Monday, October 12, 2015

Connecticut bound!

This past Saturday, Dara came over to my house, and we rehearsed in my living room for the last time. Tomorrow at 2 pm ET, we will give a 90-minute presentation at the Annual Adult and Juvenile Female Offenders Conference in Hartford, CT. It's the only conference focused exclusively on women and girls in the criminal justice system.

This year's conference, with the theme "New Paths to Resiliency," will draw professionals from federal, state and local correctional systems, as well as treatment providers and researchers from the United States, Canada and other countries. Dara and I are going to talk about the tools and programs that Truth Be Told offers women during and after their incarceration. Our presentation is unique because the audience will hear about these things through the eyes of a program graduate (Dara) and a volunteer program facilitator (me).

Before we started our final rehearsal, I asked if Dara would join me in some dump writing, which is an expressive writing tool I use in my prison work, as well as in my workshops out here in the free world. Essentially, you set the timer and then keep your pen moving for the allotted amount of time -- no censoring or filtering -- just a free-flowing of thoughts and feelings onto the page, getting rid of any and every thought that is cluttering your mind, so you can be present and grounded for the task ahead. I asked that Dara and I write specifically on how we wanted to feel as we were presenting up there in Connecticut and how we wanted to feel afterwards. I put on some soft music, and our pens got to moving. The words seemed to come easily for both of us. We wrote for the length of two songs before I suggested that we find a natural ending to our thoughts.

Below is what Dara wrote and she gave me permission to share it with you.

As I write this, I am two hours away from heading to the airport to catch my flight. Dara is already there. She texted me 30 minutes ago, an image of the plane's wing sweeping over red, orange and green treetops as the jet was coming in for a landing.

I ask for all your thoughts, prayers and gratuitous good vibes as we step up there tomorrow. Dara is sharing her life story and how things have changed so dramatically in the past five years because she has chosen to stop running from her story and to own it — and therefore, own her life. I cannot wait to see her shine and to see the inspiration she evokes in the people who have come to listen. I am honored to be supporting her in this way.

A synopsis of our workshop:

The Road to Recovery Using the 4 Cs

From a shattered childhood and multiple incarcerations to receiving the Presidential Student Achievement Award at Austin Community College, Dara Musick is the very definition of resiliency. Her transformation didn’t come easily, nor did it come overnight. It took tremendous personal fortitude, numerous false starts, and a community of people who believed in the change that Dara ultimately wanted to see in her life.

After spending more than 25 years living in her addiction and drifting in and out of the Texas criminal justice system from age 15 to 37, Dara set herself on the road to recovery by learning to tell her life story and earnestly practicing the 4 Cs — Community Building, Communication, Creativity and Caring for Self — skills she learned through Truth Be Told, a nonprofit that provides personal growth programs to incarcerated women.
Dara will share her inspiring story and be joined by volunteer Truth Be Told facilitator Katie Ford, who teaches and engages in the same curriculum Dara experienced while incarcerated. Together, Dara and Katie will illustrate how their experiences in prison — learning to tell their life stories and practicing the 4 Cs — have forever changed their lives in ways they could not have imagined. Under the auspices of Truth Be Told, volunteer facilitators and incarcerated women are embarking on the journey of personal transformation together. It’s a holistic approach to prison programming that allows the participants to recognize each other first and foremost as fellow human beings — each of us with a truth worth sharing and a life worth living.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Finding inspiration in unexpected places

Artwork by Karen, Truth Be Told graduate
Where do I find inspiration to create, to look past my fears and make things happen? The quick and simple answer: In prison.

This past Thursday, I emceed the fall orientation for Truth Be Told​'s Talk to Me Series at a women’s prison in Lockhart, Texas. As usual, the women who walked into the slightly-less-than-sweltering gymnasium to hear about our programs represented all ages, all races. Some seemed introverted; others extroverted. But all the women made it clear by their presence that they were curious about what we had to offer.

Moments that replay in my mind as I think upon the afternoon:
·      En route to the gym, I run into a student from last semester. Soft brown eyes. Easy smile. High five. Not enough time to connect. Small talk. Much left unsaid.
·      One of our volunteer facilitators follows her impulse to pass out notebook paper to all the women in the gym so they can fan themselves.
·      The sea of faces looking back at me as I speak of our organization and the classes we offer. I see nods of encouragement. Eagerness. Furrowed brows. Pleasant smiles. There’s a very young woman who cannot keep her eyes open. She is struggling to focus and losing the battle. I want to know the rest of her story, but I have a program to lead.

What really makes an impression on me, however, are the three women from last semester who show up to retake one of our classes. They each share their reasons for repeating, but the common denominator is their determination to befriend fears and doubts, believe in their self-worth and honor their full potential as human beings.

As I sit with these women, I recall their stories. Two of them have lived experiences that would threaten my sanity. But here they are, sitting in plastic chairs in a gymnasium with no A/C, their bodies leaning into the conversation, their eyes wide open, their voices humble and earnest. They are ready to dive deeper. To explore. To face it all.

To make it happen.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

On the other side of grief

Remembering with more clarity (and feeling?) than I have in a long time about what happened on this day 25 years ago. I’ve got a tightness in my chest, like the events are unfolding right now in some parallel universe. On this day, 25 years ago, Mom was taking her final breaths in an ICU bed at George Washington Memorial Hospital in D.C. She was 44.

Dad was by her side. My sister and I had gone back to Mom’s house in Old Town, Alexandria, to shower and try to nap. We had been pretty much living in the ICU waiting room for the past two weeks. I’m suddenly recalling a nice woman from Bethesda, Maryland. Dark hair and a kind smile. She would look after us when Dad had to step away for a bit. We were 16 and 19, my sister and me.

The phone rang while we were at Mom’s. Dad’s voice was on the line. We needed to get back to the hospital quickly. Her blood pressure had dropped in half. It wouldn’t be long now.

When we got to the hospital, I remember passing through the ICU doors and entering the hallway where Mom’s room was. Dad was sitting on a stool outside the door. I thought, Why aren’t you inside with her? but then I saw the look on his face.

Cold shock runs through me. My life becomes a movie.

See the young girl walking toward her dad. See the doctor, with soft, sympathetic eyes, asking the young girl, “Do you want to see her? You can go inside if you want.” See the young girl nod and walk toward the door, because … shouldn’t she want to see her mother? But the young girl is terrified to see her mother dead.

See the door swing open as the young girl, with her sister following behind, enters the room. Hear the hiss of the detached breathing apparatus as it blows mist into the air. See the girls’ mother lying below the cloud of mist, eyes closed, lips parted. Hear the young girl blurt out almost tersely, “OK, that’s enough” as she turns around, taking her sister by the arm (does she cover her sister’s eyes too?) and hustles them both out of the room.

No tears. No tears as the young girl sits at a table in a laboratory (or was it a meeting room?) down the hall with her father. A doctor inquires civilly whether the family wants to order an autopsy (“the acute progression of her disease was very rare”). Official forms, signatures, next steps. The girl has power of attorney over her mom because her parents divorced years ago. The hospital’s legal department isn’t interested in what the ex-husband has to say. She participates in the conversation, answers their questions, looks to her father for guidance. She is acutely aware that she is not crying and this amazes her. Not a tear. Shouldn’t she be crying? But the truth is, she is afraid if she starts, she will never stop.

She is unaware, in this moment, of the rewiring taking place in her heart, and how it will affect the way she lives and loves for the rest of her life. It will take years for her to understand that this grief will always be inside her, that it will change over time, disappear indefinitely and then show up unexpectedly in conversations, in personal relationships, in quieter moments, in a stranger’s face.

But this grief will provide fertile soil for her growth as a woman, as a human being. It will fuel her desire to explore, to take chances, to seek beyond what’s in front of her, to push forward when she’s afraid, to follow her heart’s work, to appreciate the sanctity of life.

She couldn't possibly imagine it yet, but one day, when she is 44 years old and spending time in the Colorado mountains (a place her mother loved so dearly), she will realize with bittersweet certainty that her mother’s death is what taught her to really live. 

Bonnie Lu Ford, June 29, 1945 – June 28, 1990

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A memento from my time in prison

From Stephanie, Spring 2014 graduate 
Stephanie handed me this letter the day she graduated from Talk to Me Circle in the spring of 2014. There were 17 women in my class that semester. TTM Circle is a class for incarcerated women, and I have led it as a volunteer facilitator since 2010. This class and others like it are made possible through an Austin nonprofit called Truth Be Told.

In TTM Circle, the women are challenged to write and share the story of what led them to prison — not the details of the crime itself, but a broader introspection that asks the women to look deep into their pasts to identify formative experiences and personal decisions that they feel ultimately led to where they sit today: behind bars.

Equally important to writing their stories, the women are required to read their stories aloud in class, which is a powerful exercise in learning how to trust, speak the truth, listen deeply, respect confidentiality, have compassion for self and others, and participate in a safe community.

The thing I remember most about Stephanie is that she offered to read a classmate's story to the class when this particular classmate expressed severe anxiety about reading in front of her peers. This student, Jessica, was an English language learner and very self-conscious about speaking English in front of people, plus her story included things she had never admitted to anyone — details of childhood sexual abuse. Jessica knew enough English to write about her life, but she couldn't bring herself to read it.

Seeing her classmate in distress, Stephanie raised her hand and then addressed Jessica directly: "Would you feel better if someone read it for you? Because I will if you want me to."

Through tears, Jessica nodded her head and held out her loose-leaf pages for Stephanie. Stephanie crossed the room and accepted the paper so carefully, as if it were truly Jessica's life she held in her hands. She stood beside Jessica, who remained seated, and cleared her throat.

"My name is Stephanie. And this is Jessica's story. ..."

What struck me as Stephanie read was how she seemed to feel Jessica's life as if it had happened to her. Her eyes grew misty as she read about Jessica as a toddler, pretending to bake in the kitchen with her grandmother. She laughed as she spoke of Jessica and her cousins, playing outside until well after dark and the mischief they would cause. And she spoke through heavy sobs as she recounted details of a childhood abuser and the very dark years that followed, as Jessica spiraled out in a whirlwind of self-destruction. Jessica mostly kept her face buried in her hands as Stephanie read, but when it was over, she looked up at Stephanie with such appreciation and love, and I could see on Stephanie's face that she knew she had just done something really good. Really, really good.

All of us in the room could feel it. We felt proud of Stephanie, compassion for Jessica and honored to have witnessed it all. We were a circle of women who had, inside a prison, successfully built a community of trust, of love, of compassion, of authenticity, of truth, of integrity, of hope, of healing, of new beginnings.

Word by word and story by story, we were speaking life back into each other and empowering ourselves to write new chapters, better chapters, in our life stories.

Truth Be Told has been around for 15 years and has served more than 1,000 female inmates with its programs, but only in recent years have our classes really been discovered. We now have facilities asking for our curriculum and waiting lists at the facilities where we currently have classes. We need money to strengthen our tiny infrastructure and to expand our programming so we can reach more women.

March 5-6 is Amplify Austin Day, a 24-hour online giving campaign that raises money for nonprofits serving Central Texas. Will you consider scheduling a donation to Truth Be Told on Amplify Austin Day or donating any day by clicking the DONATE button on Truth Be Told's website?

Every dollar counts. I'm grateful for whatever you can give. Please help us reach more Stephanies and Jessicas. Will you?

Ms. Katie,

I just wanted to thank you for taking your time to volunteer here at Lockhart and for reaching out to us. Also for sharing your story with us. The true story, not the edited one. For confiding and trusting in us as we have you. Thank you for the words of encouragement, motivation, strength and life. As you speak, I feel that you speak life back into us.

As the truth is told and we are emptied of the weight it has burdened us with for so long; reinforcement and life are what we have began to be filled with again and that's because of you and the opportunity this class has brought forth.

I can personally tell you I have felt a weight lifted from my shoulders and that my heart is finding its way back together again. I'm sleeping better and I feel like there's hope and a future for me. I can live again and live life to its fullest. I can do this because my truth has been told and I no longer have those burdens. Thank you Truth Be Told and thank you Katie. You have been a blessing in my life.