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Journey to Self

by Peggy Lamb, Exploring Creativity Coordinator for Truth Be Told

Rca, Krystal, Brandi, Kathy, Linda, and Nancy: six women in the white garb of inmates and I sit in a circle in the spacious chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville, TX. They are in the Female Sex Offender Treatment Program. We are here to do a deep dive into creativity – to collaboratively create Journey to Self, a dance/theater piece they will perform in Truth Be Told’s Miracles in Human Form show for their fellow inmates.

I look at their nervous and expectant faces. These six women have been chosen to participate in this project by their therapists because they have demonstrated a commitment to their recovery.

I reassure them that my intention is to create a divinely inspired, perfectly-imperfect piece. I see their breathing deepen and faces relax a bit but still they are nervous and insecure. They are not professional dancers and have never performed. Who wouldn’t be nervous?

It’s time to move, to quiet the monkey-mind, and to feel our feet! We start with saying our name and doing a movement, then Whoosh-Bang-Pow (a movement game that gets even the most uptight person laughing.) After Whoosh-Bang-Pow I lead them in Flocking, an exercise that culminates in the group walking together at the same tempo (which is harder than it sounds.). We’ll use this in the final section of our performance when the women-in-white form a procession and walk slowly downstage to Alison Krause’s Down to the River to Pray.

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We gather again in a circle — now we are a much more relaxed and embodied group of women. We read a couple of poems I’ve selected: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver (tell me about despair, yours and I will tell you mine), The Healing Time by Pesha Gertler (the old wounds, the old misdirections, and I lift them one by one close to my heart and I say holy holy), and that powerful quote by Maya Angelou, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I ask the group if they are familiar with Maya Angelou. Most of them are through her Phenomenal Woman poem. Brandi, a white thirty-something mother of six says, “I named my daughter after her.”

Through writing prompts such as “Write a ten-word memoir,” we create the written material that serves as a springboard for dance material. I ask the women to create three movements that symbolize the parts of their lives they chose to write about. This is the hardest part for most of them. They want to do pantomime. Eventually their robotic, pantomimic movements slowly become imbued with the core of their being, as much as these deeply scarred and wounded women can deliver at this time.

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I call this section of the piece “I could tell you a story” and it is the heart of Journey to Self. The body, in its cellular wisdom, can express that which we do not have words for.

One woman’s movement is simply opening her mouth and arms wide. She has been in prison for over 20 years for molesting her children. Another woman’s movement is simple side-to-side sways — a beautiful movement. For her it meant how she was influenced by other people and did not have her own sense of self.

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The warden has allowed us two three-hour slots of rehearsal time — a miracle in the world of TDCJ. By the end of our second rehearsal, these women and I have created a beautiful heart-felt dance. I am stunned and awed by their courage, their willingness to step outside their comfort zones, their vulnerability and discipline.

As one woman said during our debrief, “In the free world I dressed in wigs, make-up, heels and sexy clothes. I didn’t know how to be just me. In this piece I was more naked and vulnerable than I’ve ever been. And yet, I feel more peaceful than I’ve ever felt.”

As for me, this deep dive into the holy water of dancing with incarcerated women leaves my body heart and spirit vibrating with gratitude. I shake my head in wonder and awe at how I stumbled into this divinely choreographed and divinely designed volunteer work.

Meeting the woman, not the crime: Exploring Creativity at Hilltop

by Peggy Lamb

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body, and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18-month cognitive therapy program. (For more information on this program go to http://www.tdcj.state.tx.us/divisions/rpd/rpd_sorp.html). They live together in a special dorm where community is emphasized. Each woman has committed a crime that will brand her for life as a sex offender.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things. Only men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ website, but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong.

The artists I bring in and I share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and redefine oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses, and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why I was drawn there, but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost two years that I’ve been going up there once a month, and it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call Elements. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room, breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap, and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core — pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out, to shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration, and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

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My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on  the topic “I Am Earth.” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture — a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, and nature. Each woman shares her gesture, and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming), and we go around the circle dancing each woman’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts for the elements of air, water, and fire. By the end of the class, we’ve created four dances, and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of. The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community.

One woman comments, “I didn’t know I was creative!”

Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.”

A comment that touches my heart deeply is, “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at the women’s willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I love this work. My soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

Below is one woman’s beautiful poem:

I am water

By Laurie S.

I am water

Pouring

Dripping

Sprinkling

I am the water from the sky

I am water

Pounding

Breaking

Rolling

I am the water of the seas

I am water

Rippling

Flooding

Streaming

I am the water of the rivers

I am water

Breathing

Circulating

Flowing

I am the water

Inside us all

 

Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. She brings artists to both the Hilltop and Lockhart units. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, to release pain and to express despair without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers, visual artists, dancers, quilters, yoga teachers, and writers. If you are interested in teaching an Exploring Creativity class, please contact Peggy at peggy.lamb at sbcglobal.net.

Making art at Gatesville: Peg Runnels teaches Exploring Creativity

Painter, photographer, mixed media artist, and Truth Be Told supporter Peg Runnels describes her experience teaching an Exploring Creativity class to Gatesville inmates:

Although I’d volunteered at Lockhart many times, when Peggy Lamb asked me to do art with the Gatesville inmates for Exploring Creativity, I said yes. Immediately I felt apprehension. This was for the sex offender unit: Would I be able to be with them without judgment? Could I even like them?

As the time approached, I grew anxious. What if I in my ignorance said or did something offensive? What might happen? Not knowing anything about them caused me fear.

I wondered what I might have to offer to inspire their art. The phrase came to me, What Do You Dare to Dream? I let that play in my mind, wondering how to make that come alive. And then What Do I Dare to Dream? became the next question. One thing I’m afraid of is dancing in front of others, so I decided that is what I would do.

Arriving at Gatesville, I was nearly quaking. When it was time, Peggy had the women form a circle, introduced me, and without saying a word I began to dance in the circle, a dance of fear and nervousness. I looked each woman in the eye. Their eyes showed confusion as they glanced at each other. What is she doing, they seemed to say. Then as my vulnerability dance began to change into acceptance, I saw their faces soften and grow warm. We had connection.

Describing why I danced for them — to dare to dream and to face my fears — I told them to consider what they might dare to dream and to bring into reality. I suggested they paint that question. Eagerly they jumped in and silently made paintings and collage.

Facing my fears helped them face theirs.

At the end we formed another circle, this time with each woman holding her art in front of her. In silence, we looked around at each unique work of art, amazed at the quality and depth.

Then an amazing thing happened. I said, We only have 15 minutes before cleanup so there isn’t time for everyone to speak, but if you don’t talk too much a few of you can share about your art. One woman quickly jumped in and said a couple of things about hers and as she walked around inside the circle showing it, someone else began telling about her piece, and while she was showing another began to speak. This pattern continued, and every woman who wanted to speak got her turn. Only one out of the 27 declined. This was a group-think solution that worked better than anything I could have planned.

In this morning at the prison, I came away deeply satisfied and fulfilled. I’m sure I learned more than anyone there.

Peg’s Bio

I have always been introspective. A high school English teacher assigned an autobiography paper and while other students groaned, I secretly rejoiced. We were to include our personal credo, and I remember writing values that are still true for me today:

  • I agree with Socrates, An unexamined life is not worth living;
  • I choose to seek and find beauty in simple everyday things;
  • I seek to be authentic.

Peg Runnels maskMy masks reflect those values.

I was 28 when my mom died. Afterwards I longed to read anything that might tell me more about her — diaries, journals, letters — but there was nothing. My children will know me, I resolved, and began keeping personal journals and finding expression in art, writing, photography, and now personal masks. The masks tell my life.  Each one has her story; each one is a part of me. My masks are part of a larger plan to know myself and to share who I am.

A native of Dallas, I married and moved to Austin. My husband Jim went to UT and I stayed home with children. At 42, my children grown, I attended St. Edward’s University. For several years I photographed homes for builders, pursued art photography, and had a few photo exhibits. Now I lead creativity retreats and workshops where we write, create art, or make masks.

My art pursuits are very diverse. For example, in 2004, this is what I did:  curated and exhibited in a group nature photography show at Mayfield Park; exhibited my photography series titled Home at the Carr America building; created a piece named Mardi Bra  for Firehouse Gallery’s breast cancer awareness show in Fort Worth; led several weekend creativity retreats; gave two talks on Staying True to Yourself at Lockhart Women’s Prison including showing masks; had a month-long solo exhibit at Tarrytown Baptist Church, including artist’s talk; exhibited at The Driskill Hotel with art opening celebration; and exhibited at Norwood Towers (Seventh and Lavaca) for six weeks.

All of the things I do support my life values: to examine my life and live it consciously; to seek and show beauty; to live as authentically as I can. I try to be the change I hope for the world.