Easy Chair — From the March 2016 issue

Bird in a Cage

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When I started rowing, I thought it would be a meditation practice of sorts, because so much concentration goes into the single gesture that moves you across the water. That repetitive movement requires the orchestration of the whole body, and it contains a host of subtleties in timing and positioning and force. You could spend a lifetime learning to do it right, but even as you’re learning you can go miles across the water. Gradually the gestures became second nature, and I could think about other things.

Though I don’t get lost in thought much. It’s too beautiful.

I want to keep rowing, to keep relishing that freedom on the open water under the changing weather, going with and against the tides, but I don’t need so much freedom that I can’t go inside a prison on occasion. Buddhism calls for the liberation of all beings, and it’s a useful set of tools for thinking about prisons and what we do with our freedoms.

We are all rowing past one another, and it behooves us to know how the tides move and who’s being floated along and who’s being dragged down and who might not even be allowed in the water. I bought Masters some things from the vending machines just outside the cages, which I could access and he couldn’t. He asked whether I was going to eat, and I said maybe I’d get a taco after. He said, “That’s freedom.” He was right. Freedom to eat tacos on my own schedule, to pursue the maximum freedom of rowing, to enter the labyrinth of San Quentin and leave a couple of hours later, to listen to stories and to tell them, to try to figure out which stories might free us.

It was stories, written down by Melody Ermachild Chavis; by Alan Senauke, a Zen priest; and by Jarvis Masters himself that made me care about him and think about him and talk to him and visit him. And it was these stories that made me hope to see him leave that cage on his own wings. Meanwhile, there is a way Jarvis is already free; as a storyteller he’s escaped the narratives about himself he’s been given and he’s made his own version of what a life means.

“Whatever the outcome, I want to be in a position to deal with that,” he told me. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘Jarvis, you gonna win this case.’ It’s the same way the other way,” meaning people who say he won’t win. “I’m scared both ways; I’m scared to think this way and scared that way. Do I lose sleep? Of course I lose sleep. I do have some faith in this system, I just have to. The possibility of them coming to the right decision is there. I do have faith in the outcome of this system. History doesn’t give you a lot of good reasons for it. That’s just my bottom line.”

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