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Elise Patkotak: Prison concert not to be missed

Elise Patkotak

It's not something I ever thought I'd be suggesting. But I am. If you want to experience the true spirit of Christmas, and the true extent to which the human spirit can rebound from any depth, then go to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center this Saturday and listen to the Women's Prison Orchestra.

This will be the first year in many that I will miss the concert because I won't be in town. Between missing the Nutcracker and this, I'm not sure how I'll ever generate any Christmas spirit this holiday season. Because all the lights and canned music and wrapped presents and eggnog do not do for me what this concert at Hiland Mountain does. As far as I'm concerned, it's where the true spirit of the season resides.

The women who fill this orchestra are not all innocent victims, no matter what their lawyers are saying in their appeals. Some have done very bad things and will be there a very long time. Others are victims of circumstance that left them with what they perceived as no other choice but to break the law. Some were abused and some came from good homes. What they all have in common is daily life inside a prison where their every move is monitored and their future can look as grey as the winter sky.

I'm not really a music person. Ten years of piano lessons left me no nearer being able to play than the average person trying to sound out the notes to Chopsticks. While I'm usually enthralled by the violin or cello, I can go days and weeks without any music except for the oldies playing on the radio I keep on for the birds. I don't own an iPod or home music system. Probably the only music I really enjoy is that which accompanies ballet or modern dance.

So the first time I was invited to go to this Christmas concert, I went because it seemed to support a little beauty and joy in a place that can be woefully short of both, especially during the holiday season. That I enjoyed myself as much as I did was not necessarily due to the level of music being played as much as it was due to the faces of the women playing that music. You could tell at a glance that for just a little while they were far away from the drab reality of their everyday lives.

This year the orchestra is celebrating an amazing first. Sarah Coffman, who began with the orchestra as all the others have while serving time, will return to play with it again. But this time she truly will return, not just in the sense of a return performance, but in the very real sense of someone who did her time and was released. She is coming back on her own to continue to participate in an activity that clearly has great meaning to her. Meaning enough to cause her to voluntarily walk back through those doors that once shut so firmly on her freedom.

Every Saturday Coffman returns for rehearsals despite the fact that she has established herself outside those walls and now has a life with little resemblance to the one that got her incarcerated in the first place. She walks back through those doors and takes her seat with her former fellow inmates and plays the viola. She spends her Saturdays practicing for this concert because this concert holds meaning for her. Perhaps more importantly, she clearly realizes the great meaning it holds for those still behind closed doors.

It sometimes seems as though rehabilitation gets lost in the miasma of punishment in our penal system. Society gets so caught up in getting its eye for an eye that it forgets the corollaries of mercy and forgiveness. If there is ever a season when those qualities should be remembered, it has to be this one which celebrates the birth of a man who walked with prostitutes and forgave criminals with his dying breath.

So get your tickets while you can. This concert has become so popular they now have to have two shows. Both shows are on December 8 and tickets can be obtained at www.artsontheedge.org. Trust me, you'll be missing one of this season's premiere events if you don't.

 

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.

 

 



By ELISE PATKOTAK