Laughter is Important

United in Hope:
Celebrating Literacy through a Community Voice

Springfield, MA
14 November 2010

Wally Lamb emphasized the significance of humor responding to a question from an audience member about his new book, Wishin’ and Hopin.’ The United in Hope community event promoting literacy sparkled with humor, inspiration and poignancy. The program was anchored by the words of women prisoners writing about their lives. Lamb was introduced by Tim Black, who explained a process of selective attention:

“We don’t see the signs of pain and suffering…

We don’t understand the consequences of pain and suffering.”

Tim acknowledged that everyone encounters and experiences pain, asserting: “We’re all experts of our own lives.”  Tim made it clear that he is not discounting anyone’s pain – still, he suggested that we usually “don’t understand pain and suffering” (emphasis added).

Breaking the Wall of Mistrust

Wally Lamb spends a day a week leading writing workshops for women in prison.  These are women who know the meaning of “doing time”  (something I learned while reading Tim Black’s book, When A Heart Turns Rock Solid).  I wonder how much the acute awareness of time and space feeds Lamb’s motivations for establishing and maintaining his weekly routine and its associated relationships. Relevant relationships include (not only) the women writers but also the prison guards, other prisoners who aren’t writing, and his own sphere of friends and family who are effected (to greater or lesser degrees) by his commitment. He shared with us the story of “Natasha,” who insisted (at first) on a pen name and refused to allow her work to be shared. Then – suddenly – she decided she wanted to read her own work out loud, and began to claim authorship using her real name, Diane. Diane’s act of courage signaled a momentous shift in the early days of Lamb’s work at the York Prison: in his words, “the women’s writing started to flow.”

Lamb read us several short works or excerpts of the women’s writing. I was not able to catch all of the titles or author’s names, but here are some:

  • Dancing in Leg Irons,
  • something by Shannon Roche describing herself as an “inmate” and “a woman of the world,”
  • Under-Where? by Lynne M Friend, and
  • Flight of the Bumblebee, by Kathleen Wyatt.

As I told Tim afterwards, my eyes teared up about seven times. “Their words must have touched you,” he said. Yes, and it is the timing – the juxtaposition of their words now, the invocation of images from their lives intersecting with memories and current realities of my own interacting to generate the heartfelt response.

A Second Start

My emotions were more than personal, however – they were inspired by the context and setting. Lamb read Robin Ledbetter’s work about her grandmother and forgiveness.  The topic of starting over (or otherwise finding ways to carry on) was fitting in this high school auditorium full of young people, their parents, grandparents and other family members, and a diverse range of community activists and committed citizens.  The collective effort to remain open and hopeful toward all the possibilities yet to come, to refuse to surrender to whatever grim goblins of despair haunt dreams of healing and wholeness – for individuals, communities, even the entire city – requires energy, dedication, and focused effort.

“…the heartache it surrounds…”

This phrase floats in my notebook, unattached.  The “it” has lost its referent, becoming ’empty’ – ready to be filled by whatever I might put there.  What shall it be?  Does the City of Springfield embrace the heartache of its residents? I bet Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Alan Ingram thinks so! “Get involved in schools in a meaningful way,” he exhorted us. “Challenge the naysayers, see Springfield’s glass as half-full – not half-empty.” Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe spoke in compelling terms about law “enforcement with decency.”  I (unfortunately) arrived late and missed the opening talk by Springfield  Mayor  Domenic Sarno and also Gianna Allentuck, the United In Hope founder and key promoter of this particular event. The program itself is testimony to her passion. I enjoyed several student performances, as well as a reading from audience member Lisa Wood.  Then I went downstairs to check out the Community Resource Tables.

“Seeing a question mark, [then] trying to understand the question”

I had a series of terrific conversations with half-a-dozen awesome people who are trying to surround the heartache. It was great to see a few familiar faces and touch base. The conversations I had with people I met for the first time also got me buzzing.  Irene from the Community Accountability Board filled me in on some of the infrastructure  under Sheriff Ashe, complementing information I learned from Stephanie (of the awesome name) from Dunbar Community Center about the Shannon Project. The hands-down winner, though, in terms of making a connection and cutting to the chase, was with Emmy from Teatro V!da.  We had a conversation about communicating across language difference. Emmy said:

“The real language is the language of the soul.

Not English.

Not Spanish.

My soul speaks for me.”

I’m like, go grrl go! There are so many different ways that understanding can cut – according to this or that “language.” The language might be spoken or signed (think American Sign Language), fluent or not so much, written according to all applicable grammar rules or not.  Maybe the language is the same but the field or context is different – I’m from the West, you’re from the East, I study Communication, you study Biology, you excel in music and pop culture, I think maybe I heard of that band!

What matters is that moment when, in Tim Black’s words, you “see the question mark.” Oftentimes, in this crazy-with-going-fast world, there’s no time to even register the presence of a question, let alone slow down enough to try and figure out where the other person is coming from, what they are wondering about, what ‘gap’ is being made visible which could – in that moment, with a little attention and a bit of care – become a bridge for connection rather than a chasm of separation.

All around me, those few hours at the High School for Commerce in Springfield, MA, I was surrounded by people who were willing to take the time to notice. Not only that, they’re willing to work with what they notice in order to turn it into something good.


Read women’s writings from prison in “Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution” and “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the women at York Prison.”

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