Sunday, December 22, 2013

Turn Your Lights On

It is the winter solstice and it is raining. Cold too. I am driving out to the prison for the workshops with the heat on. Clouds cover the mountains, where snow is falling. Roads into the high country are closed. The prison is in a low spot, a cold sink, a depression between the Santa Rita, Rincon, and Catalina mountain ranges. Concrete, a great "thermal mass," holds and radiates the chill. I'll have to wear a jacket.

In spite of the gray skies and winter wind, I feel pretty good. I am carrying colored pens, composition journals and other Christmas goodies for the men in the workshop. My little pickup is a kind of sleigh, and I am a 200 pound elf.

I know there are others around the state doing similar work. Richard Shelton still goes out to the Federal Penitentiary, just off to my left as I drive down Wilmot to the Arizona State Prison. There are workshops in Florence.Writing produced in all of these workshops is included here in the third edition of Rain Shadow.

That is a comfort as I get close to my destination. 

The layers of complication and worry that fill my regular life as teacher, householder, and aging writer peel away as I approach the prison.

I feel lighter, simpler, clearer. I feel a twinge of -- dare I say it -- purpose, though not the purpose you might think. I started doing the workshops for all the wrong reasons. As what psychologists call a "high verbal" type, I thought I had something to give, some directive guidance to publication. I was going to fix things.

It hasn't exactly gone that way. It's more of a two-way exchange, where I get more than I give.

Like all writers, the men in the workshops give me a window onto worlds I wouldn't otherwise know. Some of the writing carries light, joy, and humor, while more of it is witness to the ragged edges of twenty-first century society. It bears witness to poverty, drug use, violence, abuse, mental illness, bad luck -- all of the contributing elements behind incarceration.

The men shed light on realities that I would otherwise miss or, I am embarrassed to say it, willfully ignore. They are my teachers, guides into places otherwise left out of the spotlights of media attention. They are the front line in a system that works to make profit out of locking up the socially marginalized.

We engage in exchanges, dialogue, share new vocabularies. I bring them terms like "narrative distance:"; they give me "tweaking" and "bums." The language men create in tight, shared spaces is a living thing, a creature born of situation. The richness of it carries the scent of humanity coping with the impossibly hard time.  

In the workshop, I am facilitator for these human stories, a big-boned mid wife for ideas that need a form in order to be born into a bigger audience than the workshop. We humans want to be heard, and these guys want the free world to know they are still here, still wanting, dreaming, loving.

It's a pretty simple role. I just show up and grease the wheels of expression.

I don't know how the inmates look at it though. Some of them may attend for the pen and pad that they can sell of trade on the yard. Some may just want an excuse to get out of their cells. They may be coming to the workshop for the "wrong reasons" too.  But they might find they have something to say that they want someone to hear.

I try to make a space for that to happen.

It's not perfect I know. They maybe don't get what they want, or what they might deserve, but they do get the gifts that life gives them. It's up to them to take it from there.

So I drive out to the end of Wilmot Road, where a bunch of guys wait for the chance to make it right, say it well. It is today, this shortest, rainy, cold day, that I have to squint to see the road, to turn my lights on in these dark days.

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