Muscles and angels
The prison athletic field rolls out beneath gun towers, a discouraging gray stone wall, clouds of silver-bladed concertina wire. Its several acres encompass a football field, baseball diamond, tennis courts, and weight lifting area. An oval-shaped dirt track follows the circumference of the field, threading a space between parched grass and the shadow of the high wall. Mornings, when it's not too hot, I'm out here jogging.Skip to next paragraph
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I appreciate the partial freedom afforded by running, the illusion of solitude, and a sense of distance from the confining realities of prison life. Running offers a context in which body and spirit may harmonize, allowing a subtly enhanced perception. From a high point at one end of the track I can see out over the wall, across lettuce fields cross-hatched with irrigation ditches, beyond them to the desert, its mesquite and saguaros, a low column of mountains rising blue and white to the north. If I look far enough I can see beyond all that into my own mind.
At such times I try to meditate, taking inventory of what exists inside, and outside, of me. I attempt to measure the changes I've undergone, wondering sometimes if I'm becoming more like the prison, its emotionlessness and its denial of what's human. Looking around me, I see men change like that every day. Sealing themselves off, they disown their deepest feelings. It's a means of dealing with what's perceived as painful. They change the mechanism of feeling, reduce the field of vision, learn ways to become less vulnerable.
I thought this one day as I was jogging. A small group of prisoners were lifting weights near one end of the track. They lay backward on wooden benches, sweating under barbells as wide as their own chests. Struggling to lift the weights, their muscles had swollen far beyond their natural size and shape. They bulged against skin scarred and tattooed, ornamented with coiled snakes, the names of women, fragments of personal philosophy.
Each time I passed the exercise area I listened to their voices. They were discussing the fine points of weight lifting: whose weights were the heaviest, whose muscles the most developed. They referred to muscle tone. The tone of their voices interested me more. I heard anger, focused on nothing specific, some vague threat that they'd become the master of; it alternated with laughter, high-pitched and triumphant, though slightly strained. Between these was a dark bravado, a grim joy in the process of musclemaking.
For them, weight lifting seemed to bring with it a lessened vulnerability; a gradual narrowing of perception until the world was reduced to the physical realities of iron and muscle. A safe but not very interesting world, I thought, and then considered the ways we allowed our perception to be dimmed. Weight lifting, with its emphasis solely on the physical, was only one.
When I finished running I paused for water at the faucet near the weight area. The drinking water was too cold, and I had to sit down on one of the benches. I hadn't noticed the young black prisoner who occupied the bench nearest mine. He seemed almost too young for the prison denims he wore; eighteen , maybe nineteen years old. He sat with a sketch pad on one knee. Using felt tip pens, he drew a likeness of the prison landscape.
''Mind if I watch?'' I asked him.
He nodded his assent, not pausing to look up. I stood at his shoulder, entranced by the succession of images that flowed out under his hand. He depicted, with stunning accuracy, the details of the weight area, a gun tower, a length of wall, coils of barbed wire and a wide expanse of sky. Even the birds - those two cactus wrens balancing on the silver wire - were faithfully reproduced. When he finished, he surveyed his work with a critical eye, considering it from a variety of angles. He stared at it for a long time, then glanced up at the wall, his face thoughtful and slightly perplexed. Finally he went back to work.
With a few strokes of the felt tip the birds expanded and their wings opened, as if ready to lift them free of the wire. By adding the suggestion of sunlight to the colorless sky behind them, he gave the birds a distinct radiance, an almost otherworldly tone. They no longer looked like cactus wrens.
''Angels, man,'' commented the artist. ''Dig these angels.''
''They're angels all right. Pretty amazing.''
''Why have birds in a picture when you can have angels? Lots of birds 'round here. Got birds back in the cellblock. Ain't nobody got no angels though. Not like this! Angels, man. We need more angels . . . .''
I wanted to tell him what I'd been thinking, my thoughts about perception, how prison distorted it and the dangers. I considered mentioning William Blake, maybe describing Blake's angels, a particular engraving, the poet-artist's theories on perception. I thought about Blake's famous quotation: ''If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.'' I started to tell him, then looked back to the drawing, the angels set against barbed wire, and promptly shut up. He'd already learned all of that.