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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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My mother instilled in me a love of books and writing when I was tiny. Mother said reading was the key to unlock a world of opportunities, dreams and imagination. My friend Isadora feels as I do. For nearly three years she has tirelessly trekked to Perryville prison for Gina’s Team to teach creative writing in eight week sessions.  She is making a tremendous difference in the lives of these women and we are incredibly grateful that she joined our  Team.

Here is the link to her most recent blog about her latest class. It is a powerful and compelling emotion to see the changes in these women.  You are giving them tools for life as well as hope. Thanks, Isadora.

Strong Women Blog
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New Year’s Eve has a special meaning for me and I even managed to make it special in prison. This is an excerpt from my book, The Slumber Party from Hell about that time.

December 31, 2004. For 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 a tradition. I always decorated with colorful New Year’s paraphernalia, setting the table with our best and adding noisemakers and silly hats, crystal bowls full of streamers and confetti, and bright balloons tied to the backs of our chairs. We even followed 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 then 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. They 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.

 Imagine, midnight in Rio, everyone dressed in flowing white, enjoying the warm summer breeze, carrying their boats, humble or lavish, filled with colorful flowers and candy. It just seemed joyful to me. 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 another 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 assured David that 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 my four young friends to meet at the picnic table at 6:30 and bring pen and paper. Stacy thoughtfully makes hot cocoa for us. It is very cold, but 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 by their smiles that I have 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 is 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 am pleased and a little relieved. I was afraid they might think this was corny, but, on the contrary, they embrace it seriously. It is a good time to set their goals. I’m pleased that they want to share. We go around the table, listening and encouraging each other. And 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 is late and we are 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 is water and surely one flush will eventually make it to the sea. Laughingly, we agree this is a great idea. Yes, it is prison, it is ugly, it is 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’ll do so again tonight and are grateful for life, health, friends, and freedom.

Some of you who have read my book tell me that you are now copying the tradition. 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 2011.

Happy New Year.

The Slumber Party from Hell is available from www.amazon.com and www.inkwellproductions.com

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December 3rd was an unforgettable day for GINA’s Team and, thankfully, I was there to share it. It was very soon after surgery, but the doctor said it would be good for me to go and she was absolutely right. 

It was the day of our Christmas program at Mingus Mountain Academy. Gina’s Aunt Linda works for State Farm Insurance and sent out an email request to all the employees. Would you be willing to donate one stuffed animal to the girls at Mingus? We need 110. A resounding YES was heard and a parade of animals started marching. Soon her bedroom was a stuffed zoo and she had made more than her quota. 

At the same time, we’d been working on the library for Mingus. This was the day to bring the first of the books up to the school. I want to send a special thanks to Tyson Adams and Leah Heathcoat from GINA’s Team.  Tyson headed up the book drive and drive is the right word. This young man spent hours driving around collecting books from all of you who so generously donated. Leah acted as back up and found storage for so many books thanks to the generosity of the Grigio Tempe Town Lakes.

Finally, we teamed up with Coleen Fitzpatrick and the amazing group from The Raven Organic Café in Prescott. Coleen put out the word and the Raven became the drop off point for book donations there. Then she got her friend Geraldine Thomas, owner of Grama’s Bakery, to donate an enormous amount of delicious cookies for the girls. We definitely felt like Santa’s elves.

The program started with carols. After the carols, the room grew silent. Gina’s daughter, Mariah, had joined us for the day and agreed to speak to the girls. Just 15, Mariah is the age Gina was when she started on her journey, and the age of many of the girls at Mingus.  Mariah spoke passionately about how Gina’s decisions have affected her life and the lives of her brothers and sister. Her simple honesty touched their hearts. This is our purpose, to help girls realize that they have the power to change the direction of their lives and make new decisions, decisions that can keep them safe, out of prison, and on a new path. We are so proud of Mariah, her leadership abilities and her straight A’s in school. She is definitely on the right path.

We then showed them the mountain of books. Can we have them now, now, now???  No, unfortunately, they have to be catalogued, but soon, soon, soon. Their excitement was contagious. We know more books are coming, the mountain will grow and lives will be impacted. Books are powerful. 

Finally, we started the distribution of the animals, worked out by a very scientific numbering system designed by Aunt Linda and Gina’s mom, Diane. There were so many, all different. What if you got a bunny and you wanted a bear? Linda and Diane had figured that out too and at the end, there was even a swap so everyone left with just the right new stuffed friend. 

OK, so that’s nice. Books, cookies and stuffed animals. But here is the kicker. Afterwards, the girls swarmed around us, from the youngest to the oldest, tough and fragile, black, white and brown. They all had the same message. Yes, they were excited and grateful, but here is the statement that stopped us in our tracks, “Never in my life have I had my very own stuffed animal.” Read that again. “Never in my life have I had my very own stuffed animal.” 

Remember in high school when you had to find a place on your bed to sleep with all the animals piled up? Remember the ones that were particularly special, even when you were all grown up? When you felt completely alone, with no one to trust, that stuffed bear or bunny or puppy was  your best friend. 

I told the interns I thought that one sentence was powerful enough to write an entire master’s thesis. The social, economic, cultural and racial implications are enormous. And imagine there are only 110 girls at Mingus. There are thousands, millions of girls (and boys) around the world without that one stuffed friend. Christmas is over, but if you have a collection of stuffed animals you’ve been wondering what to do with, there are places all over the country that will be glad to give those animals a new and beloved home. If you aren’t sure, let me know. I’ll find a place, no matter where you are. The need doesn’t stop in December and that gift just might change a life. You never know. 

If you have a story about your favorite stuffed friend, I’d love to hear it. I have a new favorite. At Mingus, Gina’s family gave me an early Christmas gift. They gave me Molly, a darling stuffed Cocker Spaniel who was Gina’s favorite. Molly now has a place of honor in our home and my heart.  I live in gratitude.

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When I was released from prison, I told everyone where I’d been. “Hi, I’m Sue Ellen Allen and I just got out of prison.” I got the most interesting looks, frozen smiles and raised eyebrows.  Lots of speechless smiling and nodding. No one knew what to say and neither did I. What do you say to someone who’s just gotten out of prison? I had no idea. 

One day in my third week of freedom, I was pumping gas at Circle K downtown. Money was tight and I was counting my pennies. A man off the street approached and asked if I had any spare change. Apologetically I said, “I just got out of prison and…” before I could finish, he threw up his hands, smiled broadly and said, “Lady, congratulations. Welcome home.” 

 The man on the street taught me what to say. He said what no one had said to me in three weeks. “ Welcome home.”

 On Friday, October 1, my publisher, Nick Ligidakis of Inkwell Productions, held a book launch for me to introduce my new book, The Slumber Party from Hell, a true story of turning pain in to power. I was thrilled and humbled when over a hundred people, old and new friends, came to say “Welcome Home.”

The fabulous White House in Scottsdale is the perfect venue for a party. Owned by the lovely and brilliant Mary Lou Waldburger, her elegant club was just the right setting for the cross section of people I love. We had legislators, lawyers and activists, socialites and students, professors and speakers and other writers, entrepreneurs and ex-prisoners. One of my friends from CASS even made his way down on public transportation and I was very grateful. Just imagine, eighteen months ago I was in prison. This is a perfect example of never giving up. You have no idea where God will lead you.

Although the party was for me, my thrill was listening to my beloved friend Renée Morgan Brooks sing my favorite song from Wicked, “Because I Knew You.” If you have never heard Renée sing, please go to this link and listen to the BEST rendition of the Little Drummer Boy that you will EVER here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHEAtVMmuss&feature=related  Right here, I have to confess that this is not my favorite Christmas song. Too much barumpapapuming for my taste. Except that Renée takes you into the stable and lets you feel what it was like that night so long ago. If you are not moved to tears, you must be related to Scrooge. Go ahead. Costco has the Christmas ornaments out. It must be time to hear a Christmas song.

 Back to the party. To summarize, I felt like a movie star and princess rolled into one. It was a wonderful reward for surviving the long challenging journey through prison.  The book is the visible manifestation of my dream to inspire a conversation about who and how we incarcerate and how much it is costing us in money, family, children and our very spirits. Besides that, all my proceeds go to pay restitution. For many reasons, I hope it sells zillions. I can’t repay that money any other way.

And what does a movie star/princesses do after such an event? She goes home and helps her husband take out the trash. Life has a way of keeping us balanced. After we took out the trash, we sat and thought about those we have left behind in prisons all over the world. If you know someone released from prison, welcome them home. With 2.3 million people behind bars in the U.S., there are more and more opportunities. Arizona releases 20,000 inmates every year from a population of 40,000. Problem is, they intake 22,000 to replace them. Every one of them has a story and a hope for a better future. My message to them and anyone reading my book is never, never give up your hope. Anything is possible. Look at me.

What’s your story? What’s your hope? I’d love to hear your comments.

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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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