To Know and Be Made Known
By Heather Thomas
[I’m taking a pause on writing/publishing my hidden heart series to discuss our recent visit to the Federal Correction Institution, Tallahassee (FCI, Tallahassee) with our April-May 2017 Cover Woman, Patricia McCray.]
When Patricia McCray, TWM’s April/May Cover Woman first invited us to attend a Threshold, Christian ministry program with her at the FCI, Tallahassee, we agreed without question, but with some trepidation. It is one thing to agree to go to inside a prison, and quite another to actually show up and do it. Immediately we asked ourselves, “What do we talk about? What would women in prison want to hear from us?” We knew that it wouldn’t be like a TV show, but all we had in our minds were preconceived notions, or judgments, based mostly upon television or our own imaginings. The fear came from the unknowing.
There is a difference to know, and then for that something, or someone, to be made known. We thought we knew what prison was like, or even what prisoners might be like, but until we visited, it would not be made known, nor would we know the women who reside there until we met them, looked into their eyes, and in our hearts could acknowledge, “I see you.” But more than that, “I know you.”
And to be honest, we had to shed our own judgments of women who are in prison and stop narrowly focusing on whatever crime our minds can imagine that put them there in the first place. If we did not cast off the blinders, we would go as if we were carrying a book of judgment in front of our faces, not able to truly see the women in front of us. We did not want to go into a situation and have judgments about women whom we had never met, who were serving time for crimes we had no knowledge of. We wanted to meet them, women-to-women, and acknowledge their humanity, their womanhood. They are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, partners, and someone’s former co-worker…hopeful dreamers who long ago as young girls danced through the trees, soaked up the sun on a beach, or read a book that flew them far from their current circumstances as they envisioned a future for themselves that most likely did not include living behind prison bars.
This does not excuse their crimes, or in any way condone whatever it is they have done to end up in prison. That is the justice system’s job—to make a judgement of restitution based upon their crime and the law involving their crime. It is not our job to hold judgement over them while they are in prison, and even more so, when they come out of it with their time served and restitution complete. Our job is to treat them with the dignity and the respect anyone deserves, and with the belief that we all deserve second chances.
Patricia had shared that most women in prison assume that they are going to be judged by others, and therefore adopt a prisoner-mind mentality, which only gets worse when they are faced with that very judgement once they are released, many unable to get jobs because of their prison record, lack of skills, or they are taken advantage of by the very people who should love them most.
The butterfly within them frequently goes back into its cocoon before it ever had a chance to stretch its wings to fly. Many return to the same untenable, sometimes abusive situations, or addictions, doomed to repeat the vicious cycle that sent them to prison in the first place. As Patricia says in her article, “Prison can make you lose your mind if you let it,” along with your identity, your self-worth, and a hope for something better.
It took weeks to get the paperwork approved for our one solitary visit, and to be able to donate 200 magazines to the women of FCI, most of whom had probably never even seen the magazine before. Patricia said that the women were excited and had been so ever since they knew we were coming. We felt rather unworthy of the build-up, but had no conception of what their lives were like behind prison walls, and that outside visitors are rare, let alone being gifted reading materials like TWM. Kim Rosier/Publisher, frequent TWM contributor, Dr. Michelle Mitchum, and myself would be going to share our stories. As the theme of April-May conveys, the power of sharing your story can be a key to set hearts and minds free, and whatever the women could glean from our stories, our hope was that they could use that to find inspiration, to see themselves in our story, or at the very least, know that there are women in Tallahassee who see them.
I see you, you see me.
During my visit and after, I kept thinking of the Biblical story of Hagar in the Old Testament, lost in the desert with her young son, crying out to God save them. He answered her by showing her how to find a well in which to draw water. Afterwards she says,
She [Hagar] gave this name (El Roi) to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi [the “well of the Living One who sees me”]. — Genesis 16:13–14 (NIV)
This became intensely felt as we entered into the main hallway after our security gate check and our escort unlocked several metal barred doors, we came to an outside platform with steps leading to a long sidewalk which rain in-between a tree-studded courtyard. On either side were the wards where the prisoners lived. Patricia pointed out the B ward where she lived when she was incarcerated here. Looking at Patricia now, in her professional attire, you would never guess she had spent several years walking this sidewalk, or living in a small room with another inmate. But, as she always says, “Butterflies don’t look like caterpillars.” She shared that it is still hard for her to come back, and she has intense feelings of trepidation and sadness every single Tuesday, which makes it even more incredible that she keeps coming back, and has been for the last three years.
But she never lets that show. She is a warrior and has come here on a mission—to help other women fight through the prisoner mentality that keeps them locked away from their potential, to help them see a future beyond prison walls, and gives them a well to draw water from.
Walking down the long sidewalk, even though we were outside and there were trees, there was no birdsong, no laughter, and very little noise at all. Some women gathered outside of their wards, or traveled on other sidewalks in other directions, but ALL of them looked our way and saw us. I could only wonder what they must have been thinking of us without really knowing us.
We made our way to the chapel doors, climbed stairs, and were met by a handful of women who were waiting by the entrance. We nervously told them hello, not knowing how or when to begin the introductions, but there was no nervousness from Patricia. She hugged, laughed and made her joyful voice known to them, and they could hear her love for them and for the precious time she felt blessed to spend with them, women she considers part of her family—her sisters.
As we shook their hands after making our entrance, greeting the women, learning their names, you could see the expected judgement in their eyes, many of whom did not even make eye contact. On the left-hand side of their uniform, over their heart, almost like a brand, is their prisoner number, along with their last name. Their first names are hidden until they speak them aloud and make them known. I couldn’t help but think about all of the professional and social events I’ve attended over the years, shaking hands and looking at name tags, this struck me as another, ‘I see you’ moment. I resolved to truly see beyond their assigned number and the non-descript uniform that became an ocean of brown once the thirty women all sat down in the chairs facing us. Some faces showed excitement, others wariness, doubt, or no emotion at all. Despite what we could see on the surface, we had our own mission.
TWM wanted to make sure the women knew that we did not come to judge, but more importantly, we were going to love them, encourage and reassure them. We wanted them to know that there are women in Tallahassee on the ‘outside’ who will love those that are on the ‘inside.’
Because isn’t that what it all really comes down to—inside and outside? What you can see and what you can’t see?
Dr. Michelle Mitchem started us out by sharing a little bit about her amazing story of survival and hope after the tragic death of her parents and older brother, leaving her and her younger brother orphans. After obtaining numerous accolades and degrees, she began teaching other women and families how to use their tragedies as their triumphs. She also shared highlights from her article in the April-May issue, “The Power of Abundance Philosophy,” that if we have a positive mind, filled with abundance, we can expand our thinking, knock down mental and emotional walls and receive blessings from being able to share of yourself, your resources and your talents with others. Open hands can gather and share so much more than closed ones.
Kim Rosier followed Michelle with how she started TWM, and mixed into that was her personal Christian faith testimony and how she heard God calling her to begin a women’s magazine. At the time, she had a comfortable job, great family life, but with no background in publishing, nor the resources normally needed to begin such an undertaking. Numerous challenges rose up in her path, among those was her own prison of fear. She shared how challenging, but yet how fulfilling the magazine journey has been for her, shaping her life, strengthening her faith, and helping to make a difference in the lives of others.
When it was my turn, I began the same way I began Patricia’s article—as women, we have all been imprisoned in some way and at some point in our lives. Not perhaps physical imprisonment, but mental or emotional imprisonment, where we are locked inside a negative thought pattern, or suffering from a trauma whose bars are holding us back as much as a physical walls do. These internal prisons cannot be seen, and on the outside we might portray a perfectly normal façade, but on the inside, we are beating at the walls, holding tight to the prison bars and screaming for our freedom. Or, silently suffering, despairing to ever be released, only getting glimpses of the outside world-woman that we are aching to become.
In my story-sharing, I interwove my own testimony and my own prisons, and how I still struggle to break free from many of them. But, God sees me, and knows my story, as he sees and knows all of us. I know that he has called me to the well, to drink from it, but to also share the water with others. Patricia goes in to the prison, every Tuesday with the same ‘I see you’ message, “You matter. You are loved. Your prison sentence does not define you as a human being. You have the power in prison and when you are released, to make a positive impact in the world. God has a plan for your life.”
Inside the FCI—Tallahassee are women from all backgrounds who rarely see their children, or families, something we couldn’t bear thinking about. We had so many questions, and our hearts were heavy for all the women, their families, and the families who have been affected by the choices these women made. We had looked into their eyes, heard some of their stories, and now these women were made known to us.
We were also reminded that it’s never too late to start anew, to begin again—each and every day— to choose a different knowing of yourself, and others around you. As many of you learned having read Patricia’s article, she compares her story and her very being, to that of a butterfly. Her mission in life is to help other women, particularly those who are incarcerated, to help set that caged butterfly within all of us, free. To Patricia, the women who show up each and every Tuesday, and every woman in prison, are her sisters. Every time I hear her say it, something flutters within me, and I think, “Yes, yes. I see you, my sister.”
Judgement, whether you are judging another, or another is judging you, can be its own kind of prison. Deep in our core, I believe that we long to know ourselves and to be made known. To be held aloft as worthy, beautiful and beloved. To truly be seen, and to be known, we must all love ourselves, love others and allow ourselves to be loved. This is not an easy task, but courageous warriors like Patricia McCray are bravely showing us the way. And so.
It’s not enough to see someone with the surface of our eyes, but to see them with the vision of our souls.
We see you, women of Tallahassee, those in prison and those outside of it. We see the potential in you, the hope and the longing that you have for yourself, your families and your hope for something better. You are seen and made known whenever you share your own story and listen to the sharing of another. Most importantly, it is my belief, that you are seen and known by God who is the author of your story. May we all see and know each other as He sees and knows us.
By Heather Thomas
Part One—The Hidden Heart
The hidden heart. Our heart beats about 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. During an average lifetime, the human heart with its 4 chambers will beat more than 2.5 million times pumping oxygen through our body. Yet, we’ll go days, weeks, sometimes longer before we even pay attention to its beautiful, life-affirming rhythm.
Running is the way I rediscover the beauty of the heartbeat most often. And, what is hidden in my mind and spirit gets exposed—there’s things I’m running from and things I’m running towards, with the heartbeat of my body and of my life meeting me in the middle of that space of awakening.
In the quiet-loud swishing space of time and motion, steadily beating its drum of beauty and brokenness, the heartbeat is the most beautiful songs.
We refer to the heart in the emotional sense more often than in the physical one, so over the years I began to explore the myriad ways the heart in both senses shapes our lives, and the more I wanted to identify the chambers of my own heart. I adore the dual meaning of chambers here— The right atrium, the right ventricle, the left atrium and the left ventricle—but also the meaning of chambers as it pertains to a room in a home, or a space in time itself that is filled with the swishing of the moments that make up the minutia of our lives, traveling onward with every breath we take, helpless to stop the ebb and flow of oxygen, of joy, of sadness, and everything in-between.
Just like our heartbeats, too often we don’t take time to pause and appreciate the present minute, to breathe in the quite, the loud, the peace and the chaos. Putting on our love glasses, we can see the hidden hearts all around us. For me, I usually find them in nature, and often on my runs, when my mind and spirit are attuned more keenly to the beat of my heart and to the beat of life.
The heart pictured is a sawed off limb from a tree that fell during Hurricane Hermine. The wires from a downed utility pole are also featured in the picture, juxtaposed with the pink blooms of the azaleas… all of this symbolizing hope and inspiration after a storm. This picture and other hidden hearts I’ve found over the recent months are windows into the rooms of experiences that have helped me to find perspective and meaning.
I’ve divided the exploration of the hidden heart into four chapters, or blog posts, starting with this one, and then sharing some pieces of my heart involving the birth and death of life and of love. I’m hoping by sharing the hearts that I find will help you open up your own hidden chambers, finding meaning, perspective, and hope in the midst of your storms.
Listen to your heart—it is singing a song that only you can hear with words that only your soul can understand.
By Heather Thomas
As much as I use words in my professional and personal life, the word, “surrender” is not in my native vocabulary. Take the other morning for instance—waking up with a migraine and my period, and thereby running late in getting my daughter to school, I come home to a dog poop mess and needing to wash the dog and the floors all before trying to get myself ready for work. I had to surrender my plan for the morning and let go of control over how I expected my day to go.
Or, take the recent slime craze that all the preteen middle-school girls seem to be into. If you haven’t heard of it yet, imagine large amounts of glue, combined with Borax (a product I had once assumed had been relegated to the dark ages of hand laundry washing) and mixed in to this gob of goo can be glitter, sequins, small puffy balls of Styrofoam, smelly hand lotion or other hard-to-clean items that I can guarantee you will find on your floors, in your hair and yes, in the dog poop. I would love for that phase to surrender itself to the trend authorities and move its way out the adolescent door, along with my 9 year-old son’s plastic bottle flipping fixation.
Surrendering is all about letting go of control, or at least the pretense of it, and I don’t know about you, but as women I think that’s especially hard for us to do. As a working mother, sometimes the only thing that can bring me a modicum of peace is knowing that, “By goodness, even if the laundry is piled up, we’ve missed a dentist appointment, the school is calling me again and magazine deadlines are banging down my door, then my bed is going to be made, and look pretty, so that when I walk into my room at the end of a long day, controlled comfort awaits me.” And so, I wrestle back some small margin of control from the tight grip of life, who often laughs at my petty attempts to believe that I have a say over what my middle schooler thinks she is going to be doing without my knowing that will make slime on carpet look like creative art, because who can fault a kid for creative expression? I’ll take creative expression over a planned rebellion any day.
Ultimately, what I’m trying to convey in so many words (see, I love words!) is that I’m surrendering a little bit of my life, my story, to TWM readers, and anyone else who might be able to glean insight, perspective, or that golden gift that I try to convey with other’s women’s stories—the comforting presence of another woman who is scrapping through the slime, the drama, and the unmade beds of life just like you are, trying to find her place of meaning in the world. There is hope and transformative power to be found in the sharing of our stories, something that we’ve seen time and time again at TWM.
It has been my honor to help other women surrender their stories over the last eleven years as a writer and editor of TWM, so it’s about time I start surrendering mine in the Editor’s Blog. It’s not easy to surrender, especially if it’s a dream, a piece of your heart, or something you aren’t proud of and would rather no one know. But I’ve learned that in the act of surrendering, your hands are open to seek other dreams and opportunities, gaining a freedom that you never knew you were lacking, and grabbing on to other hands to hold and help pull you along to the other side of the chasm we call, “letting go.”
Surrendering is a daily choice, sometimes a minute-by-minute choice if absolutely nothing in your life is going the way you want it to, and the tragedies and hardships are mounting in front of the flimsy door that you are trying to keep closed against insurmountable odds. For me, a huge part of the fear of surrendering my own story is best described by author Prissy Elrod, the TWM December-January 2015 cover woman, who said, “Once I put my story out there I felt that I was suddenly naked and saying, ‘Quick! Give me some clothes!’”
So, I guess surrendering your story is a little bit like feeling naked (and afraid!), but knowing that it’s too late to put the clothes back on, and once liberated, you don’t really want to anyway. If anything, it’ll be good creative therapy for me to shed some of the layers of my life without resorting to slime-making or bottle flipping…And trying to be funny when my children certainly don’t appreciate or respect my humor. Until the next story surrender, my hand is reaching out for yours… let’s take the leap, together.