Wow. I don’t know if I can find the words today. The first blast of really cold weather has finally hit us; the sky loomed gray and heavy this morning. Dan, Jackie and I all rode to the jail together and met Meg and Lauri there. Dan Solomon (my husband and a freelance writer), Jackie Salcedo (from the Center for Women and Gender Studies) and Lauri Hoese (from the Crime Prevention Institute) were our guests at the sharing today – I’ve asked them each to write a short piece about their experience to post here.
Usually the waiting room for visitors is packed but today it was strangely empty and dark. The weather is keeping everyone at home. In Texas, we fear even the slightest brush of snow. When we got up to the classroom, the women had just woken up and yawned their way into the room. We warmed up as usual and I asked Jackie, Dan and Lauri to join us. I keep a pretty firm rule that anyone in the room must participate. I forgot to warn my guests of this, so I’m thankful that they jumped right in. They also played a game of Zip, Zap, Boing! with us. Dan was the only man in the room and despite my fears, it didn’t feel like too big of a disruption to have him in there.
We rehearsed our song and two of our movement pieces, and one of the women tuned the guitar we brought and worked out her accompaniment. Members of the jail staff filed into the room and we got ready to roll. I brought in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” as preshow music (it was also the title of today’s event) and several of the women sang along, as did some of the audience members.
I really don’t know how to express what happens to an ordinary, rather drab classroom when it’s filled with creative energy. It becomes an extraordinary place where the unexpected can occur. One woman has been wanting to sing a particular song, and another woman decided that she would dance while the first woman sang. I had never seen this dance before today and it was beautiful. She called it praise dancing, a kind of interpretive dance that flowed along with the lyrics of the song. I guided the entire audience in conjuring a rainstorm with their hands and feet while a group of six women created beautiful linked shapes with their bodies. We showed Zip, Zap, Boing! and several of the women brought it to life with an energy that only presents itself in performance. The last part of the sharing was a poem, presented by a woman who usually keeps her cool. She broke down in tears while the rest of the women said, “Keep with it. We’re here with you. Keep going.” Another woman walked up to her and helped her finish it. They developed a rhythm together of alternating the lines, and then read the last line together.
One woman thought that she was going to go home yesterday. She stayed in bed this morning, didn’t want to be around anyone, until one of the staff requested that she come watch to support the other women. She came into the room halfway through the sharing, stone faced – I didn’t even realize she was there until I looked up as we were all singing together in the ‘stage’ area. She had come up and joined in the song, “Killing Me Softly.” Some of the women (myself included) spontaneously danced at the end of the song, trading off spots in the center of a semi-circle. I know that I’m an outsider there who can come and go as she pleases – and I felt a real connection with the group today. We ended with a bow as everyone thanked everyone else. Meg and I thanked Jennifer Scott and the PRIDE women; they thanked us.
“This is only time we feel free,” one woman told me. Another added her agreement. The first woman was quick to add, “We can only be really free if we make different decisions.” I think that this feeling of freedom is an important one because it allows the women to feel like human beings. If we say that we want incarceration to somehow fix people and make them less likely to re-commit crimes, than we have to acknowledge them as people, instead of terrible, worthless, throwaway nothings. A co-worker of mine at my day job tossed off the comment, “I don’t really think that’s necessary,” when I was discussing my work at the jail. Of course it’s necessary. It’s necessary to give people options and to allow them to stretch themselves and make discoveries about themelves. It’s necessary for people to understand that different ways of thinking and living exist and that they can embraced or ignored. It is easy to tell someone this but it’s very difficult to show them. Creating this space where anything can happen is a very real, very concrete way to explore those ideas. A woman can say, “I am a dancer,” instead of “I am worthless.” Or, “I am a mother,” an actor, a teacher, a singer, a good listener, a team player, a diva, a close friend, a goofy show off. If you create the space, people will astound you.
At the end of the sharing, one of the staff (a lieutenant) picked up the guitar and started strumming. Everyone gathered around her as she sang us “Mama He’s Crazy” while she played. A small moment, but one that will stay with me. Although the staff/inmate divide can’t disappear completely, in that instant it was truly a sharing. The inmates gave out what they’d created over the past five weeks and this lieutenant gave us a song. I’ll say it again: if you create the space, people will astound you.
I’m pretty heartbroken that this is ending. We go back on Tuesday for a wrap up and evaluation day, and then we’re gone again. Back to grants and fundraising. I have some of the women’s contact information and they have mine so I’m hoping we can stay in touch. I hope this post captured at least some of the spirit of today – I’d like to pass it around.
In all of the pictures I’ve posted today, the women are just out of the shot. We weren’t allowed to record the performance in any way. I hope you can imagine them, just off screen.