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Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.33.31 AMThe invitations are individual works of art: small, appliquéd American flags of red, white, and blue. The picnic tables are set in the shade of the tree and decorated with flowers of mauve, pink and yellow. The guests are fashionably dressed in varying shades of the year’s hottest color, orange. It sounds trés chic, but the flags are made of construction paper and glue, the metal tables are under the lone tree on the gray prison yard and the orange is the ugly uniform of an inmate.

A party in prison? Yes, they happen, mostly for birthdays, and this one is for three of us. Melissa, Candace, and me…all July babies. Because we all have different friends, not all the guests know each other so I decide on a game, my old favorite, ‘Get Acquainted Bingo’. I’ve painstakingly drawn twenty bingo cards with grids and have my precious colored pencils ready to distribute to each guest. The object of the game is to get each square signed by a different person until the entire sheet is signed…a Bingo blackout. It forces you to circulate and talk to everyone. The squares are tailored to your guest list.

I’m frankly a bit nervous as I distribute the cards and give instructions. After all, this is prison. Will these women be too “cool” for a silly game? I’ve successfully played this from Phoenix to Portugal with ages from 8 to 80, but this is a totally different audience. As they look at the cards, there is complete silence; I hold my breath. Suddenly in unison, they jump up and start darting around getting the coveted signatures. It’s working! They are talking and laughing…actually mixing, just like in real life. Finally, we hear “Bingo!” The proud winner is Lisa, a darling young woman who has served fourteen years of a sixteen-year sentence. She wins a bottle of DOM Perryville; a very young vintage of Ginger Ale that Candace has decorated with a Champagne label.

Time for the appetizers. Potluck is a tradition in prison. Everyone brings a dish to show off her culinary skills…a huge challenge here. Inmates are allowed to buy a very limited array of food items from the ‘company store.’ Almost everything available is junk. Lots of chips and candy, but only three items of protein…peanut butter, tuna and beans. These make up the bulk of our menus. What can you do with junk food? The creations are amazingly delicious and ultra high in carbs and calories.

Val’s hors d’oeuvres are a hit. She made cheesy tuna roll-ups…tuna, mayonnaise, cheese and jalapenos rolled up in tortillas cut into bite size pieces using our cutting tool, the edge of our very small plastic mirror. No knives allowed. Val even made a serving tray by painting and decorating the bottom of the box that brownies come in, lining it with a chic magazine ad. Not exactly hygienic, but certainly pretty. The roll-ups are served with a tasty sauce made from squeeze cheese, mayonnaise and powdered milk. No seasoning allowed, but somehow inmates find a way.

Candace made a yummy sour cream and onion cheese dip. Take a bag of Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips and crush them to a fine powder by keeping them in the bag and using a water bottle to crush. The bag is also your mixing bowl. Add three packages of squeeze cheese, milk and jalapeno juice to taste. Consistency should be creamy. Serve in a bowl with chips or crackers.

For the main course, the tables are filled with our beautiful prison ‘china’…white plastic bowls filled with various delicacies. We’re only allowed one small bowl so ‘cooking’ is a challenge. Most inmates actually have two bowls, but the second one is contraband so on quarterly “shakes”, the Correctional Officers routinely throw it away. Then for twenty-five cents, everyone buys a new one. It gives the company store more business and inmates then have two bowls for the next three months. It’s a prison game. Everyone plays.

The highlights of the main course are euphemistically called “Pasta with Tuna” and “Sour Cream Chicken”. (Recipes included). Do not consider making these unless you are rail thin, have ridiculously low cholesterol and just love junk food, because it is indeed junk food.

After we’ve eaten much more than our stomachs are used to, desserts are forthcoming. First, we are tempted by delicious chocolate cake made with candy bars. I made chocolate mint truffles, lots of work and well worth it…easy to serve and bite size. I, too, decorated a brownie box for serving. In an ugly place, we appreciate the efforts to make things pretty.

Finally, comes the piéce de résistance…Melissa’s lemon birthday cake, star shaped and decorated with stars. Melissa was sick the week before the party. For a few precious days she got meals in her room when dessert was lemon pudding. She carefully saved it for icing and filling. The cake itself was a mix of Vanilla Zingers and Dunkin’ Sticks layered with the lemon filling. She carefully worked it into the shape of a star , then iced it all with a mixture of pudding, milk and lemon drops melted in hot water. The extra stars were made by rolling Star Bursts flat with a water bottle (yes, it takes forever) and then using our special mirror cutting tool to cut the star shapes. The effort’s intense and they look fantastic, shiny, colorful and sparkly. It is the most beautiful cake I’ve seen in prison, and we dub Melissa the Martha Stewart of Perryville.

SEA Perryville (1)Of course, no birthday party would be complete without singing and presents. The singing is enthusiastic and the presents very special…all handmade with love. Except for mine. I have a “Hair” milestone. The girls give me rollers and mascara this year. Last year, I had lost all of my hair and eye lashes to chemotherapy and was painfully bald. This year I have hair to roll!

Despite the fences, we can still see the sky turn all the gorgeous sunset hues of the Arizona desert. The sky mellows our party talk to past birthdays in prison and out. Melissa’s 28 years old; Candace is 40;  I hit 59. The hardest milestone is Candace’s. Turning 40 in prison is not exactly reason to celebrate. She’s due for release in three weeks and fears starting over with nothing. But I know that with her energy and drive, she’ll be on top again in the blink of an eye. Melissa fears she is loosing her youth and the best years of her life, but she is beautiful with a perfect figure and excellent mind. I know her best years are in front of her.

From the prospective of our ages, our fears are different. I’ve lost everything and am essentially homeless. I fear being a bag lady, sleeping under a bridge somewhere, but then I stop, knowing that’s ridiculous. I am blessed with a brain, energy, enthusiasm, friends, and faith. I know I will not be under a bridge.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.35.42 AMIt’s a wonderful day to celebrate and practice the little niceties of life. We’re so isolated, in such an ugly place, but we use our creative energy to produce a pretty party to share with friends. It’s the closest thing to normal possible behind the razor wire. It lifts our spirits and brings laughter into our lives. No matter where you are or what your circumstance, we are all creative spirits with much to contribute and share. Sharing that creativity and joy will give meaning to your life…inside or out.

Believe it or not, Recipes that are Absolutely Delicious and Completely Bad for You

Sour Cream &Onion Chicken

2 Bowls

Small amount of milk (pilfered from somewhere)

2 pouches of chicken in gravy (mostly gravy)

1 bag Sour Cream & Onion Potato Chips (finely crushing chips in the bag using a water bottle)

Grilled potatoes pilfered from breakfast

Chopped Jalapeños

1. Boil 1 cup of water with heating coil. Pour into bowl, and immerse pouch of chicken & gravy. Heat up about 3 minutes.

2.Pour ½ bag crushed chips in 2nd bowl. Add warm chicken and mix well.

3.Add some potatoes and keep mixing. Add chopped jalapeños to taste and some milk to smooth consistency.

4.Repeat with the 2nd pouch.

5.When it’s all mixed well, combine the bowls. Then wash out empty bowl and line with Saran Wrap. Add all the mixture to this bowl, pressing tightly to make a mound.

6.Turn out on a serving box you’ve decorated with pretty magazine ads and covered with Saran Wrap you’ve pilfered from somewhere. Decorate the mound with 2 whole ships and surround it with crackers. Alternatively, you can roll it up in tortillas and serve.

Pasta with Tuna

1 Ramen Vegetable Noodle Soup                                                  1 Tuna pouch

½ bag Sour Cream Chips (crush chips by using a water bottle)

1 ½ Squeeze Cheese Packets                                                        3 Mayonnaise Packs

Whole or Chopped Jalapeños (to taste)                                       Salt & Pepper (pilfered from D.R.)

1. Boil water and add to soup to cover pasta. Let sit until all the water is absorbed with the pasta.

2. In a bowl, mix well Tuna, ½ cheese pack, 3 mayonnaise packs, salt & pepper.

3. In another bowl, mix crushed chips with one pack cheese and a little hot water. Mix so it looks like cheese chunks. Then mix it all together with the tuna.

4. Add Jalapeños to taste. Serve with crackers.

Chocolate Mint Truffles

6 Brownies, mashed in a bowl

4 Dunkin Sticks, well crushed in a bowl

6 Peppermints, finely crushed

2 pats of butter with melted cocoa to taste. (You have to sneak the butter out of the kitchen. If caught, it’s a major ticket for stealing off of your own tray).

1. Mix brownies in a bowl to a consistency of fudge.

2. Mix Dunkin Sticks to a doughy texture in another bowl.

3. Combine and add melted butter. Texture should be like fudge.

4. Add cocoa to taste.

5. To crush peppermints, throw them, wrapped in paper, very hard on the floor. Roll crushed bits with a water bottle to crush more. Take out the big bits and eat them! Then add the crushed bits to the truffle mix and mix well. Roll out truffles to the size of a small cherry tomato. Sprinkle with cocoa powder.

6. Chill and serve on a brownie box you’ve painted and then layered with pretty magazine paper, covered with cling film (also pilfered from someone’s sack lunch.)

 

Happy Birthday, July Babies

Jodi Arias is all over the news. You can’t escape her. Finally after over seven years, she has been sentenced to life without parole. Because I lived there for seven years, everyone is asking me what it’s like there. So here’s a snapshot.

She has already been driven out to Perryville Prison in Goodyear, AZ. On the trip, she was escorted by ADC officers who belly chained, handcuffed and shackled her. Scratching her nose would require a yoga pose. The white van with no markings looks normal from the outside; inside all the windows are covered with heavy black wire mesh and the front and rear seats are divided by a bullet proof plexiglass window. It’s a lonely, isolated ride. If you passed it, you’d never notice it.

Upon arrival at the prison, she will go through a process called R & A. Stands for Reception & Assessment. Sounds like a hotel, doesn’t it? It’s Not. She will be in a cell alone. She will be weighed, measured and photographed. She will see the staff doctor for medical questions and a pap smear. She will see a clinician who will ask her questions about her mental state. She might see the dentist. She will be given an AIMES test to measure her knowledge of language skills, reading comprehension, and math.  She will be issued her orange uniforms of t-shirts, pants, baseball cap, bras, and panties, all used.

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 5.00.50 PM

She now has prison number #281129 that will follow her for LIFE. She has an inmate data page  that you can visit on the department of corrections website. https://corrections.az.gov/public-resources/inmate-datasearch.

Here is her ADC picture that will also follow her for Life.

Her cell is 6 ft by 11 ft. The walls are cream cinderblock and the steel is battleship grey, all hard corners and angles. The mattress is thin, lumpy plastic. The pillow is big and very, very, very firm. There is no softness anywhere.

She will be locked down 23 hours a day. On days that she is allowed to shower, she will be escorted. Her recreation will be in a chain link wire cage. She will be alone.

If she behaves and follows the rules, eventually these conditions will change, very, very slowly. Progress in prison is sluggish. She has entered her own living hell, knowing she will never leave that prison.

When I entered Perryville, I knew I’d eventually get out. It gave me a spark of hope, hope that is priceless to every inmate and every human being. Jodi will have no spark. She does have family who will visit her, but the visits will be non-contact visits; no hugging allowed. No human touch.

Everyone has an opinion about her sentence. Sort of like the baby bear’s porridge: too hard, too soft, just right. As a former inmate, I think death is the easy, peaceful way out. Inmates have a saying, “The worst day of freedom is better than the best day in prison.” Jodi will never have the best and worst days of freedom; nor will Travis. Both of their lives ended seven years ago.  All the families have suffered and will continue to experience the pain of this terrible loss. Now is the time to leave them all alone. Curiosity should die here.

Sue Ellen Allen:

My dear friend Tom Brown is a brilliant, articulate philosopher whose wisdom is priceless. He was my darling husband David’s best friend and they shared so much together. I’m blessed to share his wisdom with all of you.

Originally posted on C.T. Brown:

One of the most important and most neglected aspects of our lives is the ability to respond to reality. This means seeing the value and the beauty in ordinary things and coming alive to the splendor that is all around us. So often, we just do not see it.

In turning away from things that are graceful and elegant, we turn away from all that is wholesome and true. We deliver ourselves into an exile where the vulgar and the artificial dull and deaden our human spirit. There is a widespread habit in our society of mistaking glamour for beauty. Far too much emphasis is put on good looks, image, and fashion. Far too little attention is given to the dignity, grandeur, and nobility of the human spirit.

Thomas Merton eloquently expressed this when he wrote, “…I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin…

View original 111 more words

Ode to Hair

HairHairHair…

Why do we care
about hair?

What’s with the love affair
with hair?

Any supermarket, drug store or super store sells
miles and miles of hair care

Shampoo, conditioner, jel, mousse, wax, spray, glaze, color and bleach
A $160 BILLION business…Good grief. It’s only Hair.

It gets dirty
splits ends
has to be cut
limps or frizzes
falls out then
grows in places we don’t want it…

And yet

We care
so much
about hair.

Why do I care
about hair?

Born a redhead. Love my hair; thick and long.Screen Shot 2012-04-23 at 6.10.30 PM
Lots of body; does just what I want it to.
Never have to color it, perm it or battle it.
I love my hair.

Then Cancer comes.
Diagnoses instantly brings two thoughts:

Oh My God, I’m going to lose my breast, my hair…
Not necessarily in that order.

It’s on the pillow; in the shower.
The time comes. Shave it off.
TraumaDramaTrauma.IMG_2100
Not painful but it hurts.
Visible sign I’m sick.
I have cancer. I might die.

But I don’t die. Twelve years later I’m still here;
still thinking about hair.

Chemo; hair falls out. Who am I without my hair?
Mastectomy; hair starts growing back.
More chemo; hair falls out again. Who am I without my hair?
Hair grows back…sort of. ThinThinThin and grey and who am I without my hair?

I’m surrounded by Hair. Long Blond, Black, Brown, Blond Hair.
Who am I without my hair?
B & W shirt

Did you know?

Hair can be bought.
Hair can be had.

Did you know?
Beyoncé and Tina and Cher
all buy hair.

For a cancer patient,
insurance will pay for
fake breasts
and fake hair
So… I got breasts
and I got hair.

See there.
427481_392450830808345_1114863785_n

There I am
with lots of hair,
with thin thin hair,
with no hair,
with fake hair.

Who am I without my hair?
Who are you With your hair?

You know what? It’s only hair.
YOU are YOU
and I am Me
with or without the hair.

So there.

 

 

Many people are alone on New Year’s Eve. Some feel lonely; some are comfortable. New Year’s was always special for my husband and me; just the two of us remembering the past and looking forward to the future. David died in April; this is my first holiday season without him. Christmas was spent in silent retreat in Sedona, thanks to a most generous friend. It has heavenly to have such silence after a noisy and challenging year. I was alone but not lonely.

Now it’s New Year’s Eve. It’s cold (for Phoenix) and raining and I’m fine. Tonight I’m curling up with old movies. Later I’m going to  write my intentions for 2015, keeping in mind the words of Walt Whitman, “Every moment of light and darkness is a miracle.” Not easy to remember when darkness is swirling around you. I should have it tattooed somewhere. Or not:)

How lovely to be free to have these choice. I remember New Year’s Eve in prison. Dark. Lonely. Drab. But inmates always try to make the best of things. This is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell about that time.

December 31, 2004For all our years together, David and I always celebrated New Year’s Eve at home. No loud parties, no big crowds, no kissing strangers at midnight. We had  tradition. I always decorated with colorful New Year’s paraphernalia, noisemakers and silly hats, crystal bowls full of streamers and confetti, and bright balloons around the room. There was even tradition in what we wore. David wore his favorite black turtleneck sweater and I wore my favorite ancient black sequined skirt that thankfully had an elastic waistband. I loved that skirt; it aged with me. 

While I decorated the table, David carefully planned the music: Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller, João Gilberto, Linda Ronstadt, and hits of the 60’s. He laid the logs in the fireplace while I prepped the salad, the vegetables, and the dessert. Then I took a nap because otherwise I would not have made it to midnight. 

About 8:30, we’d meet in the living room for cocktails and a dance. It was our night to focus completely on each other. We danced and talked through dinner. David always grilled steaks and we enjoyed our simple but delicious meal.

 At eleven, we’d get out pens and paper. We each wrote down the bad things that happened the previous year and then our goals and dreams for the coming year. This is a Brazilian tradition, but theirs is more dramatic. Brazilians place their lists in very small boats. Imagine a boat for Barbie. Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 7.57.21 PMThey decorate them with flowers and candy or tiny gifts. Then, dressed in white, they go down to the beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema and at midnight launch their boats into the ocean as offerings to the goddess of the sea. If your boat sails out successfully, the goddess accepts your offering and it will be a good year. If, however, your boat comes crashing in on a wave, the goddess isn’t pleased, and your future won’t be so great.

 David and I never made it to Rio for New Year’s, but I decided we’d take the best of it and make it  part of our tradition. We wrote our lists and made a tiny boat out of a milk carton, decorating it with bougainvillea from the garden and little votive candles. We lived right by the canal and at midnight, we’d walk over and launch our little boat, watching it bob merrily down the dark water. I just knew eventually our fragile boats would make it to the sea.

 Now I am at Perryville, surrounded by concrete and gravel, miles from water, wondering how in the world to celebrate New Year’s Eve. I decide to invite four young friends to meet at the picnic table at 6:30 with pen and paper. Stacy thoughtfully makes hot cocoa for us. It is very cold and they are curious.

 “Close your eyes and imagine we’re in Rio de Janeiro.” I tell them. “It’s summer. It’s New Year’s Eve. We’re all dressed in white, happy to be together.”

 As I describe the events of a Brazilian New Year’s, I can see that I’ve captured their imaginations. I encourage them to think about 2004 and write down the bad stuff that we want to get rid of. Everyone agrees it is a short list; prison and separation from loved ones. Next we write our goals and dreams for 2005. Each of these four ladies will be released within the next six months so this is actually an important exercise. Writing goals will help them visualize and focus. I tell them to think carefully about how they see their lives. What’s important to them now? All is quiet as they labor over their papers in the very dim light of the yard.

 As I watch them, I’m pleased and a little relieved. I was afraid they might think this was corny, but they embrace it seriously. It’s a good time to set their goals. And they want to share. We go around the table, listening and encouraging each other. When we are done, we join hands as I pray over our little group of friends and our precious dreams; that God will look favorably on them when they leave prison and will bless them on their journey.

 It’s late and we’re frozen, but no one wants to leave. It is a significant moment in our time here, to always treasure.

 “But what about our papers and the ocean, Sue Ellen? What are we going to do?”

 In prison we have to be creative. When we go inside for count, I figure we will just have to tear up our papers and sprinkle the little bits into the toilet. It’s water and surely one flush will eventually make it to the sea. Laughingly, we agree this is a great idea. Yes, it’s prison, it’s ugly, it’s cold and awful, but imagination is a wonderful thing….inside and out. 

In 2009, after seven years apart,  David and I were free to share our tradition again. We shared five lovely celebrations, five more years of precious memories.

Everyone has a story. If you have a New Year’s Eve story to share, I would love to hear it.

Meanwhile, my prayer for all of you is a joyful, peaceful, loving, and fulfilling 2014. And if you are alone, may you never be lonely.

Happy New Year.

Tiffany Brown is one of our newest volunteers and a talented writer. I’m so happy to share her impression our out 5th Annual Teddy Bear’s Parade. For us, it’s a trued day of Christmas spirit. Thank you, Tiffany. SEA

IMG_1535

Teddy Bears and Tears: My First Trip to Mingus Mountain Academy.

As a “nice white lady,” I’m going to give you the straight skinny. We are a nation of racists. Oh, it’s not like it was in the dark ages when I was growing up. I was born in 1945 into a town divided by a railroad track, the symbolic line in every Southern town, that kept black and white families from mixing, beyond the colored help who made sure the white families were comfortable in our world of make-believe.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.41.56 PMThose White and Colored water fountains and restrooms were everywhere, but I never gave them a thought. After all, I was young and white with all the privilege that conveyed. Then when I was three, we left Texas for a remote part of Venezuela that you could not find on a map. My father was an engineer, there to help build an oil refinery. We lived in a walled and gated, even luxurious, housing compound for the ‘white foreigners.’ Of course, there was native help to make sure we were comfortable in another gated land of make-believe.

I grew up moving every two years; back and forth across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean. In every country I took for granted the privilege that went with my color and I never gave it a thought. The AHA moment finally came at the University of Texas in Austin where I gained an awareness of racial stereotype and discrimination. By then, the White and Colored water fountains and restrooms had disappeared, and I still hadn’t given them a thought. It never occurred to me how a human being would feel being defined by a sign, nor why it was necessary.

Then I joined a group of do-gooders, some of the first ‘cross-over teachers’ in Texas. My father, newly retired, was furious. I had humiliated the family. He would have to quit his clubs and leave town. I ignored the empty threat because I was naïvely determined to change the world.

Every day I drove across the railroad tracks, that symbolic crossing into another world. We were a handful of brand new, green as grass white teachers forced on the older, much more experienced black teachers. They welcomed us with dignity and respect; the students with skepticism and hostility. Gradually, we made peace and grew together in respect and affection. There were no White and Colored bathrooms or water fountains. There was only a crumbling building with very few supplies, compared to the new white high school across town. If I had been black during that time, I would have been out fiercely protesting. Instead, I went home every day to my nice white world of comfort and privilege and didn’t change anything.

Fast-forward thirty-five years. I left teaching and joined the business world. I worked my way up the corporate ladder to a vice-presidency, the only woman on the team. Then at age 57, I entered prison for securities fraud; once again another world, only this time the line was a real one of nasty, twisted razor wire. Finally, I was in an environment that led me to the next AHA moment.

I was no longer a woman with a name; I was an inmate with a number; I was an ‘offender.’ There was even a policy. I would no long be called Ms. Allen or even Sue Ellen. I would only be Allen, inmate Allen, or my prison number. Respect and courtesy were left on the other side of the wire.

There was something else that contributed to the AHA moment. There were Staff and Offender restrooms and water fountains, just to remind us that we weren’t people anymore. When I first saw them, I felt sick and dirty, dirty and untouchable. I remembered the White and Colored signs of my youth and I was ashamed, ashamed of my blindness and privilege.

Now I’m ashamed again. The Little Rock Nine walked the gauntlet in 1957. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous speech in 1963. The Selma March was in 1965. We have our first black president yet we are still murdering and incarcerating young black men at an alarming rate. Racism is alive and well, even though it is much more subtle.

I’m ashamed but I’m also thankful. I’m thankful that my prison journey woke me up. I will never know what it’s like to grow up black in America and all that entails. I only know what it’s like to be diminished, denigrated and humiliated. I know what it’s like to have a label that makes me feel dirty, a label (inmate, offender, ex-con, ex-felon) that will never go away. We don’t do our time, get out and rebuild our lives. The barriers are huge, whatever your color and background. Society has created the gift that keeps on giving. Ironically it’s like the old Colored and White signs, only now it’s Normal Person and Offender. Since 40% of inmates are Black, it’s just a redesign of those old signs.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 10.48.46 PMNow that you know I’ve been in prison and I’m really an ‘offender,’ you may dispute the ‘nice white lady’ label I gave myself at the beginning of this, but please don’t dispute that we are a nation of racists. Whether you are subtle or ‘in-your-face,’ all of us can have a tiny or large piece of fear in our hearts, the fear that is the foundation of racism. At the risk of sounding cheesy, examine the rest of your heart. Seek the peace, courage and love that also reside there. Seek ways to diminish the fear. Seek the hope. I believe we can do it. I believe in US.

*http://www.thefountainartscenter.org

 

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