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

grateful days

VI holiday card

artwork by assistant victoria irwin from 11/19/15 group

We have so much to be thankful for, even though it may not always appear thus. Both inside and out, for instance, this year has brought an abundance of support for writing inside VT.

Our first-ever individual appeal has almost hit its target of $6000 toward our annual operating expenses, the balance of which will be sought in grants. We are so very grateful for your belief in our work and your financial support to continue it into our seventh year.

We have added an advisory board of seven wise and thoughtful women who bring a breadth and depth of experience and passion to guiding us forward.

We have increased our facilitation team by two assistants and a guest facilitator.

Most of all, we have managed to continue to hold weekly writing groups inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, VT — despite a hiatus in funding support and several personal issues that have taken some of us out of the picture for periods of time this fall.

Inside, the inmates have continued to produce soul-searching writing and artwork; and are even contemplating a new book of their work. It seems everywhere leaders are emerging and creativity is blossoming.

May the coming year bring its own abundance and unity to you, in your heart, your life, your work and your world community.

fire in the eyes

stock footage - roses on fire

credit unknown

The skull-light is not forgiving . . . it sees what it sees. Yet when one sees and senses thusly, then one has to work to do something about what one sees. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes,“Vasalisa and the Doll,” in Women Who Run with the Wolves

This week we finished the fourth part of the story Vasalisa and the Doll, retold and interpreted by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run with the Wolves, a collection of tales that speak to different aspects of women’s psyches. Writers inside Vermont’s Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility have read, worked with, discussed and written to prompts pulled from this story in the course of four sessions over the summer.  To a writer, abundant insights have emerged.

In particular, when asked at the end of this week’s group ‘what do you see in a new light or what have you let burn away’ each participant had a striking insight to share. Perhaps the most startling was a gray-haired woman whose writing — until this week — was often permeated with a kind of victim-identification. But suddenly out of the story line quoted, above, came a fierce story of empowerment and reclamation that surprised even herself. And at the end of the group, she responded: “I saw my life in a new light. I realize I have the power, like Vasalisa’s doll. No doll, thought; just what’s in me.”

These are moments we live for, whether in jail or out. Moments of self-insight that we can name, hold on to and remember. Even her posture and tone of voice changed with her revelation. It was worth every hurdle getting inside to witness this moment with her. The writing that revealed this new-found truth follows:


The Fire is burning,
glowing hot and glowing bright.
All you who are evil,
all you who are unworthy of life
turn to embers, ash, and dust.
For you with your devil powers
placing your ugly spells
on the worthy and tired and the poor,
I cast all your deceit
all your desire to destroy
your every fiber
into the glowing, hot beauty of my Fire.

Be gone; nothing can save you.
I have consumed your evil,
for the Fire in my skull
is more powerful than you could ever imagine.
The Fire in my skull is everlasting,
can not be touched by you.

Be gone, incinerate. You are nothing.
I cast this almighty spell, I have power over you.
I am now your master.
But wait! Master of what?
You are no more, you are nothing,
just embers, ashes and dust.

hope – faded or arrived?

credit - lightfestreignited

credit – lightfestreignited

All last week’s energy swirling about the universe – spring equinox/super moon/total eclipse – has found its counterpart inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. The fire that burns away a past each woman is trying to relinquish has recently burst anew into fiery passion, nearly as incarnate as the famed phoenix itself.

Women are energized by new ideas of self-worth, goals for change, projects to help move them forward in their lives and beyond these bars. They catch courage from the stories shared by others they might not otherwise have listened to. They find support and permission to voice their stories, to reflect on their choices, and to begin earnest change for a life that feeds rather than diminishes them.

The writer whose words appear below has written with us from the five-year-back beginning of this program. She has been out several times; and every time, some aspect of her history of addiction trips her up and sends her reeling back inside. See how this past week’s epigraphs on hunger and nurture impacted her in-group writing:

My body remembers what it/means to love slowly./What it means to start/from scratch. Slow lovers/of women. The secret is/starting from scratch.
– from ‘Making Tortillas,’ by Alicia Gaspar de Alba.

How long it can take a woman to achieve a degree of balance around appetites, to learn to feed herself and to understand and honor the body; and to hunger for things that are genuinely sustaining instead of hungering for decoys.
– Caroline Knapp from Appetites

Continue reading

paradox of peace

mandala for peace

unknown source

Entering prison with the intention of providing peaceful space, if even for 90 minutes, is beyond paradoxical. Yet weekly we enter the slamming metal doors to greet — and be greeted by — a determined circle of women who brave depression, PTSD, long sentences, loss of family connection and unknown futures to gather around the table on Thursday evening.

They listen, a variety of filters apparent on each face. Some are frankly curious, others guardedly cautious. Some, the reluctant sidekick of a good friend; others, confident and practiced in the grounding peace the circle offers each week.

At this time of year, seeking peace inside Vermont’s women’s prison can look more like defeat. Emotions run high. Expectations are repeatedly dashed. Initiative is discouraged. For us, there is a fine line: what is an offering of hope to one may be a depressing reality to another. Often it seems best to ignore the season altogether.

Last week we met on the topic of peace. Yes, it’s part of the season; but it’s also something both universal and utterly personal. We took a chance. Following a brief poem, we introduced the women to a peace meditation. Half the gathered group participated; the others looked on with various degrees of discomfort, curiosity and thinly veiled enthusiasm. Yet everyone wrote, creating a focused silence that surrounded the table, providing a pervasive peace in that one space, for those few moments.  Read a few samples here:


I am hard-pressed to find someone willing to take on what my mind sifts through every day. I do not consider myself a bad person . . .. I see this image of open hands, willing to take me as I am. It makes me wonder what has changed inside me. I hear the bell tolling and yet I stay. I steel myself to say exactly the wrong thing. I feel I might seek peace, maybe not openly. Certainly not at cost to myself, not lately. I feel this hollow well with no water . . . and everyone’s thirsty.


*  *  *


What peace means to me is freedom. Peace means being content in my life, happiness for myself, friends and loved ones. I haven’t been blessed with true peace in my life, I only hope for it and if I can never have it, I hope people around me do.

I’ve always been jealous of people who I’ve felt had peace, love and happiness in their life when, if you looked hard enough, they didn’t actually have peace, they were simply ‘getting by.’ I don’t want to just get by anymore. I want to move forward with my life peaceful, happy, excited for new things to look forward to in days to come. Not count the hours I have left in each day.

Being in jail, there is no peace. You can’t fix your life or move forward. You’re stuck waiting, longing for the chance to find inner peace and happiness.