This week brought both hope and sorrow to Conspire’s work at the jail and I’m still trying to wrap my head around having two such different events dropped on me in the space of twenty four hours. On Thursday, Jennifer emailed all of the PRIDE volunteers to let us know that Ms. D (not her real name), an older student in the program, passed away in custody. Ms. D had been in my class since the beginning of June, and I had gotten to know her in a way that can be difficult with women who come and go so quickly. She was always happy to participate, went out of her way to let me know how thankful she was for the class and while she had her ups and downs like everyone else, she tried to set an example for the younger women in the program. Several of the younger women who were used to dropping the f bomb every other word had to learn to tone it down, partly because of Ms. D’s protestations. She was curious about our guest artists and made a point to chat with me several times after class. It seemed like she really wanted to connect.
She had substance abuse and addiction problems, although I don’t know all of her story. At one point, she told me that she was headed to rehab after her jail sentence and was ready for it, ready to turn her life around. I know firsthand the pain that people with addictions can cause their family and friends but I also saw Ms. D as a sincere and thoughtful woman. We all contain such contradictions – it’s part of being human – but they can be difficult to empathize with and understand. All I know is that her life ended before she could try to make good on her intentions in the outside world. I wish that her story had a different ending. I wish that everyone could see these people as I am privileged to see them – as smart, funny, creative, giving, temperamental, hurt, fierce, vulnerable woman – and that they could be those people all the time. Hell, I wish I could be that woman all the time, the woman I am when I’m leading those classes.
When I went to the jail on Friday, I didn’t even know how to approach it. Should I bring it up? Leave it alone? Play the fun games? Stay somber? I decided to make those decisions when I got there, to let the women’s actions inform me. We had a writing day, as I needed to give their pieces over to La Tasha so that she can craft a show from them. She’ll be performing it at the jail on August 13th, so we needed to get their stories finished that day. When I got to class, the women seemed okay, were joking and laughing so I decided to leave it alone. We stretched, played some storytelling games and got down to writing. One younger woman, the one who can barely contain her swearing, asked me in a low voice if I heard what had happened. Actually, she said, “We didn’t check in this morning.”
“You didn’t ask us how we were doing. With the hand thingy.”
“Oh, you’re right. We can do that at the end, if you like.”
“Did you hear what happened?”
I took a breath. “I did. Jennifer told me. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what to say.”
“We were all shocked. I didn’t believe it.”
We talked about it a little more, then everyone kept writing. I helped the same woman with hers, she dictated to me and I wrote down her story, a history of both physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. I sighed again and again until she asked, “What, are you sick of writing?” “No, it’s just painful stuff,” I replied.
The scribbling of pencils filled the room. The sound was almost urgent and the women covered page after page. After I collected everyone’s work, I said, “Ms. C brought up an important point – I didn’t do a check-in today. I heard about Ms. D and I wanted to say how sorry I am and how much I enjoyed having her in this class.” The women all nodded and murmured but didn’t say much.
“I brought a song,” I said. “If you want to sing with me. I brought in Amazing Grace.”
“That’s what you wrote on the card for her family!” one woman told another. “She was lost but now is found.”
I passed out the lyrics and we stumbled through. Honestly, I need a choir director. We were laughing at ourselves by the end, all singing in different keys and at different tempos. They all kept the lyrics though. As we walked out of the classroom together, Ms. I, another woman who’s been with us since early June, told me that this would be her last class with me. She’s moving to the women’s prison at Gatesville. Truth Be Told, another creative organization, has just started a program at Gatesville, so I told her to look for them. I’ll miss her enthusiasm and energy, and told her so. Even though she’s older, she has a youthful, innocent quality and is always ready to laugh and play. When I ran shorter workshops (five weeks at a time), I left the women. Now they’re leaving me, and while some have been released, many more are not. Even the ones who are released might come back – I’ve already seen a couple of women from my fall workshop who are back with us.
It’s hard. I can usually keep it at bay, keep that level of detachment that enables you to keep going, but this week it’s been difficult. There is so much that needs to be done and so little that feels like it makes a difference. Where do you put your one sandbag as the floodwaters rise?
In the midst of all this, Jennifer also told me that Ms. P, a woman who was released shortly after our fall workshop, called her this week. Apparently, Ms. P, who has had some success on the outside, was slipping back into her old habits. Angry with herself, she kicked over a box in her garage and a card fell out. On the last day of our fall workshop, Meg, myself and the women in our class wrote letters to our future selves. We wrote them on blank cards, sealed them up in envelopes and put a date on them, for when we could open them. I told the women to give themselves advice or write down a good memory from our class, something that could help them in the future. This was the card that fell out of the box in Ms. P’s garage. She read it and re-committed herself to keeping her life on the right track. She’ll be enrolling at UT this fall and I know that she has the brains and guts to make it, if only she can keep herself on the right track.
Where does that leave me? In the same place we all are, I guess, trying to find beauty in a broken world. Trying to celebrate humanity and hope in unlikely places with women who need to be reminded of both.