the stories inside

black and white lotus flower

In Asian languages, the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.Jon Kabat-Zinn

We sit together each week sharing the stories at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. In one of our agreements, we state that we “do not promote writing that is emotionally violent, that is attacking of self or others.” This creates a necessary boundary between the emotional reality of each writer’s experience and the challenging truths in our stories. Most of the time, we have no idea what each writer is in for beyond what a writer tells us. We also don’t know the specifics of any trauma endured or great triumphs they’ve experienced. Whether we are inmates, facilitators, volunteers, mentors, we speak, we write in big abstracts: addiction, obsession, depression, hope, truth, peace, hate, death, abuse but we almost never hear or use details. This is intentional. We focus our time on the development of voice and writing skill, speaking in larger lessons and messages of hope. 

But there are other story telling spaces in the prison. All day, there are women coming together in informal circles chatting, regaling, laughing, crying, dreaming. This means the mundane, the celebratory, the tragic, the traumatic. It is as true inside as it is outside. Inevitably, there are things we don’t want to hear, stories so sad or cruel that we can’t imagine the path that led to it or the path we must all walk away from it. Once we hear a story, it is a part of us, a part of the world we carry on our backs like Atlas, heavier and heavier over time. We cultivate the strength through writing and other practices but sometimes it is too much and we ask ourselves, what do we do? Or how and why? We want to set it down, our own loads heavy enough.

The question then becomes, how can we hold the truth of the world? How can knowing the truth be an asset, build strength and compassion rather than breaking us further down? Both in and out of our writing circle, we grapple with this. We attempt to create a mindful practice where these stories can be both told and heard, and that these skills can be carried into all our conversations. Below is one woman’s experience with these questions.

Dragging Days

Everyday I see or hear
something that more or less kills me inside.
These days drag by like honey dripping from a jar.
I wonder will it ever end?
It’s hard to think I’m trapped in a place I can’t
be free.
To hear horror stories of others,
I instruct myself over and over, to pray.
This life is not for me, my mom and dad did not
raise me this way.
To hear a story of a mom first injecting
their daughter for the first time hit hard.
Why, I ask why??
To be given away to DCF custody at such a young
age, or not being able to love on my babies.
I know now my mom and dad raised me now:
sheltered, sheltered from the truth of this cruel,
cruel world.
Truth that evil things take place and sadness does happen
in very dramatic ways.
Addiction is a sick sickness. I’m blessed not to have an
addiction to drugs or alcohol. I thank my parents
for that.
How does this end I cry?
It doesn’t. It is the truth.
Everyday I see or hear something that more
or less kills me inside.


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