Thursday, August 3, 2017

Forget Me Not: For Alice who Lived and is Remembered

    "The gentleness of that moon-fish face told me at once: the old woman had just got out of prison.
     'She's a thief,' I said to myself. As I walked away from her, a kind of intense reverie, living deep within me and not at the edge of my mind, led me to think that it was perhaps my mother whom I had just met."––Jean Genet, The Thief's Journal






I never met Alice. She chose not to attend San Benito County Jail’s weekly writing classes, so until she was dead, I hadn’t known she existed.

After her death, however, I learned of the great love students in my class held for Alice. One Wednesday, their sudden lethargy and irritability marked the room. Usually, writers arrive buoyant and ready to experiment. That day it was their sadness they brought with them. I wouldn’t have known of their loss had I not asked what lay behind their grim faces. Even so, it wasn’t something they expected me to understand. It was something between friends. A loss others might dismiss, so why risk talking about it. She’d been released. Soon afterward they learned she died. A friend was gone in a manner that touched on the fears they had about their own lives.

Alice was an elderly homeless woman, sometimes given to outbursts. Before her release, she had argued with not only jail guards but her cellies too. Cellmates, however, understood that anger wasn’t all there was to Alice. They loved her for her humor, her optimism, and her friendliness.

This is the Alice celebrated and written about in Forget Me Not, the latest collection of poetry and prose from the writers of San Benito County Jail. We hope you enjoy this work. Let it open your eyes and your heart to the stories of others like Alice, people in struggle, yes, but also people that bring meaning, connection, and light to those who look closest.

Please click here to learn more about Alice and the people who loved her: Forget Me Not.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Wilhelm’s Dream: God is on our Side

“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
––Romans 8:31

Last week, my good friend Brigita, who was back home visiting family, reached out via Skype, wanting to share her cousin Wilhelm’s dream. She believed it would convince me to let go of anger. She calls that my problem and Brigita is the type of person who wants only to help, which in itself sometimes makes me angry.

When Brigita and Wilhelm were children, she dreamed one day they would marry. Now she says she can hardly stand him. According to Brigita, he’s become a womanizer and a cad. When he visited her here in the states a few years ago, she paid for his every entertainment and washed his every dish, or so she said.

Still, she was driven to share Wilhelm’s dream with me. For her it was no mere dream; she called it a vision. “A warning,” she said, “for you.” Her pale skin seemed almost blue in the frosty room from which she spoke. “I’ve recorded it all right here, in English, on my phone. It’s your own future if you don’t change.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll listen.”

Brigita knows well I have a tendency toward self-righteousness and deep despair over the outcome of the US elections, a despair with which I can only endure by taking action, more and more action. I have marched; I have called; involved myself in repetitious discussions. Yet the newspaper headlines, which create in me the deepest anguish, go on reproducing and morphing into new more horrible realities at rapid and terrifying rates.

“Here,” said Brigita in response to my latest categorizing of the good and the bad, the sinners and sinned against. She pressed play and held the phone close to her computer’s mic.

For a moment, her face appeared to be float over a lavender sky. A painting, which hung on the far wall of the family study, glowed strangely behind her in a piercing morning light. It made Brigita seem further away than ever before; thus it was easier for me to consider Wilhelm’s words.

Suddenly––his voice. I’d met him exactly once. Indeed, we’d flirted. He’d bought me drinks with what turned out to be Brigita’s money. But the voice travelling via routes I only barely understand––is it via satellites up in the heavens or via cables under the sea––sounded more settled than I remembered. Sand in a masculine throat. A seductive forceful sound but for his accent, which was thick, and had me recalling, if only fleetingly, the Muppet character Swedish Chef. After that particular neural pathway was carved, everything Wilhelm said sounded like half prophecy half joke. An experience I could never share with my friend Brigita.

I will now transcribe Wilhelm’s words as best a Skype connection, her phone’s recording function, and my own memory allow.

“Well, if you insist.” I heard him say. “I will tell it again. Say to your friend hello. Yes. I remember her. Hello friend.”

“Stop it,” Brigita interrupted. “It’s not for that. Not everyone falls for your charms.”

Wilhelm sighed. Already my heart softened; I listened more intently. Brigita can be unnecessarily stern, and thus I was naturally on Wilhelm’s side. 

“Okay,” Wilhelm continued. “So it was two weeks ago. I waited for Yvonne to return to bed. Half-asleep. Yes. Overcome by this strange, well, dream. Yes, a dream I will call it because I was half slept.”

“Your vision,” Brigita replied. “It’s a holy vision Wilhelm, nothing less. And when visions arise it’s time to chase the women from your bed not wish for their return.”

“My wife, Brigita. Yvonne is now my wife.”

“I haven’t met her yet, and so you say.”

Wilhelm groaned but continued. “So, I waited. Yvonne, who you will meet, was somewhere down the hall. But I must have been asleep. Then, like a dream, I saw, no, felt myself rise over a crowd of––um––people, many people. Lifted heavenward. So, this must be a dream, no? A feeling of being lifted heavenward over a sea of, hmm, humanity below me? Yes! Humanity. The word I look for. A float sensation. Then I was given golden armor. Do you know about this? Remember? Oma’s icons. St. George and the Dragon? But it was me, of all people, lifted into heaven, given the golden sword, a helmet, a shield. No harm could be done me, I knew. I tell you, the light of heaven shone upon me. Then, down on a battlefield I went with heaven’s rays over me. I saw I was twice, no 10 times the size of other men. My men. Soldiers doing battle. Slewing enemies. Banners blew all around us, like in a movie, and horses kicking dust. We sliced through them all, enemy hordes at every side. Mountains of men. Horses too, falling. They made mountains around us. Soldiers climbed corpses to fight, going heavenward on the enemy’s back. My men they too cut down at times, but we were winning. I was sure of it. The light on me was strong. The enemy arriving. I slaughtered, wielded my sword in a glorious light. A brutal battle, yes. Losses on all sides, but while the slaughter continued, I held not one doubt. Our cause, my cause––a righteous one. No question. It was easy to kill. I did it easily. Then, suddenly, the fighting stopped. We––no––I had won. No one left to slaughter. The enemy at our feet. All their bodies broken. Survivors, my army, me, we should be rejoicing, no? The light dissipated. I felt this horrible awakening. The golden sky it was cloudless and gray. For a moment, I stood alone on that field, Brigita, surrounded by carnage, which was my inheritance. The bloody field––my prize. The world as I had known it, everyone I could have ever loved wiped from Earth. My soldiers and me, we had made a new world, and we stood upon its foundation. The bodies underfoot. All that loss that was our victory, a terrible victory. Yes our enemy defeated, but loss that’s what we’d won.  Our brothers; our family; our humanity gone in the fighting. I understood then, God was on our side because God is on all sides at once. God goes where we go, Brigita. We cannot be without God. This is why we must be careful. Go where ever we go with love, so the world we create will be beautiful in his––”

“In her,” Brigita interrupted.

“Yes. All the Gods. So the world will be beautiful in Gods’ sight, we must go with love, Brigita. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course. I understand! It’s why I’m recording. Do you understand? From now on, you are meant to lead a chaste life.”

“Oh, Brigita. I’m not sure you do understand. There is nothing wrong with sensuality. We have these bodies––

“Is that what you call it sensuality when you lie to women, when you make them cry?”

“I never lie, Brigita. I…”

But she huffed in such a way he shut up. He took a breath. “I am not sure you understand this,” said Wilhelm, “this dream I had.” Years of the cousin’s old enmity leaked into his voice and then a whiff of an old flirtation too. “Your friend, she will understand?”

“My friend,” said Brigita, more cross than I have ever heard. “She will hear your vision, and if she is smart she will make good use of it. But you should be given no credit for having it. It only passed through you, Wilhelm. Don’t go thinking it means anything special about you.”

The voices suddenly stopped.

On my screen, Brigita’s face frozen in a less than beautiful state. I waited for the technology of the ages to catch up with time itself. For surely in that other far off place, Wilhelm had gone on talking and Brigita would have had something more to say to me about her cousin Wilhelm’s dream.

Briefly the Skype connection sputtered back to life. Momentarily, Brigita’s face bounced about the screen, appearing first on one side then the next, but I couldn’t understand a word she said. The pace of her voice was out of sync with the movement of her lips.

“Brigita,” I called out. “Say nothing. I can’t hear you.” Once again that face of hers froze in place, but this time the frosty room’s light shone upon her just so. The painting framed her head in such a way that she looked like a painting herself. She was my Brigita. Lit up with urgent love for me and, I suppose, and for Wilhelm too. She was a pleasure to look at, glowing in a distant light. I took my breath and waited and adored.




*A note to readers. This story, like all stories is based on some truth. Brigita leaped into my consciousness some time ago and Wilhelm soon followed. They help me explore things that might otherwise be difficult write about and share.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hope and Fear


"We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize."

Each day, two white boards in a peer-tutoring space at the rural community college where I teach, record students' hopes and fears. 

Recently, one anonymous hopeful someone longed “to make a million” while on the other board somebody else wrote, “I need to see a doctor, but I’m not sure I can afford it.”

In reading these boards, you learn a lot, especially about students’ fears. Nowadays some, indeed, are afraid. “Will ICE be knocking on my door today,” wrote an anonymous someone a few weeks ago. Those words sat beside another’s fear that they hadn’t left enough time to finish an essay. “I’m so hungry,” wrote somebody else.



Seeing fears written in a public but mostly anonymous way somehow makes them more visceral, something I wanted to capture in this post. But I also wanted to document the ways in which the space and the people in it have made hope more tangible too.

One day not long ago, just outside my office door, a young man and woman reflected on a book they were reading for one of their English classes. These Chicano and Mexican American students named all the ways they related to Roxane Gay’s BadFeminist, expressing surprise and delight that a book written by an Haitian American academic told part of their own story as well. A second young man joined the discussion and together the three talked about masculinity’s challenges and traps and the need to open to the feminine and the feminine within the divine, something they felt connected them to their indigenous ancestors.

Only a few feet away, the newly organized Literary Society club meeting was underway. From across the room, I could hear laughter and sensed the joy it contained as the group made plans for a new student journal. This club had been inactive for about ten years, so it was quite a feat that suddenly more than a dozen people were willing to come together and spearhead a project with so much potential meaning on our campus. 

Only a few minutes later, a young man––an international student, perhaps the only one with this formal designation on our campus––came to my door expressing interest in the glitter jars that decorate tables about the room. They are like homemade snow globes and are there whenever anxiety or a need for delight overtakes someone––lift, shake, watch the glitter settle, and feel a bit more settled yourself.

Like many schools, our college has developed this international program to collect big student fees. We imagine our campus populated by foreigners, foreigners with pockets deep enough to save us from whatever looming financial crisis may be on the horizon. But it’s hard to imagine why any one rich enough to fly to the US would choose this tiny underfunded campus when close by are larger cities with the kind of well-funded colleges one sees on television programs America exports overseas.

Nevertheless, this young man chose us, and he is far from home in every way. The jars help him, he said, whenever he feels distressed. 

It was a pleasure to receive his gratitude as the jars mean a great deal to me too. I encouraged him to watch the short film Just Breathe (available on youtube) to learn more about the jars' origins and purpose without telling him I tear up every time I screen it for myself.

He smiled and made a suggestion. You should have bowls of fruits too, he said, and nuts, on the tables to feed hungry students and the smell of the fruit the textures and so on, it would excite the senses and help people with their writing.

Yes, I thought, what that would be a beautiful thing to do.

Early that morning I’d gone for a run, a practice returned to my life after a two-decades absence, and now, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I can’t get enough of it. I could run for hours, it feels, all around the town. Lately, there is the scent of the sea even up in the old neighborhoods, and at this time of year blooming cherries. Peregrine falcons fly high overhead, and old women walk by with dogs who sniff my ankles. I rub the dogs’ heads and say good morning to the ladies knowing one day I will be old because we only ever go one direction.

The memories of these runs sometimes come with me to school, and I feel the blood pumping through my body as I look out at the students working away on their essays or talking with friends, and there is purpose in their focus. They are at it. They are here. I think, yes, there are things to fear in the world right now and so many reasons to hope.

Monday, March 27, 2017

We are All the Public: More from the Writers and Artists of San Benito County Jail


“In August 2015, a mentally ill inmate was beaten to death and another inmate attacked, allegedly by three guards now facing murder charges. Two other jail guards face assault charges in a separate beating incident, and the former head of the correctional union was fired after exchanging racist texts with other guards. The county also has been grappling with two major lawsuits filed by prison rights advocates over conditions.
But the jail break is the first problem to pose a direct threat to the public’s safety.”
––Tracey Kaplan, Bay Area NewsGroup, from an article about the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California

Waking up November ninth to news of Trump’s win was irrefutable evidence I neither knew nor understood my country. While I prepared for my weekly writing classes in the San Benito County Jail, this painful awareness grew inside me. Yet I knew my own pain would not be helpful in the classroom.

On a typical Wednesday, students may be integrating a new roommate into their pod, watching while he or she undergoes detox, and worrying about their own children and families on the outside. It’s stressful enough without having to worry about the teacher’s distress as well.

The jail is set on the outskirts of rural Hollister, California between an apricot orchard and fallow brown fields, a pastoral, eerily calm location. In fact, the small single story jail is so diminished by the grand scale of its surroundings––the wide flat valley open on two sides and the Diablo mountains rising up along the East––that from the outside the squat concrete jail can seem an almost comforting place. Indeed, as far as I know, San Benito’s jail doesn’t suffer from the blatant violence and racist attacks that plague larger institutions, such as Santa Clara’s, outlined in the epigraph above, the one that in its last paragraph excludes both racist guards and incarcerated people from the category public.

Nevertheless, once inside San Benito’s jail, all sense of comfort fades. The thick walls, low ceilings and windowless hallways trap sound, so only the ventilation system and clanging of distant doorways can be heard. By design it seems to squeeze out any sense of beauty or hope.

The misunderstanding captured in the newspaper story, had me thinking about my own students and the damage we allow ourselves to do when we see them and their keepers as separate from our community rather than a part of it, something I feared would intensify under Trump.

I knew, however, that some in my classrooms would be celebrating Trump’s win (I knew because in previous weeks they’d let me know they were fans) while others might be experiencing something akin to my own fear and despair. Some had parents and family members who lacked papers. In a few cases, it may even be the student themselves who were without legal status, which meant they waited behind bars with no clear sense on which side of the border they might end up upon release.

I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I’d do to address these two poles. After all, the men and women of E, F, and C pod live with each other 24 hours a day. Why bring up all the complicated and vastly different reactions people forced to live together in a dark enclosed space might have about the President-elect? My classes were only 70 minutes long, but whatever arose in those minutes would be in the air long after I was gone, returning with each student to the pod where he or she lived out most of each day.

On the one hand, I knew my students to be remarkably adept at getting along with even the most difficult people in the most trying of circumstances. Why I’d witness students extend compassion for those in the midst of an angry detox or long loud arguments with walls, and they’d done so with an ease that had me questioning the ways I disconnected from people whose suffering is on public display simply because there is no private space left them.

On the other hand, amongst this very same compassionate group, I knew there was one especially bright and generous writer who liked to scrawl Nazi insignias inside her writing folders and another older woman who called out allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood in the sweet sing-song voice of a child.

Of course, these white women explained to me, their Mexican-American and Chicana cellies were exempted from any hate. “These girls are my sisters. They know that,” said the first while the other nodded and continued her sing-song tribute. “Aryan brotherhood! Aryan brotherhood!”

The darker women beside them nodded in affirmation, likewise declaring sisterly affection, an affection that ascended any category outside the classroom itself. “This is our family,” someone said. “Yes,” said another. “We love each other. We’re family in here.”

I watched the moment unfold in awe. Jail culture is distinct and I don’t always understand or even recognize all its codes. Yes, there is often this unity and also everywhere there are teams.

One day there’d even been a few excited moments when someone discovered a bit of Sureño graffiti ground into the plastic tables around which we created our poems. It stuck out because Hollister’s gangs mostly affiliate––loosely or otherwise––with the Norteños, the Sureño’s sworn enemy. I tried to determine if the anonymous graffiti artist might be any danger from anyone in my class, something I would feel compelled to report to one of the guards. It’s in just these kinds of moments I feel in over my head.

Still, every time I get underneath such a moment, I see only people behaving more or less as I might or anyone I know given the same context and under the same constraints, which is to say I’ve never even heard a threat of violence in the jail. I’ve only ever witnessed the careful maneuvering of people trying to assure themselves a bit of peace in an environment where that seems scarce. This leads to exactly the same complicated entanglements that develop between myself and my colleagues on the main campus. An overall cultural devaluing of teachers, forced educational reforms, and inequity between full and part-time faculty and staff sometimes manifests as employees turning on each other in simple and charmless ways.

Jail reminds me, pretty much wherever you go people act the same.

The day after Trump’s victory, the women of E-pod extended me the same warm greeting they had before the election took place. It made me feel I needn’t fear discussing it, and my tongue loosened. Because the E-pod discussion went well, I brought it up again with the men and women of F- and C-pods too. Better to address whatever strong feelings might be in the air, I told myself, rather than pretend they didn’t exist at all.

Some students had yet to hear the news, but those who seemed most likely to abhor the President-elect’s agenda demonstrated less dismay than I had upon hearing Trump won. It was as if because their lives could hardly get any worse than they were at the moment––locked up with limited news of their families (see “Letter to the Captain” in I’m Somebody’s Sunshine for more on this), it hardly mattered who became president. These students shrugged their shoulders and signaled a willingness to move quickly into the meditation and freewriting portion of class.

The Trump fans, however, were gleeful. They spent a few moments in open celebration, talking about all the exciting changes the new president would bring. Maybe it goes without saying that each of them, like me, was white. They talked about building a wall while I wondered quietly what, if anything, Trump might do to worsen already horrible conditions for addicts, the mentally ill, and poor and homeless people––the very folks most likely to end up incarcerated in San Benito County Jail and join writing class as far as I could tell.

Later, one of Trump’s biggest supporters ended up in tears. This most enthusiastic of writers was introduced to white nationalism by a loved-one who was himself was an undocumented immigrant of European descent. “But what will happen to him?” the writer cried out upon finally recognizing a Trump victory might have a direct effect on their family.

“I don’t know,” I said. “At the moment, we can’t know.” This was a student I loved, a serious writer who creates space for others to be brave and greets their efforts with a lot of fervor and support regardless of anyone’s ethnicity or creed.

Watching the tears flow, I lost all desire to punish or blame any particular group as solely responsible for Trump’s win. All of us, we’re in it together, I realized, from beginning to end no matter what side we came in on. After all, it’s false categorization to think anyone will remain unaffected in the coming months. Through its grand distortions hate eventually destroys the hateful as much as it does anyone we hate.

The writers and artists of San Benito County Jail have taught me a lot about love and its other name understanding, which is how author Tich Nhat Hanh names it. He provided I’m Somebody’s Sunshine epigraph and inspiration. To understand someone first we must be willing to listen.

When the public spoke this election what did I hear and what had I been missing? Of course, the public doesn’t exist only in one place. It exists in all the places at once––voting booths and board rooms, street corners and army bases, churches and jails, and so our listening must go everywhere too.

To me it seems an act of violence to include some people in our understanding of the public while automatically excluding others. Whether behind bars or walking the streets, we are all the public.


I encourage you to keep this expansive definition in mind while reading I’m Somebody’s Sunshine. Here you will meet your enemy, who is just as likely to be your friend, and in so doing, are likely to meet parts of yourself.