Sparkling Shadows

We Quakers like to think things through. We use queries and testimonies to gently guide us, and we may use clearness committees to examine weighty decisions like marriage or a career change. After a few years of Quaker process, we may find certain phrases have taken up permanent residence in our brains.

So if, for example, one were tempted by a handsome Christmas catalogue from, specifically the pages displaying the ink (I am a sucker for color swatches), one might consider this avarice in the Light of query #5: “Do you practice simplicity in speech, dress, and manner of living, avoiding wasteful consumption? Are you watchful that your possessions do not rule you?”

Since I already own a bottle of black Monteverde Ink that I have been quite happy with and may last me the rest of my life, and I only have two pens with refillable cartridges, strictly speaking I am not in need of any more ink. So perhaps purchasing more is “wasteful consumption.”

However, after sleeping on it, I began to see that colored ink could do things black ink just couldn’t do in quite the same way.

Who wouldn’t welcome a letter penned in violet ink? And wouldn’t it be splendid to address envelopes with a calligraphy pen filled with glittery grey ink?  And wouldn’t grey ink work well under vellum in a collage.  And it was just two bottles of ink.

[Honesty compels me to reveal here that I already have an entire room of art, crafts and sewing supplies.]

So, yes, I gave in to temptation in spite of the queries. I ordered the ink.

When the package from Goldspot arrived it was larger than I had expected. Inside, each bottle of ink was presented in its own box and each box was individually cushioned in its own bundle of bubblewrap. One box was sparsely illustrated with scattered cryptic img_9158sketches. The other box was black splashed with gold and silver. Just owning such clever packaging made me clever, too, right? (Such are the dangers of consumer culture. We identify with the products that call to us.)

So I filled my pens and sat down to answer letters.

I had seven letters from inmates to answer.

Here you may be wondering something like this: How did this woman come to be exchanging letters with seven prison inmates?

The first is a high-school friend of my son’s.  He was my “gateway drug,” you might say. His letters showed me something of what it is to be locked away from normal human society, to live under arbitrary rules, to be constantly on watch and watched.  The worst was, he wasn’t even safe inside. I don’t remember giving much thought to prisons before he was sent to one, any more than any other common garden-variety  knee-jerk liberal. Visiting our young friend at these places — he didn’t change his ways just because he was behind bars so he kept getting into trouble and getting transferred to more and more “secure” institutions — was awful. The search prior to visitation could be humiliating, depending on which guard was on duty. The clang of the locked gate behind you — the walk between steel mesh walls topped with razor wire — the constant surveillance in the visiting room — all underscored your powerlessness here. And that was just a visitor’s experience!

Alongside our testimonies and queries, we Friends are guided by certain parts of the Bible (like every religion I know anything about, we also pick and choose which portions of our holy texts appeal to us — though unlike some, we constantly reexamine how the text speaks to us today).  This from Matthew 25 remains clear: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ‘Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 

I have my own physical challenges that severely limit my stamina and interfere with my ability to keep commitments. But letters? I can write letters, especially to someone willing to wait. And inmates? They are experts at waiting and any day a letter arrives is a good day. A letter is a kind of visit and it’s my small offering against the pain of the world.

So I did an on-line search for other inmates who write letters. That’s how I connected with an inmate in Texas. She has since been paroled and writes about the challenges of re-entry. Another pen-pal is a lifer in Pennsylvania. In past years, I sent Christmas cards to inmates using pre-printed address labels from  Virginia-CURE. A few of those men wrote back and we began corresponding. Another inmate wrote a letter to our meeting asking for help finding a job and farm work upon parole. I passed his plea on to another member and now he writes to both of us. (But he hasn’t been satisfied with our help because he’s still locked up. He was counting on us to convince the governor to commute his sentence. In our defense, we have made efforts to bring his case to the governor’s attention.)

Letters from inmates can be hard to read and harder to answer.

There are still people who believe prison is like a country club and better than a retirement home: free food, free clothes, free housing, free medical care, free college and HBO. Why don’t we kick out those criminals and move Grandma into her own cell?  I have never seen “Orange is the New Black,” but surely the show has disabused viewers of this notion that inmates have a cushy life and are just mooching off law-abiding taxpayers.

Depending where a prisoner is housed, he or she may be required to buy their own uniforms, shoes, socks, underwear, jackets, hygiene needs, stamps, paper, etc.  And they can only buy from the prison commissary at inflated commissary prices.

One man writes: I definitely need a television here because we are locked down in our cell most of the day. My old television ceased working a few months ago. Would it be too much to ask if you can contribute some money towards the price of the television. It is exactly $214.

Private companies make money on every bag of potato chips and pair of cotton briefs sold and the state gets a kickback. In Virginia, JPay even makes a profit on every phone call, every email, every video chat (and some prisons no longer allow in-person visits) and every music download from or to state inmates.

The letter writer missing his TV? I transferred $25 into his account. JPay charged me an additional $5.95 for the privilege.

Some prisons allow inmates to have magazine subscriptions or new paperbacks mailed directly from approved vendors. I pay for a sports magazine for one friend and I asked another if he would like any particular book. Amazon assures me that a new, paperback copy of Roget’s Thesaurus is on its way to him.

Prisoners themselves do a lot of the work of the prison and sometimes work for private companies “outside.” Slavery is still legal for prisoners. They get paid pennies per hour and may be disciplined if they refuse a job. They may be rewarded for good behavior with a good job and can lose it for bad behavior.

There may be no jobs available so if an inmate doesn’t have anyone on the outside to send him money he has nothing to do and no money for “extras” (indigent inmates are provided bare minimums). They may be in solitary for 23 out of 24 hours, trying to stay sane. (Here’s a link to an article sent to me by one man “in the shoe”, the man wanting money to buy a TV.)

So one of the reasons it’s hard to answer letters from prisoners is that once they get to know you, they may ask for things. And the longer they are in prison, the less likely they will still have friends and family alive on the outside.

  • I have been incarcerated for almost 36 years . . .
  • When I came to prison in 1983 . . .
  • I just turned 30 years old. I am a man now but I have been locked up since I was 17 and I don’t have any of the responsibilities of a grown man . . . prison infantilizes you.

All of my pen-pals desperately want to be freed.

What purpose is served by locking people up and throwing away the key?  It doesn’t make sense to warehouse such a great number of people for most of their lives. It’s a waste of money (unless you are JPay or the private prison industry) and it’s a loss to families and communities. [I freely concede that there are a few people– the worst of the worst, the criminally insane — who should never be let loose on society again.] Most people do change and do reform. We need a system that recognizes that.

Inmates tend to put a lot of thought into their letters. They deserve to be answered in kind.img_20161209_222816

So I wore myself out*, writing seven thoughtful, individual, multi-paged letters in one day. By hand. In deep violet ink. (We don’t want too blatant a nonconforming color or the prison censors might reject the letter.) I folded each letter into a Holiday card (generic greetings for the non-Christians) without glitter or layers to upset the aforementioned censors. And I addressed the envelopes with my inexpert calligraphy in Sparkling Shadows ink — a smoke color with subtle gold highlights that might make it past the censors (though at some prisons, the inmate only gets a Xerox copy of the envelope).

I don’t know if my pen-pals will notice the violet ink or even get to see the Sparkling Shadows ink. I don’t know if any of them will appreciate it if they do see it.

I saw it. It made me feel better.

In a world that can be overwhelming, there’s the small delight of colored ink.



*Not an exaggeration.



Somebody Else’s Mail Art

As anyone with a chronic illness might tell you, we have our less-than-good days that sometimes string themselves together into a week or two and turn into depression. Those can be days when the voices in our heads sound something like this: Here I am on my back again and I can’t do anything productive and I’m so useless I’m wasting oxygen by breathing, etc.

On days like these, a letter can shine a ray of sunshine into the dim basement of my mind.


Postcard from Beq Parker

Most people communicate primarily with text messages and email, or Facebook and Skype. In these modern times, even some prison inmates send and receive email.*

Like me, you may have learned the hard way that emails can pick up an attitude as they zip over the fiber-optic lines — an unintended tone that distorts what you thought was an innocent message. “But that’s NOT what I meant!” I have been heard to moan. I suspect I self-edit to dry phrases to avoid messy misunderstandings.

And none of us would ever hit SEND when we’re angry, over-wrought or over-tired. We’ve all learned that lesson, right?


Right: Laser print on wood executed by Wes Cheney

Back in the olden days, before email, texting or even ANSWERING MACHINES, when I had a list of people to contact for, say, a food co-op or a ballot initiative or a mother’s club, it might take me repeated dialings of every number over several days to reach everyone on that list. And I had to actually talk to them and they might have quite a lot to say to me in return. It was time-consuming and unpredictable. And interesting.

When there was a bit of money, a group might choose to appoint someone to type up information, pay for Xerox copies at a copy shop, hand address envelopes, lick stamps, and visit a mail box to stop the lets inside and send them on their way. Of course, these mailings might still require follow-up phone calls.

Pre-answering machine and everything else we use now, communication required a lot more effort. Even though I am much better than I was when I first got sick, CFIDS/SEID still makes it impossible for me to imagine taking on this kind of work today.

As a person who is easily over-stimulated into exhaustion, the ease of email and text is not just convenient, but even almost life-saving. I can be part of a committee that meets once or twice a month and keeps in touch by email. I can turn my phone off when I need to, knowing it will accept messages and save them for me to read or listen to when I’m up to it.

Text is great for an impersonal exchange of factual information: what, where, date, time, etc. To avoid misunderstandings in more personal messages, there are those contemporary hieroglyphics — emoticons. Who can take offense when I end my message with a cute kitten or three little birds bracketed by musical notes?

But what I really like is real mail. Letters, cards, postcards. Envelopes  with snippets of yarn or scraps of fabric or sketches of quilts. Manilla envelopes of magazine articles or knitting patterns or relief-print exchanges. Hand-written letters are lovely even when I have to puzzle them out. Typewritten letters are never turned away. Handmade cards are a special delight but any card is a joy and carries something of the person who chose to send it.


“Holy Post” from Vikki Ensman


I wrote my first letter when I was a toddler. My mother held my fingers to the keys of her typewriter and, more or less, took dictation. (My aunt saved that letter. I still have it.) In grade school, I wrote to my aunt, both grandmothers, a great-grandmother, and a pen-pal in Australia. Now I exchange letters with school friends, Quaker friends, and several prison inmates. I send letters to my brother, my sister, an uncle, my step-mother, and my grandchildren. If they write back, that’s great. If they don’t, I write anyway.

Sometimes I make postcards or holiday cards or birthday cards. (see Mail Art in the menu above.) Sometimes these are relief prints done in multiples.Other cards are individually made. I hope that each letter or card I send out contains a moment of delight for the person opening the card.

There are wonderful examples of mail art all over the web.

Perhaps you know the work of Edward Gorey?


I always think of Gorey as working strictly in black and white. But this article  shows a few envelopes he decorated with bright, playful colors. Aren’t they fun?

Maybe I’ll quit typing this now and go draw some of my own!


*The costs of internet connections between inmates and their families/outside are excessive and unexpectedly varied.

Laptops are not passed out to prisoners. (Few things are. Inmates are often responsible for buying their own underwear.) Where a laptop is available in a prison, the inmate who wants one must purchase the one offered.

In many of those states, prisoners can send as well as receive emails; family members access the email system online, while prisoners use special kiosks in their housing units. In some cases, photos or short video files can be attached to the messages – for an additional fee.

Prisoners and those who want to communicate with them via email buy “stamps” to send each message, which cost from $.17 to $.60 each depending on the prison system and the number of stamps purchased; the average price per email is $.40 to $.50.”