Saturday, March 22, 2014

Between the Lines

The life of the mind is a struggle between competing narratives. And the narratives we create propel our actions, beliefs, values, and attitudes. These stories are at war. The stakes could not be higher, because the stories determine the course of lives, of relationships, of how we live with and on this planet.

We bathe in them, soak them up like dry towels set on a puddle of bath water. They are everywhere and rain down on us in the form of memories, conversations, movies, the look in the eye of a lover. We will die for them and we will kill, steal, trade souls for them.

When a man pulls a gun out in a bank, he is living out the belief that he should have money, that the need for money outweighs the risk of prison. When a woman opens her legs for a fee, she is living the story that sex is a commodity to be traded, no less than a doctor taking a fee for suturing a child's cut above the eye.

There are stories that tell us life is about survival at all costs, that our welfare is more important than that of those from whom we steal or exploit. We see life as a jungle hierarchy. The story becomes a reality.

When I go to prison to run the writing workshops, I know I step into a crucible of stories. There, race runs the show and power is king. The brutality of prey and predator sits like a poison cloud over the yard. You survive by playing the system and the system survives by feeding on the stories of fuck or be fucked.

There are stories that see life as creation, as an evolution beyond executioner and victim. They come from a place that sees what might be, not just what is. These stories weave their way into art and literature. They speak from longing, find ways into songs and poetry.

I know that poetry has a life of its own and that it joins us in the workshop. The generative force that drives the creation of a new story permeates and infuses the circle of men. It whispers "You can write a different story, one that touches the grief and joy without destroying your progress. You can be more human, more compassionate, empathetic, connected, alive. Your life is a wonderful piece of clay that you shape out of images and words you have not yet imagined."

It is a whisper compared to the roar of fear and anger on the yard. But if one can listen, the voice of possibility responds. It is a living impulse that cannot be silenced.

Some would call opening such a door a lost cause, would argue that such an airy pursuit is no match for the fear and carnal appetite of prison, or  day-to-day hustle in this man's America.

Another voice, more elusive, more in this world than of it, would charm rather than seduce, would whisper rather than shout, and would surprise with a dance that says, yeah, why not?

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