The wind was howling and it was supposed to rain that day. The storm they predicted was the kind where everyone lines up for water and prepares for power outages, but the sun was so bright I took my jacket off at the gas station. I’d forgotten to wear deodorant and I was already starting to sweat, that cold sweat of fear and nervousness – excitement even.
The razor wire, visible before anything else, knotted my guts. The main building stood tall and imposing with its requisite flags, and it had several other buildings flanking it. All looked like tired cadets, imposing and armed, with shoulders pressed forward over blistered heels and trembling kneecaps. With no outward facing windows, facades hide the contents they contain. This vision, with the elevating wind: loud, silent, corrosive.
I left everything but my driver’s license and keys in the car, traded my ID for a visitor’s tag, put my keys in a locker, and walked through a metal detector into a yard full of women moving around in little clutches.
Moving in the unique and distinctive way people move when they aren’t actually going anywhere.
Since my own release from prison eleven years ago, I’ve been back inside a men’s facility several times. It was a pretty huge deal, but very different. Maybe it was the layout of the building, but really, men and women collect and collaborate differently. They move differently. And the difference was palpable.
Unexpectedly, it was this movement that hit me the hardest. It’s relaxed, but guarded, it’s not quite as frantic as a caged animal pacing, but not too far off. This is the movement of one who *is* caged, but who has a conscious understanding of their powerlessness. Where the animal seems to endlessly be looking for a way out, the women aren’t. It was visceral and transportive.
Out of place in my street clothes and visitor’s badge, but somehow still right at home, I was flooded with memories. Not specific, full-story memories, but body memories. Explosions of emotion. Fear, exhaustion, hopelessness. Faces became recognizable, the way they do when you’re in an unfamiliar place and your brain seeks continuity.
But, enough to override all of that, I also felt profoundly blessed in the truest sense of the word. I was allowed to come back, not as an inmate, but as a speaker talking about one of my favorite things: Telling Your Life as a Love Story (instead of a story of shame and guilt).
So, yeah. There’s incredible power, hope, and energy in that.
It was a dream come true.
Years ago, a woman came to my prison. A ceramics artist. She gave this beautiful talk about love and detachment. She was throwing a pot on the wheel as she spoke, building it up from a lump of clay into an elegant, tall, spinning vase with perfectly thick and even sides. At one point in the talk, she stopped the wheel and smashed the vase.
Everyone in the room gasped.
“People get so attached,” she said.
It had only been a little while, and this thing we had watched from beginning to becoming was already in our hearts. And then it was gone.
Impermanence is a gift and a curse.
Humans are apt to accept whatever narrative is handed to them.
That woman’s talk meant so much to me. I remember she said that she didn’t really plan what she would say, that she had faith that the right words would come when needed, that what she wanted to express was always in her heart, and in ours.
I thought of her in this moment, in this prison yard, and I prayed to do the same here for these women.
Of course, as these things go, as soon as they started filing into the chow hall, an emergency count was called. “Welcome to prison,” a dark-haired woman said while looking bemused and annoyed.
“Oh, I remember,” I thought while watching them all, dressed in blue, funnelling back into their units. It felt wrong not going with them.
Waiting to get behind a microphone anywhere is always a little nervy, but this seemed an especially long time. Prison time moves slower. Memories live in our cells. And apparently, my bladder. So, I nervous peed for another forty minutes, meaning that my host had to unlock the bathroom for me every time. Security, etc. Embarrassing.
I was worried they wouldn’t come back, but they did. They filled the front seats first. I’ve always found prison populations to be particularly eager to learn, to work hard, to find some solace, some hope, some rehabilitation. A thing that is ironically lacking in the system itself.
The tables could seat 130 inmates. All 130 came. “For the speaker,” they said.
I was tearing up before I started.
They brought notebooks and warm smiles. Some looked curious but reticent. Some of them were already in tears. One of them in the very front row was nine months pregnant.
Unlike the ceramics woman, I did prepare – only a few pages of notes. Things I really wanted to share with these women about how they *don’t* actually have to accept the narrative that’s been handed to them. Forgiveness is an option. Saying “thank you”, instead of “sorry”. But, mostly, it was my intention to provide a couple of hours of peace. Just to be there as a person who gets it, who can see them as people and not just numbered uniforms, not just as Mistakes.
See, I remember how it feels to have people come in to “do good”. It’s not hard to recall how it feels to be on the receiving end of charity (rather than equality-minded) actions. How it feels to be a number, a uniform. Powerless, invisible, less than, less fortunate, lacking, needing, needy, trapped, small, stupid.
These women don’t need another reminder they’re in prison.
What they need are reminders of their humanity and worth. What they need is to know is that there is a mindset of value and success they can adopt. That they’ve been punished enough. That it’s ok to shift focus from GUILT and SHAME over The Mistake they made to all of the things about them that are real and good.
Maybe this is the reminder that everyone needs.
I know I do.
And let’s be honest, the biggest mistake anyone in a low-security prison made is not being born into privilege. Sure, they did something illegal and got caught, but it’s not worse than the illegal shit rich people do who don’t get caught. Or don’t serve time for. It’s probably not even the worst thing they’ve done in their lives, ethically speaking.
After it ended, and the questions were answered, and I got to connect with as many women as I could before they had to leave for another count, I sat in my car for nearly an hour waiting for my body to settle enough to drive. Revelling in the catharsis.
Really, there’s so much to say here. I keep sitting down to work on this post and my brain goes a little crazy. It’s taken me nearly two weeks to write. It’s taken as long to digest it. And this is just a moment, a drop. There’s no beginning and end to this story, this amalgam of rage and hope.
In my mind it’s more than a story or a post or a presentation. It’s a prayer and a vision.
For a more restorative, rather than punitive, justice system.
For a system that adds, not subtracts, life skills and enough faith in a culture to *want* to participate in it in meaningful ways.
For the spirit of forgiveness for each other.
For people incarcerated – the absolute allowance, and expectation, that they can and should forgive themselves.
For the return of parents from prisons to homes, who will raise children free from guilt, shame, and fear. Children who know they have emotional and economic options.
For a culture that supports and provides those emotional and economic options to all of its citizens.
I want real freedom. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like in the future. But I do know it starts in our own lives.
It’s such a huge fucking honor to be able to participate in this dream in any way at all.
So, I’ve been invited back into the prison to work more closely with some of the women that were at the presentation. They were nourished by the space I created for them and asked for more, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to help them dive deeper into their personal stories and turn them into lasting love stories. This is my volunteer service. This is some of my deepest soul work.
And I want to support this work, also support your lives, and mine! I want more. I want to fill up my practice with people who are READY to apply these principles of TENACITY and ALLOWANCE and to radically shift the ease and enjoyment of their lives.
You who are on the outside, who have freedom it its literal sense, YOU also have the ability to dive deeply into this journey with me. Mental, physical, and financial freedom for all of us! Let’s use this privilege for good, yeah?
It would be such a pleasure to support you as your coach.
Dip a toe into The Liberation Front community (women).
Dive in with determination to private coaching.
I’m also forming a *NEW* Men’s Mastermind Group (this is very exciting and the men showing up so far are some of the finest!)
A 30 minute consultation call is FREE. You have nothing to lose.
We’re better together. It’s just true.
***Deep gratitude to The Family Preservation Project for hosting me as part of their monthly speaker series at Coffee Creek Correctional. Please, if you haven’t yet, check out the incredible film about the organization, Mothering Inside by Brian Lindstrom.***