who I’ve become

10-6-mandalas_0010-copyThis past Thursday evening was our semi-annual reading inside the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility where all incarcerated women in Vermont are housed. We had over 40 guests, at least half of them from the outside community. These included leaders in criminal justice reform, publicists, providers in re-entry programming, mentors to our writers, volunteers, DOC personnel, writing inside VT advisory board members and assistants, and friends.

The evening was nothing short of magical, in the words of one first-time reading attendee. Feedback included so many supportive and surprised responses, like these:

Feelings of hope and words of self-love and acceptance are rising up for me; images of these women as only criminals are falling away. They are humans.

What a waste to lock away these minds, these hearts, these words! What is falling away from me is who I thought was in the room as opposed to who was really there.

I never even began to imagine a lot of the realness that was within these women. Maybe they aren’t so bad after all.

These women have been through such a journey. Perhaps the ideas that separate us are not so great after all.

I’m struck by how much beauty and wisdom there is in the readings tonight.

A particularly poignant moment occurred when one of our long-time writers spoke from her heart at the end of the evening. She thanked everyone for caring enough to come, to listen, to give the writers confidence that their stories, indeed their lives, matter. She composed a poem of gratitude on the spot which we anticipate will appear in local press within the week. Be sure to watch for the link! Continue reading

what we can do

tiny plant


You gotta mature, you know. – The Notorious B.I.G.

Open your eyes, look within. Are you satisfied with the life you’re living? – Bob Marley

Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. – Mahatma Gandhi

The more time you spend contemplating what you should have done… you lose valuable time planning what you can and will do. – Lil Wayne

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,/or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,/ but because it never forgot what it could do. – Naomi Shihab Nye, from the poem “Famous”

We’re often told that there’s so much left to do. We take action, plan, do all day. We have to make time to slow down and think. Sometimes that that is what vacations are for – to open spaces to help us think through what needs doing, saying. It’s the time we leave for ourselves to be for a bit rather than running around taken action constantly. And In the prison, the writers don’t escape the frenetic pace at which we on the outside live our lives.

And if this pace is problematic for each inmate, it’s not just because they live at that pace but because those that control their lives live against the clock. CRCF has programs and volunteer organizations in the prison on a daily basis working to rehabilitate the inmates. But there are real demands on the time of each inmate and each person working at the prison which limits the help each inmate can get.

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heart afire

golden flaming heart

credit – catherine stine

In honor of National Women’s History month, we opened last week’s group with Marge Piercy’s fiery call to action, ‘The Low Road.’ You might want to listen to this moving rendition by Staceyann Chin to give you an idea of how the power builds through the poem.

It might have already been in the air, but electricity was flying around our meeting room by the time we reached the end of the poem. Women couldn’t get their pens out fast enough. The writings were filled with a power that could only spell the confluence of energies. And the best part is, I believe the call to action you read below really will lead to action, to change. Because the group has heard her words, and has responded with their own hearts afire.

My heart . . . there’s a fire in there burning hot . . . A fire that will never go out . . . Desire so strong I must speak out . . . I will not be silenced . . . As a child this fire took the form of rage and self destruction . . .  A helpless hopeless girl . . . no direction . . . misguided desire . . . blameless but responsible for all choices, even the ones she never made . . . Never made a difference, just took it . . . NO MORE

I will fight back, not only with meaningless words but with action . .  and love . . . I need an outlet. .. All these ideas . . . I’ve always felt that I’d be judged or maybe thought to be dumb or crazy, but I don’t care . .  I can’t, I won’t contain the fire of who I am any more . .

My dream to help women who can’t help themselves, women or children who don’t realize that there are always choices . . .  even when it seems like you’re backed into a corner. I wanna be that person for someone else, the person I never had . . . I’ll start small with what I can reach rite now By talking and building momentum, by making everyone believe in us, by believing in myself. Through action and perseverance we can accomplish anything. I desire for all of us to open our eyes and become the untapped potential in our hearts. I have no idea how I’m going to do any of this. Just love and kindness and hope.

We can do anything. I know if I can change something here, I can carry that over. I can change everything . . . I can struggle for what I believe in most — freedom and education . . . Knowledge is power and so is truth. Things I’ve never realized before . . . said them but never understood them . . .

We don’t have to be ‘inmates.’ We can be women determined to create the world the way we envision it. I know stuff like this takes a long time to accomplish, but like Sarah was sayin, it starts with one and I believe if we can think it, we can DO it . . .


weaving women’s lives

large weaving with words

credit – progressonline

March is National Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” And that is just what we do each week inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We weave the stories of women who find themselves in the same physical place. But their emotional, historical and future places are, literally, all over the map.

In the 90 minutes we sit together writing our stories, a world unravels through memory and is reassembled in a tapestry of words that envelope the table shared and reassembled. Likewise the ‘found poem’ created after every session. Each line has come from the pen and heart of one of the six or eight around the circle. Gathering these phrases into a single weaving both highlights the emotional urgency of each woman’s particular story; AND creates a composite communal story still more powerful than the already-moving individual ones.

I love the idea of women’s insight and wisdom,
our vast emergent experience
commanding compassionate presence
by listening with a full heart.

Take our herstory: women who stood up
fire in their eyes and passion in their voices
even walking through a dark doorway alone;
to laugh, let go and let silliness reign;
stirring the pot with one hand,
pounding the dough into compliant loaves
weaving their stories into ours and out again.
I am more than grateful
for a support system of strong women
daily working in a state of grace.

Before I didn’t care about these things;
it was a firm line we dared not cross,
a mockery of the possible strung with pain.

Ash is no match for the spark
of collaborative intimacy.
The love and loyalty we all deserve –
a seed growing, held, encouraged –
are our most outstanding features
working together hand over hand.

I know I am not weak or delicate;
I am a survivor, and one day my voice will be heard.


listening for love

Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love. – Rumi

When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. – Brenda Ueland


We’ve been moving slowly through February, battling the winter doldrums and bitter cold. The intent for the night’s group was to move from love of self to love of other to love of community. To do this, we worked with Parker Palmer’s five habits of the heart. While women jumped to discuss many of the ideas, their writing continued to focus on the tense and ever-shifting relationship with themselves or in love with another. This felt important. These are the bonds that create community is small steps, many many small connections. Love demonstrated profoundly in one room, one body, one mind can set the model for a town, country, globe.

They talked about life-long loves, life-long struggles, their children–loves and lives they’ve brought into the world– and addiction, a strangling kind of love that impedes all others. We have certain kinds of love stories we are told: fairy tales, romantic comedies, sitcoms. These are tidy formulas. None of us had tidy love stories. The equations they wrote defied reason, unturned gravity, begged for absorption or renewal. They carried contradiction in each line. Here was the messy nuance of love, the model that cannot be followed except through trial, accident, epiphany.

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