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

Arrogance

Art/Images, Creative, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I looked up the word arrogance before writing this post, just to make sure I had selected the correct word.  I’m not convinced it’s the right word, but I can’t think of one better so here we are.  When I started believing I could write about my experience working in prison, I knew (intellectually) it would be a challenge.  Although I have extensive experience in technical and business writing, curriculum development, reflective and academic writing, I have ZERO experience in creative fiction, nonfiction, or memoir.  I knew I was venturing into unknown territory but I’m not the first to do so, nor will I be the last.

One of my reasons for venturing into this wilderness is my tendency to get distracted by intellect, and I often think about this in relationship to dancing. Years ago, I made a clear and specific decision that I wasn’t interested in pursuing the more technical aspects of dance.  I’m a social dancer, I like to experiment and explore, going far outside the choreography and “normal” movement and shapes.  In more recent conversations, I realize that this is a an advanced approach to dance, if not a truly “complete” approach.  The greatest dancers are those who challenge themselves technically, as well as artistically, and I’ve long since left the road to technique.

I made this decision because dance is one of the only places in my life where my brain is OFF.  The minute I start concerning myself with technique (Am I a fast enough spinner?  Are my arms straight?  Am I pointing my toe enough? Are my shine patterns symmetrical?), I am out of my heart and body and into my head.  I’ve got enough technique and body control that I can forget about it and simply enjoy the music, movement, and connection with my partner.  THAT is what I crave in dance – not greater technique or an extensive repertoire – even those things are wonderful.  This is what I thought I could transfer into my writing, this sense of being grounded enough in the technical that I could focus solely on the story.

Because I have a solid grounding in writing technique, even if it is largely informal, I thought I had a decent chance at putting together a story people would want to read.  I wasn’t naive enough to think it would be perfect, but I did feel I was competent.  As of today, that feeling has entirely evaporated.   I realize this is probably a normal part of the process for any writer, but I am keenly feeling my lack of formal training, experience in creative writing and storytelling, and in the craft itself.  I’ve realized that the “how” of storytelling – all the decisions about timeline, details, organization, setting (you know – all the things that make up a story) – is not some magic combination of luck and brilliance, it is grounded in technique and exposure and work work work.

I’m not sure I was arrogant when I began this project but I definitely didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Today, my lack of confidence is showing up as “what made you think you could do this?  you don’t know shit about writing anything other than program outlines and lesson plans?  how could you be so disrespectful of all those people who have spent years learning the craft by thinking you could just sit down and pound out something decent – with no experience or training?  who do you think you are?”

I realized recently that I have several well-known, well-respected authors and storytellers in my bigger circle of acquaintances and I cringe when I think about my arrogance.  They’ve spent *years* working and perfecting their crafts and I think I can come along in a few months and produce a top quality piece of work?  Even though I’m posting this online, I’m kind of hoping none of them read it (I’m pretty sure none will) – I don’t want them to know how clueless I really am.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this feeling, this terrible and crippling lack of confidence, is another obstacle to overcome, another block on the road to shipping.  It’s an unexpected and unfamiliar feeling – this lack of confidence with regard to writing, with regard to work.  I’ve been confident in my ability to complete, to execute, to ship, for years and years.  Even when I was unemployed and desperate, I was still able to scrabble together enough gigs to limp along – I was still able to make things happen.

But I can’t “make” this happen, and that is an unknown, uncomfortable feeling.  I can’t brain-muscle my way through, force the words I know are “right,” or build an outline and follow the bread crumbs backwards.  None of those things are working, and they’re the majority of my toolkit.  My unconscious competence isn’t unconscious anymore, and my skillset needs to change and grow.  I’m afraid that learning what I need to learn (or think I do) will take too long, that I’ll never get it done or the story will no longer be relevant.

As I typed that, my head realized that it’s nonsense but my heart still feels afraid and worried.  I drew this a week or two ago, on a really really bad day.  Today isn’t that bad and writing this post helped.

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Heart’s Fog

Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I haven’t been blogging much, I’ve been working on a manuscript about my experience working as a corrections educator.   I’ve started writing the narrative and it’s gone well when I’ve been able to sit down and write.  But I haven’t been writing as much as I need to, as much as I want to.  I can’t tell if I’m distracting myself, or if it’s just a phase – a flurry of activity from the world outside my writing.

I suppose this is part of why so many writers, artists, and musicians isolate themselves when they need to create.  Although I love my life and my friends and all the wonderful things around me, they intrude on my bandwidth, take away that precious focus I need to generate the good stuff.

This is an entirely new experience for me.

Most of my life the last several years has revolved around my friends, dancing, and my social life.  It is disconcerting to feel alone, to hear some small voice whispering “you could be writing,” even while I thoroughly enjoy my time with my friends.  I feel like I’m in some unknown place, surrounded by a mist that lives and breathes, parting to let me see through, but not for long.

Policy or pet peeve, who knows?

Corrections, Obstacles/Challenges, Power/Privilege, Rants, Systems, Uncategorized, Writing

Taking pictures in the facility is always a gamble. We’re supposed to avoid including doors, windows, building lines, and big pictures of the facility from the inside.  It’s a useless exercise, because a simple Google image search on “Coffee Creek Correctional Facility” brings up dozens of images of the inside and outside, including the satellite view. But I’m always careful to frame my pictures to include only the students, or equipment, or whatever.

Staff alone are allowed to freely use cameras (still photos only), the only inmates allowed to use the camera (even under staff supervision) work for LifeSkills. They take photos at events, yard photos, and so on.  But my department has a couple of cameras and I take class pictures at the beginning of class and again close to graduation.  Recently, I realized I hadn’t taken the first set of class pictures and we’re about a year into class!  Long overdue, we scheduled pictures, everyone got dolled up, and we had a lot of fun with getting people to pose and smile.  I have to admit, I gave anyone who struck a “prison pose” a hard time, but that only made us all laugh harder.

After we take pictures, but before we can let the women see or purchase them, the captain of the facility has to approve them.  She takes the camera and reviews each picture and decides if it’s “ok” or not.  She reviews the background, the poses, how close the women are to each other and whether or not they’re touching, their clothing, and anything else that might be suspicious.  If this sounds ridiculous to you, I don’t know what to say.  I suppose having the top level of management review individual photos taken by staff (who are supposed to know what is appropriate and what isn’t) could be considered an effective use of time, but that’s not my decision to make.

I took the camera to the captain and she started looking through the photos.  Almost immediately, she began scolding me because some of the women had their t-shirts untucked.  That’s right, she was scolding me because of how they were wearing their clothing.  She then pointed at one person and asked her name.  I told her and she said, accusingly “her shirt is too tight.  Why is she wearing a shirt that tight?  She must have modified it. Why is she wearing it?”

I was completely dumbfounded.  Did she expect me to have an answer?  Did she somehow think I was responsible for my students’ clothing?  What the hell was happening right now?  I said “Well, do you want to call her unit officer and tell him?”  She said “No, she needs to come see me.”  She wanted to scold this woman in person.  The captain of the facility thinks it’s a good use of her time to individually scold an inmate for wearing a shirt she thinks is too tight.  Still incredulous, I ask “do you want me to send her over?” and, of course, the answer was yes.

After all the complaining and scolding, she graciously allows me to keep all the photos and I leave.  I’m pissed.  Seriously pissed.  My students are supposed to know the rules and policies and adhere to them, whether I micro-police them or not.  I discreetly send the offending shirt-wearer over to the captain and dismiss everyone else for lunch.  When they come back, I give them a fairly stern “I don’t like being scolded for you wearing your clothing the wrong way, what the hell were you thinking?” lecture.  Not too stern, not too angry, didn’t call anyone by name, but unhappy enough.

When I finish, J raises her hand and says “In all our other pictures, we’re allowed to untuck our shirts and it’s not a problem. We didn’t know.”  And bam – I now feel like a complete a$$hat and someone who speaks before thinking or investigating.  I feel like that for a couple of minutes as I re-orient and try to make the best out of a bowl of shit soup.  I attempt to spin it as “Okay.  Going forward, make sure that you follow the ‘professional’ dress code in any pictures you take that aren’t in a casual environment” but it felt stupid and weak.  I knew they understood that I’d been given this information by the captain, but now I was caught between what the captain was saying in this instance, and what they’re allowed to do on a regular, ongoing basis.

Was the captain correct, and the untucked shirts against a largely unenforced policy?  Or are untucked shirts a pet peeve and she was acting as if her personal wish were policy when it isn’t?  What is true?  And who, if not the highest ranking security officer in the facility, could clarify this for me?

The answer is no one, and this extremely minor incident highlights one of the thorniest problems in this institution:  The inconsistent and arbitrary nature of rule and policy enforcement.  The rules and policies themselves highlight the even bigger issue of balance between maintaining safety and using power/dominance to micro-manage and control every single aspect of people’s already limited lives.  I mean, is someone having their socks turned down really a threat to the safety and security of the institution?

The fact that I even tell myself “well, maybe somewhere, something bad could come from that” makes me feel like the insanity of normalizing this environment is only a short distance away.  Having to constantly evaluate every piece of information to determine its accuracy and relevance, and not being able to trust the people who should be the authorities is nerve wracking, especially since it’s rarely clear when safety really IS the issue, not just power and control.