finding voice

Art by Jennifer Lommers

Art by Jennifer

“In a voiced community, we all flourish.”

I’ve been reflecting on this gem of wisdom penned by Terry Tempest Williams in her latest book, “When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice.”

“Each day I begin with the empty page,” this writer-activist concludes, keeping mystery, paradox, imagination, and a listening ear close by.

Women, in particular, can suffer maladies of heart, mind and body (and some, rather serious) because they feel/have felt mocked, maligned or silenced for their unique viewpoints and proclivities.

Some of this “baggage” is imposed upon us by those who pupport to love and care for us; at the same time, those of us victimized have (sometimes) clung feverishly to our “wounds,” well-worn and comfortable, yet long outgrown.

What does it mean to have a voice TODAY?    Continue reading

end of you and me

Courtesy of buddah1888/Flickr

Courtesy of buddah1888/Flickr

Valentine’s Day ranks at the top of the list of rocky days for incarcerated women.

It’s a stark reminder of separation from loved ones, especially partners or spouses and children.

And for some women, this ‘holiday’ jiggles remembrances of the men with whom they served as accomplices in the commission of their crimes.

For JL, imprisonment has facilitated a reckoning of sorts, helping her decouple from what she now admits was a reckless liaison.

Written and read aloud tonight in the company of 13 other ‘inside’ women, she shared “A Haunted Goodbye” in an emotional yet determined voice:

I dreamt of you last night
my heart, my love, my other half
You, the man I would grow old with

I am haunted by you in the night
the silence reminds me you are not there
Did you give up on me?

My heart wants so badly to say I walked away
that this time I had the strength to
stand on two feet, my own, alone

And the truth is I don’t know the answer
but my heart is broken just the same
It is Valentine’s Day, would you still be mine  Continue reading

mindfully drumming

My latest project at the Chittenden Correctional Facility is designing a drumming & mindfulness pilot program for the incarcerated women.

Drum line by taddzilla/Flickr

Drum line by taddzilla/Flickr

Ask me if I knew A THING about the difference between a snare or tenor drum when we began in January, or even how to hold a pair of hickory drumsticks?  The answer then was a resounding, NO!”

Yet under the skilled mentorship of Berklee College of Music-trained drummer Sue Schmidt, of Burlington, we are halfway through an 8-week program, learning how to play our individual parts while simultaneously becoming a unified drumline. (Sounds like an important metaphor for life, huh?!)

The 16 women participants were identified by correctional officers for this innovative Vermont Works for Women program.

The program, called “Flying Sticks: Drumming and Stress Reduction,” aims to provide a healthy avenue for women (who struggle with aggressive behavior) to burn off stress and anxiety through drumming, as well as to engage in healthy communal activity with other inmates. Continue reading

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

the other side of the cage



Last week the women were pretty riled up about a visit they had been subjected to earlier in the day. I use the word ‘subject’ intentionally: for not only was it beyond their control, they were also the subjects of investigation. At least that’s how they described their experience of this, as they do so many other, visits by outside groups. Often they do not realize that a group is coming – they say they weren’t told, but I cannot speak to that. What I can relate is that they felt examined, on display, like odd creatures at the zoo or the freaks at a circus sideshow. There was no verbal interaction with them; no explanation of who the visitors were or why they were invading the minimal privacy afforded 160 women living in close quartered units.

Energy was high in the room and tempers were flaring. I allowed them five minutes to vent before we got down to writing. Since our evening’s writing prompt involved assuming the persona of an animal, several writings brought out the rabid bear’s claws, the snake’s stealthiness, the mama bear’s protectiveness. But their tales of vulnerability, of feeling violated and powerless, struck a deep chord inside. I decided to counter their outrage with my own first experience of being toured through their facility when they were up at Northwest State Correctional Facility. What I wrote was unexpected, to say the least. They actually thanked me after I read my quickly-written words.

I was trapped in a herd of us. Caught like rats on a sinking ship. I couldn’t come up for air. There was nowhere to go but one narrow passageway after another, separated by heavy locked doors. We were bunched together, a kind of group traffic jam that lurched from locked door to locked door. There was nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide; no choice but to move with the crowd. Some of us became restless, resisting the plan. Others moved placidly forward, unseeing. Angry eyes stared us down. Accusing. I was faceless, defenseless. I had no ground to stand on, no justification for this inside mission. I was an unwanted intruder. I should not have been anywhere near this place of little enough privacy. I was shamed, with no way to share my humiliation, no way to leave, no way to make amends to the souls into whose lair I had trespassed. Was this necessary? Was this right? I could only hope to find or create an opportunity to make it up to those behind windows, doors, walls. I could only hope that my being there would serve a healing purpose, might help dignify what could only be a mutual humiliation. – SWB