This time last year we were huddled around in our dining room, just beginning to catch our breath from the shock of a global pandemic and settling in to washing our hands 14 times a day, social distancing, and treating our dear friends who went out to the grocery store or post office like contaminated objects until they bathed and changed clothes.
We looked around and collectively arrived at the realization, “We may be here for a while.”
It’d been a dream to begin doing work inside of prisons. All of us had some background in soul work, in the art and craft of going inside and making friends with what we find. We’d offered this work to thousands of people, we were deeply fulfilled in this work and we all shared a calling in the back of our hearts to do this for those in prison — both the residents, and the custody. We knew we could make a difference. The collective pause in the world slowed down our emails and texts and flight schedules to create just enough space for this dream to come to the surface as our next right thing to do.
We got to work. We started with masks. One team huddled on one side of the dining room calling, emailing and instagram-chatting clothing manufacturers around the world asking for donations of masks; while the other team, on the other side of the dining room, called state prisons to find out which ones would accept our donations.
In three weeks we accumulated around 6,000 donated masks from some of the biggest fashion brands in the country (thank you), which were then redistributed to 4 state prisons in California, Texas, and New York. Mostly women’s.
There was no turning back.
Two months later we’d written up a proposal to begin teaching in prison, and submitted it to one of the recipients of our masks, Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla. It’s the largest women’s prison in the United States. We were told this was a two year process, so figured we could get our application started. We were up until around 10pm making finishing touches on the night we submitted the application, before finally pressing send. Courtney, the Inmates Resource Manager at Chowchilla, replied at 8:30am the next day. She said this is exactly the kind of program she’s been looking for. Yes.
We did not expect this. Then, the last line of her email. She couldn’t have volunteers in the prison until COVID protocols were relaxed, could we turn our course into a correspondence course?
Like I said, there was no turning back. We got to work with our visionary laying out the book and with an editor doing the final stitching together.
It was late November, and the sun wasn’t yet out the morning we left for Chowchilla. It’d been two months since Courtney’s acceptance e-mail, and we now had in hand our freshly printed (and freshly written) 70-page correspondence course, “The Art of Soulmaking.” Jade Yoga donated 30 of their high-end yoga mats (they would later go on to donate 50 more), to accompany each book.
We started with a workbook on soulmaking, a yoga mat for morning practice, a set of DVDs by an incredible group of instructors from around the country on topics ranging from meditation to contemplative theater to the Drama Triangle, and an incredible group of 30 volunteers ready to begin pen-pal relationships with the first 30 incarcerated students as they made their journey through the book. The monastery had begun.