Our Writing Topic was Gratitude
I could not ask for a better endorsement of what I do than this essay written last Friday by one of the women inmates I work with at the Community Transition Center in downtown Jacksonville. Our writing topic was Gratitude.
“Someone told me that there was no Writing for a Change class today, that it was every other Friday. I was disappointed. So I guess they were wrong. This class amuses me. It is unlike anything else I’ve experienced before. First I think, Wow, this lady is really nice, and ask why she’s here at the jail working with inmates. The first time I heard the bell, I giggled. I still giggle a little. I don’t know why but I REALLY like this bell. It is very relaxing. I like this class, Writing for a Change. I don’t know if I am doing it the right way because my thoughts never stop. Moment of silence…wouldn’t that be nice? But I think and think and my mind doesn’t shut up. I think about not thinking. If I close my eyes tight, will the noise stop? But it doesn’t. Then we pass around the vase, and I giggled at this, also, but today it was cold, relaxing, and I liked it and even thought of something good while I was holding it. All in all, I am grateful for this experience. I like new things and since I’m on a new journey in life, one of self-peace, I am grateful.”
— N.F., Nov. 13, 2015
Of all the work I do with Women Writing for (a) Change, the work at the CTC seems the most tender, the most intimate, the one I hold closest to the vest, as it were. I can’t really explain, like this woman, what is so special about it, except perhaps that it’s the way they take it so very, very seriously, and, I can see over time how much good it does.
The Safe and Sacred Space of a Circle for Women
But honestly, that could be true of any of the writing circles I hold. Everyone who comes to the Women Writing for (a) Change circles I’m holding here in Jacksonville seems to appreciate the sacredness of the circle. They are all so very serious about it. Perhaps because I am, also. As I’m passing around the candle or the vase that I bring to the jail, I think about the young woman in Cincinnati who I sat in a circle with during my training. She. Was. So. Serious. She seemed to hold that flame for hours, and I really felt that she did it without pretension, without self-awareness, or without drama. It’s just that she, too, takes this process, of holding a sacred circle, writing, and then hearing our words, so very seriously. How can I do less than that?
This is Tender Work
This is tender work, but it’s also joyful work. It’s a pleasure to watch yes, the transformations, from the beginning of a new circle of women to the results after four semesters of writing for some of the ongoing writers. People have changed. They’ve learned to trust the circle. The practices work: Women, writing for a change, transform their lives and those around them, making deeper connections with others while practicing more conscious living in community. Damn skippy, as one of my CTC writers once said!
And it works for men, too, I’ve found. I’ve held a few co-ed circles, and those are fun; men have written about nature, about hiking, about finding their voice in the business world. I’ve also held men-only classes, including recovering addicts at Lakeview Health, where I work on Friday afternoons. They, too, are transformed by this process. Last Friday, after the third week of coming to the circle and writing about the trials of darkness, suicide, and relapse, my new buddy N. wrote a love letter to his mom. It was so beautiful. He couldn’t wait to read it to her.
Enriching Our Lives, One Circle at a Time
And of course, it’s deeply enriched my life to see the women who have been writing and collaging with me for the past four semesters of Women Writing for (a) Change, whether once a quarter, like the Bosom Buddies at the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, or every week, like the core group of women who have attended on Wednesday nights since the beginning of Wwfac here in Jacksonville. They have changed, and grown, and their stories have changed and grown. Their collages have gotten richer, their creativity has blossomed, and their voices have slowly emerged. The stories are funnier, more tightly written, more intimate.
Their bigger life story, too, has changed, as we’ve all co-created new lives together, weaving our words and our actions and our stories and our insights together. My only desire now, is to create a platform, a publication, that can hold their words. I’m not so willing, I think, to turn them over to other “containers,” not sure that they will be held with as much respect, sacredness, and tenderness as the Wwfac model brings to them. So, we’ll see how that goes. Always, there’s the new dream, written on the horizon.
Creating a Safe Container for our Words
It’s not just the writing, of course. It’s the way we hold the circle. It IS the circle and the circle practices that create a safe container for their words, a trusting environment to share their most vulnerable thoughts. It is awe-inspiring to see how a process our founder began 25 years ago, of giving women, and others, a safe place to write, speak and listen to their words, still works, over and over again.
I particularly noticed how important this safety in the circle was when we were writing this summer in a one-day retreat with parents who had recently lost their children to cancer. In that circle, I noticed how the mothers, and grandmothers, spoke out more, protecting the fathers and grandfathers, who were not yet able to trust their emotions spoken out loud. But they were safe, and we could hold their pain, and it brought them some relief. I am grateful for that.
Writing to Set us All Free
It’s true that not everyone is ready for this. They are uneasy about the silence, the intimate sharing, the bell. That’s OK. There are many paths to awareness. When someone is ready to write their new life story here, in this circle, I’ll be ready, transformed and honored by this work, called by the bell to continue doing it, to sing my song, to follow the golden thread that ties all my worlds together, which is writing. Writing, for a change, my own change, and the change of others in this community. I’m as grateful for that as that young woman in jail who, through her own writing, can be set free, if only for a minute, from the prison of her own thoughts, just as I have been.
In the Riverside Garden.
Written in the Fall of 2015, I read a version of this piece at our final ReadAround of the semester.—JW