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Archive for the ‘Inspiration’ Category

screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-27-36-pmWhere were you fifteen years ago, Valentine’s Day 2002? Some of my young friends weren’t even born yet. Some of  my sisters and brothers in orange were inside. Some of you were celebrating Valentine’s Day and some of you were lamenting the lack of cards, chocolate and flowers.

I was sitting in a doctor’s office hearing the words, “You’ve got  stage 3B breast cancer.” What? No, that can’t be right. I’ve never smoked. No one in my family has had cancer. I eat my veggies and exercise. And what the hell, it’s Valentine’s Day. Seriously??

But it was right and none of that other stuff mattered. I was tapped on the breast by Breast cancer behind the wiresthe cancer demon and began a journey I never expected. Curiously, it almost paralleled with my prison journey. If I hadn’t been diagnosed on Valentine’s Day and started chemo and had my medical records, I wouldn’t be alive today because most of my treatment including my mastectomy was behind prison walls.

Although “they” told me I probably wouldn’t live five years, fifteen years later, here I am. Christine died; Gina died; Paula died; too many died; even David died, but I’m still here. Often I wonder why. And then I look at the book by my bed, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

I first checked this book from the library, but after one chapter I knew I had to own it so I rushed to Costco where it sits amongst the latest book bargains, hot off the press. You might not notice it, but Pay Attention. Forget the best selling novels screen-shot-2017-02-13-at-11-32-38-pmand take this one instead.

It’s divided into three sections:

I    The Nature of True Joy

II   The Obstacles of Joy

III  The Eight Pillars of Joy

This book will open your eyes to the difference between joy and happiness. It will open your eyes to the incredible power and joy of LIFE, despite suffering and sorrow.

You’ve heard me say it a million times, “Everyone has a story.” Mostly those stories are about pain and suffering. You’ve also heard me say that there is great power in your willingness to be vulnerable and share your story with others.

The Book of Joy distills the power of our grief, pain and suffering and gives meaning to our stories.  I’m not going to give you a book report. Nope, you have to buy it  and keep it by the bed with a marker to highlight the meaningful parts. And then put a journal with it to write your own story so you’ll know why you’re here and what you’re meant to do.

What’s your story? Have you figured out your purpose? If you haven’t, no worries. I didn’t “get” mine until I walked into prison at fifty-seven years old. (Slow learner.) Judy Pearson calls finding your purpose your 2nd Act. 

Judy is a breast cancer survivor with an incredible story and a clear vision to make a difference in the world of cancer. She founded A 2nd Act to do just that. A 2nd Act: Survivorship Takes the Stage is a live, curated stage performance, featuring a cast of eight women survivors of ALL types of cancers, local to the city in which the show is being held. Professionally produced, each woman has auditioned for a slot to share her own story of how she’s using her post-diagnosis gifts of time and experience for the greater good.

I’m deeply honored to have been chosen to be part of the Phoenix cast for 2017 and Sunday we had our first table reading. At that table, The Book of Joy came to life. All of the women there realized the power of their stories while they were going through their suffering and from their pain, they have manifested extraordinary 2nd Acts. Their courage is humbling and inspiring.

The Phoenix event on Sunday, March 12th. I hope you will visit the website to get the details. If you know anyone who has battled cancer or if you have, I urge you to attend this event and bring your friends. You will laugh, cry, be outraged delighted and you may see yourself in one of the stories. Here’s the link to the site: https://a2ndact.org/the-2nd-act/

Meanwhile, back to Valentine’s Day. Maybe you have a marvelous date tonight. Maybe you’re sad because you’re alone. Consider this. In doctor’s offices all over the world women and men and children are hearing the words, “You’ve got cancer.” In a heart-beat, their lives are changed forever.

Here’s your chance for a really special Valentine’s Day. Instead of feeling blue, why not take some flowers to a senior center or a hospital or the VA? Why not invite your mother to dinner? Think outside the box and get creative. What wonderful thing can you do to brighten someone else’s Valentine’s Day? Who knows, it might feel so good it will become your 2nd Act!

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Included in the excitement of actually being interviewed on the WH driveway was my request to Hannah for some saltine crackers and tea bags. Still felt queasy but determined Not To Be Sick. Cannot throw up on the President or First Lady.

Dianne and I rushed back across the park in the still freezing wind for a taxi. Back to the hotel for rest and lunch. Poor Dianne. Instead of bright and cheerful, I was pathetic company and my lunch was crackers. Another cab, this time to the Department of Justice for our meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. All the while I’m thinking, “This must be a mistake. They’re going to call and say, “Sorry, we meant the OTHER Sue Ellen Allen.” But they don’t call. They did mean me. Still pinching myself.

We’re dropped off at the huge, imposing Department of Justice Building (http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/jmd/legacy/2014/06/3
IMG_39040/75RFKBuilding.pdf ) that covers an entire block and has over a million square feet of space. There were also imposing guards who told us we could not enter there. Walk around to the other side of the building. No begging or pleading allowed. After seven years in prison I’m familiar with that so we started the trudge. At mid-point, we were met by other guards who turned us back. We can’t go that way. But, But, But…Back we trudged and yes, we were freezing. We walked around again to the other side of this huge building and met even more guards who didn’t want us to pass. Finally after some radio conversation, we were allowed to go to another entrance where police cars were stacked up and barricades piled. We learned there’d been an unexpected demonstration and now we were finally allowed to enter. We were 25 minutes late for a meeting with the Attorney General!

But it wasn’t over. We entered a lobby with even more security. Much More. And a long line. We could be there a long time. I started to sweat when my phone rang. Help was on the way. The AG’s staffer magically appeared and we were whisked through all the security barriers, up the elevator and down long, impressive corridors in the million square feet of space. Finally we reached a lovely conference room with a table beautifully set for tea. We were a long way from prison.

Eight faces turned to greet us. Very late, very embarrassed. But Mrs. Lynch is not only brilliant and accomplished, she is charming and gracious and made us feel right at home in this incredible space where other brilliant people have IMG_3924gathered and history has been made. Besides her staff, there were two other SOTU guests, Mark Luttrell, Mayor of Shelby County, Tennessee, and Kathleen O’Toole, Police Chief, Seattle, Washington. Mayor Luttrell has a long history in criminal justice reform, including serving as a warden with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. And Chief O’Toole has been recognized for her innovative approach to community policing focused on transparency. The conversation centered on innovation and how to solve the enormous problems both communities and inmates face upon reentry. Dianne was able to tell Mrs. Lynch about Gina and how incarceration impacts families for years afterwards.

Because of our lateness, Chief O’Toole and Mayor Luttrell had to leave, but Mrs. Lynch and her staff stayed to hear our stories and Gina’s Team’s idea for IMG_3936reentry, a market driven, public/private sector program to involve the entire community. She also gave us a tour of her offices, built during the recession when they had access to incredible artists, sculptors and craftsmen who created an incredible space to represent justice in our country. I wish it was always balanced and fair but I know it’s not. And it’s a far cry from the way prisons look. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be there and impressed by the team I met. I’ve sat at many conference meetings IMG_3939where all the attendees from the CEO down were men except me. This was the first time that of the ten people at the table, only two were men, and that included Mayor Luttrell who was a guest. The energy felt different to me, more open, more aware, more hopeful, more compassionate.

Now we had a choice. Arizona Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema is on our Leadership Council and has supported our work since we started. She invited us to a reception to meet Vice President Joe Biden whom I would love to meet. I hate to miss anything but not this time. I was still queasy and I knew I needed my energy for later. We only had about two hours before we met the car downstairs so we skipped it. I hated that. Bless Dianne for being sympathetic.

Finally we dressed; we checked each other out; it was time to go. White House, here we come…IMG_3982

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Did I mention it was a frantic week? The normal meetings that begin a new year were coupled with those daily logistical calls from ID Unknown. Now I looked forward to them.  I admit, it was fun to say, “I’ve got to take this; it’s the White House.” They wanted a bio and a headshot. Sure I can do a bio for the WH. I’m a writer. Full disclosure, waste of time. They took mine and then wrote one that was infinitely better.

I also got calls from  Wanda, a very professional and understanding woman with another government agency, about travel arrangements. It’s a five hour flight to Washington from Phoenix plus the time difference. Dianne and I  would leave on Monday morning and return to Phoenix Wednesday night. They would arrange hotel, transfers, etc. And to answer your question, no, we did not travel first class.

Then there were things like getting my twenty five year old winter coat cleaned. Not much need for coats in Phoenix so it’s in really good shape. It’s freezing in DC so time to get it out. Then just to complicate things, I was nauseated all week with occasional vomiting. You know how it is when you throw up and then feel better? I never felt better, so I just chalked it off to nerves. But why? I’d served seven years in prison. Why would I be nervous about the WH? All this nausea was annoying. I wanted to enjoy this, not feel sick.

When the WH made the official announcement on Saturday, (First Lady’s guest at SOTU) the phone started ringing and my email jumped exponentially. The WH had warned me that this would be fifteen minutes of fame and to be prepared, not only for the media requests and congratulatory wishes but the negative, “Who do you think you are?” comments. Ex-prisoners get a lot of that.

First there was the WH exclusive with BuzzFeed.  Then I did some local interviews, trying to look fresh and excited (which I was) while trying not to look sick and nauseous (which I also was). The AZ Republic made me sound and look excited without the nausea. AZ Central Story And Channel 12, the local NBC affiliate did a twenty-five minute interview that was edited down to about sixty seconds. (That’s quite a talent.)

Finally it was time to pack and try to sleep. I hadn’t slept all week so why start now? The only time I’m actually good with a list is when I travel so I kept checking things off and when it was time to leave for the airport I was actually ready.

Dianne and I flew out on Monday morning and the excitement started at the airport. As we were checking in, I noticed a group of our Arizona Republican legislators standing together waiting for the flight. I told Dianne we should go over and introduce ourselves. After all, we were all going to the same place, sort of.

Hi, I’m Sue Ellen Allen and I’m … before I could finish, Congressman Matt Salmon piped in. “I recognize you from the paper. You’re going to SOTU.” He added that he was good friends with Judge Cecil Ash who has been a strong supporter of Gina’s Team since the beginning. It was a nice start to our journey.

IMG_3892

Dianne and I took the requisite selfie and posted it on FB. I can’t remember posting anything else that week; it’s a blur. Full disclosure, it takes me about 8 minutes to write a Tweet because I was an English major and I loath bad punctuation. I just cannot write R for ARE. Likewise I’m always editing my FB posts for spelling and punctuation. Instagram would not be instant with me.

In DC, we were met at the airport as promised and taken to the Sofitel, attractive, French, close to the WH, lovely room with a view and great French food. We went down for dinner our first night but I was still nauseous so I chose a very simple crepe. It was delicious but didn’t sit well on my stomach and when we went upstairs, I made it to the bathroom just in time. I love French food; this is worrisome. What is wrong with me?

The next morning I was still queasy so we decided to have room service. Oatmeal sounded best  and I think along with the oatmeal I ingested a lot of adrenalin because that kept me going all day.

The WH is big on logistics. I got a schedule for everything. First, a meeting with my press representative from the White House press office. An interview with AP and NBC on the WH lawn. Later, a meeting with the Attorney General, Loretta Lynch. (But I’m an ex-felon.) The next day, a meeting with Senior Presidential Advisor Valerie Jarrett’s team. I got a color coded map and directions and somehow still managed to be late. I HATE TO BE LATE. But even in DC, taxi cab drivers aren’t used to passengers telling them to take them to the east gate of the WH. And you can’t just drive up there. You have to be dropped off at strategic locations and walk. And yes, it was freezing.

After gasping our way across Lafayette Square in the bone-chilling wind, Dianne and I arrived at the WH press gate late. One doesn’t just waltz in to the WH. There are several layers of security to pass, all manned by serious looking and very attractive young men in fantastic shape. I wouldn’t want to cross them. Finally we walked up the WH driveway past a row of green awning press sections where the media hangs out. They call it Pebble Beach. Inside, the waiting room for the press office is appropriately decorated in 19th century American motif and has another attractive young man to check us. This was coupled with serious looking Marines, there especially because the President was in residence that day.

Each of the twenty-three guests invited to sit in the First Lady’s box had been assigned a press IMG_3916representative. I was most fortunate to have Hannah, another very attractive woman who looked young but had incredible media experience. (Why are they all so young and good looking? Probably because I’m seventy! Everybody’s young and attractive.) Hannah took me out to “Pebble Beach” for a quick interview with a very nice man from Associated Press and then another with a lovely woman from NBC. It was all a blur and I haven’t a clue what I actually said. Hannah didn’t seem to think I’d disgraced myself.

As I was waiting for camera set up, Rachel Maddow IMG_3910walked by from MSNBC. Oh my goodness. I’m a huge fan and my late husband David adored her. He never missed a show. So instead of saying something intelligent to her, I gushed over what a big fan David was. She reminded me that she was a big proponent of criminal justice reform and had a background in the issue. It was my entrée to a longer conversation but I was star struck. Rachel, if you read this, can we have coffee and talk about prison? …

Stay tuned for Part 3

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Part 1:
NEVER would I expect to say that; NOT a passing thought on my list of goals. But Sunday night, January 3rd at 7:33 my phone rang. ID unknown. I ignored it. They called again. Then again and left a message. “Ms. Allen, this is  XYZ at the White House calling. My number is blahblahblah. Would you please call me back at your earliest convenience?” Of course, like the movies, my first, second and third thoughts were, it’s a joke. So I Googled the White House and called the operator. After I identified myself, I asked her if this person and number indeed belonged to the White House, or the WH as they refer to it. “Yes, that is one of our staffers.” Oh my goodness. OH MY GOODNESS. I guess I’d better call back.

This nice young man (everyone is young to me) Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.01.26 AMfirst thanked me for my prison work. Nice, I thought, but get on with it. Why are you calling me? “I’m calling to invite you to be a guest of the First Lady in her box at the State of The Union address on January 12th.”

Yes, my entire life flashed before me. “Seriously? SERIOUSLY” He laughed, assuring me he was quite serious. “But you know I’m an ex-felon?” Again, he assured me they knew all about me. Yes, I guess they do.

He was actually politely waiting for me to accept and bring a guest, all at the WH’s expense. Yes, YES of course I’ll come and I’ll invite Gina’s mother Dianne as my Plus 1. We had a nice chat about our work at Gina’s Team and what President Obama would like to accomplish in criminal justice in his last year in office. He told me I was sworn to secrecy until the WH announced the list of guests. No Facebooking, Tweeting, etc. I agreed and then I calmly told him I had to go because Downton Abbey was starting and I couldn’t miss it. (Good grief, who hangs up on the WH?)  He assured me he was also a fan and hated to miss it but he had more calls to make. The best part of his job was making these calls.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.06.08 AMI then calmly proceeded to watch the first episode of Downton  and then I called Dianne to invite her. After she stopped stammering, she proceeded to give me all the reasons why she couldn’t come with me. Hates to travel; nothing to wear; has a root canal scheduled for Monday and a mammogram on Tuesday; and of course, nothing to wear.

“Gosh, Dianne, let me see: White House – Root canal; White House – Mammogram. Which one sounds better?!  Are you kidding me???

Sheepishly she said she’d love to go with me and we started to giggle. It was going to be a great trip.

I spent the week ransacking my closet. What to wear to the WH and SOTU? I researched the previous SOTU pictures of the First Lady’s box and I got some history. This tradition actually started with Ronald Regan and has gained prominence as the media got hungrier. There are plenty of pictures of the guests. Mostly they are dressed in black, with the first ladies in some lovely color. OK, so I need to find color in my closet. Black slacks, of course. It’s cold in DC and I’m not dealing with a skirt. I started pulling jackets out. That’s pretty much my wardrobe, black slacks and colorful jackets, all designer labels from thrift stores. I try to keep the price tag under $15.

After lots of trying on, I settled on a turquoise silk Kasper jacket with black lapels. Yes, from a thrift shop. I thought the color was good and I planned to wear a special pin that would look good on that lapel.

Almost twenty-five years ago when I had a fashion jewelry company named for me, we were commissioned by the Congressional Club to designIMG_4169 a pin for First Lady Barbara Bush to commemorate A Thousand Points of Light, celebrating volunteerism in America. We were invited to Washington where we had a VIP tour of the White House; then we were special guests at the Congressional Club annual VIP luncheon honoring Mrs. Bush where she was presented with the pin I designed. Additionally, every guest received a smaller version to remember the day.

In a story as long and complicated as my life’s journey, a year later  we lost our company in a hostile take over, were indicted for securities fraud and my road turned into Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, where this story begins. I had gone from the White House to prison where I met Gina and so many others.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.23.51 AMI served seven years, the longest and darkest of my life. On March 18, 2009 I walked freely back into the world, blessed to have the support of generous friends. My vision was Gina’s Team, an organization that would help the women I left behind and all the other women in prisons everywhere.  Gina’s parents and I co-founded it; started with nothing and built a prison program to remarkable success teaching leadership based on the ATHENA Leadership Model.

But honestly, we were also working on air and adrenalin. Prison work isn’t a popular cause so donations are always a challenge. I worked without salary and we had a devoted staffer who worked part time for minimum wage. We had enough work for a team of people and juggled as fast as we could. We were looking for ways to expand but couldn’t see how.  And then the White House called…

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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.

 

 

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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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Pale Pink Ribbon 2It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world of pink –  ribbons, t-shirts, give aways and things to buy. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease. We hear stories of women who have taken the journey, but there is one population we never mention, women with breast cancer behind bars.

Can you imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles? Hard, cold steel that does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. And the weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict but they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours, but your blisters are yours alone.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are bustling with guards dragging chains while inmates stand restlessly against the cinderblock walls. Dirty cream walls, faded black and white stripes, clanging, clashing cuffs and shackles. All that plus the commotion of fifty female inmates and ten khaki clad jail guards prepping us for the trip to court.

I’m not going to court; I’m going the the hospital to have my breast cut off. It’s time. I’ve had the poison. Now it’s the slashing. Then it’s the burning. Poison, slash, burn. That’s what they call chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation. Poison, slash, burn.

I’ve been cuffed and shackled since two AM. I’m exhausted and freezing. The old morgue where they keep us for several hours is like an ice rink. Despite the cold, there are those tiny little roaches everywhere. They add to the despair.

Finally, when everyone else has been called to court and I am alone with my fears, I hear my name, “ALLEN. MOVE IT OUT! Followed by armed guards, I shuffle out to the jail van, jangling as I shuffle. The backs of those vans are cages, not designed for safety. There is a metal bench, but no seat belts, so I lurch each time we turn a corner. I cannot balance myself because of the cuffs and shackles and sometimes I crash to the floor. I’m bruised and shaken to my core.

Finally we arrive at the hospital. I shuffle into another holding cell and wait several more hours, still alone and very afraid. I’m crushed with a feeling of shame that I’m now much less than human. Four hours later I’m escorted to the OR. There the cuffs are removed, a gown is thrown at me and eventually I’m lead to the operating table.  Still shackled, I climb upon the table and they begin the very painful search for my very small veins. At last, as I begin to go under, the shackles come off. The guards will stay in the corner to watch as my breast comes off.

Five hours later I wake up in the jail ward, bandaged and sore but alive and still alone. On this particular journey, no one touches me except the surgeons with their knives and the nurses with their needles. I ask for a pastor or a priest, someone to pray with me, but no one comes.

When I finally return to the jail, the women surround me with love. At the darkest time in my life, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the thieves looked after me and I will NEVER FORGET THEM. It is nineteen days before the medical department sees me to clean up my incision, take out the stitches and see if I’m healing.

This is the way all women experience breast cancer in prison. There is no comfort or solace. They go alone, they suffer alone, they return to their prison alone. Some might think that they deserve it, but I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of horrific treatment. It is devastating and demeaning to all of us as human beings.

It’s a dreadful journey inside or out, but there are many ways to take it. It’s one thing for Robin Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon or Sheryl Crow to face cancer. They have the very best doctors, loving family and friends to surround them, and the entire world to care. They are deemed heroes by the press.

I wonder how they would handle the isolation and the incredibly hostile indifference that inmates face.  The lack of information, attention and care. I’m lucky. I have been both a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is a world of difference. I was diagnosed before I went inside. I’d already had six sessions of chemo. I went inside with a bald head, my medical records and a high profile identity. I think that’s the reason I got treatment. Gina, my young cellmate, didn’t have that advantage and she died a painful death, not of breast cancer but of myeloid leukemia. There are many, many others who have died of cancer and medical neglect. They fought so bravely though pain, fear, neglect, hostility, exhaustion and isolation.

Ask yourself how you would handle this kind of journey? These women are mothers, wives, and daughters, many in prison for addiction or low level drug crimes.When they should be healing, they are worn out fighting for treatment, constantly reminded that nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.

In 2013, 296,980 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly 40,000 died of it. Everyone who battles this disease is a hero. It is harder than you can ever imagine. I am free now and miraculously still alive, but there are thousands I’ve left behind in jails and prisons all over the world, alone and afraid with their cancer.

Everyone deserves a prayer, but please send a special one to all those invisible women who face this journey alone. No one should be alone with cancer.

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 The Slumber Party From Hell

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Chapter 11

The Birthday Party

July 04. The 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 have painstakingly drawn twenty bingo cards with grids (recreated below) 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 descriptions should be tailored to your guest list.

I am 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 have 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 while I hold my breath. Suddenly, almost 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 good, but 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. She cut them 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 pretty 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 texture (Keep them in the bag and use a water bottle). Using the bag as your mixing bowl, add three packages of squeeze cheese, milk and jalapeño juice to taste. Consistency should be creamy. Serve in a bowl with tortillas or crackers. Don’t ask about the calories.

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 of inmates actually have two bowls, but the second one is contraband and on quarterly “shakes”, the Correctional Officers routinely throw it away. So then everyone buys a new one for twenty-five cents. 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 chocolate cake made with candy bars. I made chocolate mint truffles, lots of work, but 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 and 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 is intense, but they really 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.

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 very special 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. I am thankful.

As the sky turns all the gorgeous sunset hues of the Arizona desert (despite the razor wire fences, we can still see the sky), the party talk mellows to past birthdays in prison and out. Melissa turned 28 years old; Candace is 40 and I hit 59. The hardest milestone is Candace’s. Turning 40 in prison is not exactly reason to celebrate. She is due for release in three weeks and fears starting over with nothing. But I knew 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. Because 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, faith and David. I know I will not be under a bridge.

It is a wonderful day to celebrate and practice the little niceties of life. We are isolated in such an ugly place, but we used our creative energy to produce a pretty party to share with our friends. It’s the closest thing to normal possible behind the razor wire. It lifted our spirits and brought laughter into our lives. No matter where you are or what your circumstance, remember that you are a creative spirit with much to contribute and share. Sharing that creativity and joy will give meaning to your life…inside or out.

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BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Recipes that are Actually Delicious and Completely BAD for You

 Sour Cream & Onion Chicken

2 Bowls (small plastic ones, the only ones we are allowed)

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

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

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

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

Repeat with the 2nd pouch.

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.

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.)

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

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

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.

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).

Mix brownies in a bowl to a consistency of fudge.

Mix Dunkin Sticks to a doughy texture in another bowl.

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

Add cocoa to taste.

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.

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.)

 

GET ACQUAINTED BINGO

 

 

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Children's message

Children’s message

The United Universalist Church in Surprise is a very warm and open congregation with a strong social conscious. They just spent the month of January focused on the prison issue including the cost and conditions of prison. After they read my book , The Slumber Party From Hell, they honored me by inviting me to speak recently. Besides the sermon, I gave the message to the children. Now that’s a real challenge. How to talk to children about prison?  Sesame Street has the answer.  http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration

You may not know one in twenty eight children has a parent in prison so I felt this message was important. This is what I said:

“Any one here like Sesame Street? Recently Sesame Street got a new character to go with Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Elmo. That’s pretty exciting for Sesame Street. 

And it’s a pretty interesting character. His name is Alex. He has an orange face,  green nose and  really fantastic blue hair. He also feels sad and lonely and he doesn’t like to talk about why. 

Alex on Sesame Street

Alex on Sesame Street

Why is Alex sad and lonely? He’s sad because the other muppets want to do something with their dads and he can’t. His Dad isn’t there. When his friends ask where he is, he said he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it because his dad is in prison. 

Then one of the human friends says she understands because when she was little, her father was in prison too. That really surprised him. He was relieved to hear someone else had the same experience. It made him feel less strange and alone.

Prison can be pretty scary to children. Do you think you might know someone who has a parent in prison? I’m asking because 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is a lot. So it’s possible there are some kids in your class who may feel sad because they have a mom or dad in prison. That’s hard. It’s a huge challenge for a kid. 

When you have a challenge and feel sad, you might feel like you’re all alone and no one understands. That’s hard too.  

So what can you do? Can you do anything? Yes, you can. You can be sympathetic. It’s a pretty big word but I’m  sure you understand it. If you see someone feeling sad and lonely, you can be sympathetic. You can understand. You can be nice to them. Don’t tease them. Don’t be mean. Be nice. 

At Gina’s Team, we have an important message, so important we put it on a bracelet. 

Been there. Done that. Now how can I help?  Helping others is really an important message and that’s what Jesus was talking about in the reading today  (Matt 25: 34-40). I’m going to give each of you a bracelet to remind you that YOU can help. Not just about the prison thing but about anything. YOU can help by being kind to people who are sad and feel lonely.

I promise, it won’t only make them feel better; it will make you feel better too.”

Remember that startling statistic?  One in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is so huge that Sesame Street felt it was important to  add Alex to this characters. However, it’s still controversial so Alex is not on the actual show; he is on the website at the link I’ve provided above. On that site, there are games and stories for children,  for the parent who is free and for care-givers like grandparents. Perhaps you are one of those parents or children. If so, you aren’t on an easy journey.  I personally know many of the women who are serving time. They miss their children dreadfully. If you are amongst that group of children or care-givers, I urge you to visit the website where I hope you will find some support  there.

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We just came back from a free movie celebrating Earth Day. The film we saw was Tapped about the global threat to our drinking water. Consider that we pay more per gallon for bottled water than gasoline and no one complains. Most of the water is just local tap water that has been filtered. Bottled water is now an $8 billion business. Wow. I urge you to take advantage of Free Movies celebrating Earth Day at Harkins 7, Scottsdale Fashion Square, Saturday and Sunday. There are plenty of seats. Take a friend or two. For more info, go to
http://www.planet-magic.org

Saturday (4/21) 6 pm If A Tree Falls.

7:30 pm: The End of The Line.

Sunday (4/22) 4 pm:  The Cove.

5:40 pm:  Food, Inc.

7:20 pm:  Sharkwater.

Just go to table in front of the movie and get free tickets. The movies are incredibly inspiring, very educational and there are no strings.
Then if you’re still curious, check out http://www.polarisinstitute.org

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