d been concerned about a civil lawsuit, but I had certainly not expected a criminal indictment. Waiving extradition, I returned to Nashville with the officer from Franklin three days later. My car and the few personal belongings that I’d taken to New Mexico were left there, my other possessions were at my apartment in Nashville. At the time of my arrest, my bond had been set at $10,000, but before I made bond, the DA managed to get the bond increased to $200,000. After I hired an attorney who took the rest of my savings to defend me, it was dropped to $ 25,000. I finally got out of jail in April 1999, ten weeks after my arrest. By that time the lease on my Nashville apartment had been broken and my former employerhad had his lawyer clear it out. It took weeks of negotiations to get back what was rightfully mine.
Through discovery I finally learned that what I was accused of was making unauthorized sales. The sales I’d made to the overstock broker, for which my employer had received all funds, were considered thefts. I was out on bond for three years with attorneys constantly delaying action on the case. When it became clear that the case would eventually go to trial, my private attorney cited health reasons for getting off the case. I had just started my own translation company and did not have the money to pay another large retainer. The judge declared me partially indigent and assigned the case to the public defender’s office. The woman who handled my case with a good deal of professionalism was fired on September 11, 2001. This day will remain a very dark day in my memory for the rest of my life, for compassionate and very personal reasons. I believe in my heart today that if this woman had continued to handle my case, I would have never landed in prison. She was the only one who ever seriously worked on my case.
After the firing, the district public defender claimed he had taken on my file himself. A new trial date was set for March 18, 2002, another day that will forever remain embedded in my memory. In the entire period after her dismissal, I never heard from the PD’s office. Then in late February 2002, when a just-hired attorney from Mississippi, who did not yet have his Tennessee law license called me. He was working the case as an investigator, but when the district public defender felt too ill with diabetes four days before trial, the judge, unwilling to allow any more delays, assigned representation to the Mississippi attorney.
I cannot describe the emotional roller coaster of going to trial. It was like an out-of-body experience. At times, while I was sitting in the defendant’s chair, I felt as if I were watching a Law and Order segment on television. The tactics of the DA, my defender’s weak stance and nervousness, the lying witnesses (my former employees) who had been threatened with charges themselves–none of it seemed real. I felt detached and scared at the same time. My rational mind knew this was about my freedom, about my life. The emotional side of my brain tried to push all fear aside and act as if I was observing someone else’s ordeal. Yet those were my earnings’ records and bank statements that were being shown to this jury of mostly young women who made $20,000 or less a year. I was painted as a greedy executive who–very much like Martha Stewart–ruthlessly ruled over her employees, who now claimed they’d been hired because they were unqualified and easy to manipulate. The DA acted as if making a salary of $120,000 a year was a crime. He insinuated that if I hadn’t shopped at Neiman Marcus the company would not have gone bankrupt, which of course it hadn’t. It had been sold by the German owner, just as he had planned all along. My lawyer, on the other hand, was stumbling through the outrageous theory that I had used a Japanese-style marketing concept introducing the brand to the American market through dumping prices. I knew all along his approach wasn’t going to work, but he insisted on going for it anyway. His behavior in court enraged the judge, who had previously been quite neutral. I saw the DA gain ground while my own lawyer was asking me wrong questions, requiring me to correct him in my answers. It was a nightmare.
The worst was the cliffhanger scenario of jury deliberations. We had to stay in the courtroom and the lawyers were pacing. Friends who were there in support were nervous. My stomach felt weak and I had to go to the bathroom every few minutes. When the jury came back after only 90 minutes, I knew I was in trouble. I barely heard the foreman as he read out the verdict: Guilty on all counts. As a foreigner, I wasn’t even given time to take care of my affairs at home and was transported to jail right from court.
Since I’d been to the jail, I knew what to expect there, but waiting there for my sentence, to be handed down more than five weeks later, was yet another ordeal. My public defender kept my hope up that he might be able to talk the DA into sentencing me to community corrections if we didn’t appeal. Three days before the sentence hearing I was still under the impression that I would get out of jail after the hearing and possibly be on house arrest. That would have been fine with me. I could have continued with my translation business, which had begun to make money, could have been there for Mark, whom I love to this day, and for my dogs and chickens. My life was happy: I was in a business I enjoyed, lived in a beautiful old rented farm house on 200 acres, and the relationship with Mark, whom I’d met at a yard sale after I got out on bond, had settled into a peaceful companionship. In short, I had everything a woman could desire.
Two days after I went to jail, my Scottish assistant, a raging alcoholic, had a near-fatal accident. She spent the four weeks in the hospital and after her release was unable to do any work. She has since moved to Canada to live with her cousin.
One by one people I considered friends began to distance themselves from me, the fallen woman. At the sentence hearing, they had dwindled down to a handful. Today, there’s only Mark and Pat and new friends–people I’ve met in “the system.”
The sentence hearing was another low point in my life. I was scared stiff as I walked into the court room. It seemed huge, much bigger than it had been during trial. Its full weight seemed to bear down on me. For whatever reason the PD had chosen not to put any character witnesses on the stand. The DA, on the other hand, paraded two former employees I had fired in the early days, in front of the judge. They described me as the Wicked Witch of the West.
Ten years at thirty percent. It didn’t sink in for days. Actually, it didn’t catch up with me until I finally arrived at the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville and was placed in segregation for the classification process.
Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the shock of prison and its crazy rules. While things have gotten better over time because my record has earned me trustee status and I now live at a minimum-security annex, my “house” is a 6 x 8 cubicle in a 30-bed dorm. Nothing could have prepared me for the grub they serve here, for the humiliation and for the sameness of being stuck in the same surroundings day in, day out.
Yet, after all the travel and exposure to foreign cultures, I have discovered true freedom in this place: freedom from attachment. Freedom to expand my horizons. Freedom to search spiritually, to meditate and simply spend time with myself. The freedom to develop boundaries. Things I never had time for because I jetted from one meeting to another.
Memories of conversations with Peter Tam, my early Chinese mentor, and a book by Prison Ashram Project founder Bo Lozoff, We’re All Doing Time, inspired my search for inner peace. I spend my free time studying and practicing Tibetan Buddhism, a journey I began 20 years ago during my first trips to Hong Kong. Today I am finally on my way to enlightenment.
How do I know? There are subtle differences in my thinking, listening and acting. For quite a while now, I have been aware of my thoughts as they come up, and I can look at them neutrally. Listening now requires my full attention. When I do little jobs, such as putting up books in the library, I am aware of the way their covers feel, their heaviness, their condition. I see the doves and hear the birds in the yard. I rejoice in the art I produce. The obsessive worrying about what is going to happen in one hour, tomorrow, in a week or at the next parole hearing or when I get out…all. that is gone. I am able to enjoy–or suffer–the present moment. I am no longer running through this life without noticing the small miracles around me. I know I am finally awake, awake to life. If I had been this awake when I was traveling, I would have seen so much more and enjoyed every moment of it. I know I will once I am given the chance again. But for now, I make the best of every moment I am given in this small world.
More importantly, I have realized that all of my suffering has one root: Attachment. Attachment to people, pets, and stuff. Attachment to beliefs. Attachment to a certain life style. There is still a lot of suffering in my life today because of it. While it was easy to give up the attachment to “stuff,” there are times when I am still confusing the attachment to my family in Germany and to Mark with love. Feeling sorry for myself because I can’t see them, I experience crying spells and pain. I get mad at Mark for not coming to visit, although I know how hard it would be on him not only because it’s a long trip, but also because it would take an enormous emotional toll on his sensitive nature. Even when I think of the pain our separation is causing my mother and father, these thoughts are ego-driven.
As humans, we have a hard time letting go of our delusional beliefs in the permanence of relationships. The truth is, our relationships, even those that endure, change all the time. I am no longer the same woman I was when I was taken to jail. When I see Mark and my family again, we will have to rediscover each other. When that time comes, we may find that we are no longer compatible, but I can still love them. I don’t have to expect them to change for me because I have changed.
Pure love and compassion, as expressed by the Dalai Lama in many of his writings, do not require attachment. We can send loving thoughts to everyone at all times without expecting to get a response. When I sit in the yard and meditate, I send loving thoughts to my family, friends, enemies, and the whole universe. It is an extremely freeing experience. It is connection without attachment, it is true freedom. Kris Kristofferson once wrote in a song “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I’ve always been partial to his lyrics, but would alter this line slightly today: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to cling to.
Realizing this, I try to approach moments of depression differently now: When feelings of attachment arise in me, I notice them, acknowledge them and let them go. Just being aware of what attachment is and how it appears in my mind, I can observe it without allowing it to control my mind. That does not mean I don’t love my family or friends anymore. It simply means I let them live their lives, pray for their protection and live in the possibilities of the now. Without the restrictions of prison, I would have never discovered how strong my attachments were. I would not have experienced those moments of total freedom. Today I understand why spiritual seekers across the ages sought refuge in sanctuaries such as monasteries and cloisters. While this prison certainly isn’t a sanctuary because it’s noisy, vulgar and dirty, it does take away the need to spend time on worldly worries such as paying bills.
Conditions here are far from ideal for meditation. This is a place of bondage where abuse and suffering are rampant. In order for me to help those who are still suffering though, I had to learn about true freedom myself first.
Thanks to the writings of the Dalal Lama, Lamas Rinpoche, and Yeshe as well as Thich Nhat Hanh, my learning continues. It brings back vibrant memories of my time in the Far East, and of the wisdom the man who introduced me to Buddhism.
In closing, a short prayer:
May all of those in the prisons of the world,
be they physical, mental or spiritual,
find true freedom, love and compassion
and when you do,
may your love and compassion
who so desperately need it.