Tag Archives: hope

To Create Ritual

Social rituals fascinate me, and I’ve learned a lot about their history as I prepare tutu materials for an upcoming workshop with incarcerated mothers and their daughters.

Rituals have been a featured part of culture for tens of thousands of years, dating back to Paleolithic times with their burial rituals. Even in today’s culture, jury trials, executions, academic conferences, all rituals filled with symbolic acts set by regulations and tradition.

Malawi initiation ritual

We live with ritualistic rites of passage every day: confirmation, B’nai Mitzvahs, oaths of allegiance, dedication ceremonies, presidential inaugurations, coronations, marriages, funerals, sports events. Even everyday actions like shaking hands or bowing in some cultures serve as ritual greetings.

Tutus Go to Prison

Which brings me to my prison work and its latest incarnation  — a tutu-making workshop with incarcerated women and their daughters where they’re allowed to visit.

My preparation began to feel ritualistic, partly because of the various prison requirements I’m required to follow. Each prison in each state differs in regulation for what goes in and what comes out with me. Sometimes I can’t bring in a single piece of paper and am allowed just the clothes on my back and even those need to follow regulations so the colors I wear won’t match inmate jumpsuit colors.

Preparing for the tutu workshops has delivered tactical challenges. In order of appearance over the months it’s taken for me to prepare:

First, it’s one big math problem: How many yards of tulle and ribbon to purchase for X number of girls and their mothers? And how many yards of what colors, and which neon colors go with what base color?

Then, not the smallest of challenges, how to finance it all since I’m not a prison-sponsored budget line item. Gratitude for all who’ve donated in many ways to assist and support.

Next, how do I prepare all the materials so no scissors or glue will be used in prison? Then how to kit them, and package and ship these masses of tulle and ribbon so they not only arrive with me, but also pass security as I enter the prison.

My answer, at least for this time: Tutu Pods. I’ve done my math, although I almost blew it in the middle of preparing the material because I tossed my worksheet where I figured out how many yards per mother-daughter pair.

So in the middle of it all I hauled in one of my daughters to help me think it through. We rigged out a new approach, added new colors, and no one will know but us how I almost drowned in stress because I thought I’d run out of colors.

I envisioned myself inside, handing out these kits and at the last moment, one last girl empty handed because I didn’t bring enough. But I’ve had to stop worrying about what won’t work and focus on what will go right.

Now it’s down to the wire. The Tutu Pods are almost finished, final touches ready for my travels next week to the Baltimore prison, all part of a tutu workshop which I’ll incorporate into my speaking engagement, which now I’m calling UNTITLED.

Thanks to my friend Barbara, I stopped trying to figure out what to call my speaking engagements. Although I am searching for a subtitle.  UNTITLED: something something. But I’m too busy with tutus and speech writing to figure this out now. My friend also reminded me how sewing circles are part of women’s history as our way to share stories and bond. Also a ritual.

Next for strategic tutu planning, I’ve had to flow with the multiple regulation changes, from, “Yes, the mothers can keep the tutus they make in their cells,” to “No, not an option,” to “Yes,” and back to, “No.” I get it, long strands of ribbon and tulle aren’t allowed.

As much as I want the mother-daughter pairs to each keep a tutu after they separate, I accept I don’t make the rules. My energy is used best other than resisting what I know I can’t change.

Unlocking a Ritual

I’ve spent weeks wondering how the mothers can keep a symbol of their shared time. What beyond their memories can they take back to their cells?

Then something struck me as I finished hot gluing the last pansy on a polka dot ribbon waistband before I kit the dozens of Tutu Pods, which I won’t seal because I expect each one of them will be searched and disassembled.

If the women can’t take any part of a tutu with them to their living quarters, what can they have? A moment. No one can withhold a memory, a moment. But what moment can they experience which will pass every security measure?

Why not create a ritual around a moment? But what? I’d need it simple, prison-approved, and easy to transport across country.

Why not flowers, each mother and her daughter with an individual silk pansy? Also my favorite flower — especially the real kind in dirt. But I use silk for this project.

Why can’t the mother-daughter pairs give each other a flower? So I snipped hundreds of silk pansy petals, a yellow-purple color set to match what the girls’ will assemble on the tutus they take home. They’ll each hand their mother a matching silk pansy.

Then I clipped solid purple pansy petals so the mothers can pass their daughters a separate color all their own.

Before I leave for this trip, I’ll look up the symbolic meaning of the colors purple and yellow and also learn more about the symbolism of flowers, so I can share this in the workshop. For sure flowers mean growth, the promise of a blossom. Just as these girls and their mothers hold the same promise.

A Private Moment of Freedom

Somehow I’ll make this all a ritual to serve as a bridge and bond between the mothers and daughters, although I don’t know the full details yet because it’s in process.

Like every time I’m in a prison, my work floats in limbo until the moment I’m inside with the women and I try to sense their needs. With any audience, I do my best to tune into them, not just myself.

I do my own style of improv in prisons because I never know what a shift captain will allow for what I carry, wear, how close I get to the women, shake hands or hug or not. It’s not my house, not my rules. But when I’m inside I’m at home because at one time prison was just that for me, safe and secure – home.

If all goes as planned, my pansy ritual will help bond the mothers and daughters long after they separate. If the mothers can’t keep the pansies in their cells, then in their memory and hearts they can hold the moment they received these petals from their girls.

We’re free to hold our memory, our moments. And when I get home from it all, I’m going to ground myself with a walk around the pansy gardens in the Arboretum and treasure the privilege I’ve been given to build creative moments of hope, learning, and love where least expected.


P.S. Next in the line-up of what to solve: how do I transport these? Too late to ship and too late to cost out which shipping method. The airline will charge for a large ship-on suitcase or box, not for weight but because of size. I may pack this all in a giant duffle bag. Stayed tuned for the results.

* * *

I’m curious to learn what, if any, rituals you hold for yourself. A few of my simple daily rituals: I brew tea in the morning. I also sit down to every dinner with my family. I don’t call these habits because they’re conscious acts to enhance my life.
Do we need rituals at all? Did you grow up with any which you discarded as soon as you could in your adult life? What ones have you created for yourself?

Where Dreams and Love Usually Die… But Not Always

Before I ever knew any of my work would be published, before I ever spoke in front of an audience, before I un-muted myself and ever spoke much at all, I dreamed about—not a glamorous author event—but of a book launch inside a prison.

I was thirteen or something, scribbling typical teen girl poems and imitating e.e. cumings.

A girl who couldn’t stand up in third grade class to read out loud, I wanted to stand inside a prison and read my work. I didn’t do this with my first book because my mother was dying at the same time and it took everything in me to walk with her to her end. More like crawl.

I also didn’t know much about dreams then.

Through the giant generosity of friends, I’m being sponsored to launch Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus inside a a number of prisons, including Bedford Hills Prison for Women. Not the prison where I was born but the prison with the country’s oldest nursery for babies.

It’s a privilege to stand before the women I meet in prison and  spread love and dreams where dreams and love usually die.

As soon as I can, I’ll share the details. In the meantime please dream with me. For your dreams and mine.

I’m going here in one of my dreams, inside every U.S. prison to reach our 150,000 incarcerated women.


The unPrison Project: Freedom on the Inside

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is my journey now, to walk out of silence and secrecy and use my voice. Not always easy for one like myself who spent many years silent, sometimes mute, and always with a secret held from the world: my prison birth, one of many secrets, many stigmas which I thought made me less than others.

Not anymore though. I’ve come to believe we create other prisons for ourselves and my story just happens to be one of extremes. I’m hard at work on writing my memoir so I can share my journey with you.

Fast forward a few years. I’m now Continue reading

The Mother Who Waited

The week of Thanksgiving, and I pause to recall the five days of solitude I took years ago at a retreat run by Franciscan nuns. I also joined them in their vow of silence for those days.

I committed myself to frequent silent retreats then, to write with more seriousness, by now relieved to end my long-lasting rebellion against my parents and their careers, both English professors and writers.

This particular retreat, in the dead of winter in Wisconsin woods, landed me in a one-room cabin heated by a wood stove. I’m a city girl and had to learn how to keep the wood dry and ready to stoke the fire. I loved the challenge, and rather than write that week, I meditated about my mother and our battle of a relationship.

This is the mother who endured a few decades of my rejection as I reminded her she wasn’t my “real” mother. This is the mother whom I plotted to gas to death, and also the woman whose face my fist grazed before it punctured sheet rock, my every bone shattered in my right hand.

This is the mother who stood by me no matter what, the mother who waited, as did my father, for me to come out the other side of hate, fury, and pain.

My parents adopted me around three or four from foster care. Before foster care I’d spent a year with my other mother in prison. When authorities removed me around age one, I unconsciously held out for over twenty-five years for my prison mother to “come get me,” held out without knowing it.

Fast forward through a disturbed childhood and a more troubled life as a teen and adult, a life of drugs, crime, and violence. When my mother was in her 70s and I was thirty-something, I finally “hired” her as my Mother. At last the girl my parents adopted, turned into their daughter.

This is the mother I never mention on-line. I don’t Tweet about her, or blog with stories about us (the way I do about my prison mother.) Not exactly a Facebook status update kind of woman.

At last I learned to release the past, to accept what I imagined for years would never happen — my return to live in prison with my other mother. At last I opened my heart to the woman who loved me day in and day out, even when, and probably especially when, I’d been estranged and absent for years.

Along with acceptance, gratitude replaced anger. Compassion and forgiveness healed our wounds. I learned the art of forgiving. I forgave my mothers, forgave myself.  The journey to achieve our redemption, my own and ours as a family, is the story of the memoir I’m working on.

For the two years up until this retreat, almost every weekend I flew to visit my mother, now in chemo treatments for ovarian cancer. I had to catch up for a lot of years. We’d sit and read magazines, watch TV, and nap together. I massaged her swollen feet, puffed from cancer now in her liver. We talked, something new for us.

I flew in on the Thanksgiving after my silent retreat in the Wisconsin woods and my mother sat, almost a pile of bones, in her wheelchair through the whole dinner. She scolded me when I tried to force feed her whipped cream. Some hours after I arrived that day, right after our family feast, my older brother wheeled her back to bed. She died in my hands, my father and brother on the other side of her hospital bed.

I’m grateful for our victory, the six or so years of our mother-daughterness. Without this, I’d be a different person, not a woman speaking in prisons, not a writer. Probably not a mother myself. She’s the woman who taught me to see humor even in the darkest of moments.

I’m convinced my mother waited until Thanksgiving, waited for my arrival, to die. Every Thanksgiving week I honor her, my mother’s stamina, her maternal endurance to wait for me for thirty years to accept her.

Sometimes attachment takes a long time. This is the woman I call Mother.

Mutt Meditation #16: Take the High Wire Walker Attitude

A good mutt life is something akin to acrobatics. You might wobble, but do whatever you can to get to the other side.

I’m fascinated by the circus. Especially the highwire.  Most anything adventurous with an element of risk — it’s for me.  In fact, I filled out the application for circus school at one time. You’ll have to wait until I’m done with my memoir to find out what happened.

There’s nothing like the thrill of  living on the edge but now that I’m all grown up (did I really say that?) I make sure my thrills aren’t too life threatening.

Back to the circus. Tightwire is the art of maintaining balance while walking along a tensioned wire between two points. Highwire is the same as tightwire but at much greater height. In French, it’s called Funambule. Isn’t that a little too close to fumble?

In China, ‘Dawazi’ or high wire walking has a 430-year history. Jews don’t do this, I’m sure, but I’ll check with that branch of my people.

Tightrope walkers sometimes use balancing poles and might even perform the feat without a safety net. That adds to the excitement for us on-lookers! There’s got to be some extra thrill for the walker, too, especially if she’s on a wire 2100 feet over the Yangtze River.

The biomechanics go something like this. Tightrope acrobats maintain balance by positioning their center of mass directly over their base of support, i.e. shifting most of their weight over their legs, arms or whatever part of their body they are using to hold themselves up.

My point? It never helps to be rigid in life. And if you’re a mutt, you need to flex and flow more than others. Remember, we’re all a mutt in one way or another. So find a base of support, shift a little when you need, and hold on. It helps a little to hope for the best, and keep a positive attitude.

Thought for the day: Look inside your muttilicious self. Find your center. Dig deep and seek balance. And don’t wait four hundred years.

Don’t ask about Mutt Meditation #1 through 15. They’re scattered throughout this blog, and not numbered yet.
I know, my non-linear scramble is enough to drive any reader crazy. I’m still working on lining up my brain waves. Who knows, maybe it’s the heroin-at-birth thing.

Humor, the Economy, and Resilience

This is a repost from an earlier page on this blog.

MUTTS LIKE ME BLOG is  your ongoing guide for mutthood and for mutt wannabes alike! We can all learn from one another about how to make it in the world as, yes, a proud and productive mutt. Mutt being a warm catch-all for anyone multiracial, which is most everyone. We’re all a mix, and this blog is my place to play with a serious topic while at the same time drawing attention to “life as a mutt.”

Since when is race a topic for humor? And is now really the time to poke fun and play around with race, or with anything else, for that matter? After all, the world economy tanked. Who can laugh?

I, for one And you should, too. We all need it once in a while. Many onces, actually.

Especially now, we all need hope, and humor. Gloomy headlines, relentless and everywhere. In September 2008, the American Psychological Association reported that eighty percent of Americans felt irritable due to stress in the economy. (Just irritable? What about devastation, fear, and ruin? And what about that other twenty percent? What foxhole, I mean mutthole are they hiding in?)

A number of researchers have studied humor and it’s impact on hope and resilience. Science News Review (June 2008) cites a study that underscores how humor is a legitimate strategy for relieving stress and maintaining a general sense of well being while increasing a person’s hope. Not a cure, but a vital component for resilience.


2 responses so far ↓

  • janebretl // March 25, 2009 at 10:26 pm (edit)I love your sense of humor and hope!
  • muttslikeme // March 25, 2009 at 10:31 pm (edit)Hey, considering where I came from, it was hope and resilience, or not. Better go with the hope, right? The “or not” I already tried. Life without hope, well, what’s the fun in that?

In the Right Place at the Right Time

When I was in Hong Kong in 1997 for the British return of its territory to the Chinese after one hundred and fifty six years, I witnessed remarkable history. (Historical note: the British occupied Hong Kong in 1841, and it transferred back to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.)

hong-kong-dayjpg1Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth attended, and I was there with my two-year-old daughter. Oh yeah…there were a few million other people there too. But that day of the “return” when fireworks lit the sky and I saw Chinese tanks roll in at midnight, a Chinese national commented to me: What would happen if your American experiment ended and your country transferred back to Great Britain?

That’s a thought.

But little did the British know what her colonies would produce!


And little did they know our First Lady would be hugging the Queen a decade or so later.


Well, it looks like now we get a second chance at resurrecting the American national character.

The American experiment lives on! In the right place at the right time, and right now is a highlight for all of us multiracial mutts. For others too. (Oh…except for the economy.)

In the right place. Look who’s leader of the American experiment now! Guess the British won’t have to take us back after all.

So be alert. Try to recognize when you are in the right place. If you don’t, it might pass you by.

Thought for the day: Good things can take time. Be patient and trust that right will rule.