Gail Shepherd

Gail Shepherd

I met her at a Writing Barn retreat. She was one of the quiet writers. We connected off to the side, preferring the one on one conversation to the group gab. At the end of the weekend, she asked if she could get a ride into town. She was meeting her wife at a B&B for a week of fun. Happily, I put her suitcase in the back of my car, stopped for tacos and shared our love of books, the ocean and the quirky writing life. When her novel The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins came out in 2019 to great acclaim, I sent her a congratulatory note and again we talked about oceans and visits and please contact me when…or if…you are nearby.

It never happened. And now she is gone. Way. Too. Soon.

Publishers Weekly posted this beautiful notice about her.

We clomp around like life will go on and on and on, but it is so fragile

 

Going Behind The Fence – Year Four

It’s my fourth year volunteering with Truth Be Told and my third year facilitating Pay It Forward, the monthly ongoing class at the Lane Murray Unit. Every time I go up, I ask myself: Does it still matter? Do I still feel energized? Do I love it? The answer is Yes. Yes. Yes.

This month, we talked about where we would like to travel and played hilarious games that made us laugh and laugh. Some women are in the parole review process; some women have been denied parole again; Some women won’t see parole for another twenty years. I know that in the scheme of things, this class is pretty insignificant but the persistence of going, of connecting, of loving and serving these women matters the world to me. (March)

Last night our leader asked, “Who are you listening to?” Many of the women said, “God. Because God asks me to look forward and Satan tells me to look back at my mistakes.” Then one woman said, “I try to listen to God but I can’t find God after I hang up the phone with my grandson or when they’re gone after a visit and I can’t hug them any more. It’s empty. I don’t feel God. I feel empty. I hear my Grandma though. I hear her telling me to fake it til I make it.” (May)

Last night was the last class of Session Five. The warden said yes to our bringing cupcakes and soda for a little graduation celebration. I sprang for the gorgeous cupcakes at Central Market. The ones with strawberries and blueberries and swirls of buttercream. One woman squealed, “Pretty Food.” Another said, “Strawberries. That’s all I’m gonna say: Strawberries.” (June)

Last night, the leader asked all of us this question: what has been your greatest adventure? I heard stories about hitch hiking from Ohio to Montana, entertaining little ones through a blackout, downhill skiing with a fear of heights, ghosts visiting in dreams, a wild canoe trip from San Marcos to Martindale. As I drove home, I was smiling. These women are so much more than their crimes. (November)

Year Four behind the fence ends. Some days, I think, Oh Lindsey, you are a just a do-gooder white woman. What you are doing doesn’t matter. Maybe. Maybe not. And then I think, “I am not here to be friends or to feel good about myself. I go because I believe in the power of human connection and my presence and commitment will make a difference. Some day.”

Going Behind The Fence – Year Three

Every time I go behind the fence, I have a hard time with the guards: their inflexibility, the humorlessness, their lack of joy or creativity. Finally, one of women in the group says to me, “They’re doing time right along with us. Sure, they can go home. But they work for TDCJ, same as us.”

Oh. My heart gets a little bit smarter as Year Two of Pay It Forward begins.

Toward the end of class, one woman leaned forward and said, “I need to tell you all something. I grew up in a family where there was a lot of screaming and hitting and throwing people and stuff against the walls. That’s what I knew. My first husband, he’s the father of my first child…he was so calm and boring. I remember saying to my mother, ‘This guy has got to go.’ It took me a long time to figure out that all he wanted to do was love me and the baby. This class feels calm. This class is church.”  (February)

Tonight we talked about passion. What makes us feel alive? What is worth fighting for? She said freedom. She said the earth, a garden. She said her 80 year old friend who needs to get out of prison and go home. She said her sanity. She said signing for the deaf. She said writing. She said the people who can’t fight for themselves. She said love. (May)

Tonight we talked about leadership. What does leadership mean to you? Here are a few snippets…. “I knew I was a leader when I could tell right from wrong.” “Leaders build you up and help you. They don’t tear you down and tell you that you are a retard.” “Leaders aren’t afraid of the truth.” “Leaders are teachers.” “Leaders see with their hearts not with their judgement.” Since I started volunteering with Truth Be Told in 2016, ten women have received parole and are in various bureaucratic stages of being released into this overwrought world. Fly, my little chicks, fly. You can make it. (July)

Last night, the women shared their answers to this question: If you were released tomorrow, where do you want to be in five years? I added this question: what thought or feeling holds you captive and if you were released from it, what would your life look like in five years? One woman who is seventy-seven said, “All I want to do is sit and look out my front window. And when I’m not looking out my front window, I want to look at the TV. That’s enough. I’ve done enough. All I want to do is sit and look.” Is there anything that would keep you from doing it? “I suppose it’s that same old thought that I have to do something in order to matter.” (August)

Tonight, our leader asked us to think about what we are deeply grateful for. Not one thing. Five things with reasons. We went deep. We danced. We cried. And oh yeah, we laughed. At the end, the leader sighed, “This is freedom. My spirit feels free in this class.” (November)

Every time I arrive at Lane Murray Unit and these women come to class, I am honored. Plain and simple.

Going Behind The Fence – Year Two

In 2016, I went up to the Lane Murray Unit every week to facilitate Truth Be Told (TBT)’s Talk To Me Writing curriculum. Why? Well, full disclosure, I was drafting a novel about a young woman who goes to prison for thirty years and I thought doing service work with TBT would be a great way to do research. It was, but little did I know that I would fall in love (read: build unforgettable relationships) with the these women. When December came, the women couldn’t believe that Carol Waid would move on to other classes and that we would leave them. One of the women looked at me and said, “What are you going to do?” I didn’t know. Like them, I felt bereft but I also knew that I couldn’t maintain a weekly eight hour commitment. Someone said, “What about a monthly, on going, support group?” They looked at me, “Could you lead it?”

A few weeks later, the warden okays our monthly class, and we call it Pay It Forward. Over the coming year, the women and I develop the class. It becomes one part support group, one part teaching, and a whole lot of exploring what works. No matter what we do, we follow TBT’s principles of community building, communication skills, creativity and self-care.

Onward.

I went behind the fence last night to start our monthly class. In answer to the question: What does ‘pay it forward’ mean to you? One woman said, “What I put in my life gets reflected out.” And then we talked about kindness. How to give and receive kindness. We agree to think about kindness for the month: to observe kindness in themselves and others and notice when they give and receive acts of kindness even if it’s as small as smiling or holding a door or letting something go when you might have reacted. Yeah, paying attention to kindness this month. (January)

Next month, one of the women said, “You know, kindness in here can get you a case. When we do something nice for someone else. Like give them a bar of soap, it’s called “Trafficking and Trading. We aren’t supposed to give what we have to anyone else.” Another woman chimed in, “I think it’s human nature to want to be compassionate. But in here, we have to stop ourselves. We have to work against our nature. When we get out, it’s hard to be compassionate again. It’s like we have to fight to get ourselves back.”  (February)

A lot of women in the class are seeing parole right now. Seeing parole means an inmate meets with a parole secretary for an interview. That secretary makes a recommendation to the parole board. A few weeks later, the inmate hears if they’ve made parole or gotten set off for another year or more. One woman in our group received parole and will be out in December after serving fifteen years of her eighteen year sentence. There are many restrictions and stipulations to her release. Some of them are hard and made her angry. She was having trouble focusing on the good thing that just happened until one woman leaned forward and said, “You have no idea of the blessings and gifts ahead of you. Yeah, it’s gonna be hard. But there will be blessings ahead. You need to remember that or you’re gonna miss them.”  The student becomes the teacher. (April)

Over the past month there have been more than a few deaths at Lane Murray. One woman had a seizure and died in her bed. Three women committed suicide. One woman attempted suicide. Each death hits the women hard. As soon as our circle forms, they begin to talk: “When you first come in here, people outside write and visit but after a while they stop and it feels like you’re forgotten. It’s hard. You want to give up.” “We try to take care of ourselves. We try to stay well. But when you have something wrong, the nurses act like you’re a burden.” “It’s scary when you need medicine because you don’t know if you’re going to get it and you don’t know if they will adjust the dosage if you need it.” “It feels like it’s too much trouble to care about us.” (May)

The leader of this week’s class asked us to think about what kind of animal we’d like to be and why. Here are some of the women’s answers. “An eagle because they are freedom;” “A Red Bird because they are supposed to be lucky and I could use a little luck;” “A lemur because this place is a jungle;” “A monkey because I like to play;” “A chameleon because they blend in and no one bothers them;” “A skunk because everyone is respectful of them and keeps their distance.” (September)

This week’s class is led by a woman who is serving a 90 year sentence. She won’t see her first parole hearing until 2031. She is 52. Her homework for us this month was to think about “Why are you thankful?” Not: what are you thankful for but why. She wrote a long speech. This is how it began: To be thankful is power. (November)

Okay, so you’ve got to get this: The warden gives us permission to bring in Pizza Hut pizzas and chocolate chip cookies for an end of the year celebration. We forego the usual opening meditation and dig into the mini celebration of having food from the free world behind the fence.The women are talking about their Christmas, secret Santas, presents of gumbo packets made from commissary food (Yeah, that’s a post for another time) and what the women want to do in the next year of classes. It was so normal, you know? Just a bunch of women sitting around talking. I ask who would like to be the leader of the January class and the hand of one of the shyer women shot up. We were all a little surprised but it seemed like a little gift, right? We’re all smiling. So I ask her, “What’s our homework for the month?” Without hesitation (like she’s been waiting all month), she says, ‘If you could write a letter to your younger self, what would you say?” Without missing a beat, another woman says, “Don’t pull the damn trigger.” We all fall on the floor, laughing. (December)

And what did I learn from this year of leading Pay It Forward? That Paying it Forward is about service. And real service is about showing up no matter what. At some point during the year, I realized that my vision for Pay It Forward is that I never want to see these women’s faces again. Strange, yes? My vision for this class is to never see their faces behind the fence again.

Writing In Mosaic: Evolution and Creation

This summer I stood before Jack Whitten’s beautiful mosaic “paintings,” and thought, “This is how I write. Bit by bit, scene by scene until they form a beautiful whole.” A few weeks later, I led a six-week class using the mosaic method to test the premise.

Join me on Saturday, January 25 in the home of Kerry Tate, where I am offering a six-hour workshop from 10 am to 4 pm.

Jack Whitten said, “Evolution is the symbol I am trying to capture. That’s why each work is so different, it is still in the act of evolving.” That idea is the inspirational force behind this workshop. Writing is an evolutionary process.

Each writer will send me their big topic/idea by January 18. I will create a series of 20-24 individualized prompts for each writer’s big subject. (I may interview you so my prompts can be more targeted and fruitful.) On January 25th we will gather and write, write, write. Each writer will have their own personalized set of prompts. Each prompt will be timed. By the day’s end, you will have created twenty to twenty four pieces of your big subject. Each will, I hope, catch the different light and weight of the piece you are creating whether you are writing fiction, memoir, poetry or non-fiction.

Cost is $125. Lunch, snacks and drinks will be provided. Please bring your own writing tools. The class size is limited. If you have any questions, please email or message!

To learn more about Jack Whitten check out this video: https://art21.org/watch/extended-play/jack-whitten-an-artists-life-short/