love is


touch drawing by Susan Arnsten-Russell

What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.
Helen Keller

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
– Jack Layton

For the month of February we have been exploring different aspects of love in writing and image. This past week, we offered as opening poem ‘What she loves’ by Judith Sternbergh. Its four sections start with the following lines, in order: Here is what she loves deeply … Here is what she loves but one removed … Here is what she loves with an embarrassing relish … Here is what she needs and keeps her. Some writers used these same headings for four-part writings of their own. Others found themselves pulled by words from an epigraph. Or simply riffed on love, a word able to elicit endless responses as varied as the women writing them. This past week, the darker side of love sought or lost permeated most of the writing.


I often wonder, is this love? I think it is, but I can’t express it. Or when I do, it comes out in anger or frustration, often hurting the one person I don’t want to. Why do I do this? Well, it’s the only way I know how, the way showed to me growing up. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to change this way of thinking what love is. But this girl makes me want to. She is my rock when I fall, my shoulder when I’m sad, and the love I need, and have longed for, for a long time. I know I’m capable of loving someone if I let down the walls I’ve built. However, scared of being vulnerable leaves me frozen where I stand, not wanting to. I’m confused, left with the worry and doubt in my head. Would I still be the person she knows if I do let down my exterior wall? or will I be so different she leaves me, abandoned, like I’m so used to? I don’t know for sure. But I do know being stripped away of her would just damage me more, leaving me helpless again to my own misery. Ths misery I create so well. All I can do is try and pray for the best in any situation I put myself in regardless the outcome. I’m just scared.



Love and compassion is something I tend to give too often.
It is never reciprocated.
So why do  I give it to begin with?
I walk a lonely road,
lover of all forsaken angels, always trying to save
them from emotional bloodshed.
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what scares us

ocean image in black and white

“Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.” ~ Pema Chodron, The Places that Scare You

“Courage is not living without fear. Courage is being scared to death and doing the right thing anyway.” ~ Chae Richardson

Last week we talked about fear. Everyone has their own definition. It seems obvious to point out what it is that scares us. People have all kinds of phobias: heights, spiders, snakes, public speaking, or, rarer, going outside, tornadoes, bear attacks. We learn what we are afraid of by experiencing the conditions that produce that fear. If we are bit by a spider in childhood, we perhaps learn to fear arachnids.

As adults, it is more difficult to recognize or admit when we are learning new fears or building on old ones. We new parents hold their child, they have joy but also a welling up of great terror for the safety of that child. They ask, “How can I love anyone so much? How can I do right by my baby?” With new experiences, even fantastic ones, come new fears. Inside, our writers grapple with new fears and old ones, many of the same ones they’ve always had but also new fears that are born of their new experience in the prison.

We asked our writers this week what they would do if they were free of fear. Instead of answering this prompt, most, if not all, of our writers explored fear as a concept, how it dominates their experience, and also, what scares them the most. Trying to imagine a life beyond fear was too much travel in the short time we had together.

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what the shadow knows

shadowShadow knows its purpose; it seeks to make the unconscious conscious, it tries to tell us its secrets. Our job is to learn how to listen and to discover our shadow’s purpose.” – Leigh Pobst

Following a sequence of topics suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, we started an investigation of our shadow selves in writing group last Thursday evening. It was a surprisingly lively discussion, given we had three new participants and a shadow from the previous week to address while reinforcing our circle agreements.

Yes, as always in these circles, routine and consistency prevailed. We moved on through the opening poem, which stirred a surprising amount of resonance with the seven writers present. It was ‘From Out of the Cave’ by Joyce Sutphen, opening and closing with the following lines:

When you have been/at war with yourself/for so many years that/
you have forgotten why… 

then you wake,/you stumble from your cave,/blinking in the sun,/
naming every shadow/as it slips.

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vantage points of love


Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes. – Antonio Machado from Last Night as I was Sleeping


After echoing these lines back and forth one of the women wrote, Love: an ancient concept. Love don’t love nobody. From our differing vantage points, we wrote on love from its sharpest angles. We each sat on the keen lip of prism side looking in, waiting for whatever light would shine through. Machado made us believe that kind of fire was possible and with every written breath we questioned it, reveled in it.

In the writings below you will find the grind of love, the painful bind of love, the hope for freedom that breeds self-love, the challenge love offers, and the gauntlet these women are willing to take up. And further, in the negative space between the words, you’ll see what was created: witnessing as an act of love. In the split between love and fear, here, fear feels derivative, a feeling only felt when love is threatened or taken away. In the end, it is all love. It is just like she said: Love loves everybody.

So what if he eats his ice cream upside down or his mushy oatmeal by turning over his spoon just before it gets in his mouth? Why does this irk me? And if he doesn’t like the same music as me, is he somehow defective?

These may seem like small things, but when repeated they feel like pushing fur backwards on a cat with tacky glue on my hands. Something in my nervous system has taken notes for year and tells me he’s weird. I judge him. Then I pull away. My soft heart becomes cooked, hard-boiled. And I don’t give the extra hug or speak with open eyes.

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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.