Conspirare began its jail outreach program at the Travis County Correctional Complex in December 2014. With the support of the Shield-Ayres Foundation, we have shared several performances with our full choir as well as smaller ensembles. In May 2016 we completed our most recent session. Singers Mela Dailey and Laura Mercado-Wright, pianist Austin Haller, and facilitator Paula D’Arcy shared the gift of music with 30 women inmates at the facility. We all found this experience especially impactful, and Paula reflects on her time that day.
Watching Conspirare sing, anywhere and anytime, is a gift I give to myself as often as possible. But witnessing the full choir (or individual singers) open hearts with music in the Travis County Correctional Complex is almost indescribable. A week ago I went with singers Mela Dailey and Laura Mercado-Wright and a wonderful pianist, Austin Haller to spend sixty minutes in a classroom filled with women who are in jail waiting to be sentenced, transitioning back from prison…or some, just serving jail time. Whatever the specifics, you knew that their lives were in a hard place. I was along to facilitate some conversation with the women after the music touched their hearts.
Mela and Laura opened with a selection called “Flower Duet” from the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes. The room was theirs after the first line. It was mesmerizing to watch the transformation. The words were in French, not English, so the lyrics were left to the imagination, and yet those two soaring voices and the beauty of the duet cut a channel in the room. All our eyes were full, and most of the women in the jail were openly weeping. Afterwards when I asked the inmates what they felt as they listened, they responded: Blessed; strength; hope; inspired; amazed; content; humbled. I understood perfectly. I felt the same.
In the great mix of music that was offered that hour (including Broadway tunes, pop, classical) there was a song titled “Fight Song” by Rachel Platten. One of the lines offers, “…how a single word/ Can make a heart open…” and then the phrase, “This is my fight song/ Take back my life song…Can you hear my voice this time?”
I had the women write and then speak their own “fight song” and when I came home that afternoon I saw that on the back of a program I’d picked up was one woman’s Fight Song. She had written: I want you to know that I am stronger than anyone could imagine and I am allowing myself the opportunity to live… I want you to know that I’m living into my passion with clarity… I want you to know that I’m now living a life that is authentic.”
In response to my question about things they regretted, words they had not been able to say in the past, this woman had written: “The word ‘No;’ I don’t want this; I’ve had enough; I won’t be used; I am strong.”
Later that night the music and the experience in the jail were still moving inside me. I looked at my television, unable to turn on the News, or anything else that was being offered. At the end of our time in the jail, when the last songs were being sung, I’d asked the women to pass a little plastic globe I’d brought with me. When the world is passed to you, I’d said, hold it for a moment and imagine that the heart of the world is in your hands, and that the world is actually affected by the openness of all our hearts. It might have been a silly exercise, but they didn’t make it one. I watched as the “world” was passed down the rows and received by their hands. Most of the women closed their eyes as they held the little globe, many held it up to their hearts. The lyrics from “Fight Song” continued, “Like a small boat/ On the ocean/ Sending big waves/ Into motion…”
I think of the many, many times I have idled sixty minutes away, and of how we need to be present to the minutes we’re given, “hold our heads up” (“I’m Here” from The Color Purple by Stephen Bray), “…stand as tall as the tallest tree” and speak of Love.
Read more about Paula, an early Conspirare supporter, and her foundation at redbirdfoundation.com.
Photo of Ms. D’Arcy by Richard A. Cooke III