TRAVELING THE HARD ROAD

I just received a phone call.

“Governor Brown signed her release!”

My heart soared. It was Silvia’s sister, Veronica, telling me that after twenty years in prison, Silvia was going to be set free.

I met Silvia in 1996, at Central Juvenile Hall, where she was awaiting her trial for a murder committed by her older, abusive boyfriend. She was accused of being an accomplice. She was sixteen years old. Along with seven other girls, Silvia was in my creative writing group. Twice a week I taught them at a steel table in a big room called Omega Unit. The room was filled with forty girls sitting on bunk beds, or walking around, laughing and talking. Baywatch was usually blasting from the television. It was chaos.

But somehow, we blocked it all out and let loose our imaginations. That steel table was like a little boat sailing us away to beautiful shores. There was magic at that table.

Silvia had a powerful voice and her words haunted me when I returned home at night and typed up the girls’ prose and poetry. Through Silvia’s writing, exploring how she became involved in abusive relationships, I was able to face the truth of my own life. It was the beginning of a hard road.

There are many roads, either easy or hard, and myriad reasons why we travel them. Silvia and I parted ways when she was twenty. She went from being chosen prom queen at the first-ever prom at Central, to serving a twenty-five years to life sentence at Chowchilla Women’s Prison. It seemed that the years would never pass. That the road she had been propelled onto would be endless and filled only with despair. There was no reason to believe that she would ever get out.

But the spirit can be incredibly strong. It can overcome the greatest obstacles and lift us from the darkest prison into the heavens. Times change. Climates can turn from icy cold to warm and caressing.

In one single moment, hearing those words, “Governor Brown signed her release,” all the sweat and the agony, all the tears and depression, all the climbing of the mountains, all the enduring of the dangerous quicksand, the stormy darkness, the feeling of losing one’s way–it all fell by the wayside.

For myself, the doubt and the pain that I have experienced over the years, well, I now know it was worth it.

At the end of that hard road, there is another beginning.

WINNER: WHY I CHOOSE TO REMEMBER MY 50TH BLOOD-BLATH OF A BIRTHDAY INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FORGET IT

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Pooled Ink Editor’s Pick Wow, so much happening on the writing front! So proud to have my essay, WHY I CHOOSE TO REMEMBER MY 50TH BLOOD-BATH OF A BIRTHDAY INSTEAD OF TRYING TO FORGET IT chosen for publication in “Pooled Ink.” It is an ‘editor’s pick’ thanks to the wonderful Jennifer Top.

FREE AT LAST!

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SILVIA SANCHEZ is FREE!!!! She has been granted parole! Thank you everyone for your prayers and positive thoughts. This is truly one of the best days of my life. When I think back on this journey that started twenty years ago at a steel table at Central Juvenile Hall, when I met Silvia for the first time. Seeing her change and grow over those three years, and then having to say good-bye and then all these years since. She never gave up, she never gave in, she continued to better herself and her family stood by her and her attorney, Barbara Dunn. I remember her saying to me before leaving for prison, “the journey is long but I’m gonna make it” and at that time it seemed like it would never end, twenty-five years to life. But she did make it. I should add, it will be a while before she is out. I20 days or so but if Governor Brown signs her release earlier than it could be earlier. But at least now she knows there is a day when she will be home.

SILVIA ON MY MIND

For those who remember, I am supporting the release of Silvia Sanchez after twenty years in prison. I do not cease to think of her every day. Here I am, twenty years later, on a hillside above Lake Arenal, Costa Rica, listening to the driving rain, thunder and lightening and reflecting on how mysterious life is and magical and filled with such pain and joy. The road to where Silvia and I am now has not been 20150607_100335easy.

I have never lived a life compromise. When I befriended Silvia Sanchez in 1996, it was a turning point in my life. My husband divorced me for wasting my time with criminals. Silvia was the biggest reason why I made that commitment. I believed in her. In a time when it wasn’t cool to believe in kids who were in juvenile hall, I stuck my neck out. And had it about chopped off so that it was hanging by a thread. Somehow, it got sewed back on again, but I was lucky it didn’t destroy me completely. One thing that kept me going was that if Silvia could survive in her horrible circumstances, I could survive in mine.

There’s so much more to this story. I made a lot of mistakes. But one thing I know, to live life to its fullest you can’t be afraid of mistakes, you can’t allow others to buy you and exploit the situation or make you feel inadequate. You can’t allow them to manipulate you. You have to experience what it is to take a stand, to swim against the tide, to believe in your vision when those in power resent you for it and try to intimidate you. When you own family turns against you. When your husband divorces you. When you lose friends.

Supporting Silvia was not a cool cause like some of the others. Supporting her was deeper and more profound because there was nothing to be gained from it, except to see her make it through each day. Supporting Silvia has never meant a reward, recognition, invites to exclusive high powered political and fundraising parties, offers of movie deals. Supporting Silvia never had the promise of furthering anyone’s career.

Supporting Silvia was important because she was a quiet, unassuming, inspiring, hard-working, ordinary, and at the same time extraordinary, woman who has paid the price and doesn’t deserve to be locked up a minute longer.

And her writing was everything that InsideOUT Writers was about. The power of writing and the ability to show young people whose voices had never been heard that they had something of value to say and that people were going to listen. Silvia went from a quiet insecure girl who didn’t believe in herself to a young woman who could pierce the heart of any issue with her writing.

I believe in Silvia. It is important that I believe in her. She taught me about myself, demanded I face my own abusive relationships. I said good-bye to her in Central Juvenile Hall twenty years ago. And now, on November 6th, she has her first parole hearing. The first parole hearing for someone who never posed a threat to society. But who came to understand full well that, in a moment, she made a choice based on fear and the control of an abusive man, that ruined her young life. Now, she can help other young women to learn from her mistakes. That is what we all should do as we grow.

The miracle is that she is still here and stronger and better and wiser and inspiring me and countless others. A few years  back I was put in a position where I believed it was in her best interest if I withdrew from her life. Now, I realize I don’t have to think like that. I can be there for her. For her and her family as much as I am able. I love Silvia for all she is and for all she has done for me.

So People! Stand with me! If someone from InsideOUT Writers wrote a letter to the parole board on behalf of Silvia, I would appreciate knowing about it. Silvia represents everything that IOW is founded upon. IOW participants should know who Silvia is and the history that made it possible for them to benefit from the sacrifice of those before them.

Anyone reading this, send the best thoughts you can, pray if it is what you do. Let’s bring Silvia home.  And when she is out, because I believe she will be, let’s celebrate the young women who were in that first InsideOUT Writers class, the very first class ever held. Watching Silvia rise above the labels that were put on her inspired me to do the same. I expect to celebrate her freedoms. I expect to see her do wonderful things.

November 6th. The truth shall set you free.

Saying Good-Bye

“Without a vision, the people will perish.” Proverbs 29:18

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Dear Karen,

Hello, it’s me, Silvia. I decided to write you this letter to say good-bye. Yes, my time has come. I hardly cry. I haven’t cried for a long time, but today I shed some tears as my friends brought memories of my trial and the last day I got convicted. That was the worst day of my incarceration. I cried like a baby all night long.

I remember my friend Ochoa bringing me a cup of water. I showered right after I came from court and me and Ochoa stood inside the bathroom crying. She was telling me she wanted to do some of my time. Then we had to come out of the bathroom because they had cake and ice cream. It was my 18th birthday but I was too sad to celebrate.

The road is long. It might take me years. I might struggle, fall a couple of times, but I’ll pick myself up. I know I must move on with my life and go to prison. At least then I will know my release date and feel that one day I’ll be home. I’m sad because I’m leaving everybody behind. This has been my home for four years. I grew up here.

Well, Karen, I’m going to let you go for now. Take care and thanks for everything.

                                                                                       Love Always,

                                                                                       Silvia Sanchez

Not long after her twentieth birthday, Silvia gave the commencement speech at the Central Juvenile Hall graduation, speaking with eloquence and conviction. When she first entered juvenile hall at sixteen, if anyone would have told her she would do such a thing she would have dismissed them with disdain. Now, I looked at her across the crowd outside the chapel, a tiny twenty year old woman in a cap and gown, talking and smiling with a group of people, and I was so proud and happy for all she had achieved.

I went over and gave her a hug and then she told me the words I had been dreading. “Karen, I’m leaving for prison on Tuesday. I got my clearance, the judge signed my order.”

My first reaction was to say, no, I can fix it, make the judge revoke the order. You haven’t finished your tattoo removal. But I knew that wasn’t what Silvia wanted.

“So I should stop fighting? No more battles?” I said.

She nodded. “I’m ready to go. I mean, it’s not what I want for my life, but I’ve been here long enough.”

Stubbornly, I held on. “But, Silvia, look at your face, your hand. You’ll be in for a long time. I know you’re getting impatient but it’s not going to be better there. And you haven’t finished what you started.”

“Yeah, but they don’t want me here anymore. They want me out. And I’m ready.”

I could see she had closed off the possibility of staying. She wanted to get on with her sentence. She had anticipated it long enough. Sometimes the anticipation of an evil can become worse than the evil itself.

Still, it was maddening. Over a year of treatments and those stubborn tattoos on her face didn’t seem to look much different than they had in the beginning. “It’s because they’re homemade,” the girls had explained to me. “The ink is so concentrated.”

The tattoos on Silvia’s arms had virtually disappeared but the 213 on her fingers was a ghost of its former self, visible still. And then, of course, the sight I could never bear, but that was always there, peeking out from under the orange top, Silvia loves Gerardo, as black as ever, untouched by the laser.

“Won’t it be dangerous to go to prison with that 213 faded so that everyone will know you were trying to get it off?”

She shook her head. “No, it isn’t like that. I’ll be okay.”

So, that morning, under the trees outside the chapel, sipping on bright red fruit punch, Silvia and I said good-bye, with her resigned to her fate and me afraid of letting go. She had been the light in my life, who, without even knowing it, had exposed the dark corners of my heart and made me face the hardest truths about myself.

There were no tears that morning, just a quiet overwhelming sadness. Perhaps, still being young, Silvia thought the story had ended. But that would not be the case. There was never an end. Casey had taught me that.

I wish I could say that she lived happily ever after. I wish I could give the appearance that all the loose ends were tied and the future rosy and filled with promise. I wish I could say I slew the dragon and Silvia won her case, was released and lived a full productive life. I wish I could say she met a good man and got married and rode into the sunset.

I wish I could say all those things. But those are chapters yet to be filled. And the odds are against it. Even if Silvia had found her knight and rode off into the sunset, the cold light of day would have followed, just as it had when she sat on the beach, coming down from her high and crying into the rising sun. Pain and pleasure, love and hate, good and bad, we can’t seem to have one without the other. There are always battles to be fought and winning doesn’t necessarily mean killing the enemy.

For now, Silvia languishes in prison. Her appeals have been denied. One day stretches into the next, just as it has done for years already. A life was taken and whether or not justice was served, the fact remains that Silvia did play a small part and so she must pay. Out of this tragedy, Silvia has transformed herself into a person who, if she had remained on the streets, she might never have become. That is the great dichotomy, the twist of fate. Her tattoos were never completely erased. But she tried through the painful process to cleanse her soul. She graduated from high school with top honors and was chosen as valedictorian. Whereas, before she had been silent and submissive, never able to stand up to a man, she now stood before a crowded room, filled with young people who looked up to her, and spoke with courage and conviction.

I pray her words will not be forgotten.

We all hunger for a vision to carry us through, destined as we are to live by faith, not by sight, and to struggle with mysteries beyond our understanding. This means we all share the same, frightening blindness that can cause us to lash out at one another and stumble and fall. Some of us manage to rise above the melee in the most awe-inspiring and courageous ways. Silvia is one such person. Just because she has been locked away and deemed unworthy to live among the rest of us, does not make it right. And just because it is easy to forget her does not mean that we should.

If we do not listen to Silvia and others like her and take their words to heart, then we, as the human race, lose our collective vision.

If only we were willing to admit that we don’t “know” anything, imprisoned as we are within the confines of our own bodies. How much more likely would we then be to show humility and compassion, to reach out and help others when they stumble and fall instead of taking delight in grinding them further into the dirt? How would it be if we opened our minds and learned from unlikely sources; embraced our differences, looked into the eyes and held the hands of those we feared the most?

This “Game of Life,” as the girls in my writing class called it, is not about winning or losing or grasping for a reward in order to prove we are more worthy than someone else. It is about finding our vision and allowing it to lead us forward by faith, from darkness into light, one step at a time.

Free Silvia Sanchez

 

Silvia in blue with her family. Bringing Silvia back into our consciousness. Sharing her voice with the world

Silvia is EVERYGIRL. A teenager who struggled with abuse. Serving 25 to life for a murder committed by her older abusive boyfriend. Set her free.  #freesilviasanchez