Sunday, December 4, 2011

The value of paper and a pencil

About twice a month a few friends and I lead a writing circle for women at the Monroe County Jail.  We take lined composition books, pencils, some poetry, and for purposes of a small ritual we do before we start writing, we take a flower. I have been participating in this service to our community for about 5 years now.

Last week, the commander of the jail got angry because he discovered someone snuck in some contraband (rumor has it that it was a lighter), and so he banned everything from coming in--except of course employees and volunteers.  This meant we could hold the writing circle, but we could not bring in the tools that we needed to encourage women to write and tell their stories.  

My co-facilitator brought a sheet of paper with our agenda on it and a poem about hope that we wanted to read to the women.  The guard made us leave that behind.  We went up to the activity room, hands empty.  We did  discover a loop hole in the rule: the commander said that if we already had materials in the jail, we could use those.  When we arrived to conduct the circle, we found we did have some notebooks and at least 15 pencils.  In addition someone gave us a sheaf of lined notebook paper.  We still have kleenex and a little chime to ring and a small smooth stone to pass around the circle.  Our liaison at the jail allowed us to get on her computer in her office so we could find the poem to read aloud to the women. Getting ready for the circle felt a little like a game.

Our circle yesterday was fine and full. We spent 90 minutes writing about hope and that is no small thing for the 13 woman in our group who sometimes feel hopeless.  

As we wrapped up the circle, we asked them all to write for us, so that when we come back in two weeks, they'll have stories and poems to share.  Of course, We realized right away they will have a hard time doing that...they won't have any paper or pencils.  Normally, a writer in our circle would take a full 200 page composition book back to their cell, but if we want to come back again and this restriction has not been lifted, we would need to conserve what paper and pencil we had stored away for as long as we could.

We stared at the dwindling sheaf of paper and made a hasty decision to give each woman 2 or 3 sheets. We made her promise to write. "Use the margins if you have to," we said.   We collected the pencils as they filed out in hope that they could scrounge something to write with on the cell block.  If we let these precious few pencils go, we might not be able to have a writing circle.

Just as they were filing out, I spied a blue pencil box filled with the smallest of pencil stubs.  I opened it up and showed it to the women.  This is what hope looks like.


It hovers in dark corners
before the lights are turned on,
it shakes sleep from its eyes
and drops from mushroom gills,
it explodes in the starry heads
of dandelions turned sages,
it sticks to the wings of green angels
that sail from the tops of maples.

It sprouts in each occluded eye
of the many-eyed potato,
it lives in each earthworm segment
surviving cruelty,
it is the motion that runs the tail of a dog,
it is the mouth that inflates the lungs
of the child that has just been born.
It is the singular gift
we cannot destroy in ourselves,
the argument that refutes death,
the genius that invents the future,
all we know of God.

It is the serum which makes us swear
not to betray one another;
it is in this poem, trying to speak.

~ Lisel Mueller ~


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to know the jail program is still going strong, despite new challenges. (Hadn't heard anything about it for a while.) This is so uplifting. Please keep us up to date on conditions--it's not surprising that hard times get harder in this hardest place. MKP

Steph said...

First, I can't believe it's been five years! Second, this is incredibly inspiring (and timely for me).

smileysejalee said...

Thank you for sharing this. As part of a course during my super senior year of college, a group of us would go to the local county jail and a poetry workshop with some of the inmates. It was an incredible experience that I will never forget.

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