keeping hope in jail

A woman in jail must learn to cultivate hope for herself, or she will become despondent and bitter.

Writing is a healthy, pro-social exercise that can cultivate hopeful visions of life-to-come.

keeping hope in jail

By Toni Holopainen

Some of our long-term women writers at Chittenden Correctional Facility in Vermont have been trickling out of the facility, making those left behind miss their circle members.

I decided it was time to pull out Lisel Mueller’s poem Hope to help us rekindle that eternal well-spring within ourselves.

Incarcerated writers were encouraged to imitate Mueller’s style by visually describing what hope looks and feels and sounds like–to them.

The first piece, written by a younger 20-something, is rich in insight about the unbreakable bond she carries with her child. The second is whimsical and fun–please enjoy!


“It is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.”
Hope is love. Unconditional and pure
as snow falling fresh from bitter skies.
Stinging and painful with all its beauty.  Continue reading

hearts in Boston

By Saildog Photography

By Saildog Photography

Our hearts are with the people of Boston today in the aftermath of the marathon tragedy.

In dire times like these, it is easy to succumb to hopelessness about our world, the human condition, maybe our own lives.

Instead we remain a people of hope, offering light touches of blessing and compassion where we can — today, tomorrow and the next.

This ‘found poem,’ composed of the woven words of the incarcerated women writers during a past circle together, reminds me of the daily exercise we are called to …

… one of acknowledging the suffering around us (not living in denial), yet starting over in heart and mind, refocusing our lenses to see the beauty, care and grace swirling all around us as well.


Good times become a memory,
dreams lost through selfishness.
I’m tired of living this life
waiting to be reborn in this stone cold place –
overcoming shame, my wrongdoings;
tossed and tattered, I scream — but will anyone
listen? The size of sadness cuts back like a knife.

I’m lonely, scared, terrified. I’ve pleaded
and prayed for a way to make it right,
seeking things I don’t deserve.
This life has molded me.

But good can come from nothing.

With a clean slate, I begin again,
validate these desires to start fresh
and start over, to better myself, tickle the soul
and warm the heart; to come and go as I please,
light candles in winter trees holding on
to the Divine, a good break to a bad end.

What am I waiting for?
Let me out into the snow
letting go of this life-sentence;
let me walk out of here with a smile
breathing in each different season
guided from the stars.
Let the year shine.

powerless to connect

Caught in the Web / andimariee

Caught in the Web / andimariee

Certain incarcerated women can be “tough numbers” at times.

A mood or depression overcomes them, and it’s nearly impossible to access the meaningful connection you’ve cultivated with them over months and years of writing together.

No doubt they feel trapped inside their uncontrollable swirlings of personality–anger, sadness, bitterness, and mental illness in many cases.

On occasion, some fail even to make eye contact with you when you call them for group despite a poignant interaction the day before.

..which is what I encountered entering “Delta” unit on Friday night to corral a handful of them for a program. Four women were engrossed in a game of Rumy and proclaimed vociferously:

“We started working outside this morning, got up at 6, exhausted, just gonna play cards and go to bed.”

End of conversation.

These women are my most dedicated participants and their collective decision to skip class would have a sizable impact on leadership of the group this night.

I felt sloughed off, another mistrusted person in their eyes. But mostly, I felt powerless.

What happened from yesterday to today? Why won’t they look at my face? Why are they missing the circle, when it would provide the very validation and nourishment they need most? And clearly they had made a “group decision” to miss class together.

Sometimes it’s easy to take the attitudes and behaviors of these women inmates personally.  To feel discouraged. To be pissed–ergo, I’m giving up my Friday night to be in a prison facility with inmates not showing up?!

And then I breathe, and I breathe again.

Later this evening, I brush my teeth before sleep and an insight comes.  The four playing cards together and chatting like friends are some of the very same women who wouldn’t even speak to each another in my class eight weeks ago.

One of these women had even penned on an evaluation, “Not interested in getting to know anyone. Just gonna keep my head down til I get out.”

And it dawns on me that there they sat, playing cards, laughing and talking, ignoring me, yes, but really, who knows or understands the mysteries of this ‘inside’ work and what it accomplishes.

Shall I judge it all with my limited understanding, or simply continue to be a calm, consistent presence ‘inside’ who trusts that all is playing out exactly as it needs to.

closing the gap between what you and I see

Photo credit: Yellow Earth 168/Flickr

Photo credit: Yellow Earth 168/Flickr

Sometimes another’s perception of us as beautiful, gifted and clever can feel like a continent away…

We may feel the inner angst of limitation and less than, unable to rip ourselves from the grasp of dwindling self-esteem.

Yet this other person’s (authentic!) vision of us gives us a strand of hope to hold onto.  It keeps us moving forward through our own mental quagmire and challenging life circumstances.

It is our ability to hold this tension of opposite views with patience and without judgment that ultimately pulls us toward healthier, truer perceptions of self.  But, not without some struggle…

JL’s piece from this week’s writing circle captures her own process in this regard:

She says I have talent, I dance before her,
I make her laugh until tears roll down her
reddened cheeks, my poetry makes her cry
for other reasons

She says she thinks I’m the only one who
doesn’t see it in me,
how far I will go in this world, how many lives
I have to touch

And I want to believe, I ache with the hunger to see,
I thumb-wrestle with that wonderful fantasy
that what she says is really what will be
But in the quiet of my mind, my character defects
lengthen and twist and strangle  Continue reading

a spark of hope

spark of hopeThis ‘found poem,’ created from lines written by all women in the writing circle a couple of weeks back, will be our final post of 2012. We will return January 2, 2013.

Happy Holidays and safe travels to all!

After losing so much
it is important to step back
pointing to the one and only hope
to keep you moving on.
Most of us could never imagine
that hope hadn’t died,
buried in pain.

Each tear contains
a little spark of aliveness,
real possibility
for a biography in the making
dissipating the inky black light.

Your search for self
grows better with attention,
magically produces more
love no matter what,
reflected every day
in what greatness you can perceive.
There is always a glimmer
of gold even when the mirror sees gray.
It has come true for me.

Turn the corner of loneliness
carrying hope within;
watch the lights twinkle as you pray
starting your life over again.

Keep searching;
knowing you have taken every chance
will always be your hope,
an empathy antenna.

A journey started, a spark of hope.