After the Purge

Change/Transformation, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words

Give It Up

The Launch

Art/Images, It's Personal, Life, Uncategorized, Wins

I’ve finally done it, I’ve launched my Etsy store!  I have a small selection of drawings available, but am looking forward to adding more. Other than this blog, the Etsy store is my first time putting my creative talents out for public consumption.  For any of my two or three readers who are willing, I appreciate any reblogs or shares 🙂

Energy-WtrMrk

I Can’t Move

Change/Transformation, Life, Poetry, Random Observations, Uncategorized, Writing

blocked blocks, round round, all rounded

puzzle pieces filling

fitting, seamless and tight and smooth

lost last spaces further

and further

away

optional is no longer an option

liberation is now less than a k

it’s not ok. I can’t move.

 

multiplication

diversification

gentrification

 

grasping grunting gobbling grabbing

high higher highest; close closer closest

packpackpack

 

tinned, salted, oiled, canned; metal keys roll us back

we’re beginning to smell

three fish or three days; reeking of never-ending visitors

 

olfactory assault | auditory hallucination | kinetic disarray

visual opulence and luxurious cultural overload

words of hipster wisdom “you’re so Erin Brokovich”

Conversations with Life, #3

Hard Stuff, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Peace/Conflict, Social Justice, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

It’s M again and today, I want to kill someone, or die.  No. Neither of those is true, but I’m consumed, eaten with rage at another round of mass murders, this time impacting people I know and care about.  All these mass gun murders deeply touch my soul, but this was in my home state, in my college community, and it punched me in the heart.

I consider myself a reasonable person, compassionate, and willing to see all sides of an issue, but I’m done.  I’m done trying to understand the perspective of people who seem to not care that guns are used daily to murder and terrorize hundreds and thousands of innocent people in this country.  I’m done with the bullying and threatening and open-carry intimidation when legislators and citizens try to get even minimal gun control laws on the books.

There is no reason here.  There is no attempt to meet in the middle, no attempt to understand suffering, or even agreement that sometimes, sometimes, an individual’s right to carry a weapon is trumped by another individual’s right to simply live.

How do I move forward so gorged with hatred and fear?  All I feel capable of doing is violence.

Dear M,

There is no reasoning with fear.  And there is no way to understand another person’s particular, personal terror.  There is also nothing that says you have to try.  It is your choice to try or not, and there are consequences either way. Your ability to move through this time may feel compromised and it is up to you to take the necessary steps to help yourself cope in a way that aligns with who you are.

You are not hatred. You are not rage or fear or abject, gibbering terror.  None of you are but many of you don’t remember that.  Many of you live in that profound, unconscious state of terror every day.  It is exhausting for every single one of you living on that planet, but that is the nature of the human condition, and your greatest individual challenge.

Remembering that you are NOT a being made of fear, cowering in a darkened cave is the hardest act and the greatest.

Always,

Life

Is she gay?

It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a question that has hovered around me for years and I’m finally amused enough to put my thoughts in writing.  I’ve been mistaken for a man a couple of times – once by a police officer who pulled me over for speeding (yes, I was speeding) but hurriedly backed off after calling me “sir” and realizing I wasn’t a “sir.”  Another time, a waitress walked up to our booth and, seeing only the back of my head, called me “sir,” then fumbled around correcting her mistake.  In both of these cases, it seemed that their mistake was most likely caused by my short hair and broad shoulders, which they saw only from behind and when I was seated.

Cause, honestly, there ain’t no damn way I could be mistaken for a man otherwise, regardless of my sexual orientation.  For people who don’t know me IRL, there’s just a smidgen too much packed in the trunk up front to ever be mistaken for male anatomy. But back to the question at hand “Is she gay?” The answer is…

None of your fucking business. Literally.  Who I fuck is none of your business.

I don’t care about the question, I don’t care that people ask it, or that they can’t pin down whether I prefer boys or girls or turtles or leather couches.  In fact, I often go out of my way to cloud the issue.  I’m an equal opportunity flirt, sometimes an equal opportunity snuggler and hugger and hand-holder.  I love my female friends and male friends equally, and am equally physically affectionate.  I dance as a follow and a lead, and I’m not squeamy about other ladies’ boobs touching my boobs, or getting sexy when leading someone – male or female.

In short – I don’t care what other people think about my orientation.  The only reason my orientation should ever be your business is if you want to ask me out.  If that’s the case, ask and I’ll say yes or no and maybe that will be based on my orientation and maybe it won’t.  I find it flattering when anyone thinks I’m compelling and attractive enough to want to go out with, and if I’m not interested, I’ll let you know right up front.

I realize this makes some people uncomfortable, but that isn’t about my choices or behavior, or even my appearance.  It’s about their discomfort when they can’t put me in a category, or definitively label me this or that.  As I write this, I realize that everyone who has ever defied gender stereotypes has probably said the same thing.  I feel a little like a fake because I’m not sure I’m defying anything, I just don’t think it’s anyone’s business and I’m secure enough in my sexual identity to not need anyone else’s approval or understanding.

I also approach this the same way I approach dancing.  If I only ever follow or only ever lead, I miss out on 50% of all the best dancers and that’s a LOT of missed opportunity.  The same is true in this aspect of my life – if I focus all my desire for physical contact not only to one sex, but confined strictly to the *realm* of sexual activity, I miss out on 50% of all the best hugs and friend snuggles.  That’s a high percentage of loss and hey, I’m not a loser.

Graging?

Change/Transformation, It's Personal, Laughter, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’ve been trying to think of a word that combines aging with grace, and came up with the post title – graging.  Now that I see it, it could also be a combination of “rage” and “gray”, which are also part of aging, although not exactly what I had in mind.  It’s a weird word, a fake word, clumsy and ugly.  Maybe it’s the perfect word to describe how most of us increase our years, and all those moments when we say to ourselves “Is this what it feels like to be X yrs old?  I don’t feel X yrs old.”

Isn’t is amusing how the only people talking about the process of aging are those of us who are “of a certain age?”  When we’re in our twenties and thirties, we are most definitely NOT thinking about our upcoming years of graging, except in terms of retirement funds.  I know this is true because I’m close enough to my thirties that I can remember NEVER thinking about what my forties would be like!

I think it’s a psychological development.  We hit some level in our biological development and bam!  we’re suddenly pondering the nature of life, our contributions and legacy, our vulnerability, and what the end of our lives might be like.  It’s a curious paradox that our society and culture disregard our elders, fetishize youth, and yet every. single. one of us will grow old and die.  It’s one of the very few absolute givens in human existence – we, you, I, will grow older and eventually die.

I’m writing this piece more as a way to inject some humor in this process for myself, because I can’t even describe how vulnerable and alone and afraid I feel sometimes.  I can’t because thinking about it too much crushes my spirit and darkens my light, and I need a way to acknowledge my fears without letting them own me.  So maybe the word “graging” will now symbolize those parts of growing older I find both familiar and uncomfortable – the fear and anger, loneliness and uncontrollable changes – things we all struggle with most of our lives.

Naming a thing makes it less scary, in part because it makes it more real.  Perhaps the real key to growing in grace is realizing and accepting that all of these parts are inevitable and unavoidable, and that the best I can do is be kind to myself when they show up.  Kindness and grace don’t combine easily into a fun word, probably because they’re both so deserving of separate attention. There are no shortcuts to either of these states – they take courage, work, heart, and intention.

I feel better now.  Graging over.

Going through the remnants

Life, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Tonight, I went through the box of memorabilia from my last significant relationship.  As anyone who is reading this can guess, it was a combination of sad and “why did I save even the parking receipts?” Considering the final break was a little over two years ago and it’s taken me this long to go through one small box of debris, getting through the box in a single night is like cooking with gas.

The pictures were the worst.  I forgot that I’d stashed them all in that box when I ripped them off the refrigerator and out of their frames, and seeing them again was…well, not joyful.  I recently heard from my ex that he’s dating someone consistently, but that surely can’t be the reason I finally went through all that old wrapping paper, parking receipts, movie tickets, cards, programs, and other assorted scraps of memories, can it?

I pitched a lot of it, and it was kind of cathartic, but I’ll probably always feel a certain amount of sorrow about the loss of that relationship.  I’m glad he’s found someone he can start over with, someone new, who didn’t go through the terrible, shitty things we went through.  Someone who will know him as he is now, more relaxed and content, someone who doesn’t have all the baggage we have, and hopefully never will.

It surprises me, sometimes, that I’m as nostalgic as I am.  Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, given all the moving and loss and endings in my childhood.  I still have a few boxes of things from when I was a kid, carried around with me all these years.  Stacks of old posters, a box of dolls and toys, trinkets, jewelry boxes, nic nacs, comic books, and all the other stuff I accumulated before I left home.  It’s surprising how little there is, given 18 years of living with so much stuff never unpacked, but I’ve whittled it down as far as I can, even if I never look at most of it ever again.

There’s something comforting about having those physical reminders of long-gone years, tangible evidence of the girl I was, how I felt and what caught my eye.  I don’t know if I’ll ever feel quite the same about the black cardboard box of programs and photos, they carry more complex flavors, and subtle nuances of feeling and thought. Maybe time will crumple those pages too, soften the paper and dull the colors. Perhaps the padding of years means they will age well, and keep their place with all those posters of a gorgeous, young David Lee Roth.

Graduation Day

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Life, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

This is a long post, but Graduation for my students is a complex, rich experience and deserves significant reflection.

———————————————————————————————–

I find that I am often befuddled when people remark, with surprise, on the poise, clarity, and eloquence of my students. I am befuddled until I remember that they don’t see them as I do. They may have only seen them, for years, in their darkest places of mind and body. They likely have never seen them at their best as mature adult women. And that’s what I see from the beginning – I see not only the possibility, but the reality. I see it and I hold it for them, until they can see it and hold it for themselves. Graduation is an opportunity for their friends and family to see that person, to see the person I see.

The three months leading up to the big day are often the most stressful for me. We’re not only trying to finish all the coursework, I have to oversee the planning and creation of whatever decorations they want, handle all the security/event details, and begin the process of recruiting a new class.  All those things combine into a slow-cooking stew of tedious detail, frustration, an ongoing effort to maintain patience and find ways to keep myself healthy and sane.

By far, the biggest source of stress is the students.  By the time we’re planning graduation, they’ve been in the program for about 12 months.  They’re tired, ready to be done, and starting to hit the “ending is in sight and holy shit, what next?!” phase.  There’s a real risk of self-sabotage for some – I lost one this year just six weeks before she would have finished.  There is a lot of fear of transition and change – of endings, a new routine, different supervisors and co-workers.  They’ve built a strong, safe community in this room and there are no guarantees about what they’ll face elsewhere.

I am able to help a few get other positions, program graduates are usually in high demand.  They’ve proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, and they have good, solid transferable skills.  Some stay with me as clerks (three or four usually), some are going to treatment or are releasing in the next few months, so they take whatever jobs they can get.  But even with all their learning, support, and new skills, they are aflutter with nerves, and with good reason.

For most of them, this is their first significant accomplishment.  Ever.

You read that right – most of them have never completed anything important, or even truly given anything a focused, concentrated effort.  Some have – there are a few high school completers (they all have at least a GED), fewer still who have some college success.  Most have held crap jobs off and on, but few have held legitimate jobs outside of fast food, waitressing, or low-level service work.  The majority of them have survived however they could – all types of illegitimate goods and services, prostitution, theft/burglary/robbery, gambling – you name it, they’ve done it.

Completing this program, for them, is a statement to themselves and their families that they are doing everything they can to leave that world behind.  This may be the best they’re going to be for a while, and they have every right to be proud, accomplished, nervous, and afraid.  None of us ever knows when we are going to fall short of our expectations of ourselves.  We are rarely prepared to fail – especially on a grand scale, and we spend far more time punishing ourselves for our failures than anyone else ever would.

But for women (and men) who have been incarcerated, the fear of failure exists at a whole new level.  Until this moment, their lives are a testament to failure, and society incessantly reminds them of those failures. They have failed as daughters, women, wives, sisters, mothers, employees, citizens, lovers, and humans.  They have wreaked havoc on themselves and those they love, extending that damage far and wide to innocent bystanders, property, businesses, and the community. Incarceration is the ultimate symbol of failure, one that seems impossible to ever shed.

Because they have done so much damage to their relationships, success in prison often comes with a price.  Families, full of rage and pain, demand that they live in a state of constant self-punishment.  “Why are you smiling in that picture?! Are you happy to be in prison?” they ask.  Or “Why should we come to graduation? You want us to be proud that the only place you can finish something is in prison?” Or “We won’t bring your children, they don’t deserve to see you locked up” and innumerable other thoughtlessly cruel statements.

I don’t hold judgment on these families.  While they all have their own broken dynamics, it is impossible to deny these women have done great harm.  While the family itself may have put the girlchild’s feet on the wrong path, the choices were ultimately her own, even if they all pay the price.  It’s not my place to say that a family shouldn’t be angry, ashamed, disappointed, broken-hearted, they have a right to feel however they feel. But the weight of all that pain and anger is a heavy burden for my students to bear, and adds to their already extraordinary levels of anxiety, heightening their fear of failing yet again.

I had a student collapse in my office sobbing, in part because she was ashamed at the pride she felt in herself for completing the program.  She cried and cried while she tried to reconcile her feelings and her desire for her family to celebrate her success.  How much worse to fail again after such a glowing, exciting success? How much worse to let yourself and your family down again, after making such a concerted effort to create a different life?

The risk they take in claiming success, in attempting to trust themselves again, is enormous, as is the amount of courage necessary to take such a risk.

In this program, inside these walls, they are at the top of the heap.  They are in a position of privilege, they have credibility, they have the trust of staff and security, they trust themselves, they can see and measure their success and accomplishments, and their confidence grows.  But once they leave, they go right back to the bottom, and that plummeting drop is enough to drain the courage out of anyone.

They are now faced with freedom of choice and action, they have to pick up the burdens of daily living, supporting themselves and their children, finding healthcare and childcare, and often dealing with aging or sick relatives.  They are expected to make amends for their past sins, make endless reparations, and successfully navigate the roadblocks and obstacles society puts in place for those with a criminal background.

Their successes inside the walls become meaningless to everyone but them.

And that’s the ultimate fear:  that it wasn’t real, that they haven’t truly changed, that they won’t be able to hold onto this new self.  It’s hard enough to carry a strong sense of self-worth and pride, even harder with the weighty legal and personal burden of past mistakes. What if they can’t do it?  What if they can’t maintain their sense of self-worth and dignity?  What if all they are is what they’ve always heard?  What if the new person they’ve struggled so hard to become is just a mirage, with no lasting substance?

None of these questions have answers because the answers are different for every student, for every human being. These questions aren’t even specific to them, although they take on particular weight for this population.  These are questions we ask ourselves, all the time, or should be asking.  “Am I good person? Am I a person I can be proud of?  Am I making the best decision for myself and others?”

That they now not only ask, but care deeply about the answer is one sign of fundamental, personal change.  If they can keep asking the question and caring about the answer, that’s as good as most of the rest of us, and better than some. That’s the weight of graduation day for us – a symbol of accomplishment that simultaneously carries enormous risk and hope.  It is worth the work, though, for them to experience themselves as successful, proud, confident, intelligent, and valuable, for as long as possible, and to share that new self with their families.

It is a new path forward for all of them, a chance to walk forward together, in a different direction.

Conversations with Life, #1

Creative, It's Personal, Life, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

Life,

My name is M and I’m a middle-aged single woman who chose not to have children.  I have a wonderful group of friends, work I care about and am good at, access to lots of social activities, a living wage job with an ethical employer, and a safe, beautiful place to live.  As I type all those things, I wonder why the hell I’m writing you, but I’m doing it anyway because I feel trapped and dissatisfied and I need guidance.

Feeling trapped and dissatisfied, in turn, makes me feel like a bad, ungrateful person so let’s say right now, for all future conversations, I’m grateful for what I have, but I want more.  I crave more, and I’m trying to create a path that integrates gratitude and desire.

How do I do that?

Dear M,

I don’t know.  No one does.  All the big brains and hearts and voices have been trying to figure it out since you had more than one cell to rub together.  Remember, I’m only an anthropomorphic idea you decided to write to, I don’t know much beyond what you know, but I’ll offer you this image:

When I look at a person, I don’t see the physical body that you see.  What I see is a light surrounded by an infinite number of intricate layers – like those Chinese lanterns with all the patterns?  Those are all meshed together – thick, thin, lacy, solid, dark, light, permeable, fluid, rigid, and so on.  The light shines out, but it has to make its way through all those layers, through the little chinks and cracks where the gaps line up.

Every so often, everything lines up perfectly and a lot of light gets out – that’s when you get those transcendent pieces of creation or messages that endure and survive and inspire for hundreds and hundreds of years.

I’m telling you this because the desire you feel is to shine more of that light.  You crave the sensation of having more and more clear space for that inner light to expose itself, to shine on the world around you.  It’s what all humans want – it’s the reason you are here.

There is no difference in experiencing immense gratitude for the light that already shines, and desiring more of the same.  That desire is what leads you forward, and inspires you to be more fully yourself.  And that is where the magic happens.

Always,

Life