Saturday Evening Interview 8-27-16

According to the Prison Policy Initiative web site, around 2.3 million are incarcerated in the U.S. The U.S. locks up more people than any other country in the world. Blogger Sonni Quick is currently working on a book about the hundreds of letters she and Jamie Cummings have exchanged for years. Jamie is an inmate in a Texas prison. He’s also the father of one of Sonni’s grandsons. Sonni Quick’s blog, “My Name is Jamie” shares a variety of posts about their letters, the prison system, her music and more. Because of the interesting and robust information Sonni is sharing, her interview is broken up into two parts. Welcome to Life of an El Paso Woman, Sonni. ************************************************************************* 
Jamie Cummings
Jamie and his son  July 2013

SHARP TURN TO THE LEFT

Things happen in our lives that have the potential to change everything. We have the opportunity to make these turns or we can ignore them. Either decision makes a different cause that has a different effect and can send our life down a road that has a great impact on us. Some people are afraid of change, afraid of where it will send them and choose to not move. But some people relish the change and leap into the abyss, confident that wherever it goes they will be glad they went.

That is my life and it definitely has been interesting. There is a motto I’ve lived my life by. “If you don’t like what I’m doing, don’t watch me do it.” I’ve made choices the average person wouldn’t because they care too much about what other people would think, even though most people don’t care what you do because they are too busy trying to live their own lives. It gives people a reason from taking risks. My greatest fear was waking up and finding out I was a dental assistant, or some other “job” for an hourly wage, living in a planned cookie cutter community. That type of security may work for some, but not for me.

ME: Why did you decide to start a blog? We started writing each other in 2009 but it wasn’t until later that I started the blog.  There are millions of people incarcerated and many who are in the same situation as he is – without his family.  There are many millions of people; wives, mothers, husbands, partners and children whose lives are all affected. Losing a member of a family has long range affects, especially on the children who most often grow up in poor households run by mothers who don’t make enough to support a family and be both mother and father.  Sadly, many of these people were targeted because they were black, not because they were guilty.  If guilty, many were given sentences way out of proportion to whatever crime was committed.  This made a lot of money for the prison industrial corporation in an up to date slavery system.I started  the blog My Name is Jamie. My Life in Prison  in mid 2014. If you want to understand Jamie you need to go back to the earliest posts. The first year and a half he was in prison we had not begun writing.  One day I asked my daughter for his address. He was my grandson’s father.  We had met six weeks before he was arrested when I went to Texas to visit my daughter. He was surprised to hear from me. That was the beginning of our letters. When I realized his family wasn’t there for him, I reached inside his head and grabbed hold. He wasn’t doing very well on his own.  He needed someone to be there, and he needed someone to care about as well.

I researched and read everything I could find about prisons. I was horrified about what I read. Our prison system is a very ugly part of our civilization. Surely this country didn’t treat its citizens like this. The amount of innocent people locked up, predominantly black, had to be wrong. It wasn’t. I was so naive.

Before that, I was like everyone else. My knowledge came from TV and movies, not realizing I only knew what I was allowed to know. The underbelly of the prison system, the involvement of our government and prison corporations shocked me. How could I live all these years and not know this? Even today many people don’t understand, because I still read comments like, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime,” repeating what they read in the media.

There are many people like Jamie. His case isn’t special. The fact that it is ordinary is what is so frightening. He could be anyone; a member of your own family. The response people have had to this blog helped him realize, the picture the media puts out of black people; a poor, black, uneducated man who is going nowhere, who some believe was born with the genetic inclination to be a criminal; the false picture many people believe about the black race, was not the picture he had to believe of himself. He is his own individual person. Jamie became real to many people all over the world in the past couple years. Many people have written to me about their own experiences, or experiences of people they care about who were also stuck in the profit motivated circumstance of prison.

For the first time in his life Jamie realized he did have value. His family continues to ignore him. They have no clue who he is now. For so long he was not important to anyone and it crushed him.  But he is important to me. I became his friend, his teacher and his mom. His family never noticed when he matured from a boy to a man – a man with a voice

ME: How long have you been writing?  I started writing songs and song lyrics when I was about 18., in the early 70’s. Lyrics flowed easy for me. I still write a lot of poetry that has music to play behind it, but not song to the music. Being young has many good points, but if you are creative it gets better with age and experience!

I started keeping a journal when I was in my 20’s, long before there were computers for blogging. What turned out to be the greatest values in keeping those journals was being able to sit and read about myself decades later, reliving my life and watching myself grow up; wincing at immature decisions and reliving my children when they were young. It’s quite an experience. Decades from now when I’m gone, my life will still be there to read. Jamie’s blog and letters will also be there for his son to read and learn about his life in prison. Without a doubt he will know how much he was loved. A child with a father who is gone for any reason needs to know that.  If the father is alive and coming back one day it is even more important.

I met Jamie before he went to prison, and writing to him happened more by chance than for the reason of writing to an inmate. I had never thought about writing to an inmate because I never knew anyone inside and nothing in my life put me anywhere near a prison. After years of writing these letters I saw Jamie’s life emerge through the words. I don’t think he ever had anyone who had shown much interest in what he thought, or how he felt. No one told him he could choose where his life could go instead of letting it slap him around. No one told him his life had value. He just went through each day as it came. His mother worked hard and raised her children by working two jobs. There was little guidance about having a future. He rarely has contact with her now. Her choice, not his. She makes no attempt to be there3 for him or help him with anything he might need. His family dumped him, as harsh as that sounds.

Jamie has been studying Nichiren Buddhism for the last 6 years, which is hard when you have no support inside and you are in a place that only wants to keep you down. Nichiren Buddhism is not Zen or Tibetan or anything to do with the Dalai Lama which are the only things most people think of when they hear the word Buddhism.. This isn’t the time to go into a lengthy explanation of what Buddhism means. It is simply the law of cause and effect. It is the same as the phrase, you reap what you sow, except we take that phrase very seriously. We are where we are because of the causes we make. To make a difference we have to change the causes we make. That takes a deeper understanding of your nature than you have now.

It took years of conversations and study for him to begin to understand himself. It is a fascinating process when you realize it is you, not an outside source, that controls what happens to your life. It can also be a painful process when you realize what you are going through is entirely because of the things you have done and not something that has been done to you.  It is always two steps forward and one, maybe two steps back as you take responsibility for your life. It takes perseverance to work through the obstacles that keep you down.

It was at this point that he began to leave the boy behind and the man began to emerge. Obstacles never stop, but he is learning to deal with them in a different way. It is a fight, with yourself, to not react to life the way you always have in the past. This will carry over when he gets out of prison. This is why so many people who get of prison end up back inside.  They want to change.  They want to do things in a different way but they don’t know how to do that consistently.

Being out will be harder, in a different way, than being inside because he’ll be walking into a different world he doesn’t know, needing products and services he has never heard of before. Because his family has had zero interest in how he is doing, I expect there will be little interest after he gets out. Besides, they have done enough damage.

In the beginning it took time to develop trust. He had been hurt by people he loved. Even now there are things that are very hard for him to talk about, such as his experience with epilepsy. He thought of himself as damaged. I had to learn this was very painful for him to write about. I didn’t understand it wasn’t just a medical condition. It affected how he was treated by others. He was lonely as a child which also caused bouts of depression. Epilepsy is something you can’t fix, at least not yet.

It is easy for someone else to judge another person based on their own experiences. Sometimes I would write a letter and he would tell me what I wrote hurt him and at times made him cry because of the pain of having to live through it again in his mind. It made me feel bad for being insensitive.

He blames himself so thoroughly for not having the wisdom to make better choices in his life, but that would have taken wisdom he didn’t have. Everything happens for a reason, he has learned, and it is up to him now to put that wisdom to good use. Prison is teaching him something his life probably could not have taught him on it’s own on the outside. It’s up to him now to use that wisdom.

ME: What kinds of goals do you have for your blog? There is a place on the internet for all types of bloggers. Fashion and makeup, niches for different health problems, poetry, personal diaries, politics and much more. Some are mainly for other bloggers to read and some have a  greater reach into the world. The average blog lasts 1-2 years until the writer either gets bored or goes on to other things. How long do people keep up a gym membership, or change their eating habits and stick with it? Not many.  Blogs are the same way.  Fortunately,  blogs don’t disappear.  If a blogger went to the web address from ten years ago it would still be there and they could pick right up where they left off.  It takes commitment to stick with a blog. Some people want to write articles but they aren’t journalists. They can still develop a responsive followers in the thousands and more. I hope I continue to maintain this blog for years to come.The first draft of the book on Jamie’s life is done, “Inside The Forbidden Outside.” There is still a lot of work to do.  I found out there was a lot I didn’t know about writing a book, too. One of those things is I need a mailing list.  Books that are listed at Amazon or Barnes and Noble and others don’t sell themselves. That is another skill set that needs to be learned if I want it to be successful.  I started a monthly publication called ITFO Newsletter. There is an update on the book and snippets of chapters to gain interest. The newsletter has a variety of articles about the prison system. People who subscribe will have the opportunity to downloading the ebook version for free when it is published.

Their is a Facebook page, Jamie Life In Prison,   twitter and others. When the book is published my goal is to speak – at schools and communities to start, and when I get my feet wet I want to work as a paid speaker. It’s important to dream big.  Reach for the stars.  This way if you fall short you will at least land on the moon!

This book is only part one. Jamie will not be out of prison yet when I’m done. Groundwork must be laid for him to have a life. How does the book end? Part two will be awhile coming. It will be about what happens from here, the process of getting out and what happens when he does. A lot can happen in six years. He will not be going out into a welcoming society. In between I will write another book and am mulling over some different ideas.  Possibly a book of short stories of actual inmates or break away to a different idea

ME: Tell us about your singing and song writing. Do you plan on going any further with a music career again? Why or why not? I am first a piano player.  Not a pianist, because I equate that with classical. My dream from very early childhood was to compose the most beautiful music in the world. A childish dream but I one I have never forgotten. I didn’t play well at the age of 7, but I could hear it inside me. I just didn’t know how to get it out. Even as an adult, through years of playing professionally and practicing every day it still wasn’t there yet. I have stacks of songs I wrote and lyrics and piano arrangements but it still wasn’t what I heard inside.

white piano

Then I lost it all. I thought I was done. I ruined my vocal cords. My ego wouldn’t let me be someone’s side man. If I want gigging I had no reason to write music. I had nowhere to play it. My piano gathered dust for 12 years except for a couple students. I lost my identity. At least I thought I did. I didn’t know who I was. I had always known, “I am a musician,” if anyone asked what I did for a living. I felt I had lost the right to call myself that. A part of me had been amputated and it was a painful blow to my life.

Then Jamie entered my life – the man in prison I write about at My Name is Jamie.My Life in prison. Through years of knowing him, his pain struck a deep nerve inside me. In 2012 I nearly died in need of a liver transplant. That pain was like none I’d ever felt before. The recovery was very long and some of the damage done is repairable. Pain and I are good friends. It let’s me know every morning, I didn’t die in my sleep.

Something changed inside me. I needed a way to express the pain. I feel emotions deeply. Not only what I was feeling about me, but the pain I carried for Jamie – his pain and his loss. It was palpable. No one who should have been there for him treated him like a human being, recognizing his pain. It is a horrible pain when you realize the people who should be caring about you – don’t, and you are left to rot.

Without any love at all you begin to die inside. Family told him, “I don’t write to you because it hurts ME so much that you are in there.” That doesn’t make any more sense today than it did the first time I heard it. He and I understood each other. Even through the hell he lived in, he worried more about me than about himself. Where does a friend like that come from? How could I let him down, no matter what people thought?

It made me want to play music again. I can’t it explain right, but instead of creating music from the outside by developing a chord structure and building a melody around it, I crawled inside the music and let it play itself. My fingers know what to do like a typist knows a keyboard. I knew what I was feeling so I mentally get out of the way and let my fingers express what I felt. Because what I feel is pain, physically and emotionally, there is pain in the music. I don’t listen while I play. I just play. I hear it in the background like it comes from somewhere else. I record everything. I sometimes don’t listen back for days so I can hear it as something new. I can never replay anything because it is all free style – I improvise. After that it is gone.

When I listen to music I recorded 2 years ago and those recorded recently, I can hear the change and it is getting closer to what is inside. I’m know I’m not done yet. Where is it going? I don’t know. The process and progress is exciting. There ARE advantages to aging – experience and wisdom. The more I immerse myself in the emotion I want to convey, the more that feeling emerges. Yes, there is, technically, an occasional wrong note – but are they really wrong notes or part of the process?

I enjoy sharing my music. You can find all of it at  Sound Cloud. There are a couple hours of recorded music.  Leave a comment. Add a like. Stats are the name of the game for anything online. Who says a 62-year-old woman is too old to keep creating something new? I’ve had about 10,000 pieces listened to. If it went no farther I’d be happy, but I don’t think I’m done.

My favorite way to play is in a completely dark room or even blindfolded. When you listen, dim the lights and close your eyes. Put your head back. This is dream music. What does it make you feel? Play it again. Where does it take you? What do you hear? I’ve taken a few pieces and have asked people these questions. Strangely, I often get the same answers. What do you hear? These two pieces are two of my favorites and completely different.

Please stay tuned for part 2 of Sonni Quick’s Saturday Evening Interview here next Saturday, September 3.

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18 comments

  1. Thank you Lisa and to those who read this. Being able to do my part to change what happens in our prisons is one of the most important happenings in my life. I hope you come to the blog and read more. You can also subscribe to my monthly newsletter, which includes other writers and issues not found on my blog

    Liked by 2 people

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