“Life is a constant Advent season: we are continually waiting to become, to discover, to complete, to fulfill. Hope, struggle, fear, expectation and fulfillment are all part of our Advent experience.”

As we enter the season of Advent, there is little to cheer on women incarcerated at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. Waiting and preparation are what their time is made of; and for many of them, the hope that originally wove through the fabric of time has simply worn thin.

Holidays can be a particularly tough time inside, as they remind us of family closeness and the warmth of special traditions. Yet in spite of all that seems to separate us from one another, our weekly opportunity to sit together, pen our thoughts and share them openly brings a measure of relief, of closeness … even of hope.

A sampling of the writing from this week follows, written by the artists whose work appears above:


Hope has no goddamned wings. Perhaps she had them once, a shining Christmas angel full-feathered. Now she staggers wet cobblestones dripping bloody stumps, stray feathers mutilated with her blood. She weeps and wails, sorry for herself or sorry for me. Hope has no goddamned wings. She doesn’t wear a sparkling samite sheath. She wears tattered rags, too worn and stained to be black, too mottled to be gray. Her muddy petticoat bares torn lace, my Freudian slip showing. Hope has no goddamned wings. Her feet bleed with every halting step, the mean and bitter earth cutting and snatching, tearing and rending tender, once-pristine feet. Hope has no goddamned wings. She was shot down long ago, if she ever flew at all on wings made of the dreams of fools. Hope has no goddamned wings. I’ve never seen her face shining with holy light, only wet with sweat and tears, folded like a Japanese fan with effort. Hope has no goddamned wings. She doesn’t sing a victory tune. She compels me on with a fucking dirge – mine – if I don’t work harder, faster, longer, better … mine, if I’m lucky. Hope has no goddamned wings.



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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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Out of old tales, we must make new lives. – Carolyn Heilbrun, from “What Was Penelope Unweaving”

Make a myth/drawing ancient stories into wheeling forms/that praise…/Let it be spoken, shaped/ in spirit, given./…unreel it, shape it, voice it in another birthplace… – Rose Flint


credit – imgbuddy

Last week we introduced the myth of “Penelope” from Homer’s Odyssey. This continued the thread we’ve been weaving lately of mythological women’s stories. It also gave us a chance to weave the threads from the previous week’s read-around by hearing comments from all 40 present during that evening of words. Words like ‘perseverance’ and ‘hope’ wound around the room, looping through each woman’s heart and hands like a hand-held ribbon of truth.

Then the opening poem – ‘Penelope Says’ by Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke – with its wonderful rhythm and modern pathos: “I was erasing and being erased …”, “absence is the theme of my life …”,  “I understand in the end what human presence is, what absence is …”

In our excitement to share so many ideas, we ran out of time to share our words. But we did spend part of the evening weaving a type of papier-mâché bowl by layering tissue paper strips and glue over plastic templates. The results were colorful despite a fitful start with slippery materials. In the end, an empty bowl is a powerful reminder of the value of receptivity, of openness, of the necessity for space in our otherwise crowded lives. Space that can be filled with hope, if we only persevere.

“Because perfect expression is blocked when the inside is pressured by pain”…
from ‘Penelope Says’

When one holds pain’s anguish, it’s hard to show just how you feel. You disguise it with fake laughs, smiles, even stories. Anything to get by when really you’re wanting to scream, lash out, let the world know ‘I’m hurting, why won’t you notice? Ask me what’s wrong. Just ACKNOWLEDGE ME.’

You start to feel alone, helpless, hoping and longing for something to happen. Shift the course of life you’re on. Nothing. So you wait … And then it happens. The tide turns, and voila! you find peace. Peace within yourself. Just a small glimmer of hope. It’s enough, though. You have so long to do, it seems like the hope will vanish. But you cling on, fingertips white with the pressure. And you know this, too, will pass.

I’m strong-willed and nothing, not even these walls, will confine me.


what we know of love

abstract-love-wallpaperWanting to be loved, “I love you,” was what I said… from ‘Full Circle’ by Alden Nowlan

You never see it coming but always see it leaving./It waits by the door, bags packed,/full of stones from your life. from ‘What Love Cannot Do’ by January Gill O’Neil

Valentine’s Day is a mixed bag inside prison. On the one hand, everyone wants to remember – and be remembered by – loved ones on the outside. Yet, for those who do not receive any kind of remembrance, the day can feel hollow, lonely, far weightier than its Hallmark intentions.

Come to think of it, this is not unlike grade-school scenarios of my youth – the popular kids raking in the candy-coated heart-filled valentines while the rest of us walked around empty-handed and -hearted. Or simply dis-heartened.

So it’s a challenge to navigate. Last week we aimed for a middle approach by offering writing prompts that could be interpreted a variety of ways; then turned to making actual physical valentines with traditional red, pink and purple paper, complete with glittery tape, white markers and some red ‘I Love You’s’ in cut-outs. The dozen women around the table jumped whole-heartedly into both activities, producing memories, yearning, fiction and highly original valentines for their children and loved ones. Continue reading

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

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