The very first day I came to teach the women at Rikers on the 5th floor, T. was there. Her head slightly bowed, her hair braided, and her lips turned up more on one side into the most intelligent, skeptical and sweet smile. She was going to participate, give yoga a try, she said.
During class, when I was checking in to see how everyone was doing with the poses, I loved to look T. in the eyes, because every time I did, they lit up with that smile. She had a wry sense of humor about everything, including her situation.
When I arrived, T. was usually writing, installed at a table in the dayroom where the class takes place, surrounded by papers. She was writing to help other inmates, helping them with their cases. She knew all of their cases intimately. And cared deeply.
We would talk sometimes, after class, as she got permission to help me put the mats back in the conference room where they are stored, and I learned she liked to write. She referred to Tennessee Williams often, one of her favorite playwrights.
There was a natural connection between us, and when, almost a year after I had met her, she was released, I knew that I was going to miss her.
She left behind a letter. Here is most of it.
“I realize that this is silly, but one of my favorite movies from my childhood is “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Anyway, there is this great scene at the end where Willy turns toward Charlie and says: “Take the Factory, Charlie; the whole darn thing is yours…”
“So now, having been through this space of hell and finding the sweetness of your program, I think I almost know how Charlie felt. Thank you for this gift. Thank you for your generous, authentic purpose, for bringing the physical experience and emotional focus of yoga into my life. Thank you for your joy and allowing me to recognize my own, and thank you for teaching me how to breathe again. I am no longer a spectator to my life but a participant in it. …”
After her release, I received her phone number and reached out to her, and got a text about a week later. She wasn’t doing well. She was having very serious trouble surviving life on parole, in the city. Something truly horrible had happened immediately after her release. She was traumatized – and because of it had trouble with everything she needed to take care of, all the big and little things that she needed to do to ‘get her life back on track.’
She hated the room she finally got through the housing program; it was drafty and this was last winter. She became very ill and was in the hospital for several days, which interfered with her parole requirements. However she tried, she could not get her life started.
This culminated in a plan to end it instead.
She reached out by text. I responded by calling, and though I couldn’t clearly make out her words because of a spotty connection, it appeared she had been planning her end for several days. It also seemed like she might have been in the process, either having the pills on her and ready to take them, or, it wasn’t clear, perhaps she had already swallowed them. Whatever I said to get clarity or to dissuade her was tinged with my anxiety.
Then I remembered mindfulness.
The anxiety disappeared. I asked her to just let me in. I would be a witness. She would not have to be alone in her journey, whatever that was going to be.
And she felt heard. And brought herself back from the brink of suicide.
But her life was still very hard. One evening, in the heart of that coldest of cold winters, she called. She had no money; none at all. She was hungry.
I asked her for her address so I could have food delivered.
But my anxiety was there again. Food was not what she needed most. I took a deep breath, allowed her to be hungry, and tuned in. We just talked. I have incredible admiration for her writing. And she, like no one else, was living the life of the starving artist. She laughed. Felt understood. And she sounded happy.
This is an excerpt from an email I received soon afterwards:
“I am learning that a cementing of peace can occur within ones life only if there is no discord, no internal conflict wherein you fully know that you are this thing ( that you know who you are and where and what you chose to do -and I’m speaking of an internal choice, which, I believe, is the only place where honesty exists-) and that this thing, this space of energy,can either do what it wants or compromise itself and exist within a life of without, an almost Sisyphean sentence of the muted accomplishment, wherein the bargain is the discounted justification of regret and blame. I am aiming for that peace. I will be happy.”
Then came the news that she was back at Rikers. The word was that she had broken her parole.
She was not in the same dorm. I wouldn’t see her every week. In fact, I saw her only once. And we spoke, but just briefly. She was incarcerated for a few months, and she was not too interested in being in contact with any of her former supporters.
Recently she was released again.
She was offered a job, and took it. A good job, in which she is able to use her incredible knowledge of the law, acquired through helping other inmates. A job that comes with an apartment, in a different city. She moved and has started working, and I spoke with her on the phone a few days ago.
She has developed a very powerful spiritual practice: She searches for her intention in every interaction, in every action, and chooses for the positive – every time. All day long.
Her optimism is best described in her own words, from the last email I received:
“I am blessed. I have discovered gratitude, and, rediscover more of it with each new day. Damn, did I just say that??!!”