Nothing Rhymes with Orange

“Have you ever worn orange?” he asked.

I was thinking of this question as I stirred my Golden Milk, the recipe having been provided by a perky little blond Paleo infomercialist on Facebook guaranteeing the concoction of coconut milk, coconut oil, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper and most importantly turmeric, as the panacea for just about everything including a reduction in inflammation which she claims is the root of all unhealthy evil. I had smacked my knee on something a few weeks ago so I was counting on Golden Milk to reduce the swelling and pain so I could get back out on the tennis courts. As I stirred I realized the milk in fact was not golden, but the infusion of turmeric powder, “the traditional ayurvedic anti-inflammatory superherb, nature’s most important antioxident rich spice sustainably grown and harvested,” had rendered the milk a lovely orange.

“Have you ever worn orange?” he asked.

Orange is not my color. I lean into the other end of the spectrum to the blues, bluish greens, purples, occasionally Alizarin crimson. I have some pinks and greens, and as a New Yorker, black, although since my encounter at a conference in Tampere, Finland, with a group of young Finnish women who identified me as being from New York by my black outfits (easy to pack and not worry about matching various items of clothing) I have tried to go dark on black.

But stirring my Orange Milk, it did occur to me that there was an infusion of orange in my life. Right there on the counter was a bowl of Blood Oranges from Trader Joe’s, sporting their ordinary orange rinds but when sliced oozing with scarlet juice. I have a Starbuck’s Hong Kong mug…orange. I recently attended a fund raising lunch for the YWCA and there on the chair is their signature orange scarf; they call it persimmon. I have two Orange cats, Oslo and Hudson, and though Gracie is a Tortie she has beautiful orange stripes on her right hip. Orange is the color of the Saffron robes of the Tibetan monks I met hiking in Nepal.

I have a book called, “Little Glimpses of Good; finding hope in every today.” I actually have two copies of it, since after my mother died I retrieved from the nursing home the copy I had bought for her. I also gave a copy to my daughter Alex. There’s a page that says, “Once there was a sad orange; it was sad because it didn’t rhyme with anything.” Of course since this is a book about hope, the orange realizes, “I’m juicy and sweet and full of vitamins and sunshine and orangey flavor.” So the orange is happy. The book ends with, “Even in the darkest nights of the soul, there is morning in you, more light than you can guess. You are about to dawn.” There is a simple drawing of a bright orange sun.

“Have you ever worn orange?” he asked.

It was a rhetorical question, and asked somewhat mockingly, because the questioner, a member of my men’s prison group, assumed that in fact I had never worn orange, not the orange of inmate garb, styled similarly to operating room scrubs, but bright orange with DOC, Department of Corrections, lettered in black. He knew in advance that my answer was “No.”

The men’s group meets every other Tuesday at the jail, in a huge meeting area surrounded by two stories of cells around the perimeter. There are between 30 and 40 members of the group who sit in a big circle, all in matching orange, although the footwear varies from running shoes to slippers and canvas slip ons. Recently one of the members had a cast on his left foot.
The group is part of an overall program called RSVP, Resolve to Stop the Violence, which incorporates the manalive curriculum. manalive was developed in California by Hamish Sinclair and focuses on techniques for men to stop being violent and stay out of jail by examining their ides of what it means to be a man. The RSVP program, a violence prevention program founded in 1997 by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department includes manalive strategies with the core principles of restorative justice: crime is an offense against the community; victims have a right to be heard; formerly incarcerated individuals can learn how to avoid violence with opportunities and the responsibility of repairing harm they have done. To learn more about manalive and RSVP you can go to http://www.no2violence.com/about-us/

The Tuesday groups, facilitated by my colleague Mark and myself, are victim impact sessions. The format is a morning session that is a presentation by a person who has been a victim of a crime: the man whose daughter was brutally murdered, the woman raped by her ex-husband, a woman who was the victim of child sex abuse, a man who was shot on a street in his home neighborhood, a woman whose clergyman husband beat her, a woman whose brother was robbed and shot to death as he delivered food to earn extra money for Christmas presents. Each of these people has courageously volunteered to come to the jail and tell the story of their victimization, the impact of the crime on themselves and their families, their pain, anger, despair, challenges of the justice system, and often their faith and resilience. In the afternoon session, Mark and I facilitate a conversation with the group members, typically beginning by asking the group what they heard, what did the speaker say, and we try to focus the conversation on the speaker. Sometimes there are questions. “Why was she/he there?” “Why didn’t she just leave?” “Could she have escaped?” “Didn’t he want to kill the perpetrator?” “ Had he committed a crime and was killed in retaliation?” But there is also an outpouring of concern, of sadness, of empathy, of awe that this person who had suffered so much would come to talk to them. Then there are the disclosures of a member of their family murdered, of a mother abused by her boyfriend, of being a child helpless in a violent neighborhood. During one session, one of the members said, “Can I give the community some feedback?” (Required “conscious language.”) “Yes, you may,” the community responded. “I am so touched by the speaker’s ability to bear her grief for her daughter’s death and commit herself to helping others that I want to write a song about her.” Others in the group talked about writing songs and poems and autobiographies, dedications to their families and documents of their experiences. As a community we decided to have a performance of readings and songs. We had practices and a dress rehearsal (everyone except me wore orange.) Two days before Thanksgiving there in that cell block, with the chairs arranged auditorium style, we held the Celebration of Gratitude, songs and readings by the Men in Orange, attended by a few staff from my organization and wardens and correctional officers from the jail. My contribution was an explanation of the word Namaste which I usually say at the end of our discussions: the light within me honors the light within you. I had gotten permission to bring in cookies and mini cheese cakes, X-rayed the day before, and the jail provided coffee.

Mark joined me in January, and he has been inspirationally creative. The weeks that volunteer speakers are not available, he has been developing discussion topics and created a survey so that group members could express their thoughts, ideas, reactions and attitudes about the group process. Through the review of the survey and discussion with the group we realized that these men had so rarely ever been asked their opinions about anything. One of the questions was, “I am more motivated to make changes in my life.” Eighteen percent answered agree and 73% answered strongly agree. To the question, “I am less likely to use violence to solve problems,” 26% respnded agree and 38% responded strongly agree. To the statement, “The program staff cares about me,” 28% responded agree and 28% responded strongly agree.

Mark had another great idea, to give the members an opportunity to respond to the ACE survey.
The ACE, Adverse Childhood Experiences study was developed by Dr. Robert Anda of the Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Vincent Felitti from Kaiser Permanente.
This is what the CDC website says about ACE’s:

Childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence, victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue. Much of the foundational research in this area has been referred to as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
Adverse Childhood Experiences have been linked to
• risky health behaviors,
• chronic health conditions,
• low life potential, and
• early death.
As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for these outcomes.
The wide-ranging health and social consequences of ACEs underscore the importance of preventing them before they happen. CDC promotes lifelong health and well-being through Essentials for Childhood – Assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children. Essentials for Childhood can have a positive impact on a broad range of health problems and on the development of skills that will help children reach their full potential.
The full study can be found at the CDC website
https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html

Mark and I wondered about the Adverse Childhood Experiences of the men in our group. We wondered if they had ever wondered. We wondered if they would want to wonder, if they would want to answer the questions, if they could be honest with themselves, if that honesty would be too painful. Both Mark and I felt some trepidation as we handed out the survey. We passed around little orange golf pencils. The men started to look over the questions. Mark explained that the survey and answers were for them alone, we would not be collecting the surveys or sharing their answers with anyone.

There are 10 questions in the survey we provided for the group.

RSVP – ACE Study Survey 5/15/17
Instructions: Answer questions 1-10 and tally up all YES responses.
1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
YES or NO
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
YES or NO
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?
YES or NO
4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
YES or NO
5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
YES or NO
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
YES or NO
7. Was your mother or stepmother:
Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
YES or NO
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
YES or NO
9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
YES or NO
10. Did a household member go to prison? YES or NO
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score __________________________

Visually scanning the sea of orange in the room I assessed the reactions as the group members read through and answered the questions: there was deep concentration, there was laughter, there was annoyance, even some looks of disgust, a hand holding a pencil above the paper just hovering, the paper slipped in to a notebook questions unanswered.

I was once asked by a group member if I felt safe when I asked the community if I could walk across the circle to distribute a poem to be read. I was somewhat caught off guard. There in that big cavernous room, surrounded by jail cells, the only woman in a room of men, most of them wearing orange, some of them wearing the blue of correctional officers, in that huge building encircled by rolls and rolls of razor wire, it really had never occurred to me to feel unsafe. But there were times that I felt nervous, and this was one of them. I wasn’t frightened but I was, as Mark and I had discussed prior to this session, worried about what the reaction would be from the community. The questions obviously delved deep into their personal lives, into experiences and memories that could be painful, angering, upsetting. Were we opening a Pandora’s Box with contents far beyond anything we could respond to or contain in the brief time we had with the community? I felt safe, but really I was nervous.

The main group reaction was curiousity. The basic question was why would we have them answer these questions, what did it matter, they couldn’t do anything about their childhoods now. I had to dig into my public health brain for an answer I hoped would make some sense. i explained that if a person has high blood pressure they need to know so they can take care of themselves. If they don’t know they could make some bad health choices or mistakes that could damage them, even kill them. So the same could be said of understanding events and experiences that took place in your childhood that could be damaging; if you don’t know, you can’t make choices to protect yourself, good choices to not be violent, the choice to get help. “What kind of help is there?” And then Mark filled in with information about trauma focused therapy.

On our way out that day, as we traversed the electronic doorways that separated incarceration from freedom, one of the RSVP staff told us that a previous community member had been released the week before. “We just found out he OD’ed. He died a few days after his release. It really shook me up.” He told us the name, but we never use names; we are not supposed to know the identities, crimes or sentences of any of the members. “I’m sure you remember him. Tall, bald, he participated a lot in the group.” I tried to stretch my memory back to previous sessions, and review the circle of faces, the discussions, the comments, to search for a member with that description. At home that night, I continued my visual memory search. Was it him? No, he was there last week. Him? No. Him? Not bald. Him? He had asked about the murderer of the young woman. Him? He had talked about his father’s death just before Christmas. Him? He read a rap poem about freedom. Him? He said he worried about his daughters while he was inside and unable to protect them. Him? He would return my Namaste with his hands in prayer and a bow of his head. Him? I so wanted to remember the face, the responses in groups, his voice. I wanted to know who was released and died. I did not want to know.

For our next group session, Mark and I decided to propose another performance. Most of the current community members were different men from the ones who had participated in the Celebration of Gratitude; this group seemed hesitant. Maybe reading some other people’s essays and poems would be a good introduction and encouragement for them to write and read their own. We also thought this would be an opportunity for them to give voice to victims who could not speak to them, those who wrote victim impact statements. Mark and I researched the internet for victim impact statements, poems about victimization, readings about resilience and hope. As with the ACE study questions, we were unsure about how this would be received. Would the members not want to read, would they feel uncomfortable/resistant to being the voice of a victim, would they be angry that we were asking them to be the presenters?

At the beginning of each group session either Mark or I introduce ourselves and the reason we are there. From week to week some members change: new members arrive, some previous members were released, some sentenced to serve the rest of their time, possibly a long time, in State Correctional facilities, Sing Sing, Coxsackie, Clinton, Attica. “Good morning gentlemen. My name is Karel and this is Mark. We are here from Victims’ Services to provide the victim impact sessions as part of your RSVP program.”

Our fears were unfounded. As soon as we asked if anyone wanted to read, there were several volunteers. The first reader began slowly with,
My name is Priscilla D. the grieving mother of the late murdered Allison June B.

The voice of the next reader halted as he came to the last sentence of an essay by a child abuse victim.
This man has destroyed my peace of mind, caused irreparable damage to myself and my famiiy, and ruined countless people’s lives.

Then one of the men asked, “Can I give the community some feedback?”
“Yes you may.” 
“Please can we read about other crimes and not child abuse? Some of us have kids and it’s too hard to have to listen to kids being hurt and dying. It’s making me feel very uncomfortable.” Mark and I thanked him for sharing that and we skipped ahead in the readings to a poem,
The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

A deep masculine voice across the room read:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longings.

And so the group went on, one reading after another, the men giving voices to people they would never know.

A soft voice with a Spanish accent emphasized Brene Brown’s rhyme of song and strong:

Showing up is our power
Story is our way home. Truth is our song.
We are the brave and broken hearted
We are rising strong.

The last reading was a poem by Ahmed Badr called A Thank-You Letter From the Bomb That Entered My Home 11 Years Ago. I had heard it read on NPR’s All Things Considered and found Ahmed’s email and sent him a message requesting the text. He is 19 now, founder and Executive Director of Narratio ( https://narratio.org )that publishes poems and essays by young writers. He was 8 years old when a bomb hit his home in Baghdad, This was a different kind of victimization for our group to discuss. When I explained what the poem was about the room was quiet, the men looked a little confused, but there was a hand up, raised above the orange sleeve, volunteering to read.

I knew I was gonna change your life.
I knew that as soon as I entered your old home in Baghdad,
Ahmed proclaims through the voice of a bomb, now read by the voice of a man in orange in a county jail cell block. When he reached the end of the poem, the man who gave the bomb a voice, thanked me for bringing the poem. Another man said, “That poem is about how even something as terrible as a bomb can bring about good. The bomb is thanking Ahmed for doing something so good with his life even after such a terrible thing happened to him when he was just a child.  Ahmed is a very brave person.”

During the readings, especially the poems, I found that the orange in the room faded, there were just the individual faces and voices of men, reading about pain and hurt and loss, resilience and hope.

Mark and I left the jail that day, walking across the broad lawn between the prison builidng and the razor wire fences, pleased that the group had responded so well. We don’t know yet if they will want to do a performance. We don’t know who will be in the group in two weeks when the brother of a young athlete who was gunned down in his car will be our guest speaker. We don’t know when members of the group will leave and go home or go to an upstate facility for many years. But whenever we have a positive group discussion and participation we are hopeful that for perhaps one important moment, for one important decision, for one member of our community, there will be a recollection of a victim who spoke to them, there will be a feelilng of empathy, there will be the remembrance of someone who cared, there will be a good choice. We hope.

 

 

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