San Quentin Walkathon, May 15, 2011

15 May, 2011 Walking in San Quentin
We recognized each other’s struggles and each other’s humanity, we looked each other deep in the eyes. Cornelius’s yellow-tinted glasses, Shawn’s bald white head and folded hands, MC’s earnest stories of San Quentin, everyone’s acknowledgment that it was a special place, the only prison in the state that had any programs like this. Most of them were from down south.
We volunteers were nervously assembled in the parking lot, wrapping ourselves in final gray, black, white, pink or red layers for warmth and to adhere to the strict color protocol of the prison. I felt the need for a song and suggested it to Vanessa. Great! Let’s do it.” And quickly, we were circled. “Do you have a song, Eden?” The one that came to me was a gift from Dave and it brought my RDNA heart to this place.
When I rise, let me rise
like a bird, joyfully
And when I fall, let me fall
like a leaf, gracefully
without regret.
And the tremble in my voice sounded beautiful even to my own ears. From that unified place, we walked in, first through one ID-checking gate, then through a long outside corridor that paralleled an entry road on the other side of which was an actual tiny neighborhood where many correctional facility employees lived with their families (and raised their children). Beyond that, we were stamped with PASS in black light ink by one guard, then ushered, 10 at a time, into a high-ceilinged “sallyway” which was locked on both ends until the IDs of each member of the group were glanced at by a guard in a windowed booth, then ushered out the other end into a shockingly pretty courtyard with a small fountain and 3 modest-but-blooming rosebushes. The real beauty, though, was in the sky. All day, I marveled at the gorgeous expanse of blue sky and clouds that rushed or dawdled, wispy or dense above our heads all day, ever-changing, ever-refreshing.
We walked the same path as six ducklings, from the pond with the 70’s snowburst fountain deflecting attention from the chilling gloom of the Adjustment Center to the south and the low and official offices of Native American church, the Protestant church, the Catholic church, the Synagogue and the mosque to the north. Down the pavement slope split by a yellow painted line on which the inmates were made to stand as they waited to enter buildings into the yard, a grassy span about the size of half a football field, where the men were gathered, watching, jogging, chatting, scanning, calling to each other, all in the prison-issue “blues” whites or grays they were permitted to wear. The variety actually surprised me.
Entering the yard deep in conversation with Aryanne from Bolinas allowed me to simply turn my face to meet the faces of these men, these humans in blue, and find a real smile, a real greeting; it came easily because I was met with their smiles, their pleasantly surprised faces, their open eyes.
He gave me the low-down on San Quentin: on the 5th floor of the North block, there’s a room where the men can sneak away to smoke cigarettes and from up there, you can see the view of the Bay Bridge and the water and San Francisco. If he were an artist, he would paint that. I asked him “what makes you think you’re not an artist?” well, not a visual artist, I’m a lyricist. He recited a love song he’d written for the daughter he hasn’t seen in 25 years, then we got into politics. He was part of a hip-hop documentary done by someone who’d snuck in a camera, called
It started by him commenting about my height, which I let happen and laughed about with him, and eventually it became a real conversation and we started walking after the gospel trio wrapped up. It became a conversation about how he’d begun to educate himself about environmental racism, was facilitating the Green Initiative which had been supported by Van Jones, and was counseling at-risk youth who came into the prison every Friday and in whom he saw himself. His transformation from someone who saw the “green” movement as hippy flower children to someone who felt it was the most necessary, intelligent way to go forward, he began to see the green leaders as truly that, those who were envisioning the most progressive possible future, folks that he should be getting behind.
What I remember is gratitude for the act of walking, full bellied laughs, jumping on the bases as we rounded that field again and again, with a flock of Canada geese just comfy as could be in the center, apparently they stick around all year, no need to migrate. Recently, one man spotted what he called a “stork” probably a snowy egret, and was awed by its beauty. He also recalled a mating pair of ducks that lived in the pond up by the gate, and saw the mama duck bring 13 ducklings down to the yard with her one day and, one by one, they were snatched by sea gulls. That’s nature, he said. True enough.
This burn to leave was a strong flame in some of the men, and some had accepted their situation and didn’t really speak of the future very much.
They were ready to laugh, to shake my hand, to tell their story, to as Kathy said, “welcome us into their home.” And so it was, their home. And their greatest desire, their deepest satisfaction, was in service.
All I could say at the closing circle was, “Thank you for reminding me of my freedom.” It was the conclusion Shawn and I had reached after his satori story – the ego has a purpose in protecting the body, the life experience granted us by this body and ego and personality is a gift, but ultimately, we are free beings who can choose how to respond to our circumstances in each moment. I was reminded of Victor Frankl.
They just dropped right in, almost all of them. Very little chit-chat. Gabriel was the only one who sidled up asking for a phone number.
It just kept feeling worthwhile to pause, breathe and go deep. Again and again, I strove for the disquieting balance of no-touch and touch, of holding hands but no hugs, of eye contact and heart contact, but a good two feet of distance between us at all times.
Mujahi, a towering, muscular, bald-headed black man admitted he’d never felt love until he sat in Kathy’s class with these men. He cried in front of all of us as he revealed that truth, as he embodied the strength in vulnerability.
Shawn taught me a verse from the Lotus Sutra after detailing his experience of awakening.
Eyes of compassion
Observing sentient beings
Assemble an ocean of blessings
Beyond measure
Every day
That was his parting gift to me.
Opening circle was Robin, a Native man who had carved an elegant flute that he played a prayer song on, a prayer from a Catholic man, Luke, a Jewish man, a Muslim man and a Buddhist man. Then Vanessa spoke to the human in each of us, equalizing us before we began walking. We were humans, leveled, as she said. Walls or no walls.
As we gathered for a closing circle at 1:00, I was actually relieved. My energy was dwindling and some of the youth had to leave, so we stood and held hands, Eric to my right and Cornelius to my left. As soon as our hands were touching, Eric said quietly, “This feels real good. I wish I could do this with my friends in Oakland.” It occurred to me that he’d probably never stood holding hands in a circle before.
And the simplicity of this act – just entering, being real and open, and walking – was what made it so powerful. No one was there to fix or to be fixed, our common goal was ourselves as individuals, our collective experience of unity and, as a byproduct, the financial support of the youth to attend the Global Youth Peace Summit. The transience of the event also lent power to it. There is no need to try to extend or replicate it. It stands as a transformative experience regardless (or perhaps because) it only lasted 7 or 8 hours. The ceremony began as soon as we decided to participate and it continues even now.