Fog Blog

Marybeth Hamilton is a mindfulness teacher who works with prison inmates and with teenagers in the Columbus public schools. She will be posting reflections about her programs on the first Thursday of every month. She can be reached at marybethhamilton13@gmail.com.

Early last Friday morning, as the sun edged over the horizon, I drove thirty miles out of Columbus to a women’s reformatory, where I teach a weekly class in mindful awareness. I’ve done this for the past five months, working with inmates preparing for transition, first-time offenders who are nearing their date of release. Ordinarily the trip takes me 45 minutes, but on Friday I got there early, so I drove past the prison gates and parked by a cornfield. Fog had descended just before dawn, and the rising sun and fields and trees were shrouded in thick banks of mist. I sat in stillness immersing myself in the eerie beauty, soaking up the dim, hazy light.

Ten minutes later I arrived at the prison to find that the fog that I had been savoring had prompted a security alert. Preventing escapes and ensuring safety requires an unobstructed view of the grounds, all the way to the barbed wire fence. The moment that the mist descended, the prison staff activated the “fog plan”. Inmates were instructed to return to their rooms, and then the guards would do a headcount. Once every woman was accounted for, my students could emerge and our class could begin.

As a novice teacher in a reformatory, I regularly confront these kinds of moments: when my perceptions of the world are upended, when the meaning of familiar things radically shifts. Inside the prison gates, even the most benign objects can transmute into dangers. Back in May, when I planned my first class, I hoped to begin with a classic mindfulness exercise: handing each woman a raisin so she could look at it deeply, feeling it, smelling it, rolling it between her fingers, even listening to the sounds it emitted, before finally putting it into her mouth. I had to abandon the plan when I learned that bringing in food, of any sort, is usually forbidden, and that raisins always are: they can be a source of intoxication, since inmates can hoard them to make wine.

Those kinds of experiences make my job challenging, but they also make it exceptionally rewarding. The aim of mindfulness practice, after all, is to open us up to fresh perception, to peel away the layers of preconception that prevent us from experiencing each moment anew. “Before familiarity can turn into awareness, the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness”, wrote the playwright Bertolt Brecht. “We must give up assuming that the object in question needs no explanation”. Every time I step through the prison gates, I find familiar objects that need new explanations. Nothing, I realize, can be taken for granted – not fog, not raisins, and certainly not freedom.

Marybeth Hamilton

 

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One Response to Fog Blog
  1. Jennifer

    Wow!