I. Am. Afraid. of Cities.

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I am afraid of cities,

all jagged and hard,

blades of concrete

leaving dreams

mutilated and scarred.

 

Where concrete legos scrape

the sky

only to show us

our place is where

the asphalt lies.

 

I am afraid of cities

where trees turn into

light posts and

sky into peep holes

reminding us God

once existed.

 

Where walls turn

into labyrinths,

keeping us confused

and distorted,

and silence is drowned

by sounds that rumble,

and honk and pierce, 

unnaturally persistent.

 

I am afraid of cities where

street lights distract us from

dreaming,

from the stars,

and the stem

of a crack pipe

is more familiar than

the stem of a rose.

 

Where women are asphyxiated

by back alley blow jobs,

and the earth

cracks the sidewalks open

for some air.

 

I am afraid of cities,

with their paper work 

and forms, long lines

and waiting rooms,

cubicles and punch-in 

clocks, rubber stamps

and guards that loom.

 

I am afraid of cities,

financial corrals

where humanity lives for

paychecks, and money

is always scarce. 

 

Where life is erased

by calculated numbers,

law and order is more sacred

than people,

and time rubs us

raw. 

 

But I am more afraid

of living afraid, 

so I plant my bare feet,

solid, on the ground,

let the sun rays shine

sturdy, on my face and

catch the wind as it whispers,

“You matter.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is No Restoration in Dehumanization

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A bird flies over barbed wire on top of fences at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. In 2014 when this photo was taken, California was under a federal court order to lower the population of its prisons to 137.5 percent of its designed capacity after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that inmate health care was so bad it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Photographer, Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This past weekend, I had the honor of serving inmates a Donovan State Prison through restorative and healing work.  In the process, I connected with a Samoan brother, Utu, who’d been incarcerated for nearly two decades and, most recently, spent four years in, what the inmates and prison guards refer to as, the hole, solitary confinement.  Utu held a type of innocence that is very difficult to maintain in inmates who’ve experienced and perpetrated the most tragic and heinous acts of violence.

There was an immediate spiritual connection that occurred as he began to share pieces of himself in a place where even a little bit of vulnerability can get a man killed; one that allowed me to see we are both greater than our experiences and our choices.

In 2010, do to over crowded and under-equipped California prisons,  Utu was one of many inmates forcefully persuaded to sign a prison transfer request from California to Arizona. He was told it would be a temporary five-year arrangement.  While in Arizona, he discovered that what he had signed up for was “to live in hell,” and doubted he would make it out of Arizona alive.  Not only were tensions between prison guards and inmates more hostile, but racism and inequity were used to instigate more animosity and violence among the inmates.  Without going into details, he told me he got into a confrontation with another inmate, and beat him unconscious.  The next day, Utu was sent to the hole where he would live out the rest of his five-year incarceration sentence in Arizona.

A prisoner named Ahmad Al Aswadu wrote an essay titled “A Black View of Prison” in the April-May 1971 issue of the Black Scholar. In his essay, he describes the experience of living in the “hole” while incarcerated:

The “Hole” (called such because its locality is usually under the prison’s first floor) is solitary confinement. One could stay in the hole for a week or a lifetime depending upon his color and attitude. It is here in the hole that men are made and broken at the same time. It is here that the previous threat of getting “hurt” can realize itself all too quickly. And it is here that the seeds of Black Consciousness have been cultivated in the minds of many black men.

It is very difficult for a layman such as I to describe the atmosphere of the hole but I shall try. I believe that the very first thing that the brother notices about the hole is the desolateness and the feeling of utter aloneness. The first time that I was sent to the hole I felt as if my soul had deserted me. I don’t believe that I had ever experienced such a feeling of intense emptiness in my life before then. I had been sent to the hole to have my attitude changed, because, as they stated, it was not conducive to “good order.” 

His father died shortly after he was placed in the hole.  Samoans follow a code of living and culture called the Fa’a Samoa which means “the Samoan Way.” Central to this culture is the Fa’amatai. The family is the most significant socio-political element of Samoan society. Family responsibility and the care of family land are the keys to the culture. For Utu, not being able to be at his father’s funeral or with his family was devastating and a source of shame; and there was nowhere for him to escape this shame.  As he began to unravel into hopelessness and deep depression, a few months into his solitary confinement, he heard  a clank as someone opened the  small window of his iron cell door and asked if he wanted to find God.  God was nowhere to be found, he thought; that hole was the furthest he could be from God.

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Photo credit: Modesto Bee Newspaper/ Bloomberg via Getty Images 

A clergyman visited him once a week, on the same day, at the same time, like clock work. He learned to keep track of time by keeping track of his visits.  He’d be Utu’s only visitor for the four years he remained in the hole.  Utu was not allowed any possessions, but the clergyman somehow got the prison guards to agree to allowing him to have a bible, which he fiercely read and studied during his four years in solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement strips away anything that can possibly remind a man of his existence. There is no radio, no television, no books, no pencils or paper and no hobby-facilitating materials. Inmates are provided institution-issued clothes and possibly, but not always, sheets.  Personal hygiene provisions are reduced to only toilet paper, which some inmates may not receive.  Cells frequently have no windows and inmates are housed with a vacant cell between them to reduce the possibility of communication. The 23/1 rule (23 hours in your cell and one hour outside of it) usually applies, but only if the guards get around to it. This could mean that inmates may only get one hour every five days, and often during that one hour, inmates are not allowed to go outside or anywhere with windows, but are confined to a “common area,” alone. Depending on the institution, sometimes they are provided with golf pencils and paper to write during their hour, but may only be allowed to mail out and receive one letter a week. Utu felt his mind slipping away from him while in there, and reading the bible was the only experience that helped him hold on to his humanity.

No one is ever SENTENCED to solitary confinement – the determination of that punishment is made in each institution at their own discretion and for a duration they presume to be necessary. It could be because an inmate violated a rule within the institution or merely because an inmate is presumed to be affiliated with a gang. It also could be just cruelty and sadism on the part of the institution administrators.

Utu was transferred back to California a little more than a year ago.  His mother passed away three months ago, and though he wasn’t able to attend her funeral, he was close enough for his family to come visit him and pray with him. As he shared  glimpses of his life with me, I wondered how a man who has lost so much could still hold innocence and gentleness in his soul.

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During the three days of restorative and healing work, we delved into discussions and activities that pushed us to think more deeply about transformative power through forgiveness, empathy and consensus building.   One of the activities in which the inmates were tasked to practice the consensus building strategies they had just learned required that each select a photo.  The objective was for each person to partner up, and through consensus building, agree on one photo to represent both.  Once the partners agreed on the photo, they looked for another set of partners and the process of consensus building began again until one photo was selected to represent the group of four, which then joined with another group of four to repeat the same process.

I partnered with Utu who had selected a photo of a blueish-turquoise ocean gently swaying against black cliffs abundant with vegetation. That morning he had spoken of going home to Samoa where his heart had always told him he belonged. His family came to the Unites States when he was a little boy, but it seemed that leaving his motherland had been more of a curse than a blessing.  His family broke apart in the United States.  Upward mobility and the accumulation of things became a priority.  Home to him means returning to a place that nurtures family and community, something Utu feels he can no longer achieve in the United States. There was a profound longing in his eyes for home as he described the aspects of his photo that reminded him of Samoa. He is homesick for a feeling, an experience he hopes to find when he returns to Samoa.  One where his heart is full, his body loved, and his soul understood.

Then came my turn to explain why I chose the photo I held in my hands.  The photo reminded me of the purest love between a child and his parents or grandparents; the bond that exists when a child is nurtured as the one who will continue the wisdom and legacy of the elders, and in turn, of the ancestors. It is this passing on of knowledge that creates strong and dignified communities.  I told Utu that the photo reminded me of the unconditionally love my grandmother poured into me. When children are raised with kind love, veneration and respect, they grow up to be the keepers of the greater community.  Finally, I explained, that most of all, the photo reminded me of the importance of knowing how to give and receive, the collaboration that manifests in a beautiful way within families and communities when everyone is working together toward a common goal.

Utu timidly asked, “which one should we pick?” I told Utu that I had the privilege to experience home, and nothing would fill my heart more than for him to experience home, even if was just symbolically.  So I told him, “You choose.”  His eyes became watery and he said he’d choose the picture I held in my hands, because more than the beach and the tropical trees and the smell of the salty mountains, he missed the love of his mother and father.

Utu is due to be released in 2021.  In a place void of humanity, where vulnerability and compassion can get one killed, where suspicion lurks in every corner, and where brick, steel, cement and barbed wire remind inmates of the total aloneness of enforced solitude and deprivation, Utu was able to maintain an innocence and gentleness rarely found behind bars.  I pray he makes it out.

Another inmate whose been on a long, arduous path of healing said, “I’m thriving in prison. For the first time in my life, I am thriving.” If these men whose hearts have been hardened and hopes shattered can transform themselves in a place meant to annihilate what little love they remember from their childhood, imagine what could be possible if we created opportunities for healing and restoration.

Restorative justice and restorative practices are ancient approaches that are being revived in modern-day systems. Aboriginals around the world have used religion or tribal leaders to peacefully resolve conflicts or crime for hundreds of years. This traditional approach to restoration is rooted in the belief that there should be social harmony, redemption and a pursuit of absolute good for the individual and the community in the handling of conflict and crime. Rather than the punitive elements connected to shame, guilt, humiliation and dehumanization, aboriginal cultures around the world have focused on restorative elements of redemption, reparation, rehabilitation, healing and forgiveness.

 We have long known that in the act of destroying the other, we are destroying ourselves.  In Mayan tradition, there is a greeting that many people working with Mayan tradition know of. In Lak’ ech Ala K’in means I am the other you and you are the other me. It is an honoring for each other, for the sacredness of our belonging.  Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning, “my humanity is inextricably wrapped up in yours.” Bayanihan is a Filipino custom derived from the word bayan, which means nation, town or community. The term means being in bayan, which refers to the spirit of communal unity, work and cooperation to achieve a particular goal. In ancient Sanskrit Sarvodaya mean universal uplifting; the good of the individual within the good of the whole. So you see, we come from each other, to commune with each other, and to thrive with each other.  Even scientifically, we have discovered the presence of mirror neurons, which allow us to feel the other’s pain.  In essence, what we do onto others, we do to ourselves. This is who we were before colonization, industrialization and capitalism.  Who we were has been erased from history, but the memories remain in our DNA, and we are once again being called to rewrite our history, and re-right the injustices we have participated in.

I recently came across this:

Remember: Oppression thrives off isolation.  Connection is the only thing that can save you.

Remember: Oppression thrives on superficiality. Honesty about our struggles is the key to your liberation. 

Remember: Your story can help save someone’s life.  your silence contributes to someone else’s struggle. Speak so we all can be free. Love so we all can be liberated. The moment is now.  We need you. 

Remembrance and imagination are the greatest tools we have to create a world in which our children can love and be loved, fully and unconditionally.

Hope for My Students Through My Healing

Nine years ago, when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail just as I was going to head home for the day. It was one of those staff e-mails forwarded by the principal so that she/he can delete it from the inbox and quickly move on to more important matters. The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were “nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and as I attempted to write my statement, some of the most painful memories in my life materialized into words.

Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother. I was so angry at her. I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; that even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself. So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life because, like me, she was also searching for love. My mother and I tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me. The next day, I turned in my application and was awarded a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.

Even before the institute, as a teacher, I recognized that educators who love unconditionally, support compassionately, and guide patiently are healers. Educators who create safe spaces where students are nurtured, comforted, and encouraged are healers. Educators who see the pain of each child as a gift to hold, as an opportunity to grow in vulnerability and compassion, are healers.  For this reason, I knew that the most powerful and transformative education on non-violence for my students would have to begin with my own healing process.

The pain I saw in my students and experienced within inspired me in my movement toward ahimsa. . Many urban youth of color grow up in debilitating, extremely impoverished, and violent environments to the extent that research shows they are twice more likely to suffer PTSD than soldiers who come back from combat. Drawing analogies from Tupac Shakur’s music and poetry, I understand that our urban youth are roses growing in concrete—despite the multiple negative stressors in their lives, they have the grit to rise toward the sun. If we stop and contemplate for a minute what concrete is, we can see that it is void of light and nutrients and full of toxic elements. By no biological measure should a rose be able to survive, let alone sprout, in such inhospitable conditions. The endurance of these young ones proves that they are more than damaged petals.

Through ahimsa, I have come to believe in “critical hope,” what Dr. Duncan-Andrade terms the cure for this toxic stress. Hope in the form of material resources to provide for the basic needs of our children. Hope in the way we live our lives and model healing, grace, love and dignity. Hope in asking ourselves if we are reflective and conscious enough to be on the painful path with our students. And hope in our audacity to believe in them, in our ability to support them in transforming their lives. I became a hope-dealer only when I found hope through my own healing and my own truth, encouraged by the Ahimsa Institute.

Now, every day I look for the courage to bring optimism and motivation to the students I serve, despite their turbid lives, overwhelmed daily by violence, deception, and fear. On the surface, they look like ordinary teenagers walking the halls with their over-exuberant personalities, their secretive language codes, their electronic gadgets, and their mainstream-yet-unique clothing styles—all varnished with a thin coat of coolness. Underneath, however, many have been nicked, scratched, bruised and dented. They have become untamed with anger and resentment percolating inside of them, waiting for any trigger to set off an explosion. Inside their eyes is an unsettling calm—similar to the beauty and destruction found in the eye of a hurricane.

Many of these students do not have anyone to help them deal with the unrest, nor with all of the residual and emotional baggage they carry every day. Some resort to symptomatic behaviors such as gang violence, relationship violence, verbal disrespect, and self-mutilation, creating a web of destruction for themselves, their families, and their communities. Although genetic inheritance, complex brain functions, powerful human needs, and environmental influences all play a role in the behavioral choices that adolescents make, they must learn that they can discover new information which indeed will help guide them to a path of emotional healing and shelter from all of the things that cause so much toxicity in their lives. Students who are empowered through knowledge and skills, and who feel they have control of their lives, are more likely to act in positive constructive ways to prevent much violence and promote peace.

In my classroom I have a responsibility to show students how to use their self-transformation to fight for social justice and change their communities like Gandhi did, to empower them to see that healing alone is not enough to break through the toxic concrete. As a result, I have become very active in the community, constantly connecting my students to the work of activisms and community organizing. I volunteer with Border Angels (an organization that focuses on immigration issues and human rights campaigns), with the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (teaching restorative practice, healing circles, and forgiveness workshops), with prison inmates on healing and transformative power through the Alternative to Violence Project, and with creative actions to support the work of our native brother and sisters in Standing Rock. Using the ideals of Ahimsa, Satyagraha, and Sarvadoya, I engage students in healing practices and community work, inspiring them to be the next generation of change agents. As an English teacher, I allow my students to choose literature that will both help them master academic skills and guide them to an elevated level of self-discovery and healing through the thoughts and actions of the characters.

I am eternally thankful to Dr. Sethia for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart, and for the grace I have received because of the opportunity to participate in the Ahimsa Center Fellowship. Though my whole prior life had been about violence, she inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. This journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening led me to discover the greatest love within myself—a love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.

 

AHIMSA – nonviolence in thought and action.

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AHIMSA INSTITUTE 

This is Dr. Sethia, founder of the Ahimsa Center and Institute for teachers. I am eternally thankful to her for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart; for the grace I have received because of the opportunity she gave me. My whole life had been about violence, and that is the only way I knew to stand up for myself, to protect myself. She inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended  the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. A nine year journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening lead me to discovering the greatest love within myself. A love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.

Nine years ago when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail from my principle around 4:00 pm, just as I was going to head home for the day. You know one of those all staff e-mails forwarded by your principle, so she/he can delete it from his/her inbox and quickly move on to more important matters.

The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were, “Nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted with my application the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and each time I attempted to write my statement, I’d end up writing about some of the most painful memories in my life.

Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother.  I was so angry at her.  I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; hat even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself.  So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life, because like me, she was also searching for love. We tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me.

Or the time I almost hit my daughter with a broomstick.  She was about 12 and her room, more and more often, looked like it had been shaken, upside down.  It was definitely a point of contention.  Later I’d come to realize that it triggered memories of instability and neglect, reminding me of dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, loads and loads of dirty clothes scattered everywhere, an empty refrigerator, and cockroaches scattered amongst it all. I remember quarreling with my daughter about why she couldn’t just keep her room clean.  Why she couldn’t just take the time to care for and be thankful for what she had. Subconsciously, I was reproaching my mother , “If you love me, you’d take care of me, you’d take care of our home.”  I grabbed the broom that had been propped behind the door all morning as she procrastinated to clean her room.  I saw myself holding the broom over her and she laying on the bed with her arm shielding her face.  I hit her once with the bristles, before putting the broom down and going to my room to cry.  I had always been so careful to not hit her or scream at her, and there I was becoming the very violence I had hoped to never perpetrate on her.

I turned in my application and was given a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.

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JAPANESE GARDEN 

When I came to the Ahimsa Institute in 2007, my wounds and pain were stripped raw. Often, during breaks or lunch, I’d slip away and come down to the Japanese garden to cry. I had so much anger, it hurt. The Koi fish were calming. Their slow movements soothed my angry thoughts, their patient proximity to one another comforted my anxiety, and their coloring warmed the parts of me that were void of nurture.

Many of the attributes of the Koi symbolize several lessons and even trials individuals often encounter in life. The Koi fish has a powerful and energetic life force, demonstrated by its ability to swim against currents and even travel upstream. That’s what the journey of forgiveness, nonviolence and healing I was embarking on felt like. Some of the characteristics associated with the koi include courage, perseverance, and ambition; all characteristics I would need to practice on this arduous path.

Many of the above described symbolic meanings of Koi fish stem from the Chinese legend of the Dragon Gate in which a Koi fish swam upstream, through waterfalls and other obstacles to reach the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain was the “Dragon Gate”. The legend says that when the Koi finally reached the top, it became a dragon, one of the most auspicious creatures in Chinese culture.”

This past weekend after a nine-year journey of healing and after a powerful three-day Ahimsa conference on Giving and Forgiving, I visited the Japanese garden once again to cry. I didn’t cry from pain, but from extreme gratitude for the Grace I have received through my experiences with the Ahimsa center. For the grace I received that day in my classroom when I received the application. I came to thank the Koi fish for their support and unconditional love. To thank spirit for its guidance and lessons. I came here to remember, to renew my commitment to healing and non-violence and to set new intentions for the next beautiful stage of my life.

 

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HORSE STABLES 

One last stop before leaving…
When I participated in the  Ahimsa Institute, I stayed on the Cal Poly campus. Every morning I’d get up early enough to walk to the horse stables and commune with the horses. I’d often pick up leaves and the horses would eat them from my hand. At some point, the caretaker there started to expect me, and would give me alfalfa to hand feed the horses.

I visited them once again this past weekend, and I stood in silence while one of the horses ate. At some point, it cam closer to the fence and stood their with me. And that was enough.

My longing to be with the horses every morning came from the deep unconditional love I saw in their eyes. The first time I saw that kind of love in a being’s eyes was in my grandmother, and later I’d come to see it in my daughter. In those horses, I saw the love I’d ultimately come to discover in myself.  A love I’d come to understand connects us all. At some point in my journey, I realized that no matter what I had experienced, the wounds and trauma I carried, or the love I was still searching for, I was whole.

WHOLE                                                                                                                                                           

One day I became conscious enough to ask:

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,
indistinguishable voice
inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

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F O R G I V E N E S S

Every autumn season, the eucalyptus tree sheds its bark, and the process is highlighted by a wonderful display of color and / or amazing patterns of strips and flakes.

I imagine this is what our bodies look like as we open our hearts in vulnerability and and allow the wounds and bruises to air out.

When the bark is shed, lichens and parasites that are toxic to the tree are also shed. And a smooth, bark appears, until the next autumn season when the tree sheds once again.

We have seasons of growth and we have seasons of letting go. Both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves is part of the process of learning to let go of things that no longer serve us.

Cleansing and grieving are important processes, so our pain does not metastasize as hate. Hate will ultimately destroy us.

 “A sufi holy man was asked what forgiveness is.  He said – it is the fragrance that flowers give when they are crushed.” – Rumi                                                                                                  

The Gratitude I have for Dr. Sethia, her work and commitment to nonviolence, and the opportunity she gave me to transform my life, I can only honor by dedicating to her my life of service and commitment to nonviolence. There are people whom I recognize as having saved my life – Dr. Sethia is one of them.

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part II

Over the last several decades, California’s prison population has exploded by 500% and prison spending ballooned to more than $10 billion every year. Meanwhile, too few inmates were being rehabilitated and most re‐offended after release.  The more inmates are rehabilitated, the less likely they are to offend.  Proposition 57 allows parole consideration for people with non‐violent convictions who complete the full prison term for their primary offense. It authorizes a system of credits that can be earned for rehabilitation, good behavior and education milestones.  For some of the men I met, this means another chance at life, an opportunity to reunite with their kids and family, and a way to become productive citizens and in many cases, leaders in their (our) communities.

But what about those serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole? Overcrowded prisons and unconstitutional conditions led to the U.S. Supreme Court ordering California to reduce its prison population. In 2012 Miller vs. Alabama ruled that life without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.  This is a significant ruling.  For several of the men I met, this would mean they could potentially be able to make the case for a chance at a second hearing.

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I know what it’s like to be ignored, and I think that is the big problem about the prison system: These people are being thrown away.  There is no sense of rehabilitation.  In some places, they are trying to do better.  But in most cases, it’s a holding cell. -Lee Tergesen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These men live in the shadows of the criminal justice system. Once they cross the prison gates, the world forgets about them and they become ghosts, even to their families.  Transferred to prisons hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away, they are separated from everything that once made them human – their family, friends, food, traditions, in essence, their sense of self.  Some men haven’t seen or touched a single person they love in more than 30 years.  During one of the activities, the men wrote a prose, “Where I’m from.” They were asked to recall sounds, sights, tastes, among other things, from their life outside of prison.  When it came to describing tastes, all the men spoke of the home cooked meals, the Sunday dinners, and the summer leisure barbecues.  They spoke of pork chops with apple sauce, corned beef, hot links, greens, Sunday morning pozole, mole enchiladas, carne asada. It dawned on me as they were sharing, that for some of the men, it has been two or three decades since they have had a taste of this food; meals cooked by their mothers or fathers, perhaps their wives; meals passed down from generation to generation; soul food that held the history and legacy of where they came from.

During the workshops, when it is time for the men to share their thoughts, they dig down into memories of their childhood, memories of a place they once knew as home.  Memories are too painful inside of prison – the beautiful ones evoke nostalgia, heartache, and desperate longing for a time when innocence was a shield from the crude world; and the dreadful memories evoke shame, guilt, and deep, unescapable regret.  However, as painful as it is to remember, they know that in order to heal they must remember.

The men I met had an incredible willingness to be vulnerable, to peal the layers of wounds back despite the pain, and to speak their truth with all the ugliness and darkness that accompanied it.

There is Tender T., a lively man with a positive and energetic disposition, who sings R&B songs in falsetto register, and has a gift for facilitating intense conversations and opening folks to dig deeper. He is a leader who uses vulnerability and puts himself as an example to inspire others. Many of the men who attended the non-violent conflict resolution workshops were there because he had invited them to participate.

Easy E., is a big man with a tender, quiet disposition, and an energy that puts everyone at ease. He spoke only when his words were more beautiful than the silence, as Rumi once said. He is genuine in his approach with each participant and each facilitator. And he is able to be provocative and probing without riling anyone up.

Then there is J. from Mississippi, most call him Sippi, or Sip. A man as big in stature, 6’6”, as he is big in the heart. He talked proudly about his son who is 6’7” and plays college basketball and about his own years in the military. Whenever he talks to his son, he reminds him that though he is a part of him, he doesn’t have to be part of his mistakes. He has the disposition of a nurturing father, a protector, an honorable provider. Sippi talked about his father being a hard-working man who walked with dignity, never putting his head down, even though they lived in the rural parts of Mississippi. His mother was strong, yet gentle and assertive, yet kind. They both always wanted the best for him.

Positive P. has smooth, flawless skin, corn rows, and long, slender fingers like a pianist’s hands. He has a loving smile and his energy is that of a younger brother who constantly looks out for you. He is positive and playful in a jovial way.

Talented T. is from the Cherokee Nation. His eyes have the gentleness and innocence that one only finds in children. He showed me pictures of beautiful native crafts he had created. A gourd stick, tobacco bags and medicine bags, and earings among other things. He told me he had inspired his sister to create art and now she was part of the tribe’s artist guild and was being trained by elders. He showed me pictures of the river and the trees in his reservation and talked about childhood memories on the land. There was also a deep nostalgia and sadness in his eyes when he spoke of home. He is light with healing blue eyes and talked about the aggressions he had to endure on the reservation because some of his brothers questions his authenticity as a native. We talked about the healing, powerful medicine happening at Standing Rock and how he wished he could be there; his sister was headed there soon. On the last day of the 3-day workshop this is what he wrote to me:

May the creator and the spirits always guide and protect you . . . May the medicine always heal you. . . May the winds always keep you happy. . . May you always follow the Seventh Direction (Your Heart).  

Jovial J. is a deep thinker, a soul searcher, a man in search of healing and forgiveness. In those aspects, he reminds me of me. He spoke of his close relationships with his grandparents, especially his grandpa. There was always a profound sense of sorrow and regret as he spoke of those whom he had hurt and caused suffering for. Both of his grandparents have died while he’s been in prison. Before he was imprisoned, his grandfather told him, “This is the life you chose. You preferred your friends instead of your family. I pleaded with you to change. Now you get to be with your friends forever.”   Jovial J. said he wished his grandfather had lived to see the man he has become now. He regretted that his grandpa died “before he could show him that he was more than the monster that lived inside at the time.” At some point I told him his grandpa was watching over him and it was his grandpa guiding him through his transformation, like my grandmother has been guiding me since the day she died.

Justice J. is a young man with a great sense of community and respect for other human beings; even in prison he lives by these principals. As he shared about some of the conflicts and corruption he has to deal with in prison, he spoke of the importance of taking the higher road and facilitating conflict resolution, “after all that place is [his] community for now.” He spoke of missing his mom who now lives in Mexico City, and whom he hasn’t seen in three years. He never appreciated how hard she worked (two, three jobs at a time) to feed them and pay the rent, “holding it up” for them.   He regrets how much he made her worry and suffer while he hustled in the streets. He remembers, with great shame, her pleading advice and prayerful sobs.

On the first day of the workshop, the men began by sharing less intimate and threatening aspects about themselves.  Watching each other to gauge the level of acceptable vulnerability in the circle, one by one, each man shared a speck of themselves.  In a place where being too vulnerable or honest can get you killed, a seemingly inoffensive sharing activity requires a lot of courage.  By the second and third day, men began telling stories of abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, incarcerated or absent fathers, sometimes mothers, gang and drug infested neighborhoods, disengaged schools, unemployment, and homelessness.

For the inmates, the story is subversive: school systems that failed them, families ripped apart by violence, and a society that criminalized them for being poor, many found the love, acceptance and friendship they were looking for in the world of gangs and drugs.  While at the time, they were doing what they thought was right, they would take back the choices they made if they could. They are serving their sentences in prison now, some without the possibility of parole, and others, with the hope they’ll one day leave and have a chance at redemption.

To be continued in Part III

Full Circle

The journey isn’t always where you go physically; Sometimes its where you go spiritually. We often leave a place and go full circle, only to come back to it wiser and freer. I left teaching three years ago.  I Walked into the school district office and signed my resignation papers.  I can’t say I never looked back.  In fact, I looked back quite often that first year, wondering if I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  In retrospect, I could have made a graceful exit.  I left teaching as an act of liberation and instead, I became burdened with great financial instability.  And while leaving teaching  allotted me more time to be in nature, meditate, write, and do all the things that have brought great healing into my life, there was always the restriction and physical constriction I felt when the bills were mounting or I couldn’t buy a plane ticket to visit my daughter.

This journey of three years has brought me back full circle.  I have accepted a teaching position in a different district, and feel just as excited to teach as when I first began my teaching journey.

I have been on a beautiful journey of healing, growth and transformation for a while, now. These past three years have left me in awe and wonder of the magic that happens when we release ourselves to spirit and the flow of life. I have been growing and strengthening my roots and connecting deeply to ancestral knowledge. I’ve had the beautiful opportunity to facilitate workshops on forgiveness, non-violence, and restorative practices to youth at various schools. I also developed personal growth workshops for youth, which I have facilitated across San Diego. I’ve worked with youth from around the world in Peru and Costa Rica through experiential learning and leadership development.  I am learning about indigenous rituals and ceremonies to heal grief and trauma. I spent this past weekend doing healing and restorative work with prison inmates. I’ve also had powerful experiences as an ally participating in boycott actions that support the work of farmworkers like Familias Unidas por La Justicia, San Quintin Farmworkers, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers fighting for social justice and and fair food programs.  I am participating in various projects with Border Angels, a human rights organization bringing awareness to the plight of immigrants and undocumented immigrants. I have participated in several marches against police brutality and state sanctioned violence. I am reflecting on all these experiences, because I understand there was a journey I needed to take, and only by leaving teaching, did I find the impulse to embark on it.  

Recently, I discovered that the mortgage company, which held our second mortgage to the house we lost four years ago was reporting us delinquent on our payments.  When we foreclosed, both the primary and secondary mortgages were handled under the terms of the foreclosure.  As you might imagine, this situation brought up a lot of fear around money, much of it connected to childhood financial wounds that existed from living in poverty, but also decisions I had made in my adult life that perpetuated those financial wounds – such as the manner in which I left teaching, without a plan or vision.  What had been arising to the surface during these three years were fears of not having enough, not being worthy, instability and insecurity.  I came to the awareness that as part of my healing journey, I had to also heal my relationship with money.  This mortgage situation catapulted me to begin attending Debtors Anonymous meetings.

As a result, I have begun to recognize that many of the decisions I’ve made around money are rooted in a manufactured sense of impoverishment. Poverty and scarcity have been so familiar to me, subconsciously, I continued to create experiences that put me right back in that place.  Surviving in poverty requires one to live day-to-day, even moment to moment; always in constant worry of the future without being able to plan for it.  Because in poverty nothing is ever guaranteed, one lives for today.  However, living for today without planning for the future induces a perpetual cycle of worry, anxiety, and shame.

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When the time comes for you to make a change, to grow, to do your life in a different way, the universe will make you so uncomfortable, so unhappy, you will eventually have no choice. 

SHAME CANNOT EXIST IN THE PRESENCE OF DIGNITY.

Sometimes we feel shame because we have dishonored our soul. This means we have to restore the damage/pain we have caused, integrate our mind and body with our soul so we can move forward with integrity, and begin the forgiveness process by holding compassion for ourselves.

Sometimes, however, we feel shame because we have bought into the narrative that the world has created for us: “I’m inadequate, I’m not worthy, I’m not smart enough, capable enough, good enough, strong enough, I’m not enough.  My financial wounds were carving a path of humiliation for me, and the only way to dignify my experience is to face my circumstances and confront my troubles.  It is, I have come to realize, part of the lesson of taking care of myself with self-respect and forgiveness – belief in the best parts of myself. 

You want to perform a miracle? Forgive yourself. – Rune Lazuli

Forgiving oneself starts with acknowledging the way we have wronged/hurt others, and often, ourselves.  I’ve been carrying the burden of financial wounds as guilt and shame. And I have come to realize that the longer I carry that burden, the more oppressive it becomes. As I am learning to recognize the psychological and emotional factors that lead me to inflict those financial wounds on myself, I am also observing how attached I am to self criticism and judgment; still stuck in regret and disappointment. “I shouldn’t have… Why did I…? If only I would have…” Rationally I understand that my experiences were necessary for me to learn, grow and transform. Emotionally, I have had a more difficult time releasing myself from punishment and punitive self-talk.

What I’ve come to understand, is that in order to completely forgive myself, I must take action to restore the harm that I have caused myself. Learning the lesson is part of the equation. Often times we stop at the lesson and the apology to self, but never take action in repairing the actual harm, the way we would for someone else. It is in the very act of self-restoration that I am able to heal, pay respect to myself, know I am worthy of my time, discover my power to overcome, and change my relationship with how I feel, handle, and view money. When I stand up for myself, I dignify my experiences and determination to overcome my circumstances. It is also in this act that I am able to assert my commitment to live in truth, to hold accountable the aspects of myself that might still be in denial, and to attain liberation from the limitations I have set for myself.

Pause. Research. Pray. 

Life presents opportunities to test us on the lessons we have been learning.  Many times when a difficult situation presents itself, we rush to action, sometimes even forcing a solution that ultimately hurts us more.  When I quit my teaching job, I was feeling lost, uninspired, and empty.  But I didn’t allow myself to pause and sit in those emotions long enough to understand why I was feeling them. I forced a solution, and in doing so, moved from one burden to another, instead of finding liberation.  The last DA meeting I attended, the facilitator opened with a story that relayed the power she had found in the ability to research and pray before taking any life-impacting decisions.  This was a lesson that had been lingering, waiting for me to bring it to my consciousness, and as so often happens, we hear the words we need to hear when it is the right time, when we are ready.  Pausing when my emotions are on overload, whether it’s because of excitement or trauma, has taught me to recognize what it is I need to do next. Is it something I need to find a solution for or is it something I need to work through?  I am still putting this lesson into practice, and I don’t always get it right, but I am acting more and more from a place of mindfulness and intention.

I have a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life, and how I want to continue to cultivate my abilities and gifts to serve.  Life is not just about the actions, but also about how we use who we are and what we are learning in the process.  There are many opportunities for me to continue my learning and many require that I make a financial commitment to invest in those areas. I kept thinking, “I can’t afford that. How am I going to get money to pay for this?” Rather than become worried, anxious and inpatient, I took a step back and took a hard look at my options and my resources. I’ve been substituting as a way to subsidize my income when I’m not teaching workshops, but it has become mundane and aimless.  I often found myself feeling nostalgic about my experiences in the classroom, but wasn’t sure if those emotions were because I truly missed that work, or because I was uninspired with substituting.  Simultaneously, I was exploring job options that would allow me to use my gifts and talents while continuing to do all the projects that I am passionate about.  After working through these emotions, exploring my options, and doing a lot of praying and meditation, I had an Aha! moment.  Teaching is one of the aspects I’ve always been passionate about, but it isn’t the only.  I had gotten myself in a rut, and the classroom had become a confining space for me.  It took me three years of exploring to come back and realize that I really do miss teaching and serving students, but I also love all the work I am doing in the community.  I can do both!

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I don’t know what the future holds.  I’ve had dreams of opening a youth center where I can merge all my passions – serving youth and working to bring change to our communities. This is where I am now.  I will continue to listen to my heart, take pause during periods of confusion, and listen to the gentle guidance of the universe and my ancestors. 

Sometimes living my truth is scary because it requires me to let go of things known, things familiar, things comfortable. It requires me to be okay with the uncertain and unpredictable road. It probes at feelings of inadequacy, insufficiency, and worthlessness. Am I good enough to do what my heart truly desires? Will I have enough money If I walk away from this job that no longer fulfills me? Do I have what it takes to start over again?

Sometimes, for those looking in, it may seem that I don’t know what I want, that I am confused and adrift. I have felt that way at times, in part because I am still learning to listen to my heart with clarity. The process isn’t perfect; I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hit dead ends, stepped back to assess why something wasn’t working, taken wrong turns, and yes, have gotten lost. But even in all of that, I have been able to continue to define and refine my vision and purpose. Along the way, I have discovered and uncovered layers and layers of truth, digging deeper and having greater introspection of who I am without the programming of the world. It turns out sometimes you have to do the wrong thing. Sometimes you have to make a big mistake to figure out how to make things right. Mistakes are painful, but they’re the only way to find out who we really are, our truth.

I have discovered the courage to speak my truth. Learning to do so requires that I speak it with integrity, compassion, and humility. For too long, I didn’t speak up because I was afraid of offending, making folks uncomfortable, not being a team player, being shunned from the group. But I have learned that in the process I have betrayed myself, and the shame of self betrayal is too heavy to bear.

In exploring my truth, I am learning to be more mindful and intentional with my decisions; to transition gracefully through my seasons, to have the courage to ask for what I want; to be truly open to receive the messages of my heart and what I am asking for; to see my relations as sacred and know they are there to teach, support and uplift me.

Living my truth and balancing my consideration for the relations in my life has been, and is, a great challenge. Compromising without betraying myself. Giving without depleting. Focusing without ignoring. Moving forward without excluding. Loving myself without hurting others. These are the aspects I am learning to balance in my life.

What I know to be truest of all is that I can’t hide from who I am and who I am meant to be. When I do, I feel life begins to drain from me, like I imagine a hummingbird would feel without his wings and nectar.

I am committed to the continuous healing of myself and all aspects of my relations. Healthy relationships go beyond my interactions with people, and also include my perceptions, behaviors, and interaction with my body, food, money, mother earth, water, Spirit, my ancestors, and all that is part of living life as a sacred experience. Each relation and encounter is a sacred exchange, and by recognizing it as such, I am able to deepen the connection I have within the web of life and experiences that connects us all. And so by forgiving myself and healing my financial wounds and relationship to/with money, I am giving myself permission to live a fuller life in which I don’t have to live in fear of not having enough. Removing the stress, removing the anxiety, removing the depression connected to money can only happen when I release the unhealthy attachments I have to it.

I am creating the intention of having a purposeful relation will all things, including myself. Forgiveness releases the karmic bonds that bind us to our relations in a destructive way, and it can only happen when we take on the work of restoring, rehabilitating, and rebuilding in a way that is whole and sacred for all relations and connections.

In every step of my journey, I am feeling more connected with the vastness and abundance of the universe. Sometimes it feels as if I can no longer contain my heart inside of me. In every being I encounter, I see myself, and I understand the oneness in which I am contained more profoundly than I’ve ever had. There is so much love in my heart, there is less and less room for fear. I don’t feel my age or any age. I am ancient and eternal.

One day I became conscious enough to ask,

“Who Am I?”

To which a powerful, but at the time,

indistinguishable

voice

inside of me responded:

“Everything.”

The Meaning of Life in Prison, Part I

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What is a sensible prison sentence when prisoners who have committed a crime, even a violent crime, are no longer a threat to society?

As I entered through the gates of Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the irony of the word “correctional” didn’t go past me. I felt a sense of loss, a vacuum of emptiness in the pit of my stomach, a sort of erasing of everything that feels soulful, alive. Replaced by metal fences, circular barbed wire, concrete walls, and barren landscapes, the only thing that seemed to remind me of my humanity were the surrounding mountains and the chirping and chitter of birds that found shelter in the few cacti scattered around the perimeter and entrance. The sky was blue, the sun a little too warm, but still inviting. It’s October, the time of the season when Santa Ana winds give way to hot dry weather, often the hottest time of the year. As I enter through several gates, I am reminded that I am walking into a cage.

In a chapel, twenty-two men in baggy blue denim pants and light blue scrub-like shirts provided by the prison start to trickle in, sitting in a circle as they await for the start of the workshop. They seem to be in good spirits, shaking each other’s hands, some introducing themselves for the first time. They are handed an ice-breaker activity, which they immediately seem to engage in, enthusiastically, with each other. The chapel is sterile – white brick walls, a podium, a few bookcases with religious and spiritual literature and stackable chairs organized in a circle – with an unpleasant smell that reminds me of a combination of latex paint, locker room sweat, and hospital rooms.

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There are currently three facilities designated as Sensitive Needs Yard (SNY) and I was in one of them. SNY inmates are those inmates that are remanded to the custody of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), but due to safety concerns, they are separated from General Population inmates to serve their term of incarceration. SNY inmates have the opportunity to work and attend education programs that include Adult Basic Education, college courses, GED programs, Career Technical Education (carpentry, welding, electronics, building maintenance), Inmate Work Labor and an ample offering of programs that afford the inmates opportunities for self-improvement such as the Alternative to Violence conflict resolution workshop, Project PAINT: The Prison ArtsINitiative, Playwrights Project, and the Pooch Program in which inmates train puppies to become service dogs.

There are lots of opportunities for the men to learn and grow. The men, in fact, sometimes find themselves forgetting the limits to their freedom, even if just for a short period of time. However, one is quickly reminded of this fallacy when you see the guards, rigid and distant in a militant-like stance, in the yards they patrol, in the towers from which they watch over everyone, or when they come in to round up inmates for cell count. It is to be reminded that this is a place in which one is not entitled to their time, space, or body. “A cage that allows someone to walk around inside of it is still a cage.”

Many volunteers come and go, but once the volunteers leave, the men are left to survive in a brutal, corrupt, and sometimes animalistic environment. Their participation in these programs is sometimes an escape from the violence and hopelessness that they often feel in prison. It’s the little bit of hope that feeds their determination to survive.

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I spent three days in this cage with men who are locked up and forgotten; left to rot under the fist of repression, oppression, cruelty, and dehumanization. Many of the men are serving life sentences, some without the possibility of parole, for murder, drug related charges, robbery, etc. Many are serving disproportionate sentences because of mandatory sentencing laws. These inflexible, “one-size-fits-all” sentencing laws undermine justice by preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offenses. And for a number of them, the sentences they are serving are for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.

Immigrants in Our Own Land
We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
.
The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.
.
We came here to get away from false promises,
from dictators in our neighborhoods,
who wore blue suits and broke our doors down
when they wanted, arrested us when they felt like,
swinging clubs and shooting guns as they pleased.
But it’s no different here. It’s all concentrated.
The doctors don’t care, our bodies decay,
our minds deteriorate, we learn nothing of value.
Our lives don’t get better, we go down quick.
.
My cell is crisscrossed with laundry lines,
my T-shirts, boxer shorts, socks and pants are drying.
Just like it used to be in my neighborhood:
from all the tenements laundry hung window to window.
Across the way Joey is sticking his hands
through the bars to hand Felipé a cigarette,
men are hollering back and forth cell to cell,
saying their sinks don’t work,
or somebody downstairs hollers angrily
about a toilet overflowing,
or that the heaters don’t work.
.
I ask Coyote next door to shoot me over
a little more soap to finish my laundry.
I look down and see new immigrants coming in,
mattresses rolled up and on their shoulders,
new haircuts and brogan boots,
looking around, each with a dream in their heart,
thinking they’ll get a chance to change their lives.
.
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
.
“Immigrants in Our Own Land” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, from Immigrants in Our Own Land