The Pencil Chronicles

Writer: Heather Westerfield

I am a 37-year-old mother of two and currently incarcerated at the  Mecklenburg County Detention Center. I have been in jail for a little  over two years and reading and writing have become major tools for my  survival.

I have been on a quest to better myself and use my time wisely while  here. I mostly read self-help books to become more mindful of who I am  and how my experiences have shaped me. I also enjoying reading books  about other cultures and religions, and I am currently learning as much  as I can about Islam through reading and talking with Muslim women in my  pod. I feel like with all the racial and cultural tension in this  country at the moment it is my duty as an American citizen to be  informed of other cultures. We are, after all, a melting pot.

My main passion is writing, and that is much more difficult than  reading while incarcerated. I have numerous pieces I’m working on right  now, and they are scattered all over the floor in my cell inside several  folders. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with the different versions.  And once I am transferred from this jail to prison, all my papers will  have to be sent home. I likely won’t see them again until I’m released.  Nevertheless, I continue to write because writing is my therapy.

One of the biggest problems I encounter is when I want to send a copy  of one of my pieces to several different people either to share or for  feedback. It can take me an hour or more to make the copies by hand,  weeks to get feedback by mail, and the only writing tool we are allowed  in here is a golf pencil.

I write mostly poetry, but have also written some longer pieces,  including the beginnings of a memoir. Writing allows me to get the  rapid-fire thoughts out of my head and down on paper. I ask myself why I  am the way I am or why certain thoughts arrive as they do. The words  are like puzzle pieces that I slowly assemble into a coherent work of  art.

The act of writing is exciting to me. Every time I put the pencil on  the paper I eagerly await to see what flows out of me. As I look back  through my writing, with the various tones and styles I choose, I see a  clear reflection of myself. I am finally getting to know and accept  myself.

Since being incarcerated, I have been diagnosed with a personality  disorder, which was completely unknown to me and causes me to appear  emotionless and detached. Yet, in my writing, I am able to express  emotion effortlessly allowing people to see a deeper, more intimate side  of me that doesn’t usually come through in everyday conversation.

Recently I took a writing class by Zoom since none of the teachers  have been able to visit the jail in person during the pandemic. We were  instructed to write a poem about ourselves with the prompt “I am…”

I am a small Southern church on a warm spring day

holding two little boy’s hands surrounded

by family I hardly knew

staring at a box that held all that was left of you.

That particular stanza was about losing my mother. I was finally able  to drop the façade and put honest words to that life-altering  experience. I miss my mother deeply and writing has brought tremendous  relief to my soul.

Writing has led me down a liberating path of self-discovery and  afforded me the opportunity to seek forgiveness from others, and also to  forgive myself. And nowhere do I seek more atonement than from my  teenage sons. I recently wrote a poem to my oldest son on his 18th  birthday titled “Today You Turned Eighteen.” One of the stanzas reads:

You know me in here

feeling broken and desperate,

locked in a cage.

And you, out there, alone

trying to figure out life

full of rage.

The act of writing has brought clarity, self-discovery, and healing.  Even though I am physically confined, my mind has never been in a more  fluid state. I feel as though I am on the journey of a lifetime, even  though the travel conditions are dreadful.

Editor’s Note: This post was made possible by the  volunteer work of Charlotte writer Cathia Friou, author of Rock Paper  Scissors: Scenes from a Charmed Divorce, who appeared on the podcast in  2018 Here.   Cathia is a volunteer writing instructor at the Mecklenburg County  Detention Center, where she had the opportunity to meet Heather  Westerfield, the author of this post. Here’s what Cathia had to say  about Heather: “I was particularly inspired by Heather’s talent, and her  tenacity and tendency to dig deep. Bearing witness to Heather and the  other women courageously sharing their stories was an honor and serves  as a stark reminder of all I take for granted in my own writing  process.” 

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