“We’re all just walking each other home.” –Ram Dass
It’s well into October now so there was no sun to squint into as I drove away from prison after my third visit. Instead a heavy dome of steel fog walled off the horizon and made things seem quiet and distant, like after the first snow of the season. As has been the case with my previous visits, this drive home becomes a brief time of reflection, and I think of the last few minutes of tonight’s session. We discussed what brought each of us to the writing group, a question I asked in an effort to help us get to know each other better, and more covertly, to help me remember their names. We took turns politely sharing as new members of this group, fumbling our way toward mutual respect and trust. They seem just as aware of that as I do.
Two of the guys are “bunkies,” another term for roommates, as I learned tonight. They had decided to come together, explaining they spend their time both arguing with and encouraging each other. They shared with us their friendly debates, such as their ongoing disagreement over which is their greatest demon: a society that oppresses black men or the minds that embrace their own oppression. One quoted Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind.” I nodded and listened intently, ever weary of adding unnecessary opinion to such difficult conversations. Also weary because I have taken great efforts to begin to understand the nuances of such a paradox, but I suspect not nearly as much effort as they have.
In the end, I did talk a little about why I am there, though I struggled to put this into words, despite knowing the answer well. I mentioned wanting to spend more time writing, as well as discussing and reading others’ works. I mentioned the synchronistic reconnection with Debra, finding out about the program, and wanting in. But I stopped prematurely. I know how to tell them the ways that I’m there for me: that it will help me be a better writer, that I will learn from it too, and how I live for reading the beautiful revelatory moments that every writer discovers at least once if they surrender to vulnerability.
But I am lost in how to tell them why I am here for them. That my personal beliefs compel me to feel that my own redemption depends on theirs. I don’t know how to explain that I don’t want them to feel forgotten, that I worry that we are only as strong as our weakest link. That I don’t think they are our weakest link but society seems to, and I want to shift the spotlight enough to help their strengths shine. I don’t know how to say I want to lift them up and see them for more than the mistakes they’ve made, because I’m afraid of sounding like a white hero, and even more afraid of acting like one. I want to tell them that I am not here to tell their story because I want them to tell it. I have my own stories to tell.
Sometimes as a mother and employee and citizen, days grind away at me and I feel weighed down by all the work to be done. I don’t know how to share with them that tonight, the weight of the world empowers me. I think of one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” And though I left them behind, inside those cement blocks and barbed wire fences that were out of sight in seconds from the darkness and fog, still they have carried me home.
by: Kristina O’Connor, Contributing Writer & Indiana Prison Writers Workshop Volunteer