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What Prison Taught Me About Mindfulness

I’d say I teach mindfulness in prison, but that would be an impossible lie.

There’s no verb — in English, at least — for what happens in the cell every week when I sign in, get patted down, and meet with the YOP (Youthful Offender Program) girls. We talk, we laugh, we share our hearts. But the classic, one-way definition of “teach” — where a “more educated” someone imparts information to the less well-versed — is not what happens in those moments.

What happens is connection. And every time I feel it, I hear an eraser scrubbing away — pcht, pcht, pcht — at the imaginary lines of our separateness. Like how Zuzu Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, believed ringing bells signified a wing-earning angel. When we are connecting, we become a blur of divine humanness, where discreet start and stop points just don’t exist. Pcht, pcht, pcht.

I hadn’t intended poetry to be such a strong link in this mindfulness class — I’ve never asked any class to access poetry as a deepening tool — but a couple of the girls mentioned they liked to write poetry, particularly since they found they could “disappear into the writing.” So I saw it as an opportunity to bond over something I already adored, and quickly introduced them to some of my most-loved poets, including Mary Oliver, Aberjhani, e. e. cummings, and Rumi (the girls already knew the amazing Maya Angelou). I then assigned them the task of writing a poem, or two, or ten, as their week’s homework.

Pre-poetry, at least one or two girls managed to remember, and maybe even do the mindfulness homework. But when I returned the following Tuesday, not only had everyone remembered her homework, each showed up to share it with courageous exuberance. Their works were written on scraps of paper, in a diary, and on the back of an infraction notice from a “case.” Whatever they could find became a palette for their creativity.

We undertook our beginning-of-class chatting, three of the girls seated with me at the rounded-so-there-are-no-sharp-edges, bolted-to-the-ground table. The other three girls sat backwards on the nearby, also-bolted metal bench, leaning heads and elbows over the hard, silver back. We usually start our evenings with a gratitude meditation, but when I asked, the girls’ poetic enthusiasm was too compelling to postpone, so we decided to sit in gratitude after the poems. We all agreed we’d have much more to be thankful for, having heard the poetry.

Veronica is such a gentle soul, and the shyest of the girls, so she surprised me by offering to share her poem first. She handed the sheet to me. I shook my head, “No, you read your beautiful art to us!” She looked down, thinking for a nanosecond, and when her face peered back into mine, I witnessed a delight that had not been there before. “Oh, and stand up!” We both smiled.

She began unfolding her paper, rising — almost floating — from her chair. Just then, hazel-eyed Destiny, a girl sentenced to more years in prison than she’s been on the planet so far, felt a sudden urgency to interject before everyone started reading. With a powerful let-me-make-this-clear formality, she stared toward the far side of the bench,

“Hey, Jada, I know you and me don’t get along, and you don’t think I like you, but I want you to know I will honor your poetry, and I will not use it against you later.”

Though I’d not yet anticipated the depth of the heart-wrenching revelations coming our way, Destiny had intuited every forthcoming painful syllable. She sensed the meaning and the beauty and the vulnerability about to emerge from those mismatched pages. Jada, not much for words, nodded, and tossed back half a smile. Pcht, pcht, pcht.

When Veronica finished reading, she looked up for approval, calling herself “a work in progress.” We clapped for Veronica, and put our hands together for each girl as she stood bravely relating trauma-laden tendernesses, that, unlike Destiny, I had ridiculously not anticipated. The poems were magically, surprisingly, simultaneously devastating and glorious. They pulsed a meter that sounded much more like Cardi B than, say, Mary Oliver. Of course. The girls had appreciated Mary Oliver’s genius when we read it (who could not?!), but they saw themselves and the cadence of their lives in rappers’ stories and their common experience.

I only learned about rap because of my youngest son, a big fan. I wanted to understand what he was enjoying so much in his earbuds, and why (my curiosity has always been a great lamentation for my children). When it comes to communicating, I am all about the words (I am a writer and I speak a few languages: I can’t help myself), so rap lyric scrutiny undid me. I was judgy: my son had been bombarding his ears with odes to “hoes,” “ice,” “maggots,” and “pumps.”

But then, because my child was adamant about talent’s presence being smack dab in the middle of the singers and their songs, I put on my listening ears, and invited my listening heart. Together and separately, my rap-loving son and I read lyrics and watched videos of the rappers’ histories, most of whom were not so different from the incarcerated YOPs I love and deeply admire. So, when it came time to share poetry by way of rap, I was ready.

Or, that’s what I thought.

The worlds revealed through the poetry of these tender-tough teenagers touched me at a level no popular rap song ever did. It’s one thing when Kendrick Lamar sings about “dark,” “evil,” and “rot” inside his DNA. Or when Drake broods, “I pop bottles because I bottle my emotions.” Those lines don’t exactly shout “happy” or “mindful,” but these are not people I know.

When the YOPs, girls without a childhood, stood in front of me revealing their aches, their souls, and their greatest joys and yearnings in that familiar rap throb, something inside my heart erupted. A new level of “understanding” broke open in me. Suddenly, the odes to racks and ’raris seemed more a sacred call for connection than profanity set to a good beat. Pcht, pcht, pcht.

I’d say I teach mindfulness in prison, but that would be an impossible lie.

(The names have been changed, in case you were wondering…)