"John Flynn’s songwriting carries a wide open heart –they are both fierce and tender. Think Cat Stevens... with a bit more folk rock and edge.”
– Mary Sue Twohy, SiriusXM
Andrea and Sylvester, two of the wonderful volunteers who help with our weekly New Beginnings-Next Step Community Clothing Closet
February 6, 2018
I realize that my notes deal more with my prison work than my music these days. Please don’t take that as a sign that I’m sticking my guitar case in the closet. Aside from releasing several digital singles in 2017 (These were topical songs which probably comes as a surprise to no one), I’ve been writing and recording material for an album that I’m planning to bring out by late summer. One track- a new song which I’ve taken to closing my shows with these days is called Sing Me on my Way and features an entire choir of old friends, including Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie and Billy Swan. (The list is still growing!) So don't count me out you guys. I've got some more songs in me. I'm gonna keep singing them and will be relying on you to help me spread the word.
On the summer horizon, I was recently honored to be booked by the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington, MA to do a show on July 14, 2018 for Woody's birthday celebration! Of all the artists they had at their disposal, I was very touched to have bee selected for this special performance. And yes, you'll be hearing me sing some Woody that night!
In the mean time there’s a gig this coming weekend I’m hoping to get a few of you in the DC area out to. On Sunday, February 11th, I’ll be in Alexandria VA doing a show with the wonderful Anne Hills at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial
Although I haven’t been performing as much as I’d like these past few months, I’ve been kept incredibly busy with my prison and returning citizen work. Yesterday we actually held our second weekly New Beginning’s group at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution. This is the sixth group I've taken on (with the help of a great team of volunteers! It's also my first in a women's prison. We have about 20 women in the new group and their appreciation and level of participation has been very moving. (It literally took me years to reach this level of openness and courage with the men's group!) Although I went into this situation knowing that I’d be dealing with some new and different dynamics and issues, my sense that we’re not there to solve or fix each other, but simply stand with and listen deeply to one another seems to be being borne out. I’m grateful that I have a terrific group of female volunteers who accompany me into Baylor as the talk is- just as with the men’s prison- open and frank. (I think yesterday was the first time I ever blushed in a prison.)
Sex remains such a huge stumbling block for us as a society. My friends Donald and Barbara Olsen, counselors from the Locus of Hope addiction treatment center, recently gave a wonderful workshop on sexual addiction to our Returning Citizen group. They helped us find language and begin to openly address the underlying reasons for which sex and sexuality can be misused and are often so deeply misunderstood. Seeing how our guys responded, both their reticence to speak and their hunger for the information being shared made me more aware of how we so often live as strangers to ourselves, let alone other people.
It also reinforced for me the value of what we do in trying to provide a circle of trust and compassion where we can begin to risk opening up to other human beings.
Someone in one of our men's prison groups recently complained about a new transgender inmate named Wheeler. (Not using real names here.) Although Wheeler identified as a woman, DOC classifies people solely on the basis of anatomy. Being new to prison, Wheeler was- quite understandably-having a difficult time adjusting. And she wasn't the only one.
“I ain’t looking for trouble, but that stuff really freaks me out.” Martinez said with almost practiced disdain. Plus, if you’re SEEN with people like that, then other people start wondering about YOU! All I know is he... she... IT... better steer clear of me.”
Before I could say a word, another member of our circle came back at him hard. “Knock off the ‘it’ crap! Don’t use that kind of language here. You’re talking about another human being! What about what we talk about in New Beginnings? What about working on your own shit and not judging other people? None of us in here is perfect or has all the answers. If you think you do, maybe this isn’t the group for you.”
The room was momentarily filled with a charged tension but the disagreement that ensued was talked out and worked through-as is our way- with measured and respectful words. I saw each man, guided by his brothers in the circle, really attempt to listen to the other. And within minutes a truly amazing discussion evolved. By the time we began our closing meditation ninety minutes later, the group was in general agreement on several points.
One- Though part of Martinez's discomfort grew from simply not knowing what to say (and then covering his embarrassment), people can usually tell what's in your heart. Even a dog knows the difference between being accidentally stepped on and kicked. So we should just do our best but not worry so much about slipping up and saying the wrong thing occasionally. We're all trying to figure this stuff out at some level. If there's no malice in your intent there will seldom be a real problem in using the wrong words. Especially if you express an openness to learning. So if you don't know how a person prefers to be referred to or addressed, just ask them.
Two- Prison is a place that, by its very nature, deprives an individual of a large measure of their dignity.
Three- Prison can be, for the toughest, but especially for newcomer, a very lonely and frightening place. (So how much more so for a new transgender individual!)
And finally- regardless of whether or not you’re comfortable with another inmate’s sexual preferences or identification- a subversive way to buttress and fight for your own (probably) damaged sense of self worth might be to do what you can to let each and every person you come into contact with (Correctional Officers included) know that you recognize them as being possessors of basic and inherent dignity as human beings. It may be something as simple as saying hello.
I walked out that evening both marveling at the arc and honesty of the guys' discussion and wondering if anything would come of it.
A week later I found out that a few days later Martinez had invited Wheeler to join his afternoon card game.
I simply can not express how profound a gesture this was.
Such a simple thing. And yet so very powerful. And what inherent risk it entailed for someone who has struggled with what others might think of him.
I told Martinez how proud I was of him and asked if he’d received any blowback. “Hell yeah!” he said. “There are always gonna be haters. Folks call you 'faggott' and shit! I don’t care. I thought about what we talked about and decided that no one gets to tell me who I can and can't hang around with... Besides”, he added, “she’s a good dude!”
If you want to have your faith in the human heart restored, simply stand with the ones whose hearts have been broken. It works every time!
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