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Archive for September, 2010

Remember my blog about too many books? What if you didn’t have any? What if you were a young girl at a juvenile facility, struggling to rebuild your shattered life and there was no library? That is the situation at Mingus Mountain Academy in Prescott Valley. Now in their defense, they just opened their new school building and recently passed their goal of 100 girls in their facility. The staff there does the most amazing job of working with these young girls to give them the strength and tools they need to reenter society. 

Recently GINA’s Team took up our monthly program for the girls and I used the opportunity to donate one of my books to their library. Then I learned they don’t have a library! I thought about how I felt in prison with the severe limit on books we were allowed to possess. I thought about my mother sharing her voracious love of reading and books with me. Once when my grandmother criticized her for not teaching me to cook (I was about 6), my mother said, “I’m teaching her about books and giving her a love of reading. If she reads well, she can do anything.”

 My mother was right. If you can read, you can do anything. It is the key that unlocks a million doors of possibilities. So if you live in the Phoenix or Prescott areas and what to help create this library, please send us a message at ginasteam@hotmail.com. We would love to hear from you. The drive goes until Octobr 30.

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Recently a lovely and talented local author volunteered to go to Perryville prison in Goodyear to teach a workshop in creative writing. Marilyn McGrath is the author of All You Know On Earth, a historical mystery novel that takes place in Phoenix in 1910. It’s an intriguing tale and her research of early Arizona is fascinating.

I was thrilled when Marilyn offered to go out to the prison. After the class, it was obvious she was deeply moved by the experience and I asked her to share her observations.

“I recently taught a creative writing workshop at Perryville Women’s Prison in Goodyear, AZ, and have been asked for my impressions. Fair enough. The problem is that my perceptions, pre-conceptions, and sense of balance are all out of whack.  It’s almost like being in a parallel universe. Nothing plays out like you think it will. 

The only part even remotely resembling a prison movie is the security procedure when you enter and exit the facility. First, you come into a huge lobby/front desk area. You have to take off your shoes, all jewelry, and walk through a scanner just like at the airport. All your belongings are searched and only authorized materials can come in. I was lucky. All I had to leave behind was a granola bar and a small storyteller doll (a writing-class talisman which usually sits atop my dictionary during class).  Then you wait for your designated Corrections Officer to show up and escort you to the proper yard. But the wait is not dull since there is a colorful, prisoner-painted mural encircling the walls. Mostly desert scenes, they show inmates taking part in various programs and activities at the prison. But right in the middle is an unexpected, sapphire-blue body of water with four or five graceful, old-fashioned sailing vessels afloat. They are coming to America, it would seem — in this case the Arizona desert. It is delightful.

At last my C.O. arrives; I can see him through the double glass doors.  Once he gets through, we greet one another, but he is not overly talkative. He has a job to do.  We stand and wait for the first door to open and then step into a portal. I show my badge to the guard behind a thick glass window and the door shuts behind us. Now we must wait for the second door to open. Once we are outside we wait again, this time for the van which will pick us up. This shuttle, driven by inmates, keeps circumnavigating the prison, delivering and picking up passengers – mostly employees, but a few volunteers like me.

The narrow road we drive on is lined on both sides with tall, stately palms, the only vegetation to speak of. The grounds are desolate and surrounded by razor-coil fencing. It crosses my mind that the buildings (referred to as yards) are spaced pretty far apart from each other, and no doubt this is intentional. The people who drove me here have already pointed out the one that houses Death Row.

Our stop is Santa Cruz Yard where we get out of the van. My C.O. ushers me through one more door and here is where all the prison-movie scenes get turned on their head. Santa Cruz feels more like a high school campus. There are several one-story buildings with glass windows and I can see classes going on inside. And there are more murals – this time on exterior walls. One in particular shows inmates taking part in their first cancer walk.

Women dressed in bright orange pants and t-shirts are gathered casually at tables outside, and some of them are waiting for me. I am taken aback — this place is not forbidding at all. 

Once I am inside the classroom and meet the inmate in charge of the program, my C.O. leaves. He will be back for me in an hour-and-a-half. I see some inmates are already at their seats. There are several rows of long tables and the women have placed tent-shaped name tags at each place facing me. Nice touch. After I am warmly introduced, I greet the class with an enthusiastic hi!  I get one back from them, even more enthusiastic, along with a few giggles. We talk about writing – why is it important? It’s a way to express ourselves. To tell our feelings. Yes, I say, but it’s so much more. Writing is an act of courage. It is also an act of creation. You are making something new, something that never existed before.  Then I risk sounding corny or lame. I say, “Writing allows you to spread your wings a little wider, and fly a little higher.” A few make flying motions with their arms, others smile at that.  But I can tell they are all listening. It’s going to be all right.

Then we talk about food. They groan when I ask about prison food but no one writes about it. One chooses tamales. Another, shrimp in lemon butter.  A third picks chocolate cake. But they all write about closing their eyes to savor the taste. I’m not sure I’ve heard other writers say this before, about closing their eyes. So we talk for awhile about our five senses. Maybe, the class decides, when you close your eyes your taste buds become more intense. Indeed.

We talk about two different genres: memoir and fiction. How are they different? How are they similar? We write short examples of both. And finally, we write a fiction piece inspired by a picture I hand out to each of them.  The stories are stunning – descriptive, brave, and emotional. They may be fiction, but surely their power comes from each writer’s own life. The first to read hers out loud is met with a collective gasp, followed by spontaneous applause. Each successive reader receives similar acclaim. All I ask of any class is that writers show respect for the stories written by others. I didn’t even have to tell these women. They just knew.

They ask me questions about my own writing. They talk about books they are reading. They laugh at my jokes. If they weren’t all dressed in identical bright orange I might forget where I am.  How can they be so nice? So polite? How can they be so relaxed? So funny? Why aren’t I scared?

 I could say this has been no different than any other writing class — except for the obvious fact that it is different. Let’s be honest. This is prison. Things have been done.  Bad things.  And there are fences here, both literal and metaphorical. This changes everything. Or does it?

Most of us will use the word “prisoner” hundreds of times. We might say it with hateful disdain, with callous humor as part of a joke, or even with smug condescension. Sometimes we might say it with sensitivity or naïve compassion. But it’s only a concept. It doesn’t have a human face.

Thanks to this experience, the word prisoner now conjures up twenty-five faces for me — faces that welcomed me warmly and thanked me profusely for coming. One woman even remarked that for a little while that evening she almost felt like she was someplace else. In time I may forget the names, but I will always remember their faces. And because of that, I will never think about, or talk about prisoners in quite the same way.  I just can’t.”

You may visit Marilyn McGrath’s website http://www.marilynmcgrath.com/ book. Her novel, All You Know On Earth, is available at www.amazon.com and www.bn.com  I highly recommend it.

 

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On my recent trip to Houston I met an amazing woman, Beth Sanders Moore. A ten year cancer survivor, Beth is the ultimate community leader. “Beth’s movement to the front of the global cancer community began over 20 years ago when she advanced from a grass-roots volunteer for Susan G. Komen Race for a Cure into a seat at the management table at that foundation’s corporate headquarters. A fundraiser of millions of dollars for cancer-related causes, Beth is perhaps most frequently associated with The Beth Sanders Moore Undiagnosed Breast Clinic and The Beth Sanders Moore Young Breast Cancer Survivors’ Program which are housed at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, where she was diagnosed, treated, and now, routinely examined.”

Beth has received more awards than there is sand in the ocean. Please check out this brilliant agent for change at http://www.cancerforward.org/About_Us/Forward_Thinkers/Founder/
and while you are at it, check out her blog www.cancerforwardblog.org , also brilliant. Well, she wrote about me so naturally I think that’s brilliant. Seriously, Beth realized early on that there is very little for the cancer survivor. Once you finish your chemo or radiation, you are cut loose without so much as a balloon. This is scary. Suddenly, you don’t see your medical providers any more and your questions go unanswered.

When I was in prison, after my radiation, I knew I was supposed to follow the protocol on a regular schedule to see either the radiologist or the oncologist. Didn’t happen. I waited and waited. My list of questions got longer. No one in the prison medical department had an answer. Finally, I started the formal grievance process that inmates have when they can’t get a straight answer. It took 19 months but at last I was allowed to speak to an oncologist by what the prison calls “tele-med.” I sat in front of a camera and met with a doctor at the hospital who was also in front of a camera. He didn’t have my chart and had no idea who I was. He couldn’t give me even a cursory exam or look at my chest. He stumbled through it and recommended a tumor marker test. It took the prison nine months before that happened. There is no question that my life is an absolute miracle.

I’ve never felt so disconnected. Suddenly, eight years later, I meet Beth and I am thrilled with her work for survivors. CancerForward: The Foundation for Cancer Survivors is a public charity whose mission is to connect, educate and share information among cancer survivors, empowering them to improve their day-to-day lives. Here is what their site says about their focus.

      CancerForward exists as a free and unique web-based networking and educational resource for cancer survivors of all ages and all types of cancers. It was created to support the physical, emotional and practical living needs of more than 28 million cancer survivors. According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, no other not-for-profit entity currently provides its services on a comprehensive basis.

      CancerForward’s web content is focused on first-hand, participant-based experience, current information from trained experts and guides, access to local resources, and aggregation of survivor data such as polls and statistical surveys. By design, the website embraces the now conventional definition of “survivors” and thereby serves those living with, through and beyond cancer diagnosis, along with family members, friends, and caregivers.

If you know anyone struggling, surviving, thriving with cancer survival, tell them to fret no more. Go to www.cancerforward.org and share your story and your wisdom, the wisdom you gained as a survivor.

My other recommendation is to pick up After Breast Cancer by Hester Hill Schnipper. A two time breast cancer survivor and oncology social worker, also with more awards than one can count, this book is the definitive book on what happens after the knives, the needles, and the burning. This is the book that answered my list of questions and I am forever grateful to her for sending it to me behind the wire. It is a treasure.

 

AND while you’re at it, please say a prayer for all those struggling with cancer behind bars. It is a terrifying and isolating battle. I know. This is in memory of Christine, Gina and all the others too numerous to mention. I miss you.

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Thomas Wolfe’ famous novel said it best, You Can’t Go Home Again. But last week I did, for just a brief respite and launch of my new book, The Slumber Party from Hell. I went back to Houston, city of my heart. It was raining as we landed. The streets and trees glistened in the showers that cooled everything off and gave us an artificial feeling of fall. I’d been invited back by my dear friend Jane Page Crump to speak at River Oaks Country Club, that bastion of the genteel South.

Through out my prison ordeal, Jane Page had stood loyally by and I am forever grateful. However, with this trip she took loyalty to an entire new level. She invited me to be the guest speaker at the first fall meeting of her luncheon club. She also planned a reception for me in her Architectural Digest home, as well as an intimate luncheon to share memories with old and precious friends. All this without laying eyes on the book. In my mind that took great courage but Jane Page said, “I know you. I believe in you. I knew the book would be great.”

Over thirty years ago, Jane Page and Georgene Brandon (another of my gorgeous hostesses), and I had been docents together at the Harris County Heritage Society in Houston (www.heritagesociety.org) We were young wives who wanted to make a difference in our community. In our meetings we bonded and then formed fast friendships over a summer project at Sam Houston Park, the cherished oasis of history in downtown Houston, a town that has taken new to another level. The Park is a museum that preserves and protects nine historic homes relevant to Houston’s history. We decided to create a quilt of the homes, a stitchery of memories. We did not know that in doing so, we were creating our own memories that would last a lifetime. Our labor of love now hangs in the Heritage Museum and Georgene took me down to visit it and the memories.

I don’t know if Thomas Wolfe was right or not. I don’t know if I could go back to Houston to live. So much time has passed and I’m a different person. I do know that I was able to go back for three glorious days and rest in the love of my beautiful friends whose arms opened wide and welcomed me home. Their generosity of spirit draped over me like a rare lace shawl. In today’s fast paced world, they are indeed Linked In and Facebooked but still manage to epitomize what gracious Southern women are all about. They know about generous hospitality, lovely manners, and kindness. We learned it from our mothers and share it now. I pray that those qualities are never lost. To Jane Page, Georgene, Donna, MaryLee, Madeleine, and all the rest, bless you for remembering and keeping the memories alive. And to Amanda, who is creating new memories and yet becoming the keeper of ours, bless you for seeing the worth.

To be continued with the new friends I made and now treasure like Beth Sanders Moore whose courage and focus blew me away. Check her out http://www.cancerforward.org/About_Us/Forward_Thinkers/Founder/

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