As a teacher and a person, I want to cultivate a posture (and a notebook of lesson plans) that work to stay in the moment, wringing it out ‘till it drips with the inky blues and grass greens that I missed last go around. This is the lesson Marty, one of the incarcerated Teaching Artists at CSP-Sac, has been trying to teach me since I first starting going inside. Every conversation we have circles around one big word: participation.
My teaching inside co-exists with a Ph.D. program, and so I am prone to tie myself in knots, working to reconcile theoretical positions, texts, and the tangible fabrics of the three prison classrooms where I am honored to be a guest TA. A certain amount of tangling is good – I can’t imagine a relationship between prison art programs and prison that isn’t fraught. But the conversation I continue to have with Marty is the first and last word that grounds the rest of what happens in my head, and in the classroom.
Participation as first-and-last word takes shape in this paraphrased summation of the conversation Marty and I have had so many times:
Just show up.
We are not broken.
We don’t need fixing.
We are not interested in your answers or assessment of us.
Bring your best.
And to use Spoon’s terms – be a person of Realness.
One day in class, the conversation about Participation ended up in a sketch of something resembling a slice of the Grand Canyon, an inverse bell curve with steep cliffs on either side of a valleyed middle space. The cliff on the left represented the past with this text: “MEMORY IS IMAGINATION.” On the opposing cliff was scrawled, “FUTURE IS ILLUSION.” In the middle space hovered a circle labeled Participation. We talked at length about how everything that already happened is conscribed by Memory, untouchable except through a particular and ever-shifting remembrance. And what we imagine for tomorrow will always be illusion. There can be no arriving, only vision, speculation, dreaming.
And for me, as a teacher, committing to the middle space means looking for ways to listen for the stories all around me that are ever working to be born, and finding ways to cultivate that same posture of listening and posed readiness in the writers with whom I work. To practice this writing/listening in the moment, we recently tried 5-minute “Steal a Line” story starters – little low-stakes, “throw-away” bits of story that work from a shared sentence into a diverse collection of in-the-moment stories.
We used a line I heard while sitting in a café, where a girl with pink hair walked by exclaiming, “Everything is happening fantastically.” The Girl With Pink Hair, seen through the pens of some thirty-odd writers broke up with her boyfriend, admired her new watch, got cancer, listened to a friend, wrote a song, walked through a wall, got hit by a bus, missed her mom, touched the scar on her cheek. She was optimistic, sarcastic, dreamy, drugged, rebellious, lonely. And hopefully, the Girl With Pink Hair helped us see that Right Now is ripe with words, that there are lines for “stealing” all around us all the time.
Especially in prison, there is a leaning towards writing that is anchored in pasts and futures, real and imagined. The monolithic oppressiveness of the place works against (and maybe even punishes) an awaking to the moment, a hopeful participation in Right Now. And, it seems to me, this is a special cruelty. So, I am working to see/hear and mostly Be when I am inside, and encourage the exploration of the middle space of Right Now.
In concrete terms, this means I look for lesson plans that honor the Right Now in the lives of writers, and presume that Right Now wants to (and can) speak – presume there is value is the daily living, daily story-telling of Life Without Parole. It also means that I show up with my own Right Now and tell the stories of my daily life with a brave Realness, even if they are stories of mini-van driving, dish washing, and yelling at the people who I love. Participation means I am present, that I don’t pretend to know or understand, but rather bring my own notebook, sit at the table, and read my rough cuts and unpolished ideas, just like everyone else.