finding the soft

“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” – Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

“Doing what you love isn’t a privilege; it’s an obligation. Find out what you love.
Do it because you love it. Stick with it. Start now.”   ― Barbara Sher

In the past week and before, there has been far more talk of hate and anger than of love. Even inside prison, the mood has been quashed lower than normal. It can seem as if there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to strive for.

This is one of the reasons we like to bring art materials in on a regular basis. Whatever else may be roiling in the minds or across the floors of the units, art always elevates the mood, centers the focus, grounds the chaos. Of course, we also write – and the words this week were no less powerful than usual. Haunting phrases hang still in the air even days later:

but everything she’s ever loved has all ways been all wrong …  In her world there is no place to love … she loves in darkness …’

Your interests and beauty marks have a long story to tell, all those scars and broken bones from all the times you fell’

‘Love is scary. My vulnerability, the unknown. Trust, something that’s been broken so many times.’

‘Let me soften your burden. Let softness rule, OK?’

If I could do one thing, I would scream so that I know you could hear me and tell you that I’m still here. You know, just in case you forgot.’

But the art! Using pages from various of Deborah Koff-Chapin’s new Soul Touch coloring books, each woman’s need to love, to connect with the soft or hard edges within, to express light and dark in stark and direct terms came pouring forth. To honor this experience, I have chosen to create a gallery of their work for you to witness, as we did. See what calls to you, where you find the soft.

soul writing

Our ‘inside’ writers love the opportunity to write from visual images. Thanks to Deborah Koff-Chapin and her inventive Touch Drawing(TM) technique, there are a couple of decks of ‘Soul Card’ images we often use. Last night, I asked the women to allow their imaginations to describe an image through all five senses. They then posed the question ‘what if’ as in Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘how would you live then?’

I think it would be fair to say some of the women were quite surprised to find where this simple prompt led them. And Mary Oliver would be proud. The first line of her poem ‘Fox’ says just this: ‘You don’t ever know where/ a sentence will take you.’ Read on to see where you’ll be led!

credit - Deborah Koff-Chapin

credit – Deborah Koff-Chapin

What if all I could feel was loneliness?

But here I am alone; can’t I feel it?
Stuck in a dark green foggy world, state, place I call my own.
What if I was disconnected from the world?
But aren’t I?
What if I was stuck in a cold, musty room where all I could hear was the sound of my own breath? Inhale, exhale; inhale, exhale.
What if I only felt the warmth of my own skin against my own, the warmth of my breath as I was curled in a corner crying, scream-imagining my way out.
Cold but warm.
Happy but so sad.
Lonely but not alone.
Weak but strong.
Naked but fully clothed.
What if?
What if I could alone decide which path to walk, keep entering towards darker, deeper territory; OR walking into the light where I am no longer alone?
No longer scared, ashamed, scarred and bruised.
No longer alone.
What if?

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noticing the world

field of sunflowers

credit: graham owen

Mary Oliver’s poems invite us to notice the world – not only trees, deer, mockingbirds, violets of the natural world – but the inner world, as well. A perennial favorite is “Children, It’s Spring,” which evokes deep reflection with such lines as ‘picked by careful fingers’ or ‘children bringing such happiness home in their small hands.’

The prompt to notice both inner and outer worlds brings writers to immediate recognition, making connections within their own motivations and current situations that otherwise would not have occurred.

It is most gratifying to watch the women inmates writing their poems and memories, read them with emotion ranging from joy to sadness, ending in determination to change. Continue reading