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As we were escorted through the corridors and elevators by our security hosts, I expected us to get our coats and head back to our vans. Instead, we lined up in another long hall. I thought we were going to take a group photo. That would be nice. While we waited, I started to chat with those aroundScreen Shot 2016-04-08 at 11.34.12 PM me. (Imagine that hall lined with guests and men talking into their sleeves.)

Right next to  me was surely the most compelling and yet controversial guest in the box, Rafaai Hamo, PhD, a Syrian refugee. Dr. Hamo lost seven members of his family including his wife and a daughter in a bombing in Syria, creating a family of refugees. A two year journey of grave hardship brought Dr. Hamo, his son and three daughters to America in December to make a new home. http://mashable.com/2016/01/10/state-of-the-union-guest-humans-of-new-york-syrian-scientist/#1SHGi9wi4Gqt  He was a lovely and very kind man. I was honored to meet him.

With him was his translator and Brandon Stanton, the well-known creator of Humans of New York http://www.humansofnewyork.com. Brandon had done a national story on Dr. Hamo and was accompanying him on this very unexpected part of his journey. We chatted quite a while because Brandon was leaving later that night to drive all night to start visiting New York prisons and prisoners. Naturally, I was fascinated. His compelling words and photographs can be found all over the internet http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amos-irwin/what-humans-of-new-york-g_b_9253134.html

It seemed like we stood there about an hour.  Finally I said, “This is a long time to just take a group picture.” Everyone started laughing. “Is that what you think?”  Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We were waiting to meet the President and have a picture taken with him. Oh my goodness. Nobody told me that! It was definitely worth the wait.

The President had worked a very long day, prepared for and given a one hour speech and then met at least fifty people and smiled for photographs. And he was charming and looked great. What did I say to him? I thanked him for visiting a prison and told him how important that meeting was to those inside. I said I wished Mrs. Obama would visit a women’s prison too. He said visiting a prison had been an honor. My honor was representing all the women and men behind bars. Imagine, an ex-prisoner meeting the President of the United States. I never envisioned that in my prison cell!

It was late when we got back to the WH and our guests were waiting. Dianne gave me the straight skinny on watching the address in the First Family’s Theater. Those big red chairs were very cushy; they had popcorn and drinks; some people were just as messy as when they went to the movies at home. Yikes! Oh, and it was a totally bi-partisan group, some D’s and some R’s, so there was a lot of chat.

Then our pumpkin carriages, er, I mean our WH vans gathered us up and suddenly we were back at the Sofitel saying Good Night. It was the end of a magical adventure, but not the end of the story. . .

Sue Ellen and President Obama

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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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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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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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Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 11.48.40 AM On a day when the temperature has been about 112° for many days, put on your heaviest polyester pants and t-shirt, go out in your garage with a very small fan and spend the day.  Have lunch there, soup (yes, soup) and a baloney sandwich.  Sweep, mop and clean.  Watch a tiny T.V.  Read.  Try to nap on a plastic cot.  Eat a lukewarm dinner.  Spend the night.  This is Arizona prison in the summer.

Summer lasts nearly four months, 1440 minutes a day of sheer, unrelenting, blast furnace heat.  The small bit of grass on the field chokes and turns brown.  The few precious trees are gasping and pitiful.  Looking forlorn, the birds wander into the community showers to drink the stagnant water pooling on the hot concrete.

Prison yards are very spread out.  We walk everywhere, blocks and blocks between buildings.  No shade.  The offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but that’s it.  Evaporative coolers slog away to cool the cells and cafeterias.  They work until the temperature hits 90°.  After that, the cells become concrete coffins of heat.  There is no relief.

One summer, when the temperature had been 117° for days, there were nineteen heat related seizures in one morning, and there is more heat exhaustion than I can count.  It all ends up costing money in medical attention.  One way or another, the tax payer pays.

My first prison summer was horrific.  The previous director had retired the year before, leaving a final gift to the population.  He had every inmates’ fans removed.  In Arizona, that would be cruel under normal conditions, but I was going through radiation and my chest had third degree burns, blistered, raw, and bleeding. Christine, my partner in cancer treatment, was worse than I was.  We were both suffering from searing pain exacerbated by the heat.  Christine’s father actually called the prison, offering a couple of fans for medical use as a humanitarian gesture.  Request denied.

In the middle of June, Gina was so sick, the heat adding to her misery.  Finally, Gina’s excrutiating death opened some eyes.  We had a town meeting to vent our frustrations and the new director came.  Very little changed in Medical after that meeting, despite the promises.  However, the new director did approve fans.  It was August by then and the heat lay over the prison like a shroud.  We were elated over the new ruling, but it took nine months for prison officials  to source an acceptable clear plastic fan to sells us.  Thankfully, they materialized in April, just in time for the next summer’s heat.  The small plastic fan successfully pushes the hot air around, and if you keep your t-shirt damp, it feels almost cool.

The five summers I spent on Santa Cruz before moving to Piestewa were torture.  Each year, I passed out from the heat.  Once, an officer found me unconscious on the floor of my room.  Twice, I collapsed on the yard on the searing concrete, and once I was sweeping and I just fell out over the threshold.  See, besides the heat, the pill I take to keep the cancer at bay, causes hot flashes as a side effect.  Sitting in a concrete coffin of heat with hot flashes is a different kind of torture.

Let’s get back to your garage.  What can you do in your stifling garage to relieve the heat?  You can’t go to the fridge for an ice cold coke.  You can buy a ten-pound bag of ice for $2.24, about a day’s salary if you are lucky enough to make 30¢ an hour.  For another $1.35, you can buy a very small, thin Styrofoam cooler to keep the ice in.  The ice melts in a few hours, but meanwhile, you can have the luxury of  ice cold water. You can also wet down your shirt and head.  You can wear a wet washcloth around your neck.  You can fill an old hair spray bottle with water and spray yourself continuously, sort of like the misters at an outdoor café.  That’s pretty much it.  Even the showers are scalding.  Maintenance refuses to go to the ‘trouble’ of turning the hot water off in the summer.  No relief there.  No relief anywhere.

My friend Krissy was new to prison the summer the water and power went off.  The entire yard was locked down for three days.  No water, no showers, no flushing, no evaporator coolers in the 6’x11’ concrete coffin.  Staff delivered inmate meals with one eight-ounce styrofoam cup of water that was gratefully gulped.  Krissy tried to stay as still as possible, but she and her bunky poured sweat, constantly using their washcloths to wipe the sweat off.  She said she will never forget the feeling of desperation, locked in that suffocating cell, or the rancid stink of that washcloth.

What’s the purpose of prison? Punishment is higher on the list than rehabilitation and America’s prisons are designed to punish.  Many people think that inmates don’t deserve more than two or three cups of water a day and a rancid washcloth. What does that teach?  It certainly doesn’t teach a person to be kind or considerate.  It does, however, teach inmates that they are worthless, disposable human beings.

Before prison, I was a confident woman.  Prison ate away at my confidence and  I realized then just how much prison had affected me.  It is a daily Chinese water torture of denigration, and if I was affected so dramatically, imagine what it does to others lacking confidence.

In the end, it boils down to humanity.  Is this who we really are?  Are we a nation that prefers to punish in such draconian ways?  Are we really teaching people a lesson?  I learned that what we are doing is treating people so badly that they become bitter, angry and mean, completely unprepared for a life of civility and respect.

I learned other things in prison.  I learned that everyone wants love, but many in prison have never had it…from parents, friends or partners.  Prison is full of horror stories, but the worst was about the girl on my yard whose name I never knew, and she had a nickname too awful to repeat.  She had been abused by all the boys and men in her family and repeatedly raped by her father.  At twelve, she became pregnant with her father’s child and at thirteen, gave birth to her son who was also her brother.  She was never still, always acting out and frequently in trouble.  She was desperate for love and attention, but had to idea how to get it.  Of course, she was in prison.  The abusive men were free.

I also learned that Jesus, Jackie De Shannon, and John Lennon were right…all we need is love.  Of course, that’s simplistic and we have made it complicated.  We have become a nation of fear and anger.  We’d rather flex our muscles than flex our hearts.  Love seems to always have conditions.

We know what we need to do, we’re just not doing it.  Be kind.  Be considerate.  Be respectful.  Stop judging and being petty.  Open your hearts.  Think…Is this the best person I can be?  You know it’s true and you know it works…inside and out.  

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 The Slumber Party From Hell

Screen Shot 2014-07-06 at 10.36.35 AM

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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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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