Sacando las Raíces

By: Jenni Taylor

“Mi pecado es grande,” Cynthia joked, dragging a six foot root behind her to throw into the fire. “My sin is big.”

I was in Iquitos, Peru. A church recently bought a small plot of jungle ground outside of the city to build a missionary school. We had begun by sleeping in tents on shaky platforms made of sticks, but now it was time to clear the land for small houses and a maloca, a circular hut for meetings.photo1 (1)

The property was called the virgin jungle. We were, in effect, destroying a small piece of it. Some of the Peruvians came from the city; many others came from deep within the jungle and had done this many times before.

The men used slashing and burning to clear a stretch of a hillside, down to a small creek that flowed with clear, fresh water. The last mission school had still water, and students had come down with malaria. Cynthia, the young woman who had pulled out the root, was a survivor.

As the men slashed and burned, the women came behind. Mama Noemi, the mother of us all, crouched like a baboon over the burnt earth with her machete. She had loose breasts, strong hands, and wrinkles deep around her eyes. She had come to the mission school with her husband after she said she had been healed of blindness. She spoke more jungle dialects than any linguist at Harvard ever could.

The rest of us girls, eight of us or so, came behind mama. We crouched as she did and used our hands to pull out the root systems that had fed the trees for hundreds of years. We would pull and tug and hack away, sometimes two or three girls working at one root system weaving across the top of this small mountain. That’s when the joking began. We must be pulling out our sins, hacking away in this jungle heat and sweat.

As we pulled the ground, the soil and ashes began to give way to the whitest, purest sand I had ever seen. The afternoon light was beginning to fade into stretches of purple and yellow. The women went down to the creek to bathe, allowing cool water to soothe tired muscles. Mama Noemi crouched again, this time beating her laundry against a rock and then slapping it rhythmically into the water. The cooking fire lit up the dusk and smoke curled into the sky.

That night, after dinner and in the dark, we gathered in a circle and sang. A girl used a tambourine from the city, and a boy beat out a rhythm echoing Mama Noemi’s laundry on his cajon, a handmade jungle drum. The stars above wrapped their gauzy light around the southern cross constellation and twisted their way through the dark, twinkling with the same echoing rhythm and bringing their own music to the cacophony. This wild place, this tiny patch of untamed ground was becoming a home, and each song was a root of their own spirituality sinking into the ground and declaring the land theirs. So they sang, wailing to the sky, their spirits as wild as the jungle surrounding them.

If you love me, hold not off.

Today’s post is on the work of Prison Performing Arts, which was featured in this month’s Spare Change Spotlight. Meg Sempreora gives us a small glimpse of the wisdom she has shared and found during her work with incarcerated people at Prison Performing Arts. Meg is also an associate professor and the director of literature emphasis at Webster University.

My first prison class was in a small, warm room.  Thirty-one men had given up Monday Night Football to sit in little plastic chairs, each balancing a book and a pad on his lap. They looked a bit like visiting parents in a classroom of small chairs.  The men fully ringed the room, backing up against the chalkboard.

I almost missed this experience, this most rewarding of teaching.  I almost said “no” to the men and women so hungry for this opportunity, citizens who will one day be out in the world with us. I initially thought that my privileged background disqualified me as a source of knowledge for these students.  But because I said “yes” I have experienced—at three Missouri prisons—some of the most rewarding teaching of my life.  As part of Prison Performing Arts, a non-profit organization created by one amazing woman, Agnes Wilcox I began teaching in 2000 with Act 2 of Hamlet, and have now worked on Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Oedipus RexOedipus at Colonus, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest,Gogol’s The Inspector General, and Mary Zimmerman’s contemporary interpretation of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. As this particular team of actors was not only untrained in acting, but also almost entirely unfamiliar with Shakespeare, a few volunteer professors from St. Louis universities provided seminars throughout the semester on the world of the Renaissance and Shakespeare in particular, on acting and speech, and especially on reading the language of the play. One or two acts of a play is studied for a full semester, bringing the men deeper and deeper into an understanding, not only of the language, characters, and themes of the drama, but also of themselves.

The scholarly seminars are followed by casting and an intense rehearsal period with Agnes, a professional theater director: each line is examined; speeches are memorized; and men practice in the yard and in their cells; Agnes gathers costumes from willing donors or second-hand stores; and finally three performances crown the semester’s work. Fellow inmates attend on the first two evenings, then family, friends, and supporters of Prison Performing Arts from St. Louis.

My self-doubts were answered that first evening; the men taught me so much with their earnest hunger, courtesy, and dauntless willingness to repeat countless times, “What does that mean?”  What I learned that first night and have confirmed after  thirteen years of teaching dramatic literature in Missouri prisons is that I need to ask difficult, interesting questions—the same ones that I ask my undergrads; I need to listen hard when my incarcerated students answer, because they will offer answers that I have not heard before.  Their answers come from a deeper place, or a more remote place, or a hungrier place.

 If you love me, hold not off.

Every class is filled with moments of discovery, of drama.  During that first class, the students were reading one sentence each around the circle in order to hear Shakespeare’s language, ask questions, learn vocabulary, and pull everybody into the enterprise of making meaning.  Many of the men are not readers, and this story is about one such student.  I shall call him Tom.  It was Act 2.2, and Hamlet, not sure whom he can trust, is urging his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to level with him and tell him if they really came on their own to visit him, or, if they were sent for by King Claudius to spy on him.  (We know that R & G were brought there to be spies.  We watch Hamlet deeply hurt, discovering his friends’ betrayal.)

We moved around the circle slowly reading the scene—Hamlet keeps probing; R &G keep evading his questions. When Tom’s turn came, an urgent line of Hamlet’s fell to him. Hamlet pleads with his old friends to level with him.

Tom looked hard at his book and read his line silently, then looked up and, speaking directly to the next man in the circle, who turned to face him—as if they were alone reading the scene—Tom said, simply, deeply, “If you love me, hold not off.” The men were silent for a moment.  They had heard not just the words, but also the meaning: Hamlet is a man asking for the truth from his friends; he is invoking their love for him as a righteous means to that truth. Hamlet’s unguarded, honest moment became Tom’s own unguarded moment. As a brave, engaged reader, he risked saying “If you love me” without a smirk, without an embarrassed chuckle, and, because of his effort, the class took a leap.  They all understand conning, betrayal, and the need for true friends. The nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenster ’s possible turning point—from paid deception back to friendship— was made clear to the men in the room by Tom’s authentic line reading. The stakes for these false friends were high: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do “hold off”; they continue on their course of deception and ultimately they perish.

I am grateful that I said “yes” to this experience.  “If you love me, hold not off” my students say to me with their desire to learn and, as adequately as I can, I have answered.

 

Prison Performing Arts in the Spare Change Spotlight

Today, we introduce another great organization that could use your spare change. Prison Performing Arts fuses creativity and service in a way that reaches beyond individual creativity towards a larger sense of wisdom and love. 

Prison Performing Arts is a 21-year-old, multi-discipline, literacy and performing arts program that serves incarcerated adults and children. In Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A, Prison Performing Arts works with incarcerated people to write poems, perform Shakespeare and much more.

The work of Prison Performing Arts is the embodiment of creativity infused with service, community and spirit.  But don’t take our word for it. Below you will find the poem of Marcia, which was taken from the inspiring Prison Performing Arts blog, and tomorrow Dr. Margot Sempreora will share her journey working as a teacher with Prison Performing Arts. Financial donations can be made through the Prison Performing Arts website or by mail and you can contact them directly to become involved in person if you live in the Saint Louis area.

“Sound Advice” 
By: Marcia

Aim high
Follow your arrow
wherever it points
Sing your heart out
Love who you love
no matter what
Do what the hell you want to do
since everyone will have their
opinion either way.
Push the envelope
all the way to the addressee
Don’t let judgmental people
or your own inhibitions
throw you off track
Make lots of noise
Kiss lots of boys
or kiss lots of girls if that’s what you like
but love yourself
because it’s better to be hated for
who you are than loved for who you are not.

Waves

By: Autumn Elizabeth

Does it ever seem like Sophia’s directions come in waves? For me it does. Just when I think I have a grip on the direction God wants me to take in my life, something changes and everything looks different.

As I prepare for a trip back to the U.S., back to places where I had a different life, I can’t help but look back on the paths I almost took. At one time I heard God calling me to do work at my church in Saint Louis with youth, and so I did for 5 years. Then I left them when I eloped with my now ex-partner and moved to another city and participated in two years of national service with AmeriCorps. That is what I felt called to do.

I have made many decisions in my life, followed my heart and my understanding of the Holy Spirit to many cities, and a few countries. Sometimes I worry that my path has been too scattered, too varied  too different. But then, when I am feeling most lost on my path, I stumble across these words from Paula D’Arcy’s book Gift of the Red Bird:

Ultimately God remains a mystery to me.  Sometimes friend, or father,mother, listener, guide, lover, distant,…silent.  Always he [or she] says, WILL YOU FOLLOW ME? Even if there’s nothing to give you stability? Even if you can’t understand where I am leading you? Even if you must wait for things you desire? Even in the darkness?

These words remind me that the voice of Holy Wisdom is not always clear, does not always come when we want it most. We must follow the voice of Sophia the way surfers follow waves. We must wait for the right one and then go with it as far as we can.