why is that?

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Last night’s writing group at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility was cancelled due to lockdown. Why is that? There are a number of possible reasons, none of which was shared with us. Ironically, the previous week we had a lively group of inmates committed to coming weekly and a team equally committed to being there.

But lockdowns happen in prison. So in lieu of sharing new writing, I’m posting the ‘found poem’ created with lines heard from each of the dozen or so women present last week. The writings ranged from feelings about community to courage in words and the value of writing — and just about everything in between. Why is that? Because each group is deep and thought-provoking.

WHY IS THAT? – found poem

If no one cared about me I would be heart-broken.
There is so much more to learn about us,
new stories being hatched, gasping for air,
counting seconds and breathing.

I struggle with what to write,
this fear like a heat lamp.
Will they judge me for feeling,
not seeing what was always there?
How can a feeling be wrong?
My words strip me bare –
my troubles, sorrows and dreams
fear being loved,
trapped in this time zone.

What can I do with my disappointment?
It’s very difficult, this tight spot I’m in,
my loneliness that has hardened into glass.
Certainty has a damaged past, but curiosity has gotten over it,
learns information about the tone and color of my insides.

Truth is, you have to care about yourself,
tiptoe into a new atmosphere.
You may find out something you never knew.
Curiosity knows no boundaries, is an unwritten book.

How could one so meek write a lion’s roar?
I wonder if by the time I leave here I will be someone else
lighter, lightening, almost ready to strike.
Possibility grants us both roots and wings,
a new beginning and maybe a different ending.
What is possible?
Real listening,
more chocolate, bubble baths, and women laughing.

burlington book festival reading

Once again, women whose writings appear in HEAR ME, SEE ME: Incarcerated Women Write gathered for a reading, this time at Burlington’s Tenth Annual Book Festival. To a rapt audience of about 50 gathered in a semi-circle in the city’s Fletcher Free Library, four women read of their lives.

One shared a moving story of working in daycare with an autistic boy where she alone understood him; to the extent that, when she changed jobs, the parents moved the boy so he could continue to work with her! And at the time she was just 15 years old.

Another traced her life like the many layers like an onion, ‘until I too am buried under the ground like the onion root that grows new life to the next generation.’

A third read of life inside ‘caged like animals at the zoo, being watched, on display . . . they watch us sleep, they hear us roar. Just our thoughts they can’t keep . . .’ 

And a fourth read a moving prayer which starts ‘It’s me, your daughter . . . me whom you loved, no matter the number of my faults.’ Sitting directly in front of her with barely contained emotion at the words coming from her daughter’s mouth, her mother wept for the gift of getting her daughter back.

Thank you to all you strong and beautiful women for sharing your lives and your hearts before an audience of strangers, each of whom left the room changed – and charged – by your courage. [Photos courtesy Lisa Ritter]


challenge . . . AND gift

the galsLast Saturday, a group of about 60, largely justice and social service professionals and advocates, gathered at Middlebury College to receive the gift of women’s voices. First, the sweet harmonious ones of WomenSing. And second, the courageous and heartfelt personal ones from ‘inside.’ The challenge was was that three of the five previously-incarcerated women who had hoped to attend, did not.

While these odds are not typical of our show rate inside (where our main competitor for group attendance is sleep), it was initially disheartening. But that sentiment didn’t last more than the two minutes it took to decide to move forward without them. The voices of the two women meeting at this reading for the first time rose and fell with their own cadences of regret, sadness, determination and love.

The audience was riveted. After approximately 30 minutes of reading, we opened the floor to questions. What followed was a genuine dialogue of curiosity and gratitude. To give a flavor of the event, which we neither taped nor photographed, I share here a few comments left by listeners in response to the question, ‘what is stirring in you after hearing these stories?’:

What a gift it has been to hear the stories of women in prison. We take so many things for granted. The obstacles they face need the healing that writing brings.

The courage of these women to grow, to forgive, to create a new way of being. How much value everyone brings to this world even when we lose our way for a while.

Women in prison are women who have been hurt deeply without – just one person – to help them heal and recover. Women outside of prison had that one person who saw and heard them. Continue reading

‘for a new beginning’

cliff jumpingIt is a new year. Inside Vermont’s women’s prison, the sense of change, of review and renewal, permeates the circle as we meet for the first time since the holidays. We open with John O’Donohue’s powerful poem, “For a New Beginning” (see Prompt of the Week for full text). The women nod vigorously, underline phrases that hold their attention, vie to be first to share their understanding of the poem. Clearly, they are eager to grab their pens and spend 20 minutes writing their hearts out. And they do. After which we read our writing around the circle.

Each face tells how spellbound its listening owner is as we take turns sharing our desires for our own new beginnings. One of the women observes how everyone has something they want to change; and yet how different the things are, how differently they are written about.

Waiting moment by moment to hear “today!,” JL continues to bide her time prior to release – a day she has been anticipating for a couple of weeks now. Meanwhile, she joyfully joins the circle which, in her words, ‘opened a lightness and ease of the anxiety I had been holding for the unknown.’ Below, her writing from the evening’s group:

            from ‘A New Beginning,’ by John O’Donohue

How is this possible? Doesn’t the word ‘risk’ itself evoke feelings of danger, insecurity, and fear? It’s risky to dive off a cliff into water below. How do I know I won’t be crushed by rocks unseen beneath the surface of blue?

Holding nothing back is still, however, my greatest desire for this year. I want to live in this skin, this beautifully tangled mess of eccentricity, imperfection, and emotion. I want to let my light shine. I can feel the glow growing, warmth, humor; a spectacular array of characteristics that have made me the person I am today.

I want to risk things larger than a cliff-dive into the ocean: living my dreams, allowing myself to accept that I am a writer, growth without a man to fall back on (or to have to hold up, which has generally been my life’s scenario). I want to be at ease with the fact that I love myself, and don’t need or care about the way others perceive me.

I want to be courageous and prove the doubters wrong. I have been burning for far too long; I have scars so deep they reach my soul. With all that burning, there must be a light of some kind and I see it . . . through my sober eyes, through my laughter, through the reflections of loved ones beginning to see possibility in me once again.

So, how is this possible? I may not have all the answers yet; but ask me again next year, because that is exactly what I intend to do . . .  release, unclench, believe that anything is possible. This is my new beginning.


vulnerability and courage

Scared child

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tonight we tried something different in our writing inside group: we presented five statements from Brené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability; asked the women to write for just five minutes to each, one at a time; then shared the writing as if it were on singly-written piece. [The five statements are listed under “Prompt of the Week.”]

Usually we offer several prompts from which one is chosen, for a 20-minute writing time. So the exercise challenged the women a number of ways, not the least of which was delving directly into tender and often trying territory. Afterwards, comments about the experience included “I am amazed with how my fellow friends in prison express themselves;” tonight I appreciated “walking through vulnerability and celebrating the journey;” “my courage opened up today;” “what opened in me was to not judge others when meeting them; they have feelings just like me. What closed was a lot of the fear I have to show others.” And “What opened in me? my feelings about being vulnerable . . . with whom? where? why would I be? I enjoyed the exercise!”

Below is the quickly-written writing of one of our new participants:

Clever I may be in the struggle for happiness and change. The vulnerable me, the scared me, the self-judging me – accepting my work as good. Fear keeps me vulnerable, harsh upon myself. Be free to allow myself to try, regardless of the outcome. I am vulnerable.

I feel fear. I want to numb, I want to drink my fill until the numbness comes, the judgments gone, the sadness gone. So sad. So sad, the creativity is gone, the willingness to try is gone, the living of life is gone. I am left dormant. Empty.

I look for what’s wrong with you so I don’t have to look at me: your weakness, your failure, so I don’t look at me. I don’t have to show my weakness, my shame. I look at you. No courage, no shame.

I walk through to fear, to look at me, to accept who I am and love me just the way I am. Your opinion and hurtful words I ignore. I take courage like food to heal me. I will walk in my journey proud and happy just the way I am. It’s OK to be me . . . good or bad, I’m me. The cries of a child unaccepted is the loss of a beautiful being.

The struggle to find hope can be painful and long and vulnerable. If and when it comes to be, the surrender is a beautiful sweet thing.