Face Tattoos & Forgiveness

Hey Soulmate,

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. 😉

Love, Bristol

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Face Tattoos & Forgiveness

Cuddling with Not Knowing

Hey Soulmate,

I saw a movie called ‘Chappie’ the other day and I found myself sobbing uncontrollably for about 30 seconds during a few scenes that were definitely not sob worthy. It was confusing. It was one of those scenes where a totally innocent, adult sized robot has just become sentient and is essentially a newborn child absorbing his new world. He was skittish, frightened, curious, open, and a complete sponge. Immediately, the people (who happened to be thugs) start projecting their own desires onto him and assaulting him with their shitty conditioning. It was devastating. It was the perfect summary of the human experience. We are born into a family with a lineage of conditioning and based on that conditioning, our parents are doing the best they can with the tools they have been given. The cycle is so clear. As I sobbed I felt equal parts devastated by the world and unconditional love for it. We are all little robots absorbing the world around us and doing the best we can to survive; part animal, part consciousness.

I realized a few hours later this sobbing was unveiling yet another layer of this seemingly endless existential inquiry. There is a part of me that refuses to accept reality. I don’t want to believe that suffering and pain are a natural part of life. This part of me feels a great weight to fix/change/save the world because I was born into a safe, loving, privileged home. “With great power comes great responsibility” and “to whom much is given, much is expected” are the sayings that this part holds true. If I follow the logic of this belief I am essentially born guilty and must earn my goodness by doing everything I can to right the injustice of the world; the brutal unfairness that is everywhere. Sound familiar? Born sinful? Good works getting you into heaven? I swear I was never raised religious but this waspy lineage runs deep. But here is something I don’t get Soulmate, if the point of Christ’s epic sacrifice was to absolve us of our sin then why do we still consider ourselves innately unworthy? It doesn’t make sense.

This part of my ego is furious with the overall design of this place. WTF?! How can suburban comfort exist in the same world as ISIS? How dare I seek my own happiness when there is such pain in the world? And yet if I am gifted with a loving life how dare I not enjoy every moment of it?  If I let go of this layer and believe the world just IS and the mystery of “why” is beyond the answering of the human mind I feel equal parts selfish, guilty, and relieved. The truth is I am not in charge. Even if I was the most powerful person in the world I could not alleviate all the suffering in the world. The chaos or divine structure within which I play my part is made up of dimensions we are only beginning to discover. When I follow this belief to its’ origin I find it leads to the unknown and there is nothing more horrifying to the human ego that not knowing.

I observe the mind cycle like this:

Experience of Not Knowing -> Experience of Fear & Helplessness -> Panic -> Stress -> Refusal to accept not knowing -> Pretend to know or hypothesize -> Hustle to prove the thought -> Manifest proof or Pretend to prove thought -> Fight to defend thought and Pretend Knowing -> Have thought destroyed by life somehow and return to the origin of not knowing OR dig in heels and defend thought till death.
The truth I am discovering is that I don’t know why the world is the way it is and why we are born into the lives we are born into and what we are here for. So instead of moving into the panic of not knowing I am going to try to sit in it, cuddle with it, let it be, and surrender to it. I find that when I do that with anything it tends to reveal something. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Love, Bristol

Cuddling with Not Knowing