I am deeply grateful for the opportunity, given the increasingly discouraging
times that we are facing as a community and nation, and given the stressful, challenging times all organizations who are committed to providing one time and ongoing emotional, spiritual, cognitive and financial support to those in need are facing, to share with you a little bit of my own life changing journey from a place of bitterness and cynicism to a place of love, compassion and hope where it concerns my relationship with my fellow women and sisters who share this earth with me.
I had a heart to heart talk with Shelley Lake about a month ago and shared with her for the first time my true first impressions when I heard of Womenade: Sisters of Servanthood organization. I thought the concept was great. But I had to admit to Shelley that I thought Sisters of Servant sounded like some sort of cheesy 50’s sorority through back deal, and I, being the liberal progressive, writer, artist, reader, academic, scholarly type that, on a good day, I like to think that I am, wanted no part of it of that traditional stuff.
I am not a card carrying feminist by any means, but sitting in that first meeting and
hearing one of the women in the group state with caring and passionate certainty when talking about the possibility of using Womenade funds to support a baby shower for a single mother, that “all women have baby showers” and then thinking about my own mother who has never had a female friend, not one, in my thirty three years of living and did not have a baby shower in celebration of any of the birth of any of her children, I was convinced I had been dropped into Mars.
I went to that Baby Shower, and watched what seemed to my supposedly enlightened intellectual mind at the time like a lot of shallow pomp and circumstance, superficial and materialistic to me, lots of wrapping paper and not substance, more about the people giving the shower than the baby. I thought self righteously of Julia Roberts, the liberal professor in the Movie Mona Lisa smile, loving and celebrating the tradition and the institution of it all but yet not able to compromise her heart and soul to protect it’s supposed ignorance, and I thought of me and my families own daily struggle to put food on the table, and disparagingly and as politely as I could muster in my present embittered state, took my leave.
From the Shower and my desire to be part of the Womenade organization.
There was a time near the end of 2007 when I considered receiving aid from them, and my critical, justifying the pain rather than embracing the opportunity for healing and desperately needed help, self preservation kicked in and I found some flaw in the process and focused on the scratch in the record rather than the music, as we all so often do, don’t we?
And then of course, just a few short months later I really ended up in A Mars experience.
Actually maybe more the equivalent of an Earth to Uranus journey, stuck in a Wake County Detention Facility with a room of up to 40 women at a time for 9 ½ months, falsely charged with trafficking in Drugs, and facing 7-10 years of my life in prison. I don’t know much about God, but I’m convinced he loves irony.
And of course, suddenly sisterhood and Servanthood, was about all one could hope for, if one were so blessed. There was no pretty wrapping paper, only cups of tepid coffee shared like communion wine,hugs, hair braiding sessions, cards, conversation, prayer, and lots of hope in the miracle working power of a God who could save us from ourselves and each other.
There I finally understood what sisterhood and servanthood really meant. Of course I can’t tell you all the beautiful sad stories I heard of women who were struggling in their own way to overcome, and how precious a gift it was for me to get to hear them tell me these stories, and more amazingly that they were willing to listen to me tell them mine, and to know that finally, somewhere, in the oddest of place I found there were people like me, hurting like me, carrying burdens like me. The Woman who watched her father shoot her mother and then kill himself, the alcoholic woman whose son was a serial killer on death row, the young cocaine addict who had been raped three times in the last year and had been incarcerated just as many times in the last year. So much abuse and pain I cannot begin to do it justice.
But of all the people I met and felt drawn to even for a brief moment, there is one very special person I want to tell you about today. And that is friend Alicia. If you ask me why I think I ended up in jail, I will tell with certainty forever and always that it was so that I could be there for Alicia and her in turn for me.
It was the second week of July, 4 months and 1 week into my incarceration when I finally came out on the other side of the seemingly unbearable pain, fear, isolation and intense grief I felt at my own circumstance long enough to really sit up in my top bunk bed and take a good look at the women around me, with a clear mind. Directly across from me on a bottom bunk sat an older looking women with long gray hair, looking teary eyed and forlorn, alone and lost in herself in a way I had known so many times.
But something about her caught my attention. I felt drawn to her in some way I could not
explain and only later became clear when I took a risk and asked about her and got a mouthful about this “crazy women” who paced back and forth over and over and was weird and out of her mind.
I approached Alicia after dinner one night and asked how she was. Where shy me got the confidence to be so bold as to step into a pseudo therapeutic role with anyone, I can’t say, but I think when we are where we are supposed to be, we are who we need to be. I can’t remember all the details right now but I remember that I let her know that I was someone she could trust if she needed to talk and that what we talked about would be kept confidential. I found the strength in that moment, I don’t know how, to say exactly what needed to be said, to open the lines of communication with someone who have never before revealed the intimate details of her inner world to anyone.
Who had been hospitalized on multiple occasions in her past and had never felt comfortable talking to doctors about what was really going on.
Though they must have known enough to put her on meds. The exact nature of her psychosis
was a secret burden she bravely carried. I can only be grateful for the small miracle of her trust. I will keep her confidences now, though I know if you knew you would see her as so very brave too. I can tell what she herself would tell you, and that will be enough, I think.
Alicia, do to neglect from her mother and family, who knew her history of illness, and knew she needed medications and did not get her the support she needed, in a state of psychosis, burned down the trailer that her and her mother had been living in, leaving her mother homeless, having lost everything.
Alicia spent 5 weeks in Dorothea Dix and then was transferred to detention to face her charge of 2nd degree Arson.
Over the next few weeks Alicia and talked and walked. I would write for a while on my bunk and then she would come get me for breaks so she could keep herself moving which helped her deal with the noise in her head, and we would work through how her brain worked. We got her set up to see the psychiatrist so she could get meds again (she didn’t have any as they had ceased when she left Dorothea Dix.
On top of her mental health issues, Alicia had been in a serious life threatening car accident, going down the highway at 70 miles an hour and had suffered obvious traumatic brain injury that had gone untreated given her socioeconomic status. She could barely write or think to write.
Could not read at all, and could barely draw, something she loved to do with all her heart. On top of this were the many side effects of the multiple psychiatric meds she needed in order to function. There were times when she could barely stand up without assistance.
We grew as friends. I taught her about her mind, and she taught me how to play poker, and how to be more social and friendly with the other girls in the dorm, no easy task for me, especially then.
And then suddenly she was gone, without warning, as is always the case there. Alicia got in a fight with another girl in the dorm. Being the loyal friend she was, she stepped in to defend the honor of one of two women involved in an argument. Having been to prison before (for a crime she didn’t commit but said she did to protect someone else) she had learned how to fight, and without thinking about the consequences and before I realize what was going on and could try to stop her, she stepped in the middle and pushed another girl, not realizing that would lead to the punishment of being taken downtown to the public safety building put in lockdown for a week unable to return to the annex since she had been physical with another inmate. As long as a woman only fought with her words, she could possible return to the minimum security facility.
Alicia had crossed the line.
At the time I was struggling again, and had retreated once again to my own cocoon of sorrow. I was determined to do some healing and was working through a painful memory from my childhood that I had not remembered until I arrived there. And I was very sad and scared of this new knowledge.
I had not heard from Alicia in a few weeks. Was numbed to the sadness of her leaving, as one must be to a certain extent, in that environment. The fight was so surreal and so sudden. It just didn’t register at the time as deeply as it should have.
And then on a particularly sad day, when I was feeling depressed and empty, unable to read the books that sustained me or find hope, one of the new girls who had apparently been downtown to court that day, who I didn’t know came up to me and said "hey, do you know this girl named Alicia?" She asked me to give you this note.
It was only a few sentences written in shaky messy scrawl but it melted my heart.
It said, “Hey Angela. You can see my handwriting is getting better. Don’t think I have forgotten you. I think about you every day. I will always think of you as my big sister.” Of course the last line meant the world to me.
Alicia’s family had written her off in their hearts long before she ever got put in jail. During her time with me Her mother had written her a letter telling her she was manipulative and selfish and she no longer wanted anything to do with Alicia and had then pulled all of the money out of her bank account, without authorization Alicia used to always say “, well fine. If my family doesn’t want me, I’ll just go and find me a new family then”.
I was so deeply touched, blessed and honored to be considered a part of Alicia’s new family.
I don’t know where Alicia is right now. Last I knew her attorney and the alternative sentencing program were looking for a special family group home for her up in the mountains like she wanted where she could be in a loving family environment and get the support she needs. If I never see her again, it will not change our bond. My divine appointment with that friendship forever changed the path I was on.
Gave me a newfound faith in other human beings, gave me confidence to step out in my own talents and abilities and gave me hope that it really was possible, even for someone as bruised and wounded as me, as the Chinese say, to “light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”
I don’t know why I got plucked out of life and put in jail to learn this rather than being able to “get it right” as my friend Donna Corbett would say, in the real world. But of course, perhaps, as one security guard once told me, “Angela, This, all of this, IS the real world”.
In our busy, multitasker worshipping contemporary society it is hard to imagine that we could find time to sit in a room as we are doing for these few precious hours now just doing the work of being together, walking together, “Sharing eggs and toast like bread and wine. Maybe we think we have heard it all but we don’t mind....” to use a slight variation on a Carrie Newcomer song.
That is one of the reasons why I have a newfound passion for helping organizations like Womenade succeed, because these organizations serve as windows into this healing room we women can share, if we let ourselves.
When we open the door of our hearts and give of our time, money, talent and love, in
some small way, we are opening ourselves up to those opportunities to sit in that quiet room with someone who needs us, getting filled up, healing and growing in whatever way we know we need to.
I have humbled myself enough to receive monetary support from Womenade now, despite whatever differences we may have, but more importantly, I am learning how to give to them, and I am deeply hopeful that this small piece of my story has inspired you in some way, to give to Womenade of yourselves and your resources, too.
Peace be to you, my dear sisters of servanthood.
— — —
Written by Angela Schulte