Opening My Soul to My People
Last Tuesday, I had a rare opportunity that was both a relief and a fear-inducing event. In the aftermath, of course, I am so grateful to have experienced the vulnerability and fragility of the situation.
A few months ago, my friend Sue, whom is also the programs chair for a local Quilt Guild, asked me to do a lecture for this Guild. This is not unusual, I typically do between 2 an 6 guild lectures a month right now, which is both a pleasure and an honor. The topic for this particular lecture, though, was a little different. The theme for the year is "Quilts with a Story". And what she wanted was our MFEO (Made For Each Other) story. That means a trunk show of our pre-fused, laser cut applique quilts and how we came to me. Now, I'm used to telling our story. Well, sort of. In the introduction to just about any lecture I give on any topic, included is the story of how MFEO came to be. But something sat a little heavy with me the week leading up to my lecture. One, instead of our MFEO story just being the standard 10 minute introduction, I needed to fill about 45 minutes with an entire program. Second, it was pointed out to me more than once that technically, I was only telling half of our story. True, MFEO up until now mostly came from Brie's illness and the search for happiness, so it's hard to figure out how my history or my experience really plays into the start of MFEO.
I grappled with this, partly because while my history and my experience with the justice system and my time in prison isn't a secret, it's not exactly something I've spoken about so openly, especially in front of a crowd. Sue knows of my past somewhat, and without saying it directly, she wanted it to be just as much my story as Brie's. And so I dug deep. It occurred to me, after starting to read a book by Adam Grant called "Option B" that, to some degree, MFEO is our Option B. Option B means that after a traumatic, life-altering experience (death of a spouse when you are still raising young children, an illness that changes your abilities, etc.), you need to find the reason to not just get up every morning, but a way to derive joy from life. Thankfully, there is over a decade between me and my release from prison. If you know me at all, you know those first few years out of prison were actually worse than my time in prison. I derive joy now, that's for sure, but I still deal with the stigma and lasting impression of my incarceration. It's not something I've figured out how to talk about and use to help others just yet.
Furthermore, MFEO was founded on the basis of being more than a profit-earning business. Both Brie and I wanted to take the struggles of our past (and present) and use them to build this amazing "thing". Brie has always been very private, but falling so ill quickly after buying a quilt shop brought a lot more attention that she was used to. MFEO gives her a way to talk about her illness, and eventually to be a voice for others, to reach others that are also living a similar life. And the same for me - I really want MFEO to be the way for me to connect with others, to build resources for others, to inspire others, to help others cope with incarceration way better than I did. This is absolutely the heart of MFEO. We worked really hard over the last two years to help Brie relieve herself of the guilt and shame she has placed on herself, and get her to a place where she's okay with me talking about it to guilds and customers. How is it fair that I expect her to be so vulnerable and transparent, when I am taking the easy way out? It isn't. Leading up to the big event, I was a case of nerves, and I vacillated between wanting to back out, and to really face it head on and relieve myself of this stigma. The morning of the guild lecture, I was ready. Completely. The quilting community typically welcomes one with open arms, and this guild in particular is known for being warm and kind and embracing. I couldn't imagine doing this talk for the first time anywhere else.
Now, before we even get to the lecture part, there were tow incredible things that happened that told me, "YES. This is exactly what you need to do." One is that an unexpected visitor was at the guild meeting that day. Years and years ago, when I was pregnant with Aaron, I was a brand new sewer. I don't think I was even a quilter yet. I had just learned to sew. I had a class with a lady at the local Joann's, and when I found out I was pregnant with Aaron, I spent a lot of time there buying fabric and things to put together his nursery. Joyce had just started working there, and because we had become so acquainted, she sort of became Aaron's surrogate grandmother. She entertained him a lot in those early years so I could have free hands to do my shopping. It sounds silly, but it was a huge relief in the early years of motherhood. Since I own a quilt shop, I obviously don't spend much time, if any, at Joann's, so I never get to see Joyce. But she stays on my mind. I'll be darned if I'm not sitting at a table before the meeting started, and a lady sat down across from me, touched my hand, and said she loved what I had done to my hair. It was Joyce! Though it took me a minute to figure that out. Even more incredible, it was the very first time she had ever visited this guild, or any guild for that matter. One of the other ladies in the guild that is a member brought her as a guest for the first time. And it was the meeting in which I was the guest speaker. Truly an honoring moment that she could be there to hear my story. In addition to that, I received an email from a person I met over the last year through the shop and other things (mostly vintage machines). She had seen a recent post about my history with prison and what not, and felt the need to message me. I don't want to put any specifics about her situation, because I completely respect a person's privacy. But she was just looking for a friend or someone, anyone, that would understand her families pain and hurt. Someone in her family was dealing with an addiction, in pain, hurting, scared, and lost. This email came to me 10 minutes before I was due to be on the stage and telling my own story of struggle and feeling low and beneath the world at large. That moment, it all clicked. My biggest question was, "Okay, but really... while people will understand and accept my history, why does this even apply to a quilt guild?" That email was my answer. Because the justice system is so messed up, and because our incarceration rate is so high, it's nearly impossible to find a family that isn't somehow affected. But our society is one of shame. We hide these things and suffer in silence. We assume people will judge us, even shun us. We are left to ourselves. If I can be brave enough to continue to tell my story and keep myself open, I will connect with others that are suffering and going at it alone. I know what that feels like, and I never want anyone to have to go it alone! I don't always have answers, and I won't ever claim to. But I have experience, I have perspective. I have an open heart and an open mind, and it's been made clear to me that this is my destined path. Speaking about prison in front of quilt guild seemed frivolous and irrelevant at first, but I realized the only way to reach others is do exactly this. And I was right. I am honored that I am asked to speak in front of so many people, not only because of my love of quilting and quilters, but because it gives me a chance to say to someone, "if you or someone you know is going through a similar tough time, I am here for you." I have a feeling I will cross paths with the right people at the right time while I'm at the shop. The thing is, I'm an introvert (yes, really!), and I would never have voluntarily chosen to spend my every waking moment with people. I didn't choose this, it chose me. I really wish this message didn't resonate with so many people. It was a truly freeing experience to stand in front of a group of people I know, and be so open about my experience. As expected, I received a lot of support and hugs and kind words. It's something that will stick with me the rest of my life.