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the storytellers
by betsy willis and fran uhlenhopp

Fran and I have been visiting Bravo pod at the nearby jail for over 6 months and each visit brings surprises. Last Tuesday we found that three of the women had been sent on to the women’s prison in Nashville the night before. It was sudden, unexpected and left a void that was filled with grief by the sudden separation.

The pod has 12 double cells and the population has varied from 18 down to the 6 that faced us with drooping shoulders and sad faces that morning. The previous meeting we had ventured into Haiku. When I took home their experiments I realized my instructions obviously were not clear. I was prepared to reintroduce the exercise and present a simpler step-by-step lead-in.

I returned their papers after taking their words and using the 5-7-5 formula, hoping that seeing it would clarify. I could see by their faces, it did not. Ever hopeful, I took them through the task, their faces showing boredom and great reluctance.
Someone offered an explanation for their lack of energy. “Nobody slept much after they came in and got Beth and the others. We had to talk and some of us cried. It’s hard. We’re tired.”

“OK, let’s write about those feelings, “ said Fran. She was given a response of sighs and groans with, “I feel bad, just awful. I don’t want to write them.”
With us both encouraging them to write the unpleasant thoughts, we managed to get some writing done. It was accomplished by every maneuver we knew except spoken threats.

Each stood and read her offering to which we affirmed with a loud, “Wow”, a response we had settled on early in our time together. I felt it was important to give encouragement regularly and loudly. The yelling seemed to lift the despondent cloud and suddenly they were proud of themselves. They had expressed feelings that were bad and it was OK.

The rest of the session was spent in their explaining to each other how they saw the haiku coming together. Their explanations were crystal clear showing me how much I had to learn.

We end each session by choosing a “blessing” from the Blessing bowl, getting in a circle and telling how the words were blessings in place or yet to come. Sometimes we sing some jaunty song and turn and give the person next to us a shoulder massage. Then we pack up and leave with loud and hearty goodbyes as well as their lusty declarations of loyalty to us.

After making our way to the intake desk to sign out, we pass through the series of heavy steel doors. Over lunch we debrief ourselves and make plans for the next session. We talk at length about the affect of the sudden separation and the strong bonds that had been severed, not just the Bravo women but for us too. Each visit gives us a clear new insight into ourselves. Fran and I agreed we learn more than our students ever do.

Betsy Willis and Fran Uhlenhopp go to a county jail regularly teaching and learning. They call their program The Storytellers because they believe the most important thing we possess is our story. They also believe there is freedom in writing and where do we honor freedom more than in prison? They are supported by the women’s mentoring program, Numina, which offers programs to women “incarcerated” by their lives, not by steel bars. For more information of these programs go to numinaprogram.org.

See A Day In Bravo by Jane D and Haiku.

Western North Carolina Woman
WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA WOMAN
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