The Ultimate Soulmaking

by Yia Vang

The first time I heard about the Art of Soulmaking Program at the Central California Women’s Facility from a friend, I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t because it wasn’t a great program as it was beyond great. It wasn’t because I didn’t think it would transform lives because I knew the teachings have transformed mine. I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t have words to describe the swell of emotions I felt inside. I was choked up with tears and couldn’t speak above the ache that was bursting inside my heart. The only thing I could put together was “this is such an amazing program,” and this is true.

Even now I can’t quite put into words the emotions that swim inside me whenever I hear about the program, watch an Art of Soulmaking (AoS) video, read quotations from the Remembering book, or listen to a song from the Chowchilla Blues Band. You see, I have someone close to me who was incarcerated for 26 years.

My nephew went in when he was 17. I was 15 at the time. I came home from school one day and heard that my nephew and a few other cousins had been arrested. He was involved in an altercation that resulted in one boy’s death and another boy injured. In that instant my world was cracked open. I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe what was written about him and the incident the following day in the papers. This was one of those things where we read or hear about it in the news and shake our heads at the unfortunate news for both sides of the family; another gang member killing another gang member. But that day it was about my nephew and family. What do we feel when we know that the accused driver in the shooting is someone that we grew up with, that we played with, climbed trees with, and that taught us how to catch tadpoles? What should we feel when we know he’s the oldest son of eight kids, that he’s a smart, funny kid, who worked hard to be a role model for his younger siblings? What should we feel when we know the media exacerbated the story into trivial gang problems in low-income neighborhoods? When we know that he wasn’t going to have a good lawyer and that all odds were already stacked against him for being on the east side of the tracks, in the low-income bracket, with yellow skin?

He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 40 years. After he was incarcerated, we kept in touch. We’d write letters to each other. I sent him pictures, let him know how the family was doing. I wrote him when my dad, his grandfather, died, and about who got married and who had kids. I wrote him about high school, college, life in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He wrote to me about life in prison, his routines, the family he missed. Over time, life moved on, and the letters decreased but we’d still write occasionally.

Whenever I went home and visited my half-brother, I’d ask about him, about if there’d been word of when my nephew would be coming out. That day when my friend told me about the Prison Monastery project, the first thing I wanted to do was get it to the prison where he was incarcerated. It was during the pandemic, and I hadn’t seen my family in a year. I texted my sister right away for my niece’s phone number to ask about my nephew. “He’s out!” she texted back. “What? Are you serious?” “Yes, he just got out three months ago. He’s on Facebook.”

Right away I went to Facebook, found his profile, and messaged him. He messaged me back. I called him. We spoke on video. He was no longer the 17-year-old boy I remembered, but a fully grown man, 43 years old. We were both a bit shy, stumbling with disbelief, but couldn’t stop smiling. What do we say after 27 years? It wasn’t like I could ask how life has been the last 27 years? There wasn’t much to say except to just see each other’s faces. I saw his smile, heard his laughter, saw him against a backdrop of trees and clear sky outside in the park. Words were a bit awkward, but we found each other in the silence. We didn’t talk about life in prison, but rather hopes for the future, for when we’ll see each other in person after the pandemic is over.

There is still so much that happened to him that I don’t know if he ever processed or how he’s processing it all now. Sometimes, I want to ask him all about it, every detail, every feeling he had while incarcerated. I want him to know that he is more than what happened to him. In a sense I’ve had this selfish fantasy of ‘healing’ him, but truth be told, I feel as though I’m the one being healed.

I think about AOS, about the pen pals that I’m writing to, and the gifts they give me each time I read their letters. I read about their strength, their courage, their loneliness, and anger. I read about their longing to see their children and family. I read about their transformation, hope, and faith. Each letter I receive from one of my pen pals heals the 26-year scar that I didn’t realize had etched itself into my heart. This experience has given me the opportunity to connect with my nephew in a deeper, nuanced way, and that’s been the ultimate soulmaking.