Letter to My Children

by Kate Feigin

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

My dearest Linnea and sweet William. We named you both after flowers. Sweet William is a favorite among the honeybees, and I sow these seeds every year in our garden. The Linnea Borealis flower is a delicate Alpine flower with a bell-like shape. Its delicate structure and hardy ability to withstand harsh Alpine climates reminds me of your softness and strength. You spent your toddler years looking like flower fairies in the meadow, toddling around while your father and I tended the bees. Your childhoods have been idyllic so far. The soundtrack was birdsong and coyote howls. You have never heard the sounds of bombing or gunfire. The largest threat you experienced was a brown bear interrupting your mud pie making to get at the blackberries growing nearby one August afternoon. You grew up feeling safe and loved. You grew up knowing that Mama will always bake bread and milk the cow and plant flowers, and Dad will always tend the bees and make huge compost piles and grow vegetables.

You also grew up with the understanding that not all children live this way. That children are subjected to war and abuse and addiction and neglect. That children are collateral damage in the face of colonial violence all over the world now and throughout history. You grew up understanding that people who grew up in violence and addiction and neglect sometimes end up in systems that do not nurture them in the ways they have always needed. Systems like foster care or jail. You have an innate sense that this is wrong. That what is needed is the nurturing and tenderness that never was.

All parents have a strong urge to make life better for their children than it was for them. Even if they have no power to do so, even if they are locked up in jail or otherwise separated from their children through addiction or life circumstances. All of us want to make the world better and safer for our children. Your dad’s way of doing this is by building the soil and working the bees. He knows that these are things he can do to combat climate change and contribute to a healthier planet. For you. Climate change, racial injustice, food insecurity, colonial projects, mass incarceration, industrialization of food production and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) all stem from the same thing in our minds. We have lost our humanity. We have lost our ability to remain in connection with sacred land, with community and with spirit.

I decided long before you were born that I wanted to be a part of the return to that connection. When I first stepped inside a correctional facility, I was 23 years old. I was working as an addictions counselor for incarcerated adolescents in juvenile hall. The first thing I noticed was how bright it was. The tables were made of stainless steel, and they were bolted to the floor. The harsh fluorescent lighting bounced from the tables to the shiny walls to the shiny concrete floors. The second thing I noticed was how loud it was. Angry voices bounced off of those same hard surfaces. I remember thinking about how it would feel to live in this environment as a young person, a child who had no family with them; coming to this place after a massive rupture in their life. I felt grief. I also felt determined to find a way to be a beacon of warmth while I was there, a one-woman sensory break from the harshness. I facilitated groups and individual sessions for youth struggling with addiction for fifteen years at juvenile hall. In that time, I learned a lot about the carceral world, about imprisonment, about struggles, about hope. I learned a lot about humans and their needs. I learned what happens when fundamental comforts are stripped away.

I felt angry during this time, about how unfair it all was. I was always taught that anger was a sin, so I tried not to be angry. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that anger is an important part of life. In her essay, “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” venerable author and activist Audre Lorde talks about how anger is a constructive force to addressing racism and oppression (Lorde, 1997). Lorde argues that anger, when channeled effectively, can serve as a catalyst for change and empowerment, challenging the notion that anger is inherently negative or unproductive. She emphasizes the importance of acknowledging and harnessing anger as a legitimate response to injustice, rather than suppressing or dismissing it. Lorde also highlights the intersections of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, underscoring the unique experiences and perspectives of Black women. When thinking about this essay in the context of prison, I love the way that Lorde offers a different perspective. Anger is seen as scary and threatening in prison, but it can, in fact, be transformative. I might even go so far as to suggest that anger is an important part of the internal “composting” we all must do. In order for discarded food to be transformed into rich soil, it must undergo the process of composting. It must get gooey, messy, and extremely hot in a magical, alchemical process. It isn’t pretty. And it doesn’t smell very good. But the result is a gorgeous, cake-like soil that can be used to nourish new life. We are the same. If we avoid the hot, messy gooey bits, we miss out on the cake. Anger is sometimes the heat that is part of the breaking down process, then comes grief and sadness, and we come through the other side. We need not be afraid of the anger.

Five years ago, I began working at the adult correctional facility in our town. At first through the local community college, bringing in higher ed programming, and then working as the Inmate Services Coordinator. Later a position was created for me: Restorative Justice Program Manager. I had done a lot of growing up in the years since I started at juvenile hall. I got my Masters Degree in Social Work, I gave birth to both of you, and I became a nurturer of you and of myself. You began attending a Waldorf school, which emphasizes addressing the needs of children in a holistic way. Considering their head, heart, and hands. Helping them develop a connection to the world, find meaning and beauty, noticing the curve of the tree, the whispering leaves, a small snail traversing a path, as well as an understanding of the Sacred and the Divine. At school you were taught to be intentional about your actions, and to understand that everything is entangled in kinship. Math and art are cousins. Plants can teach us about resilience. Nurturing animals can teach us about our hearts and our capacity to love.

As I began to work with incarcerated adults, I realized that most of them did not have the benefit of the same nurturing that my children did. Sometimes people who walked before they crawled as babies have neurological issues. The prescription is crawling. It is going back to the moment things got off track. I wanted to create an environment at the jail that allowed people to slow down, to feel nurtured, to lower their sensory input so that they could become grounded and heal. I decided I wanted to give them the experience of being in a Waldorf setting, or in a pre-colonial world if possible… an experience of beauty and wonder, of slowing down and deep connection.

When people are booked into jail, they often possess a glassy look on their face. Sometimes they even have a smirk playing around their eyes when the booking photo is taken. The Facebook comments erupt with vitriol when that happens (yes, the Sheriff’s department encourages people to post these pictures on Facebook). He’s a monster, throw away the key, they cry. I must admit that before I worked inside a correctional facility, I had the same thoughts a time or two. Now that I work closely with incarcerated people, I know that they often arrive at the jail gates flooded and dazed, having just experienced a seismic life interruption on a magnitude that many of us are lucky enough to be unfamiliar with. Now, what I see in those booking photos is a human who has become completely disconnected from themself and their community. Drowned in a tsunami of distraction and disconnection. Wobbling off kilter, having lost everything including themselves. I think about it like the soil your dad is so diligently working to build. When we do not tend the soil, it becomes hardened and barren. It lacks fertility to grow new life and it begins to blow away. When people come to jail or prison, their topsoil has been degraded. They are hardened. Nerves exposed. Reactive and frustrated. The current carceral experience does nothing to soothe these conditions. Does nothing to build or nourish or nurture.

An author who I love and admire very much, Gloria Anzaldúa, wrote a beautiful essay called “Now Let Us Shift: The Path of Conocimiento,” Anzaldúa is a wonderful storyteller, and she starts the essay by telling a story of a time when there was an earthquake where she lived. She arrived home to find her personal things flung onto the floor, and her whole apartment a mess. Gloria says, “Earthquakes catapult you into liminal spaces in which realities you have previously held are no longer relevant. They shift you into these cracks between worlds.” She goes on to talk about the path of conocimiento and how we sometimes have these moments of rupture and awakening and departing from what we once thought was true. I think of incarceration as a rupture. And jail is a liminal crack in which there is an opportunity for finding oneself, for liberation and for desconocimiento (leaving behind the things we once knew) and conocimiento (arriving at a knowing that is revealed when we are thrown off our track). The way incarceration works now is that we miss that opportunity. We force people deeper into numbness and disconnection. We cause harm and wounding. There is violence and mistrust. What is offered currently are ways to harm one another, to distract oneself and “do time,” rather than connect, go inward, and liberate. Everyone suffers as a result. The incarcerated, the correctional officers, and all of us in society. It’s a real shame because it could be so much different.

Imagine a correctional facility that feels like a different world. Where attention and care are paid to every detail of the environment down to lighting, interior design, food, and activities. The space feels comforting and warm. The people care for one another. You are surrounded by gardens, music, meaningful art and healing practices. You grow nourishing food, and you cook it for yourself and your community.

It is here that you can take time out of the world to tend to your wounds, to reflect on your place in the larger context of society, nourish your body and soul with nutritious food and healing practices. Imagine the guards are invested in your health and wellbeing, and in their own. Imagine the entire facility feeling like one community, where everyone is cared for and needed. Imagine a place where you can start to feel whole again, walking out of the gates feeling reconnected, and inspired to contribute to beauty in the world.

I am not much of a bumper sticker person, but I do have one on the back of our family Subaru. It reads, “I’d rather be slowly consumed by moss.” To me it means that I would rather be away from my computer screen and yet another Zoom call, lying in the forest on a bed of moss, feeling the way it lovingly covers the ground, adding softness to rocks. Moss grows so slowly, contributing humbly to the quiet around us. Here in the moist conditions of Oregon, moss starts to cover everything: the roof, the outside walls of the house, I even noticed moss starting to grow on the frames of the window in our living room. I have left it there, welcoming its contribution to our home. One of my favorite authors, Robin Wall Kimmerer is an indigenous botanist from the Potawatomi Nation. In her book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, she says, “There is an ancient conversation going on between mosses and rocks, poetry to be sure. About light and shadow and the drift of continents. This is what has been called the ‘dialect of moss on stone’ – an interface of immensity and minuteness, of past and present, softness and hardness, stillness and vibrancy, yin and yan.” I think about moss a lot when I am in a prison. I think about what it would be like if we allowed moss to begin creeping up the walls, quieting the harsh sounds, creating an opportunity for stillness. Softening the floors, inviting us to lie on it and be held by its embrace.

What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be? is a book that invites readers to reflect on the concept of ancestry and the legacies they wish to leave behind. The book asks us to return to a time when we focused on our lineage—the relationship between spiritual, social, and ecological connections across time. The book challenges us with questions such as: “How will I be remembered? What traditions do I want to continue? What cycles do I want to break? What new systems do I want to initiate for those yet-to-be-born? How do we endure? In every moment, whether we like it or not and whether we know it or not, we are advancing values and influencing systems that will continue long past our lifetimes. These values and systems shape communities and lives that we will never see. The ways we live create and reinforce the foundation of life for future generations. We are responsible for how we write our values, what storylines we further and set forth—the world we choose to cultivate for the lives that follow ours. So how are we to live?” (Hausdoerffer, et all, 2021). The collection weaves together essays, interviews, and poetry from some of my favorite authors, including Wendell Berry, Winona LaDuke, Vandana Shiva, and Robin Kimmerer. It is an invitation to urgently dream together, to sing down the world we want to see for our children. The book recognizes that our ancestors are not only the humans who came before us, but the land, waters and earth beings seen and unseen who weave together reciprocal ontologies of care. I thought about you, Linnea and Will, a lot as I read this book. I read it while cooking you breakfast, and while you slept beside me on the couch, your long eyelashes casting shadows on your sweet faces. This is the vision that I want to bring to prisons. The richness of it all is the medicine that we need in the carceral environment. Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “All flourishing is mutual.” And so, the work I do in prisons is actually a gift for you, my babies. As Robin Wall Kimmerer says, “Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind” (Kimmerer, 2003).

Love, Mama.


Anzaldúa, G. E. (2002). “Now let us shift…The path of conocimiento… Inner work, public acts.” In G. E. Anzaldúa & A. Keating (Eds.), This bridge we call home: Radical visions for transformations (pp. 540-578). Routledge.

Brown, a. m. (2020). We will not cancel us and other dreams of transformative justice. AK Press. Emergent Strategy Series.

Hausdoerffer, J., Hecht, B. P., Nelson, M. K., & Cummings, K. K. (2021). What kind of ancestor do you want to be? University of Chicago Press. Selections TBD.

Kimmerer, R. W. (2003). Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. Oregon State University Press.

Lorde, A. (1997). “The Uses of Anger.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, 25(1/2), 278-285.

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