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.
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.
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.
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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?