my fate – in your hands

I’ve added a component to the weekly writing circle called “news to share.”

"Fate in Your Hands" Laura Siegel Collection

“Fate in Your Hands”
Laura Siegel Collection

It’s an opportunity for the jailed women who come together from six distinct units to report in on latest happenings in their lives.

The first time I introduced this idea, I didn’t expect much response. Ten minutes later, we had learned about the recent death of a beloved grandfather, a daughter’s first steps, a son’s 16th birthday, a painful anniversary, and a visit from a far-away friend.

The theme of this week’s news “download” was upcoming court decisions that will affect several women’s lives in potentially dramatic ways.

One inmate awaits an Interstate Compact from a neighboring state that will allow her to be released to family instead of serving time at Chittenden Correctional Facility for lack of local housing.

Another plans to change her plea and is wracked with anxiety over the pros and cons of making such an adjustment. It’s nearly impossible to know how this move could affect the years she has left to serve.

The third goes to the court house on Wednesday and could be released from there to home confinement, or the decision could be “NO,” and she would be returned to the facility that afternoon, an agonizing prospect in anyone’s mind. Continue reading

hole in my sidewalk

This week’s poem and writing prompt were well-known to the circle of 10 writers gathered.33_46_flatbushsinkhole04_z (2)

We opened our time with Portia Nelson’s Autobiography in Five Short Chapters. It’s the story of a woman who repeatedly falls into a “deep hole in the sidewalk” until she learns how to walk around it, and eventually travel in a new direction.

It’s a metaphor of sorts for refusing to be a victim, stopping the blame, and taking full responsibility for one’s own life.

In five short paragraphs, the author re-envisions her journey through life with “open eyes” now and re-writes her story.

Several of the incarcerated women writers had heard Nelson’s poem in the context of their addiction recoveries at various times.

And they LOVED the image of the woman swallowed up by a Brooklyn sidewalk, a symbolic representation of the entrapment they’ve felt in drug abuse, destructive intimate relationships, chronic mental illness, and lives of crime.

Several of the “inside” writers modeled their pieces on Portia Nelson’s poetic form, attempting to rewrite their own narratives. Read on…     Continue reading

present-moments in hell

Tree of Half LifeI presented a steep challenge to the incarcerated women writers this week.

Write about a moment, an activity, or an interaction with someone ‘inside’ – where you were mindful; in the present moment; all senses engaged; and forgot about your worries briefly.

We utilized Mary Oliver’s poem Mindful as a springboard.

As I explained the writing prompts to the 18 women gathered though, I began to be overcome by doubts. My own looping mental thoughts went something like this: these women are wracked with worries galore – some can barely sit still in their seats due to anxiety – how are they going to identify a moment where they ‘lost themselves’ in this joyless, hell-forsaken place?

Not to worry. The writers delivered as they always do.  Continue reading

what is saving your life?

Soul Card by Deborah Koff-Chapin

Soul Card by Deborah Koff-Chapin

Our writing prompt this week was direct and to the point: what is saving your life right now?

Another way to say the same thing – what keeps you sane at this moment in time or holds your world together? (In a prison facility such lifelines can be quite basic, like a hot shower or unexpected compassion from a stranger.)

I happened upon this compelling question recently while reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s memoir An Altar in the World. When a person posed this query to her, she likened it to (metaphorically) yanking the china-laden cloth off the table of her life – and making immediate room for truth.

Coincidentally this week in writing about what saves us, a column I penned for the National Catholic Reporter about our newly released book Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write and the writing inside VT program came out in print. (Thanks Mike Leach for the opportunity!)

As I reread the article, it occurred to me that this weekly writing circle in Vermont’s sole women’s prison “saves my life” in very real ways from time to time.

I can think of two specific ways to start…

Participation allows me to enter a space with other women where truth-telling is paramount; where soul connections are of a high priority; and there is little-to-no room for slick and varnished appearances (something that can wear me to the bone).   Continue reading

travels in my mind

by biswarupsarkar72

by biswarupsarkar72

In the WDEV radio studios with Mark Johnson this week, the well-known and pointed interviewer pressed me several times on the same point:

How does writing help a person heal?

Great question. And then the answer played out once again in the writing circle at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility last Thursday evening (which I’ll get to).

Our writing theme was journeys and travels — physical trips we have taken to beloved destinations, for example, or internal journeys we take in our minds, both desirous ones and those we’d prefer to shake for good.

Several of the women writers penned pieces about the circuitous mental loops they traverse while living in prison. You know, the disempowering messages and stories we retell ourselves in our quietest moments; the limiting beliefs we hold onto like ragged little security blankets; the questions we pose to self over and over without answer. Continue reading