There Is No Away

There Is No Away

May 09, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

Happy Mother's Day to all of you who are mothers. Happy Mother's Day to your mothers living or of blessed memory. This makes me think fondly of my own mother who lives in Michigan, and just a line of mothers going back through our lives, who nurtured us, those we are biologically related to, and those who we are not. All those who cared for us as children and all of us who care for children now. I'm blessed with a very loving mother, who I still have a loving relationship with, of course, that's not true for everybody. Some women experienced great difficulty around motherhood.

I want to tell you the story of one woman whose understanding of motherhood was transformed in very difficult circumstances. Her name is Nina Porter, and she lives in Indiana. And Nina Porter has 11 children, and most of these children were born to her during a life of drug addiction and criminality and time in prison. In fact, she was in prison in Indiana, when she had her 11th child, and there are women all over the country who give birth in prison. The number of incarcerated women in America has exploded in recent years, and as you can imagine, it's not a great start to a baby to be born to a mother in prison or for the mother and baby to have to be separated, simply because the mother is in prison. In Indiana, Nina was part of a program that allowed her to keep her baby with her even though she was incarcerated. She gave birth in the prison hospital and then the baby stayed with her, slept in her cell with her, went outside with her, was just with her, as babies ought to be with their mothers. And she said with that she finally felt that it was possible that her life might move in a new direction. She said she felt a closeness to this baby and a confidence in being her mother, that she had not felt with her other children. She was released in 2012 from prison. And despite that feeling of hope, she still did not know any life other than the one she had known so far. She was struggling still with drug addiction, with crime. She was not get arrested again but her life was not headed in a good direction. And she said she participated in a leadership training program for women who were exiting incarceration. She said at the time that she only did it because if you went through the whole program, you got $200 in gift cards, and that was what got her hooked on the program. She did not think of herself as a leader, but through this program, the leadership that was in her was strengthened and that hope that she had felt like she was able to be with her new baby was bolstered and made stronger. And when she graduated, Nina Porter herself, began a program called, Mothers on the Rise, launched in the same unit where she herself was incarcerated when she had her daughter, and it aims to help formerly incarcerated mothers maneuver a post-prison world that can all often be overwhelming.

This story was reported in 2020. This is a fairly new program. It will initially assist ten women, helping them secure housing, childcare, and if needed, addiction and mental health treatment. Nina Porter will advise these mothers 90 days before their release, and another 90 days afterward, on tasks such as connecting with doctors, finding employment, and opening bank accounts. And the program will also pay for three months of childcare and bus fare for the women, and provide infant supplies such as strollers, baby wipes and clothing. Now I think this is a remarkable story, and not just for those ten women who need affordable help in this first go round of her new program, but because Nina took something in her life that she experienced as a failure, ten children, where she experienced her own mothering as a failure, and turned that into a gift. Through the help and support that allowed her to become a good mother, even though she was in prison, and to value her own mothering of this child, she transformed her hard experiences into something good, into a blessing, not only for her child, but for the children and women she’ll help. It's a kind of spiritual recycling. It says that there's nothing in us that's so bad that it can't be transformed into something good. It's even a piece of our universalism to say that nothing in us was made to be rotten and everything can be used for goodness in us. In our souls, and in the world, reuse and transformation honors the innate, resources and gifts we have been given.

We're in a spiritual theme right now, in preaching and in faith development, talking about the Earth. That's one of the sources of our Unitarian Universalist faith. And so, I began thinking today about recycling, actual recycling: glass, and plastic, and cardboard, that I assume many, if not all of us do. I did a little bit of research into the history of recycling in America. And it hadn't occurred to me, but municipal trash pickup is only about 100-120 years old in America and actually in some rural communities there still is no municipal trash pickup. I lived in rural New Hampshire for 11 years and we took our trash to the dump. It was hard to throw things away before there was municipal trash pickup and before there was industrial production of goods because it was just hard to make and get raw materials. Hard to get fabric, hard to get metal to make nails and screws, hard to get the wood you needed to build things, and then of course, there was no plastic. So, everything was reused. It was cheaper and easier to reuse things than it was to throw them away. It was physically hard to throw things away. There was no away. And then also. raw materials were expensive. Even after urban trash collection began in the late 19th century, manufacturing was still difficult, so sorting and reuse were common. In the 1960s, recycling became an aspect of how we care for the earth and in the 1970s, America began to have full landfills, and so recycling became an imperative to keep landfills from overflowing. Today we still recycle things in Worcester, even though our landfills are no longer overflowing, we have better landfill management and I believe that in Worcester our trash is incinerated, not put into a landfill; I think it goes to an incinerator in Millbury. But we still recycle in order to help reuse and preserve the goods of the earth. And this is interesting, you know that Worcester’s recycling program does not make money, it is cheaper to throw things away than it is to recycle them, which is remarkable since you have to pay for your yellow bag to throw things away, but you can recycle for free. So, it's a service that the city provides to help us be respectful of the goods that we use and of the earth. We have a very high participation rate and recycling in Worcester is at about 32%. And recycling is getting harder. China has long been a market for America's recyclables, but now there are certain types of plastic that they won't accept, and they want absolutely no contamination on the plastic that they do accept. So, if you are recycling at home, it's worth it to wash your plastic with your dishes before you put it in the recycling bin. Telegram even reports that in Worcester, there's no local glass bottler. I don't know how what exactly they mean by local, but they say an absence of bottlers in the region. So, it's hard to recycle glass, because glass bottles that come from far away and are made from new glass are cheaper and easier to produce than transporting recycled glass to be bottled when there's no bottle here to do that. Now the recycling manager in Worcester says that despite these challenges, it's valuable to maintain a recycling program, in part because the residents like it and want to recycle, which shows our care and concern for the earth, but also because we do hope that in the future our waste will have more uses than it might have now. You know 3D printers, which can make anything, often use spools of plastic to create what they make, and that's a yet untapped opportunity for recycling. Imagine if your plastic could just become anything that someone needed through a 3D printer. But in the meantime, recycling arises not out of a desire to save money, but out of a desire to conserve the earth’s resources to reuse our waste and to waste less. It's about respect and love for the good things of the earth and wishing to use them in a way that honors them. You know in our personal lives, we have no choice but to recycle, because everything we have ever been is still with us, there is no garbage dump for our souls. And there is no personality mine, apart from experience, nowhere we can go and say, ‘well I just need some more soul, I need to get rid of some of what I have and get some new’ unfortunately sometimes there’s nowhere we can go to do that. And of course, there's no way to ensure that all of our experiences will be good. And there's no way to rid ourselves of what we think of as spiritual trash. Recycling is all we have.

One spiritual guide said, in the spiritual life, nothing goes away. There are no heavenly garbage dumps. It's all here. Wherever we are, everything belongs. Even forgiveness does not mean it goes away. It means we forgive it for being there, nothing more. Our demons don't go away. As Robert Bly said, “you don't get rid of demons, just educate them”.  Think about Nina Porter. Think of how she could tell her story to herself and perhaps she has told her story to herself in this way at times in her life. She could say to herself. “I'm no good as a mother. Everything I've done is wrong. I can't get out of this vise of addiction. I'll never stop being able to do crimes because I have to have drugs and there's no other way to get them. I don't even have to spend time with my kids, their parented by other people. It's no good here. There's no use in trying. Everything I've tried to do as a mother and as a person has failed. And you may have had your own low moments in your life when you've told yourself your story that way. In the grip of addiction, it is especially difficult to overcome those voices that tell us that we're no good. But Nina had help and support to transform that understanding of her story. I don't want to leave out the fact that her story is possible because there was institutional support to help her transform. Support that let her give birth and parent her baby in prison, and that helped her understand her own leadership potential after she was free. And with that help and support, I can imagine that Nina transforms the way she tells herself, her story. She might say now, “well, because I know the struggle of addiction, and a life of crime. I can speak honestly and directly to other women who find themselves in this circumstance. And I've been given the gift of a loving relationship with my baby, so I can help women understand that they too can have this gift, and that there is hope for a way out”. She might even be able to say to herself, “I wouldn't have wished for the struggles in my life, but since I have had them, they are a gift of grace, to be able to connect with others, and to be able to help others find their way out”.

There's a story about people in addiction about a person down in the hole of addiction doesn't need somebody standing up on the surface, giving them advice, or shouting at them about how they might climb out of the hole. What they need is someone else who has been in that hole and knows the way out. And Nina could tell herself that she is now that person for others who need that kind of break and help and support.

“I will take from you your heart stone, and I will give you a living heart”, said the Prophet Ezekiel. He knew how God can renew even the worst parts of our lives, and how through grace, we can find love for ourselves and our stories again. He wrote those words while Judah was exiled in Babylon far from home, thinking it was their sins that had caused them to have to leave Israel, and Ezekiel himself probably suffered from what we would now call mental illness. Earlier prophets had said that the law would be inscribed on the people's hearts. But Ezekiel envisions that God gives the people new hearts all together, says to the people “there is goodness in you, but your hearts have become stone from these experiences that you have had, and you need a new heart, put within you. A heart that will help you understand and transform your relationship to your own story”.

We all need new hearts from time to time, our society needs a new heart in respect to our relationship with the earth. A heart that lets us value the Earth's gifts and resources. We need new hearts where prison can become a place to nurture motherhood, where incarceration becomes a doorway to freedom, where trash becomes treasure. Where fear becomes love, where shame becomes triumph, a new heart in which our parents’ shortcomings become a lesson to be learned and not our destiny.

We know that the world itself is good. And in our universalist tradition and in the Jewish tradition which lies behind it, the same God that operates in transforming our lives, created the earth and created us. And our Universalist forebears would have said that God is love. And that perfect love cannot create anything that deserves to be thrown away forever. Every living thing can be transformed into goodness, even if it looks like trash. Even the biggest boulder in our path can be transformed into blessing, a rock to rest on, another step along the way. Even our stony hearts can be renewed into hearts of flesh. With help and support from those who love us, and grace from the eternal spirit of love, every hard thing in us can be transformed, recycled, and reborn.

I love you all.