weaving women’s lives

large weaving with words

credit – progressonline

March is National Women’s History Month. This year’s theme is “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.” And that is just what we do each week inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We weave the stories of women who find themselves in the same physical place. But their emotional, historical and future places are, literally, all over the map.

In the 90 minutes we sit together writing our stories, a world unravels through memory and is reassembled in a tapestry of words that envelope the table shared and reassembled. Likewise the ‘found poem’ created after every session. Each line has come from the pen and heart of one of the six or eight around the circle. Gathering these phrases into a single weaving both highlights the emotional urgency of each woman’s particular story; AND creates a composite communal story still more powerful than the already-moving individual ones.

I love the idea of women’s insight and wisdom,
our vast emergent experience
commanding compassionate presence
by listening with a full heart.

Take our herstory: women who stood up
fire in their eyes and passion in their voices
even walking through a dark doorway alone;
to laugh, let go and let silliness reign;
stirring the pot with one hand,
pounding the dough into compliant loaves
weaving their stories into ours and out again.
I am more than grateful
for a support system of strong women
daily working in a state of grace.

Before I didn’t care about these things;
it was a firm line we dared not cross,
a mockery of the possible strung with pain.

Ash is no match for the spark
of collaborative intimacy.
The love and loyalty we all deserve –
a seed growing, held, encouraged –
are our most outstanding features
working together hand over hand.

I know I am not weak or delicate;
I am a survivor, and one day my voice will be heard.


put down the weight of aloneness

all alone

credit: ashwini shrivastava

“We shape our self
to fit this world
and by the world
are shaped again”

We always open our writing sessions inside Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility with a well-known poet’s words to signal our appreciation for words, to help ground us in the writing circle, to offer inspiration for our own written words to follow.

Sometimes the poems are seasonal, offering opportunity to reflect on changes happening in the natural world that are often mirrored within each of us as if set by biological clock.

Other times, the poems are humorous, to lift the mood and encourage everyone to shake loose some seriousness.

At still other times, they are purely inspirational, drawing on the deep well of divinity and wisdom each of us carries within, often unbeknownst to us.

This past week, words of poet David Whyte opened the circle. His words are deep and piercing. He is both a highly spiritual man (it’s hard to think of him without recalling his close friendship with the late John O’Donohue) – as witnessed in his own poetry; and a pioneer in the world of work over the past 20 years, “building a critical mass of executives and leaders who have learned through his work, the language, metaphors and urgent necessities of conversational leadership.”

To witness the impact of his words on a circle of 14 incarcerated women gathered inside a dreary windowless room of an evening is nothing short of breathtaking. Continue reading

the bitter and the sweet

credit - mnn.com

credit – mnn.com

One of the most bitter-sweet aspects of writing with incarcerated women is the attachments we form over time. We are sad at parting when in fact it is pure optimism and joy that propels each woman from the womb-circle of the writing group back into the world beyond walls. Equally poignant and heart-rending is a woman’s return to jail, for whatever reason. Whether she has lost her residence (as often as not unrelated to her own actions) or lost her hold on staying clean, it is a truly bitter-sweet reunion. Glad to see her, know that she is safe weighs in the balance with sadness at her inability to carry her life forward with the promise she radiated at release.

Tonight, we had such a reunion with one of our long-time writers. At the end of the circle, she wrote “I missed you guys. Thanks for taking me back under your wing.”

During group, we had invited women to write from the perspective of an animal, perhaps one that spoke to recent conflict or difficulty in her life. This is what CS wrote so eloquently:


As she flies above the land below,
stretches of bright blue skies engulf her sight.
Free as the bird she is,
she flies miles to search all that is known to mother nature.
Flying one day in the glare of the shining sun
she’s blinded and loses sight of where she’s going.
Snap! Crash! Falling darkness.
She hits bottom.
Her red wings seem to drip blood,
but not sure, ‘cause the colors seep together.
Scared, she cannot fly. Yet she can’t even walk
‘cause she never learned how.
Dropped by her own mother out of her nest at such a young age,
she feels abandoned and hurt once again.
So she lies there in hope for help,
scared that she may be attacked or even killed
in the position this has left her in. Will she accept death?
The sun goes down, the chill of the night seeps in,
noises creep in the shadows.
Earlier she hobbled with her broken wings
and hid as best she could from the strangers of the night.

Morning awaits. As she opens her eyes, she sees
a giant standing above her. Frightened, she sings,
or tries to, for fear she will be hurt more by this stranger.
She’s seen these strangers before; is wearied by them.
The human picks her up as gently as possible.
They drive to a city. She sees all these big buildings
as they stop at one of them. They get out
and enter this big structure. She has never been in one
so curiosity and fear take over. Darkness again
takes over her eyelids. As she awakens, she sees
a bandage upon her wing and food hung above her head.
I have been saved! Some day she will fly again,
be free, be happy; but will watch her surroundings,
so her life will no longer be captive.