“Active Agnosticism, or Who is this God Person Anyway?”

Date of writing : 10/03/2014

As I’ve talked about before, I’ve been looking at religion and spirituality from a number of angles in recent times. Long ago, I’d loudly proclaim myself an atheist, and announce the folly of the deluded believers. It took many hours of discussion over several years for me to reach a truce with Religion and the concept of God, and become what I regard as a true agnostic. Many years surrounded by Catholics of various levels and styles of commitment very gradually seem to have brewed into me an understanding of what the concept of God can mean to people.

For me, agnosticism isn’t simply a lack of decision; I made a positive (although gradual) choice to become agnostic. I started coming around to the idea when I got married (as it happens, in a Catholic church), and it has grown ever since. I view it partly as the acceptance of peoples’ own conceptions of God as a positive force on their lives, without judgement, without the need to question validity, and without any need whatsoever to agree or disagree. It’s an acceptance that God is not something I can argue about. To me, it doesn’t have to make any practical difference whether or not God ‘exists’, to the extent that I think the question doesn’t actually mean anything.

I’m colour-blind – deuteranopic, I believe – and this sometimes comes up in conversation when somebody points out ‘the guy in the green shirt’, or draws my attention to ‘those lovely red poppies in the field over there’. I’ve had the conversation so many times now, that I can almost watch the cogs turn in someone’s mind as they try to get their heads round what it is I actually see. Occasionally – and this has to be something I’ve heard at least twenty times by now – someone’s expression will change subtly, and they’ll start to say something like: ‘Whoa, like, have you ever wondered whether what I see as blue is, like, actually what you see as yellow or something?’, as though this were some kind of deep and profound insight into the nature of perception. What I ‘see’ is a sensory input that I’ve been taught to call ‘blue’, and to ask whether it’s the same thing you ‘see’ is (a) unanswerable, and (b) irrelevant. It’s a question that actually has the makings of a ‘koan’ – [Koan: a paradox to be meditated upon, used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining intuitive enlightenment.] – and I like to imagine that the further change in expression on peoples’ faces as they come to this realisation actually indicates a small step forward on the path to enlightenment.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the question of God’s existence or otherwise, to my definition of an agnostic, is a koan. It’s not something that can be answered, and the answer doesn’t even matter. Thinking about the question itself will give more insight than coming to an answer ever would. To understand this has been for me a liberation. I now feel free to attend religious services of any denomination without any sense of hypocrisy or discomfort. I’ve managed to let go of my prejudices about Certain Words, and through this I’ve started to see the meaning in Bible quotes without it being clouded by my preconceptions.

It’s against this background that I was given a booklet – unpromisingly titled ‘Lent : Learning to love like Jesus’ – at the Ash Wednesday Mass. Penned by a certain Fr. Séan Finnegan, this is a collection of readings, reflections, and prayers for the Lent season. Sometimes it seem serendipity has a way of catching up with me. I’m still very much coming to terms with my day in Court: the sentence, the things I heard, the things I learnt. Things I just hadn’t understood about the ways I’ve affected people. My moods are still flip-flopping as a lot of thoughts come to me: lows are interspersed with unhealthy highs. Yesterday, I was struck by Fr. Séan’s choice of an excerpt from the Psalms:

“It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship.” (Psalm 55:12-14)

I am he. I have betrayed not just anyone, but those closest to me. My companion. These words are thousands of years old, but people are still the same. To see this meaning in eyes across a courtroom is very hard indeed. So much was conveyed, silently, in just a few seconds, by a face I hadn’t seen in ten months. And serendipitously the Psalm summarised a large part of it that I hadn’t yet been able to put into words, and it gave me some comfort in understanding.

It’s only in letting go of my preconceptions and prejudices that I’ve been able to find and accept truth from a number of sources I would previously have ignored or dismissed. This is my ‘active agnosticism’: my understanding that the existence or otherwise of God as an ‘entity’ is a moot point, and yet that the exploration of the concept of God – or of some power greater than ourselves, or even the idea that something within ourselves is greater than the Self – is a valid and even important pursuit.

So if I write about church services, or prayer, or meditation, or if I quote scripture of various kinds, I hope you won’t be distracted and switch off. I’m not trying to be righteous, or to preach, and I’m so far from the concept of trying to ‘convert’ anyone that you wouldn’t believe (if you’ll pardon the pun). I’m just charting my own meandering journey, and hoping that some of you might find it interesting.  Do let me know if I start to bore you.

COURT (Date withheld)

So, the 06.30 wake-up call comes.  45 minutes to get ready and collect my things together.  I’ve not bothered to pack everything up.  I know I’ll be coming back.  All I’ve got is some paperwork, this writing pad, and an apple.  I’m hoping they’ll let me hold on the to apple until we get to Court – early breakfast will leave me hungry before they get round to feeding me there.  On the walk between the blocks I can see the sun shining on the rooftops.  Bright sky – the air is cold and fresh.  It smells good.  After the brief time in the light, we’re back inside, taking names, ticking boxes, then into a box.

There are three of us today, at least from our wing.  One is going home, and is talking a bit too much about it;  the other, silent.  I can’t help noticing the quiet one’s boots – nice ones, look like they’d be more at home on the hills than in here.  The rambling one says he’s getting married tomorrow.  Says he’s never coming back.  I hope he’s right, for her sake as well as his.

Out now, and at the desk a bored officer looks for my suit.  First bag? No, that’s the clothes I came in wearing.  Second bag?  Nope – my personal clothes I had brought in but probably won’t get to wear until I’m Enhanced, and that’ll be some months yet.  Ah, here we are – it’s even on a hanger.  And my cufflinks are in the pocket too – wasn’t sure if they’d made it, so I fashioned a pair using matchsticks and PVA glue.  Won’t be needing them now. Get changed into my Sunday best  … the suit I got married in.  Never imagined this when I bought it.

Into another box, more waiting.  I’m the first, the others follow.  The quiet one is wearing his own clothes, and fills the small space with a stench I can’t quite put my finger on.  I decide he probably came in with those clothes, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d been sleeping rough in them.  Start to really hope I won’t have to spend much more time in a confined space with him.  Breathing through my mouth now …

Phew, only ten minutes – and I’m at the reception desk.  Apples not allowed on the bus.  Neither are my pens.  Trying now to remember everything, take note, so I can write all this later.  But they missed the library book, as I hoped they would – The Power Of Now, tucked inside an envelope of legal papers.  Expecting a lot of waiting, need something – why not a serene sense of Being?  Or at least trying to find it.  Onto the bus.  Hard seat.  More waiting.  Then off we go.

First time I’ve been out of the prison grounds since I arrived.  Journey to Court isn’t a long one, half an hour to look at the scenery.  Passing memories.  That field.  That cemetery.  That building.  That pub.  Normal people, walking around, normal day, going to work, earphones under earmuffs, beautiful sky, golden light, pushchair, school run, main road, canal, station, back door.  Out but inside.  Handcuffs.  Down, down, down stairs.  Tunnels, industrial feel, damp smell, whiteboards, high counter, old cells, gloss paint, shut door.  Graffiti.  Wooden bench.  Buzzing light.  Air vents.  Barrister.

Papers.  Statement.  Shock.  Tears.  Wasn’t ready for those words.  Hard to read.  Shakes.  Things I didn’t know.  I didn’t see.  I didn’t UNDERSTAND.  I never understood.  More shocks: didn’t predict that – now I see why she hasn’t been answering the phone.  Prudence.  Pain.  Politics.  Then: reassurance, reports, reading.  Not ready.  Never ready.  Back to the bench.  Waiting, reading, distraction.  Being, not Being.  Future, past, no Power in Now.  Water, toilet, wait, read, KEYS.

Up, up, up stairs.  Chat too casual.  Gallows humour.  More water.  Through a door.  Court.  Dock, folding seats, thick glass.  So full – so many people – BLAM – there she is.  It’s been ten months.  She looks so tired, so real, so painful.  Not looking.  Facing forward, friends around.  So many people.  Oh – she’s here too – and who’s that?  Didn’t expect to see … oh, and it’s … not her too?  What’s going down in that notebook?  Sly glances back.  There he is.  That’s right, I’m here.  My people too.  Not so many, but enough.  And some on the left who are really in the middle.  Kept quiet, for now.  Appreciated.  All rise.

All described, everything, out loud, to everyone.  Spoken in black and white.  All out now.  No ambiguity.  Judge impassive.  Charges.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty.  Guilty. Prosecution talking.  My turn?  No – lunch.  Down, down, down stairs.  White sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, bench, wait.  Wait.   KEYS.  Up, up, up stairs.  Barrister talks too quietly.  Straining to hear.  STATEMENT.  Out loud.  Saw it this morning, hard enough, but her voice, her emphasis, her face.  Why didn’t he say goodbye?  It burns.  So much.  Tears.  Can’t watch.  Head down.  So hard.  She needs it.  Why couldn’t I see?  Why did I not understand?  Maybe: reports, autistic tendencies, emotional cripple.  But now I know.  Now I can’t do anything.  Still should have understood.  More words.  She looks.  Eyes meet, hold.  Months melt momentarily.  I’m so sorry.  What is she thinking?  Does she even know?  Empathy?  Love?  But – confusion, sadness.  How do I know?  I’m the cripple.  Projecting.  Too late.  Can’t look longer.

Break.  Down, down, down, – half an hour – up, up, up.  Back.  All rise.  Not life?  Was that even a possibility?  Well, that’s good.  But BLAM!  How long?  Did I hear that right?  Take him down.  A sea of shocked faces.  All looking at me, some crying.  No time to react.  Got to go.  Can’t see anyone clearly.  Through the door.  Down, down, down.  Bench.  Numb.  Strangely longing for the familiarity and security of the wing.  Waiting.  Barrister.  What went wrong?  I tell him I’m trying not to be angry with him.  He says we’ll appeal.  Can’t get fixated on it though;  don’t know the chances.  Just got to get used to it.  Can’t get used to her eyes though.  Head full.  So many things.  Time passes.

Keys.  Handcuffs.  Tunnels.  Van.  Scenery.  Gates.  Wait.  Reception.  Food.  Off with the suit, back into ‘corned beefs’.  What’s that?  Yes, I would like those books.  Been asking for weeks.  Two small books, one of them Big.  One blue, one green.  Now I have them.  Box.  Wait.  Wait some more.  Another box.  Wait.  More time passes.  Then – come on, back to the wing.  13½ hours later.

Long, long day.  ‘Home’, sadly.  Back to the bunk.  Familiar.  Safe.  Nothing is different, but something has changed.  Stay awake, sleep badly.

INSTALMENT 19

Date of writing  … …  08/03/2014

Sorry for the gap in my writing recently, but I’ve been preparing for my Court Hearing in various ways.  I’ve had a lot of other writing to do, and since the Hearing I’ve been doing some adjusting. Anyway, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

INSTALMENT 18

Date of writing : 21/02/2014

Sometimes, it’s possible to sense the mood of the wing even from behind a locked cell door.  It can be as though a hundred minds have independently become impatient and restless so as to form a grumpy gestalt creature that simmers and shifts, looking for an excuse to swipe its paw at the next thing that passes.  It’s something about the texture of the silence that permeates the echoing landings; somehow a silence of tension rather than peace, yet I struggle to put my finger on why it seems so clearly different.  Perhaps it’s much like the way you get used to the sounds that a house makes in the night: the click of the heating pipes, the wind round the chimney.  After a while they become the background that quietly let us know that all is well – unheard, yet familiar and comforting.  I suppose that evolution has tuned us to detect the small changes in these things; the wind in the trees may sound much like the leaves disturbed by a prowling tiger, yet the latter could snap a man form deep sleep to startled awareness if his life depended on knowing the difference.

I’m sure the moods of the wing are probably governed by similar equations to those driving the weather: fractal complexity and extreme sensitivity to initial conditions would thwart most attempts at forecasting.  However, a morning of unexplained lock-up usually counts as a lingering area of low pressure, and late unlock for lunch shows gathering clouds on the satellite picture.  So by the time it came to the two-by-two gradual unlock to collect canteen orders in the afternoon, there was a palpable air of restlessness.  Maybe it was the order of the unlock, or just something about the food today, but some butterfly had been flapping its wings somewhere.  The officers sensed it too, and decided to let us out for exercise.  My floor was last to be let out, and by the time they got round to us there was a lot of door-kicking going on.

I’ve written here before about the apathy for exercise unless the alternative is bang-up.  Today, more than half the wing was out, including many I’d never even seen in the yard before.  Eighty (by my estimate) slightly grumpy and moderately chilly inmates walking alone or in twos, threes, fours, some clustered in corners, one on a bench – there was no chance of going clockwise today.  The Running Man, as his name would suggest, likes to run round the yard.  I thought we’d got rid of him, since he was moved on to a Cat. C a few weeks ago.  But suddenly he’s back, kicked out apparently, and now causing trouble here again.  ‘A couple of yards from the sides lads!’ is the shout as he runs around the outside of the yard, trying to insist he owns the perimeter.  The 79 other people in the yard were rapidly losing patience with him – he can get away with it when there aren’t too many others around, but not today.

Inevitably, someone eventually took enough offence that sharp words came to blows.  The Running Man quickly became The Bleeding Man, and the pair were unexpectedly broken up by a heavily muscled guy who’s here awaiting trial for an apparently violent murder.  Meanwhile, the two officers supervising the yard just watched from behind the gate to see how things panned out.  Given the large number in the yard, that was probably wise; they were waiting to see if it resolved itself (as it did) or if it turned into a more general riot – in which case they would have pressed the ‘make lots of officers appear’ button.  A few weeks ago, I happened to be crossing the open area between the main blocks when it was pressed.  It was quite a sight to see two dozen officers coming from all directions at high speed heading for the same wing.  Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary this time.

As these things go, it was a fairly minor incident, but the excitement did seem to dissipate a lot of the tension of the day.  The pair were taken away and locked up, to face a ‘nicking’ later, and the rest of us carried on our circuits without being hassled.  We now had the bonus of something to talk about, and somehow that cheered everyone up.  Nothing like a good playground brawl to lift the spirits.  Or something.

This evening also saw me become the proud owner of a complete chess set – something I wasn’t expecting.  I haven’t played since I was a teenager, and quickly found I can’t remember how to set the pieces up.  You might ask – why then, did I choose to come into possession of it?  Well, sometimes an offer made at random is too good to refuse.  A packet of digestive biscuits is a ludicrously low price for a solid wood board and pieces – especially when all pieces are present and correct. I think I’ll keep it, and see if I can remember how to play.

Date of writing : 22/02/2014

My CD player/radio has arrived!  It’s great.  It even has a clock on it – a rare thing it is to know the time, but now I have it neatly displayed for me.  So, if you’ll excuse me, I have a new toy to play with  … …

INSTALMENT 17 – “Lighter Entertainment and Logical Fallacies”

Date of writing : 16/02/2014
We’ve been locked in, this sunny Sunday afternoon, which is never a pleasure. However, unusually, we had two days’ advance warning about it. This is a much preferable state of affairs to finding out only by the fact that we’re still locked in. It meant for example that I could have a shower and make some phone calls this morning, rather than planning to do things in the afternoon and being thwarted. So, I’ve been sat in with DF, with various Winter Olympics events on the TV while I alternately do a bit of reading and a bit of writing. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

The last few nights have been mostly noted for their countless fire alarms. Now, the alarm itself isn’t much of a problem – it’s not very loud and we don’t tend to evacuate – but it does have unfortunate side-effects. Every time it goes off, the heating shuts down; I presume this is some kind of gas safety thing. If the heating shuts down ‘after hours’, then it won’t be manually reset until the morning. In addition, the alarm also triggers the automatic opening of large vents both at the end of the wing and in the roof. I can only assume this is to fan the flames, perhaps in the hope of reducing the prison population. The combined effect of these two processes is to make the full chilliness of the mid-February weather keenly felt in our cells. This is not ideal.

Apparently, our fire alarm is linked to that of the segregation block, and this has been the source of the problem. There’s supposed to be no smoking on The Block, but one man has been intent on causing mischief with a lighter. I’ve heard that once he has caused said mischief, he then secretes the offending article about his person in such a way that all but the most thorough of searches will not reveal it. I’m also told that the prison officers are powerless to extract it, for fear they might find themselves on the wrong side of the law. (Plus, I’m guessing the volunteers wouldn’t exactly be queuing up.) Thankfully, all is quiet so far tonight, and I’m hoping he finally got bored with his little game.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, the sale of my house has completed. By coincidence, the flat I had been living in for six months prior to my incarceration was cleared of all my personal belongings the following day. When I left my house under a heavy cloud back in May, I didn’t expect it to be for the last time – any more than I expected I wouldn’t return to the flat after the police paid me a visit early one December morning. These things are at once both significant and meaningless; in many ways they’re just an official confirmation of the status quo, but it still feels a little strange. For what it is, life in here goes on just the same.

I’ve been very pleased to get more than a few letters recently. An old friend I thought I’d lost has got back in touch, and wants to visit, which has been quite a boost. Another friend – one of my oldest – sent me a lovely letter including a picture of her cats, which I’ve found surprisingly soothing. My correspondence with a relatively new friend – which includes sharing song lyrics in progress, and writing a meandering story a few lines each at a time – continues to bring me both happiness and entertainment. I was also surprised and pleased to get a letter from Paul’s wife (for those of you watching in black and white, Paul is my ex-cell-mate). There’s a couple more I could list, but particularly worthy of note – and indeed thanks – are the postcard collections I continue to receive from Jane.

I mentioned before that Jane had sent me some Dali prints and a Whitby harbour scene, amongst others. The most recent clutch includes a dramatic photo of Striding Edge and a fabulously moody yet also uplifting painting of Styhead Pass in Borrowdale by Alfred William Hunt. (http://www.bridgemanart.com/de/asset/426048/hunt-alfred-william-1830-96/styhead-pass-borrowdale-1854-oil-on-canvas).  It really captures the feel of the place somehow. Look it up if you’re a fan of the Lake District’s dramatic scenery (or even Tolkien, which it somehow evokes for me). I won’t go into detail of the others (there are six altogether) but I will mention that I was grateful to have the backs of two of them devoted to providing me with logic puzzles.
I’ve never been a particularly patient person, nor have I been good at delayed gratification. We live in a time of instant delivery, with the world’s libraries at our fingertips, and I’ve made full use of that in the past: if I could take a shortcut by looking something up online, or even just using a calculator, then I would. It’s got to the stage where we don‘t really need to remember much any more: it’s easier to Google than to think.

Much as this can be viewed as one of the miracles of the modern age, I don’t know about anybody else, but I think it’s diminished my attention span and capacity for logical thought. First the machines took away much of the drudgery of manual labour, and now I wonder how much they’re taking away the drudgery of ‘manual thought’. The extrapolation of this to its logical conclusion could easily be (and probably already has been) the basis of some good dystopian Sci-Fi (note to Charlie Brooker: please steal this idea for the next Black Mirror). Might we eventually see a new generation of ‘rage against the machine’? Probably not, because that would require significant original independent thought, which by that stage will of course be impossible.

As usual, I digress. Where was I? Oh, yes, logic puzzles. Time was, that I’d be quickly bored with them and look up the solution. I know, that completely defeats the object. But my first reaction to Sudoku, instead of solving the puzzle itself, was to work out an algorithm I could use to get a computer to brute-force the solution for me in an eye-blink. That way, I’d beat every Sudoku once and for all. In other words, completely missing the point again. But now, without the Internet, or even a calculator, and with a dearth of mental stimulation, I’ve found I actually enjoy exercising those parts of my brain. Even better, in the last week or so I’ve had fun trading logic puzzles with the community hub that is Gordon’s cell. One of the puzzle postcards from Jane’s last batch has now been passed around half a dozen of the loose-knit group. It seems to have brought out quite a few puzzles people didn’t know they could remember.

So, time on my hands is handled differently in the absence of Internet. Amusing cat videos are no longer an option, and I’m forced to use my brain to do such menial tasks as adding up the cost of the things I order from the canteen sheet. My mental arithmetic has always been fairly poor – but it’s improving now. Which reminds me – remember I applied for a post as Learning Support Assistant? Well, a few days ago I got … another application form. Looks like the first one must have gone astray somewhere. Sigh. On the plus side, when I asked Officer Eagle (one of the more helpful and friendly ones) to fill in the ‘referee’ section, she was surprisingly positive. Apparently I have a ‘fantastic attitude’, and I’m ‘always willing to help and support people’. I still haven’t worked out whether I should be proud to be called a ‘model prisoner’. I somehow feel I should be doing more to ‘sock it to the man’, or something. But then, having seen plenty of counter-examples, I’ve noticed rebellion rarely gets anyone very far here.

Date of writing : 19/02/2014
I met a man with a vestigial tail today.   That is all.