Sowers’ Seed Lecture: Sharon Charde ’64
September 29, 2006
I am so very grateful to all who invited me to speak this year as a Sowers’ Seed lecturer; it is such a great honor. Never in my most quixotic dreams would I have imagined I would be back at Trinity in this role – in the chapel, no less – never would I have thought that I would have had anything of value to offer this school, that my life, a patchwork of human struggles, brokenness and confusions, would offer any inspiration to the young women of today, both you in this chapel tonight and the girls in my writing group here and at Touchstone. But here I am, invited by you, humbled by this invitation, grateful for your belief that my life and my work are worth hearing about, hopeful that you will take for yourselves the truth that every person’s story is not only one worth telling, but one worth hearing and learning from.
I have always wanted to change the world. My time at Trinity, in the early sixties, nurtured that desire. It was a time of great idealism, of innocence, and compared to the complex world we live in today, a time of relatively simplistic thinking. All problems seemed solvable if a group of really smart people (like us) could sit around a table for a few hours and talk about them. And of course, the Catholic Church offered numerous answers to life’s problems as well…. Our young and thrilling president in the time we called Camelot, John F. Kennedy, said to us as freshmen in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” When his assassination, in our senior year, made him even more of a hero to us, those words took on a greater meaning. We were meant to do good in the world, to give to those who had less than we had because we were lucky young women with great gifts of mind and heart. And because he had asked us to. The naive world we had inhabited in our uniforms of kilts and circle pins became a much more dangerous and frightening place, civil rights issues were boiling up, and though tradition was very much alive and well, the domination of the world by men was beginning to be recognized by us as newly woman. It became clearer and clearer that the world needed changing.
But what would be the tools for change? A New York Times article a few days ago about women’s colleges described the Trinity of the 50′s and 60′s as “a college for upper crust Roman Catholics.” It was. We Trinity girls were given an intensely academic and religious education. In preparing for this talk, I dug out my old college notebooks, English and philosophy papers, poems and short stories to see what I had been thinking then, to remember what my classes and teachers had taught me. I found a paper I’d written for Mrs. Brown’s English 127 called “The Shared Vision of Augustine and Piers Plowman.” It begins with a quote from Augustine, “The corruptible body is a load upon the soul.” In my paper I call that the actuality of fallen man and talk about how maintaining an effective equilibrium between the body and soul is the hard core of the idealistic strain in medieval literature as well as medieval philosophy. I talk about how Plato’s “Idea of the Good” (which became God for Augustine) and Pier’s Tower, the dwelling-place of truth and love, represent the necessary heights of attainment for man. I talk about how the deep desire for peace drives us, and remember well my frustration with Augustine’s idea that it could only be obtained in the hereafter, and that the body was pretty much of a useless and troublesome accessory. I was relieved to conclude that Piers the Plowman let us know that man’s life can be “a realization as well as an anticipation, a better way of life for life’s sake.” Peace and order could be achieved in the lived life. I remember what solace it was to me to have support in coming to that conclusion. It was possible to change the world in the here and now. Maybe it was possible to be comfortable as a merely human being. Now we could look for tools.
At Trinity I lived in a community of women, as I had in high school and the Catholic summer camp I attended for five years. Even though it was very much a man’s world at the time, I know we felt the collective strength that comes from being part of such a community. I took creative writing with Sister Therese for the last two years of college, and in addition to developing great writing skills due to her incredibly demanding courses, we sat together in intimate seminars day after day that spilled over into the smokers and dorm rooms at night, debating ideas, moral codes, questioning the current cultural norms especially as they referred to our “corruptible bodies” and our immortal souls, with Bob Dylan and the Beatles in the background. We weren’t drinking or using drugs–we were truly fully present to each other, without the tension that male beings can create. I didn’t realize that a paradigm was developing. In senior year I was part of a group that tutored black teenage girls at Notre Dame Academy on Capital Avenue; they were the first persons of color I with whom I had ever had a relationship. I and many of my classmates had lived in a completely segregated world. I was fascinated and compelled by lives so different from my own and those of my college and high school friends. Even more I wanted to change things, bring ease to the unimaginably difficult lives of these young women.
The “real sixties” were just hitting with their screams for reshaping the world – however, many of us preferred to stay safe in our “cookie-cutter” structure. A New York magazine, either Glamour or Mademoiselle, I can’t remember which, came to Trinity and wrote an article about us, describing our students and our campus in just those words. The piece portrayed us as boring conformists, all cut exactly alike from the same monotonous dough. And it was both true and not true. On the outside most of us looked the same in our madras shirtwaist dresses and Villager sweaters, but on the inside many of us had the seeds of radical behavior growing. And but for the fact that as a senior I was engaged to a Georgetown boy who was already in medical school, my life might have taken a very different, much more renegade turn. We married after graduation and I went into one of the few acceptable professions at that time for a woman – teaching. It was never anything I had wanted to do, and resented taking even one education course in my senior year. Being so short and looking so much younger than my 22 years, I was fearful of the public schools in Philadelphia with policemen in the classrooms, so I opted for a girl’s Catholic high school, Hallahan High in the inner city. It was not a whole lot better, a huge school of 2,000 females, at least half of them black, 6 orders of nuns, 11 lay teachers, with a priest at the head (and all of us teachers white), it was overwhelming. I truly hated teaching that year but I loved those girls. All they wanted to do was talk – about their families, their boyfriends, their many problems. I was too overwhelmed with correcting papers from my six classes of fifty students each, coping with being pregnant, being the family breadwinner and living in a dirty scary city to have much time available, but I did what I could. And that was my favorite part of teaching, hanging out with the girls and just talking and listening. I recognized how useless the curriculum was to these inner city kids – learning to write a business letter, diagram a sentence, read a novel about Fabiola, a 14 th century Christian martyr. They needed help in coping with their lives, in reflecting on those lives. There was tremendous prejudice in that school. And it wasn’t just against the girls of color but also against me, the only married teacher. My salary was $4,000 and the males teaching in the analogous situation in the boys’ high school made $6,000. Why this inequity, I wanted to know? Father said it was because they were “the heads of household.” “But Father, I am the head of my household, my husband is a student and we live on my salary.” Silence. I would have started a union the next year, I am sure of it. It was really my first introduction to social injustice on a big scale and I was hooked. But that excitement, fascination and frustration would stay quiescent for years. After I had my baby, I stayed home and had another. I didn’t want anyone else raising my kids. Somehow my husband and I coped. Those were very hard years, light years away from my privileged Trinity existence of such a short time ago. I needed all my energy and skill to get from day to day.
My feeling about having children has always been that they don’t ask to be born, that we choose their creation and birth and therefore owe them everything we have to give. And that was my paradigm for parenthood. We moved our young family to the country in 1970 after my husband finished his pediatric residency, where we have remained. I became deeply involved in the education of my sons, working as a volunteer in the rural public schools they went to, challenging bright kids underserved by the tired old classroom mantras to think and write out of the box. Later I was elected to the local school board, on which I served for 8 years and was home for my two boys every day, seeing them and their needs as my primary job. My husband was working long hours as a pediatrician, making house calls, answering the phone at all hours, and mainly working with a poor rural population. He was the total antithesis of the stereotypical doctor. His work was truly social outreach. And we were always broke. I did little writing during this time, but what I did do was to support the considerable talents of my own sons in this area, both of whom became gifted writers. I was passionate about the women’s movement and local politics and worked hard to elect a female democrat as our town’s selectperson. My husband’s younger brothers would “run away” to our place in the country, bringing with them all their many 70′s problems. They, along with a hunger to right the balances between men and women, became my inspiration for going back to school for a counseling degree in 1980, as my younger son began his four years at The Hotchkiss School, following his older brother. The kids didn’t need me to be there as much anymore, as prep school would keep them from 7-10 every day as well as on weekends. I wanted to get the credentials for doing professionally what I was doing as an amateur. It seemed like everyone I knew talked to me about his or her problems, and I had plenty of my own. Life was far from Camelot and I felt a great load on my body and my soul. And I wanted to change the world more than ever, my small world as well as the larger one.
So began my 25-year career as a family therapist, working in a mental health center, two school settings, and a private practice. I saw injustice on a whole new scale, and the need for those of us who saw it to work hard for change. I was shocked that the mental health center had no groups for women, and began one, trusting my experience in women’s community to support me. And it did. I discovered that so many women I worked with had no experience of such a community; they were used to turning to men for help and support. And I quickly saw how this group helped them to begin to feel safe in voicing their own ideas and feelings, in connecting with each other, in many cases, much more so than in individual or even marital therapy, especially if the therapist was male, mirroring the asymmetrical relationships that were already so present in their problem-filled lives. My own practice of marital therapy later became a powerful tool for developing awareness in couples of monstrous power imbalances and a nuptial straightjacket I called “sex and services for financial support.” I was very unpopular with the male psychiatrist, an Indian man whose idea about women was that their central purpose was to perform services for men. Up until the 80′s most of those in the helping professions were male. What could they know about real women’s lives? About raising children? About the suffering caused by gender and power imbalances from which they benefited? Often their counsel was to maintain the status quo. I was horrified. I saw those injustices everywhere. I guess you could say I became a crusader for women. But they were still white women, in my little northwest corner of Connecticut.
And then, in May of 1987, my younger son Geoffrey died in a fall from a wall in Trastervere in Rome where he was on his junior year abroad and loving every minute of it. The circumstances of his death are mysterious despite a thorough police investigation, and we still have unanswered questions about another’s involvement, although asthma was determined as the cause of his fall, but the simple fact was, he was gone from me, from us. My older son Matthew graduated from college right after his funeral and left home in September for Boston. Everything had changed. Grief consumed me for years. My life and my marriage were totally destabilized. My body flew away from my mind, in the disconnection that is so common in trauma survivors. My work became harder and harder as my own suffering got in the way, as I felt anger at parents for neglecting their kids, not a good thing for a family therapist to feel. It was time to do something different, to find other tools for coping with this new life. I remembered that I had always loved writing and decided to go out to Taos to study writing with Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down The Bones. It was a very different kind of writing than I had learned in my college years. You just put pen to paper and wrote what came to your mind first from a prompt she would give us, like “I remember.” “Go for the jugular, go for first thoughts, don’t think, keep your hand moving,” she told us. “You are free to write and say anything you want and it doesn’t have to be good.” And I wrote and wrote, the details of his death, my life, his life–everything was material. My suffering was material. I couldn’t stop writing. In one of my many trips to Taos I met Clara, a psychic, who told me I needed to meditate. I scoffed at the idea but eventually ended up at a vipassana meditation retreat at the Lama foundation in New Mexico. We slept in tents on the side of a mountain and walked and sat cross-legged in silence for ten days. It was life changing. Since that time I have been on over thirty Buddhist retreats, and am deeply committed to the dharma. Over the years in continuing my practice of both writing and meditation I have been able to not only let go of the grief that I had been carrying for so long, but to become aware of what is in my mind in a new and powerful way, and to have the confidence to let that awareness guide my choices and my path. I have learned to see my body and soul/mind not as separate entities but as interdependent and necessarily so. And I have also, more importantly, discovered that what needed changing was not only the world but myself. And that a changed and more peaceful me could and would affect others in my life in a way that was different from actively trying to make that change happen. And so I have been led to the work I do today, volunteering as a writing teacher with teenage girls in a residential treatment center that they call a lockup.
I came back from Taos a little whiny each time, wishing for a similar community here in my area. There was none. I had run several women’s therapy groups, but now I wanted to start a women’s group that would be focused around writing. In 1992 I put an ad in the paper and have been doing these groups and weekend retreats for women ever since and I love them. But I was still restless; I wanted to work with incarcerated women. Everyone asks me why. You want to know why. I guess because I have felt locked up myself for years. Marriage and babies so soon after college, my traditional past with its multiple rules and regulations, struggles with the injustices of society and all the places I have worked–these are some of the reasons. But it is also that old mantra I learned so long ago–that those of us who have been given much owed a large debt to the world. York Correctional Institution, the prison for women in CT, is two hours away from me so I knew I couldn’t do that on a regular basis, although I have done a poetry workshop for the women there, which was one of the more profound experiences of my life. In 1999 I heard about Touchstone, a new facility in Litchfield, which is 45 minutes away from me, for teenage girls who are either on parole or serving time for charges, and called the director to ask if I could volunteer. I’ve been there ever since. The girls are from the harsher parts of Connecticut’s cities and towns–runaways, disturbers of the peace, truants, drug users and sellers, many taken away from their homes due to abuse both sexual and physical. Many if not all of their parents are drug and alcohol addicts. Most of these young women have received little or no nurturing in their lives. Almost none of them have fathers present in any way. They have lived in “the projects” with rats and cockroaches, horrifying betrayals and daily violence, too many people in too small a space. But they are strong, beautiful, resilient, funny. They are mostly black and Hispanic. They are different from anyone I have ever known. I adore them. It is in these young women that I see the face of God. I wish they could be here to show you their beautiful selves, to speak their powerful words. Since they can’t be, I will share … their poems with you. The first is by Shante:
Where I Come From
Where I come from
fathers don’t come back
where I come from
people die every day
where I come from
little girls always get raped
where I come from
you hear gunshots every hour
where I come from
people die in front of your face
where I come from
newborns are HIV positive
where I come from
teenage boys and girls are smoking crack
where I come from
little girls sell their bodies
that’s where I come from
The next one is by Linsey:
Somthing You Won’t Forget
it all started when I was born
my mother was fourteen
she was on crack
my mother didn’t want me
my dad was young
I was born into a bugged out family
I was eighteen months in the hospital
because I was addicted to my mother’s addiction
at three my mother left me alone
with my little ten month old brother
by the age of seven I started living with my father
by nine I had seen my Uncle Queenie hang himself
die and get cut down by the cops
at ten I started repping a gang
seen my stepmother stab my stepsister with a shank
by eleven years old I was molested
at thirteen I started stealing cars
fighting girls smoking dust
selling drugs robbing people
repping my colors
running away from cops
I’ve seen many people get shot in cold blooded murders
yet day by day
all I wanted was a hug
so I could cry
I’ve been abused, stabbed, cut and held at gunpoint
I remember when I just turned thirteen
I was so drunk
I decided to jump off the Stratford Bridge
I don’t know who the man was
but he stopped me
I don’t know why
but that made me really think about my life
that’s when I turned myself in
and my brother Danny got shot
and then I realized I need to care about everything that I’ve done wrong
and how my life is
I must cherish my life
because myself is all I’ve got
I have no regrets
I have come to Touchstone each week for the last seven years. I’m there for two hours and we write together and share our writing. I give prompts–poems, videos like Eve Ensler’s “What I Want My Words to Do To You,” newspaper articles, or just phrases like “Things I Was Told Not To Do,” “What I Need,” “Where I Come From,” “My Virginity,” “The Worst Day Of My Life.” Or I put a collection of random objects on the table and tell them to pick one that resonates with something in their life, or spread out a large collection of pictures and postcards, asking them to pick what speaks to them. There are endless ideas. I take their writing home and type it into poems to give back to them the next week. I get all the girls notebooks and plastic binders to hold the poems. How they love to see their work in print, their scribbled feelings transformed into art! I bring in cookies and birthday cakes; give them gifts when they leave (these tough girls love teddy bears). There is a lot of hugging. I get poets and writers to come in and give readings. The first year I did the program, I had the idea to bring the girls out with me when I was asked to do a talk on writing as social outreach. People were deeply moved; the response was tremendous. So, from that I have organized a reading each year called “I Am Not A Juvenile Delinquent” in a local art gallery. They are always stunned that people are so moved and inspired by their poems, come up in tears, ask for their autographs. There is thundering applause. I present them each with a single red rose. It is truly an unforgettable night. In June, we had our eighth event. There is always a standing room only crowd.
And we just had our fifth annual poetry festival on the Touchstone grounds for which I organize a reading of 20 local women poets, each paired with one of the girls, with another large community audience. There is a poetry contest for the Touchstone girls, with real judges, prizes and framed certificates. I have edited and published both a chapbook and a full-length anthology of their work called I Am Not a Juvenile Delinquent, which won the 2005 Prevention For A Safer Society Award given by the National Council On Crime And Delinquency in Oakland, California, and brought them to readings all over the state. I submitted the last poem I read, along with some others by Tarray, to the 2002 Sunken Garden Poetry Contest, and she was a winner. She read her poems along with 5 other Connecticut high school students (all white and privileged), to a crowd of 1500 in the Hill-Stead Museum’s beautiful garden one August evening. And this year we were invited by The Office Of The Child Advocate to read our poetry at a Teen Dating Violence Seminar at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford ; the huge audience of teens, legislators, and teachers were deeply silent as they took in poem after poem about rape, violence and sexual abuse. Here were the victims speaking their truths! This was no theoretical lecture. Their experience could not be denied.
There is an elite private school in my community, Lakeville, The Hotchkiss School, attended by both of my sons. It is a school about which a book was written called “Preparing For Power”–male power, that is. The school is one hundred and fifteen years old and girls were only admitted in the early seventies, the first minority student in 1969. It is so dazzling in its facilities, faculty and campus that most people think it is a college. As a result of an invitation to read four years ago there, we have been joining a group of their young women students monthly during the school year to read and write together. I think this is the project I am most thrilled by. It mixes so many worlds. It mixes what have become my worlds, still the cosmos of white privilege, but also the street world into which the girls have brought me, as well as the world of my son’s adolescence. There are girls of color too at Hotchkiss; we all eat pizza and oreos together and talk and laugh before we write. My niece Jessica Charde, daughter of Maureen Mullen Charde, my Trinity roommate, did a research project on my group this past summer, an independent study credit for her Master’s in ESL. The first time she joined us at Hotchkiss, she was stunned to overhear conversations around the table about both a recent school vacation trip to Barbados as well as an arrest for assault and battery and a discussion of the pros and cons of gang membership. All the girls are totally open about their experiences, whether shame for having a privileged life or pain for the rapes and abandonment that are common to my girls–they come to see that they are all locked up in various ways, and that a way to freedom can be found with paper and pen. This is what one of the Hotchkiss students had to say about her experience in the group:
The first time I came here, almost 3 years ago now, I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t sure if I would come back. It was so truthful, so touching, so deep. Everyone opened up and I felt so vulnerable. I heard these girls tell their stories and I cried in front of people. Me! I didn’t write before I came to this group. Now I consider myself a poet. I project a presence, I’m confident, yet all of the insecurity, the doubt the hurt, the distrust that other people feel, I feel too. I learn to harness. I write it all down and I pour it all out. I think it’s made me overall a calmer person, more controlled, more mature. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself, about women, about facing fears, about the shelter of each other. I’ve become connected to myself, learned how to be. As a direct result of this group, I’ve learned not to forget what I’ve felt, I’ve learned that everyone can be a writer or a poet and sometimes the most profound things are the most simple or unexpected.
And here is what another had to say:
The experience of hearing their stories changed me, altered my perception of the world and made it clearer, somehow more important. The words were not my own, but they spoke for me… these young women helped me to imagine myself as someone I could never have been, someone I could never have dreamed of being. They helped me realize how much of ourselves we really shared…I was confronted with my own insecurities and each narrative helped me to appreciate the lessons and strengths that can come out of what appear to be the worst situations
I stay in touch with many ex-residents by phone, visit, letters and emails, some of whom are doing well in their lives and continuing to use writing as a powerful coping tool. Here is what Ellie wrote about her experience of the creative writing group at Touchstone years after she left:
Through poetry we healed our hurts of the world by lashing out at it through written expression so powerfully felt by us that it was more satisfying than all the revenge we could seek out if we could have. Our feelings of loneliness dwindled away with every poem we shared with each other in our private group for the two hours we met–it was a comforting, ambitious, giving family. What made this poetic medicate (sic) so successful was not just the poetry. It was Sharon’s presence and unconditional love for the underprivileged, poor and outcast. She never looked at us as criminals or worthless; instead she saw the worth each one of us possessed posed with our need for love, sympathy and companionship. We saw in her an unbiased heart that looked at us with no prejudice, no fear, and wanting nothing from us except for us to try to overcome our situations, fears and complexes over our future.
I could ask for no more. My quest to find a wholeness, a link between body and soul, to connect my gifts of writing, creating women’s community as well as my clinical skills, my love and need to be connected to teenage girls and my own rejected adolescent self have all coalesced into a life’s work in which I feel I get much more than I give. I am part of a world I would never know otherwise. All of us are in a boat together rowing towards being more fully human. They are not juvenile delinquents and we are not special white people. Our being present to each other is changing the world, and I at last am a happy woman, having found on this earth what I have sought all these years since I sat in this chapel as a student.