And so today’s moment of happiness despite the news.
I returned today to the women inmates’ book club at the Waukesha County Jail. This was my second time there and they were reading Learning To Tell (A Life)Time, the sequel to The Home For Wayward Clocks. As the women filed in, I saw some faces that I recognized and a few new ones. Especially noticeable to me was a woman who was still new to the jail the last time I saw her. At that first meeting, she looked exhausted and loose-ended. At one point, I heard her say, “I guess I should have brushed my hair today.” From where she sat in the front row, her despair and disorientation just came to me in waves. But today, she was bright. She was the first to start talking – not only had she read Clocks and Lifetime, but she’d read Oddities too. Partway through the meeting, she had to leave to talk to her parole officer and she came back with news of being released on Tuesday. Her happiness waved from her in the same way her despair did just two weeks before.
There was another change too. I’d been given permission – by the women and by the jail administration – to ask the women questions. I had so many, but they were eager to talk about the book and we did. Their insights were down deep and heartfelt.
When the discussion slowed down, my escort told them that I was aware I could ask them questions too and she opened it up to me. I found myself telling the women about my experience at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute last summer. How I felt about those men. About the moment when I was surrounded by them and realized I wasn’t afraid; I didn’t feel like I was with beasts who’d performed violent crimes. I was just sharing my enthusiasm for clocks with men who knew how to make them. And they were happy I was there.
And then I told the women that I felt the same about them. Being there, talking to them, was no different than any book club I’ve ever been invited to. Not the ones in Waukesha or Brookfield, Shorewood or Sussex. The state of Oregon or in Minnesota. In libraries or private homes or coffee houses or restaurants. Or even, I predicted, when I skype into a book club in Israel in May. They’re doing Lifetime too.
I looked at these women and I said, “I see you. I don’t see what you’ve done. I see you.”
And suddenly, I had an entire group of crying women, including the escort. Tissues had to be passed. One woman, the only one in blue scrubs and not orange, said, “Thank you for giving us back our personhood.”
Well, holy cow.
When the women left, they were duly reminded to dispose of their tissues – they could not take anything except the books with them back to their cells. I watched them go. I wished I could leave them with something – even though I think I already did.
As I waited for my escort in a different room, I noticed the clock on the wall. It was encased in a heavy wire barrier. Even the clocks were in cages.
When we treat humans like humans, that’s who we get. But when we treat them like animals…
Oh, those women. They are often referred to as ladies or girls or females in that place, but I refuse. Those Women. On this gray and rainy day, they lit up my life. Under the fluorescent lights, the only light they receive, they were summer sunshine.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.