Interstate-5 is the asphalt ribbon of highway winding its self through the state of Oregon, connecting countryside, forest and towns from the southern border all the way to Portland. This corridor will guide the three-hour drive from my home to the Oregon State Penitentiary.
When the Faith and Culture Writers Conference put out a call for original essays to read to the inmates involved in The 7th Step Foundation, I jumped at the chance. The 7th Step is an organization that helps prisoners change while they are in prison and successfully become law-abiding members of their communities upon their release. They have been producing this yearly essay event for a decade. I will be joining five other women in reading essays on the appointed evening.
I am not unfamiliar with the incarcerated population. I spent a few years teaching a creative writing class to women at a detention center in Colorado. Writing is a precious gift to me. It opens a door into an examined life, giving me a place to slow down and sort out my feelings and thoughts. It has grown from the thing that staves off the grief of life and into a thing that now creates stories and novels. I like to share my gift with those who are marginalized. I know all about feeling damaged. In sharing writing with incarcerates, my message is to show them that none of us is ever as broken as we think we are.
An essay entitled I See You and You Matter is what I read to the men of The 7th Step Foundation at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The theme is one of redemption and reinvention. No, I won’t publish it here. Truth is I feel safe sharing so much honesty and vulnerability with a group of inmates, safer than putting the essay out on the Internet where I might open myself to the shaming ignorance of a few. I tell myself that it’s okay to be self-protective.
The room is a large auditorium heated by the 90-degree plus temperatures outside. There is no central air in the 150-year-old facility. The room holds rows and rows of long tables and chairs that face a stage and a podium. I’m glad that the podium is on the floor and not on the stage. Until the event, I have not met my fellow essayists, and they turn out to be a warm, loving group of women with whom I feel close by the end of the evening.
The men of The 7th Step are welcoming, polite, humble and kind. They offer us cinnamon buns and fruit juice. A hundred men, who awkwardly mingle a bit before the presentation. Men who were enjoying a little bit of time away from the grit of prison life. When it is my turn to read, I am met by the open faces of men who are eager to hear hope and inspiration. They sit so still, listening with their hearts. “I see you and you matter,” my essay begins and ends, sandwiched around an account of my personal struggle and redemption.
The time goes by quickly as each woman reads her piece. I am struck that there is a message in each essay for me. We shake hands with the inmates, make small talk. A man reads me two of his poems and gives them to me. They are the most precious poems that I will ever enjoy. Just before the evening comes to an end, the men present us with certificates. My certificate reads: “The 7th Step Foundation, 10th Annual Essay Presentation congratulates Stephanie Raffelock for the essay judged to be the Most Insightful.” Each certificate awarded is different. They include things like most articulate, most inspirational, most uplifting . . . all positive messages, their gifts of appreciation to us. The men begin to line up against the wall. No one has to ask. They will be led back to the small cramped spaces in which they live their lives. I hold a prayer that each one of them will return to the outside world and lead a purposeful and satisfying life. I will go to a hotel off the Interstate and drive home in the morning.
The rumble of the freeway keeps me awake most of the night. I think about prison and just how much freedom there is to lose. I find myself grateful in the morning for the little things of my day, a private shower and sweet smelling soap. A large window, letting so much light into the room, a safe car to make the drive home. I ponder the prison of the mind, the prison of a grieving heart, the places that we all get stuck sometimes.
After a stick-to-your-ribs kind of breakfast, I am on the road by 7:00, following the snaking highway south. My heart is filled with the sense of loss and love. I spend most of the drive saying thank you over and over again. I am grateful for the opportunity to visit the men in prison. Grateful for the opportunity to read to them. Grateful for the husband and dog that wait for me. Grateful that I was given a moment to share what I value so deeply: the hope, comfort, inspiration and joy of the written word.