Taking turns

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

Seth Godin continually reads my mind.  Today, I woke feeling the depression and anxiety pressing in closer and closer.  I don’t mention this to my friends, don’t post about it on Facebook, and haven’t written about it publicly because it’s not useful for me.  I don’t want a bunch of likes or stickers or eAdvice or virtual condolences.   So why am I writing this post?  Because Seth wrote this one about whose turn it is and it made me cry.

Sometimes, all I want is for someone to acknowledge that the continuing to do the work, whatever it is, is hard when it feels like it’s never my turn.  I don’t want anyone to try and cheer me up, admonish me for thinking negatively, or tell me how great I am; I don’t need a cheerleader or a counselor or a conscience, or someone telling me “it’s not about turns,” or “think of all the things you have to be grateful about.”

Sometimes, I need to be sad and depressed and feel like my whole life hasn’t been my turn, or that I’ve let all my turns slip on by.  There are days where nothing helps. The best I can do is use my brain as a tire iron, jack my body out of bed, and find somewhere to sit and pretend to write or fill out job applications, check job boards, or read my Twitter feed.

I woke up to my life so late, took so much time figuring out the most basic things about myself that I can’t help but think that maybe my window closed, and the best I can hope for is to watch through someone else’s.  The desire to be significant, to matter, to be someone of consequence is overwhelming, and all I can think is that I haven’t done enough to create a turn for myself.

I’m not looking for comfort or reassurance or support, I’m writing to get this out of my mind so I can put  my brain to work elsewhere.  Seth is right.  Regardless of how I feel, I can keep making choices as if it is my turn.  The critical thing is to keep doing the work, creating art, being open and responsive, and the turn will make itself.

At least I’m not a bullet.

bulletfired

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.

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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.

Unwarrented foulness

Blergh, Hard Stuff, It's Personal, Uncategorized

Well, I’m in a foul fucking mood today.  I woke up feeling chipper, then chipper grew wings, flew away, and a foul black cloud took its place.  Is there something I’ve obsessed about doing wrong, or felt guilty about, or felt like a failure for?  Yes, there are multitudes of each of these and guess what?  They’re all running rampant down the pathways of my  mind right now.

WTF, chipper feeling?!?!?  Why didst thou flitterest away?? ARGH!

So. Because I am nothing if not determined to call myself a writer, I ungraciously packed my stuff and headed to one of my less-frequented coffee shops.  BIG MISTAKE.  Here’s a tip:  If you’re in the throes of unwarrented black moodiness, GO TO A PLACE WHERE THEY KNOW YOU. If you do that, you won’t get the wrong crappy latte while knowing they have no interest in fixing in for you.

Seriously.  What reasonable coffee shop puts ONE SHOT in a 12 oz latte?!!  ARGHHHH!!  It’s not even about the caffeine.  A one shot 12 oz latte tastes like sweetened milk, not a latte.  GROSS. Plus – they don’t have 12 oz cups, so they put 16 oz worth of milk in there, and DIDN’T REMOVE THE FOAM. So I’m basically drinking a very expensive milk steamer.  ARGH!!!

I swear to whatever deities give a sh*t, I haven’t used this many capital letters in the last eight years.  THE STRUGGLE IS REAL.

trexstruggle

Lost threads

It's Personal, Obstacles/Challenges, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

I’m so frustrated right now I could [insert action indicating frustration here]. June was a bad writing month.  I did get some good writing, but it was sporadic and scattered.  What I’m discovering is that if I don’t write regularly, I lose the thought threads that bind the larger story.  It feels impossible to sit down after three weeks away and do anything constructive in 30 minutes.  Hell, doing anything constructive in 30 minutes seems impossible anyway, so I don’t know why I bothered.

I just feel pissed at myself.  Pissed because I let a month slip away and the feelings of urgency, of “this needs to be in the world NOW!” are crowding out all my other thoughts.  Even when I schedule out writing time, I’m lucky if I can get a good 60-90 minutes, which seems so little.  When I read about artists and writers who spend hours and hours daily working, working, working, I feel small and cowardly – as if I’m not making a big enough sacrifice for my art.

I imagine I’m not the only one who feels like this, though.  Those of us who have day jobs, families, obligations, etc etc, probably struggle with this to some degree, but it sucks.  I can feel this piece of work trying desperately to get out, and I’m just not doing it the service it deserves today.

TEDx comes to prison

Change/Transformation, Corrections, Creative, Reflection, Social Justice, Uncategorized

There have been a number of TEDx events in prisons, both in the US and internationally.  Now, TEDx is coming to Oregon.  More specifically, it’s coming to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, Oregon’s women’s prison.  I and six of my students are auditioning, I feel confident I’ll see at least two of them onstage.  Their audition pieces are stellar, and they’ve been working on them nonstop.  I did my audition early because I’m out of town next week, here’s the video.

I wrote the piece for this blog several months ago.  I wanted to do something else, but simply didn’t have time to create and polish something entirely new.  I hope it’s good enough to make it through to the end, but I’ll be even more happy if some of my students make it.  I can always audition for another TEDx event, this may be their best shot for a long time.  GO STUDENTS!!

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.

The Way Forward

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

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Is this.  This is the first picture of my manuscript, such as it is.  My friend Cindy told me that this is what they all look like in the beginning – highlighted, penned, tabbed, glued, taped, and post-it-noted everywhichway.

When I began thinking of writing a book, I had no idea what that process would be – emotionally, logistically, physically, mentally – none of it.  I’d never written anything longer than 20-25 pages (grad school, obvs) and ended up not even writing a thesis.  But the feeling that this is the right path, the way forward, was never in question.  This has happened before – where the choice is a given, but the path is unseen – and it has always proven harder, richer, and more meaningful than I could have imagined.

In a way, this piece of writing is the thesis I never wrote.  I didn’t write it when I finished school, but the desire to write about peace education, a pedagogy of peace, has driven me for years.  Now, I have what I didn’t have then – experience.  Finding the academics is the easy part.  Putting them into a practical, useful context is the more difficult, almost impossible part.  Without the experience of the last several years, I would have just been another idealist producing a precious piece of writing that had no deep grounding in reality, or in anyone’s lived experience.

Now, though, I’ve been able to experience, to feel and live so much of the theory, and see what makes a difference and what doesn’t.  I’ve felt for years that I had something to add to this field, and I’m overwhelmed every time I go back and read some of the pieces I’ve written.  That may sound narcissistic, but I’ve never had the experience of channeling the creative, then going back and saying “did I really write this?” because surely nothing that profound came from my mind…

It’s not always easy – there are times where I hear someone else talking about something similar, or saying something incredibly articulate and thoughtful, and I think “What do I possibly have to say to add to that?” But I know that self-doubt is part of the process, and the important thing is to keep working regardless of the monkey blathering in my ears.  So I look at this picture often, and think about how hard the last few years have been.  If I went through all that so I can be here, now, creating this piece of work – there’s no way but forward.

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.

Consumed

It's Personal, Reflection, Uncategorized, Writing

At the beginning of the year, I made the decision to get serious about writing.  I committed to pruning away activities and projects that didn’t support my goal of becoming a successful, published author.  Even though I have only myself to care for, this has still proven surprisingly difficult.  I have great capacity for work, and love taking on volunteer projects, networking, and generally spending time in my community.  The decision to step away is still working itself through, and I’m beginning to understand why intentional dedication to a craft can provoke intense loneliness.

It is hard, here in the beginning, to feel hope.  I feel alone, unskilled, overwhelmed by the process of capturing and creating experience, and uncertain about the outcome of anything.  I have no formal background in writing, haven’t read dozens of writers’ autobiographies or biographies, but I have the sense that this feeling – untethering from the familiar and retethering to the work – is something many have known.

What is surprising and sometimes frightening is that I can’t stop.  Even when I want to call someone and make plans, or get more involved in a project, or simply do something else, I find that I can’t.  I don’t want to be out late because I lose the mornings and that’s my best writing time.  I guard my time, making few commitments, and those with lots of padding so they won’t interfere with my creative space.  I keep my schedule clear so I can write when the urge hits me, I carry a notebook around everywhere, and use my phone to send notes and descriptions of dreams to myself at 2 in the morning.

This may sound familiar to some, but it is new territory for me.  I’m lucky, I suppose, my sense of urgency is manageable and I can maintain my life, even with some balance.  I’m lucky in that I’m not driven to self-destruction, or to hurt others, or to isolate myself from humanity and drink my own urine to survive.  But the iron hand does live inside the velvet glove and now I can’t go to sleep if I haven’t written.