Prison is a State of Mind…

Tenacity of Turtles

baby sea turtle on sand

On the final day of my vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, I took one last morning walk along the pristine white sand beach. As the sand was warming in the morning sun, the waves were doing what waves do, gently creeping onto the beach with commitment and surety. Predictably, most of the vacationers were sleeping off their sunburns or over-celebration from the night before. Sober and protected by SPF 60, at seven in the morning I was not distracted by the strolling tourists or the local vendors pushing silver bracelets or woven hammocks. Instead, I was able to concentrate on nature’s elegance and the intimate relationship between all living things which unfolded during my farewell stroll.
Witness to Birth
A few feet ahead there was a little movement in the sand which I suspected was a sand crab emerging from its cool sand burrow just long enough to catch a little morning sustenance. As I approached, I realized there were actually two little critters but they were not sand crabs at all. They were brand new, barely hatched baby sea turtles, no bigger than the palm of my hand.
There was a disturbing documentary which came immediately to mind. Images flooded my mind of heavily pregnant momma sea turtles waddling up onto the beaches to give birth to their litter. The mother would burrow a deep hole into the moist sand to lay hundreds of baby sea turtle eggs. She would frantically cover them up with her clumsy fins in an effort to protect them from predatory birds seeking an easy score of a meal. I don’t remember just how long those eggs would remain there, or how frequently or infrequently momma would come back to check on her little ones. What I did remember was that once hatched, the little ones begin a desperate struggle from the hole to the ocean to the safety of the sea before the circling seagulls plucked them into their beaks and flew off, fighting against other seagulls for what would be a juicy meal.
The entire documentary was quite disturbing to me; the desperate mother, the hundreds of little abandoned babies being lifted into their air by a swarm of ravenous birds as the babies underdeveloped little fins were flailing in a desperate attempt to survive.
Urge to Protect
Now, standing on the beaches of Cabo San Lucas, I was looking at wonder at the two little creatures I was now holding in the palm of my hand.
The evolutionary process developed a slight bit of protection for new hatchings; most sea turtle eggs hatch during the cool night, affording the little turtle babies the cloak of darkness to make their way to the sea. These two baby turtles were tenacious fighters as it was likely they had struggled all night against the tide, attempting to navigate their way into the safety of the ocean waters.
In the documentary it stated it was important it was for the little turtles to work their way to their freedom, how important it was for them to build the muscles during the experience of the struggle. The fight for survival would prepare them to swim away from the enemies which awaited in the deep blue. But it was not simply the strongest who survived the ordeal of the hatching; it was also a bit of luck of the draw. Why was one little turtle relegated to bird food while the one right next to it found clear passage to the ocean? Why did one little guy find the oncoming waves impenetrable while the other was simply lifted on the crest of a wave to the safety of the deep-sea?
We All Need Protection
I started to think how the life of the turtle resembled the life of humans to a great extent. Some humans are unfortunately born at the bottom of the pack and far more likely to get eaten by hovering predators than the first few who might slip into safety, unnoticed. Some humans are battered, beaten, abused and pumped full of drugs and bombarded with examples of poor decision-making. Others are born in the privilege of nurturing. And some, very few, benefit from a hand that reaches into the sand to rescue us from the enemy.
Would it do the little turtles any good to bemoan their plight? Of complain that someone was born more closely to the top of the pile than the others? Would it make success more likely if the last one out of the hole refused to move because of the unfairness of his situation?
What We Do With What Is
What matters most is what we do with the reality with which we are faced. These two little sea-bound siblings didn’t stop for one moment to seek help, nor did they give up or believe the ocean was bigger than their will to survive. All they knew was no matter the circumstance, they needed to use every bit of baby fin muscle to get to safety. As I held them in my hands, their little fins never stopped frantically attempting an escape from what I am sure they perceived to be a huge complication in reaching their goal.
I set one of the little guys down on the sand hoping for his success in navigating over the incoming tide. A gentle wave came in and the little guy, struggling though he may, was lifted up and thrust six feet or more further away from his goal. Retrieving the tenacious turtle from flailing on his back, I decided if they were going to make it to safety, I would have to get my hands dirty and my feet wet. They had proven themselves as far as I was concerned. If they were hatched the previous night then it meant they had already had a six hour workout. Their muscles were plenty strong and there was no value in making things any more difficult. I decided I was going to walk into the water, beyond the waves, and get them far enough past the incoming tide so at least that part of their struggle was behind them.
Reaching a water level up to my waist, I let the two critters find their freedom out of my hands into what seemed an entire ocean resisting their efforts. My assistance was futile. They were washed up on the beach more quickly than I could make it back to protect them from a larger oncoming wave which pushed them even further onto the sand. I glanced overhead to check the location of the hovering seagulls. Luckily, my only obstacle was going to be the ocean for the time being.
Facilitating Freedom
I thought about my work in the prisons and with individuals who face the most insurmountable disadvantage I was blessed to have escaped. I thought about the little girls violated or the little boys bullied. I thought about addicted mothers or enraged fathers. I thought about the mentally challenged, the indigent, illiterate and the helpless and hopeless. How many baby turtles existed in the thousands of prisons throughout our nation? Individuals who had little chance of making it to safety.
The difference between the turtles and humans is that the turtles will not stop moving toward their goal. If they are gobbled up, it was not because they abdicated their right to fight for their freedom. With humans, there is a disabling hopelessness which floods the belief system and paralyzes the effort for freedom. Knowing these two little critters were symbolic of my commitment to provide a glimmer of hope for any and all individuals, I would stop at nothing to do my part in helping them get their shot at freedom.
One, two, three times I attempted to get them beyond the surf. It seemed as if my efforts were wasted, and I was becoming exhausted in my fight against the relentless incoming waves. Tears came. Not just for the little turtles, but for all little turtles. Why was freedom so unreachable for some and so disrespected by others? As the strength in one of the little critters seemed to wane, a surge of energy jolted through my body fueling me with what felt like a super-human commitment to secure the turtle’s safety. I met the next wave, and the wave after that with indignant persistence. When I could no longer touch the ground I gently closed my hands around the soft bodies swam even further into the ocean. Past the breakwater I was able to catch my breath a bit, realizing if they were to be safe, this was the place and now was the time. I loosened my grip and let them drift out of my loosely held grip.
A Little Helps
As I let the current take me back toward the beach I felt relieved, satisfied really. I had done my part, gone beyond the call of duty to give life a chance at living. For all I know, both of them could have ended up as fish food within moments of making to the ocean, but that was not the point. I did what I could to help them as far along as I possibly could. For that, I was content. I did not give them a handout and a bag full of worthless pity. I did not enable them by making it too easy. They had built their muscles and proven their commitment over time. But when it came right down to it, all of the struggle in the world, all the tenacity they could muster was never going to get them a shot at freedom. They needed someone bigger and more powerful to lend a little hand, to have compassion on their sincere effort. At that moment in time, I was in the right place at the right time and I was willing to provide them with that extra little push.
As I returned to my room and washed the sand out of my hair in preparation for my flight back to Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but hope that on my next visit I would come across another set of hatchlings, and with any luck, they would be the tenacious offspring of the two little ones I had helped find an opportunity for freedom.

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

Former GOGI Campus President LaDawn Bell grabs a cup of coffee with classmate Aura Yesi Amaya after the first court hearing to expunge her record.

LaDawn Bell was ushered into the Los Angeles County Jail GOGI Campus program shortly after her ump-teenth arrest, her rap sheet was longer than the receipt from a full-day of shopping at Costco.  A career and habitual criminal, LaDawn had not been out of prison very long before she was back to her old tricks of drug use and stealing other people’s property to pay for her addiction. She landed in GOGI Campus because one officer began dumping his least favorite and troublesome inmates into the campus claiming he needed the bed space for “overflow.”

            “When is your next court hearing?” I asked in a rare one-on-one interview with the new girls who had made it into campus.

            “I go back to court next week,” she stated.  “Coach,” she added with intense seriousness, “this is my third strike.  I blew it.  I am going to be doing the rest of my life in prison.”

            As she stated this inevitable fact, she didn’t cry.  She was just stating the facts.  She knew she had gambled and lost. She knew the ropes.  Do the crime? You do the time.  California was firm on the three strikes law. Three felonies proved you were a persistent threat to society and 25-to-life is what you were going to get. 

            “Who is your judge?” I asked.

            “Ito,” she replied.

            My experience with Judge Lance Ito was less than the entire world’s contact with that particular Compton Court judge.  Most of the world sat glued to their television sets as Judge Lance Ito presided over the O.J. Simpson murder trial.  My exposure to the decider of people’s fates was limited to his oversight of cases brought against Teri Shedarowich and Erin Iwakiri, two GOGI Girls whose diligent work in the campus warranted my appearance in court.

I knew the drill in his courtroom.  He preferred facts and didn’t mind hearing directly from the accused.  Some judges prefer to communicate only with the Public Defender.  Judge Ito, I had learned, was not against letting the accused make a statement or two. 

What I didn’t know was if Judge Ito would give me another women, bypassing the three strikes sentencing and letting me keep LaDawn Bell in GOGI Campus, instead.  There was a logistics challenge, however, as the longest I could request was a year of jail time.  Anything more than a year of time required a prison stay.  The likelihood of him permitting a year of county time over 25 in the company of CDCR was slim.  Still, we were going to give it a shot. 

“Coach, I am done,” she said.

“We don’t know that,” I replied.

“No, Coach.  I mean I am done with that life.  I truly am,” she said.

One thing you learn when you are in jails or prisons is not to believe conversions or commitment of life changes from anyone relegated to wearing a tracking number and wristband.  It’s usually just jail talk making up their confined conversations. In most cases, it all gets forgotten when the door is unlocked and the meth pipe is pulled out of the dresser drawer.  Still, there was something in her eyes; something I knew was not the same-ol’ flapping of the jaws and wishful thinking.

“How do you know?” I asked. “How do you know you are ready?”

She paused for a moment before thoughtfully responding, making the full-on eye contact that only comes with honesty.

“I dunno, Coach.  I just know.”

I knew she knew.  And I knew there was enough muscle within her to actually succeed, if she became humble enough to turn over her decision making to the grooming and learning she would receive in GOGI Campus.

“OK.  Here is what we are going to do.  I am going to bypass campus rules, make you the President of the Campus and I am going to go into court with you and ask Judge Ito to give you to me for a year instead of prison.”

The tear running down her cheek was likely to have been the first tear making its way out of her broken heart for many years.

“You don’t even know me,” she said.

“I have very good instincts, LaDawn.  I think you can be a great GOGI leader.  I think you are done and I am going to make a stand for you.  But you are going to need to learn everything you can about GOGI, learn the tools, and be prepared to tell the Judge why you think this will work.”

“Alright, Coach.  I can do that,” she replied.

“You better do it because I am putting my reputation on the line for you,” I said with every bit of seriousness the situation deserved. “If other women are to get this chance at changing their lives it is going to be because you do not fail.  I will not let you fail. There is too much at stake. Do you understand me?”

She nodded.

“You will not fail. Are we clear?” I stated.

“Yes, Coach.  I got it.”  

Announcing to the Campus that I was going to bypass all campus protocol and place LaDawn Bell, a career criminal, a shot caller, an active addict, a woman with a proclivity for getting into physical fights who was admittedly self-serving into the coveted position of Campus President nearly caused a mutiny. 

“That’s not fair,” one of the girls declared.

“I know,” I replied.

“She doesn’t even know the tools,” stated another.

“I know,” I replied.

“You don’t know her like we know her, Coach.  LaDawn Bell? She ain’t no good,” said another.

“I know,” I replied.

“But, Coach, you said this was our campus. We didn’t vote for her,” another chimed in.

“I know,” I replied.

LaDawn and I stood at the front of the group, united solidly in the stand we were making against the barrage of objection.  

I let them vent for a while and then the room went silent. It was my turn to explain myself.

“I don’t ask much from you.  I come here and teach you to be strong and self-sufficient and I am very proud of each and every one of you for learning to be strong, self-sufficient.  Now I need a favor.  I think we can help turn LaDawn’s life around but I need time. She has court next week and if we all prepare her, we might be able to keep her from spending the rest of her life in prison.  I need you to do me a favor and support LaDawn as President until after her court date.  I am going to court asking if the judge will give her to GOGI for a year.  If she is Campus President, we just might have a shot.  Can I have your support?  Will you raise your hand if you will help me by voting for LaDawn as the temporary President of GOGI Campus?”

Most of the hands crept cautiously upward, making certain that they were not the only one endorsing my calling this shot which rattled the very core of our rules.

            The women in the campus resented me, I am sure.  They undoubtedly thought I had been swindled by a self-admitted con artist, I am sure.  They wodl be regressing to the eroding poison of gossip and criticism in the hours that followed, I suspected.  I knew all the damages to be repaired at a later date.  But this was a life raft I felt compelled to toss out, even if it caused others to need to swim a little more. 

            The campus focus turned toward preparing LaDawn, and everyone else to present themselves well in front of their Judges for their upcoming hearings.  Long after I left the campus each night the women were in their requisite rehearsals on what they would say to the judge, the jury, the DA and how they would describe their commitment to positive decision making to their Public Defender.

            LaDawn began to blossom. I could see it happening in the courtroom rehearsals.  She was speaking more confidently about GOGI and about her commitment to change with each mock hearing.  Still, we had a long way to go and a short amount of time with which to make it happen. 

 

 

JUDGE ITO

 

While it was likely LaDawn was sitting in some holding cell in the basement of the courthouse, I was still inching my way eastward on the 105 freeway, slowly traveling past the jail as the sun was coming up, toward the Compton Courthouse which housed Judge Ito’s court.  The security line in the morning at courthouses is long, each person being screened and x-ray inspected before they fill the overcrowded elevators up to their respective courtrooms. 

            I took my seat, choosing that place where LaDawn could identify me quite easily without breaking the rule not to communicate with anyone in the audience.  When she was escorted in her jail uniform, handcuffed with the bailiff by her side, she truly looked as if she felt quite comfortable in this familiar surrounding. Admittedly, she looked like a career criminal.

            At the last minute, a few GOGI volunteers joined me, women who had been released and were making a stand for other women in a similar situation.

            “You made it,” I said with the beam of a proud mother on my face.

            “The matter of LaDawn Bell,” the judge said, moving a massive file before him.

            “Ah, she ain’t neva gettin’ out,” was the comment from the woman seated directly behind me as she observed the huge record of a lifetime of crime being opened by the judge.

            Most of the court cases were thin-file infractions of one law or the next.  None of the sentences that morning had been serious, nor were their crimes, and the files were not massive, as was the case with LaDawn Bell.  The judge’s reliance on the District Attorney to dole out the sentence with the prior cases was not a good omen for our GOGI Girl and her extensive file. The judge actually needed to use muscle leverage to move her file into place.  I had never seen that before. For good reason, District Attorney types don’t take too kindly to criminal files that are thicker than a Bible, Koran and Buddhist meditation book all stacked together. 

            LaDawn stood and her public defender began his introduction in the now-familiar ritual that would ultimately lead to a decision by the courts. Charges were read.  Then the judge consulted the top papers in the file.  The Public Defender stated something about giving her another chance. The tension was mounting and I was praying LaDawn would remember what we had rehearsed.  She was to ask to speak to directly to the court.

            She leaned into the Public Defender and the negative shake of his head let me know she had asked the appropriate question.

            Now I only prayed she would follow the rest of my instructions. I held my breath and closed my eyes.

            “Don’t fail me, LaDawn.  Don’t fail me,” I said to myself, and God, and LaDawn, and any guardian angels up there who might have an interest in the outcome of this case.

            “Your honor, Judge Ito,” she said.

            My heart began pumping again.

            The Public Defender tried to silence her.

            The DA shut her file and looked up in dismay.

            The judge calmly raised his eyes from the file and replied.

            “Yes, Miss Bell?” he said.

            “Your Honor, I have made a lot of mistakes but I am in the GOGI program and I can do it now. I know what I need to do.  The program director is right over there. Can she talk to you for a minute?”

            That one came out of left field, but I didn’t have a choice but to be ready.

            “What program?” he asked.

            “Getting Out By Going In.  Coach Taylor is right there,” she said as she pointed to me.

            “Alright, Ms. Bell. We will hear from Coach Taylor of Getting Out By Going In,” he said as I instinctively stood and walked to the little swinging door dividing the courtroom from the audience.

            “State your name,” someone said.  It was not clear who said it because my brain was too occupied with what the heck I might say.  LaDawn had been in the rehearsals, not me.  This was supposed to be her spotlight, not mine.  The room suddenly went a little fuzzy. For me, there was no one in focus but LaDawn Bell and Judge Lance Ito and the District Attorney hovering in the peripheral of my vision.

            “Your Honor,” I began.  The rest of what I said is not in my memory.  It’s on a court record transcript buried in some file somewhere.  I know I stated that I needed her. That she was president of the custody campus where women were learning to make positive decisions and she had been elected to lead 24 women and something about wasn’t it a good thing that she was leading for good instead of doing the same prison routine that never worked for her anyway? I remember the jest of the introduction to a new possibility in corrections. What I also remember is that LaDawn cried.  I cried.  And the judge looked as if he was nearly moved to tears himself.

            The District Attorney reiterated the career nature of Ms. Bell’s record, the fact that she had failed every program to which he had sentenced her, and that he had given ample opportunity in the past for Ms. Bell to correct her behavior.  She even mentioned the fact that LaDawn started committing crimes when she was nine years old.  I didn’t really hear anything but gibberish coming from her irritated mouth, it meant nothing to me.  I just kept my solid focus on my brave GOGI Girl LaDawn and Judge Lance Ito.

            “Please?” I chimed in.

            The silence turned my focus to the pounding of my heart, which nearly deafened me to what was said by the judge. 

            The girls called it a God Shot, one of those blessings from heaven that no one expects would ever become a reality, like the complete and total instant remission of a terminal cancer.  And that is what it was like, it was almost as if in that singular second of grace, Judge Lance Ito eradicated any residual criminal presence from the emotionally broken and bruised woman named LaDawn Bell who was standing before him.

            The court record became law.  LaDawn Bell became under the supervision of GOGI with a 3 year probation which required her to complete GOGI programming, a formal drug program and he made it very clear she would be severely, and he meant severely punished if she was ever seen in that courtroom again.

            “The only time you are going to see me here again is when I come in to get my record expunged,” she replied, sending a warm chuckle of hope throughout the courthouse.

            And with that the large files documenting the previous life of LaDawn Bell was closed.  She was led out of the courtroom without the ability to glance back at the row of supporters wiping tears from their eyes.

The girls and I returned to our cars, chatting about the magical moments occurring in that courtroom on the way. When they had each left the parking structure I remained in my car, and I cried.  What happened in that courtroom just did not happen.  Things did not go down that way. 

I felt a wave of humility, which begged the question burning in my soul, “What more can I do to be of service?”

 

EPILOGUE

LaDawn Bell ~ successfully completed GOGI and the Amity drug program and for the first time in her adult life, she was released from court supervision.  She was employed at Direct TV where they were promoting her to shift manager.  After more than two years of success as a law-abiding and sober citizen, Coach Taylor and LaDawn returned back to Judge Lance Ito’s court to begin expungement process.  She was instructed to return to court in June, 2013, when the process could formally begin. 

While waiting for the expungement of her record which would permit her to increase her employment options, LaDawn began her own GOGI Coaching of young girls on the street corners, often taking them into her home and sobering them up and telling them their lives were worth more.  While on the way to a fundraising event in Manhattan Beach she and Coach Taylor discussed her future.

“Coach, I didn’t know real people lived like this,” she said on the drive through an affluent beach community.

“Honey, you can live like this,” Coach Taylor replied.

“Aint’ that something.  I spent my whole life in prison and here I am, driving with you in Manhattan Beach.  Coach, I wanna live like this,” she said.  “I wanna live like this.”

LaDawn Bell was a regular volunteer at GOGI and finally a good mother to her son, good grandmother to her only grandchild, and an example for her sisters.  On the way to her father’s 70th birthday, January 16th, 2013 at 7:20 pm, LaDawn Bell was the innocent victim of a bullet intended for her niece. 

She died instantly. 

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FORGET TO REMEMBER

WHAT IF you woke up this morning and could not remember anything negative from your past?  WHAT IF when you awoke you were told you were one of those rare individuals who had endured much but who had overcome all obstacles and was now an example of the best the human race could possibly become?

WHAT IF when you heard this – that you had diligently dedicated yourself to being the best person possible – WHAT IF you did not doubt, nor did you waiver in assuming this new identity?

INSTANT LIFE CHANGE

If you truly believed this, a powerful mental shift would occur that would change everything for as long as you lived.  Instantly, and without question, your reaction to life’s inevitable irritations would alter.  Your perceptions of others would become more compassionate and the words you spoke would be more encouraging than victimization, damning or filled with blame.

When caught in the quagmire of human weakness, we all are less than our best.  We point the finger, find blame, and confabulate excuses for our own inadequacies and wrongdoings.

REMEMBERING IS CHOICE

When we awake each morning, we have the choice to remember or to forget those things no longer serving our efforts to find our freedom from drama and anguish.  We can LET GO of being upset with circumstance, irritation at our spouse, disliking our boss, the inevitable familial struggles, or our concerns for our economy or government.  In truth, we do not need to carry around on our weary backs those things in our daily life that serve to dismantle our efforts to find the internal freedom which comes when we turn our individual focus to becoming a very good human.

What we remember each morning, or choose to remember when we awake, is entirely up to each individual. Our focus – those things on which we place our mental attention- is our critical choice as the determining factor in our level of internal freedom.

YOUR MAGNIFICENT BRAIN

Your brain is at your command.  It is yours to train, to exercise, to guide and to control. The problem is, we are not taught this as children.  We are taught to rely on parents, teachers, peers, neighbors, media and government to make things better for us, that we are somehow incapable of being our own boss.

The truth of the matter is each one of us is in the driver’s seat of our life experience. What we choose to do with our 80-somehting years is more under our control than we would like to conveniently believe.  It is much more convenient and consistent with our training to believe the control lies outside of ourselves.

We can, however, begin to train the neurons in our brain – those messengers assigned the task of moving data from one part of the brain to the next – to get excited about a new way of thinking, eventually altering our very life experiences, our habits, our likes and dislikes, and even elements of our personality we may believe are unchangeable.

Fact: We can train our brain, much like we can train a puppy. We can train our brain to understand when to sit still, when to bark, and when to roll over.  Our brain is our very own puppy to train, or to let roam wild causing havoc and creating a mess we eventually blame on the puppy.

WHAT IF?

WHAT IF we begin to let our past, our parents, our enemies, our teachers, or our economy off the hook? WHAT IF we stated, “I am BOSS OF MY BRAIN!”

WHAT IF we declared that no one and nothing was in control of our thoughts and opinions? WHAT IF we truly believed we could pick and choose those things we want to have bouncing around in our brain, those thoughts taking up valuable space and energy?

GOOD MORNING

Well.  Wake up.  Good morning, I say to you.  You have a new puppy in your hands.  It’s yours brain to train any way you see fit.

Good morning, I say to you.  The facts about you will never alter.  You are a dear, wonderful, and powerful human, no matter what you have experienced or chosen to believe.  You are born of a lineage of creators, and a species that has the capacity for greatness and goodness, miracle making and magic.

This is your life to create from this day forward as you take control of your reactions and perceptions to life’s unfairness and inevitable obstacles.  It is your day to create your opinions just as you see fit.  You can carry a heavy burden of human errors of the past, or you can embrace the concept that the weight of the past no longer serves you.

YOU ARE THE BOSS

In reading this, you are now in charge.  You have the permission; you always have had the permission, but now you really have it tossed in your lap.  And your new puppy needs feeding.

You need nothing more than this simple knowledge to make this very day one filled with example after example of how you are training your brain to respond to your wishes, not the other way around.

FACTS

Fact: You are more magnificent that you believe; you just have been hiding under a big sack of unnecessary history.

Fact: You are more talented that you can possibly realize; you have just been handcuffed by shame, doubt and the scripts told to you by others.

Fact: You are more than capable; you have just been burdened with unnecessary chatter bouncing around in your head and keeping you stuck, immobile and frozen in place, waiting for some external miracle to make things better for you.

GOOD MORNING!

Well, all I can say is, GOOD MORNING.  Wake up. The puppy needs feeding and it needs a good, solid instruction on how to obey its owner – you.  Today, nothing from the past can hold you back or clutter the path to your progress unless you permit it to remain there.

It’s time to find your freedom and that journey begins by you asking yourself “WHAT IF I am not my past? WHAT IF I truly am in control of this thing called life?”

Get your puppy chow ready.  That brain of yours needs to know who is in charge.

GOGI MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

AT LONG LAST ~ RELIEF

Relief is my consuming emotional experience at the dawn of this New Year, a relief that instantly settles my entire body, my mind, and my heretofore ever-restless spirit.  One decade ago, the GOGI journey was embarked upon as a desperate attempt to feel a little better about being alive.  I wasn’t caring much for the whole “life experience” thing and was desperately and frantically seeking something, anything that might change my mind about getting my departure ticket off these school grounds as quickly as possible.

            GOGI was born of my desperation, but also of my unwavering willingness to listen to those whose physical situations were deemed by others to be less desirable than my own.  While I had physical freedom, the people I was serving with my volunteerism were in prison.  Logic would say I had something to tell them and sound advice to offer. After all, I had earned two Masters degrees and a Ph.D. and was an ordained minister among a dozen of other certifications and accomplishments.  Surely my book smarts would aid them in their struggle to play by the rules, the logic went.  But the opposite was the reality; the more I listened to the prisoners of our nation the more my questions were answered and the more meaning was found within the spaces between my frantic paddling.  Slowly but surely a change occurred within me, an incremental alteration of the accumulation of tendencies leading to an alternative life experience, one of internal freedom.

THE TIPPING POINT

Ten years and 100,000 bits of knowledge later, GOGI, has reached its own tipping point, or that place where it is bigger than my desperation, bigger than my hopeless situation, and bigger than any one person’s life experience.  As a byproduct of my journey, GOGI is officially an alternative culture for the 2.3 million men, women and children in our nation who, through their poor decision making skills and poor choice of peers, have found their home address to be a governmentally-funded gated community. 

            Relief.  Relief is what I feel.  I do not need to check off this planet because it is a sucky place to live.  It’s a sucky place for anyone who does not have the tools with which to make positive decisions.  Armed with the positive decision making tools I learned while listening to our nation’s prisoners, I have come to realize this is a pretty cool planet on which we live and there are constant creative choices that can be made by me. I now know I am the boss; it’s my life experience and I can be proactive and positive in my thoughts, my words and my actions and this will alter my entire life experience.   I can be free if I continue to use my positive decision making tools I learned while Getting Out by Going In. So, best I can, I continue to share the extent of what I have learned up until now in the hopes of lightening the load of someone right behind me on this path.  Maybe by sharing the steps on my journey, I might speed up their internal processes toward internal freedom and they will be inclined to do the same.

BECOMING GOGI

A decade of practice and application of the GOGI Tools for positive decision-making has made way for a capacity within me to BE the very essence of GOGI, Getting Out of my own prison by Going Inward for the answers.  Life has become a daily automatic execution of the tools beyond much exertion of energy.  The pattern of positive decision-making has become the very essence of who I am, and, therefore, being on the planet is a pretty cool experience.  I can paint any picture for my life with my choices and perceptions.  What a relief not to leave this planet thinking it is a failed experiment. And this relief comes from the GOGI tool of LET GO, whereby I can LET GO now of all effort to cling on to the old.  I now experience the illusive freedom that I endeavored to find for so long. 

LESS DOING = MORE BEING

At the sharing of my life’s milestone, my daughter said, “Finally.  Now I won’t have to listen to 24/7 GOGI.”  The relief in her voice is palpable.  We are both relieved.  I am sure my friends will be relieved to get the new and improved version of me back into a more social environment. When I was talking GOGI, it irritated family and drove friends to find other companions.  Now I no longer need to talk about GOGI but I simply “am” GOGI and the world is unfolding with harmony and kindness at the foundation.

DON’T GIVE UP BEFORE THE MIRACLE

Note to GOGI students:  Don’t stop talking GOGI until you truly become GOGI in your every thought, your ever word and your every action.  The repetition of learning and teaching and learning and teaching is at the core of your success.  At that time, at that critical 100,000 bits of learning and tenth year of your dedicated study, your “being” GOGI and consistency of living The GOGI Way will resonate so loudly you won’t need to say a word.  Ultimate freedom is there, between the words and between the seconds of time, if you keep Getting Out by Going In. Image

Coach Taylor ~ The New Seminary Ordination

Coach Mara Leigh Taylor empowers new ministers to focus on service in her acceptance speech for the Inaugural Rabbi Gelberman Award for service.

It was not that long ago I sat where you are seated today, in the pews of a New York City church in the heart of Manhattan as I, too, awaited ordination as an interfaith minister.

I was excited, to be sure, but uncertain what it would mean to my life to have been ordained an interfaith minister.   You, too, are probably wondering what it will mean to your life to have achieved this rare and wonderful accomplishment.

I can tell you this from my heart. Much like everything else in life, your ordination will mean whatever you wish it to mean.

It is likely no one will treat you any differently than they did yesterday or the day before.  It is likely your spiritual path will not be understood, supported or as respected as you would like it to be.  You may never have a congregation or wear your robes frequently.

Truthfully, your ordination as an interfaith minister is not to give the outside world permission to appreciate you because they may not.  Your ordination as an interfaith minister is, however, your own permission to live your life in service of a world that may rarely appreciate, sometimes ignore, and might even discredit your contribution.

There are three things I wish you to remember when you leave these doors as ordained ministers. First: The only way to create a happy and fulfilling life is to live a life of service. Second: The only way to create a happy and fulfilling life is to live a life of service. Third: The only way to create a happy and fulfilling life is to live a life of service.

You may be thinking, “But, I need a nonprofit, or a congregation, or a book, or a pulpit so I can begin my life of service.  How can I be of service without these things?”  To this I will say, from a deep place within my heart of confirmed knowledge, you do not need anything more than what you already have to begin to live your life in service of others.

Remember the story of the Wizard of Oz? Remember Dorothy, the little girl who wanted more than anything to get back to Kansas but didn’t know how?  She traveled far and overcame many obstacles only to find she had the power to return home with her from the very beginning of her journey.  She was wearing magical Ruby Red Slippers.

Much like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you have always had the magic within you.  You have always had everything you need.  Now, with your ordination you are armed with the self-permission to set aside anything that might block your own successful journey on your yellow brick road. I am here to tell you today, you are wearing the magical Ruby Red Slippers that will help you choose to live your life in service of this world.

Living a life of service is not about doing something big which will get you some attention which you may think will may make you feel better or make people like you more.  Living a life of service is about doing many small things that remain unnoticed, unrecognized and unrewarded.  Living a life of service is doing the right and good thing even when no one is looking.  Living a life of service is being patient and compassionate with the qualities or actions of others that may madden, irritate or confuse you. Living a life of service means you understand this earth is inhabited by flawed and faulty humans doing they best they can with limited resources.

I want to leave you with this challenge today; and it may seem counter intuitive, and against what you may believe or have learned.  I challenge you to take your eye off the big prize and focus on the details of today.  Ask yourself how you can be of service in some small way, today.

When you turn your attention to those in need around you, you are living a life of service.  Each and every day, make it a point to do five or more kind and generous things for others, some of which are not seen by anyone but yourself.  In this commitment to living in service, each day there will be five testaments to your ministry.  You will be ministering to others through your ministry to your own life, displaying no less than five actions each day that reconfirm your commitments and your vows.  In committing to five small acts each day, in one short year you will have accomplished more than one thousand eight hundred acts of goodness.  That is a solid ministry providing you with a life of fulfillment and happiness.

Remember, there are three keys to living a happy and fulfilling life: First – Living a life of service. Second – Living a life of service.  Third – Living a life of service.

May all your days be blessed with the benefits of your small actions ministering to others through your new title as interfaith ministers.  I encourage you to wear your Ruby Red slippers with joy, knowing you have and always will be whole, perfect and of great value on this earth at this time.

Congratulations to The New Seminary Class of 2012.

(This address given offered by Reverend Doctor Mara Leigh “Coach” Taylor to the newly ordained ministers of The New Seminary in New York City, New York on June 16, 2012)

Erin spent the better part of 30 years caught in the wave and ripples of drug addiction brought on by what I suspect to have been a deep-seated self-loathing. When she first entered my world, it was in 2008 as a “student” placed in the therapeutic community housing unit called GOGI Campus at the Los Angeles County Jail. Erin had been arrested—again—and somehow had navigated her way up the waiting list of 100-plus inmates to claim one of 24 beds in this particular wing of the county jail dedicated to GOGI studies.

The fact that Erin was in jail was not a surprise to anyone. It was impossible to know just how many times cuffs had been slapped on her wrists. She represented the epitome of revolving door incarceration.  As a participant in the donor-sponsored programming I was offering to the jailed women, I would not have thought of Erin as “most likely to succeed.” What she needed, I believed, before there was any hope at all,   was no less than one full year in the GOGI Campus facility where she would learn how to make positive choices and where she could build a peer network I hoped would sustain her upon release from jail.

The judge agreed with my sentencing recommendation and Erin was sentenced to one year in the county jail in the GOGI program. When she came back from court that day and gave the other GOGI Girls the news, I was hopeful. With 365 full days of intensive training, miracles can happen; Erin could practice the decision-making tools with like-minded women and they would learn how to make positive decisions before she headed back into the cruel world with self-loathing as her calling card.

I went into campus a few days later only to see a new girl seated in Erin’s chair. Erin had been released, the women told me. As “luck” would have it, the jail was overcrowded and everyone who was not a danger to self or others and who were serving a year or less of jail time was automatically and unceremoniously released to make way for more hardened criminals. That placed Erin on the streets only three days after being sentenced to a year of jail time. I chalked it up to the flawed system and never expected to see or hear from Erin again.

When the phone rang and it was Erin calling, I was pleasantly surprised. When she explained that she was “GOGI for Life” and was going to do things differently this time, a ray of hope illuminated my perspective. I was supportive, but also understood that jailhouse talk of change usually disappears at the first call from a fellow addict. I offered volunteer opportunities and counseling. After all, the court had sentenced her to a year of GOGI, there was nothing in her GOGI program that released her until her 365 days were successful. I told her she still had her GOGI time to do, and she giggled.

Erin consistently inched her way toward stability and distanced herself from all things that could land her back in a squad car headed toward the jail. She began to lighten her load emotionally and this was reflected in her renewed interest to keep a tidy home for her and her husband, David.

“Coach,” she said one day with pride, “I can see my floor now that all the junk is gone and I have so much more room!”

The room of which she spoke was her physical living space, but I knew it represented the space within her heart and soul that was expanding, also. There were other changes, too. Subtle things like coming to realize that she could love others, and herself, as well. Or the fact that maybe she could even be a counselor. “After all,” she said, “I can do a better job than my counselor because I have been there.”

I watched her self-loathing diminish, slowly but surely, and bit by bit. Erin had grown accustomed living her life The GOGI Way and focused not on her past but on being of service to the new world in which the sober-Erin had emerged.

She would come to the GOGI mailroom and tidy up, or decorate for the coming holiday, always contributing and never complaining about the struggle inherent in overcoming addiction.

One Saturday, when Erin arrived at the GOGI mailroom, she was particularly lovely and radiant. Her eyes were clear and her smile was brighter than usual. She was bearing gifts: a rarely worn jacket and matching pants she wanted me to have, certain it would suit me just fine. She was, once again, cleaning out her closet to make even more room in her life.

Erin had her own way of looking at the world—a unique way she translated into thought-provoking poetry. One poem, about a gnat she observed while in a county jail cell, will be published in the new HOW TO GOGI book. Erin had a way of seeing significance in even the smallest things.  Let Erin talk long enough and her unique lens with which she observed the world would find its way into the conversation.

After I folded my new clothes and returned to venting my frustration at the challenge of responding to the hundreds of letters flooding our mailroom with no funding and no staff, Erin gave my statements consideration before she replied. With her unbridled compassion for those suffering among us, she said something which I won’t soon forget.

“Coach, we are all like broken little toys, stumbling around with our crutches and our casts, just trying to fix ourselves and doing the best we can.”

Yes, I thought, as I pictured Toy Story or The Nutcracker.  We are not unlike a bunch of well-meaning toys trying to make the best of this toy box of an existence.

I instantly had a new perspective on increasing number of letters coming into our non-profit in from prisons across our nation. It truth, we are all at little bit bruised and broken, limping through life on our crutches and with our arms in our casts, struggling for any remedy to cure our suffering. Thinking about it that way softened the dark shadow  on what can sometimes feel like a heavy, difficult life-calling beckoning me to the mailbox every day.

That Saturday, less than 72 hours ago, was the last time I saw Erin. On Sunday, we were supposed to meet in my offices to review the hundreds of hours she had donated to GOGI so that I could submit a report to the court reviewing her progress.  She canceled.  She was ill.  Vomiting, her husband relayed via email. We lobbed our meeting into sometime Monday.

The frantic call from a distraught husband came Monday afternoon.  His words were barely understandable.  “She died.  She died,” he exclaimed in barely understandable tear-drenched and broken sentences.  Indeed, at 1:00 our dear Erin was pronounced dead, succumbing to gangrene that had taken hold after a series of physical ailments and intense antibiotics.  He was inconsolable, in sheer disbelief that after  decades of wishing for his wife to be freed from addiction, she was gone just as she was finally healing.

Erin’s death has not become reality for me quite yet. I still expect Erin and her husband to stroll into the mailroom to offer their time in service of others. I have not yet completed the review of her hundreds of hours.  And the jacket has not even been hung up in my closet yet.  I will miss when a holiday rolls around and the decorations remain in their boxes. And, for certain, I won’t be able to wear the lovely outfit she gave me without a making sure I have a tissue in my pocket.

In my mind I see Erin sitting in the GOGI mailroom sharing with me her perspective of our fragile human race.  I can’t help but picture her on a pair of crutches with a little cast on her arm, limping closer toward her healing.  In my mind, her smile is a mile wide and her clothes – just so.  In so many ways, our fragile Erin was a broken little toy and simply perfect in her imperfection.

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A LIFE OF HARMONY

There is a national forest not far from where I live and where a variety of critters exist in harmony with nature’s demands. This morning, as I was exploring an area new to my daily walks, I came across a deer path. It appeared well worn and recently trodden, by the looks of the fresh tracks I found myself following. 

The narrow path through the pine trees and underbrush beckoned me to climbed higher and higher into the mountainous area, and I decided to grab a fist-thick fallen tree branch as “protection” should a mountain lion be disturbed by my intrusion into his territory. 

THE DEER

In a clearing not far ahead I saw them. The deer. There were five. Then a sixth one emerged from behind a massive pine tree. They were grazing on a patch of grass fed by a little stream. I took a seat on a tree stump and observed. One of the young bucks was just getting his antlers and another would be getting his soon. There were two little ones, barely eight months, I would suspect. What looked like a lovely young doe made the group almost picturesque.  As they grazed, it was almost as if they took turns, looking out for mountain lions and grabbing a few nibbles in an alternating, seemingly coordinated rhythm. 

The beauty of the scene was enhanced by the realization that they worked as a team, protecting one another and living out their respective roles within the hierarchy of the group. When the biggest and oldest male moved, the group followed. As they meandered a little further west of where I was positioned, I needed to relocate to keep my observation unobstructed by the brush. 

I got up and walked slowly toward these delicately grazing, peaceful inhabitants of the forest. I meant them no harm, to be sure, but they didn’t know that. As they saw me approaching, the leader glanced my way then simply lifted his head from the sweet grass and led the group further west, away from the potential threat I posed. That was as it should be, he was the protector. I am peaceful, but he didn’t know that and the young ones didn’t need to be taught that humans were peaceful; hunting season does exist in these mountains. The young ones needed to learn to avoid danger. 

THE ELEGANCE

What struck me was the elegance and simplicity with which the young buck avoided any possible danger. He just sensed danger and did something about it; he moved away. He didn’t look weak, he had no element cowardice, he was not backing down, he simply would not engage in danger of any kind.  In this power, in this ultimate sign of strength, he led his family safely from harm.

What would our lives be like if we were as skilled and intuitive as the young buck who was responsible for the lives of those who followed his lead? What would our prisons, our jails, our churches and our schools be like if we had the sense of the deer to  peacefully exist with others and simply avoid danger? 

He declared what was most important to him and to his role as protector.  Sure the grass on which they were grazing was sweet. And, in truth, he and his family were there first.  The national forest is his home, not mine. He was in the right. I was the intruder. I had no real business being in his backyard. After all, he stayed out of mine.

NO EMOTIONAL NEED TO BE RIGHT

And yet, the young buck had no emotional attachment to how he felt things needed to be done or what was fair. Absent the inherently complicating aspect of emotion, the deer could act in a wise and protective manner, and he removed himself and his family from danger with no attachment to what he wanted or felt he deserved. .

I followed the group of deer until they disappeared over a series of hills I was not interested in conquering. My hike that day gave me cause to reflect upon the simple mind of the deer and the advanced manner in which they live, avoiding danger and gently grazing, not causing a ruckus or harming anything or anyone. They exist peacefully. 

WHAT IF

WHAT IF we, as emotional and judgmental human beings, WHAT IF we were just a bit more like the deer in the national forest? What if we just avoided danger rather than using it to justify drama, sinking into the depths of negativity, or having to explain how we ended up in negative situations? For all the times we felt we needed to make things “right,” was our input really helpful? 

Today I realize, there is something profoundly evolved about the simple mind of the grazing deer in the forest who is wise enough to simply walk away. 

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