So I went to prison this past weekend. I was volunteering with the Freedom to Choose Project in Madera, CA at the Central California Women’s Facility. There is a Cannes award-winning, short documentary about it here! When we first entered the three phases of security to get into the prison it reminded me of a school campus but a school surrounded by a fourteen foot fence covered in barbed wire, rows of concrete buildings, and a yard patrolled by huge, white guys with guns. A few of the guards were on man-sized tricycles with thick tires. Guns and tricycles. It was surreal.
I felt like a freshman on The Senior Varsity Service team. Most of the volunteers had been coming to this prison for over 10 years and they all seemed to have a faith and openness and unconditional love for these inmates that I didn’t. I’ve been trying on this faith thing and it is still somewhat sporadic depending on my mood and the whether or not it is working for my ego. My job was to take the inmate’s IDs at the entrance of the gymnasium where we were holding the workshop. I said “Good Morning” over 150 times and as each face met mine I could feel something happening. It was both anti-climactic and profound. First, these women look exactly like everyone else on the outside, save the few who looked like they had been cast in the opening credits of Orange is the New Black (a series on Netflix). They were every race, surprisingly old and devastatingly young, hard and soft, feminine and masculine. As we took our seats I found myself surrounded by a few older, Latina women with scars and missing teeth and young, timid eyes. They had been to the workshop before and when I told them it was my first time they smiled and welcomed me.
We all sat and listened to the workshop facilitators at the front talk about our fight or flight response, how the animal part of our brain works, and how to breathe, slow things down, and choose a response. They quoted the legendary holocaust survivor and psychologist, Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
We broke into groups of three and took turns getting vulnerable, listening without judgement, and observing. I went in thinking I was there to teach inmates a few skills I have learned lately to manage emotions, heal, and forgive. But of course I had my ego handed to me over and over by the wisdom of these women, leaving me deeply humbled.
When it was my turn in the client chair I told them about the times I unconsciously abandoned myself and others and dressed it up as work and busyness. I told them how I recently discovered my primary motivation for everything I did was a seemingly young desire to be “good”. They listened intently and no matter how hard I looked for judgment of my champagne problems I couldn’t find it. I heard about their lives, their abuse, their actual abandonment by their parents, their botched suicides, their kids in prison, their parents in prison, and their siblings on Death Row. They knew Shakespearean level betrayal. The stuff I only watch movies about. The stuff I get furious about when I look at the injustice of the world and especially how many people of color, from poor neighborhoods go to prison, get out, go back to prison and often for life. I felt ashamed and watched my mind judge the beauty of my life as wrong. I wanted to know what they did so I could stop caring so unconditionally for them. If I knew their “badness” then maybe I would feel better about myself, the system, and the world.
I went home that night and had a dream that remained intact long after I awoke. It wasn’t abstract or blurry. It was absolutely clear. In my dream a man with a scarred face showed up and handed me a toddler. She was wiggling about and on the verge of crying and I awkwardly held her at arm’s length. “She is yours,” he said to me. I was confused. Only a man could ever experience a moment of confusion around ownership of a child. She looked exactly like me. He was patient and it was clear he had been beaten beyond recognition. The little one climbed into my arms and put her arms around my neck. I felt awkward, a hesitant new mother. The man told me, “whenever she needed you, you always just said ‘Hand me the computer.'” It is beyond awkward to recollect a thought about a thought about an experience in a dream but that is exactly what is happening. I awoke confused and half baked, an awareness just before dawn.
The second day in the prison was life changing. Soulmate, I can’t wait to take you there! My heart was wide open. I shared my dream with a much too young looking woman with thick eyeliner, three teardrop tattoos, and anxious, tapping feet. With her as my witness I recognized the parts I had abandoned along the way; the playful, young, innocent, soft, girly and emotional parts. All the parts that made vulnerable. All the parts that made me human. I realized I had banished them at various points throughout my life in an effort to project the image of what I considered successful and good. As I’m wiping snot and tears and getting myself together she leans forward and asks, “Can I give you some feedback?” “Yes! Please.” “Well, I see you being so hard on yourself to be good and stuff and this little baby seems like she is a part of you. Are you willing to just hold this little baby?” I blinked. It was like a moment in a myth when the Siren sings some wisdom and the matrix is revealed. “Yes,” I responded. “I can try. Thank you.”
A white woman with tattoos covering most of her face and neck stood up to share in front of the room. She burst into tears as she told us how her mother was locked up most of her life, and how she also went to prison when her daughter was three-years-old, and how recently her daughter was in prison, sentenced to life. Three generations. She took responsibility for the choices she made but it was, without a doubt clear, that she really was doing the best she knew how. If no one teaches you how to respond to pain and then life assaults you with immeasurable amounts of it what the hell would you do? In that moment I loved them all, regardless of what they did. We were one. Not in a hokey, new age, conceptual kind of way, but in a grounded, real, all trying to cope in the prison of our mind, kind of way.
Soulmate, selfishly I hope you aren’t in prison and I hope you have been taught, or are learning, tools to cope with whatever pain you’ve been given. I also hope someone is showing you unconditional love. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. Unconditional loving means exactly that. Loving what is, without condition. Loving self and loving other, regardless of any behavior, as exactly the same thing. No separation.
And then a second later another, very human, thought comes into my mind and creates separation. (Thought: whoever is showing you unconditional love better be your mother. 😉