Prison has its own unique intense density of mortality.
It is death that brings you there.
And not just actual death, however common, often maybe even murder, but it’s the death of a life lived on the outside, it’s the death of freedom, by whatever dark things that lead to it. And not just from what dark thing you did to bring you there, but what was done to you – a death of innocence, the earliest losses, abuses, traumas, that wash you away in their dark wake to do those things which will permanently frame you, into concrete & metal, for the rest of your lifetime – the decades upon decades upon decades, your 105 to life sentence…
And then there’s the death behind those walls.
The disappearances in those harsh, hard & cold spaces, of identities, of spirit, of expression, of humanness, into the hole, or the decades-long friendships gone in a transfer or reentry, the death of all the loved ones, lives lived on the outside while yours passes away, slowly, forever on the inside. Maybe at great cost, you’d be allowed the moment to stand in shackles at the deathbed of the most intimate relation, or over the dead body of your father, or maybe only just by phonecall to your dying grandpa’s ear, the only member of your family who still cares about you…
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again now.
I told the men & I’ll tell them again.
And when I, they & you think I’ve said it enough,
I’ll say it again to make sure we all get it:
I am absolutely clear that I gain far more from my visits with these men than I can imagine I’m possibly able to give.
I am pressed up against my own prison bars, with tears streaming down my face, face-to-face with all the ways I’ve caged myself. I am rarely more clear than when I am with these men, that the numbers of those imprisoned are greater on the outside than those numbered on the inside. And there is far more work being done by these men to create meaning & hope than most any of us will ever have to do in a lifetime. So, when I go inside, my prison meets theirs. It’s like what Lilla Watson said, quoted in Chelsea's song "Your Liberation," a song she wrote after our first visit to MCI & one she played for the men on our return this week: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
And the work. The work it takes to NOT be a product of our environment - we’re all faced with it. The work it takes to face & go through the pain we carry. Scott & Morgan sang it in their lyrics to the men, to us, during this visit: “The pain in your heart, that’s the truth breaking through.”
And these men broke through this week… we all did. And in the way our events work, less like an open mic & more like an opening, not just a chance to share that poem or song you know so well, but instead more like a chance to share the grief you know, your intimacy with sorrow, your heartbreak holding. Some of the men stepped out from behind the startlingly breathtaking creative output they’ve spent thousands of hours crafting & just sat in front of us, in front of their community, to cry.
While the creative work of these men is like nothing you’ve ever heard before [& GOD I wish I could share it ALL with ALL of you], there is still nothing like the man who sat before us crying, too overwhelmed to perform, because he’ll never see his Grandpa who’s fading away on his deathbed at this very moment. Or the man who writes words as expertly as you breathe stand in front of us only to say the names, through tears, of his three friends who just got out this month only to die within three days of their “freedom” from a shared overdose huddled in a room together, killed by the drugs their bodies were too long unprepared to do, or any of the long list of what the men shared & have lived through that I’ll save you the heartbreak of having to read here…
And please do not burden me with your complications;
By choosing forgiveness & love through vulnerability & connection,
I have my own complications to bear...
And I’m still feeling & reeling from it all today.
I had a good cry this morning as some of the parts, much of my heart left in Ohio, finally catches up to me. There is no experience I’ve ever had in my life that leaves me feeling how this kind of community leaves me feeling. There is nothing like sitting with those men, laughing & crying in some little room in the middle of prison, tucked out of sight in the great sprawl of Ohio, talking about trauma or poetry, who they killed or who got left behind, getting out or never getting out… while simultaneously in the next room, you can hear the music & laughter & voices of your beautiful friends who have come to do this with you.
And doing You're Going to Die's Alive Inside project, I’m often reminded of Joseph Campbell’s words:
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, & the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
But I’m angry with Joseph Campbell for those words, & not just because what it might mean or not mean for those men, but because of the burden of such bliss… to know what you’re supposed to do while it simultaneously breaks your heart. So much of the trust depends on following the meager bread crumbs, which in themselves are significant reminders for what absolutely matters more than anything else in life, but sometimes crumbs are hard to find & often they’re inadequate at satiating hunger... But this work, my friends & these men we’ve met on the inside, are bread loaves.
I’m left wondering what it is I’m trying to say here.
I wasn’t sure when I started writing what it was either.
So, I can only trust those things that have stayed with me since walking out those prison gates…
A loaf of bread one man gave me the morning after our first shows, when we returned the following day to more intimately talk & workshop the experience, he said to us, to me, with the kind of words that can only come from his verbal spirit, through his unique angelic glow:
“Every night I go to sleep & pray that I’ll wake up somewhere else…
Well, today I did.”