two truths and a lie

There is an ice breaker /getting to know you game called two truths and lie, you tell 2 truths about yourself and one lie. Participants need to guess what the truths are and what is the lie a person is telling is.

We started the session playing this game. The truths are deep dark and each one physically hurts to hear.

I can be crazy.
I chew Meth (as opposed to smoking it –who knew?).
My mother is dead.
I am a drug addict.
I need to smile more.

The lies are ridicules, silly, young and make let us laugh a big laugh, a laugh of release a little hysterical in attempt to ease the pain of the truths.

My girlfriend is fat.
I have a car that has no wheels.
I love the color blue.
My mom is anorexic.
I don’t like candy.

There is a voice in my head begging the lie to be true, and the truths to be some crazy lie. But I know better.

We use props to tell stories and then I talk about how each of us have a story and we will learn together how to move forward and hopefully change that story. God, how I want to help these girls change their story.

So I ask, tell me right now, who are you, what is your story? If the truths hurt, their stories and who they are hit so hard I hold my core tight .

I am 14 years old and 14 weeks pregnant.
I am a freak.
I am a crack baby.
I am random.

My god, my god random? What does that even mean?

I am a girl people think they can use.

I listen, and I hold my core tight, stand straight, as if not mortified by what I hear. And then, she agreed to read, big tough young woman, bent over like a small girl.

Quietly she started to read.

“Can you speak a little louder?” I ask in a whisper.
“NO” she doesn’t raise her face when she answers. “This is what I can do. Listen harder.” I do, we all do. “Fuck,” she says. “I’m going to cry.”
“That’s ok.” I can barely speak, my eyes filled with tears.

Her tears fall on the paper as she reads, puddles of pain forming on top of the words.

I am alone.
I am lonely.
I am homeless.
I am just a teen trying to survive.
I am someone no one cares about.
I trust no one.

I sit down on the floor at her feet. I put my hand on her arm. It’s very quiet; one of the girls comes over and stands behind her. Others are crying .

She continues.

I have a bad temper, but I want to change.
Don’t judge a book by its cover!

I wipe her tears; I gently say to her, “Look at me. Please look in my eyes,” I say again, and wait.
She looks down in to my eyes. “Do you trust me?” I ask.
“NO.”
“Good” I smile. She looks a little confused. “I hope you will. But all in good time. I will earn your trust. OK?”
“Yes” she says. 

I wipe her tears, I hold her close, and whisper in her ear, “I care, I do. I know you don’t believe me, but I will show you and I will bring others that care too. Just wait you will see!”

I stand up, find my core and hold it tight. “OK,” I smile like I just saw a baby born. "That was amazing, you guys did great."

My sweet assistant who is all of 24 amazes me again and again. She takes the room and tells the girls that if they (the girls) want to ask us about our story they can. She smiles her bright smile and tells them that she will write an  I am, and read it to them next week. I am so proud of her, and so lucky to have her by my side. Yes I agree, I will too.

The layers are unfolding. I sigh, so young and so many layers; it shouldn’t be so complicated for them, not yet!

On my drive home I think of my … I am.

I am a mother, a daughter a sister and wife.
I am an activist.
I am so lucky to have had an abundance of joy opportunity and a supportive village in my life.
I try with all I have to see the light in the dark.
I am a woman who believes with everything I am that change is possible and that love, well love, love is the seed of that change.
I am a person who wants to believe and asks, hell, begs god and society to help me help these girls understand that they can be more.
Have more.
But most of all deserve more, they deserve so much more.
I am.

giants in the sky

It has not been the best mommy week for me. I was late twice picking my youngest up. I totally wasn’t THE mommy in some massive drama in my middle child’s world. I didn’t sign up for the school event next week. My oldest is in middle school, so basically when I breathe, I mortify her.
I struggle between being the mommy I am, the mommy I want to be, and that mommy I think I should be.

I told my little one upon her sobbing when she was the last one sitting waiting in the ballet studio, for what seemed to her like eternity, that she has to trust me, that I will always come pick her up. Sometimes, I’m just late.

“I thought you went home and left me here” she wailed. 
“I am sorry, I am so sorry” as I choked on my own tears. I said, “I’d never leave you sweetie!” 

Today in juvie we started to move forward. I have a good solid group; they are confidant and articulate. We have received great news this week, and it looks like we will be filming this group and making a documentary film. I am happy, I am worried, I am thrilled. I am, to be honest, a little scared.

I KNOW I want to share not only through this blog, but with a visual what theatre can do - what love and attention can do. I know I want to show the world what change looks like, and how transformation is possible. But like my mommy challenge’s, here too I am challenged. Challenged between the desire to show the transformation and to protect the transformation and the amazingly intimate process I go through with the group. 

The camera can change things. I worry how will they adapt? Will this affect the process? I don’t remember worrying so much last time we filmed, but alas, I am sure I did! 

I must have the girls sign waivers. They just met me, and I am asking them to trust me. “We have an opportunity to do something special,” I tell them. “I promise you that I will never use this to hurt you." How many times have they heard that? I think. “We will turn off the camera whenever you ask us to,” I assure them. I hand out the wavers.

“I want to be a movie star,” one says.
“Are we going to be famous?” the other one asks.
“I don’t want to do this,” the third says just to try me .

I quietly answer every question. I explain they do NOT have to do this and that they will NOT be the Kardashians. I tell them I want the world to see what I get to see, that they are so much more than the crime they committed. “I think your story is worthy of being told”
“What’s worthy?” One asks Oyy, I think. What am I doing? 
“I know you don’t know me, but I want you to know that I care about you. I don’t know you, but I see you.” I look at them. As always I have faith, but I see the challenges that await me. I can see giants in the sky.

As I drove home I felt overwhelmed. The director of the camp signed what he had to sign. The girls signed. The camp knows this is going to happen, the movie is going to happen. People are ready; am I ready? This is a huge responsibility! I get a little frantic. It really is giant... 

The traffic is really bad. I am so distracted, once again I am late to pick up my children and their friend. I have no snack I have no drinks. This is NOT a good mommy week for me.

In choir they learned the song “There Are Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods. When I arrive they are singing and dancing and laughing and putting on a British accent. Funny they are singing how I felt – everything is big –SO MUCH bigger than me - definitely bigger than what I know.

They tell me in the car that they think the music teacher and the art teacher are in love. Maybe they are even married. Our friend says, “But he is from New York.”
My daughter answered, “So? He can’t get married?” We all laugh.

We stop at the farmers market for dinner. We sit at the table, and my little one curls up in my lap. I whisper in her ear, “I’m sorry I was late” my heart aching that this happened again. She lifted her head and said without a care in the world, “It"s ok, Mommy. They must have needed you in jail. I knew you’d come,” and she kissed me, kissed me, kissed me.

I had a moment of balance. My new group does not know me yet, but they will. The film will be brilliant because there is a brilliant story waiting to be told. And my child will be okay, even if I am THAT mom – who is late and forgets the snack.

“There are giants in the sky! There are big tall terrible giants in the sky!”

The girls sing and skip as we walk back to the car.
“Mommy –“
“What?”
“Nothing.”
And suddenly, I know it will all be okay – even if sometimes there are giants in the sky. Because here is the thing about giants, if you stop, look them in the eye, smile and breathe, they might not be so bad after all.

knowing

I am technologically challenged. My 11-year-old set up my iPad when she was 9. 

I recently moved from a smartphone to an iPhone. I constantly go back to the store with the new phone asking them to show me how, what, and where. There is so much, so incredibly much that I don't know, that I don't understand and that I am not good at. This gets me frustrated, frazzled, and all together bent out of shape.

Today I met my new group of girls. As hard as I try I will never understand their world.

We pass a ball around. "Tell me something you like," I ask.
"Smoking," she says.
"Cigarettes?" I ask.
"No, crystal meth," she smiles. "Just keeping it real Ms."

I feel like my phone crashed and I don't know what to do. "Okay," I say, "I appreciate your honesty.

If I have learned anything from my phone, it's if you press the buttons too many times, bad things happen. I move on - we laugh. I answer questions. They are hesitant, shy, but altogether well behaved. They are so tough, but really? Delicate as my electronic devises.

As my assistant and I are walking out, we stop to talk to the probation officers in charge. I have to say that although at times they can be challenging, I truly adore the people who are on the Thursday shift up at Camp Scudder.

They tell us that we really need to be careful of what we hand out at the final performance. I have no idea what they are talking about. 

"The paper you handed out." We created a playbill to give to the guests who came. "There were things there that were not cool. There was gang related material."

"WHAT???" My assistant and I are in shock. There is so much we don't know. There is so much we don't understand. I get a little nauseous, kind of like when I thought I lost all the photos on my phone. "Oh my god! We didn't know," we say.

The sweet probation officer whom I have been working with for four years smiles a big smile and says, "How could you? So, before you give anything out, just give it to us to look at." He said it simple and clear; he wasn't angry. "There are things you can't know, and therefore don't see." 

I have to say, not only didn't we see it, what we did see is embarrassingly naive. We tell them what we thought and what we read when we looked at what the girls wrote and drew, and they laughed out loud. "It's ok we don't always know or see it, but then the kids tell us. We know you are doing good work, just pass things through us."

We can only know what we know.

But at the same time, we must always be open to learn more, to reach for things that seem out of our realm. There are worlds of difference out there waiting to challenge us. We need to accept that and push forward. 

I think of my new group. I don't know them yet. They are a little skeptical and very weary. I know that in 10 weeks they will be different, and by then I will know them. 

I open my heart to learn, I open my heart to teach, and I open my heart and make space to let them in. 

There are things i will never understand. There is a constant learning curve, just like my phone - that I am still struggling with. But I know that once I figure it out? I can get so much information and connect with anyone anywhere anytime. It will all come together.

We can't see what we don't know, but we must SEE in order to know. As I enter the new girls' names into my computer, I stop. I look at each name I write; I think of what she likes, what her favorite food is, and I try to see her. Because this is how I will learn. Not by the crime she committed or her file or the complaints written about her.

I will learn by hearing what matters to her. I will learn by listening to her voice and helping her find one. I will learn by accepting that I do not and cannot know her world. And just like my phone, I will do everything I can to try and understand. I will have humor and in time I will figure it out.

marathon

I have never run a marathon.

Even in the years that I was really fit, marathons seemed like a hard challenge. You need to train, and then actually do it. I hear that the feeling at the end cannot be beat!

The past ten weeks have been a serious marathon. This particular group in juvie was broken, violent, edgy, and hard to reach. My marathon had a winding road, many ups and downs, and for a while I really could not see, or even believe that I would ever see the finish line, let alone actually get to it.

As in real marathons, I had many people cheering me on the way, handing me water, candy, and good wishes. There were all of you, who have been following my blog, sending messages, comments, and good vibrations. Each one giving me a push and momentum to keep going. There were people that contributed money, time, and effort. Every donation counted. It allowed us to buy props, pizza, fill our tanks with gas (literally and metaphorically), and simply keep running.

Then, there is my village, who listened, supported, took care of my kids, and applauded my every turn. And then there is my inner circle, who cupped my many tears in their hands, listened to my existential babble, and cleared the haze when I started getting a little delirious.

This was no easy marathon. This group in juvie was really like no other. At some point I felt like I wasn’t reaching the girls, that I cannot make a difference. I started to feel like I will never reach the finish line, and this week, even when I could see it clearly, I wasn’t confident.

Two girls got early release, one went to the dentist, and another was transferred to a different facility. Two got in a fight; one talked back to me. Although I could see that finish line ribbon, and I know Thursday would arrive, I was exhausted, worried, and to be honest, a little defeated.

But through all of this, I never doubted the power of theatre. I have done this enough to know that Dr. Theatre always arrives before the show and does that theatre magic. But most of all, I will never stop believing that anyone and everyone, no matter how broken, can make it to the finish line, if we just let them and/or help them.

Today they did just that. We did it together. And it was unbelievable.

I wish you could have seen them, my girls. They were beautiful, really. My quiet girl didn’t stop talking. The very violent one was soft and kind. The African American put makeup on the rival Latina. My most hurting one shared her painful love letter with everyone and brought us all to tears. After, she told us how great it felt. I can only hop that this, this experience, will somehow mend her shattered heart.

We crossed the finish line, and well, it was awesome. My invincible assistant, who with grace and humor ran the entire marathon with me, and I were both so drained after the show we didn’t know if we were coming or going. When the show was over and after lunch, we took the girls into a small back room. “You did great. You did amazing. We are so proud.”

They were different. We sat huddled together. They were sitting on top of each other, close, calm, content. “This is to teach you that you can,” I tell them.

“Ya,” one says, “it is to give us hope.”
“No,” I say. “Not hope. You are not hoping to do it. YOU did it. You didn’t cuss for an hour and a half,” I add. (Although throughout the program I allow profanity, we keep it out of the final presentation.)
“Ya, that’s right,” they nod, agree, are astonished, and laugh.
“My heart was beating so hard before the show I thought it was going to jump out,” one giggled.

We hugged. We kissed. I told them that when the winds of lure come to pull them back to their old ways, they need to remember today, and that they can do better.

I barely made it home, and fell into bed and slept for two hours. My body aches a little. I am beat, such it is when you finish a marathon.

So this holiday season and as we bring in 2015, I wish you all the strength and courage and faith to run your marathon, whatever it may be. I wish you the wisdom to know that you will make it to the finish line, even if you don’t cross it.

I’d like to thank you all again for running with me – because running by yourself can be so very lonely.

I will be on a break from juvie until the end of January. And then I will be back my hand reached out inviting you to join me. I hope you will.

Happy, happy holidays, and may the new year bring you an abundance of joy!!

trust

We don’t trust because we are afraid, because we don’t want to be disappointed, because we do not want to be let down. Trusting can leave us vulnerable.

This week I chose not to be afraid and to trust. Trust someone who is not used to being trusted. I hired a graduate of my program in the youth incarceration facility who is now out, and this week she started to work for my organization. It was a small job. It wasn’t a real risk, just a baby one, and I took it. I gave her a task, and then I gave her cash for the task. I was confident and optimistic that she would do it. But then I let fear kick in.

Oh no, maybe I shouldn’t have given her cash. Oh no, maybe she will not do what I asked her to do. Oh no, maybe I just handed her drug money.

I talk endlessly about giving the first chances that these kids never had, and here I am second guessing and worrying. I have good reason to do so. We all do. We should be afraid. But fear cannot and should not take away our trust because if we really want to give a chance, well we must touch our fear, see it, acknowledge it, and coexist with it. We also must give a chance to fail. We must be ready for it, embrace it, and then, trust again.

The beautiful thing? My girl came through. Not exactly the way I wanted. I, too, need to learn to be clearer about what I want and need her to do. But she came through. I panicked and second-guessed myself. She was embarrassed that she made a few mistakes. It’s funny because I think it might be scarier for her that I am trusting her than the fear I have of her not coming through. So she did the task, and she was proud. Oh my god, she was proud.

We all need to trust regardless of the fear. We must trust our choices and other people choosing us. But most of all, we must learn to trust the process, not because it will give us an outcome, but because it will teach us what the outcome can be.

I texted and called. She explained and then disappeared. I was so worried, and ironically she missed the train to where she was supposed to meet me. Of course it wasn’t a big deal, because I chose not to make it one, and she got on the next train and all was good. But when I thought about it she hasn’t really missed any train.

You see, SHE IS the train moving forward, and I am the station. We all are. We are the stations waiting for these kids to stop, get off, be and thrive. So, we must have trust that they will not go off the tracks. We must trust even when it is a little scary. We must trust, because it is our trust that can and will fuel their engine. The engine that is their future.

As you light the first light of Hanukkah tonight, trust yourself and others a little more. Trust that the world can be a better place, and know you can make it just that!

pray

I was supposed to have coffee with some friends. I need that coffee. I need my people. My heart is a little flat.

I wake up and it is raining. I get a text from a friend who is supposed to cut the potatoes for latkes at my daughter’s school. “I can’t go. Can you?”
I text back, “Well, I’m telling a story next week. Wasn’t going to come to the latke making shebang.”

My little one comes to my bed. It is crazy early. She is dressed and ready to go. “Ema, please come to make latkes in my class,” she begs.
“Baby, I’m coming next Friday to tell a story!” I say half asleep.
“Look at your calendar. Can you come today?” begging again.
“I’m not awake yet. Let me see.” I roll over thinking if my back is to her maybe she’ll stop asking. She leaves the room and comes back after five minutes.
“Did you look at your calendar?”
I haven’t moved. It’s dark.
“Please come, Ema.”
“Okay,” I say.

I text my friends. I’m not coming to the coffee. I text the flu-ridden mom, I’ll go. I’m a little bummed, but my kid is in seventh heaven. Okay, I think, in a few years she’ll be like my middle school daughter and will be mortified when I walk in to school. I will make latkes this week and tell a story next week.

We get to school, and it’s me and three second-graders washing potatoes. We put the potatoes on a cart, and the girls walk backwards to the class. As they walk they make up a song and sing, “I can walk backwards, ‘cause I will not fall. I know this school. I’m not going to fall.” They all laugh and take the backward-walking challenge.

There are a bunch of parents doing different latke-making tasks. The teacher is loving and wonderful, commanding gently the many little hands wanting to help. There is music in the background, and you can hear the song “Happy” being practiced by a younger class in the auditorium preparing for the holiday concert. It is cold outside, but there is a warm, beautiful feeling in the school.

This coming week I will be in Juvie every day. The show is on Thursday. There is a tension and sadness in the air because of the holidays. A sadness you can only find in a place where there is no freedom, where there are no moms hovering around making latkes. Where there isn’t a teacher doting on the children and little girls confident they can and will not fall.

The probation officers make an effort to hang up Christmas stockings and decorations. They are trying really hard. They genuinely care for these kids, but there is no freedom.

At every moment someone can and will fall, deep down a dark hole.

I have a group that live in that hole. And frankly their darkness has been pulling me down, too. The show is just a few days away, and we are groveling. Two girls got early release, and on is goin to do her GED. Why didn’t anyone tell me? One is going to the dentist. Girls will be there; girls might be there. The show will go on.

I tell my assistant it is going to be fine, don’t worry. I worry. MY inside is getting dark. There was a bad fight the other day. One of my girls got stitches and has a black and blue eye. God, I think, I need you now. I know to some this might sound crazy, but I pray. I really pray.

You see, I talk to God a lot. I ask for a lot, sometimes for things I probably shouldn’t, but this time, I ask quietly, give some light please.

While my kids and I hang up our Chanukah decorations, my phone rings.
“Ms?”
“Yes.”
“I’m here.”

This is a favorite of mine who is out, but alas went astray and was caught. She had a court day scheduled and was sure she would get sent back to jail. We talked before the trial, and I told her to do everything we learned together in Relationships 101. Be kind. Have remorse. Ask for one more chance. Look at the judge. Apologize. Take Responsibility. And DO NOT CUSS!

“It’s not going to work,” she tells me.
“And what if it does?” I say.

Well, it did. I thank God. I say, I don’t want to be greedy, but can you give me some more?! Help us get through this week and make it to Thursday, please? And as I sit down on the chair and look at the decorations of menorahs and happy faces, I sigh and know it will be fine. It will be more than fine. There will be light.

learn

When I was in acting school, I learned the most important lesson from our strict acrobatic coach Boris. He used to yell at us in broken Hebrew, with a thick Russian accent, “Where it is hard, that is where you learn.”

Today was hard. Really hard. Long, tedious, and just hard. One of the girls went on trans (this is what they call it when they leave the camp on transportation, to a doctor’s appointment or court). So, one of the girls went on trans to get a wisdom tooth pulled. She met some other kids from her hood and cam back with A LOT of gossip.

They were chit chatty and not concentrated. It is a week to the final presentation. We have so much to do. One girl came back from therapy and beside the fact that she looked like she just got hit by a truck, she had crazy mean attitude, didn’t cooperate, and was really difficult.

I have said before that this group is broken. Well today they were shattered. What came with that was sassiness, lack of cooperation, attitude. I hold my breath, exercise every ounce of patience I have. I am sure that at some point my hair might just fall out all at once.

I have always believed in the hard work. Today was beyond hard. But, where it is hard is where we learn. The girls are touchy and easily pissed off. I am getting irritated and finding it hard to be who I need to be. My assistant and I exchange eye contact in despair. Thank the gods above and the amazing funder who made it possible for me to have an assistant because today she was my anchor and eased the hard. I tell the girls the show is next week. I think to myself this is going to be the week from hell. My inside is starting to panic a little.

I tell them they need to be present. I tell them I want their voice to be heard. I wonder if MY voice is being heard. When they pull it together, they actually do amazing work, but they can only pull it together for short intervals.

I know these intervals should be my grace, and they are, but they are short lived.

I tell them they are amazing, that the show is going to be the best ever. Again, as always, they don’t believe that anyone wants to see them, let alone come to the show. I think maybe I should cancel…

We write a song together about respect. I piss one girl off, and now she is glaring at me as if I am her rival homie. This is hard.

Where it is hard you learn. I tell them that I will never ask anyone to leave the program, BUT they do not HAVE to be in the program. This is not a program mandated by court.

I tell them I will not be angry if they do not want to continue or be in the show. I tell them I will never punish them and that I adore them.

Then the one who clearly had a hell of a ride in therapy is walking around, lies down on the stage, comes back.

“I ain’t doing this shit,” she says.
“Why don’t you leave,” I tell her. “I am not mad. Come back next week. You’ll be in the show, but if you’re not feeling it, you should go.”

Crap, I think, didn’t I just tell them I’ll never ask them to leave? I’m at my wits end, but I am patient.

I speak clearly, I ask, I explain, and I know it is my job to pick up their broken, but today I need to be Hercules. These are the days that it’s all about. This is the action of social action. Not leaving. Not taking action. This is when people usually walk away, give up, and stop believing that the broken can be fixed.

I know that THESE are the days I cannot lose my cool. This is the test. Today I am not sure I will. They are killing me. Then, to top it off there is a misunderstanding with the probation officer in charge. One said this, the other said that, and I got stuck in the middle. My sweet assistant who also is on the edge looks at me, “Really???”

“It’s okay,” I say. “Let’s just give it to them.” We walk out, and when we get to the office I apologize. I’m not even sure for what, but I know that when you say sorry first, people tend not to get angry. All is good. We walk out. I put my hand in my bag to get my car keys, and I am so spent that I realize I walked out of the facility with the walkie-talkie given to me for my safety, in my bag.

On my drive home I am sad, tired, and discouraged. But I know we will make it to the finish line on the 18th.

You see, THAT is the power of theater, and frankly the power of faith. I still, in spite of everything, know and believe they will have an amazing show. 

I might be put in jail for killing one of them, BUT I BELIEVE IN THEM.

Where it is hard, learn, learn, learn. I drive into my kids’ school and pick up carpool from an afterschool activity. Little girls pile into my car. I breathe. I become a mommy. As we drive home, we pass the candy factory that we pass every day on this drive.

“Mommy, open the window.”
“Ema, Ema, open the window!!!”
“Nomi, open the window!!”

As I open the windows, the sweet smell of chocolate and caramel fill the car. The girls start laughing and giggling. My middle child, who is sitting next to make, takes my hand and spontaneously says, “I love you, Mommy. Doesn’t it smell good?! I want to lick the air!” I feel my heavy heart lighten, and I remember that we can fix the broken with the whole.

I listen to the gaggle of girls talk about their day and their teachers. They are eating Pirate’s Booty and drinking organic boxes of apple juice from Trader Joe’s that somehow, miraculously, I actually remembered to put in the car before I left for juvie.

I think, this is how it should be.

Of course my girls in juvie are edgy and broken. They never had the chance to smell the chocolate. Change can’t happen without hard work. To take action sometimes you have to just be. And where it is hard is where we learn, about ourselves, about the other. And truth be told, a little smell of chocolate can go a long way!

fun

I took my oldest and my youngest to the Santa Monica Pier Amusement Park. They each brought a friend. It was the holiday weekend, and my middle one was on a sleepover. My oldest is a rollercoaster maven. My toothless seven-year-old was not really there yet.

The four girls ran to the first ride. My little one started out with happy, sweet screams that very quickly turned into true, fearful, get-me-off-of-this screaming. I stood on the side ready to vomit. The two-minute ride seemed like eternity, and my body turned inside out one hundred times till I held my girl in my arms and told her she doesn’t have to go on any rides anymore. “No I want to,” she said.”
“Really?” Oyy veyy, I think.
“Yes.”
“Okay, boba (doll in Hebrew), if you get scared close your eyes real tight and count to 100.”
“Okay,” and she runs and gets on the next ride.

I am sick to my stomach; my knees are weak. I watch her, eyes closed tight, counting out loud. Every time the ride comes near me I count out loud with her. Again, eternity passes by, and this stubborn, determined little girl of mine will not give up or give in.

I have three girls who I know will grow up to be the woman I want them to be. Strong-minded, unwavering, stubborn, strong women. I have said many times I am so proud of who they are going to be, but man, mothering them is a pain in the ass.

She gets on the ride and gets off, slowly facing her fear getting used to it and actually finding her fun. I learn later in the week that she actually got them to stop the roller coaster, she got off, waited patiently, and then got on and did the second loop. By the third hour she was happy as a lark and getting on and off and truly enjoying herself.

At the ice cream break sitting on my lap, she looked at me and smiled a big toothless smile. “It worked, Mommy, what you told me, your trick. It worked. I closed my eyes and counted and now I can do it.” I hugged her and I said, “No, you are the trick, not me. You didn’t give up even though I told you to and asked you to. You faced your fear and now you are having a great time kol Hakavod (good for you). I am so proud of you!”

“Do you have any other tricks?” she asks me.
“No,” I say, “and besides you don’t need them.” She runs off.

I have a very, very broken group this round in juvie. They each are in tremendous pain, so much that they don’t fight with each other. That is rare. How can they fight with each other when they are so busy fighting with themselves and their torments?

They are in remission. They have been abused. They are sad.

I found my last group incredibly difficult because of the gang movement and fighting, but this, this is a different difficult. It is hollow and distant. This is actually almost harder.

As we come close to the final presentation I am trying to put together the show. As I go over what they have written in the past seven weeks, I read and weep. How I wish my trick would work here to “close your eyes and count to one hundred and it will be over.”

I wish they could be like my seven-year-old – face their fear and it would be over and they would get over it. But alas, their fear is deeply rooted in the pain and violation they have suffered. Their fear is ingrained in their addictions and their neglect. Finding their fun is no easy task.

They are struggling creating improvisations, and although this is a deep and smart group, the attention span is short. I struggle to figure out what to bring them, and I decide to step out of my curriculum and just find the fun. I bring a big bag of props and we play. And as always, and a little like my child, they run ten steps ahead.

Instead of taking one prop, they each take five. They put them on their bodies; they hold them in their hands. So instead of telling a story together, where each one of us adds a sentence with our prop, I ask each one to tell a story by themselves with all the props they took.

“No, we don’t know how to do that.”
“No, we can’t.”
“No, we don’t want to!” They whine in a panic.
“Yes you can. Just get up and just go for it.” I tell them. And the magic happened. The fun emerged, and the pain for a moment actually went away.

They were funny and charming, witty, and frankly brilliant. My assistant and I were on the floor laughing. On my way home I cry. I cry because I so desperately want the moment to last. I want the joy to prevail. I cry because it worked. My trick worked.

“Mommy,” me seven year old said. “You have good tricks.”
“I try, baby. I really try.”

And sometimes, well sometimes, it actually works.

thanks

A couple retires and decides they want to give back. They chose to become a foster family and take in two little girls. They raise them for thirteen years and give them everything they need and want.  The older girl is troubled and cannot let go of her demons. She decides to run away and takes the little one with her – drugs, alcohol.

They come back to rob the foster home, hurt the foster parents. They are thrown back into the system, sent from house to house. The oldest gets pregnant. The youngest joins the gang. She is now in jail.

The foster parents who love them are too old to deal with them anymore, yet they stay in touch. They write letters and try to be a constant in their life. I desperately want to believe in the power of love and good, but there are demons that even the strongest of love cannot slay.

When I walk into juvie today, the younger sister is sitting, tears rolling down her eyes.

“My sister is missing. She and her baby can’t be found.” I have not even put my bag down, and I can’t breathe.

“Sweetheart, I’m sorry,” I say.

I put my stuff on the chair and kneel down next to her. I whisper to her and listen to the story. I tell her we’ll talk about it in class and that she will be able to write her sister. She looks at me, and I say, “You’ll see. Come.”

A different girl comes to me and says, “I want to go to the box.” The box is solitude. “I need to be alone. I want to be in the box till I get out,” she adds.
“When’s that?” I ask.
“In May,” she shrugs.
“Sweetie, you can’t stay in the box till May.”
“Well I don’t want to see these people,” she answers dryly.
“What do you do in the box?” I ask.
“I can be,” she says.
“Well, pretend you are in the box and just ignore everyone.” She looks at me. “Do you understand what I am saying?” I ask.
“I think so,” she says.
“Be by yourself here. Just mind your own business.” She just looks through me. I put my arms around her. This kid has been in three fights in the past two days. She is so beautiful, but her demons are so deep, my sweet girl is crawling out of her skin.

Today we talk about love and write love letters. It is deep and intense. Meaningful and so incredibly hard. They pour their heart out and are ready to kill me when I ask them to read the letter out loud.

“What??” they say. “You didn’t tell us we would have to do that.”
“Well, I want you to share with us, talk about emotions. Let’s learn from each other,” I tell them.

Slowly after I ask, beg, make deals, one by one they share and read. It gets very quiet. The air is very thick but warm. Tears are rolling down my assistant’s and my cheeks. Frankly I am ready to fall apart. The letters are filled with pain and hurt and young love. These girls have been used and broken. Then there is a beautiful love letter to a mom. And then a heart wrenching letter to the older sister. This is a turning moment. This is where the group, regardless of color and gang affiliation, open, trust, and bond.

We end in a circle holding hands. I thank them for sharing. I thank them for reading the poems out loud. I tell them to be able to love is a gift. I tell them the letters are beautiful as them. And I get big stunning smiles. We hug long embraces, and I know from now it will be different because our hearts have been exposed and now are open to each other.

When I get into my car I listen to my messages and return a call to a friend who just got a new job. I say Mazal Tov and start to cry, crazy, a little uncontrolled crying. I try to explain. I apologize and then I start to laugh, “Omg.” I say, “I must sound crazy.” I say I am so happy for her and hang up. I smile knowing she’ll understand. She knows me and my work well.

How fortunate am I that this friend knows how to hold my heart.

You see this is the thing about our heart. When you open it, it can get hurt and it can break, but it can also sing and it can dance.

I believe that we actually need both to happen to truly live.

So, as you sit down at your Thanksgiving table this week, forgive the people who broke your heart. Embrace the people that made your heart dance. Let your demons rest. And above all be grateful for everything you have, because you have so, so much. More than you know.

innocence

Last week one of my juvie girls celebrated her 16th birthday. I have told you about this girl, I met her three years ago. The first time she was incarcerated, we celebrated her 13th birthday together.

A lot has happened since then. She has been in and out of jail twice (this is her third time) and she had a baby.

One truly significant thing that happened is that she discovered her voice. She is an AMAZING writer. The first time she did my program she wrote a poem so strong and so intense it moved my world, it was called the little girl inside me...

The little girl who lives in me wishes she can come out and play.
The little girl who lives inside tells me, she wishes everyone would only see her in the eyes. She told me, all she wants, is to go run to her mommy cry in her arms, and act as if the past two years were just a nightmare.
All she wants back is her innocence, and to be the girl her mom used to love.
The little girl who lives inside, cries to me every night.

I have used that poem, featured it and read it many times. Again and again, I am stopped in my tracks that at such a young age she could write such deep powerful hurt-filled words. The second time she did my program she wrote about writing-she actually told me that poetry and learning how to write has saved her. I was so happy, but when I read her words the sky fell on me.

My poems define my life.  I write to express and share. 
The pen is my clinic, the paper is my therapist.
My thoughts are my words, and the story just tells. Poems are my definition of life and stories and tales.
Wash away all my fears.  Wash away what you did to me. 
Wash away all my feelings and hurt and my past. 
As I sit here and write I wash away. 

Clearly I couldn't save her enough because here we are again, her sixteenth birthday and she has a one-year-old child.

She has grown up, I have more experience with incarcerated girls. I am at ease with the program, we have grown and changed together. She was a very wild, crazed, frightened little girl who has now matured and actually become somewhat of a leader.

As hard as it was to see her back in, I love this girl and so enjoy having her in the group. She is a little reserved, but wise beyond her years and the pain she holds in her heart, my God, the pain could fill 10 peoples’ lifetimes.

She came in today and handed me a poem,

“This is my newest, Ms.”
“It’s funny, cause it’s happy,” she adds.
The poem is about her daughter.
“I never write happy stuff.”
“Well,” I say,“babies can make you smile, and be happy.”
She folds up the poem and gives it to me, she knows I will type it and bring it printed out for her next week.

I look at her and I am proud of how far she has come and I am incredibly sad that this is where she is.

When the class is over girls tend to linger. They pack my stuff, put on my sunglasses, and talk to my amazingly hip and brilliant assistant. I know they linger because they need one more hug, they want a little more love or they have something they need to share and tell me in private.

She stood on the side, I walked over.

“You missed my birthday Ms, I turned 16 last week.”
“Ohh I’m sorry, babe.” I say.
“It ok,” she smiles.
Then she says “I got really mad, cause they let him out!”
“Who?” I ask.
“You know, the baby’s father.”

Oh no, my heart starts to beat faster, because I know shit is about to hit me faster than I can think. I get my guard up-I must think quickly because I know nothing good is on its way.

“He got early release.” Tears start to roll down her cheeks and as high as I put my guard up, I find tears about to roll down mine. “He got a year, you know, for what he did to me and now he got out after 7 months.”

There is a voice screaming inside my head, “WHAT??” A 30-year-old man has sex with a 14-year-old, he gets her pregnant and gets a year in jail?

“You can’t get angry at things you can’t control, somehow you need to accept them.” The voice inside my head is shrieking “Nomi really?!! That’s all you have?”

“I hate him,” she says.
“Don’t hate him,” I stupidly say. “Wait, no, you should hate him, he took something away from you!” I say.
“I just, I just…..” she says
“I know honey, I know,” I answer.

It becomes quiet and I do what I know to do, stand close, hold her, wipe her tears and tell her softly that it will get better, and that it is ok, and that she is doing good and that I am so proud of her. I do not bullshit, I speak carefully from my broken heart and I know she hears me.

“Ms., I’ll write about how I feel.”
“That’s a good idea” I say. I get a smile, I move her hair, I stand very close to her –and I tell her, “I know how upset you are, but do not let this get you in trouble, ok? Don’t act out.”

And then all of a sudden she is a sweet sixteen, she hugs me, she nods, turns and runs out. I stand there and need to regroup a little.

There is no justice. But somehow, I will try to make justice.

That man stole this girl’s innocence, I will help her find it.

trust

We don’t trust because we are afraid, because we don’t want to be disappointed, because we do not want to be let down. Trusting can leave us vulnerable.

This week I chose not to be afraid and to trust. I trusted someone one who is not used to being trusted. I hired a graduate of my program in the youth incarceration facility who is now out. And this week she started to work for my organization.

It was a small job, it wasn’t a real risk just a baby one, and I took it. I gave her a task, and then I gave her cash for the task. I was confidant, and optimistic that she would do it. But then I let fear kick in.

Oh no, maybe I shouldn’t have given her cash.
Oh no, maybe she will not do what I asked her to do.
Oh know, maybe I just handed her drug money.

I talk endlessly about giving the first chances that these kids never had –and here I am second guessing and worrying. I have good reason to do so. We all do. We should be afraid.

But, fear cannot and should not take away our trust, because if we really want to give a chance, we must touch our fear, see it, acknowledge it and coexist with it. We also must give it a chance to fail. We must be ready for it, embrace it and then, trust again.

The beautiful thing? My girl came through. Not exactly the way I wanted-I, too, need to learn to be clearer about what I want and need her to do. But, she came through.

I panicked and second guessed myself, she was embarrassed that she made a few mistakes. It’s funny, because I think it might be scarier for her that I am trusting her than the fear I have of her not coming through.

So she did the task, and she was proud. Oh my god, she was proud.

We all need to trust regardless of the fear, we must trust our choices, and other people choosing us.

But most of all, we must learn to trust the process, not because it will give us an outcome, but it will teach us what the outcome can be.

I texted and called, she explained and then disappeared.

I was so worried. Ironically, she missed the train to where she was supposed to meet me. Of course it wasn’t a big deal, because I chose not to make it one, and she got on the next train and all was good.

But, when I thought about it she really hasn’t missed any train. You see, SHE IS the train moving forward, and I am the station, we all are.

We are the stations waiting for these kids to stop, get off, be and thrive. So, we must have trust that they will not go off the tracks. We must trust even when it is a little scary

We must trust because it is our trust that can, and will fuel their engine.

The engine that is their future.

temptation

When one of the girls I work with is told that she is getting an early release a funny thing happens. They get quiet, they become introverted and they are very vague.

They usually will come over at the end of the class and whisper to me, I’m getting out and then even quieter tell me when.

OMG! that’s amazing! I am always so happy, although it is really not so good for my program. I usually start with about 15 kids, they need to be on good behavior to participate in my program. Somewhere around ten weeks I lose about half the group because they get out early (ironically, because of GOOD BEHAVIOR!).

One girl did not want to go home because she wanted to stay in jail so she could participate in our final presentation.

“Ms., can’t I tell the judge nicely, like you taught us, to just please stay one more week?”
“NO, absolutely not - baby, you want to go home, home is so much better than being in the show, or being here.”

I know, for many of them that is actually is not necessarily the truth.What waits for them outside is so far, far from what I do with them. What waits for them is the complete opposite of what they have at the camp (the incarceration facilities are called camp.) Food, shelter, no pressure, no drugs, no abuse-here they have people who care for them. They have nothing else to do, but go to school.

And, no temptation. What waits outside is so, tempting. There is so much temptation. Too much temptation. Scary temptation. Temptations I cannot do anything about or help them with. Last week one of my favorites from the previous group happily said,

“I’m going home on Tuesday, Ms.”
“Amazing” I told her, and then I saw the cloud appear over her head.
“What?” I say, (I truly adore this kid).
“I’m scared Ms.”
“I know”
“What if I take the temptation?”
“What if I lose what I got?”
“How am I going to do this?”

This girl is so young, she has completely turned around in the past four months. From a tough rough rude gangbanger, to a sweet funny fun young woman.

“I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward,” she says.

“I know, I know” I say, and my heart is about to jump out of my body to hold her.

You see this kid had everything going against her. She still does, but now there is hope. Her mother is in jail, no dad. She grew up on/in the streets. She lived, breathed, and WAS the gang. She is 16 –been in for almost 2 years she has been smoking, doing drugs and armed robbery since she was 10 –possibly younger.

When she was arrested she was so high she didn’t know her name, and now? She wants to be a cop, she wants to be in the gang unit, she wants to help kids like her do better.

She found her smile, she has a core.  

I listen to her, and I am lost.

Lost for words, what can I say? What can I do?

I look straight into her eyes, “How long have you been clean?” She tells me. “How does it feel?” I ask. “Awesome.” She smiles. “What do you want to do?” I keep pushing.
“Go to school,” she says softly.

“Who do you want to be?”  I move closer to her.
“A cop,” she says with conviction.
“Can you be high and be a cop?”
“Funny Ms.,” she says.
“Hilarious right?” we laugh.

“Well,” I say,“Listen to me. You have a path, you know what you want, you see a future. That is how you will stay away from the temptation –you keep your eye on the prize.”

My heart is so heavy I might just fall over. How, how the hell will she be able to stand against what is waiting for her?

“And you know something,” I add, “If you slip, you get up and get right back on that path. Don’t let the path get away from you!!”

“Ms.” Her eyes are filling with tears.
“Come here.”

We stand and hug for a long moment. I whisper in her ear, “You can do this, you have so much, and I am waiting on the other side, so you better call me.”

Thirty minutes after she got out she called me.

“I’m out, It’s weird, N-a-o-m-i.” She says my name in a whiney little girl’s voice.
“I know,” I say.

“You got this, you can do it, give it a few days you will get used to it, stick to your path, eye on the prize.” 
She laughs out loud, “I knew you would say that.”

“I’ll say it every day if I need to.”
“Good” she answers and then says “I’ll call you tomorrow, I love you, bye”

They cannot stand against the temptations alone, society needs to help, support and create ways for them to move forward. We all need to be the watch dogs of their temptations, because at the end of the day temptation can be, so less tempting, if you are not alone fighting it.

love

It’s been a long week. I was in Florida then New York.

I produced a Teen Social Justice Event in Orlando and then performed “Flowers Aren’t Enough” in Long Island and Great Neck. I got off the plane in LA and drove straight up to Juvie.

When I was in New York, I received a phone call from a woman who saw the PR for the show and couldn’t come.

“I watched the video on y-tube, Naomi,” she said. “I need to see your show, and I can’t come tonight”

“I have to see the recovery,” (the y-tube clip ends abruptly).
“I want to see the road to freedom.”

I started to cry, given I was a little exhausted, and a lot homesick for my kids. I cried, and was touched by how desperate and how hopeful she was at the same time. These past few weeks the day I go to Juvie has been sporadic and inconsistent. There have been some changes happening in the facility as well as my schedule. This makes the girls a little edgy, and all over the place. It’s hard NOT to know when exactly I am coming. My showing up is a huge part of my building trust-trust that with this new group I am still building.

“You came!” that comes with a big long hard hug,

“Of course I did.”

“Lots of people say things and then don’t show up,” she says.

I look her straight in the eyes:
“Not me, not us. The days might be changing, but that doesn’t mean we will not come.”

I recently had the great fortune to hire an amazing young woman to come join me and work with me. She is warm and kind, beautiful in and out-the girls adore her.

“We wait for you guys all week!”
“I know. We are here,” I say. “We will always come back, don’t worry.” She pulls me in and hugs me a little harder.

In the class we talk and act out situations where we could have made better decisions even if we have to deal with a hard consequence. I start with an Annie Lenox’s song “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate.”

I explain that we always have a choice, we might not like the price we need to pay, but the choice is there.

“I have to ask you something Ms.,” one asks, “maybe you can finally help me. Shouldn’t love be unconditional?”

These girls so badly want, crave, need - unconditional love. Who am I kidding? Don’t we all want unconditional love?

“My boyfriend says he does crime, he does drugs, and I gotta love him for who he is. Don’t I need to just accept that that is who he is?”

And one girl cuts her off - “You need to love yourself first, you need to come first.”

Ahh, the road to freedom, I think in my heart. I think of the woman who called me, whose husband has made her life a living hell. I think of the senior in high school who poured her heart out to me, tears rolling down her cheeks, telling me how she can’t leave her boyfriend who is controlling and clearly making her miserable, because he loves her so.

My girls in juvie need love for their road to freedom to be successful. Yes, they need to be loved, but they also need to learn to love themselves. But most of all? We all need to be careful of the thin line of what we do in the name of love. Love can pave the path to freedom with brilliant colors and it can also make the journey hell.

I smile, “Yes, when you love someone you need to except them for who they are, but that doesn’t mean you need to except everything they do.”

“Well,” she  says, “He says, if I don’t be his crime partner than I don’t love him.”

The streets, the gangs, are so dramatic “ride or die.” You are in, or out, and out can mean –out of your life.

So many of my girls in juvie take the blame for crimes of other people. People they want to love, people they think will not love them if they do not commit the crime. So many of them are pushed into crime, drugs, and prostitution by people who say they love them. People who use these love-craving girls in the saddest of ways.

I am teary, and I think of something a young woman in Orlando wrote on her evaluation form after a day of social action,

“How lucky am I, and how bad other people have it around the world. I need to appreciate my life.”

And then I think, how lucky, how lucky am I for the abundance of love I have received in my life-the unconditional all-accepting love that I have received in my life, by my family, my friends and the people I work with.

But most of all, how lucky am I that I wasn’t manipulated by love or to love.

So tonight, or tomorrow, love. Plain and simple.

Love yourself, and love the next one without asking for something, without expecting something. Simply love, because you can.

Honestly? That is truly the path to freedom. Sweet, honest deep love. Not unconditional, but real, and for the right reasons.

“He said if I love him, I’ll commit the crime with him.”

“Well,” I say. “You should tell him that BECAUSE YOU LOVE HIM you will not commit the crime with him, and he will have to accept that.”

She looks at me “That’s fucked up.”

“No,” I say, “That’s love.”

emotions

One of my close friend’s daughters is celebrating a Bat Mitzvah.

This past Sunday the women close to her gathered to have a ceremony connected to the prayer shawl she will be wearing at her Bat Mitzvah in two weeks. The afternoon was everything it should have been and beyond— moving, touching, sweet, warm, yummy and filled with wisdom and a complete abundance of love.

As we sat and blessed this sweet, sweet girl, I looked at her glowing; my friend, her mom, was emotional. They sat close to each other in bliss. It was extraordinary. How lucky I am, I thought.

This was the first of two times this week that I was in a room filled with raw, deep and complete emotion.

My new group of Juvie girls are a brilliant group. They are intense and broken, but wise, deep and intelligent. I am still learning them, actually we are learning each other. What is brilliant about this group, is that they care for each other. I do not have opposing gang members and I am sure the fact that my main instigator keeps getting sent to solitude helps keep the group peaceful.

Because this group is mature, I dove into a writing exercise, from a silly little on-the-edge, playful drama exercise. The mood in the room changed. The girls were pouring themselves into their writing. It was instantly deep and to be honest, a little scary.

Not scary because I thought something bad would happen, scary to see how much darkness, my God, how much darkness…

“Write who you are in 5 sentences,” I ask of them.

“I am a drug addict.”
“I am alone.”
“I am lost.”
“I am beautiful.”
“I am misunderstood.”
“I am strong”
“I am a funny girl.”
“I am the girl that still wants her dreams to come true.”
“I am a broken heart with a beautiful soul. I raised myself and my older sister, in a dark house with my mother’s ghost and my father’s demons.”

Some groups come to me, others I need to go to them, this group ran into me full speed without warning.

At my friend’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah party each person read a blessing they prepared in advance. For some people, reading the blessing was easy; for others, a little harder, but each person who read out loud oozed emotion.

As my girls read their words they, too, oozed emotion, but as opposed to the heart-opening lovefest evoking emotion at the Bat Mitzvah party, their emotion closed them, agitated them, and caused tension.

Did I push too hard? Was it too soon? What do I do with what they just gave me?

“Ok, leave everything on the table get up come to me, stand in a circle,” I say.

They get up and gather around, they are not happy.

“Take a deep breath and when I count to three let out a big loud sigh,” I ask of them.

One of my more reserved girls, released a loud piercing long scream, she looks at me to see my reaction.

“Good,” I say, feeling my heart crack a little.

I tell them I know I pushed, I explain that we have fun, but we also will touch our pain.

I thank them for what they shared.

I know that it is the days like today, the hard deep days that move the group forward, build the trust, and actually give birth to the possibility of change.

I think, oyy, they are not going to come back. This was too much. And then, I thank God that they hug me as we line up to take them back to the dorm.

And then, one comes up, still in part of the uniform they wear when they are going out of the facility to a different facility, (she had been away testing for her GED’s),

“I am so happy I got back in time, I was worried,” she says. “I really didn’t want to miss the class!”
“Ms.,” she looks at me and smiles a big smile. “I am happy you come here.”

“So am I,” I answer.

The distance between the people and the lives at my friend’s daughter’s party and my girls in Juvie could not be further, but yet I am struck by the honest and deep emotion at both events.

I think of all these girls hearts, the more privileged who are so innocent, fresh and open to life and my girls in Juvie whose hearts have been torn and hurt.

And then I think of the incredible capacity of our hearts to feel, to love, to heal, to live, and I am overwhelmed by my own emotion.

So, I let my heart break, and then I allow it to dance, and then I pray. I pray that God will take care and be kind to all of these girls’ hearts and keep them safe.

mommy

As we are driving home from school there is fighting in my car over the different phones—mine and my oldest daughter’s.

The middle one and the youngest one are yelling. Somehow they work it out and stop. It gets quiet and my little one says, “Do they have phone in jail?”

“What?” I ask, not sure I heard right.

I wonder if this is a good thing that my 11, 9, and 7-year-old daughters are so connected to my work, and desperately want me to take them with me to see juvie. I am sure somewhere I am losing parenting points on this.

“Do they have phones in jail?” she asks again.

“Well,” I say, “No, they are not allowed to have cell phones or any electronic devices.”

“Oh no,” she says, “How do they talk to their mommies?” I smile, she has such a little girl’s voice that child of mine, and such a sweet innocent heart.

“Ema (mom in Hebrew) how do they talk to their mommies?” she asks again.

Mommy, not mom, not mother, but mommy. I called my mother mommy ‘til the day she died. I was in my late 30‘s.

I have NEVER heard one of my juvie kids EVER refer to their mom as Mommy—not in their writing, not in the improv, not anywhere.

I think that “mommy” has a deeper meaning than just mom. When my kids want to piss me off they call me “Mother” and they add a British accent to it as well.

Mommy—we all need a mommy. A mommy to call, a mommy to cry to, a mommy who will do her mommy job, give us unconditional love.

I truly believe this is the core issue with my juvie girls, the lack of a mommy –the lack of guidance, and the lack of unconditional love. Not that people don’t take a wrong turn, even when a mommy is present, (‘cause even the best of mommies does not have the all power, and even the best of mommy’s children fall trip and go astray…)

I have three girls at home, and a dozen more in juvie , I try to be THE mommy. It is a daily challenge, sometimes a battle. There are days when I am far from being that mom, you know, the one we all want to be but doesn’t really exist?

And then today I had the moment.

I started a new group in juvie. After I dropped my kids off at home, I drove up to jail. When I got back it was late and my kids were in bed. I went to each one to give them a kiss and my oldest was still awake.

“How was it, Ema?”
“Great,” I answer.
“Do you have a good new group?” I am surprised my distant middle-schooler even remembered.
“Yes” I say.  “Yes, I actually do. I have a great group.”
“That’s good” she says.
“It’s funny Ema, you’re kinda like their mom, right?”

No I think to myself, I am kinda like their mommy.

“Yeah, I guess a little,” I say, and I hold my child close, and I pray that as my girls in juvie fall asleep tonight they feel a little mommy’s love. My love.

flowers

I have performed Flowers Aren’t Enough, my one woman show on domestic violence over 1700 times globally. I have performed in the slums of India, to beautiful homes in Beverly Hills. I  have performed at the United Nations and in the president’s house in Israel. But, it is when I perform Flowers in juvie , something in my core is moved.

I tell the girls in my new group that I will never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do, and that I will perform for them, just as they will act and perform for me during the program - I prepare them for the show the week before, something I never do.

I learned that when I perform for incarcerated youth, (boys and girls), I need to explain to them that it’s not me, it’s a play, many of them have never seen a play. I tell them it’s about domestic violence, that it’s not easy, that it might be familiar. I tell them it is intense, and if it’s too much they can go outside and take a breather, I will not be mad.

There is no stage, we are in the gym. I change in the bathroom. There is a 10 people audience, and yet this, THIS IS THEATRE at its best. Live, bare, intense, naked, direct.  For me as a performer, I get to look into everyone’s eyes—it is great, and so hard at the same time. For the audience there is no place to hide, that is even harder. My girls are silent, my girls are uncomfortable, a few are hurting. I want to stop and break the fourth wall, run over and hug them and say “just kidding," “not really."

Of the hundreds of times I have prayed, spoken, wished domestic violence never existed, this time, and the times that I have done this show in juvie, my entire existence wants this to be fiction. I want this to be a farfetched fabricated story that no one has ever heard of, something some crazy person made up. But all I need to do is look at these girls, and I know it is real, and it is horribly painful. This, this story of violence of violation is their life.

I see them see themselves, their mothers and sisters in me, and in the character Michal that I am playing.  I watch them look away, move uncomfortably, shed a tear and inevitably someone will run out because it is just too much. They start off distant, then they lean forward, then they are with me reacting, shaking their head, angry at Michal (the abused wife) for not fighting back. At the end, during the discussion someone said;  “If this happened to me, I would hit that guy right back.”

The next one shares her story and says, “I thought I’d do that too, but when you are in it, well, you just feel worthless and then you can’t do anything." We all nod our head and cry with her. And then, we breathe, and we talk some more and we play. We talk about relationships. I tell them that no one can, or should have the right to treat them badly. They cautiously tell me about their boyfriends, their pimps and the abusive people in their life.

I have heard it literally thousands of times but now, here, it is like I am hearing it for the first time, each story they tell me tears a little hole in my heart. I sigh, but I smile, I smile and feel the tug  of the new holes that have just been carved in my heart, but I make myself smile the biggest smile I can, and I tell them that this will pass . They will move forward. They must learn from their mistakes and never let them happen again. I tell them that this, this incarceration is a hiccup, they can get over it, that they can have a brilliant future. A future I look forward to seeing. And I tell them that love can be beautiful, no, love should be beautiful.

Yes, love is brilliant, at times maybe painful, but brilliant !

No one has the right to hurt them. Love should, and can make you feel so good soo soo good, they giggle.

They tell me the play was great, they tell me they want to act, they ask me, “Are we going to do that Ms?” “No,” I say. “You, you are going to do something better, so much better.”

“For real?” they ask.

“Yep,” I say. I am reminded of the power of theatre.

The power of theatre to wake you up, move you forward and be what I have always said, a tool for transformation.

But most of all, theatre should be a mirror, a mirror that makes you look at what you do not want to see, touch it, and then change it.

We hug, one girl doesn’t want to let go. We eat chocolate (my remedy for everything).

One says, “That was so real.”

And the one who shared her story comes really close and whispers in my ear, “I WILL NEVER LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN.”

“Good,” I answer, and hold like there is no tomorrow.

sideline

I am on a plane on the way home from West Palm Beach, Florida. I participated in a conference called, “Girl Power,” run by an organization called Girl Future. There was empowerment, excitement, joy and fun.

While there I received an email from my synagogue asking me to speak about my vision for the world at our upcoming holiday on Thursday. Because of the holiday, this trip to Florida, and some scheduling issues, I will not be in juvie this week.

My heart aches a little. I miss my girls. When I attend  conferences and lead workshops like I did this week, I cannot but miss what my girls in juvie could be but never had the chance. I am angry for what has been taken away from them, without them even knowing: participating in a conference, going to a dance class, learning to play an instrument, having a Mom schlep them from place to place, being cared for.

I led two workshops at the conference. I had sweet, sweet girls in my group. Girls scouts, girls from the local Jewish school, as well girls from some inner city schools. Of course there were some moms hanging out on the sidelines pretending to read, but listening to every word of my session with their daughters. I wish my girls from juvie had moms hanging out on the sidelines. I smile to myself, hell, I wish my mom was hanging out in the sidelines right now.

My rabbi asked me what I want for the world.

I want opportunity. I want children to have a place to grow, to be, to be seen and heard. I do not want girls to be robbed of what they should be given. I want joy. Oh, how I want joy. Pure, simple, real, clean, joy.

My workshop's title was "Find Your Voice!" We danced, we created scenes, and we laughed a lot. I ended asking the girls to write 3 things they can use their voice for. They write:

Stopping bullies
Explaining to my parents what I want
Get my Aunt to buy me an iPhone 6
Telling my sister to be nice
Helping animals
Justice
Convincing my little brother to do my chores
Love

Love. In 4th grade little girl’s hand writing, surrounded by hearts and some flowers, one girl wrote, “I want to use my voice to make people love, but really love - because even when they do, sometimes they don’t.”

As my session ended, a 10-year-old walks out and says to her friend, “This was fun! Now let’s go learn how to be leaders!! This day is awesome.”

They hold hands and walk off to conquer the world. I am happy and I think to myself, I want to use MY voice to remind us how important our voices are. Be aware. Do not take for granted, give chances.

I want us all to use our voice together, because together we are stronger. But most of all I want a world with sidelines - sidelines of people cheering, giving strength, holding when necessary, and being present even if that means you need to be transparent.

Use your voice. Make a difference simply because you can.

I close my eyes, I think of my mom who has been gone for a decade, and I know I am who I am today because of her voice, and because of her standing quietly on the sideline allowing me to fly.

goodbye, hello

The show was brilliant last week. Today I give them an evaluation to fill out.

I teach them what a thank you note is, and I make them write thank you notes to the foundations  that fund the program.  They write that  they understand, they say they have changed. They tell me that they know how to talk now, and that they will be better.

I look at my girls .Yes, they have changed, but will they sustain it?

Will they have the strength to hold that change and protect it against the incredibly strong forces they need to combat when they get out? I give them my number, I take theirs. I ask them to be in touch with me. I feel my heart, it is open with pride. It is filled with love, and it is shaking in fear.

But my strong faith, crazy optimism, and belief in the girls power to change, help me overcome the fear, yet I can barely hold back the voice in my head that doesn't want to say goodbye, and almost says, "Come live with me, I will take care of you.”

I don't, and instead I say, “Do not lose what you learned. You can be anything you want. Make good choices.”

We hug, we kiss, and I might just fall over from the emotion inside.

And then the new group walks in –

They are cautious. They have their mask on. A few don’t even come in they just say, “No, we don’t want to be in the show.”

They saw the show last week. They loved it, but they are afraid.

They ask questions.

And then, I see her–not sure how I missed her name when I was looking over the list and choosing the new group.

I think, no, I know, I probably didn’t want to see her name. I take pride that my kids tend not to come back. In a world of 75% recidivism the Advot Project has 10 percent. Yes, I should be proud.

I am so attached to these kids that when they do come back, it is heart breaking, no, heart shattering. Here she is, this one is special. She was in my first group three years ago.

On my first day in the girls’ facility I celebrated her 13th birthday with her. I cried all the way home. A year later she was back, 14 and pregnant. I think I cried for a week.

She came with her baby to my program on “the outs,” I remember looking at her last year thinking 15-year-old girls should NOT have babies. She was sad, heavy, and her mom was watching her like a hawk.

And here she is now-I am crushed.

I think to myself, maybe I shouldn’t let her do the program again, she has done it twice. Then she looks at me. As I know them, they too, know me, and I guess my thoughts are transparent.

“I don’t care what you think, Ms.,” she says, “I’m here, I’m doing the program, yes I am.”

“OK”  I say.

I look at this girl, so young—I am broken. I then look at her again and I notice that she looks calmer than the last time I saw her. And although I am devastated that she is back, I understand, I see it, I get it.

She needed a break, she wanted to get away, she wanted to be safe. Ironically, she can get all that here, it just comes with the price tag of her freedom and her child.

We finish, she comes to me, we hug and she starts to cry.

Fuck …I’m sorry, but that is what I felt. My eyes start to tear.

“It’s the baby’s birthday tomorrow,” she says, “I’m going to miss it.”

I can’t speak, but I do.

“I know,” I say, “I know.”

“She is going to be a year old and I am going to miss it.”

All I can think is, fuck fuck fuck… I pull myself together,

“Look at me, look at me,” I say.

“She will have a life time of birthdays, you make sure this is the first and the last one you miss.”

“I promise,” she says.

I hug her and kiss her, and know that this could be just one more stop in a lifetime of in-and-out  incarceration for this kid, who at age 15, has been in jail three different times.

The probation officer talks about how they raise these kids.

“I know” I say.

I so want to hold on to the possibility of change, I refuse to let go. I believe that we can break the cycle, and I know that we must fall, then get up, walk forward only to fall again.

A reality of change is hard, but not impossible. I watch my girl walk off to dinner arm-in-arm with someone from the group –I try to envision her changed, I am not always sure what that should look like. Because, really? That vision of change does not belong to me, it belongs to her.

I pick my sunken heart up. My remarkable assistant says, “Let’s go.”  I take a deep deep breath.

“See ya next week,” the supervisor says.

Yes, of course. Next week.

We fall, we get up, we move forward. It’s the only thing we can do. It is the only way change will ever really happen.

the show

Today was the final presentation, the culminating show of Relationships 101. When I leave my house it is still dark, as I drive up to juvie the sun starts to rise.

I usually drive there in the afternoon, the sun is different, the light is different, and there are moments as I drive at this different hour that I am not sure I am on the right road. Funny to see a familiar place in a new light.

It is beautiful, and I notice so many things I oversee when I am on my way up on a regular Thursday.

I am nervous, I am worried. Will all my girls be there? I have arrived to a show before and found that one was taken to court at the last min. Or another was put in solitude unable to perform.

Will the audience really come? It is far, it is in the morning. I so, so want there to be an audience. And then, I just simply panic, silly last minute panics of a busy person.

Did I take the makeup?
Do I have the certificates?
I arrive and the girls are so excited.
They too are nervous.
Their hair is done, they have makeup on – I see them in a new light.

The audience starts to arrive. Thanks to this blog I have a larger audience than usual, my heart is full seeing the people that showed up, my girls are getting giddy.

“Ms. They really came!!!” they say.

“Yes they did, I told you.” I say.

My heart exhales. They bring the entire camp to watch the show. The entire staff escorts them in, it is a little tense.

Whenever there is all-camp movement everyone is on the watch. My guests watch carefully, I watch my worlds collide.

I go out to my fabulous five, my five juvie girls, turned actresses, who are waiting to start.

“Remember NO profanity.” I say.

We chant in a warm up circle every profanity word we can think of. We must whisper because the audience is there, and that makes everyone laugh, a lot.

“Fuck Ms., really? no cussing?” one says.

“Yep” I say, “Surprise them with no cussing.”

“OK, I can do that” she says.

“Oh, you can do so much more.” I say.

The show starts, it is exactly what is should be- fun, happy, meaningful. I watch all the guards, let down their guard. I watch the guards see my girls, our girls, in a new light, much like the light I experienced in the morning.

There is song, and a spontaneous dance, there is triumph. 

But most of all, there is a new light. A new light, for the people that know these girls, but now see them for the first time.

A new light for those who are seeing them for the first time and are getting a chance to know them.

But most of all, there is a new light for the girls to see themselves.

“I am and actress, I am a poet, I have talent, I am worthy,” they say.

I try for 10 weeks to turn on the light.

I try for 10 weeks to be the light.

Today, the magic happened, and the light was shining in all its glory. It is now the end of a long day, it is dark again outside. But I know, that five girls went to sleep tonight feeling loved, feeling special, seeing the light.

I now, can turn off my light, and go to sleep content.