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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

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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.

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He was my beloved husband and our friend, always with us in spirit and love. Before his passing, he asked me to request donations be made in his memory to Gina’s Team, www.ginasteam.org or PO Box 36, Scottsdale, AZ 85252.
He considered our work and all the people involved in it to be a true blessing. My blessing was being married to this exceptional man. We had an extraordinary life together. For better and for worse, it was always a gift and I live in gratitude.

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In the last month, many people have died or, as in the case of the Malaysian airline, disappeared without a trace. Millions are suffering, aching, grieving or in pain. Right now  I’m one of those people.

On March 13, the VA found a tumor on my beloved husband David’s brain. The same day they sent him immediately to Barrows in Phoenix, one of the best in the world, where he had brain surgery on March 17. The news: malignant, stage 4 and metastasized to lungs and pancreas or from his lungs to his brain. They weren’t sure. Anyway, it’s spread and “grim” to quote the doctors.

On March 25 he came home and on March 27, the VA assigned him to Hospice of the Valley, our choice. Their initial visit yesterday started the process. There are different opinions of “days, weeks, months” depending on the doctor. Of course I heard the same 12 years ago. when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Only God knows and we live in hope, that most priceless of emotions.

David is in good and peaceful spirits.  He said when he came in the door of our home, he was overcome with joy and peace and it shows in his quiet strength.

He’s always had that quiet strength while I feel as though I’ve been thrown headfirst off several cliffs simultaneously. There are not enough words to tell all of you who have rallied how grateful I am, beginning with our brother and sisters in orange who have been there every step of this unbelievably unexpected journey to help hold me up when my knees felt like buckling. I’m grateful for the strength God gave me. I’m not a marathoner but I do know how to put one foot in front of the other and fight for those I love, like David and those behind bars.

I’m so grateful we are together. Although I continue to live in gratitude,  I’m just a bit wobbly right now. Gina’s Team’s incredible group of volunteers has circled the wagons and rallied to bring food and hugs in equal measure.  David says he isn’t ready to “leave” yet and I’m certainly not. More than anyone on the planet, David KNOWS ME. We have been on an incredible journey for 27 years. We have shared prison and the passion of Gina’s Team and the loss of everything but each other. There is great comfort in not having to explain anything to the person who KNOWS you. Despite my thoughtlessness, my over-the-top passion and determination, all my weaknesses and insecurities too numerous to mention, David loves me. I consider THAT a great gift and miracle.

His biggest, strongest wish is for us to continue our focus and work with Gina’s Team. As a matter of fact, he says it’s the most important thing. Something happened to him in the hospital that confirmed that with great clarity. I’ll write about that later.

We do have a special request to everyone all over the planet. The common question to both of us and to everyone else going through something like this is “How are you doing?” There just isn’t an answer to this. You ask because you care, but there is no answer. Perhaps you could skip the question and say, “I just called to say I love you.” Hey, isn’t that a song?  Laughter, music, and prayers, surely the BEST medicine. We are most most grateful  to ALL of you and for laughter and music and prayers.

We are also grateful if you add to those prayers, all those others in pain and grief, behind bars or in hospitals or homeless under a bush. No one’s pain is unique. When we remember that, it’s truly a blessing.

And while I’m at it, here’s another request. Instead of a card for David, would you consider making a donation to Gina’s Team? It’s easy to go to www.ginasteam.org and push a button. If you donate the cost of a card, it will make a difference in the life of someone behind bars or free and struggling to change their life. Imagine, the cost of a card can make a difference. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

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I’ve been out of the loop for a while. Very busy with Gina’s Team plus more surgery just last week. More anesthesia brain. Typing is a challenge. Trying to rest but I had to send this out.

We do a lot of meaningful things at Gina’s Team. One is greeting women at the gate upon release with a big hug and a “Welcome Back.” Diane Bondurant, a graduate of our GAT program (Gina’s ATHENA Team), was recently released. She is a talented and intelligent woman as well as a creative artist. I asked her to write about the day of her release to give you a peek at those first hours. Here is her version:

                                Over the Fence and Into Reality

Sue Ellen maintains that being released from prison is like being shot out of a cannon blindfolded. She is absolutely correct. Regardless of how much time you’ve done, your release date approaches rapidly and no matter how much you have tried to mentally prepare for getting out, there is nothing you can imagine that is even close to the experience of getting released from prison.

When you are released from prison, prepare to be awakened the night before your release at all hours of the night. Between 10-11pm, the guards will bring you bags for your property, inventory your property, allow you to go back to sleep and then wake you up prior to 4am count to cart you down to Complex where the real release processing takes place. . Prepare to be up for at least 24 hours straight.

The general rule of thumb is that you need to give back everything that State Issue gave you originally or you may be charged for missing items. Anything you purchased that has ADC on it can go to anyone you choose-so donating your sweatshirt , those comfy sweat pants or that beanie to someone is ok-they don’t inventory the clothing you bought. You actually just leased it, but let’s not split hairs! The rest of your stuff will be listed on a property sheet and transported to the gate at complex to await your arrival.

After 4 am count, you will be transported to complex to await the processing that is to come. Drop your stuff at the strip shack and park it; it will be awhile. In about an hour, you’ll be summoned into the center of the complex to take your exit pictures, receive meds (if you take meds) and then will be allowed to sit in the complex courtyard (smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em-if you’re a smoker bring some cigarettes with you from the yard) to wait for the financial end of things to get under way.

About  2 hours later, you’ll be summoned to another room, given a packet that contains your exit ID and your debit card that your salary and savings account monies have been transferred to.  The officer doing the debit card activation allows everyone in the room to activate their debit card and then we’re all herded out to the gate area. If you were fortunate enough to get clothes sent in to you via a catalog (LL Bean, Land’s End etc.), you will be handed the clothes that were ordered for you and will go to the strip shack to change.

If you had relatives send you clothing, you will be handed whatever outside clothing DOC picks for you and be told to wear that out of the gate. You will then have to go down to the next building and pick up the clothing you were sent at the main property window.

Although you protest about the outfit you are handed, you know that you would walk across hot coals completely naked to get the hell out of Perryville. You accept the outfit (regardless of how it looks or fits) and you change into the DOC provided white vinyl skirt and hot pink stilettos in the strip shack. (Seriously, you wonder where some of those clothes come from.)

You stand in front of the gate with your storage boxes in front of you, waving to  people who are picking you up. The nightmare in orange is almost over. The gate opens slowly and you see friends, loved ones, or people from designated agencies sent to pick you up. You heave a sigh of relief. There is nothing like the joy you feel when stepping over the threshold from prison into the parking lot. It is awesome, overwhelming, and frightening at the same time. Parole or probation, be damned- being granted your freedom is a zen moment, and you will be called upon to make some BIG decisions. Only YOU can make the decision to go and rebuild a better life for yourself or to return to a life that will ultimately return you to Perryville. You are at the spork in the road, and only YOU can make this life choice. Here are some helpful things to remember:

  • Don’t be afraid of a job search- feel the fear, the anxiety, and do it anyway!!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – be grateful (and say so) when people provide it.
  • Give back! Give of yourself, your time, your talents, your money and your possessions to others-it will return to you tenfold
  • This is an abundant universe and the Creator will always take care of us-just ask!

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We make plans. We set goals. And then LIFE happens. Somehow those plans and goals don’t always work out.  Broken hearts, betrayals, divorce, job loss, death of loved ones, cancer, even prison. So many things can go wrong and frequently do.

This is a link to a beautifully written blog about plans and dashed plans that touched me deeply. It is about accepting the reality of the journey and realizing that the journey is EVERYTHING. When people do accept it, their lives open up in ways they never imagined.

If you are going through one of Life’s “gifts” wrapped up in tears, trials, and heartbreak, you may find comfort in this blog, The Soul’s Plan.”

http://liveyourbliss.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-souls-plan/

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On March 18, 2009, I was released from prison. My friend Carolyn welcomed me back to the world and took me to Paradise to have my first meal. I stood with my mouth open, looking up at the menu with no idea what to choose. I was just determined to have something with tomatoes. Then Carolyn took me to the home of my friend Eleanore where I became a house guest until David was released and our life began again. I will never forget her kindness and generosity.  I am sure that she and her family gave us our life back.

Not everyone is so blessed. So many women get out of prison with no family or community support. Most places will not accept ex-felons as tenants. Most companies don’t want to hire you. And the economy isn’t the greatest, just in case you haven’t noticed. What a period of adjustment. There are so many choices out here. The best thing about prison is realizing I don’t need all that stuff to make me happy. Happiness comes in finding your purpose and living it. I found mine in prison and I am blessed to be able to serve the population I left  behind. Teaching classes in the prison and in the juvenile facilities we serve through Gina’s Team is the most rewarding thing I have ever done.

We didn’t celebrate yesterday. I was busy updating curriculum for our classes and writing mid-term evaluations for our interns. I guess tonight was our celebration. It’s the first night of one of my favorite shows, Dancing with the Stars. I confess, I love all those sequins, feathers, and spray tans. I love the color and joy of dance.  I love the fun of it all. Finally, David and I get to watch it together and we get to vote.

Life is precious and the simple pleasures are the best. We live in gratitude.

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