This is a day-late (and possibly a dollar-short) post because of my visit to the women’s prison yesterday, and the fact that I spent all day today fen-shuiing my home computer space, which was dull and utilitarian. Mr. Typist and I share "The Computer Room” and space is tight, to say the least. With the addition of the gigantic terrarium, (see "Containment"), my space shrank to about four feet by four feet, and remained adorned for the last six years with nothing but a ratty bulletin board and a boring calendar. Today, I bought a purple and gold scarf, a hanging plant with curvaceous yellow and green leaves, a still life of roses and milk pitchers, a mirror, and a purple lamp. I framed a card a always liked, and put up a shelf above my (tiny) computer desk for some of my journals and poetry books. I draped the scarf around the mirror, (I know, very college-dormy, but I like the effect), then hung the plant, the still life, and a gorgeous print by my talented friend Robin Maynard-Dobbs. It's an entirely different space now—warm, vibrant, and inviting. With all the time I spend at my computer working on poetry and creative projects, I can't believe that it's taken this long to occur to me that I should make it a pleasant and visually pleasing space. A shocking oversight for a Libra, but I guess that's what comes of ennui and over-acceptance.
When Dana I discussed joining together in this project, we talked about occasionally switching off so that she would write about beauty, and I would write about compassion. Today, compassion is up for me. Each year, my organization runs an event at the state womens prison centered around heart disease prevention. I always leave this event deeply affected, often in ways that I find hard to give voice to. Being with these women for even a short period of time is intense and emotional, and my compassion for what they are going through is full and present, even through the more difficult or uncomfortable interactions.
Full disclosure here: I'm disturbed by the fact that while I feel this compassion towards women easily, I could never feel the same compassion for the male prison population. Part of this is because of being a victim of violent male crime, but part if it is because I can more easily extend empathy to women for their mistakes, for being victims of their backgrounds and circumstance, for doing things that they shouldn't because they want love and approval. Male prisoners are there for many of the same reasons, of course, but I have an unshakable tendency to view them as aggressors rather than victims. (And then of course, there is of course the issue of locking people up for drug use, which victimizes both women and men needlessly, in my opinion.)
We always try to provide an activity around self-esteem, because so much of what has driven these women in their lives is the need for approval and love. The self-esteem facilitator ran lovely little bite-sized sessions in a private room, and I sat in on one of them. She said that we could learn to breath, to think and speak ten percent slower. She said we could learn over time to be calm, confident, and self-compassionate. She took us through a breathing exercise in which we were asked to offer ourselves self-compassion. This was a very difficult one for me. I was only able to offer my self compassion for a few seconds, after a mighty struggle. But when I did, more space opened up around me. I felt the air thin and become lighter, I felt a flow and a sweetness surrounding my body, and my throat softened as though my words, too, would be gentler and more eloquent.
A broad, round-faced woman with braids sat across from me. Whe I looked at her, there was enormous amount of pain in her eyes. For some reason, I recognized that exact type of pain, that particular depth and quality. I connected deeply to her brand of sorrow because I, too once felt it--for years on end. I think it was the pain of a deep, baked-in shame, the feeling of being beneath love or redemption. Our eyes met several times, but one or both us of kept looking away. If I lingered too long on her face, I would have started crying, I would have tried to comfort her and tell her that there is something on the other side of this, I promise, just hang on. But I didn't want to call her out on her pain. I didn't know how to approach her without being invasive, and in spite of what this Oprah-ized culture tells us, people deserve to have boundaries around their personal suffering.
One of my favorite songs is by Mary Fahl, called “Redemption”:
can be granted to us
or be granted by us
but I believe it's due us, anyway.
I will keep this woman in my thoughts. and hope and hope that one day light breaks open for her.
Artwork "Reverence" by Robin Maynard-Dobbs