Just before teaching at a new facility, I usually have the unnerving sensation of stepping into the unknown. I keep asking myself why I do it, and reminding myself that afterwards I'm always glad I did. This time, though, I think the women will love the bright covers on the journals I picked out for them, and the brilliant colors of the watercolor markers. I'm looking forward to giving them the supplies and don't feel those pre-workshop jitters; I hope I don't need them, the way an actor needs stage fright.
Later. I guess I don't. The clients at Horizon House, a correctional facility for women, were anxious to write, draw, keep journals, and listen to poems, and excited to each have her own journal. As I told them to write at the same time and in the same place every day and to feel free to put down whatever comes into their heads, I wondered whether they had the time, space, or privacy to actually do that.
I performed my CHANGES IN THE LAKE poem and discussed how, like the lake, we're all both beautiful and polluted, how we're all the same yet very different. That is, after all, my aim, to help my students accept themselves and appreciate their uniqueness, to know that they each have something different to say, and there's someone who wants to hear it.
Dinah asked if she could share a poem with everyone, Maya Angelou's PHENOMENAL WOMAN. She said that she used to have low self-esteem, and that poem changed her life. She read it expressively, and they all wanted copies.
Beverly ran upstairs and brought down some of her own drawings. When the workshop was over, she wanted more and more drawing paper, as much as possible, to use until Thursday. Whatever I could give her, she assured me, she'd fill up. She herself had no access to paper.
The women were thoughtful, playful, outgoing, relaxed. The main problem was time, not enough of it. They were still working intensely on their first project, writing about and drawing something special to them, when the hour was up.
I left feeling as if I could make a difference, at least for a moment. And I left feeling that for no reason whatsoever, I was dropped into this world with the opportunity to live a creative life, and they were dropped, certainly into something else, into circumstances I can barely imagine.
There were several new residents this time. Today's group was a little rowdier, still enthused and anxious to create, disappointed to realize we have only four sessions. "Good things always go quickly," said someone.
Today I read PHENOMENAL WOMAN once more and Dinah acted it out, then I read Anne Waldman's "Fast-talking Woman" poem, and everyone wrote and drew self-portraits.
I'm a housekeeper
I can cook, I can clean
I love to eat, I can be mean
I'm left-handed, but in my right mind
My smile lights up the rooms I enter
I'm a woman of many faces and expressions
I'm a fast-talking woman I'm a pretty woman
I'm a mother of two girls and one boy
I'm a grandmother
I'm a foster grandmother
A whirl of yellow in the background- "represents my life as a whirlwind. All the powerlessness and unmanageability in it."
A profile looking into the mirror- "represents me looking at myself. Wanting to get to know the other side of me."
Undirected teardrops- "represents how I was out there. Any and everywhere on a mission. Not paying attention to myself or where my life is going."
Teardrops in a row- "represents how I am getting my life back in order."
A triangle pointing downwards- "represents how my life is settling down. I'm doing more positive things with myself and my daughter."
Since the neighborhood around Horizon House isn't safe, I'd biked only as far as the Hyatt Regency taxi stand, then took a cab from there. After the workshop I was sitting on the porch, waiting for a cab. Beverly told me I can bike all the way next time and leave my bike in the back yard. I didn't tell her I was afraid to bring it there at all.
Everyone was smoking out on the porch. With so many other risks, this one seemed minor. A three-week resident went over the ropes for a newcomer, told her life there was not easy, warned her to work hard, do all her chores, and watch very carefully what she says, or she'll get sent back up. The newcomer replied. "I've been there four times, I'm not going there again, I'm not going there again."
Then the taxi came, and I said, "Hyatt Regency," and was whisked to a different world.
In five years
Hope to have more peace in my family
Also hope to see more love!
Hope to see my children continue schooling!
Want to have my diploma!
Also want to see my children and family in church!
Would like to keep myself clean!
By this I must remember also where I came from! So I just want more love!
I really like working with these women. I leave Horizon House moved by their struggles. They were born in the wrong place, that's all. I had them describe themselves and their families in five years. What they want most to do is stay clean and drug-free, live in their own house, raise their children in peace. Some want to become counselors and help others..."...so that someone or person can suck the knowledge that I gotten from what I went through..." (Cheryl)
All want to communicate. Well, what's more important than connecting with the world outside ourselves?
I also asked them to write about and draw the block they live on.
Nick lives downstairs, he's the neighborhood tailor.
Gene's bar is next door, he's the neighborhood alcoholic
Tran is the neighborhood jeweler
Then there's the car lot on the corner
There's never no place to park because
The dude has too many cars and parks some of them on the street.
Greek, Lao, and Polish dinners
All cooked on the same block
Wow, what a variety for only one block, and that's only three places.
Hippered hop, Down the block, Rock rock, Down the block
Birds flock, Down the block
Kids flop, Down the block
Parents walk, Down the Block
Down the block, Down the block, Down the block
What block, 25 Street block.
One woman told me she gets out next month, and it's scary. This is a safehouse; out there are all sorts of pressures and temptations. Another woman told me she'd been sentenced to a year for selling drugs, all that money, all that luxury. She'd accumulate a wad, put an elastic band around it, stuff it into her mattress, and go out and make some more. "Yes, but you were living off other people's misery." "I was only giving them what they wanted. I never thought about it, that they were sick. That's what we're here for, to think about things like that." She served four months in prison, now she's serving three more months at Horizon House. Frankly I haven't noticed that people living on the safe side of the law consider the consequences of their actions, to themselves, to others, to the earth. If the clients at Horizon House are learning to do that, they're learning a lot.
Today's greyness was reflected in every event. Even the workshop had a greyness. A little after 2:00, only Beverly was there, and I had to send her running to find the others who, I was told, were probably asleep on such a dreary day. It turned out that two were in school, two had been released, a couple had other obligations, and, worst of all, one was back in jail. Although she'd tried to cover it up by diluting her urine with water, she'd tested positive for cocaine. Everyone, including me, was upset. So after a full house of seventeen on Monday, today there were only eight women, and three were new. I felt as if I was starting over. I had them finish up previous assignments, and then told them to invent a conversation between two people who really care about each other.
Between me and Jamie, Mother and child
Our relationship is a bonded one
She's a breast-fed child for 18 1/2 months. She's a child that is very
close to me. I love her so much, she's a dream come true. A child. She's
mine and I love her too much. So very much. A lot. This is a child that is
so special. She's a gift that I never thought I would receive. I love you,
When I think about myself,
I think of happiness and the sun in the sky.
I think about love and people. Because I like to sing to people.
I think of rainbows and flowers because they have a lot of colors
And I like colors.
The only session I was nervous about was today's, the one with the women's children, for no one had any idea of the age range nor how many children would show up. I invited my mother, who once owned a nursery school, to come with me.
When I saw approximately a dozen children ages three to fifteen seated around the table, I expected chaos. Would they understand my performance? Would they understand the assignment? Would they sit there and do nothing? or raise Cain?
I started to perform CHANGES IN THE LAKE, imagined the younger children bored, and immediately switched to WATER and POODLE DOODLE, two poems with a lot of wordplay. "Would the poodle waddle if he wasn't with the woman? Would the woman waddle if she wasn't with the poodle?..." They recited along with me, and we all laughed. I made sure they knew we were there to have fun.
Then I told them that each of us is different and I wanted them to think about themselves and the ways in which they're different and draw and write self-portraits. I told them to think about their hair, that my hair looks like cocker spaniel ears, their eyes, their mouths, their hands, to think about what they like to do, to describe themselves in any way they wanted.
And they did. They got to work immediately, and all of them worked steadily and quietly, even the very youngest, sharing magic markers.
To break up the two-hour session, my mother had them stretch, and sang with them in Spanish, Italian, Russian, and French.
The top to the bottom
My eyes is as brown as the crayola
My lips are firm and wet
My legs are getting goose bumps
I don't care what's wrong with them because I like to SWIM!!!!
For the second half, I told them to imagine the street they live on, what they'd smell and hear and see. Again they worked intensely.
My mother reacted as I do, felt there was something special about the children, the mothers, the staff. Perhaps those who have lived hard lives without becoming bitter or beaten down develop a certain openness...well, I'm always trying to figure out why I get drawn to whatever draws me. Of course the women's excitement at the opportunity to express themselves freely was contagious. Anyway, it's over, all over but the party next week. Except they all have journals to write in, and I know some are actually doing it.
I guess I was also somewhat worried about Saturday's session, before Saturday came. The women, their children, Artreach and Horizon House staff, lots of food, a photographer to take family portraits. Everyone was dressed up and wound up, for many had never before had family portraits taken. I hoped there'd be sufficient order for everyone to share the work they'd done, knew it would be too crowded and chaotic for anyone to draw and write. But I was wrong. About fifteen women and children worked for almost an hour when I distributed paper and markers and told them to draw their families. Funny, they all seemed to assume I'd be back. They didn't consider this the grand finale.
Beverly said Horizon House plans to send her to art school. When I said good-by to her, she replied, "We'll see each other again, won't we?" She suggested we meet somewhere when she gets out and do something together. I gave her my number and told her I'll expect to hear from her. "Good," said her counselor, "That very important for her."
Certainly the women loved the workshops. Several were still writing in their journals. I had explained they were for them, not for me, for their thoughts and feelings, not for the daily details. Those who did read excerpts over the month, were doing just that, putting down their more intimate thoughts. The mere fact of owning a pad with a colorful cover and one hundred blank pages is a stimulant. It's hard to leave it blank.
Even the supplies I left behind, the artist's markers, paper, pens, glue, scissors seemed to make a difference in a place that has minimal funding for such luxuries. And that, of course, is the tragedy: that self-expression is a luxury for so many people instead of a right.
I'm a woman of many things
Sometimes I wish I had wings.
There are so many things I see
Sometimes I don't think there's enough of me.
I know I have a lot of pride.
I always show it in my stride.
I'm a woman of many things.
All I need are the wings.