Tag Archives: prison

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?

The Doll Shoe and the Straight Edge Razor

This solo plastic miniature doll shoe, so darling it makes me want to hug it all day, turned up today in a box where I dug around for some files.

Somehow saved from one of my childhood dolls which I never played with, I never consciously kept the shoe. It just keeps showing up. I’ve no idea what happened to the doll.

One inch long, the lonely plastic shoe survived moves to several countries and through numerous states and cities. I used to be nomadic. Apparently nomadic with a single doll shoe.

At the same time my heart breaks today. I heard about … Continue reading

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.


Places I Write

Here’s where I write. Where do you do it?

I write outside the gates of the women’s prison in the Appalachia Mountains.

I write in the driver’s seat of my rented Ford Fusion in the prison parking lot and I can’t crank the key, not yet, still traumatized by my first return to my first home.

I write behind my eyelids  while prison guards search me everywhere.

I write for my freedom in the Super 8 down the hill from another prison, another state, more states, thousands locked up.

I write off the sweat of my heritage, all those I never met but their scent, their labor,
their losses, their love seeps into and out of me, salty drops on my forehead.

I write under a blood-red moon, its beam carved into the edge of my soul.

I write suspended in air, a trance at dawn in a dream sheet of velvet like a magic carpet until the pad of little girls’ feet on kitchen tile downstairs draws me out because
they’re hungry.

I write for them, my daughters’ future, their femaleness, for their voices to rise unlocked.

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

Who in the World Invented Track Changes?

Fuller article here: Huffington Post

Is anyone in their right mind able to really work with all the action behind track changes in a document? What’s with all the lines and colors and highlighted material?

I know it’s useful but how can it be good if the whole experience of working with Track Changes in a document is like a circus on the page, more like a prison of words walking on a high wire with a light show underneath, arrows and dotted lines stabbing about the page.

I’m rebelling against it. What happened to just using the delete feature, and the keyboard for new data entry?

I’m back to the whole idea that simplicity is best. Flash fiction over grand lengthy works. Haiku rather than epic poems.

Six word memoirs instead of the whole self-focused 400 pages of me-me-me. But, I’m working on one of those, so I better get busy.

I’d love to see votes – email me or comment here: which do you prefer? Grand ambitious pages or a few select simple words (where there’s not need for Track Changes)?

Look Forward and Take Your Place in the World

Some may be wonder about me: doesn’t she take anything seriously? Can’t she plant her feet on the ground for at least a moment, or even put several moments together and get a grip on life?

Listen, if your collection of mutti-racial identities started behind prison bars — yes, I said prison, federal prison — then you’d have a bit of a curious twist on life, too. But it wasn’t the “born in prison” part that gave me an interesting view of the world. It was what happened after. Here it is in a muttshell, and this is all the serious you’ll get out of me, at least for right now on this page.

What would you do if your multiracial was a multi of you-didn’t-know-what, you were born heroin-addicted, in prison, lived inside for a year before your prison-toddler-self got shuttled into foster care, and then later adopted? Mutt-cinating, you might say.

Not so much for me, though. At least not in the beginning. Now, okay, life is pretty interesting.

Don’t we all have pockets of ourselves, pieces of our past (or present) we might struggle to accept? If you say you don’t then look again. It’s not those pockets that hold us back, it’s the way we look at them, what we do with who we are.

I’ll have more on this later.

Meanwhile, the thought for the day: Be comfortable being yourself. And whatever comes your way, make the most of it.