from Tuesdays in Jail by Tina Welling
What do you want me to do with this?" Phillip asked me and nodded to the journal I'd passed to an officer to give him.
Phillip looked to be in his late thirties, healthy, strong, very attentive, and nicely mannered. Called me ma'am. But I saw something behind those hazel eyes. Chaotic mind spins, I suspected, that kept his thoughts circling like hungry coyotes around an injured elk.
He came down to meet with me alone from being locked up in a maximum-security cell. He was still locked up, but so was I, since we each sat in a separate locked-down room divided by a grate. This is typically the way I meet with maximum security inmates when I conduct my weekly journaling workshops at my local county jail.
I told him that the journal was his, adding that no one in my seven years had ever had a journal taken away from them or read by anyone. "However," I said, "don't incriminate yourself." I explained that journaling was all about the inner life — thoughts, emotions, memories, dreams, fears, and hopes. I said, "Write about that."
I suggested we do a quick exercise, my old standby for when I had no clues yet about what an inmate needed. "Name three people you admire and enjoy. They can be real people or movie or book characters, dead or alive, family members or strangers." Next I asked him to write down the qualities he admired about these people. I gave him a few minutes, and then I asked about his list. "Did you come up with three people?"
Phillip said, "Yes, ma'am. I put down my uncle, my older brother, and my grandfather."
"And what did you put down for the characteristics you admire in them?"
Phillip read from his journal. "Honesty, trustworthiness, hardworking, fun to be around, kind, intelligent, interesting, real likable. Ma'am."
I said, "All those qualities belong to you too, Phillip, or at least the potential for them, the seed of them, otherwise you wouldn't be able to recognize them in others."
He looked stunned.
His eyes glistened.
Then a faint smile. Then the smile grew bigger and Phillip got excited. He dropped the "yes, ma'ams."
"Dude, you don't know what you just did for me. Dude, you don't know what you just said. Aw, dude."
He blinked back tears.
I blinked back mine.
"I talk sh*t to myself. I'm up there in that crummy cell all alone and I tell myself what a piece of crap I am and I just want to… you know."
I didn't know. But after he told me his older brother was his idol and that he had committed suicide this past year, I guessed I did know. But this moment felt as if a skinny beam of light was shining into deep darkness.
I assigned Phillip homework. "This week fill a couple of pages in your journal with a list of your good qualities. And then you'll have this to remind yourself."
Our time was up.
Why were we all so hard on ourselves, so quick to absorb blame, feel shame, head for the lowest possible judgment of ourselves? I was guilty of this. The first hint of an edgy relationship, and I'm all over myself like ants on a picnic crumb, devouring my actions and words, finding fault in both. I used the harshest language on myself, set higher standards for my actions than for anyone else's. It could take a long time of self-recrimination for me to realize who I was at heart, to revive trust in my worthiness.
I like to tell the inmates a story I heard from my meditation teacher about a time when the Dalai Lama met with a large group of American Buddhist teachers who had gathered in Dharamsala, India.
The Dalai Lama asked, "What is the biggest issue for American spiritual seekers?"
The Buddhist teachers said, "Self-esteem."
But the Dalai Lama didn't understand what the term meant.
The Americans tried to translate it for him. After several attempts to explain, one teacher said, "They don't love themselves."
And the Dalai Lama cried.
©2022 by Tina Welling. All rights reserved.
Tina Welling is the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council writing fellowship, she has been conducting her Writing Wild workshops for ten years. ...
An excerpt from Tuesdays in Jail: What I Learned Teaching Journaling to Inmates. ©2022 by by Tina Welling. Published with with permission from NewWorldLibrary.com.