Monday, January 16, 2006

I dreamt of bluebirds last night

It was a vivid dream: a flock of Western bluebirds suddenly appearing outside my cabin windows, between rain showers. I called to my daughter to come look, and told her--which is true in real life--that the last time I glimpsed a flock of these electric blue birds with their russet/rose chests was after the first flood I went through, years and years before her birth. In my dream three of the birds fluttered into the house, and I opened a door to let them out again.
The quality of the dream was sunlight, and joy. Perhaps the return of an old happiness.

Back to the waking world, where it is still raining, and roads are still blocked, and deaths go on, and children grow. I planted some more narcissi along the parking lot, and white hyacinths, and white irises, and came back to read my latest letter from the maximum security prison a few county lines away.

Nyadzi writes "I know you. You will plant this grief."

The name he prefers is not the name his mother gave him, and certainly not the number with which the prison system identifies him. After we had corresponded a while he asked that I use it, rather than his birthname, because it was the name he took as a young man. He tells me it is from some African language, and means something like "death before surrender". He tells me he figures he'll die in prison. Because of this state's three strikes program he is serving a 35 year to life sentence.

Never were there two friends from such different worlds. I first encountered him through a political paper I help put out--it is free to prisoners, and those who want it and can't afford it. He sent in some poems and essays, long, long essays, pondering rebellion and freedom and religion and life. He asked for correspondence. We printed some of the essays, and a poem or two, and I wrote him to ask if he'd perhaps like to write for us regularly; tell the truth of his prison experience; share his harsh knowledge. I sent him books.

He was born in the south, to a poor black family, the youngest of 14 children. His mother sent him to live with his grandmother. Grandma moved with him to southern California, to the east LA ghetto, and there she died. And there, at 14, he found himself on the street. His life went on like many a story of those days--gangs, violence, jail. But he was hungry for books, and he loved learning, and when he could he'd make his way to libraries. We figured out that for a time, as I worked my way though college working in a library in a working class area, and went through all the self important dramas and love affairs of my late teens and early twenties, Nyadzi came into my library. I do recall a slight, proud black teen who never met my eyes, who gobbled history and good literature. These days we ponder our odd crossing paths.

We debate in our letters--he challenges my nonviolence; I listen to his very justifiable rants about a system that seems constructed out of a tale by Kafka. He writes of his family, his now dead mother. He writes of vanished dreams. He asks if I know what the birds are, the little birds, brown ones, that he can just glimpse from his small window. He writes of the reality of prison, and asks about my children, and especially about the dogs, the cats, the landscape. And the gardens. Oddly, of all my friends, it is Nyadzi who most clearly understands what my gardens are to me--solace, centering, stabilizing.

There's a growth on his lung, and the prison doctors say, well, it might be cancer, but then it might not. He says he's keeping strong.

I send him postcards with pictures that might bring a little beauty into the tiny concrete cell.

And he sends me letters. In the last one he writes of an encounter with a particularly harsh guard. To push back, to in any way seem to attack this guard would of course make his life in many ways worse--but in the past, goaded beyond what his pride will endure, he has. This time, he writes, he thought of me. "I didn't want to disappoint you" he said, "I remember how you try to hold to nonviolence. I thought of you, and stayed still." He says it may have saved him a beating--but I tell him I am so naive about the truth of life in a maximum security prison, one of the most notorious in our country--and I understand the will to survive.

Meanwhile, we try to figure out the name of the little birds, sheltering from the rain at the edge of the cell block.

11 Comments:

Blogger Foulla said...

amal=hope in arabic..amal,isn'it a nice name for one of u're special birds..
for u're post,well, the more i read u the more i see how gr8 u r.
choukrane=thanks in Arabic

5:55 AM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Dr O2 said...

Jarvenpa I don believe all in prison deserve to be locked away but many out there with all the respect they get must be sentenced to a life-time.

Jails are the worst, harshest & the least effective sort of punishment. It is too hard to survive the ambiance or to just remain the way you have been beofre they lock U in.

10:14 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger David said...

I don't know much about life in prison, but I once had an acquaintance who had done time in a California prison, although, his facility was probably minimum security. He used his time there wisely, taking classes for college credit. When he got out he finished his degree in computer science and is doing pretty well these days.

I think that three strikes laws can be overly harsh, especially when they are applied to non-violent offenders. However, I think that people that are habitually violent usually can't be reformed. How they got that way, though, may be preventable. Violent behavior seems to be in the nature of some individuals, but I think that a violent environment can trap others into violent response patterns that may simply be the only way for them to survive. Perhaps this is the case with your friend. From your description, he seems quite bright. Does he have any educational programs available to him? It seems a shame for an intelligent mind to be deprived of rewarding stimulation. Perhaps there are ways that he could make a positive difference from prison, as Tookie Williams did.

11:05 PM, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Caroline said...

Hi! Sorry, but I couldn't finish reading ur story, I have a lot of homework, but I just add u this short comment, I promise u that I'll read ur story tomorrow, or saturday... well, be happy... =^^=

5:27 PM, January 19, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Amal is a beautiful word, foulla, thank you.
choukrane is also a nice word. Arabic is a lovely sounding language.

and thanks to dr o2 and david and caroline for their comments (caroline, don't worry about reading my long, long posts, I will visit your nice cats in any case). In California the maximum security prisons offer very little scope for education, rehabilitation, or self improvement. The prison my friend is in, to which he was transfered some years ago from another less notorious prison, is under fairly continuous lockdown. This means the people there must stay in their cells pretty much 24 hours a day.
In the US in general people in prison are disproportionately persons of color who are very poor. Many are in prison for what are termed victimless crimes (drug deals, etc). My friend, however, has done some harsh things in his life. Had I been in his place I am not wholly sure I would have done otherwise.

7:32 PM, January 19, 2006  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

from Issa--

Come! With each other
let's play--little sparrow
without any mother!

10:32 AM, January 20, 2006  
Blogger ChittyChittyBangBang! said...

The guy is lucky to have someone like you on the outside who is willing to correspond with him.
I do not know whether he deserves to be behind bars. I do however believe that the law should be upheld even though the system is not always perfect.
I come from a country where politically, a lot of ppl were unjustly imprisoned and for the wrong reasons. Our former president being a case in point.

6:40 AM, January 21, 2006  
Blogger Kimia said...

Following chittychitty.. , I think what you give him is very valuable. It's like you help him to see outside the window. I admire you and I wish I could be someone who takes people's hands, at lease one person's.

3:29 PM, January 21, 2006  
Blogger Shirin said...

How sad that good natured, intelligent people like Nyadzi that have been victims of their circumstances should be put in prison and some for such a long time as well. He must have done some very bad things to be sentenced for so long but in a way when you think about it, he really didn’t ever have chance to make a different life for himself. It just seems some people are destined to end up in that horrible place from the moment they are born.

11:05 AM, January 22, 2006  
Blogger jarvenpa said...

Again, thanks to all for comments (and poem!). You might gather that I think prisons, as they are run now, are not good, and you would be correct. Nyadzi's long sentence is a factor of some judicial bungling in how the "strikes" (previous serious crimes, like armed robbery) were counted. He may succeed in overturning this. In the meantime, he is trying to stay sane, and to do no further harm and perhaps some good.
I have been happy to make a small difference in his life. People in prison are often forgotten by the outside world; the way the system here works, prisoners are often sent far from their families. Contact is very limited. I have private reasons for knowing more than most about this, and perhaps someday I will write about this.
Kimia--you do reach out, indeed all do--you never know when simply listening to someone, or smiling at someone you pass, may make a large difference in their life.

6:25 PM, January 22, 2006  
Blogger marlyat2 said...

What a marvelous thing you wrote for me on your new--your other--blog! Though I was a bit shy about saying so there--

I'm going to go read it again. My head needs to grow a centimeter or two!

"Jarvenpa's Notebooks" is very interesting (took me a while to realize that you'd started it). And it's fun to see how your bookseller-and-writer's mind is furnished.

6:17 PM, January 24, 2006  

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