when the only way is up

abstract climber

credit – zsuzsannakollo

In general, the thought of entering prison is a total downer. It is not the place of rehabilitation or encouragement that could actually ameliorate deep-seated addictions. Addictions to substances, to physical and mental abuse, to the constant need for reassurance of worth. Or relief from mental illnesses that distort an already complicated life, requiring constant translation and adjustment to simply find ground on which to stand at any given moment.

No, prison is more often a place of despair. A place of darkness. A place of hopelessness while counting days that mock like a broken minute hand.

And yet, from these depths of darkness, a small band of women writing together lift their collective spirits through words, discovering shared need, offering recognition and solace.

Last week’s group was no exception. Our simple prompt was to stare down negative messages from our past in order to diminish their power over us. The wide-ranging results called for individual lines to be woven into a whole that speaks to the group experience of determination to overcome, to be better, to change. This is what comes of being in the depths, when the only way is up.


Here I am again – lessons unlearned,
chances broken. How can it be?
My head is somewhere else
alone and tending the stove,
a small child perched atop a dark well
never to feel more empty.

The isolation starts as soon as I hear the cold clink;
negative images and events creep in.
Sometimes these things stick to me,
a shattering and jarring of identities
torn between bitterness and hope.

The most negative are what I say to myself –
I wish you were never born,
no-good mother, unfound, heart-broken –
believing that lies are truth.

Sometimes I just want to run
from the dark place that smells of old secrets,
flee my past before the chambers of my mind collapse in
through the open door that speaks of flight.

This isn’t where I want to be. I must find help.
I’m going to try because I don’t like where I am
feeling lost, scared, all alone.
The task I cannot refuse is to live,
fleeing everything that is comfortable.

I stir three times, thirsty to fly away,
taste the exotic, find worth, self-love.
I must have hope to live
to feel once again without fear.
I am a seeker of truth
grounded in words that lift and carry me,
lure me lovingly into now.


letters to self

Write me a letter by jinterwas

Write me a letter by jinterwas

I am jazzed when an incarcerated woman gets really honest with herself in the circle.

..when she writes openly about the seamier side of life as an addict or hustler before imprisonment and names the temptations that still haunt her thoughts.

In my own experience, it’s difficult to disempower negative behavior and mindset in oneself until you begin naming the ‘demons’ clearly, along with your underlying motivations (what you’ve been getting out of it all).

Add to that process, the power of a circle of listening women witnessing to your forthright revelations with compassion and non-judgement, and you have a space for healing to begin or continue.

This week KG got real honest, writing a letter to that part of herself that sometimes feels drawn to return to chaotic, irresponsible living.

Next, she called upon the wise woman part of herself that she has been cultivating over the months with excellent help from numerous program providers in the prison facility. And she responded to the first letter with a second, full of what she is learning and understanding.  Read on…

*    *    *

(Letter to Self)

Hey, how are you? I bet you can’t wait until you get out, so you can roll up a phat blunt with the homies. I see you got a couple of addresses and numbers from a few people here. I know that’s for when you max, you can come back and find a good place to hustle. Don’t worry, I got ya back with that. Make sure you get rid of all those lame-ass people numbers and get with the ones who know where to get the bupes. 

And that cover letter you’re working on, forget about it. Nobody even uses those things any more. You don’t need a work readiness certificate.  What’s it genna get you, top pay? And all those days you go out on work crew, why don’t you stay at home and put your feet up and relax?

Just looking out for you. Love you.  – KG   Continue reading

ocean of mercy

Swimming in the Rain, Camilla Massu

Swimming in the Rain, Camilla Massu

When life seems circuitous, random and potentially unpredictable, I remember this invocation by TD, one of our very first writinginsideVT participants.

(She’s still in the writing circle, soon to be released from prison.)

I reach for her words “I Am Here” as a kind of personal salve. Her’s is a prayer of surrender to a loving God, the Divine, or whatever that loving/living Presence is for you.

“I Am Here” is featured prominently in our book-to-be, Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write, coming out in September.  I was reminded of the piece this week, reviewing the book’s proofs prior to publication.

Reading it again brought me peace, a sense of being held, a reduction in my personal fear factor.

The job that didn’t materialize for me last week, the sense of isolation that pervaded my day today, and the waywardness of my life direction as of late–all seemed to fade as these words spread over me like an ocean of mercy.  May they bring you comfort as well.


God is an ocean of mercy . . . Collapse into God’s arms and you’ll weep like a child.” —Rumi

It is me, your daughter.
I am here, in your light.
Your grace has given me many blessings.
It is me whom you loved,
no matter the number of my faults.  Continue reading

i am waiting for me

Marilyn Kalish

One of the most anticipated moments in each inside writing circle comes near the end, just before the final chime signals the close. It is the moment when one of the 14-plus women around the circle hopes to be the one to read the week’s ‘found’ poem – a weaving of words written, spoken and recorded the previous week by the women in the circle. These words find their way into a poem that is in the truest sense a community creation.

The resulting piece is wholly new and different from any one of the previous week’s writings, at the same time as it contains the seed and memory of each woman’s individual writing. It is a gift to us all, both anticipated and cherished around the circle. In fact, last night one of our long-time writers emphatically declared that these poems are so powerful in their own right, they deserve to become an independent publication. Duly noted!

Some days I am emotionless
my heart waiting for me
to get rid of being scared
to be carefree;

waiting for the months to pass
to embrace life in a new context
bring truth from my past forward.
It’s OK through my actions to change,

for love’s gravity to pull me close to center
plant her foot firmly in my life.
My past may creep up on me –
always felt like I was in a cocoon,
a prisoner to my addiction –

my truth is, it’s time to let loose. Continue reading

pulling the jail card

I am refreshed when an incarcerated woman accepts her imprisonment as a needed ‘time-out’ from a chaotic life gone off the rails.  A chance to stop the drug-use fueling the crime.  An opportunity to take stock and reset priorities, so to speak.  Prisoners can become obsessessed with ‘getting out’ and not focus on the necessary ‘inside’ work at hand.

“Go to Jail” by R-E-M/Flickr

That’s why JL’s piece below struck a chord with me this week.  She excerpted the phrase ‘marvelous error’ from Antonio Machado’s poem Last night as I was sleeping and articulated deep gratitude for this reconfiguration time.  Enjoy reading on…

Long before the alcohol, the nicotine, the needle, I escaped and soothed with macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and Egg McMuffins.  I would fill the pain with pasta, escape with eclairs, de-stress with Doritos. 

It was my first addiction; not unlike my first words or my first steps, it was the building blocks of my shack of isolation.  It was my first magnificent plan to hide from the world by getting bigger.

I would immediately follow this up with crash diets, thinking that if I could get control of this, I would have control of my entire life. 

What a twisted little game of indulgence and instant gratification that would continue into my adult years, only the stakes became much higher than gaining ten pounds.  The stakes became life and death, Russian roulette with a syringe.

Win or lose, there was no end until one day, as in Monopoly, my Chance Card came up – go to jail, directly to jail.  I did not pass “Go” and certainly did not collect $200 … instead I got to stop playing the game.  And what a marvelous error it has been, to retire my jersey, to step to the sidelines, to sit back and stop playing.  Yes, what a marvelous error, what a delicious mistake.