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.

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.