Shelters are shared living environments. The shelter is decorated to appear inviting and comforting.
Is there a sense of community in the shelter and can women share their experiences?
Poetry at Lang House
On Thursday afternoons at 2:00, the women of Lang House - a Safe Horizon transitional housing program - gather in a small sitting room to read poetry and prose that they have written themselves or that has inspired them. As the women settle into comfortable sofas and chairs, Vera, the director of Lang House draws the blinds, lights small votive candles and pours herbal tea. This is a rare opportunity for clients to take time out for themselves.
Vera begins the reading group by leading a relaxation exercise. In a soft, soothing voice, she instructs the women to clench their toes and then relax them, releasing the exhaustion and tension stored in their muscles. She moves from body part to body part, until the women are rolling their heads from side to side and shrugging their shoulders to get rid of the tightness in their necks. Once everyone has shaken out their hands and arms, the reading begins.
Diana, who is pregnant, reads a poem about rebirth. When she finishes, Vera asks her what the piece means to her. "It's about my rebirth into life again," she says, "all the pushing, learning to do everything all over." The other women in the room nod in understanding. Having left their batterers, they are all in the process of being reborn and making new lives.
Next, Emily reads an essay about abortion which provokes an intense discussion about women and power and the freedom to choose. Emily had an abortion years ago, but the experience is still painful to her. She worries that she acted selfishly, but everyone reassures her that she made a wise and courageous decision. Diana, holding her stomach, reveals that she was raped by her abusive husband and became pregnant. She thought abortion was the best solution, but he wouldn't let her have one. "I didn't have the power to choose that option," she says. "My husband took that away from me."
For women who have been let down all too often, who don't give their trust easily, these personal revelations are unusual. "This began as a reading group, but it's become much more than that," Vera says later. "A piece of poetry can become a vehicle that allows the women to open up and talk about themselves."
Next, Melinda reads a poem that she had read to her children about a country mouse and a city mouse. Though the country mouse appreciates the splendor and wealth of the city mouse's life, the country mouse decides he prefers the peace and tranquillity of his simple life. Vera points out that the poem is a good way to teach children values, particularly when kids are clamoring for the latest toy or the coolest outfit.
Clearly, the women share many experiences and can learn from each other. The group also gives them a chance to focus solely on themselves. "They spend so much time worrying about so many different things: getting housing, child care, fearing the batterer," Vera says. "It's not often they realize they are important, that they need to take time out for themselves, to get in touch with their inner selves. I think in this group we are beginning to accomplish that."