Friendship Among the Trees on Death Row (Public)

“What? How? Wow! This is so incredible!” I stammered.

Friendship Among the Trees on Death Row (Public)
Collage by the author. 

Here’s a piece by Susan Shannon, a Buddhist minister and teacher, recounting an experience from her time serving as a chaplain on San Quentin’s death row. I hope you find it as moving as I did.

Yesterday was my day to see Yard 11, which, for years, was just one man—I’ll call him Ron. Ron and I had many conversations over the years about getting older on Death Row, about his early “spiritual” days listening to the many teachers from the East who visited the US in the ’60s, about his crocheting hats for the homeless, but most of all about being lonely there on The Row.

Of the two family members who corresponded with him over the years, one died and one now has dementia. It is as difficult to make friends in prison as it is on the “outside,” perhaps even more so on Death Row. He even tried pen pals, but most of them “just want a souvenir from a Death Row inmate” and once they got a postcard or letter in response they disappeared.

Ron loved our conversations. “This is what I am so hungry for, just talking about normal things.” As the Buddhist Chaplain, I always grounded the conversations in the Dharma, as that is why I was there. In this case, we talked about transforming our energy through transforming our thoughts, and in Ron’s case, perhaps creating a “practice of welcoming” as an intention of manifesting more fulfilling encounters.

To my great delight, a few months ago Ron came to our Buddhist Service with a new friend, Dave. Dave had been transferred to Ron’s yard, and they hit it off like champs. My heart swelled with happiness seeing how easily they related to each other, how excited Ron was to share Buddhism and our “normal” discussions with Dave. They showed deep respect for each other, and gratitude for the positive companionship there in one of the darkest places on the planet.

On this day, as I walked into the little makeshift chapel at the end of the cellblock, I could see Ron and Dave’s shapes behind the double diamond wire cage of the chapel door. They saw me coming, and shuffled position quickly, as if to hide something. I could hear them whisper, “Here she comes. Here she comes.” This piqued my curiosity, especially since everything they did and said was done directly under the armed corrections officer on the “gun rail” above the chapel.

As I came closer and they came into focus I could see them giggling, giddy with excitement. Dave had his hands behind his back and Ron was leaning into him as if they were hiding something. I couldn’t help laughing as they were so obviously up to something. “Hey you guys, you look like two kids at Christmas. What’s up?”

A few seconds more of shuffling and smiles and Ron said, “OK, show her! Show her now!” Ron moved away from Dave’s side. Dave turned towards me and lifted up something that was so foreign to this dark place that my mind couldn’t grasp it at first. My body filled with the electricity of utter delight and my mind stammered for words that would express such a lovely sight.

Dave was holding a little pot made from the bottom of a bleach bottle, decorated with candy wrappers, with six strong, healthy, little green plants. In the middle of the little grove was a crocheted white bunny, as if peacefully grazing in this piece of heaven. Green. Growing. I’ve never seen anything green here except for the guards’ uniforms, and there are NO plants anywhere here on The Row.

“What? How? Wow! This is so incredible!” I stammered. Dave said “They are Fuji apple trees! I grew them from seeds! I had to dig the dirt out of the cracks in the cement out on the yard, and added to it my own compost I made in the cell from my tea bags and other vegetable stuff. The guards have let me keep it! So far anyway! Then I crocheted the bunny! Doesn’t he look so perfect there among the trees?” Ron was beaming. “Isn’t it great! I knew you would love it so I asked him to bring it here today. I think we should bring this every time we meet. It adds something to the space here, don’t you think?”

The guys set our little Fuji apple orchard between them on the wooden bench. We did our grounding meditation and went on to the topic of the day: Renewed Spiritual Life through Engaged Body, Speech and Mind. Our little Fuji grove was the teacher here, and Ron and Dave the disciples, both, so clearly engaged with this practice simply in their propagation, caring and nurturing of life here on Death Row!

To them, and to Fuji, I bow. May all life flourish with tender care, especially in the darkest places!

This post is public. Feel free to share it!