“You saved my life.” I had never heard those words said to me before. They were spoken simply and profoundly at the same time, heavy and light, complete and so wildly inadequate.

Ten days ago, another man told me “I’m going to be shipped out this week. And …oh, I’m going to make this quick, else, I’m going to cry… Thank you. Thank you for everything. You changed my life.” With that, he wiped a tear away from behind his sunglasses and turned around to leave, unable to stand without bursting in the surfacing emotions.

Yet another, who left Donovan two weeks ago, said “I never knew I could be the person I am today. Thank you for giving me a chance to discover this brilliance in me.”

Departures are tough in prison. Yes, yes, we celebrate the fact that these men are being sent to lower-security prisons where life will be more easeful and aligned with their peaceful lifestyles. And yet, departures are also difficult and made more difficult by the fact that, when people ship out, we – volunteers – can no longer be in contact with them. It’s “until we meet again.” We cannot know what happens in their child custody hearing or the clemency request or simply their new life in a lower-security prison.

So, in these simple words, so little is said and so much is expressed. We’ve shared live-changing moments, have witnessed each other’s growth, been there to nudge and counsel each other along this journey of life. And no words can adequately capture the gifts, insights, beauty, growth, gratitude and transformation. So it’s kept simple: thank you. Knowing that everything is contained in this expression of gratitude. Simple and profound. Heavy and light. Complete and so wildly inadequate.

Thank you gentlemen for the myriad ways you’ve changed my life.

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

“Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.”  At this two-year anniversary of my cousin’s murder, I attest to this truth. As I wrote last year, I was “magically” relieved of the pain felt from his murder by spending the day with – oh! the irony – about 30 people who themselves had murdered someone. Huh???

Pain is inevitable. Every day, we get hurt. From the person cutting us off on the highway, from falling while hiking, from a family member making a rash judgment, from being misrepresented by a colleague… Most of us have also been subject to incomprehensible actions by others and deep traumas: abuse, murder, rape, shaming, fraud, stealing of life savings, etc. The pain from each of these is real.

With Kari’s murder, I experienced how optional suffering truly can be. As I entered that prison chapel with the 30 men, I was hurt, confused, in disbelief, wondering how this could ever happen. I was in the first stage of grief; they call it “shock.”

After I shared, four – yes, FOUR! – men told me a version of “I created the pain you feel right now for another’s family. I am sorry for your pain. I am sorry for the pain of that family.” They expressed understanding of the murder, sadness for my loss and remorse for their own actions that had created the same pain for another family. One man even shared the details of the murder he committed, including his thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, while I knew nothing more about the details of Kari’s murder, I no longer felt the weight of confusion. Understanding these men’s experiences helped me understand the fears, disconnection, mistaken beliefs, pressure and choices that the people who killed my cousin may have experienced.

Within a couple days, I caught myself holding love and compassion for the people who killed my cousin. This was illogical and unexpected. And yet, it came naturally. I had skipped over disbelief, anger and most other stages of grief to land into “acceptance.” I understood that, to commit these actions, this person/these people must have hurt terribly inside, feeling they had no other choice (despite the fact they clearly did!).

I myself also had a choice: (1) stay locked inside grief and anger, believing this keeps my cousin’s memory alive or (2) celebrate my cousin by releasing the pain, remembering the contributions he’s made to this world and, in the process, relieving myself from the suffering so that I may live more peacefully and joyously.

I chose the second path. Today, I feel peace. I feel gratitude. I feel joy. Yes, even when I think of my cousin. Because I celebrate his life. And I’m grateful for the relationships, gifts and lessons I’ve received from him in his death. I have grown and it’s thanks to him.

Humility as path to big dreams

John Schimmel.jpg
Photo by KBPS’s Megan Burks

After 18 years of incarceration, John Schimmel – a 2017 TEDx speaker – is out of prison! John came out of prison with big ambitions and goals: get his Masters, become a counselor and empower at-risk youth through motivational speaking. And he has good reasons to believe in these big dreams. John dedicated himself to his education and transformation and received four (yes, 4!!) Associate Degrees while in prison. He’s a TEDx speaker and was even featured, since his release, on KPBS describing his ambitions and determination.

John is a man with many reasons to aim high and not “settle” for anything below his ambitions, just like many of us are taught. And yet, he’s currently holding down two jobs: one washing cars at a rental car facility and the other picking up trash on the highway. Not quite the work we’d expect when working to become a counselor.

And this is where John moved me with his humility. When we spoke about his next steps, John told me: “These jobs are temporary.” He added, “while I prepare my path to my Masters, these jobs are an opportunity for me to reengage with the outside world and to validate to myself that I am committed, dependable and trustworthy in this new environment.” John realizes that, at this stage, it’s not about the content of the jobs; it’s about the lessons they provide: forming the habit of holding a job, accountability, financial sustainability, and (re)learning the in’s and out’s of life outside the barbed wire.

What a brilliant lesson to each of us who so often believe certain responsibilities and jobs are below us. John trusts that each step, no matter how small it may seem, offers him the lessons that take him closer to his big dreams. He recognizes that while he proved himself in prison, the “real world” is quite different and he has to test and relearn many of the lessons he had acquired. I look forward to seeing how he continues to grow as he – and we as society – have a lot to gain from his passion for education and mentoring at-risk youth.

We become what we believe

We were in our usual closing circle at the end of a weekly meeting with the men of Donovan State Prison. This is an end-of-day time of reflection on key moments, insights and learnings to anchor them before we step back onto the prison yard or into our cars. One man in blue says “I’m going home soon.” And we all look at him confused.

First, let me say that everyone in prison dreams of one thing: going home. Seeing the streets one day. Many people are lifers with no date to go home. They work hard and diligently to transform themselves hoping that, one day, the Parole Board will find them suitable. If they have or get a date, oh, everyone knows because it’s massive cause for celebration. Second, prison is not a space of sudden changes. We are usually well aware of upcoming bills that may change the men’s ability to go home. They know their date to go to the Parole Board well ahead of schedule. Even for clemency, they work towards it for months and years.

So, what had happened that enabled this amazing news of “going home soon”? The man clarifies, “Oh no, no, no.  Nothing has changed in my sentence or term. I simply have decided that I’m going home soon.”

Woohoo!!! Now, this is cause for celebration!!! It’s a well-documented fact that we become what we believe. Until now, this man believed, reaffirmed by his life sentence, that he had no prospect of ever leaving prison. Suddenly, he realized – and currently he has a few startling examples around him – that the first step to stepping outside the prison gates is to embrace this possibility, even when all “facts” point to the contrary.

One of the startling examples is a man who was told, at 17 years old, that he was going to die in prison as he was handed a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. A series of events over eight months not only gave him the chance to head to the Parole Board but he was found suitable for release!!! On his first time in front of the Board, which is a feat! While the circumstances enabling him to see the streets have taken place over the past eight months, this man has been committed to his transformation for the past 15 years, becoming a positive role model for all around him. He understands the power of belief and trust.

This works for you too! You become what you believe. So believe you will achieve your small and large goals and watch them materialize. Truly believe them. If you believe them for 3 minutes a day but spend the rest of the day thinking how stupid and unachievable they are, guess what’s going to happen.

Believe in your goals. Believe in yourself. Believe it’s possible. Allow a group of men with very little reason to believe in their goals and themselves to be your inspiration.

You wanna wug?

A wug! Today, our TEDx team coined the term that describes what we do in prison to show connection, appreciation and love. What’s wug you ask? A word-hug!!

Explanation: Hugs are not allowed in prison. It’s not always the easiest thing to accept when we connect deeply and humanly with one another. And yet, this rule has its reasons for existing.

So, most of the time, we “hug” by hugging ourselves. We “hug” by placing our hands on our hearts. We “hug” by saying things like “consider yourself hugged.” And we talk about the day we will give each other hugs, which translates to the day the Donovan men walk the streets again.

But no actual hugs, with arms and heart-to-heart contact, as long as the men are dressed in blue. Over the past year, the TEDx team has developed a hug replacement, and today it was coined… a wug.

To receive a wug, a person stands inside our circle to be acknowledged by everyone else with a single descriptive word. The person is wrapped in an energetic hug of appreciative and loving words that shine the person’s inner brilliance. Its power is tremendous as each person is authentically seen and honored. And it’s often quite overwhelming to receive the truth that is reflected to us.

As long as we cannot hug, we embrace the power of a wug!


(Drawing by friend Leah Pearlman from Dharma Comics)