This was written November 27th, 2014 from the California Institute for Women, from room 136– the cell without a mirror or light, or doorknob, where I spent my Thanksgiving. I had a window, though, and the room to myself– and it was a lovely place to write.
Some of you may remember this, as it was posted once before. I had to remove it almost immediately because I hadn’t processed my experiences fully, and so I could not participate in the comments and conversations it started.
It filled my heart with joy when someone asked me about my prison Thanksgiving today, and the memories were light and joyful in my heart. It makes me proud that I am able to share this today. It makes me proud to see a blink of progress, to know I am still taking things step by step.
The fog rolled in, misting the grass with smoky sanctity. We walked a single-file line through it, one after another– eighteen anonymous prisoners carrying a small paper bag each. We followed the sergeant, veering as he veered, stopping when he stopped. His voice was low and smooth, like the voice of the fog itself, if you believed in such possibilities. A stray cat pranced over the grass as if to prove the mystery of fog was a mere facade. Her meow echoed through the early morning and I knew she was taunting the sky’s cool breaths of smoke — reminding it that nothing really comes in on little cat feet.
Excepting, of course, little cats.
It was ten til’ five, and I was taking my first steps away from CCWF, known to us as Chowchilla State Prison. None of us in line were going home, but many — myself included- were going closer to home and someplace purportedly better. By most accounts, there are few places worse than CCWF in this country. People try to prove this with statistics, but like most numbers, they overemphasize fear and minimize the impact of intimacy.
Yes, I was housed among murderers– but the one I waved to had a voice to match her heart and the sweetness of it will live with me always. Yes, I was put in a cage– but it was in the coop where I laughed so hard at a knock-knock joke that my toes cramped. Yes, I experienced shackles and cleaned pools of blood. Yes, some staff ignored my basic human needs until I couldn’t remember if I was human, or if I had needs worth mentioning. Yes I had bad days.
But also, yes. I saw love. I found friendship. I witnessed great kindness and wiped away the happiest of tears. I met staff who could always hear hope, as clearly as I could hear the possibility of talking fog. True believers. They gave me a constant foothold to my world, and my fellow prisoners gave me constant reminders to hold onto the things so often lost on journeys like this.
It is prison, yes, but I was loved there, and the light of compassion shining on me was all the more meaningful given how much easier it is to spread darkness in a place so shadowed by loneliness and tragedy.
All these thoughts and feelings mixed inside me, stirring themselves into the cold around me and the coldest memories inside me, and I froze.
Overwhelmed by fog, I simply ran out of steam.
A lieutenant passed at that moment, telling our group, “Raise your hand if you plan on coming back.” In respect– or fear– of his badge, we stopped movement. In response to his question, no one raised a hand. He laughed at us, predicting, “I’ll see 75% of you again.” as he strolled on, flattening the earth beneath him. His words rooted me into that prison, seeping deeper than even the mist. When he was out of ear shot, the officer in back of our line said simply, “Chin up, girls. Just prove him wrong.” I hadn’t even realized I lowered mine.
We still had a few hundred steps to go and I decided to take them, one at a time, fueled by gratitude.
Step. Thank you, God, for staying with me. Step. Thank you, Life, for the knowledge that I am loved. Thank you, family, for the soul-tatted reminder to not let anyone grind me down. Thank you, Dave, for a relationship so full of joy that it survived half a year apart and still makes me smile with moony-eyed glee.
Thank you, Housing Officers, for allowing me to wear my integrity as loudly as I wear my orange smocks. Thank you, Mental Health professionals, for your companionship in my fate. Step. Thank you, fellow inmates, for believing I am beautiful. Step. Thank you, WordPress, for gifting me with an international community of friends. Thank you, friends, for supporting my rawr through seemingly all imaginable circumstances. Step.
I took each one, headed towards change, leaving behind what will always be an epic part of my life. Each foot forward was fiercely humbling. Do you realize I’ve never had to take a single step without hearts full of goodness by my side? How is it possible to be as lucky as all that? To me, it’s proof positive.
Everything is possible.
Everything’s gonna be okay.
I made it through.
I’ve arrived at the next verse of life, and how it will evolve is still as mysterious to me as the Chowchilla fog, but I am like the little cat– suddenly, outrageously fearless in the face of it.
“Talk to me, Fog!” I want to shout, “I know you can speak.” I know it, because I know possibility, and it is unstoppable. I know love, and it is infinite. I know gratitude, and it is devastatingly powerful. I can push through the earliest mornings and the most certified doubts because of you– and the millions of ways you push me forward, and the millions of steps you’ve taken with me.
I walk in gratitude and love, and even the fog moves out of my way, because it knows I am determined to make my way back to you.
And I will.
In the meantime, happy thanksgiving.
To you, and yours, and ours.