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Saturday, August 9, 2008

At The Water's Edge

August 9, 2008 - 8:45 PM

I am sure you have noticed lately that I have been talking a lot about God. Several reasons for this behavior come to mind. First off, it is probably not surprising that someone facing death at the hands of the State would want to get his spiritual passport in order. If you were to be diagnosed with an inoperable tumor tomorrow, I am sure you would engage in similar actions. People always mock prisoners for "getting religion," relegating such conduct to the sorry realms of the cliche. Turning to a higher power in times of trouble is pretty much standard operating procedure for us humans, though. So, I am not sure why there is the double standard there. Secondly, I am extremely unsatisfied with a lot of the "answers" I get from people regarding my chosen faith. I seem to be living in my own perpetual Garden of Gethsemane. (My name is Thomas, after all, and it would seem I was aptly named. Thomas "the Doubter" was the disciple of Christ who wouldn't believe in the resurrection until he had "seen the nail holes in his hands, and put his finger in the nail holes, and stuck his hand in his side." Ah, my ancient empiricist brother! How lucky you were to have the proof so available!) Lastly, and this may be the major reason, what else do I have to think about all day? It is not like I have access to a lot of materials here. No idiot-boxes to keep my mind suitably numbed and distracted. I devour my books with such rapidity that I barely taste them. When the few bits of external-world bread crumbs I am tossed are gone, what do I have left? Trust me, I've analyzed every square nanometer of my cage. There is not one single detail that has escaped my notice. Byron once said, "Even my chains and I grew friends," and I think I finally get what he meant. Three years it has taken me, but I finally understand.

What you are left with, unsurprisingly, is yourself. I don't know if it is typical or not, but I have spent hours, days, weeks, months, and yes, years combing through the wreckage of my life, tossing the detritus aside for the little pieces of golden wisdom. This is a punishment they never mention when they talk about prisoners and Death Row. But I tell you, for some of us, there is no punishment more difficult to bear, nor more decaying to the soul. Soul attrition is an art, and I am now a master of the discipline. Physical pain is one thing. This is something else. Something which defies words, because words are just watered down clusters of letters and phonemes that have taken the place of something more elemental. They just skim across the surface of a sea of something with far more meaning. Hell, to most people, is a vaguely sinister concept, something to be thought about later, maybe. For me, it is something else entirely. It is life.

Thoughts about God may be the only approach in such circumstances. I have mentioned before how few opportunities we have to speak with anyone learned in the ways of religion. Sometimes I think this is a good thing, when I am wearing my cynical jacket. There are, however, a few volunteers who TDC allows to come back on the pods. One of them comes from a local Church of Christ. His name is Ray Harrison. I don't always see eye to eye with him on matters of theology, but I never call him on this, because he is doing something really great, and why would I want to taint that? About a year ago, he asked if I had been baptized. "Oh, boy, here we go," I thought, knowing the doctrinal position the Church of Christ takes on the issue. He didn't grill me on my infant Methodist sprinkling, though. He simply asked if I would like to be baptized again. I thought about it for a moment and decided that, yes, I would like to do this. It took a while to set up, obviously, but a few weeks ago I was able to be re-baptized.

It came about as a surprise - I didn't know the date or anything. I was very surprised when an escort team, consisting of one male and one female officer, showed up at my door at around 8:00 PM. The unit is pretty much shut down at this hour, so my initial impression was, "Oh, this can't be good."

"You wanna get dunked?" the female officer asked. (Please insert a really strong Texan accent to get the full effect.) I just sort of stared at her, trying to figure out what the devil she meant by this rather singular statement. I ran her comments through the filter of what I knew about her, which basically amounted to the knowledge that she was the sort who was completely incapable of working her way through an extended metaphor, so it had to be something simple. Eventually, I got there.

"Sure, give me a second."

"Just strip down to yer skivvies and let us go on and cuff you." (Again, with the accent. If you can't seem to get into the proper character for this, imagine yourself chewing on a piece of straw, watching the sun go down over a prairie uninterrupted by any structures save for the slow motion of an oil derrick. Yee-haw!)

Modesty dies a quick and violent death in prison. There is not a single second of an inmates life where he cannot be ordered to strip down to his birthday suit to be searched. It happens all of the time, for a variety of reasons. Maybe a male guard got reamed by the missus and is feeling a tad emasculated. How better to reassert your alpha-male status than by demanding some other guy to drop trou? Maybe a female guard simply wants to see you naked. Whatever the reason, you can choose to comply, or not. If you decide you would rather not put on a penal striptease act, cue the goon-squad with large sticks and shields. All in all, I rather prefer to be naked and unconcussed. Go figure. By now, I am used to it. I took off my shirt and socks and stepped into my sandals. I slowly backed up to the door, so they could handcuff me through the bean-chute. I'm not really sure what I expected. Would we use a sink? A garden hose? I certainly didn't expect to walk into the central hallway and see a massive, blue plastic pool set up. First impressions are sometimes hard to remember. Knowing me, my first thought probably was in the realm of the pragmatic: how in the world did they get that thing in here? I mused that it was going to be a royal pain in the derrier to siphon all of that water out, too. Three trustees sat off to the side, looking bored. I flashed them a look of commiseration, unable to really tell them I was sorry that they had to do all of that work. The look one gave me said, "Hey, what are you going to do?"

Already, there were a series of puddles on the floor, which led me to believe that I was not the only inmate to get "dunked" that evening. Mr. Harrison greeted me with a smile, and led me to the edge of the tub. I looked around once before stepping over the lip. A far cry from the Jordan, certainly. I didn't think God would begrudge me the distinction, or the intrusion of the handcuffs into the ritual. Life...what a strange journey. I normally think/say such things with a touch of bitter sarcasm, but I didn't feel any of that right then. As I sat down in the water, with my hands still cuffed behind me, all I really felt was...contentment? I have been really wrestling with God lately. So much of the Bible doesn't make sense. It is contradictory and sometimes devoid of anything resembling reason. And that is the impression I make even from the view that the Bible is meant to be read as an allegory. (God save me from fundamentalists and literalists of all religions!) In that moment, though, my confusion melted away into the certainty that God is still present in the world, and that I am not insignificant. I may not see him very well yet, just a figure through the fog, but it didn't seem so massively important at the time. I was, in fact, dunked, so I guess the female guard had chosen the correct verb, after all. I arose, sputtering and dripping, and feeling pretty good about things. Best of all - the male guard escorting me, who had previously been a real git to me for the last 18 months, patted me on the back. He has arms like hams, so it felt more like a seismic event. "It only gets harder from here on out." He said, smiling. I didn't think his facial muscles were even capable of such a thing, and it made me smile. I just nodded at him, which seems to be my response to a lot of things, these days.

I entered the pod, and got the appropriate good-natured ribbing for being soaking wet. My neighbor a few cells down thought it was particularly humorous, and quipped something along the lines of: "Hey, white boy must have tried to escape in the lake! What happened, you got tired or something?" The gentleman in question is like a huge teddy bear, a teddy bear that has to turn sideways to fit out his door. He is so fat that he could be walked down 5th Avenue on Thanksgiving Day.

I told him that I had made it to the lake, but then I had seen his mother sun-bathing, and thought a whale had beached itself, and got caught trying to carry buckets of water to her to keep her skin saturated. He howled laughing, and I think I heard him say, "Well, she is a large woman." The guard smacked me on the back of the head lightly. All I can say is: if God doesn't have a sense of humor, I will eat my hat.

Usually when I write these entries, I get a mixed response. The negative stuff is rarely memorable, and always lacking in anything resembling constructive criticism. So while I may not really be terribly open to advice on some matters, I am most certainly open to hearing counsel on matters of God. I do not, however, need simple rehashings of things I can read by simply picking up my Bible. Modesty aside, I am beyond that phase. An example of the types of conundrums I am dealing with: Let's say I was born in India. I grew up in the Hindu religion. My parents took me on a samskara when I was young, and I loved the sculptured cones of red kumkum powder and baskets of yellow tumeric nuggets, the clanging bells, the murti. I feel the presence of the Brahman nirguna and the saguna; the stories of Shakti, Ganesha, Shiva and Krishna enthrall me. In other words, like 700 million other human beings, I get it. I grow older, and my religion teaches me to be a moral man. I do not hate or steal; I seek to help the people in my life. I raise my children to do the same. I may do some things which you consider a tad strange, like refuse to eat meat, but all in all, I follow a moral code that is nearly identical to what Jesus taught. Sure, I know about Jesus, as India was ruled by the British, and the French in some areas. But Christianity is a foreign religion, and one known to me to be confusing and somewhat warlike. I grow old, and die. I am satisfied, though, because I have lived my life well, and the world is better off for my presence. I know what the Bible says in John 14:6 - "No one comes to the Father except through me." So, are you telling me that when I show up to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter (or whoever) is going to say: "Hey, sorry Mr. Patel. Members only, and all that. You know, you really should have considered being born in the American suburbs. Then you could have listened to Dr. Dobson all day long. Mr. Pat Robertson, come, come, we've been expecting you!"

Should a true relationship with God be based on a chance factor such as geographical location of birth? To put it in perspective, lets say I came to you and said, "Hey, your religion is wrong. Jesus is bunk. Let me teach you about Shiva." First off, you are going to be offended. You will probably conjure up images of red dots on foreheads and curry. Maybe you will think of that dude ripping peoples hearts out whilst screaming "Kalima!" in the second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. Your reaction is no doubt going to be something along the lines of: "What business does this foreigner have to talk to me like this?" Now ask yourself, why is this any different for them when people try to proselytize about Christianity? My question, in a nutshell, I guess, is this: What happens to the billions of people not blessed to be born in Christian nations if John 14:6 is to be taken literally? And does this jive with the idea that "God is love?" Is this just another mystery, like the rich man entering heaven/camel through the eye of a needle, where Christ's response was, "With human beings this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Or am I missing something? Because this is important. It speaks to the very nature and purpose of existence, because the answer points to the why behind creation.

The casual reader has no doubt noticed that I have an affinity for quotations. I sometimes get the wording of these wrong, and I hope you will forgive me in my errors. In most cases, I am having to dredge these pearls up from memory pools that are about ten years deep. My brain - ah, who can explain it? Why I can forget so many simple things and yet remember some obscure quote from High School is beyond me. The quote that came to my mind as I write this comes from T. S. Eliot, and went something along the lines of: There are no truly won causes because there are no truly lost causes. There seems to be a large contingent of people who see me as such, and have lately been very unsatisfied with my faith. I guess they thought this site was going to become some form of evangelical camp fire, where we could all sing Kum-bah-yah and feel very pleased with ourselves. I am sorry that I have not progressed as you hoped I would. I said from the beginning that I was not going to sugar-coat anything on this site. I reiterate my promise now. Rather than shutting me out, maybe you could try to meet me halfway? I'm pretty sure Christ wouldn't have grown perturbed with my "spiritual sluggishness" and have moved on to the next house. My favorite analyses about the meaning of life wasn't said by a Christian. It was said by the late, Great, Kurt Vonnegut, a humanist. When asked what he thought life was all about, he said, "To help each other through this thing, whatever it is." I cried the day he died. He was my best friend in middle school. I live by his words though, now. Maybe you should try to do the same.

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

I just read "At the Water's Edge". As I sent a comment earlier today on another posting, you may be able to tell that I am slowing making my way through your blog. I shared your father's book with my daughter, who then "googled" to find out more information. She ran across your blog and shared it with me. Any how, I totally "get" your questions about God. Especially in relation to "where one is geographically born". I appreciate your total honesty and rawness. I too have had "masks" and reading your blog is enlightening for me.