Here is the first letter I have received from Tina. The envelope is postmarked April 25 and it is the 27th, so the time between her writing this and my receiving it is about a week. I am not sure, though, that she wrote this all in one day due to her mention of 5 days at one point. Anyway enjoy! I got the feeling that she is doing quite well.
April 20, 2007
It is Friday of the first week but one week is not yet complete. It feels as if I have been here for months, MONTHS. Prison is not a NICE place. The system is hard. Women suffer so much despair being separated from their children, their family, spouses, friends. And then there is the "system." I now understand more about Civil Rights and the unfreedom of slavery than I ever could have known. The treatment of second-class citizens, the separate facilities (inmate bathroom dirty, no soap, no lock...) vs. staff bathrooms--many places are Out of Bounds. Lots of tiny, silly, insignificant rules meant to keep people off balance. And the list goes on. Our unit consists of a two-tiered concrete block unit which holds 250 people. You cannot imagine how the noise bounces off the walls. THe "system" is meant to punish. Inmates are looked upon as a step lower than people who deserve respect and dignity. And so people tend to act as they are treated.
But I have found that there are so many, many good and decent folks who are forced to reside here. Ms. Gail, Irish, Griffent, and Saundra have taken me under their wings. As I wait for my money to clear (Day 5 and no money yet) they have lent me tennis shoes as the RHINO black steel toe boots have left blisters on my feet, coffee to relieve the caffeine withdrawal headaches, shower shoes so I don't get staph infections from the shower and thermal tops so I don't freeze to death in the ice box called our unit. They are angels sent by God. Carrie Newcomer has a song called Geodes. Some of the lyrics are "God walks round in muddy boots, sometimes rags and that's the truth, you can't always tell but sometimes you just know." Well let me tell you...God walks around here in khaki brown pants and khaki tshirts. And while this place is filled with despair and sorrow, it is also filled with compassion, care, and love. Peace is one thing notably missing though. I am making peace cranes and some of the women love them. You see, anything you give someone in prison, from a piece of folded paper, to a book, to a kind word, all these things are like gold...there is that much physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual depravation. Honestly, even the refugees in a sense have more Freedom...
There are two rows of fences to keep us in, complete with razor wire and electric but the compound where I walk morning, noon, and night is wonderful. I must have put in 10 to 15 miles already. Perhaps I am like a hamster in a cage and I'm running on that wheel that goes no where but my mind dreams as I walk and I am outside in the fresh air and away from the noise. It is where I find peace...A commodity in short supply at Carswell.
There are many people, elderly women, severly ill women who live here. My heart goes out to them so. I ask myself "why ask an elderly person to spend their last years in a place like Carswell?" There isn't anything they could of done to deserve this treatment. But I find touching that there are younger women who push them in their wheelchairs, who massage their neck and arms. See what I mean about God walking around in khaki brown?!?
I am trying to practice Tonglen, a Buddhist breathing practice/meditation here. I received a book called "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times" by Pema Chodron. She has a chapter or two on Tonglen. She writes, "People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice (of Tonglen) does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, wanting everything to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. This practice dissolves the walls we've built around our hearts. It dissolves the layers of self-protection we've tried so hard to create. Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, we become liberated from very ancient patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality."
I find when I do Tonglen as I pray, my heart which is always on guard here, again softens and this allows me to experience God's very real presence in the women I am with. This is not a mental game or a spiritual gimmick. My Friends, this is as real as your hand in front of your face. As real as your need to breathe. It is SO SO SO very easy to shut down here. I mean you see so much pain you just want to protect your heart at all costs but in protecting you lose your own peace. I f my heart hardens I become despairing, depressed and in much more pain. But if I breathe in the pain, the suffering, the despair I see and let the breathing out be peace and kindness and compassion, then my heart remains soft and I am at peace. Yes, it opens one up to more pain, because you can't help but feel the pain here, the very walls cry out but somehow this taking in the pain in my breath and releasing peace and compassion in the exhilation...strangely enough, this is healing.
Please write when you can. I can't tell you how much I look forward to mail call. Just a line or a postcard is so, so, so very encouraging.
I am writing everyday, letters, journal entries, prayers. Writing is keeping me on an equal balance. The deprivation is really no big deal. I am, day by day, not missing more and more things. Each day I meet a new person and i try to smile and give a kind word, especially to the elderly or sick or to some who seem desparate. And people, I find do the same for me. I feel the humanness that the system seems to try to suck out of us when I meet someone's eyes.
I will write more later.