I Know This Much Is True.

“Shiva represents the reproductive power of destruction. The power of renovation. Which is why he’s here in this room, where we dismantle and rebuild.” (226)

Destruction is a key part of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, the second novel the men at Sterling are reading for Words Beyond Bars’ Summer Binge. Most of the novel’s characters come face to face with some type of destructive force – a person, an event, their own psyche. Some overcome their trials and tribulations, others falter. Still others remain blissfully unaware that destruction has entered their lives.

I imagine that destruction has touched the lives of the men incarcerated at Sterling as well. One need only look to their prison sentences. But what comes after everything has fallen apart? These men have to contend with their personal carnage on a daily basis from the confines of their cells. It’s hard to fathom such an isolated reckoning. Sure, it may be warranted – a crime is a crime and there is a legal system in our country to deal with these crimes (though the myriad injustices and failures of the system are well documented, that is a discussion for another time) – but that doesn’t make the evaluative process any easier.

Thanks to programs like Words Beyond Bars the process of renovation that springs from the ashes of destruction finds its way into the minds of the men. Through introspection and dialogue facilitated by literature the men confront the ignorance, pain, and illusions that destruction has wrought in their own lives, paving the way for beneficial change. With each journal entry, book discussion, reflection paper, the men have opportunities to dismantle and rebuild.

The Hindu belief in destruction not as an arbitrary event but as a constructive force is a valuable and instructive insight into the nature of life. I hope the men recognize the benefits of destruction as illustrated through Wally Lamb’s indelible characters. Of course the story of the Birdsey twins and their extended family is filled with pain and guilt and turmoil but ultimately these are necessary evils on the path toward growth.

It’s easy enough for a third-party outsider to posit the insights this novel should generate. Time will tell what the men take away from the story. But at least the men will have had the opportunity to assess their own relationship with destruction by examining the novel’s relationship with it. At least they will be given the opportunity, in a classroom of a high security prison, to dismantle and rebuild.

Guest post written by Ian Lausa

Being okay with the unknown.

Googling for inspiration among the thousands of quotes about disappointment, I found one that seemed empowering instead of fueling a sour grapes letdown.

“The size of your success is measured by the strength of your desire; the size of your dream, and how you handle disappointment along the way.” (This is attributed to Hercules, but I doubt it.)

After three months of waiting… while working exceedingly hard, fueled by determination and lots of encouragement from the grantor, our non-profit was not selected for a grant we were certain we would receive. The 7 stages of “grief” began immediately- (awareness attributed here to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.)

I will name them here:

Fury
Blaming
Questioning
Resignation
Slight return to blaming
Acceptance
Empowerment

We are too small. We don’t have the capacity for growth that would make us a good candidate for investing. We are passionate and powerful in our testimonials about our work, but growth and financial stability seem insurmountable tasks. Our constituency does not impact 51% of the Denver Metro area. We aren’t sustainable without a payroll. And on and on. As I said, I became instantly embroiled in the Fury stage upon receiving the news.

As the Blaming stage emerged, I noted that the individuals who had wooed us in the early stages of the grant application process were now turning cold towards us. With discomfort and embarrassment, they implied that mistakes were made in assessing our application. They loved us, but they just couldn’t fund us.

We work inside prisons. We work despite the presence of deeply rooted issues and dynamic and complex challenges that make light work of food pantries and puppy mills. We impact far more than 51% of the Denver Metro area if you consider that when a man or woman goes to prison, their whole family goes with them. We serve the hearts of those left behind by letting their family members know they have not been forgotten. By letting their loved ones know that more than a horrific moment defines them in time. We work to bring literature and enlightenment, hope and humanity to those individuals who are doing long, hard time to life sentences and have few options for education. At the Questioning stage, I asked myself repeatedly, “Why won’t they take a chance on us? We can and will do great things. We have fertile ground for impacting reform and social justice, one reader at a time. Ah, how easily Resignation does a U-turn back to Blaming. It’s understandable.

If “disappointment is the action of your brain readjusting itself to reality after discovering things are not the way you thought they were,” then we’re making progress.

Our small but mighty team of volunteers, facilitators, and Board members suddenly rally round: “We will forge ahead. We will find the money. Think of the book group participants.” It’s time for a wine and whine party. Empowered once more by purpose and determination, there’s work to do and books to buy. Pages to be read, important issues to explore. Personally, I’m working with being okay with the unknown. A hard task for a planner and I’m-going-to-control-the-universe type, but there’s a softening happening, a definite Acceptance. And from whom will I gain the absolute greatest compassion; support and brainstorm fueled next steps? The 12 men who sit in a circle to discuss a novel, through which they see the world and a new perspective every time they finish a book. Not getting this grant- it’s peanuts.

Summer Binge, Sterling 2017

A secret union between a nun and a surgeon, orphaned twins, and Ethiopia on the brink of revolution. That’s what we’re considering as the Sterling book group reads Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese, as a selection of our first summer reading program. (This is not your old punishing “summer school” curriculum like I took in high school, three times in a row, for failing my typing class.) This program is an extension of our regular book discussion group, for those (imagine, every hand raised when asked who was interested) who could not imagine a break from reading over the summer months. I chose books by length this time, to offer a month to the guys to finish these 600-900 page tomes. They were fine with that!

Threaded throughout this spellbinding saga, is a theme of caring for the sick and the different ways healing can be administered. It’s a book about doctors and medicine, but the bigger picture is a theme of healing. Through “words of comfort” is how we heal the sick, but these words also help those who are emotionally wounded. Fear of mortality is not a universal emotion, the reader discovers, as one of the twin brothers observes that in Ethiopia, patients assume that all illnesses are fatal and that death is expected… but in America, news of a fatal illness “always seemed to come as a surprise, as if we took it for granted that we were all immortal.”

A beautiful, epic tale of love, loss, family, betrayal, forgiveness, medicine and healing, with characters that come alive through the trials and triumphs of their journeys. Looking forward to the challenge and pleasure of our discussion on July 10. Download the flyer as shared with our Sterling Correctional Facility participants.

“I go back to my cell and see my life differently. I want to keep reading.”

Our first book discussion group pilot at the Colorado Correctional Center offered up an invaluable lesson about introducing education and group engagement to incarcerated readers. These guys are distracted. They’re thinking about their futures once released. They’re waiting. Not everyone who is curious about our new program is up to it. At the first meeting they’re gung-ho, but then a few seem to get lost and don’t return.

I have noticed that incarceration, unfortunately, can encourage drifting, a reluctance to push oneself. This is particularly important to resist before re-entry, but, it’s still easy to coast to the finish line. Our original group of readers got smaller and smaller. Week after week, a few lost interest, some came and went and a couple left the facility.

Rather than focus on them, it’s important to pay attention to the success- the intrepid four who read the books, engaged in discussions that were sometimes challenging and often emotionally charged, requiring a good hard look at themselves. They’re the guys who celebrated last night, cupcakes, diplomas and a huge sense of accomplishment.

This new program requires patience and compassion. Serving time is stressful and monotonous. Everyone is trying to figure things out. Why did Tuesdays With Morrie shift one man’s entire perspective? Why did The Alchemist grab others? Why did one book engage and another disappoint? They just want to keep reading.

 
 
 
 

Who knows what I would have done differently?

Introducing Allie, Words Beyond Bars’ newest facilitator: such a talented, professional and delightful addition to our team!

Allie is new to Colorado, transplanted from the East Coast where she studied Media Production at Emerson College. A devoted reader, writer, and filmmaker, she is humbled to be facilitating with WBB at the Colorado Correctional Facility and sharing the transformative power of reading. Raised as a part of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), she is passionate about living by the Quaker value of community and has been volunteering as a facilitator with non-profits for over eight years. She lives in Denver with her boyfriend and incredibly adorable Australian Shepherd puppy.

Allie’s post-

“Two weeks ago, nine of us were gathered around a table at the Colorado Correctional Center to discuss our most recent read – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. A relatively small, approachable book that reads like an old myth or fable, The Alchemist has sold over 115 million copies around the world, won over 100 international awards, and has been translated into over 80 languages. But it wasn’t its impressive accolades we discussed that night. It was something much more powerful and personal.

The men were quiet at first – this group can be particularly contemplative. And then someone broke the silence. “I can’t believe I hadn’t read this book before. Who knows what I would have done differently?” This sentiment continued in his reflection paper – “I found myself wishing I had read this book many years ago….”

Another wrote, “this book has made me realize a lot, not only about myself, but the world I live in. The blowing wind. The shining sun. The soul of the world… It has taught me that time is relative. While we are here only a short time, we exist forever.”

These statements, bold and, dare I say it, metaphoric, are reflective of a conversation among the men that was predominantly about a central theme of the book –- one’s Personal Legend. The story follows Santiago, a young shepherd, who leaves his small village life in search of buried treasure after a number of catalytic dreams and visions. His Personal Legend, the purpose of his life, becomes the search of this treasure. He soon comes to learn that everyone has their own personal legend, something the universe will conspire to help us achieve, as long as we choose to pursue it.

While this lesson is universally powerful, it is a seemingly striking proposition for these men and one that they could have easily blown off. The men at this facility are approaching the end of their sentences and their release from the prison system. This release is daunting, and rightly so. The challenges they face upon release are immense, and they’ll be the first to tell you how overwhelming the dubiety from their peers/family/potential employers is. We’ve had many conversations where the sentiment surrounding their success as free men seems governed by fear and doubt.

This conversation was different.

“This was by far one of my favorite books,” wrote one participant. “I loved that it inspired us to work at our dreams. Dreams do come true.”

Another. “I am reevaluating things, and when I reach a conclusion, if I ever do, I can say that this book has pointed me in the direction. Thank you for all the work and help you do for us. It is beautiful and appreciated… I highly recommend this book and hope it helps others listen to their heart…”

For these men, the takeaways from this book were of hope. I listened to the men encourage each other – “What are your dreams? What do you want to do? How are you going to do it?” From many, I heard how powerful their own self-reflection was when reading – “Sometimes I spend a lot of energy trying to be strong and this book allowed me to be vulnerable and true to myself.” We talked about how important it is to believe in our own abilities, to set goals, to work towards positive ambitions…

When the 25th anniversary edition of his book was published, the author was interviewed about the global impact of The Alchemist. For him, it came down to the transformative power of books: “From time to time,” he said, “there are books that changed my life. Well, it’s not that the book itself changed my life; it’s that I was already ready to change, and needed to not feel alone.” This speaks to the very root of our program. While it may be bold to say that it changed their lives, I can sincerely say that The Alchemist provided these men with a sense of encouragement, community, and purpose and, for a small time at least, they didn’t feel alone.”

The first book that made my heart beat.

One man simply said the book “was like velvet.” Another remarked that this book was the “first book he’d read which made his heart beat.” A well-regarded curmudgeon in our group of readers quietly stated that the book lacked nothing, he had not a word of criticism, it was that perfect. Shadow of the Wind was a brilliant success among our book discussion group, each of whom devoured a 486-page book in two weeks and could have kept turning pages.

As a beloved character Bea says: “the art of reading is slowly dying, that it’s an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce every day.” Not so with our 25 book group participants at Sterling Correctional Facility.

The novel, set in Barcelona in the period following the Spanish Civil War, introduces a young boy, Daniel Sempere. Just after the war, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge library of old, forgotten titles lovingly preserved by a select few initiates. According to tradition, everyone invited to this secret place is allowed to take one book from it and must protect it for life. Daniel selects a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax. That morning he takes the book home and reads it, completely engrossed. Daniel then attempts to look for other books by this unknown author but can find none. All he comes across are stories of a strange man—calling himself Laín Coubert, after a character in the book who happens to be the Devil—who has been seeking out Carax’s books for decades, buying and burning them all.

The novel is actually a story within a story. Fifteen-year-old Daniel Sempere, in his quest to discover Julian’s other works, becomes involved in tracing the entire history of Carax. We meet his friend Fermin Romero de Torres, an unforgettable character. Fermin was imprisoned and tortured in Montjuic Castle for having been involved in an espionage against the Anarchists during the war—himself being a government intelligence agent—and helps Daniel in a number of seemingly impossible ways through their long friendship. Their probing into the murky past of a number of people who have been either long dead or long forgotten unleashes the dark forces of the murderous Inspector Fumero. And that, amazingly, is just the beginning.

It is believed to have sold 15 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s wondrous and masterful novel took our group on a literary journey they will not soon forget. The compelling story invited the readers to be transported to the cobblestoned streets of Barcelona, feeling the wind and rain on their faces and the rich, lavish comfort of a cup of tea with a bite to eat on a cold winter night.

Impossible dreams realized.

To women who are incarcerated, often survivors of their own personal trauma, which likely fueled their criminal behavior, reading about the struggles of others can become a trigger-resulting in painful memories and emotional turmoil. The thing about facilitating book discussion is that literature takes us to unexpected places, and the outcomes can be difficult to predict.

In the words of Words Beyond Bars facilitator Marissa Peacock, her group responded powerfully and positively to a novel that changed their perspective and challenged their thinking.

“Reading a book that is set during the 1994 Rwandan genocide made me a little nervous. Will the women relate to a young male character in a country far away? For that matter will I relate to such a story? I was in my teens when the genocide happened and although it saddened me it was far removed from my life and therefore vague and obscure. Would it be the same for these women? It was with these conflicting emotions that we began Running the Rift. Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Naomi Benaron has written a stunning and gorgeous novel that—through the eyes of one unforgettable boy— explores a country’s unraveling, its tentative new beginning, and the love that binds its people together.

I should not have been nervous at all as the women (and I) were moved by this beautiful story of a young man and a dream. There was a heated and passionate discussion regarding the supposed “difference” of two peoples based on a foreign nation. What, in their opinion, was really behind the discord of the Hutu and Tutsis? We discussed why the Belgians were in Rwanda in the first place, what makes people different (and the same) to one another. The importance of following a dream and how that dream sometimes blinds us to what is happening in the world.

These women found parts of the story that they understood and related to on a personal level; love, family, education, running – and felt connected to a young Rwandan boy. This made the discussion blaze with insight and unique ideas. I was astounded at how similar the stories of these U.S. based women were to that of a young boy with nothing but a dream – and yet survived a nightmare.

The author’s passion revolves around issues of social justice; we like fiction with a social consciousness too. The best fiction takes us right to the brink.”

Just a day to be the kid I used to be.

It has been a week of long drives, many coffee stops and remarkable discussions at three different Colorado prison facilities. Despite vastly dissimilar groups, we each cobble together a circle out of Formica tables and plastic chairs, and begin. Each incarcerated man or woman I’ve met is in it for the books, the emerging discussion, the ease and comfort of belonging. (Some are brave enough to admit how much they’re looking forward to the cupcakes at graduation). But they’re all believers, firmly trusting in the power between the pages of the vastly different selections each group will read- as their Words Beyond Bars spring book discussion program begins. Our volunteer facilitators are well-prepared, engaged and welcoming to the newcomers, glad to hear the repeat participants telling the rest, “This program-it’s just all awesome.”

Some highlights:

At Sterling Correctional Facility, the men devoured Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon. A modern day Tom Sawyer, it’s a memoir-ish novel of growing up in rural Alabama in the 1960’s.

A personal observation from a participant: “Sadly, our youthful innocence gets ripped away as we are forced to bear witness to the cruelty and injustice in the world we live in…What wouldn’t I give for the freedom of one more bike ride, the unconditional loyalty of my buddies…”

The book group agreed that in their youth they had heard too many people ask, “Why don’t you grow up?” After reading this evocative novel, they asked, “What’s the hurry?”

The women at La Vista Correctional Facility were handed copies of Sonia Nazario’s Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother, written in 2007. (and likely not on President Trump’s reading list) It won 2 Pulitzer Prizes when it first came out in the L.A. Times. Enrique is one of the thousands of children and teens who try to enter the U.S. each year in search of their parents. Putting a human face on the ongoing immigration debate will result in a discussion about love, family, and home- something each of the women in the discussion group know a lot about.

Our newest book discussion group is being introduced at the Colorado Correctional Center, a former training facility for the Colorado National Guard. Nicknamed Camp George West, it’s a brand new program and the men will be reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. We are lucky enough to have been assigned a space in the Chapel of Hope, the little faith inspired building on the sprawling bunker-lined campus, where we will explore emotional baggage, the Vietnam War and lost youth. This artful combination of novel, memoir and short story is a moving way to explore reading for literature novices. A meditation on war, memory, imagination and storytelling, these men will hopefully dig down and share a few stories of their own. Considering their past, minus the triggers- just a day to be the kid they were. There is so much value in remembering.

This week demonstrates the benign magic of the book discussion program. The men and women are grateful to have been given a spot in the program, eager to begin, and are more than willing to make the commitment to make reading their priority. As I said- it’s been a week, a week full of humbling riches.

The difference between fighting and doing.

Donald Trump is being inaugurated today and a lot of people are deeply distressed and frantic about our country’s future. Without beating the dead horse of the election, the future is happening beginning today- and it’s made me think a lot about the actions associated with dissent- fury, rage, disbelief and constant conflict.

When I struggle with the status quo of prison policy, I often sense a need to push for change. I am convinced that I have the better argument for reform, am more justified in my frustrations and concerns, and I have the answers to a multitude of problems. Doesn’t anyone else see what I see?

Fights typically end with a perceived winner and loser. Someone got the last word or overpowers the other one.

The goal of conflict is to end up on the same page. Getting my way or proving a point doesn’t motivate conflict. The goal is to become like-minded and capable of understanding each other at a deeper level. Even if the Department of Corrections and myself will never see an issue exactly the same, through conflict, we can gain an appreciation for each other’s perspective. I am privileged to able to bring my volunteer program inside; this is where respect and diplomacy will get me a lot more leverage than fighting against bureaucratic weaknesses.

One of the most powerful things I can do to switch a battle into a healthy conflict is to take a step toward humility. Although I’m the book facilitator, bibliotherapist, and prison reform advocate, I need practice at this if I’m going to stay in this work for the long haul. When concern around the lack of educational opportunities begins to escalate, I have to add to the conversation while demonstrating that I’m not simply motivated to win. Celebrating the outcomes of the Words Beyond Bars program is the best way I know of turning a naysayer into a believer.

This attitude of contributing to change without alienating anyone at the table immediately disarms me and helps me gain perspective. That perspective helps me practice the self-control and humility required to do conflict well.

Conflicts Are Still Conflicts. I’m not suggesting that anyone walk away from an issue when you walk away from a battle. There are some conflicts you must walk through. Avoiding them is neither honest nor beneficial. There are some conflicts in this work that are really stressful. Do we need to offer more educational opportunities to our incarcerated population? Yes. Do we need to switch our management of prisoners from punitive to restorative? Yes. Will this happen overnight? No. We need political will, better training, and an entire paradigm shift. It won’t happen quickly- but I’m already getting started.

The house of change is bigger inside than out.

I left the prison earlier this week after our last meeting of the session, feeling that familiar sense of relief mixed with exhaustion and sadness. It’s been a spectacular four months of book group discussions. However, the rewards come along with a great deal of planning, driving long distances, prep work and the emotional drain of the prison environment. (Metal, concrete, noise.) Our last book was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, and the resulting discussion was among the deepest and most demanding we have ever shared. When I found these words amidst a pile of the group’s reflection papers, I was restored.

Book Club. by J.

“I’d like to describe how words beyond bars has effected my life. And how much this program means to me.

This book club brings books to life. It’s always a challenge reading something that you wouldn’t normally read. And this challenge is what effects my life. It’s like “hope.” When your challenged to do something and you do it. You feel great about yourself. It builds self-confidence. And self-awareness. As I face a challenge and overcome it. I’m aware that inside of me lies the ability to over come the fear of failure. Having success in any capacity builds character. It strengthens me from the inside. I have been learning how to value the differences in other people and this book club is the perfect place to learn this principle. We all speak our minds and some people see a book totally different from myself. But it’s awesome to understand someone else’s view. Especially when it inlightens me, that my understanding is wrong. That’s when I grow the most as a man. And that’s what this book club does for me. It challenges me to grow. And I love it.”

Happy New Year to all who share in the belief that books change lives. Here’s to turning many pages in 2017!

(title quote from Michael Ende- The Neverending Story.)