From Prep School to Prison

Much gratitude to the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors for the school’s 2013 Community Service Award.  Below is my speech to the Hotchkiss community on April 12, 2013.

To the Hotchkiss School Alumni Association’s Board of Governors and to the Hotchkiss community, I offer my most heartfelt thanks for this 2013 Community Service Award. I accept it on behalf of the more than 1,000 men who’ve participated in the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State prison and whose lives continue to be transformed through connection to nature.

I also extend my love and gratitude to my family and friends, and the faculty who are here today – and some who taught me many years ago — and who have, in many ways, been part of my journey.  And to all of the current students who are planting the seeds of future care, community service, and building a better world.

I’d like to start off with quote I first discovered when reading “The Little Prince” – in my prep year French Class, taught by our dear Bob Hawkins – “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

So I’d like to briefly share the story of how I got from Hotchkiss to San Quentin State Prison.

For some context, I grew up in these bucolic hills of Lakeville, CT…playing in the streams, wandering the woods, and sailing on the lake. Nature was then, and still is now, my refuge.

When I entered Hotchkiss in the early 70’s, the school had just welcomed girls for the first time only the year before. These were years of great transition. In my first year, there were only four girls in my prep class. We were, upon reflection, pioneers and faced some interesting challenges in those early years of co-education.

Those were also times of great national and international upheaval. We had Watergate and an oil crisis. As the  “outside” world swirled around us – in this bubble – we remained somewhat protected and only remotely aware of the massive shifts underway. Back then, we didn’t have email, computers or cell phones to connect us — only television, radio, and each other.

And as part of that larger “Shift,” I shifted too, thanks to an evening in the Walker Auditorium with then consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He spoke passionately about the auto industry in the context of consumer rights and large corporate interests — at the expense of our environment and people. At that point, I didn’t even know what fossil fuels really were, where they came from, or why I should care. But he stood up for the rest of us, demanding large systems change, and predicted back then what is now our current state of environmental degradation, the gaps between the rich and the poor, and important issues of social justice.

For me, he planted a seed. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I “grew up” after graduating from Hotchkiss and even college, I did feel a restlessness to make a difference. What I did know intuitively was that I wanted to integrate my love of the natural world with my work.

So over the years, as an activist, I began to find my place in the world. I dabbled in politics, and ran social marketing for federal programs in Washington DC. In some of those arenas, my head and heart weren’t always aligned. For me, it was uncomfortable to be doing someone else’s bidding…corporate public relations is where I ended up working after I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1990s.

So in 2001 when jets flew in into the World Trade center, I finally woke up.

From then on, I knew I had live a life more aligned with my heart. To do that, I would have to reestablish my faith in human capacity for transformation and goodness.

Through a serious of synchronistic events, the year following 9/11 actually led me straight into prison. I wanted to practice “being present” with what I thought then would be a difficult population – prisoners. When I was asked to start a gardening program there, despite all odds, we did.

In those beginning months, the staff was steadfastly against any gardens on a prison yard. Why would they care? Coming from a fear-based frame, they assumed prisoners would plant weapons instead of flowers. But at the helm of San Quentin in 2002 was a woman, Warden Jeannie Woodford.  She had faith too, that working in a garden would be therapeutic at most, and at least keep men busy. With her leadership, she championed our effort for a garden on a prison yard in an institution highly resistant to change.

So after a year of planning and some false starts, on winter Solstice of 2003, we planted a gorgeous flower and herb garden there…an experiential lab for men to learn landscaping skills and to tend to their “inner gardens.”  The men worked quietly in their new garden on winter solstice, installing what for them might become a path to salvation.

Over the years, our garden has become a place that represents connectedness and of interrelation and wonder. It is a place prisoners name the bugs, pet the bees and tend to themselves and each other. They literally stop to smell the roses. They learn about landscaping and gardening, food, farming and urban agriculture, human/eco connections, and green jobs. And it’s the only place on the prison yard where the races mix without fear of retribution. With all of this, seeds of compassion, forgiveness, and care are nurtured both in the garden, and in our classroom circles.

For the men, their “shift” happens somewhere between understanding that they alone are responsible for their behavior and feelings and for how they show up in the world. When they stop blaming others for that which binds them they gain a greater level of consciousness and the healing can begin.  We are about restoration, not punishment.

Although these men come from backgrounds we can’t even begin to imagine – they have a second chance — sometimes a third of forth. Whatever it takes. We are willing to hang in there with them, because we realize that growth and change is a lifelong possibility and process.  When those in our program leave prison, most of them don’t come back.  They become productive members of society – and have a new commitment to caring for each other and our world.

So along with our garden (where nature teaches us everything we need to know), these men are my teachers. When they can touch their own humanity, they open up to the possibility of transformation. They offer me hope, time and time again, in the human capacity for change and for good in the world.

So being here, today, in front of all of you feels like coming full circle 30+ years after my Hotchkiss experience. I am so touched to see the evolution an institution which has evolved in into a community, deeply committed to service, environmental care – and, of course, a lot more women. You are all a great reason for hope. You CAN follow your heart, dare to be different, take your leaps of faith, and let your passion for the things you care about guide your life. We have to be the change we want to see in the world – and we have to do it together.

I’d like to close with a quote from Steve Jobs…who while struggling with cancer, offered these words of great wisdom to Standford University students:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

Again, thank you so much, on behalf of all of us at the Insight Garden Program.

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What does it mean to be free?

(Reposted from January 2012)

In last week’s prison garden class, our provocative question for the day was:  “What does it mean to be free?”  Aside from the obvious – that most people in prison want to get out – some interesting answers emerged, including:  “uncluttered (mind), choices, peace, protecting our country, willingness to help others no matter what, and my heart is right when I lay down at night.

The Insight Prison Project has a great tagline, “Leaving prison before you get out.” In other words, with some hard work, reflection, meditation, and a slew of personal development tools, we can find a space within ourselves that is abundant and light. Finding our true selves, where we are most authentic. When we can find ways to free ourselves from our stories, and gently explore triggers and traumas, our light can emerge from a place deep inside.

Our garden program is designed to help set people free from within – by connecting them to the natural world. Since nature doesn’t care about our egos, people “get real” in the garden amazingly fast. And in our class, there’s really no hiding. The people who aren’t ready for the deeper work usually weed themselves out, so to speak.

Men in the garden tune in instead of check out, become interested the simple joy of smelling a rose or mentoring new gardeners. Where traditionally prisoners self-segregate on a prison yard, all races comfortably work together in our garden without fear of retribution. And what we’ve found is that reconnecting with nature results in connecting with self, community, and care for the natural world.

Having worked with almost 1,000 prisoners over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the guys’ internal seeds sprout through the process of gardening and community care. For instance, when Big Al started our class a few years ago, he said he was “numb.” A year later, he delightedly announced “I’m happy today” (and he really meant it). The shift not only comes in words, but in actions. It is a discovery of the heart, and that feeling our feelings is actually OK since it’s usually our thinking that gets in the way. So when we can cultivate the goodness within and heal through feeling, hearts are freed.

The Buddha said something akin to “finding freedom is ability to release that which binds us.”  Whether it’s prison walls, the shackles of injustice, or just too much thinking, freedom starts from within. I imagine Dr. King would agree.

 

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Home (is where the heart is)

Where is home? I often reflect on this when traveling to visit family back East, reveling in the beauty of my East Bay “home,” driving through Gerlach on my way to Burning Man, or posing this question to men in prison — who are living there.

I have chastised myself for “accidentally” referring to my East coast places as “home” since I’ve lived in California for 15 years. But I’ve lived in many “places,” and had many “homes” — from New York City, to Connecticut, then Massachusetts and D.C.

While living in DC, I traveled to San Francisco for business, and fell in love with the place. My first Bay Area “tourist” visit was a trip to Muir Woods. I stood solidly on the ground, in awe of majestic, aged trees. California is expansive and inspiring…the ocean, the trees, the mountains, and the desert. Returning to DC felt like a shriveling of the spirit. It was then I realized my spirit needed a lot of space.

Seven years after that first visit, with a one-way ticket in hand, I took my leap of faith, and moved to California – to be in a place that spiritually moved me. It was part thrill of adventure, and a feeling of “starting over” (although wherever I go, there I am!)

Yet even being where I wanted to be, I didn’t find my “place” right away. Though I love San Francisco, Mark Twain was right about the summers. My next move was to Marin County, which was too homogenous. So eight years ago I moved to the Berkeley/Oakland border after discovering the charming neighborhoods of Elmwood and Rockridge. It has just-the right-kind of urban feel, populated by folks in all sizes and colors – with redwood forests just 10 minutes away. This is the “place” I call now call home.

But is it really?

Last winter, I spent Christmas back East. On my fly-by trip, the first stop was New York City, to visit my sister and her family — as well as good friends.  Because it’s my birthplace – and Christmastime in the city is especially magical–it was almost overwhelming to be with this new generation, who now walk in my childhood footsteps. As I traveled from New York, to Connecticut, and then New Jersey and Massachusetts to visit the rest of my family, I marveled at the passage of time, and my family’s expansion and contraction.

In July, I returned to the bucolic northwest corner of Connecticut for my step-dad’s celebration of life party, and then to Plymouth, Massachusetts where I’d spent my childhood summers on the beach.  Now I play with my nieces and nephew, making drip castles and teaching my niece to “surf” the tiny waves there.  I realized how much I still love these “places” that helped shape who I am today. Time goes on. And indeed, these places are still homesteads.

Then the week before Labor Day, I made my second pilgrimage to Burning Man. On my first visit as a “virgin” last summer, a half-naked woman greeted me at the gate, welcoming me “home.”  Hmmm!  I’d heard this was a Burning Man mantra, but how could this place possibly be home? Yet it is, indeed, a magical place – where one practices “radical self-reliance” balanced with community care. What is most evident is its spaciousness, and the impact that has on my spirit. Though the elements are harsh, the beauty of the Black Rock desert is overwhelming. It lifts me out of myself, and provides perspective.

And finally, for the past 10 years, I have entered the gates of San Quentin prison almost every week, to run my rehabilitative gardening program there. Although it is thankfully not my “home,” it is to the men with whom I work. It is there where we collectively explore our “inner gardeners” to reconnect to self, community and nature.

Although the men would rather be “home” on the outside (which doesn’t exist for some of them at all), the only home they have in prison is on the “inside” – themselves (and the garden). Reconnecting to their heart through connection to nature allows them to rediscover their humanity, and is an important element of releasing “that which binds them.”

So as much as “home” can be a “place” in our past or present, on a deeper level, its about connection – to ourselves, and those we love, and to those places that lift our spirits and allow us to soar. Home is where the heart is, and over the years, I’ve discovered it can be many places, all at once.

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A Tribute to the Doctor in (My) House — In Memory of Peter Gott, 6/8/35-6/13/12

Image

Over the years, I’ve found that honoring gifts is a way to heal the grief that accompanies death – and sometimes it takes the death of a loved one to understand their full influence on my life.

So in that tradition, I want to honor a few of the gifts that Peter Gott – my step-dad — bestowed on me during my formative years. And now, I realize, throughout my life.

When I was around six, Peter showed up on the scene and several years later married my Mom. To be with him, we moved from New York City to a cozy, bucolic New England town in northwest corner of Connecticut. Until I left for college, he was a constant presence, almost greater than life. One who was there through the thick and thin – through some major life milestones as well as some heart wrenching tragedies.

Many have known him as “The Doctor in the House,” the author of a multitude of books…or a family doctor who actually made house calls any hour of the day or night.

But I literally had him as the doctor in MY house who could cure an ear infection in a flash or offer a hankie when I was in meltdown mode. Whose fingers could flit over piano keys and envelop a room with dreamy Broadway tunes. He regularly channeled the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson.

He played a mean game of tennis, and was relentless in teaching me to drive. He was a negotiator, a doctor, a writer, an auto aficionado, a friend, a Dad, and a really lousy cook (at least in the early years). He was also complex, and very human…and as it turns out, ultimately mortal. Who knew?

Growing up, he’d built a house in the woods in the early 70s in the rolling hills of Lakeville…and the endless acres of wilderness became my refuge. I spent hours and hours playing there, searching for bobcats (the cave!), pitching a tent outside the house, playing in streams, wandering aimlessly and never getting lost.

But my most memorable outdoor adventures were with Peter and my family – blazing trails, cross-country skiing up the back of Mt. Riga, ice-skating on our pond, building igloos from snow drifts, and hiking near the reservoir. In the wintertime, I lived in the Land of Narnia…this beautiful wilderness we called home. From these cherished moments evolved my deepest reverence for the natural world — a place to escape, a place where I’m never alone.

Today, as I quietly hiked through the redwoods in the Oakland Hills of Northern California, I was again inspired by the views as the songbirds mourned with me. I reflected on my family, our friends, and on the loss of Peter. The gentle breeze touched breathtaking trees, reminding me of the early years in “our woods.”

I never realized what an enormous impact Peter had on me – and who I am – until now. As with any parent, we ARE part of them, and although we weren’t related by blood, he deeply influenced my life and my love of nature.

I moved West to be close to spectacular views, the outdoors, balanced with the grit of urban life. I now share that love of nature with others as an environmental educator, as he was in his own way.

Thank you, Peter, for helping me become the person I am today.

A poem in his memory, by Mary Wood:

My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me.
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one give me company.
So I must stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.

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Tribute to MLK: Finding Freedom

In last week’s prison garden class, our provocative question for the day was:  “What does it mean to be free?”  Aside from the obvious – that most people in prison want to get out – some interesting answers emerged, including:  “uncluttered (mind), choices, peace, protecting our country, willingness to help others no matter what, and my heart is right when I lay down at night.

The Insight Prison Project has a great tagline, “Leaving prison before you get out.” In other words, with some hard work, reflection, meditation, and a slew of personal development tools, we can find a space within ourselves that is abundant and light. Finding our true selves, where we are most authentic. When we can find ways to free ourselves from our stories, and gently explore triggers and traumas, our light can emerge from a place deep inside.

Our garden program is designed to help set people free from within – by connecting them to the natural world. Since nature doesn’t care about our egos, people “get real” in the garden amazingly fast. And in our class, there’s really no hiding. The people who aren’t ready for the deeper work usually weed themselves out, so to speak.

Men in the garden tune in instead of check out, become interested the simple joy of smelling a rose or mentoring new gardeners. Where traditionally prisoners self-segregate on a prison yard, all races comfortably work together in our garden without fear of retribution. And what we’ve found is that reconnecting with nature results in connecting with self, community, and care for the natural world.

Having worked with almost 1,000 prisoners over the past 10 years, I’ve seen many of the guys’ internal seeds sprout through the process of gardening and community care. For instance, when Big Al started our class a few years ago, he said he was “numb.” A year later, he delightedly announced “I’m happy today” (and he really meant it). The shift not only comes in words, but in actions. It is a discovery of the heart, and that feeling our feelings is actually OK since it’s usually our thinking that gets in the way. So when we can cultivate the goodness within and heal through feeling, hearts are freed.

The Buddha said something akin to “finding freedom is ability to release that which binds us.”  Whether it’s prison walls, the shackles of injustice, or just too much thinking, freedom starts from within. I imagine Dr. King would agree.

 

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Occupy Yourself!

My definition of “authenticity” = becoming more conscious about how we show up in the world, and what uncomfortable changes we are willing to make within to find a better way to be with each other. In other words, aligning values with actions. Standing up for your beliefs. Getting “real.”

In general, our society caters to the comfortable world of social norms and status quos – many prefer not to think too hard or have meaningful dialogue. We can allow the system to run us and blame others for our problems. This thinking allows people to apathetically remain unconscious — until the bottom falls out from beneath. Then what?

Then Occupy.

The way I see it, the bottom is falling out (finally), and people are taking unconventional action – which is why the Occupy Movement continues to intrigue and inspire me. It’s grassroots, messy, ambiguous and loud. It’s also creative, community-based, and – Hallelujah — freaks people out, disgusts others, and creates some level of mass discomfort, including police brutality and the bombastic denial of the 1%. But things just can’t remain the same. Is it the breakdown before the breakthrough — or possibly the breakthrough itself?

And because people are taking action in bold and creative new ways, the status quo is predictably reacting, resisting change, and attempting to suppress free speech…riot police with pepper spray and tear gas…and lots of money changing hands in attempts to stifle the mic checks and tent dwellers.

Occupy has exposed the beast’s underbelly of corporate and financial greed and associated political bedfellows. But at its deepest levels, Occupy also challenges us to personally reflect on what changes we each must make to be engaged, empowered citizens, and what we can do to individually and collectively to make a difference.

Case in point: I recently trekked down Telegraph Avenue to UC Berkeley for a Robert Reich speech about Class Warfare in America. Same day as the General Strike at UCB, and the evening of the Mario Savio Youth Activist Awards. To my great surprise, I discovered a diverse mass of 10,000+ people – from professionals to professors, to students and concerned citizens — at Sproul Plaza — the center of the free speech movement in the 1960’s. People were literally hanging from the rafters.

I had unknowingly entered a massive Occupy Cal General Assembly. And I was completely overwhelmed with that jittery feeling of suddenly being thrust into history-making.

So I nestled into one of the many circle discussions, and engaged. A vote was being taken to raise tents that had been destroyed by the Cal Police a few days earlier. It was a democratic and organized process…and the dialogue was interested and thoughtful. To my right was a German UCB exchange student who couldn’t believe he was witnessing an American uprising; to the left a grassroots organizer who had been present in this same plaza 40+ years earlier. Lots of upsparkles and some differing, yet respectful opinions…all tempered with an urgency for action and civic transformation.

Votes taken, circle by circle. Soon thereafter, a dozen insta-tents popped back up amidst this sea of cheering humanity. And we flashed peace signs at the riot police on balconies above us. My inner mantra: “Love thy neighbors, even if they are armed with pepper spray.” 

The evening was filled with fiery hope. When Bob Reich’s speech brought down the house, my heart wept proudly. “The days of apathy are over, folks.”

Yet ultimately, to be sustainable, this movement requires us to reflect on how we integrate our words with action. We can complain and shout and demand change from the ground up, but will we move our money out of the large institutions that almost tanked the economy? Will we flex our consumer muscle and stop shopping at big box stores? Or continue to fill the pockets of the 1% (including working for them) without considering the consequences?

Maybe we invest in our local communities. Move our money. Buy locally grown food. Reconsider our client base or job position. Publicly question authority. Instead of blindly following our leaders, we forge leadership qualities within ourselves and our communities. If we do this inner work, the outer walls will come tumbling down.

Of course, we will always have blind spots, but the point is to reflect and connect – internally and with each other — and truly begin to embody the change we want to see in our institutions, society, and the world.

With a lack of authenticity so prevalent in our corporate and political institutions, let’s courageously align our values with actions – from the inside out.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—mak­es you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

~ Mario Savio, Sproul Hall Steps, UC Berkeley,1964

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Real America (again)

I’m reposting this after almost a year.  Seems appropriate, considering the (very sad) state of politics these days. During campaigns, I’m always reminded of Sarah Palin’s “Real America” mantra so prevalent during the last presidential campaign. Somehow she positioned folks from the heartland as having one up on the rest of us, to which I’ve always had something of a visceral reaction (hey, I’m Real too!)

To me, that people from Middle America are what constitute “real” is a bit off base. At first, I used to wonder how could they experience REAL when their demographics make up a fairly homogenous group of people who may not have been to an inner city, or a diverse environment laden with all the folks they claim to hate. It’s easy to hate that with which you’re not familiar.

I checked online: the Mirriam Webster dictionary’s definition of “real” is: a : not artificial, fraudulent, or illusory : genuine <real gold>; also : being precisely what the name implies <a real professional

What is scary or unknown can be considered unreal – how can we have connection to something if we don’t have any concept of it?  What if it’s not like us?  It gets labeled as a threat (to fear), or worse, becomes totally ignored.  I often wonder how humans have become so woefully wonderful at de-humanizing each other.  Easier to deal with I suppose, to make what’s not like us become the enemy. Then we don’t have to deal with it on a deeply emotional or practical level, and can just throw it away (but where is away?)

This objectification of “bad” allows us to not take responsibility for our own behavior.  It gives us permission to ignore our own contribution to the negativity and to create an ongoing cycle of intolerance, overreaction, and retribution.

So Sarah Palin’s version of Americans may be PART of “Real” America, which I believe is much broader and more diverse in scope.  To me, Real America is inclusive of those who seem “different” – all those gays, lesbians, and transgenders, our Black (+ White) President, Arab-Americans and Muslims, different colors, races, religions, behaviors, the poor, the rich, and our shrinking middle class.  It is made up of people who have different opinions, look different, live in different parts of the country.  It is our “melting” pot of history and the tradition of so many cultures that used to be what made this country so unique.

In fact, maybe “Real” America is the inner city, the outer city, the suburbs, our rural communities and everything in between.  “Real” includes our prisoners (who we like to throw away behind bars) but most of whom will come back to our streets.  It is our police officers, and fire fighters, and politicians, and all of our citizens.  It is the collective.  One type of person or place does not make for real  – all of us do.

Instead of the labels, I wonder what might happen if we replaced suspicion with curiosity, and our hoarding mentality with generosity towards others?  What if we embraced our differences rather than belittled them?

What if we found our compassion, humanity and power again in the strength of community and citizenship rather than “us” against “them”?  What if we stop depending on our leaders to lead us, and led ourselves through an acceptance and celebration of diversity and action?

What if we didn’t try to change others’ beliefs, but focused on cultivating our experiences to be more worldly through open examination and allowed people’s experiences to inform their beliefs rather than have others dictate their advice to us?

What if we accepted that constant change is the nature of things?

What if let our acts of kindness and care define us rather than our stuff?

All of our America is rich and full of diversity.  That is what makes it “real,” at least for me. And I continue to want to find ways to pull us together, not apart.

Addendum:  It’s possible that “Real America” is what exists inside the “Trash Fence” at Black Rock City. But I’ll save that topic for another post… ;-)

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