Freedom. Their bodies were held captive but their minds flew free.
In the wake of the recent onslaught of violent events in the world, the sadness I have felt for humanity, both the members that are in captivity and those that are free, has substantially multiplied.
As citizens of the world, our connected lifeline fades with each new act of violence, slowly dismantling our human ecosystem into one of isolated separatism. There are cracks where we were once whole. Emotions are running high only to crash into a sea of broken dreams. Emotions are our limitless fuel supply that power our actions. When that power is fueled into acts of destruction and violence, one can quickly wind up in a dark and unimaginable place.
Prison is a dark and unimaginable place.
I've been carrying around a heaviness since my evening in prison. Society hurts. Hearts hurt. Deep down we are all feeling it.
A few weeks ago, I was a guest speaker in the University Behind Bars Program at the Monroe Correctional facility. My class was called "Unlocking Your Story" and was created by my philanthropist friend Joe Brotherton.
I was asked to discuss my journey as a novelist in the hopes that in sharing my story I would unlock stories from deep within the twenty inmates attending my class that evening. Full disclosure, I cannot tell you the specific stories that were unlocked that evening, those stories will forever belong to the men of my classroom, however, I can tell you mine.
The story I unlocked was one of a woman filled with unjustified fears and prejudices about who prisoners were and where they came from. The story I unlocked was those of men facing the consequences of committing harmful acts against humanity. The story I unlocked was one filled with immense sadness when I realized what life without freedom truly looks like. The story I unlocked was one of men finding light in the even the darkest corners of concrete prison cells. The story I unlocked was one of understanding, compassion, and clarity.
I walked out of those prison walls that evening with tears in my eyes. I walked out of those walls of captivity into my blessed life filled with the freedom to experience love, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - Things that I will never again take for granted.
The story I unlocked was one of a woman filled with unjustified fears and prejudices about who prisoners were and where they came from.
As the day of my class arrived, I woke up filled with fear. I was afraid of prison and the men I would meet there. Afraid of what I might see and what I might uncover. Afraid of what it means to share the experience of living a life of captivity. I was afraid I might be in danger teaching a class of all men who had committed heinous crimes. I was afraid of not knowing what those crimes were. I was even more afraid to know what they were. I was afraid would hear their stories and not know how to respond. I was afraid I would hear their stories to find out they were not that different than I. I was afraid of letting them down as a teacher on their one night of freedom.
I meditated that morning to clear my head. I wanted to embrace the evening in its entirety as I had done with so many book tour events previously. This was just another stop in my tour. I would let my guard down in the hopes that they would too. I would break down their walls to foster creativity instead of destructive behavior.
The story I unlocked was one of men finding light in the even the darkest corners of their prison cells.
For my protection, I was not allowed to know their names, each of their works had a number where a name normally would be. That afternoon, I read through 20+ stories, some hand written, some typed on a typewriter, and a lucky few typed on a computer. Their stories were ones of alienation, loneliness, resentment, love, atonement, anger, and loss. Their stories were of a Seattle I didn't know. Stories of childhoods I'd only seen or read about on the news. Stories of family members and girlfriends who no longer came to visit. Stories of the people outside the walls that they let down. Their stories were excellent.
For the sake of clarity, I do not defend nor do I justify the acts that these men did that resulted in them landing in prison, however I do know that based on their writings, the men from my class spent countless hours this last decade reflecting on their past actions. Most people I know have trouble silencing their minds for ten minutes a day, but these guys sit alongside their thoughts on a daily basis with no place to escape. They've taken these reflections and created art. These 20 men found a way to find light in the corners of their darkest cells.
As they opened up, the concrete walls slowly started to descend, the metal bars began to widen, making room for places, characters, and stories from the outside world to come in.
To my surprise, the twenty men in that room had read my book and knew my chapters almost better than I did. They asked me questions about my inspirations and my writing process. As they opened up, the concrete walls slowly started to descend, the metal bars began to widen, making room for places, characters, and stories from the outside world to come in. They had questions about the photos and places I wrote about and I found myself wishing I had added more photos to the book to help transcend them out of the prison walls into places they will most likely never see. Several told me they cried when they read my book, and I told them I cried when I read their stories earlier that day.
Prison is no place for weakness. It is a place where one turns off emotion in order to survive and face what is their predetermined existence for 10+ years of time. What I learned from those men that night, is that it is impossible to go back and fix what is broken, to undo the crimes you've committed, you'd have to go all the way back to the beginning and chose differently from day one. It was too late for these men to go back, but that night proved that it was never too late to choose better life for yourself, to make the best of any situation even in captivity. These men found a new purpose in life by embracing beauty through writing literature and creating art.
The story I unlocked was one of understanding, compassion, and clarity.
As I learned more about the complex backgrounds of the prisoners, I found myself wishing for simplicity. I wished that the younger versions of these men, and all the future children in the world who might one day become these men, felt valued, loved, and safe growing up in the hopes that they wouldn't wind up there. I wanted to go back in time and give them all a better story, because we all knew the ending of this one.
By the end of the night, I was no longer afraid. I was laughing, I was crying, I was surrounded by a classroom of inspired students. I was teaching and we were all growing. But at the end of the day, I got to leave and they didn't. The gravity of what it meant to wind up in prison and left there to die was a heavy weight to carry outside with me.
Walking into that prison, I would have described the men I met as prisoners, murderers, outcasts of society, however, walking out I thought of them as people's brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and sons.
As a healer, a lover, and believer in the power of embracing all emotions, I believe in reflection and redemption. I also acknowledge what a profound affect fear, hate, abandonment, and isolation can have on the human spirit and the horrible actions that result from those emotions. Walking into that prison, I would have described the men I met as prisoners, murderers, outcasts of society, however, walking out I thought of them as people's brothers, husbands, boyfriends, and sons.
In that prison classroom, even if it was only for a few hours, we were all created equal as free citizens. In that room, we were all writers, we were all storytellers, we were all human, and our minds were free to wander as they pleased.