Letters from Alouette Women’s Correctional Facility

August 9, 2018

I have paper! I have a pencil! I’m in jail! The world is sharply divided. There is a here and a not here, a yes and a no. Mostly the women in green, like me, are broken and hurt, of course. The women in uniforms are thoughtful and gentle, at least to me, at least for now. All is well. I sleep, eat, wonder, try to phone out, but can’t make things work, so I settle and I wait.

Yesterday was like a strange dream.

“Guilty,” said the judge, and then it all happened quickly, and then just as quickly stopped. Handcuffs, and down and away. Steve looks a glance of firmness and love as they take him away first. I get a glance of Patti and the others.

Cal and Gil seem sorry to do this. They can barely look at me. My organic blueberries go into the garbage. My wedding ring, so recently acquired, goes into a little safe baggie. My jacket goes—it has an attached strap that could be used in harmful ways. And then the waiting begins. The holding cell is in the bottom floor of the beautiful Arthur Erikson courthouse.

I sleep on the hard plastic bench, a sideways toilet roll is my pillow. I shake with cold. Gil checks on me, brings me an old red sweatshirt. It smells foul, but I take it with thanks. The yellow, shining cement bricks become Rosary markers and I pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Holy Mary, mother of God, Our Father, old way, new way. If I close my eyes and drift it goes to the old way, but I like the new one: Save me from the time of trial.

This is no trial, uncomfortable, inconvenient, but not that hard. Cold, clear, everything taken away, nothing to do. Pray, sing, sleep. My mind moves, slips into the border between dream and vision. A Holy Place of the great invisible. An Anarchic Vacation from the Law.

There is no clock or time, but the men come and go and peer into the window. I am cold even with the sweatshirt, so I get up and pace. That seems to be what one should do in jail. I try some of the salsa moves that Michael taught us before the wedding, but no. Not only do I have two left feet, I can’t remember a single thing . . . but then joy! I remember the Swedish dancing from the winter! Step, lift, step, step. Step, step, step, step, turn, turn step, step. I figure out how to time the twirl so it misses the semi-wall that shields the smelly toilet, and the dip. I dance, sing, pray. The hours slide down into one another. Muffled, unrecognizable voices, distress, keys shaking. Time is measured by Gil’s 15-minute footsteps, peering into the porthole, smiling, thumbs up, disappearing. He brings me lunch—a McDonald’s chicken salad—and he’s gone.

I dance and sing, I pace, I lie down again, I adjust my arms inside the jacket sweater, leaving the sleeves dangling. Desperation begins to settle, boredom, apprehension, loneliness, fear—but not really.

Maria Choc is on trial this day in Guatemala.

Edwin Espinal is in jail in Honduras.

How many thousands of Guatemalans were kidnapped, held, tortured, disappeared, murdered, mutilated? Was Beatriz even ever held in a jail? I sing a lament.

The expected graffiti is scratched into the door. True love and R.I.P. and a few foul declarations: Fxck thee cops. There all goofs. Girl Thugs. A couple of East Van Rules, and maybe my favourite: Tracy and Joseph . . . Best Friends Alwayz. These markings say: Here I am, here I was, I loved, I lost, I mattered. Into the days and years to come, forgotten, dead maybe, in jail, slivers of staying, remnants of saying I am. I pray for Tanya and Joseph, for Shorty, for Bubs.

At last Gil comes. He takes away the sweatshirt, and we’re moving. Handcuffs and shackles this time, which cuff and rub and hurt my sockless feet. Into a van. All in our own hot boxes. Gleeful defiant men a few slots down. They yell, “Are you really a pastor, or is that a costume?” I forgot I was wearing my black shirt with a collar. “Ha! Ha! Hallelujah!” one man yells. I try and look around but can’t see Steve anywhere. My ankles ache. And then we’re off through the downtown streets, so strange through a little caged window, to the Main Street courthouse.

I shuffle awkwardly into the building, off come the cuffs. I stand hands against a wall, lift one foot, and another, off come the shackles, and into another cold holding cell where I see D., my first fellow prisoner. I am about to hear the first of many, many stories. These are not my stories to retell, but what I can say is that with everyone who shares with me, and many, many do—there is a common thread. Violence, sexual violence particularly, substance use, addictions, layered upon layer, from the very beginning of life, or at least memory. Beautiful girls, lovely women, every one.

D. paces a true jail pace, pounds on the door, anxious to leave. She got bail today and wants to get back to Alouette, maybe the people from the recovery house will wait for her and take her out. We have to get there before seven. Chains and shackles again and out to the van. D. and I share a tight bench in a cage. There’s a woman with black hair sitting on the narrow slit of floor in the next cage over. “What’s your name?” yells D. The other woman looks up, but shakes her head and looks down quickly. After 6pm now, we head out along Cordova. Hi St. James, hello Commercial Drive, Victoria, hello 1900 block, hello my darling, my house-family, Fritz, garden, bread, cheese, coffee, chocolate, figs and tomatoes and blackberries and the last raspberries and pillows and stuffies and books and clothes and photos of boys and Oscar, flowers and birds and spiderwebs strung across everything.

It is stinking hot and the woman in the cage beside us in distressed. She gets up, crouching, no one could stand. Highway One inches along. At last we stop and wait forever in a hot parking lot, waiting for another van, collecting prisoners to take home for the night. Our neighbour is ever more agitated until she is pounding and kicking at the door and walls. “I am dying! Help! I can’t breathe!” D. tells her to shut up, but then somehow I am helping D. take off her green sweatshirt, separate from her green tee, it hangs over her cuffed hands. Our neighbour takes off her sweater too, but she can’t undo the t-shirt, so it comes off too. She kicks again at the door, slumps, and is quiet.

I lean my head against the caged window between the two of us and shut my eyes, until I open them and look over. She’s done the same thing at exactly the same time and suddenly we are looking into each other’s eyes, both frozen, about four inches apart. We both start, surprised at such strange closeness, almost nakedness, human and woman and sad.

Who knows her great sadness. And mine? Wondering if we’ll win or lose. The Judge, the Prosecutor, the Company, the Government, the Law. When is the law the foundation of our humanity and when does it serve only those most powerful, those rich enough to make the power work for them alone? How can we stop this destruction, this peril that seems so far away from this very moment, but is why I am here? Global warming and pipelines and bitumen. And me.

Suddenly the van jerks and moves and D. cheers. I am relieved too, longing for the what-ifs and unknowns to end, and to rest somewhere. Then—what? Wait? Where are we turning? D. peers through the narrow thick window, and now she’s yelling and swearing, pounding in frustration. We turn to go over the big bridge, and down, down into Surrey. We’ll never make it “home” before seven. We pull into another driveway, another jail, and inside, and wait. We are moved to another van, and getting in beside us come four young women, recently convicted, like me, exhausted, still high, dirty, worn and done. They stare and stare at me.

One young woman is fierce-eyed, shorn head, tattoos on her face and barefoot. D. says to me, “She’s cursing us. Don’t look at her.” Obedient, I look down, but then we’re driving back up through Surrey, and she throws herself at the window, head up to a small filtered screen up top. “My grandpa would want me to do this,” she yells. “Are you a priest? Will you hear my confession?”

I’m too astonished to reply, and she starts to list things. I can’t really hear her, the screen is too small, and the traffic too loud, but I hear some. Dear Lord, what to say, what to do? I know nothing about this young woman, not even her name, but I know she is reaching for that truth-star and I say what I’ve said many times before, though never in these circumstances:

“I don’t know you. I know nothing about you, but this I know: No matter what you have done, no matter what has been done to you, you are a beloved daughter of God. You are loved. God holds you in the palm of his hand, and God treasures your heart.” I yell through the grate that I can’t say more. We sit in silence. Silence all around, or rather the steady roar of the van. It is less hot. The sun is setting and we are arriving home: The Alouette Correctional Centre for Women.

The shackles are rubbing a small sore on my shin, and the handcuffs are heavy. We are brought into yet another bright room to be processed yet again. The young women are spent and throw themselves on the hard bench as we are called out one by one. I go through the final process, am stripped of my own clothes and get green prison sweats. Everyone attending shakes their head. Who are they to say so to the judge, but this, to them is ridiculous. I have more allies, more friends.

I hear I am going to Alpha: the special secure unit. I shuffle down the long, nightmare hall with heavy locked doors on either side, and into the tiered unit. I am inside now.

Alpha in the secure zone is maximum but for the least troublesome—the immigration cases are here, they say. My ears perk up. But I’m too tired to notice much—an open area, and clanging stairs. I’m up to the second floor, a small cell, a bag of sheets and a towel, the door closes and locks and I sit and plan the night. I don’t have a toothbrush or soap, so I make my bed and arrange a shirt over my face. The lights never turn out here. And the day is done. Two thin slits show the outside, a patch of yellow grass under the glare of blazing light, and the dark forest beyond.

The days stretch out down the way, but first there’s the first night. Now everything is obviously gone. Industrial silence. And so, I turn in and examine myself.

My heart is pierced through with love, none of it earned by my goodness. It just is: Patti, my beloved boys, their girls, Oscar, the new little one coming, my family and my family-in-law, and my house family, my church, my brothers and sisters in Christ, my co-land defenders everywhere, especially in Latin America, and especially Guatemala, my doggie, the forest, the great sea, the looming mountains, and the wee sparrows. All these are my nest of prayer. And so, I weave them all around me, and sleep comes gently and carries me into the heart of God, where I spend the night free.

August 10, 2018

I wake up stiff on the board-hard mattress, and I stretch before opening my eyes. Outside it is that thin light that waits as dawn approaches over the trees. I no longer decide most things, so the things I do I cherish. Mostly what I have is me, and how I can be with everyone I meet.

I am so absolutely conscious of my privilege. I will be here for a few days, loved and carried by all that I have. I have no life to reconstruct from scratch when I leave, my traumas are not deep and lasting. So how can I mirror compassion without curiosity? Can I be open and vulnerable, reaching out with a measure of concern and confidence, in the flash moment of time that I will have here? No problem. I have done this before. I say a quick prayer and sing a little bit to warm up my heart. And I wait.

At seven the doors click unlocked, and a guard, H., comes by and turns a key, and I step out to the balcony, seeing for the first time others in green now stepping out. Two women are busy in the common area below, setting up plastic trays, and a breakfast is served: raisin bran with watery milk, a muffin, sweet, and two pieces of wonderbread. Coffee, a powdered creamer, four packs of sugar, a portion each of margarine, jam and peanut butter—oh and an apple. I’m eating quietly, politely, and slowly I say a few words and it happens. T.L. and J. start talking, I have delivered to me a story, and another. T.L. tells me some things, and her eyes narrow, and she asks me to pray with her, I think not quite believing I will. “Of course I will,” I say. “We’ll find a place and a time. I’m not going anywhere, at least for a few days.”

J., in the meantime, is telling me how things work. Fill in this form for this, that form for that.

I’m looking at the soggy bread on my tray, and over by the phones I spy a toaster. Toasted is so better.

“Can I just go over and toast this?” I ask J. “Oh no,” she says. “You have to fill in a form first!”

I look horrified, then she grins at me. We laugh. My first jail joke!

I give T.L. my muffin. “Really?” she asks. “You don’t want it later?” “I’m good,” I say.

E. comes by. I give her my sugar and whitener. “Jail candy!” she says. “Mix sugar, whitener, jam and p.b. Microwave for 30 seconds. Let harden. Eat.”

Before we’re shooed back to our cells, I find the book cart—and a book on dogs! Oh no, it’s sentimental and inspirational. I slide it back. Next, I find a Bible—Yay! And then Atonement by Ian McEwen. Back in my cell I get lost in a world of child writers and big houses and real from another place—not here. Then I hear a call—Yoga! And we’re clattering down the steps and through the door to the only outdoor space, a weird stuffy courtyard with a screen ceiling two floors above. But I can see that the sky is blue, and incongruously I’m lying on my back looking up, and then doing downward dog.

We have a jail meeting. I nod to everyone. I make a few more friends, there’s some drama, some quiet, some promises, some pain.

The drama of me-not-being-able-to-phone begins. Deposit money in jail account. Done on arrival. Set up special phone voice recognition ID. Done. Try and call, no go. Oh. Must fill in form to transfer money from jail account to phone money. Do this. Must wait now until later. Okay. Sigh. Notice while rifling bored through the request forms that we have to ask specially for a visitor. Fill in a request for a visitor. Wait. Get a small plastic toothbrush and a cheap slip of hotel soap. Celebrate.

The regular rhythm of the day plods along. Now it is lunch, and then we are locked in for the afternoon. Atonement is seamless and transporting. Read, read, read. So desperately quiet and alone.

Then the guard, S., comes in—we’re moving you. Right now. Hurry! Pack, sort, clothes/bed clothes. Wait, I’m leaving T.L. and we never got to pray. Can I say goodbye, guards? No. Okay. Rats. Out. Long hall, nightmare doors. Strip off the green clothes, switching to grey. I’ve been moved from secure Alpha to medium Cedar B.

Cedar B. The Canine Unit. You’ve got to be kidding me? Arf. Six dogs here, with 23 women. The ‘girls’ have finished their workday and they’re lounging about—laughing. It is LOUD—jarring after the quiet of Alpha. Booming voices and roaring laughter. The small bungalow shakes. It is three in the afternoon. Still hot and sunny. August air—for the first time in almost two days I breathe, and there are birdies, and ants and dragon flies. And trees for 360 degrees, beautiful cedars and firs.

There are gardens, a memory area, with painted stones for the dead, and a labyrinth—no actually—a spiral. I come back after dinner and hop its painted tiles. And I stay out until almost 10.

Some of the girls call this Camp Cupcake, but it is a prison, of course. We can see the forest, but not go into its cool shade. And this day and the next, and the next, the stories spill out. I hear them and I brace: Mothers have died, and brothers, and boyfriends are in jail too, and children have been taken away, who knows where they are and worst of all, a child, a daughter who died. Drugs stab in and out of most stories. There is talk of lawyers and trials to come, and days and months and years to wait. And there is drama, and exhaustion and frustration, and lots of swearing. I am uncomfortable with some women—there are more than 40, on both sides of the Cedar bungalow—and there are the don’t-give-a-shit ones, loud and sarcastic.

Pretty soon they know why I’m here—there’s some amazement—that someone would more-or-less do this voluntarily, but then some nods of interest, and good job, and that A-Hole of a judge, and I look for a way to be still, show interest, compassion, welcome, with no prying, and I balance with escapes to quiet—relatively—and green.

Phone drama—I filled the request form, but it was done incorrectly in pencil—they wouldn’t give me a pen—and that doesn’t count. Damn it. I borrow a pen and fill in the form again. It should work tomorrow. Okay, I say.

In the meantime a guard, A., takes me to the library—looking for a replacement for Atonement which they wouldn’t let me take from one side to another, and while I’m there she whispers “You did fill in the visitor request form? You have to fill it out and request it, before they can schedule a visit.” “I have indeed,” I reply. A. says under her breath, “I talked with her.” A flash of sympathy, and then a sliver of her own story. She talks, and I nod and we smile furtively. Then she goes out. I follow. The flowers are singing: Patti is coming! Maybe, not sure, but when? Tomorrow is Friday.

I take my new book outside. The sun has set into the trees to the west. The raucous girls laugh on the steps. One women ignores everything and waters the lawns and the flowers and the flower pots with a rough determination. I write with my new glorious pen at a table, now shaded for the night. On the tops of the eastern trees the sun still lights up the branches. A hawk, a fat one, flies straight over, from east to west.

There was morning, and there was evening. The first day.

August 11, 2018

Friday morning, a work day. I’m on Hort. After breakfast I get new clothes and work boots. I follow my new roomie, B., out to the spiral. Together with two other women we weed, for hours in an ever-tightening path towards the centre. On my knees I pull weeds from the stepping tiles, leaving the hens and chicks, which bubble up, thick, prickle-less succulents that spread and grow everywhere. The two women I don’t know are talking, loudly, well, one woman is talking, the other is listening, nodding, saying uh-uhum, and a few words of comfort and solace. Pluck, pluck, dig, and I can’t help but hear another tale of horror. My heart contracts. It actually aches. The speaker leaves, and I say to the woman left, “Your voice sounds so nice as you listen.” She nods, and ping! We see each other.

After break we move to the lavender patch. I sit harvesting in the shade, surrounded by purple, breathing in calm, peace. The bees and I take turns reaching for the flowers. I watch one take its time, and I wait for it to finish. Lavender saturates everything, my lap, my hands, my clothes, my hair, the scent stays for a while. We stack them, tray by tray in the greenhouse. B. warns me: “Don’t even take one flower. You could get punished.” Oh dear. I’ve already taken one small sprig and tucked it into my rib-squashing, chest-flattening bra. The contraband lavender pricks my skin guiltily. I don’t have any intention of following this rule.

After lunch it’s too hot to be outside, so I’m allowed into the empty library. I sort and stack and arrange in cool silence—the Dog books and the God books are all jumbled up on two long, low shelves—until it’s time to rush back to Cedar and stand with B. outside our door. We are counted at 7am, 11am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm and 10pm, standing like sentinels guarding our own cells.

I don’t feel like going back to the library now, so I lay down for a while. But now there’s nothing to do. I let a little bit of Patti-sad into my heart, just a small sliver of longing. I remember her singing—of course I do—and waving her hands, and holding me, and wondering why I do what I do, and loving me right through it. My boys too, Abel at the demo with his sign. Oscar. His wispy red-gold curls more precious than a million mountains of gold, die-for-him precious, give-the-whole-world-for-him precious. And the women here, and their children, and their love, and their longing. It makes me furious. I cry two tears, that’s all for now, in frustration. Maybe Patti’s coming today, this afternoon. Two extra tears for hope.

After a while I spring up and go to the pay phone—maybe it will work at last now. I follow the commands, punch in several series of numbers, say my name three times. The voice recognition ID fails. I go to a guard, can you check this out? “Oh, your voice ID has become invalid. Fill out a form (in pen) to request a reset. It should work by 3pm tomorrow.”

The afternoon is hot and maybe will never end. I go outside and sit by the roses for a while. The roses surround the closed-up Eagle Hut. The women tell me that the elders used to come and smudge and drum, and mysteriously they no longer have these healing circles. But, why? It’s impossible to get any clear news of any sort here but surely Indigenous spiritual care here should be a priority. S. finds me on the bench by the hut. “I always come here to pray,” she says. “I wish the elders would still come. It used to help so much, you can feel it healing.” There is a sad carved eagle outside guarding the way into the round building.

I head back inside, and coming around the corner of the bungalow I find a large group of women including A., the loudest-laughiest of them all. “Hey,” she says. “Tell us more about why you are here.” Deep breath.

“Well,” I start, “the pipeline would bring really dirty oil from Alberta to a place in Burnaby where they plan to ship it over the ocean. There would be seven times as many oil tankers going through the water out to the sea. There could be an oil spill—and that would be the end of the orcas and the sea animals and fish and life along the coast. And the First Nations people there, the Tsleil-Waututh—they never gave their land away in the first place. There was no treaty or anything for their land, and they don’t want the pipeline at all.”

We enter into a robust talk about climate change and indigenous rights and reconciliation—many of the women I’ve met along this jail journey are First Nations. There are lots of nods and more right-ons, until one woman stands up and says, “I’m all for the pipeline.”

“Hmmm,” I say. “Tell me more.”

“I’m from Alberta, and we need jobs,” she says, looking defiant, if a bit nervous.

“I totally agree with you,” I say. “About the jobs. Of course people need jobs.” Her eyes are interested.

“My son’s a carpenter,” I go on. “He’s been to the protests with a sign that says Carpenter for Sustainable Energy Projects. There’s lots of jobs in making clean energy. More jobs for a long period of time. This pipeline will make some jobs, but mostly it is about a small group of people making a pile of money, and wrecking the earth.”

The vigorous discussion continues until A. says, “Teach us to protest!” Uh-oh.

“Hmmm,” I say again. “Well, what would you like to protest?”

“The awful food and the expensive extras we have to buy from the canteen.”

“What do you think you could do?”

“Write letters.” “Protest at the admin building.” “Blockade the kitchen.” “Go on a hunger strike!”

I smile and leave them to it, retiring again to read for a while before dinner. After about ten minutes I look out the window, and I see a huge crowd, shouting and gesticulating in front of the main building. Uh oh. Now I’ve done it. I sink down behind my book again.

D. comes into our room.

“What’s happening out there?” I ask timidly.

“Oh, nothing,” she says. “We’re just getting our meds.”

“Oh”, I say, ever so slightly disappointed.

Dinnertime comes, and is gone in ten minutes. My roomie is watching crime shows on tv, so I go outside and read, and then wander and wander. I’m tamping down a circle in the grass. Up to ten feet from the fence allowed, and then around and back. I remember the circling polar bear, disgracefully held in a cramped and crumbling enclosure at the Stanley Park zoo. Thank heavens it’s gone. Poor bear. Pace, pace, turn around, pace, pace went the creature, twenty-five feet where a thousand were required.

In the north, the sea ice is melting; further south the forests are burning. Over the thick green trees here to the west of the prison, Venus pops out shining.

August 12, 2018

Saturday morning. There is a thin haze over the pale sky. No work today, no lavender, no weeding, no hours in the cool library. And no breakfast! “Brunch” is at 10. One hard-boiled egg, one slice of bacon, wonderbread. The gals invite me to coffee—real coffee, strong, made from their canteen stash. The morning is long and drawn out. D. and I go to the gym for a bit. Huff, puff, step, pull. The minutes go slow.

And then I hear there’s a Catholic Mass. Well, I’ve always been ecumenical, and I hope the priest is too, because of course I’m going. G. and I head over. G. is older, like me, and from a community up the Fraser River. She’s hoping her brothers will put up some salmon for her for the winter. Some others hear we’re going to Mass and come along. Father M. and the three volunteers who come with him look up in surprise. So many people. The small circle is full. And so we pray.

How could I, how could anyone come as a Christian to prison but as a penitent? Any wrongs by the women in grey were first wrongs done to them. In what way did the State, the Church fuck up first? Grabbing the land, out-lawing the Potlach, Indian Residential Schools, smallpox by intent or by accident, poisoning the waters, ripping down the trees, killing the buffalo, the caribou, the salmon, alcohol, poverty, derision, soul-crushing, body-crushing violence of every kind. And then to try to reform these women? These lovely, precious, fierce women—once girls, born perfect. T.L. back in Alpha said, “I’m so angry, so fucking angry at everyone.”

Father M. is kind and encouraging, and we sing loudly, though I’m not sure that much we say and sing really makes sense here. But the beauty of the Christian Mass is that it doesn’t matter at all who says the words. And the words themselves carry our faith, through the distortions and confusions and the sins, the horrendous sins, of a fallen church.

“This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD, and was saved from every trouble.” Jesus came for those abandoned, crushed, forgotten, expelled. To restore those who had been crucified by a greedy, violent world. Love embodied for you, and for you, and for me.

Fr. M. tugs a bit at his collar, the earnest women with him smile helpfully. The vessels of his communion set shine brilliantly and clean.

And somehow we take and taste and see that the Lord is good. I sit down in silence.

I’m burning angry, too. Ready still to stand with land defenders everywhere, to turn over every table of the truly guilty. Carving and crapping all over this holy earth. They must be stopped.

G. and I and the others trip out again into the blasting sunshine. It’s lunchtime and then wait time. Will Patti come, did she even get the message?

I go to the phone one last time to see if I can make the damn thing work. Nope. I check with the guard yet again. She looks on the computer. “Oh, no. You are getting out tomorrow. Your phone money has been transferred back into your trust fund.” Sigh. Then the guard whispers to me, “Don’t go far. She’s coming at 2:45.”

One hour from now! The longest hour of my life begins. Sixty seconds times 60 minutes. That’s 3600 seconds. I count slowly. My stomach hurts. I don’t believe anything. I’ve forgotten everything anyway. I give up. Who cares?

I lie on my bed and feel guilty. Not many visits happen for these women, and I’ve been here for just a flash of time. I’m going home tomorrow. Who am I to silently whine? I try to kill every emotion. And at last the guard comes for me. We walk over to the main building, down the nightmare hall of doors.

I wait outside the door of visiting room number one. Will I be able to hug her at least, a small kiss? Will we sit at a table, in a lounge? I go up the narrow stairs, open the door . . . shock. We are in real prison mode. A chair in a small, enclosed glass box, with a desk, facing an identical box with the same. A small circle-screen between us.

But never mind—there she is. My love. And I can’t believe my eyes: she’s wearing her wedding jacket. Nothing could have been better. Patti in that jacket, with her ring still on, and everything is restored in me. Jail is meant to kill the spirit, and in a small way mine had been suffering, until now.

We have the strangest conversation of our lives. Small talk, a few stories. How is the dog?

“I’m getting out tomorrow, 8:30 am,” I say!

“Tomorrow! Damn, I’m working. I’ll figure it out.”

She brought chocolate (can’t have it) and a printout of all the messages she’d been receiving. Can’t have that either.

“Should I read them?”

“No, I can’t stand it.”

“Well, I’m bringing a U-Haul of love, support and prayers.”

“I know you are.” All I can think of is T.L. and S. and D. and G. and everyone.

And before we can end the awful, precious visit, the guard comes. Patti goes first. I’m left standing in the echo chamber of the stairwell. And what else should I do, but sing?

Back in the yard, I wander again. Everything is weird. Calm. Until A. and R. get into a water fight. A phalanx of guards swoops down, and I walk around the side to look at the lavender that’s left to be clipped on Monday. Not by me.

My last ten-minute supper. Then it’s Saturday night bingo! We wander over to the gym. There’s lots of rules, but we settle in at last. We have time for nine rounds, and I win the eighth! I hand my winnings ($2) over to the elder, G. We hurry through the ninth game to be back and ready for the 7 pm count. I’m finally starting to get the hang of this.

What to do now? I feel like there’s nothing I can say that will heal or help anything at this point. I hang around and admire beautiful beading and lovely crochet blankets. If I were only here longer. “I like the rainbow unicorn one,” I say, to the woman beading Snoopy.

We talk a bit more about the people making a stand up on Burnaby Mountain.

“There will be more women coming,” I tell them. “I’ll tell them how nice you all are.”

I decide to make the rounds of the grounds one last time, and say goodbye to the plants and the dragonflies. I stop to smell the smallest rose outside the boarded-up Eagle Hut. I sit on the grass.

S. finds me here, and I don’t really want to talk much more, but I can listen. “I used to cry right here a whole lot,” she says. “After my son was murdered. He was four years old.” I sit and hold that pain in my lap for a while. She’s so used to telling the story. I know it must still hurt, but she smiles at me. Generous and gracious and beautiful.

Others come around the Hut. One woman cuts the tiny rose and hands it to S. who puts it in her golden hair. I’m sure that’s against the rules, but I’m sure they know that too. Later on, as we walk together, all of us, back to the bungalow, the rose is invisible.

In bed by 9:30, I say goodnight to sweet D. And I sleep like a log until 6 the next morning. We’re allowed out to go to the bathroom, but I quickly search for some coloured pencil crayons and markers I saw yesterday. All put away, except a green highlighter. I go back into the room and in the penumbra of the early morning in cell 25, Cedar B, I write out a prayer in blue ink and green highlighter to the women:

To My New Friends On Cedar

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord make His face to shine upon you.

May the Lord be gracious to you, and grant you peace.



And by 8:30 on the dot, after a pile of paperwork, and getting my phone money back plus $2.00 for working one day, I stand at the great metal gate, while the guard shouts: “Smith for release!”

Outside I see Lini, my dearest sister-in-law. She has brought tea and granola and yogurt and fruit. Of all the people on earth, I think she’s the one I am happiest to see right then.  I flail and dig until I find it—the little plastic bag with my wedding ring. Deep breath. I put it back on.

We slowly make our way back home, but first drive up that Holy Mountain, to greet the sacred fire, to say a prayer with those still standing there.


Author: The Reverend Emilie Teresa Smith

Emilie Teresa Smith is an Argentine-born Canadian Anglican priest, writer and theologian. Since 1984 she has walked with a profound commitment to the people of Guatemala. In 2012 she was elected co-president of the historic Oscar Romero International Liberation Theology Network (SICSAL). Since then she has visited every region of Latin America and the Caribbean, and has been privileged to come alongside numerous community struggles for the protection of sacred land and water. emilie@madlovefortheworld.com

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