This is a story about bad news. That could have been good news. About a reporter that had an opportunity to lift people up, and chose to drag them down. I am going to rewrite her story.
But first, a little back story.
When I was 13, my Dad went to prison. I remember being so mortified when his crime was printed in the local paper. Shortly after that , we moved to another town, I went to a new school. I hoped that his crime would be buried, and I never talked about him to my new friends. My visits to the prison were a source of shame and embarrassment.
He passed 3 years ago, and I still get a pit in my stomach when someone asks “what did he do?” Why? Because his 78 years on this planet shouldn’t be summed up in one sentence, the worst thing he ever did. My Dad played every instrument by ear. He was an artist in almost every medium. He taught my boys the name of every kind of tree. He hoarded. He laughed a lot, mostly at his own jokes. And he was my greatest teacher. He taught me the power of forgiveness.
My Dad was an alcoholic. His drinking cost him dearly. 15 years in prison for mistakes he made. He missed my wedding, and the birth of his first Grandson. So when he got out, thank all the powers that be, he stayed sober. We got 20 good years with him before he passed. My boys didn’t know he was in prison, until he was gone. It was not my story to tell, and he chose to leave his past behind him.
After my Dad’s death, I felt more free to share my experience. I was finally ready to heed my mentor, and go back to my wounds. I returned to prison, this time as a yoga teacher. To hear the whole story of how that happened, check out my Ted talk.
So why this story now? Because last week, all of my old feelings of shame and embarrassment were drudged up again. By a not-so-well meaning reporter.
In my TED talk, I introduce a woman who is serving a life sentence. After she graduated from our 200 hour program, she went on to complete a full 500 hours of training, much of it through the mail and phone calls, during the quarantine. On Wednesday, a handful of us were invited to attend her 500 Hour graduation.
I remember distinctly the day when, in the 200-Hour program, Ferosa declared her new “stand”. She stepped into a new narrative. “As long as I am here, I will serve.” And serve is what she does. During quarantine, she taught 5-6 yoga classes a day, to the women who were isolated, anxious, and stressed out. She developed a yoga program for the women in the mental health unit, and the director is amazed at how this is helping the women. Ferosa shares yoga tips daily with the officers, and finds that it makes the whole prison environment more peaceful and livable. She lifts people up every day, in every way.
One after another, the women who take her classes stood and acknowledged her influence in their lives. They all wrote letters letting her know what a positive influence she has been to them.
Most of these women will be out eventually. They will be our neighbors, and because of yoga, and Ferosa’s work on the inside, they have tools and life skills to contribute to their communities in a positive way.
Jeanne Mace is a wonderful example of this. She finished her 200 Hour certification on the inside. She has been out now for two years and is doing wonderful things in the community. She teaches yoga to seniors, helps our aging friends with affordable housing, and last week, taught a class at the State Capitol to hundreds of people.
Jeanne had the courage to tell the crowd that she was trained to teach yoga in the Utah State Prison, and said with a slight grin, “look at me now, teaching yoga at the Utah State Capitol!”
It’s a success story. It’s a feel good story. It’s a story of hope, of prison reform, and of second chances. It’s a story about the present and the future. Not about the past. None of us deserve to be pinned to the worst thing we’ve ever done, especially when we are doing so much to move forward.
I am sorry that Annie Knox and her editor Brian West didn’t see it this way.
Friends, do me a favor. Stop asking the question “what did you do”? When you meet a person who has served time, ask what they are doing now. And more importantly, what they look forward to. Let’s look forward with them.