Alicia was my first.
Four years ago, unsure of anything having to do with prison, I reached out to Alicia, who had been incarcerated for a few years at that point, since her early 20s. She was my first pen pal, and opened me to a friendship I never expected and, eventually, a book I never knew I'd write.
She turns 30 in two weeks and will receive a parole decision around the same time. She has been denied parole several times, but she's finally been moved to a work-release prison, so we're praying this time is finally THE time.
Along the way, I've shared my journey with Alicia with my mom. While my mom rarely talks about it, she has taken up the mantle, too, and sent "motherly love," as she often writes, to several of my pen pals, which she has taken on as her own.
One of those pen pals is Alicia, who my mom has been quietly writing to for years.
My mom finds peace in her garden. It is where she lets go of any tension from the day and feels at home, rooted in the earth. Years ago, she shared this with Alicia, who said she also loves to garden and misses it. Since then, my mom has had a handmade plaque hanging above one of her gardens. It says, "Alicia's Garden."
So I wanted to share a recent card Alicia sent my mom, to celebrate both of them and the way my mom, with her gentle and unconditional love, has nourished others more than she knows.
Inside a card that says, "Friendships are like flowers whose seeds develop and grow," Alicia wrote,
"This card is perfect for you. As you spend time in your garden know that I'm spiritually with you. I hope you're enjoying your summer and watching your garden blossom. You have been amazing to me and I appreciate all your love, motivation, and motherly love."
"With love and great energy, Alicia."
I don’t speak about Christine often, but she is one of my pen pals who is in prison in Texas. After two of her children died in a house fire, she lost her grounding. She didn’t know who or how to be without them. She struggled with her mental wellbeing and addiction. This led to her crime.
I cannot imagine her experience and don’t pretend to know how it feels. She writes me from time to time. Her writing is not fluid and expressive like Mikey’s or ripe with intelligent social and political commentary like Taj’s. But she writes, so I answer. I tell her little things about my days and she tells me about hers. She calls me “sweetie” when she writes to me, draws in little hearts in the margins, and sends me “hugs” at the end.
I told her friend Lacey that I opened the Bible recently—out of curiosity more than anything; I wanted to know what I didn’t know. Would there be revelations? Lacey apparently shared this with Christine (the two met in the “faith-based dorm”), and Christine wrote back to me “elated.” “You are a bright, insightful young woman,” she wrote to me. “You have a platform and connections. You have an audience…So, I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to send you these articles…Truths about God’s word.”
“I know you are not gay,” she went on, “that’s not why I’m sending these to you. But this new ‘anything goes’ society scares the crap out of me.” She was referring to people who identify as gay or transgender. “I have dozens of gay friends whom I love dearly,” she went on, a sentiment echoed in one of the articles she sent: Cissie Graham Lynch claims to “love” people in the LGBTQ community with her “whole heart,” but wrote about their sin and the urgency of convincing young people that homosexuality is wrong. “Only 24% of churched Generation Z Christians, aged 13-18, believe that homosexuality is wrong," she wrote. "If we’re not careful, by the next generation no one will think it’s wrong.” God forbid.
I was thinking about Christine’s feelings, her words, and I know I must have mercy. If I choose to respond, I must respond kindly but clearly.
Still, I struggle with it, with how she of all people can speak so mercilessly of others’ sins. I don’t understand how a woman in prison, who is so dependent on the forgiveness and acceptance of others—future employers, loan officers, neighbors, her children—can speak so fervently against accepting people with a different sexual orientation. She sent me an article by Franklin Graham that argues that allowing individuals who are transgender to use public bathrooms according to their self-identified gender is a threat to the “safety of our women and children.” Again, this is coming from a woman who is in prison, whose own behavior has—rightly or wrongly—led her to be deemed a threat to the safety of our women and children.
Graham quotes First Corinthians 6:9-11: “Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites…will inherit the kingdom of God.”
If that is the kingdom of God, I don’t want it.
If I were to imagine my own queendom, it would celebrate Love, including self-love—be who you are. Love who you love. That is the only world I want to inherit.
I’ve shared this because the Graham articles were upsetting to me, made my stomach turn. But, also, because I want to express the truth of the experience of writing to people in prison. There are lots of people I care about inside—intelligent, articulate, compassionate, talented people. People who make me laugh. I share their writings liberally. But writing to people in prison is like making connections on the outside, too—not everyone shares the same beliefs, of course. Not everyone is a gifted communicator; we all have our own talents—so many inside have talents I don’t possess. Not everyone is a perfect fit as a friend. Not all the letters I answer (because, still, I answer many) are easy for me, or are the ones I rip open with pleasure and anticipation.
Still, people who are incarcerated are people. Who deserve an opportunity to heal. Who deserve resources and supports. Who deserve forgiveness. Who deserve not to be punished beyond whatever sentence the judge ordered. Who deserve Love, including self-love.
Love is love is love. Spread it to all people.
Martin and I had our first “book club” experience. I chose If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, and mailed a copy for him to his prison mailroom. (For myself, I got the book from my local library.)
When we both finished reading, I shared first.
“I’m trying to put my finger on what made me feel disconnected as I read,” I wrote to him. Because I couldn’t find myself in the story—and I struggled with how distanced I felt. “I think we read to discover something new, and also to find ourselves,” I said.
The story was about Tish, an 18-year-old black girl in 1970s New York who found herself pregnant, only her boyfriend—a 22 year old black man—was just locked up for a crime he didn’t commit. I didn’t expect to find myself in the story, to feel precisely like the main character, but I was disheartened by how foreign reading her story felt to me. How disengaged I was, like I couldn’t latch on to any of it.
Maybe it was Baldwin’s writing style, I said. Or how passive it all felt.
I was thinking out loud. And then I added, “But maybe it's that the book felt sad, hanging.” Describing Tish’s family and her boyfriend’s family, I wrote, “Like the bottom had dropped out long ago and no one knew…Or, they did know, but what were they going to do? That was their lives. Maybe that's why I didn't like it.”
Because they desperately wanted to fight for this man—their son, brother, boyfriend—who was in jail, but it’s almost like they couldn’t. Or, at least, the way they had to fight was messy. Hard. They had to fight, squinting to see any hope.
I kept going: “Maybe I didn’t like it because I've been feeling lately, intensely, that I want to infuse power in my life. That I want to impose order, clarity, wealth, purpose. That I want to make it happen, as if I have those powers. I want to declare it and chase it and crawl after it till it's so. But my life is not Tish's. I have more access. I have more resources. It's as if I can deny lives like Tish's exist because it wouldn't happen to me. Because a white girl like me wouldn't have to worry about a wrongly convicted boyfriend. Because, even if I did, my family wouldn't have to run a side hustle to pay his bail.
“So I try to cling to my power, try to convince myself that I can climb out of where I am. But the devastating truth is I'm surrounded by people who cannot. All the people I write to who are in prison. They can't get up and leave. I just read a magazine composed almost entirely of submissions by teens in juvenile detention. One wrote a poem called ‘My Inheritance.’ It began: ‘I was raised around revolvers and cocaine sellers / I always had an uncle fresh out of jail.’ What do I do with that?” I pleaded. “What have we done so wrong that we're failing people, leaving them behind?”
I was almost devastated by how much I didn’t understand Tish’s family. And, even worse, by how much I didn’t like how her life made me feel—“foggy,” I wrote. Like life swept around them and they had no way to control it. Where was their agency? Reading it, I felt powerlessness.
And then I heard from Martin.
He acknowledged what I said, but then added, “For me, though, the overwhelming feeling that swept over me and kept reaffirming itself was pride.”
I paused. I had felt disconnection, sadness, anger, frustration—and he had felt pride. “The pride,” he said, “I felt in two families coming together to fight like hell to take care of one of their own.”
He went on, “I can understand why the lack of agency these people had may have frustrated you being that you possess a power and privilege they never will, yet you find yourself searching for even more of it. This is the plight and struggle for black folk in America, so the constant sinking feeling that kept them on the brink of despair, yet staving it off because life depended on it, was deeply resonant for me. It kept my attention because we shared that feeling; I’d lived with it for many years and occasionally have to fend it off still. You understand that no matter how hard you work in this country, how good a person you are, you don't independently control your destiny. Your future lies in the hands of that potential employer, loan officer, policeman or judge. And when you're black, you understand you need luck on your side far more than justice.”
Reading his words made me want to cry. I felt some kind of guilt for being so blind—and awe for seeing things through his eyes—revelatory, pertinent, truthful things I had completely missed. It was, oddly, beautiful. He had felt pride.
I had started this “book club” with Martin because I wanted to share my thoughts about the books I was reading. But, as usual, the blessing came in reverse: it was hearing him that moved me.
“I am ready for the next one when you are,” Martin told me. I’m ready, too.
Last weekend, I went to the New York City Ballet. Grace—or “Grandma Grace,” as she asked us to call her—sat next to us. “I’m 80 years old,” she told us. (She looked much younger.) “I’ve been coming to the ballet for years.”
“I love seeing young people come to the ballet,” she added. “I want to know: why did you come, what do you do?” My date answered that he works in finance. She gave a friendly but slightly displeased wave of her hand. I told her I’m a writer. “Ah, everyone loves a writer!” she said.
I wrote this to Mikey* this morning:
I’m going to start with your question about hope: how do we hold onto the flame of hope when all else would seek to blow it out?
About a week ago, I downloaded Bumble, a dating app. I did it both begrudgingly and with anticipation. Swipe Right for Yes, Left for No doesn’t seem to fit my vibe, but I was hopeful. Maybe there’s someone else out there looking for me?
I narrowed my search: men ages 27-36. In the New York City/Long Island area. I filtered them for political preference: “liberal” or “moderate,” but not “conservative.” And nixed anyone who was “looking for something casual.”
—13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution