Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes the sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
The song “For Good” from Stephen Schwartz’s popular musical, Wicked, sings to the alteration in one’s life trajectory as a result of meeting another person. I love the imagery the lines create: when a force or the momentum from a chance encounter or collision with an object causes something to travel in a slightly different direction.
As much as with people, this phenomenon also happens with books. A single book can open your eyes and make an impact such that you cannot return to who you were before. Your path forward then takes on a different shape.
Most recently, my orbit-altering sun was a book titled Just Mercy. Bryan Stevenson was my white rabbit signaling me to the world of the incarcerated, the poor, and the condemned. I followed the trail onward to Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, and other related articles. I was getting an education in the legacy of slavery and racism in our society, and the many shapes it materializes into.
Along the way I learned about women, children, and the mentally ill in prison—the vulnerable that tends to be the most defenseless in the case of abuse. I learned about the lack of sanitary pads or tampons for incarcerated women and their monthly humiliation. I learned about the difficulty of re-starting life after prison, where employers avoid those with criminal records, which then can cause people to spiral in debt. Here is a world where being poor can be a crime.
Last week, when sorting through stacks of magazines, I wondered if there was an alternative to dropping them off at Goodwill. Maybe I could donate them to a prison library or a juvenile detention facility. I then came across Chicago Books to Women in Prison, whose work does exactly as its name says. Books, women issues, and prison—it seemed like a perfect convergence of what I’ve been learning this year.
The timing was perfect because they hold trainings for new volunteers on the last Sunday of each month. So on Sunday, my husband and I went over and volunteered for a few hours. It was a powerful experience.
Chicago BWP receives letters from incarcerated women from detention facilities around the country. In them, the women indicate their preferred genres or specific titles, and occasionally, tidbits about themselves. The volunteers then would try to match their requests, find the books from the shelves (not as easy as I expected), add a little note (optional, but recommended), and package them for mail. People would help by taking what they can to the post office. It’s quite a system, and they have many dedicated volunteers.
There, they also keep a box of letters from inmates saying how grateful they are for the books they have received. The books are like a light to them…
I can’t easily describe the experience, but the human connection from holding the letters in my hand impacts me deeply. I know they were not addressed to me, but somehow, they arrived in my hands. Some of them have dreams to accomplish after their release, some are well read, and some have really nice handwriting. I said a little prayer for each letter I worked on.
Books are so important to me as a source of knowledge, insight, pleasure, and relief from the ‘real world’. I’d want to believe they could be those too and much more within prison walls. I know how a book can change my life. I hope that those mailed books may change some lives too, for the better.
Needless to say, we will be back to Chicago BWP.
Image by Edukeralam, Navaneeth Krishnan S (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons