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A Long, Personal, but Necessary Introduction Explaining How I Came to Write This Book
Few kids like going to bed. But when I was a kid, I really didn’t like it. That each day should have to come to an end with the closing of the door of my room and the (usually) all too long wait for unconsciousness to arrive seemed not only unfair; it seemed downright absurd. The darkness and separation that night brought with it filled me with a pure childish anxiety that I can still conjure up today.
It was while lying in bed as a young child and waiting for sleep to come that I remember doing my earliest significant thinking about death. One night, at about age five, I awoke in a cold sweat from a dream in which the people I knew had appeared as one-dimensional paper cutouts. My father, my mother, my teachers—everyone was reduced, in the dream, to these simple paper shapes, each wearing a single, static expression, some smiling, some frowning, but all equally shallow, all equally empty of true human presence.
In its simple, straightforward way, this dream summed up all the deepest anxieties I had about life as a kid. The notion that the human world was really just a surface event with nothing real beneath it, that the people I knew and the world I lived in had, in fact, no true or lasting substance… Wasn’t that what the concept of death—impossibly remote and hard to understand, yet at the same time hugely, intimately close and ever-present—really suggested?
The more I thought about death as a kid, the more strange it seemed to me that most people in the world around me had so little to say about it—or at least, so little of any real usefulness. In 1970, when I was eight, my mother read E. B. White’s children’s book Charlotte’s Web aloud to me. At the end of the book, when Charlotte the spider died, I struggled to get my head around the idea that Wilbur the pig could have gotten any happiness or consolation from the fact that Charlotte had left a nest of baby spiders behind to keep him company. Babies or no babies, Charlotte was still gone. Wasn’t that what really counted?
That same year, I began suffering a new series of nightmares turning around the theme of being kidnapped. In most of these scenarios, a group of malevolent but otherwise unidentifiable men crept up on me while I was sleeping, stuffed me into a sack, and dragged me away to a cabin in the middle of a dark forest.
In an effort to find out what lay at the root of these fantasies, my father enlisted the help of a Scientologist friend of his named Rebecca. For several months in the spring of that year, I made regular visits to a small office in downtown Washington, DC, where Rebecca hooked me up to an E-meter—a lie-detector-like device that Scientologists use to measure electrical fluctuations at the surface of the skin. Over the course of half a dozen of these visits, Rebecca attempted, through a series of questions and a close study of the E-meter’s reactions to my answers, to lead me back to my previous lifetimes on earth. For, my father maintained, it was during one of those lifetimes that the event or events that were secretly causing my kidnapping anxieties had actually occurred.
A writer who specialized in occult and esoteric subjects (1971’s Secrets of the Great Pyramid and 1973’s The Secret Life of Plants are, today, his chief enduring claims to fame), my father wasn’t a card-carrying Scientologist. But he was a great believer in the idea—common to Scientology, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and many of the other new or semi-new spiritual movements that seized so many people’s attention in the sixties and seventies—that the human soul preexisted the body, and will outlive it as well. My father revered the great early architects of new age thought. People like Helena Blavatsky (the controversial Russian mystic and founder of Theosophy), Rudolf Steiner (the Austrian philosopher and educator and founder of Anthroposophy), Edgar Cayce (the American clairvoyant famous for predictions he made while in a state of trance), and Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, came up on a daily basis in our household. Different though the teachings of these thinkers were in certain of their specifics, my father believed that they had all made important contributions to a new way of looking at human beings and their place in the universe: a way that was, he felt, going to have a growing influence on the hopelessly confining antispiritual view of the world that more and more people in the West had been abiding by ever since the scientific revolution had occurred three hundred years earlier.
Like many early enthusiasts of what was just then starting to be called new age thought, my father was strongly suspicious of conventional science, believing that most scientists spent most of their time covering up the real truth about the world rather than revealing it. He distrusted the proponents of traditional religious faith—most especially Christianity—even more, and never missed an opportunity to warn me against believing what the more conventional voices of wisdom in the world I lived in (teachers, school friends’ parents, people on TV) had to say about the way things really worked. To my father’s way of thinking, conventional science and conventional faith were both roadblocks to experiencing who and what each of us really is: a free spirit living in a cosmos that is not purely material, but material and spiritual: a cosmos that humankind was on the verge of seeing and experiencing in a new and infinitely larger way.
At the center of this new picture of the universe was a vision of the human being as an essentially spiritual entity: a being that had taken on a physical body as part of a process of growth, or evolution, that had begun far in the past and would continue far into the future. That humans were more than their present physical bodies wasn’t simply interesting news to my father, it was revolutionary news. For when one took this view, human life was transformed in a moment from the painful, puzzling, and generally pointless exercise it so often seemed to be into a story that is going somewhere. When you held to the kind of worldview that my father and his new age friends did, at no single moment, no matter how futile and pointless life might seem, was it ever really so. Even on the bleakest days and in the lowest of circumstances, one need never feel totally lost or totally without hope. Instead, even at those points when life seemed to make least sense, one was simply like a football player so disoriented in the confusion of a scrimmage that he has momentarily lost sight of the end zone.
“We’re not bodies,” my father liked to say, summing up this entire new view of life and the human place within it: “we have bodies.”
My father (correctly, I would later discover) pointed out that the basic notion of reincarnation—that is, that we are souls, not bodies, and that as such we have each inhabited more than one of the latter over the course of time—had been the norm rather than the exception for most of human history. It was still an accepted reality for the cultures of the Far East, and even the more mystical elements of Judaism and Islam continued to make room for it as well. When you got down to it, it was really only Christianity—that most ideologically thorny of all the world religions—that had said a definite “no” to the possibility that we are born more than once upon the earth.
And yet it was possible—indeed, said my father, even probable—that in their earliest days even Christians had embraced this doctrine as well. Jesus himself, said my father, knew that we move from body to body, taking birth time and again. But for various reasons, the early Church fathers had proclaimed the doctrine of rebirth a heresy, thus removing from Christianity one of the most genuinely useful tools to help us earthbound humans make sense of how and why we had ended up getting (momentarily) trapped in the web of material existence to begin with. Instead of spiritual evolution, instead of a cosmos where people dropped into and came out of earthly incarnation like a line of butterfly-stroking swimmers gracefully plunging into and surging out of the water as they moved down the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool, Christians believed that each of us had come to birth once and only once, created out of nothing at conception and consigned, after a single, short, and (usually) all too painful and confusing life, either to a choking, smoke-filled hell, or to an almost equally undesirable heaven full of clouds, halos, and not much else; a heaven where bad people weren’t allowed and where good people went for all eternity—to do what, exactly, it was hard to say.
I had actually been named for one of those early, reincarnation-espousing Christians. Though people tend to assume that my namesake is the ancient Greco-Roman astronomer famous for proclaiming earth the center of the universe, my father always gave a mildly derisive laugh when people suggested this. In fact, I got my name from Ptolemy the Gnostic, an obscure metaphysical philosopher whom my father happened to have been lying in bed reading about when my mother went into labor next to him in early May 1962. “Here comes Ptolemy!” my father had said cheerfully and decisively, shutting the book and reaching for his car keys.
Not that my father thought my mother was necessarily giving birth to that one and the same Ptolemy he was reading about in his book. But my father would have been the first to point out that she certainly might have been. For like many advocates of the theory of reincarnation, he believed that we choose our parents each time we leave the light-shot realms of spirit behind and sink back to earth for another go-round. So whoever this new player entering the game board of his personal life was—whichever particular soul had tired of the freedoms of the spirit world and opted for another temporary dive back down into the bracing murk of physical existence—he knew it was someone who, for better or worse, had made the conscious choice to do so as his son.
One might think that having a father with such a positive spiritual philosophy would have prevented me from suffering the kind of anxieties about death and darkness that plagued me so consistently through my childhood. But rather than curing me of my fears about death, my father’s philosophy actually put them into sharper focus. For the fact was that though my father talked a good game in the spiritual department, the actual details of his life often fell far short of the ideals he painted so glowingly in his conversation. He and my mother fought a good deal, and the fights did not lessen in number when, in that same year of 1970, my father brought his new mistress, a woman named Betty, to live in our house along with my mother and father and me. The social and sexual experimentation that the late sixties and early seventies are remembered for today took an especially heavy toll on our household, and while peace and love and harmony were the ostensible goals of that experimentation, in our house they tended to produce very different results.
Why bother going into all this personal stuff in a book that’s supposed to be on the afterlife, not my personal life? The short and simple answer is that I believe the details of my upbringing are strangely well suited as a vehicle for introducing certain key questions about the afterlife and how we go about understanding it today. One of the main reasons I’m interested in the afterlife—and it has been my central interest for all of my adult life—is that the world I grew up in taught me to be interested in it.
When I say “the world,” what I am really saying, I suppose, is: my father. Whether he meant to or not, my father doomed me, in a way, to be taken up with the subject of where we were before we were born and what becomes of us afterward, and the details of my life with him provide a kind of synopsis of how our culture got to where it is in terms of its relationship to the world that might or might not lie in wait beyond the body.
My father loved movies, and taking me to them was his primary means of educating me. Whatever film we ended up seeing—usually at one of the Washington, DC, theaters across the river from our (at that time still quite rural) Northern Virginia house—he almost always had something significant to say about it on the drive home: something that put whatever action we had seen on the screen within a larger—usually cosmically large—context.
Many of the movies we went to see together were fairly adult in nature. In 1972, when I was ten, my father took me to a British film called Tales from the Crypt. Based on the ’50s EC comic book of the same name, it was, like the comic, broken up into several segments, each one featuring a story based on a tale originally published in the magazine.
The film begins with the protagonists of the different episodes all gathering together, apparently by happenstance, in an underground crypt. A groundskeeper singles out each character and tells their story—seemingly as if it hasn’t happened yet.
At the end of the film, it is revealed that the characters are in fact all already dead, and that the crypt they have found themselves in is the first section of the underworld, where each has been sent as payment for the bad—the very bad—actions they committed while alive.
In the first story segment, Joan Collins plays a woman at home with her husband and daughter, a girl of about eight, on Christmas Eve. While the daughter lies in bed upstairs awaiting Santa, Joan sneaks up on her husband from behind and bashes him in the head with a poker from the fireplace. She then cleans up the mess and stows the body in the basement. As she is finishing up with this, the Christmas carols on the radio are interrupted by an announcement that a homicidal maniac has escaped from a nearby asylum. Everyone in the area, the radio says, should be on the alert for a six-foot-three man with dark eyes, weighing 210 pounds.
Joan locks the door and gets back to what she was doing. Moments later, a very sinister outside shot shows a giant Santa walking through the snow up to the door, a little Christmas bell in hand. He bangs on the door and then peers through the window—eyes bugging, Santa hat askew. Joan hides on the floor just under the window. Does he see her? It’s uncertain, but somehow we sense that Santa knows Joan is in there: that he has, in fact, come precisely for her.
Will Santa get Joan before she can clean up the evidence of the murder and call the police? More perplexingly, do we even care if he does? For perhaps, given how awful a person she clearly is, we might actually want Joan to get a comeuppance of some kind. Perhaps even one as bad as perishing at the hands of the psychotic Santa.
These questions play in the viewer’s head as Joan continues to get rid of the last of the evidence. Just as we think Joan might have things completely under control, her daughter—who by this time we had assumed was asleep—calls out from the living room.
“Mummy, Mummy! It’s Santa! I let him in.”
A gust of wind—evidence that the elements are now free to enter the house—parts the curtains in front of the door. Then a man’s hand pokes through, ringing a little Christmas bell. With a cruel, lustful, slightly animalistic grunt, Santa rushes into the house, pushes Joan to the ground, and strangles her.
The rest of the film follows the fates of the other members of the group in the crypt, detailing the gruesome end each had come to as the result of some bad action committed. But that initial Santa segment was the one that lingered in both my father’s and my mind on the drive home.
“Did you notice,” he asked me, “that the shot of the Santa Claus character killing that woman was photographed from inside the fireplace?”
Now that he mentioned it, I recalled that the final image of Joan, with Santa strangling her, had indeed been shot from behind the fireplace’s burning logs, so that the two figures appeared to be playing out their life-and-death drama within a bed of flames.
“That was a very artful shot,” my father said. “And it shows how that film was largely about karma—about why the things that happen to us happen at all, and why they happen to us in the specific way they do.”
“It was?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said my father. “All of those people, supposedly, ended up in that crypt—had gone down to hell, essentially—for the bad things they’d done, right?”
“Well, maybe they did. But a hell you go to for eternity just for something you did wrong in this one, single life is really an outmoded Christian idea. In fact, from a more sophisticated perspective, it’s actually this world, right here, that’s the real hell. I mean, look around you! People killing and eating other creatures to stay alive, people fighting and torturing each other constantly, suffering from jealousy and anger and all the other feelings that make them do all the terrible things they do… It’s unspeakable. But of course, that’s only half the story.”
“What’s the other half?”
“The one that appears when we realize there’s a way out of the horror—that we’re not stuck in it forever. That film didn’t explain why the man in the Santa suit murdered that woman, but she may very well have murdered him in a previous life. Or they could have been husband and wife, or parent and child. That’s the way the game goes—on and on, life after life, with one person doing something to another person, only to have the roles switched the next time around. But it’s all really just a play, a movie… In the final analysis, it isn’t real. When a scene in a movie is over, the director shouts ‘cut!’ As soon as he does, the actors stop what they’re doing, dust themselves off, and that’s the end of it—at least until he shouts ‘action’ and the cameras start to roll again. The mark of a good actor is his ability to actually believe he’s the character he’s playing. When he takes on a role, he feels the emotions—the loves and fears and rages and joys—that his character feels. But at the same time, there’s always a part of him that stays apart from it all—that doesn’t forget that it’s really just a role he’s playing. A good actor has a bit of all of the characters he’s ever played in him. He’s all of them, but at the same time he’s none of them. Some of his roles were more memorable, some less. But they all mattered while he was playing them. That’s what makes him a good actor in the first place. He can completely immerse himself in a character for a while, then, when the movie’s over, he can go back to being the person he was beforehand. But that’s also the key to living life successfully. All of us are really just actors. When you understand that none of the things that happen to you down here can touch the being you truly are behind the momentary identity you’ve assumed in your current body, life loses all its terror. And once you become free of the fear that comes along with believing you’re just your body and nothing more, you can start to really learn the lessons that you incarnated to learn to begin with—you can start to see what the movie script of your life is really all about.”
“How come more people don’t know that then?”
“We all do know it,” said my father. “It’s just that we forget it when we come down here. The Greek mystery traditions say that each time we come back to earth we take a drink from a river called Lethe. That water gives you amnesia—it makes you forget where you came from. Then, when we die and leave this world again, we take a drink from another river called Mnemosyne. The waters of that river are the waters of memory—of anamnesis, a Greek word that means the opposite of amnesia. The first swallow we take brings us back around, snaps us out of it, and we suddenly remember who we are. Good God, we say to ourselves each time, how could I have forgotten? But even though that larger sense of who we are is given back to us each time we leave an incarnation behind, we forget it all over again next time around, just like we did the last time, and the time before that. Sometimes, when you’re watching a really good film, you can forget where you are for a moment, forget that you’re even sitting in a theater, because you’re so tied up in what’s happening on-screen. You become whatever’s happening up there. That’s what each of our individual incarnations is like. We plunge so deep into whatever life we’ve ended up in that we forget all about where we originally came from. Plato once said that ordinary people—people who don’t understand this—are like a bunch of cave dwellers, watching shadows on the wall. There’s a whole world of blazing sunlight right outside the cave, but instead of going out there, they fix their attention on those dim, flickering shadows, mistaking them for reality. Well… that’s precisely the position most people today are in. They have no idea of where they came from, where they’re going, or how many times they’ve been through this business already.”
“So is there really a river called Lethe in the afterlife?”
“I doubt it. Those are just images—a poetic way of talking. The people in those days weren’t stupid in the least—despite what I’m sure your history and science teachers have to say on the matter. They knew that there was much more to the world than the material level we see around us. They were also aware that there was more to each of us as well—that at heart we’re not at all the limited, powerless little beings we feel like most of the time. You can see that old knowledge everywhere in our language. Do you know where the word person comes from? The Latin persona—‘mask.’ That’s another hint that the ancients knew full well that we’re all just playing roles down here, and whether the roles are good or bad or horrible or wonderful, eventually the movie will end and we’ll remember who and what we truly are. But if you’re smart, you’ll come around to all of this before you die. Discover—or rather, remember—who and what you really are right now, while you’re still down here in this life, and nothing—absolutely nothing—can ever get the better of you.”
Needless to say, this conversation didn’t unfold exactly as I’ve typed it out. I’m doing my best to re-create it from memories that are now more than thirty years old. But in its essence it is accurate, and the points it describes my father making are points he made numberless times to me over the years. This view of the universe as a kind of grand schoolhouse is, of course, the basic vision of new age thought, and its appeal was immediately apparent to me.
But over time, so were its shortcomings as well.
The results of my E-meter sessions with Rebecca the Scientologist were inconclusive. Though I enjoyed the ritual of coming to the downtown office where the readings were made, allowing her to attach, doctor-like, the two small clamps to my fingers, and letting my mind rove around in answer to her questions (“Do you see yourself wearing any special kind of clothes?” “Do you see yourself living by the ocean or water of any kind?”), at no point during these visits did I ever feel like the answers I was giving were coming from anyplace other than my present, child’s imagination, with all its familiar quirks and limitations. My kidnapping fantasies and nightmares continued, and when they finally faded away a year or so later, they were supplanted by other terrors and anxieties, and then by others after that.
But some elements of my situation did change. As the years went on and I moved from childhood to adolescence and then on to my teenage years, I began to get a suspicion as to why my father’s cheerful, no-need-to-fear philosophy had so failed to allay my anxieties about life:
My father didn’t really believe it.
Or at least, he didn’t believe it completely. Sure, it was something he wanted to believe in, and it was certainly something he was good at talking about. But anyone who lived in such close proximity to my father day after day could see that he didn’t really see earthly life as a play or a movie—as something that couldn’t touch the deeper being that he truly was—at all. Try telling him that each year in early April, for example, as tax time approached; or, for that matter, try telling him any number of times in the course of just about any day at all, in one of those many moments when things weren’t going exactly his way.
It wasn’t just that my father forgot about this larger philosophy of his when he lost his temper, however. It was also that at other moments he had a habit of using it in questionable ways. In 1980, the year I graduated from high school, my father had a brief affair with a woman whom he had ostensibly met up with to discuss a new book project. When my stepmother took him to task for this (my mother, by this point, having long since retreated—literally—from the central action of my father’s life by moving to a small house out behind our main one in Virginia), he responded with his usual indignation that he had no choice but to get sexually involved with this woman.
“She believes,” my father told my stepmother, “that we knew each other in Elizabethan England. She suspects you were involved with us as well, and that the only way you’re going to get past the emotional blocks you built up in that life is by overcoming your jealous impulses in this one.”
One day that same year of 1980, my father lost his balance at the top of a steep staircase at the rear of our house and fell down its full length. He fractured his spine and was laid up for several weeks. When he could finally walk again, it was only very slowly and with the aid of a brace.
All that stationary time put him in danger of getting a blood clot. One day that summer I was in my room reading when my father called out from the other end of the house. I dropped my book and ran to see what was up. He was standing in the doorway of his study in his bathrobe, his face pale.
“Get me to the hospital,” he said. “My leg hurts terribly. I think I’ve got a clot.” I helped him to the car and we took off.
It soon became apparent that it was not going to be one of those drives where my father felt like talking. His hand clutching the afflicted leg, his face set in a half-angry, half-frightened scowl, he stared ahead of him and kept his counsel, breaking the silence only now and then to tell me to drive faster.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” I said after a while, when we were about halfway to the hospital.
“That here we are in this car, driving along, and you’re right here, completely alive, completely present, and in the next second you could be… gone. Off somewhere else—or maybe nowhere at all. Who knows? It’s all just kind of incredible when you think about it.”
It was, of course, a highly inappropriate remark. But looking back, I can see exactly why I made it. Though I don’t think I fully realized it at the time, I was taking advantage of this unusual situation to give my father a test of sorts. Did he really believe that there was more to the world than most of the people I knew thought there was? Did he really see material life, as he sometimes liked to describe it, as a shoal between two seas? A shoal that each of us finds our way to and stands up on for a moment, our legs wobbly and our balance off, and then leaves behind again when we plunge back into the waters of the life beyond this one?
“No,” he said after a moment. Just that one, single word. Then he went back to staring straight ahead, out the windshield and down the road toward the hospital.
When we finally got there, a doctor examined my father and told him that he was going to be fine. There was no clot—just a cramped muscle—and no danger to his heart. The incident passed and was forgotten about—at least by him.
It was during those same years of my late teens, as my father’s philosophy came to seem ever more hollow and suspect to me, that I got another source of outside help in figuring out what life might or might not be all about. My stepmother Betty’s son, Nicky, seven years older than me, became interested in Buddhism, and before too long I was reading books on the subject that he recommended to me. Nicky soon got very serious about his Buddhism—sufficiently so that, in 1986, he took the full vows of monkhood. Virtually from the beginning, Nicky had singled out Tibetan Buddhism as the variety he was especially interested in, and it didn’t take me long to realize that its literature had a rigor and solidity to it that put the vague ramblings of the average new ager to shame. If there were any genuine answers to the question of what life and death were really all about, it seemed to me that Nicky might have been correct in seeking them there.
I hadn’t read around too long in Buddhist literature, however, before I found myself troubled with some of the answers it gave. Tibetan Buddhism in particular may have been a lot more serious than the one-big-happy-adventure spiritual philosophy espoused by my father and his new age friends, but as far as I could see, it was also substantially bleaker. At its heart, Buddhism preached a doctrine of the unreality of life, the unreality of human personality, and the unreality of human relationship that chilled me to the bone. Personality, it said, was an illusion. The people we become in life, and the people we grow to know and love, are also illusory. The world Buddhism told me I currently lived in wasn’t so different from that world of paper cutouts that had so terrified me in my dream as a child. If it was Nicky, and not my father, who was really right about what life was all about, this wasn’t, it seemed to me, such entirely good news.
When I got a little older and started to write, I soon discovered that the conflicting viewpoints represented by Nicky’s and my father’s worldviews, and the tension between them, tended to force their way into whatever I wrote about. Is there a world beyond the limited and often quite terrible one that we encounter in this life? If there is, is it a world of personality and individuality and warmth, or of emptiness and impersonality and abstraction? In my thirties, I ended up writing two books that, though ostensibly memoirs, were really both explorations of this subject: the first focused on my childhood with my father and new age thought generally, and the second on the influence that Nicky and Eastern religions had had on me during my teenage years. Both books laid out all the questions I had about each of these perspectives, but neither book tried, except in the most tentative way, to answer them.
In the summer of 1999, when I was thirty-seven and living in New York City, I applied for a position at a magazine I’d never heard of before, called Guideposts. Started in 1949 by The Power of Positive Thinking author Norman Vincent Peale, Guideposts was, it turned out, one of the most popular magazines in the country. It got that way by using a simple, tried-and-true recipe: it told stories by ordinary people—and the occasional celebrity—who used Christian faith and positive thinking to overcome life’s various challenges.
Christian faith and positive thinking were both exceptionally alien concepts to me at the time. Save for my sister Robin’s wedding, I’d never been to a church service in my life, and I knew more about New Guinea headhunters than I did mainstream American Christians. But the offices, and the people in them, looked normal enough when I visited, and I was cheered by the fact that though it was billed as editorial, the position would mostly entail writing. How bad could that be?
My first morning there, my supervisor, Rick, handed me a story told in the words of a California shrimp fisherman named Gene Pritchard. Gene’s boat had gone down off the coast of Santa Barbara when its cables got snagged on the ocean floor, and he and his first mate, named Mark, spent a frigid night in a leaky rubber raft before finally coming ashore on San Miguel Island, some four miles from where their boat had sunk.
With night falling, icy waves slopping over the edge of the raft, and Mark rapidly slipping into hypothermia, Gene found himself in what, I would soon discover, was the classic situation of the Guideposts protagonist: crying out to a God who, up to that moment, he thought he had stopped believing in.
Gene’s prayers were interrupted by an unlikely sound: the puffing of a California gray whale. Rolling about just yards from their craft, the whale kept the two men company all night and into the early morning hours, at certain points even nudging their raft toward land. When Gene finally staggered out of the breakers on the northwest shore of San Miguel Island, he was a different man from the one who’d gone into the water the day before: a man who knew that even in those moments when he least seemed to be, God was watching out for him every step of the way.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked Rick after reading the story.
“Tighten it up,” he said. “Really put us out there on the water with the narrator, and bring out the faith element so that we know that it was God who got him through.”
Fair enough. But could one really surmise that God (the God, that is, of traditional Christian faith) had gotten Gene and Mark out of their mess? Had he really and truly sent the whale along to a) help nudge Gene and Mark’s boat toward shore and b) show that they weren’t alone out there on the waves? The answer to this question, for Guideposts’ millions of readers, was apparently so clearly yes that I didn’t even need to waste paper arguing the point. All I had to do was lay the story out in such a way that it was sufficiently rich in detail and drama to provide them with an entertaining reading experience. The story in itself didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already fully know.
New editors at the magazine were often unofficially assigned the “action-adventure” beat, as action-adventure stories were the ones with the clearest plotlines. Whether the protagonist was a snowmobile rider trapped at the bottom of an icy crevasse, a carjacked soccer mom, or a pilot at the helm of a malfunctioning helicopter, the underlying message of the stories I worked on was always the same: have faith, keep your chin up, and never forget that however little he may seem to be, God is looking out for you.
Strangely, I liked the work. Though the unchanging structure of the Guideposts stories could get a little wearing, the basic task of fishing around in the messy stew of life for chunks of apparent meaning—of finding the hidden narrative arc in the seemingly pointless flux of human experience—was one that came fairly naturally to me.
Nonetheless, the whole premise of the magazine continued to puzzle me. How was it, I wondered, that its readers were so happy to read what was essentially the same story, for issue after issue and year after year?
“All Guideposts stories,” an editor who’d been there much longer than I had told me one day, “are about making sense of life. That’s why they’re all told in the first person. The Guideposts reader is a person who wants to feel like his or her life is going somewhere, that there’s a point to it. There’s a reason you’re alive. That’s really all each of the stories in the magazine says. And that’s why people never get tired of reading them.”
After a year or so at the magazine, I was assigned my first action-adventure story with a near-death component to it. In this kind of story, which I started to bump into more and more often, God was sufficiently delayed in showing up to save the day that the story’s protagonist actually died for a time before being brought back to life by the inevitable emergency medics.
I’d read a fair bit about near-death experiences by that point. Modern NDEs, I knew, had first become widely known in the mid-seventies, after the psychologist Raymond Moody had brought the subject to national attention by telling the story of how, while still a student at the University of Virginia, he had met a man named George Ritchie. Ritchie had told him a story about something that happened to him while he was a soldier, after being admitted to an army hospital with pneumonia. While at the hospital, Ritchie underwent a nine-minute near-death experience containing most of what would later become known as the “classic” NDE features: travel down a long tunnel, a visit to a heavenly (and in Ritchie’s case, also a hellish) region, sensations of overwhelming peace and well-being, a meeting with a being of light (whom Ritchie identified as Jesus), and an unshakable conviction, once it was over, that what had happened was not a dream but, if anything, more real than ordinary life.
His curiosity awakened by Ritchie’s account, Moody began interviewing nurses, doctors, and other actual survivors of close calls with death. He came across story after story, most of which followed a fairly set pattern. Further standard NDE features emerged. They included seeing one’s dead body “from outside,” usually surrounded by mourning friends and family who, mysteriously, don’t see the “dead” person and ignore him or her when he or she tries to speak to them; a review of one’s experiences in the life just (apparently) ended; a reunion with deceased family members; a glimpse of landscapes of overwhelming beauty; and, last but not least, the discovery that one’s time is not up and that one has to return to earth and—most disagreeably—to the body that one had, for a few moments, been triumphantly free of.
People by the hundreds and perhaps the thousands had, it appeared, been having these experiences for years, but they’d by and large kept them to themselves because they were simply too far outside ordinary experience, too strange and unbelievable, for those people to feel comfortable sharing. They were also, it appeared, happening in ever-increasing numbers these days, as doctors became ever more skilled at pulling people back from the edge of death through sophisticated resuscitation techniques.
I’d known about and been interested in this material in a general way for years, but with the exception of a professional scuba diver I’d met in my twenties while working in the Bahamas on a psychic treasure-hunting vessel run by a friend of my father’s, I’d never known someone who’d actually had one of these experiences. Now, at Guideposts, I found myself talking to one after another.
“The pieces just fell together,” one man told me of the night he’d run into his burning house to rescue his children and passed out from the smoke. “It was like I was looking down from up above, and everything just suddenly slid into place. I saw that my entire life, every last part of it, had meaning—even the stuff that before had seemed most pointless or unpleasant.”
Another man, whose car had gone off a bridge in the San Francisco Bay area, told me that when he hit the water he lost consciousness for several minutes. His life, too, had passed before him.
“I saw everything that ever happened to me,” he said, “like I was watching this superlong movie that somehow just took a second to unfold. After I saw it, I just totally knew that whatever happened to me next would be okay. Even dying and not coming back would have been okay. In fact, now that I’d gotten a glimpse of what really happens to you, not having to come back to earth would have been the most okay thing of all.”
“Dying,” another narrator told me, “is the best thing that could ever happen. You get bigger, and you get smarter… You’re yourself—really yourself—for the first time. It’s like you suddenly remember: Oh yeah, this is me—this is who I really am. When you come back down to ordinary life again, it’s more than a disappointment. It’s heartbreaking. You don’t really want to be back here again. It’s so much better up where you are when you’re out of your body. And yet at the same time, you also realize that, as crazy as it seems, you belong down here. When you get up there you see that there’s a reason we’re all born into this life. But because you can only really see that larger picture when you’re out of your body, you have to work really hard to keep it in your head when you get back down here. This isn’t all there is. It’s so hard to remember that once you’re back, but in reality it’s the one thing you have to hang on to, whatever else happens.”
Most of the Guideposts stories I worked on were about 1,200 words, or five double-space typewritten pages, long. The trick of writing them was to squeeze all the pertinent information from what were often very long phone interviews into those few pages, in such a way that the reader got a vivid, scene-laden story that sounded comfortingly similar to the countless other such stories he or she had read in the past, but at the same time new and different as well. The process from start to finish took four or five days. You started out with a rough idea of what you wanted to do to make the story work, but for most of the time you were working on it, it was largely just a mess. Day two and day three were the worst. On those days, you typically didn’t know what you were doing with the story, why you were bothering to write it, or where it was going to go.
But… if you kept at it, there would inevitably come a point when things started to fall together, when the extraneous details fell away almost by themselves and the story took on an obviousness that—now that you saw it—had been right there from day one.
All of that usually happened, however, only on day five.
That day five feeling seemed to me to be what NDE subjects felt about their own lives when they were out of their bodies. Seen from outside, one’s life took on a narrative coherence that was woefully absent when one was actually inside and living it. And remembering that “from outside” perspective became a crucial key to most of these people’s remaining happy and content with life once their other-world experience was over and they were back down here in their physical bodies.
It was all so different from the master picture of what life was about and how to be happy in it that my father had presented to me so many times when I was a kid. Yet at the same time it was all not very different. Sometimes, as I listened to my (largely Christian) Guideposts interviewees, they would drop a sentence that would bring me back to my new age childhood. Stuff like “Each one of us is special,” or “Everything that happens has significance,” or “The universe has a purpose for all of us…” And, perhaps most familiar of all: “We’re here to learn.” These kinds of statements had often irritated me when I was younger, because it was usually so apparent that the people saying them didn’t really believe what they were saying at all. But somehow, when a person who’d been clinically dead for five full minutes reeled off one of these clichés to me, I found myself less resistant to the truth that might just possibly lie behind it.
Of course, I was still perfectly aware that the fact a person believes in something doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily true. But it began to occur to me that NDE survivors, as a group, seemed often to have a particular outside perspective that really and truly allowed them to navigate their lives in a more successful fashion than many people did these days. I began to suspect that in these people I had stumbled upon a group for whom my father’s adage that we’re all much more than we normally think we are was not simply a pleasant fancy but a living, breathing truth—and that this discovery had genuinely changed the way they lived their lives.
After a year or so at Guideposts I started traveling around the country more, meeting my interviewees in person rather than just talking to them on the phone. It was especially important to do this if you were interviewing someone famous, my boss told me, because celebrities met so many people in the course of their days that if you just talked to them on the phone they’d inevitably forget about you by the time the story was done and you needed to get them to sign off on it.
Studying up for an interview with George Foreman at his church in Houston, I discovered that he, of all people, had had a near-death experience himself—or (if one was being technical) at the very least an OBE or “out-of-body” experience, which in terms of psychological results could sometimes amount to almost the same thing.
It had happened back in the seventies, down in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after a fight in the wake of Foreman’s disastrous loss to Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. Foreman had lost consciousness while getting a rubdown in the stifling hot dressing room following the San Juan fight, and he suddenly found himself, literally, in another world. It was a landscape he could only describe with extreme negatives. Horror, emptiness, pure and total meaninglessness… Foreman hadn’t been afraid of too much in his life up to that point, but the experience so terrified him that he found himself crying out to God to save him. The instant he did, he was lifted out of that hellish realm and into another one of equally overwhelming beauty and goodness.
The story was full of great details. Coming to on the rubdown table, Foreman leapt off and began hugging Don King and the rest of the boxing bigwigs in the dressing room and telling them that he loved them. Sure that the champ was suffering some kind of momentary dementia due to exhaustion or dehydration, they pushed him underneath a cold shower. But the freezing water only increased Foreman’s excitement. “Jesus,” he cried out to the men beyond the curtain, “is coming alive in me!”
As it happened, Foreman never “recovered” from his experience, and it became the catalyst for his 180-degree change from the mean-spirited bully people had loved to hate to the perennially cheerful Christian minister and product pitchman that people know him as today.
Foreman was the most flamboyant example I’d met of a person who’d had the entire course of his life changed by an event that seemed to have happened genuinely outside of that life. If life, his story suggested, was to be an event that made sense, it could only do so when it was seen (at least for a moment) from a perspective beyond the one we have when we’re actually living it.
Another interviewee of mine in those early years at Guideposts was a painter and art teacher named Howard Storm. Storm’s book, My Descent into Death, told the story of an experience he’d undergone in Paris after suffering a near-fatal attack of peritonitis while on a holiday with his wife. Like countless NDE subjects before him, Storm had made the surprising discovery that the physical body we normally inhabit is not the only body we have. After lying in agony in his hospital bed for hours, Storm found himself getting up, turning around, and marveling at the sight of his wasted physical body lying there, without him in it. Suddenly not only pain-free but profoundly refreshed and energized, he wandered out of his room and down the hall of the hospital, ever more perplexed at how alert and alive he felt. “All my senses,” Storm wrote, using the kind of outlandish yet strangely believable details that fill his book, “were extremely acute. Everything felt tingly and alive. The floor was cool and my bare feet felt moist and clammy. This had to be real. I squeezed my fists and was amazed at how much I was feeling in my hands just by making a fist.”
Storm then heard voices calling to him from farther down the hallway. He asked who they were, and the voices responded that they were there to take care of him. But the more questions Storm asked, the more evasive the answers became, and though he perceived dim figures, Storm couldn’t make out much more than that. The voices continued to insist that he keep making his way down the hall.
As Storm proceeded, the voices took on a mocking tone.
Storm looked back and—with the weird dreamlike omniscience typical of near-death experiences—saw his body still lying on the hospital bed, even though he was far away from it now. Drifting back and forth from first to third person, at one moment seeing things from inside and at the next from a position outside himself, Storm began to make out the shapes of the people walking with him down the hallway more sharply.
As he did so, their voices got meaner.
“The more questioning and suspicious I was,” wrote Storm, “the more antagonistic and rude and authoritarian they became. They began to make jokes about my bare rear end… and about how pathetic I was.”
The number of people grew, and they began to push and shove at Storm. “They were playing with me just as a cat plays with a mouse. Every new assault brought howls of cacophony. Then at some point, they began to tear off pieces of my flesh. To my horror I realized I was being taken apart and eaten alive, slowly, so that their entertainment would last as long as possible.”
Unpleasant as it was, this section of Storm’s narrative had a strangely tonic ring for me. In a genre where the words love and light are used so relentlessly that they soon get drained of all effect, Storm’s words underlined the idea that in genuine near-death narratives, what is being talked about is a genuine place, where genuine beings move and act, and genuine events occur: both positive ones and negative ones.
I also liked the way Storm’s descriptions so clearly painted the chaotic nature of the hellish region he’d found himself in. If heaven is a place where things make sense, then hell, his narrative suggested, is a place where things don’t make sense, and that lack of order is as painful and horrific to experience as all the other things that go on there.
Terrified and demoralized and completely out of ideas of how to help himself, Storm, like Foreman, finally got the notion to cry out to God. Also like Foreman, he was instantly pulled up from the hellish region and into a heavenly one. And, once again like Foreman, upon recovering from his ordeal he completely changed his ways, even going so far as to become, just as Foreman had, a Christian minister. Storm’s change of personality was so extreme that his wife initially thought he had simply lost his mind. The first thing Storm did upon the couple’s return to America was to find a church. Upon entering, Storm burst into tears and had to be dragged out until he’d pulled himself together.
Another key interview in my growing series of personal encounters with modern believers in the world beyond the body was Janis Amatuzio, a forensic pathologist whose (for her profession highly uncharacteristic) belief in the soul’s survival of death had led to her nickname, “the Compassionate Coroner.” On the morning I arrived in her basement offices in a suburb of Minneapolis, she’d already performed three autopsies before changing out of her scrubs and into a cheerful magenta suit for our interview. Conducting an autopsy, Janis told me, was like going through someone’s wallet.
“There isn’t,” she said, “a more personal possession in the world than your body. But in the end, that’s still all it is.”
Hearing those words once again took me straight back to those drives home from the movies with my father as a kid: talks in which it was first suggested to me that the body I currently inhabited was but the momentary habitation of a larger, more multifaceted, more mysterious entity: the real and true “me” that overflowed the boundaries of the single life I was currently living, stretching far into the past and equally far into the future. The secret stranger whom I both knew and didn’t know: my larger—my true self. What people like Janis Amatuzio, George Foreman, and Howard Storm were giving me, in different language and from highly different perspectives, was yet another version of that same essential narrative.
On my office door at Guideposts since the day I’d arrived (and on a number of other places in the offices as well) there was a small, slightly age-yellowed, magnetic sticker with a quotation from a back issue of the magazine written on it: “We should consider ourselves as spirits having a human experience, rather than humans having an occasional spiritual experience.” No one seemed to know who, exactly, was responsible for the quote, but one person told me it had originally come from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and philosopher famous for his controversial attempts to meld the teachings of Catholic Christianity with the theory of evolution. Beneath its friendly, generic-sounding surface, this passage was a fairly controversial adage to have found its way into the Guideposts offices. After all, if a spirit was having a human experience, didn’t that suggest that this spirit preexisted its current human/earthly state? The doctrine of reincarnation was anathema at Guideposts. Just saying the word in the pages of the magazine would have brought forth a sackful of outraged letters within a few days. What, given the strongly anti-reincarnation stance of the magazine’s mainstream Christian readership, was a sentiment like this doing stuck to doors and filing cabinets throughout the office?
Sociologists and historians of religion sometimes use the term “transcendent narrative” to describe the story a culture tells itself about what life, and death, are at bottom all about. A genuine transcendent narrative needs to be one thing above all else: it has to be understood as true by the people who tell it. If it isn’t true, it might still remain an interesting story, but it won’t be useful: not really useful, the way the stories that actually help people to successfully navigate their lives need to be. Transcendent narratives are not just stories among other stories; they are the story, the one that, once heard and absorbed and believed down to one’s bones, allows one to genuinely navigate the seas of life rather than simply drown in them.
My culture’s current doubts about its own transcendent narrative (or more accurately, its lack of one) were well-known. The standard argument went like this. Christianity was a transcendent narrative that had served Western civilization handily until about three hundred years ago, when, with the rise of modern science, it had died a swift and ugly death. The transcendent narrative of the moment was supplied by science, which, while it had made quick work of the old beliefs about the universe being a meaningful place and human beings having an equally meaningful part to play in it, hadn’t yet replaced them with any new ones. The problem with the scientific view as it stood so far was that it really wasn’t very much of a narrative at all. Life was random, had started by accident, and would eventually disappear again. Not much of a story.
Of course, not everybody had thrown the old religious narratives out in favor of the new scientific one. The Guideposts readers whom I had met (and who so many of my jaded, depressed, postreligious New York friends couldn’t resist making fun of) still in large part believed that God had created the world, that Adam had fallen from grace in Eden, that Christ had redeemed that fall, and that all people (or at least the redeemed among them) would one day be with Christ again, in a thoroughly renewed cosmos from which every last taint of sin and corruption had fallen away. But the fact remained that materialism—the idea that physical atoms bouncing around in three-dimensional space is the only reality there is, and that human consciousness is an ephemeral, insubstantial by-product of electrochemical activity in the brain that will cease completely when the brain dies—is the default setting for most of Western culture today. The suspicion that we are really nothing more than mortal material bodies eats away, beneath the surface, at the beliefs of even the most adamantly and self-consciously “spiritual” people, plenty of believing Christians included.
In fact, and despite all his protestations to the contrary, it was what I suspect my father believed deep down as well, and its presence at the very core of his psyche was what had made him respond the way he did to my comment in the car that day back in my late teens when we were rushing to the hospital.
It’s the story that we, as citizens of the modern world, are all but doomed to believe in whether we want to or not.
It seemed clear to me that to truly defeat this materialistic perspective, to put an end to the inertia and despair that it produces among so many people today, we need to do more than read the occasional spiritual book or have the occasional spiritual thought. We need to find a new master narrative that we can genuinely grasp and absorb and completely believe in, in the way that the people I met at Guideposts who had undergone those transformative near-death experiences had.
But where, in our day and age, are we to find this single story? How are we to come up with a new transcendent narrative capable of embracing the faiths of both East and West, of tradition and of modern science? What is the clear, simple, single story—the “day five” story, as I started to think of it—that could tell us who we are and what we’re doing here on earth in such a way that it does not fatally contradict one or another or yet another of the countless philosophical and spiritual perspectives in our deeply pluralistic modern world?
Maybe, I began to suspect, the key to finding this story lay in realizing that a working transcendent narrative did not, in fact, need to provide all the answers to what life is about (a fairly tall order, after all), but only a few key ones. What those answers were exactly I didn’t know, but I was beginning to have a strong suspicion that they had something to do with what the near-death survivors I’d met at Guideposts had told me of what they’d seen in those short but life-changing moments when they’d left their physical bodies behind. And, curiously enough, they also had something to do with the way those stories so cleanly overlapped with certain things my father had told me on all those evening drives we’d taken home from the movies so long ago.
I hadn’t, by this time, been speaking to my father for several years. Not too long after I’d settled into my job at Guideposts, he had gotten into a dispute with an old friend of his who was living for a time in a trailer on a section of his rambling West Virginia property. Throughout my childhood my father had moved from one large, ill-kept property to another, populating them with friends or random acquaintances and inevitably getting into arguments over some picayune issue that ended up poisoning all the good-vibe, one-big-family intentions these arrangements had started out with. I tended to side somewhat automatically with my father in these disputes, but this time around the individual whom my father was bickering with was someone who had been around a lot when I was a child. Somewhat testily, I’d suggested to my father that it was really he who was at fault.
I’d seen my father hang up on countless people over the years. Friends, enemies, book editors… Hanging up on people was one of the things he did most naturally. But until now he’d never hung up on me.
I didn’t call back, and neither did he. At a certain point, word got back to me that my father had moved semipermanently to Italy and married an Italian woman, some fifty years his junior, whom I’d met a few times during the last months before we’d stopped talking and to whom I’d taken an instant dislike. What was happening to the West Virginia property? How was he surviving?
In the summer of 2006, my nephew Oliver called and told me he was going down to West Virginia. My father, now in his late eighties, had just returned there and was regrouping after having fallen out with his Italian bride.
“He can’t stand being by himself,” I said. “If that Italian woman isn’t there, he must have someone else looking after him.”
“He does,” my nephew said. “A woman named Rebecca. She knew you when you were a kid.”
Rebecca? It could only be the same Rebecca who had investigated my past lives by E-meter back in 1970. Like it or not, my father had always told me, the people we find ourselves interacting with in a given life are there for a reason. The people we like, the people we don’t like… even the people we’re totally indifferent to: all of them are there not by happenstance but because we, or rather, the higher being we were before coming down here to incarnate, wants and needs them to be there.
“How’s he looking?” I asked my nephew by email once he was down on my father’s property.
“Good, pretty much,” my nephew wrote back. “But he’s definitely getting older. He told me he wishes you guys could forget about the fight.”
I sent my father an email, and he wrote back. Email had still been something of a novelty when we’d broken off contact, and I discovered that in the interim he had developed a style of address on the medium that mirrored the way he interacted with people in real life. Short on appropriate capitalizations, loaded with misspellings, the messages that started popping into my inbox at work had the quality of last-minute telegrams sent from behind enemy lines.
There was a great deal of talk in these emails about reincarnation. This was no real surprise, of course, as the topic had never been far from his mind. But he now seemed especially taken up with an aspect of the subject that had received little attention back in the days of his lectures to me in my youth: the phase that the discarnate soul spends between earthly incarnations.
Most of what I knew of the so-called between-life or (in Tibetan) bardo state had come from what I’d read and learned from Nicky about Buddhism. The Buddhist view of the time between incarnations is that it is short (forty-nine days is the usual number given) and (if we have not lived lives of exceptional virtue) disorienting and often quite painful. Buddhist teaching suggests that because most of us spend most of our lives acting like we are more important than other people (not to mention other sentient beings like animals), once we are dead and in the spirit world, where this illusory separation no longer holds sway, we spend much of our time there both witnessing and actually experiencing the damage that we did to others while down in the world.
My father seemed to be taking great solace from the fact that according to the authors he was now reading, all this press about the between-life state being a time of fearful reckoning was overblown. Like the excessively moralistic Catholic view he’d been subjected to as a child in boarding school, the Buddhist view was, my father was starting to suspect, just another judgmental projection on the part of a humanity dead set on making the cosmos a grim, bleak place when it was actually a glorious and altogether good one.
“‘All man’s experiences,’” wrote my father in an email, quoting a book by Walter Russell called The Secret of Light, “‘are part of his unfolding. Each experience is part of his journey from the dark to the Light. There is no evil. There is naught but LIFE. There is no death.’”
Typical new age goop, I thought to myself. This was precisely the kind of callow, one-dimensional, we’re-all-beings-of-light-and-everything’s-wonderful attitude that I had often found so irritating when my father and his new age friends would lay it out to me when I was a kid.
At the same time, though, I couldn’t blame my father for being attracted to it—especially now. Given a choice between the bardo hells of Buddhism and the eternal fires of the Catholic afterlife, it only made sense that at his now very advanced age my father would be more attracted than ever to the more syrupy zones of new age afterlife speculation. Given the missteps he’d taken in the course of his life, how could he fail to be seduced by a philosophy that told him he wouldn’t have to pay for those actions once he was dead?
All through the summer my father gave me more email details on his new thinking on the afterlife, while I promised vaguely that I would come down and visit him in West Virginia when time permitted.
Actually, such a visit would not have been very difficult to pull off. All I’d have needed to do was walk down to my parking lot some Friday after work, get in my car, and make a dull but easy four-and-a-half-hour drive.
But week after week I didn’t do so—for the simple reason that I really didn’t want to. Thanks to the prophylactic qualities of computer communication, I had, so far, succeeded in reentering my father’s life while at the same time not reentering it. All that would change, I knew, the minute I actually got out of my car down there and stepped physically back into his world.
Back in the early nineties, my father had learned that he had prostate cancer. For a few months it had seemed like his life was in imminent danger, but after surgery at a West Virginia hospital the problem seemed to disappear. The doctor who performed the surgery cautioned my father that there was a strong likelihood the cancer would show up elsewhere, but my father waved him off. He contacted an alternative cancer doctor whom he knew named Gaston Naessens, set himself up with a course of Naessens’s prescribed treatments of daily injections of a specially formulated substance called (somewhat comically to my mind) 714-X, and went back to his life.
But that fall, during a checkup, my father learned that his 714-X-fueled idyll of cancer-free living was at its end.
“Looks like I’m riddled with it,” he told me matter-of-factly on the phone. “I’ve told Gaston and he’s sending down a new course of 714. He says there’s every possibility I can turn the whole thing around.”
Typically this would have been the point where I’d have offered a tepid word of assent to humor my father in whatever far-fetched nonsense he was attempting to put across. But no words came to me. In some deep part of myself I knew that my father’s long dance with the hard facts of reality was at an end.
The following weekend, I drove down to West Virginia. The door to the front house where my father had been living ever since finances had forced him out of the larger house at the rear of the property was unlocked, and the steps leading onto the porch let out a series of creaks that hadn’t changed a note since I’d last walked up them, ten years before. My father’s study looked onto the porch, and through the big picture window I saw him laid up in his daybed, an assortment of books, TV remotes, crumpled Kleenex, and other half-useful detritus spread around him. I pushed open the unlocked door, walked through the kitchen, down a hall lined with hammered-together bookshelves loaded with a motley collection of titles that I recognized from years before, and into my father’s study.
My nephew (who along with Rebecca was still staying down in West Virginia, keeping my father daily company in a way I couldn’t help but feel guilty about failing to in contrast) was right. He was visibly older. His eyebrows, white and bushy for as long as I could remember, seemed to have been reset from the all-knowing scowl they always used to be in, so that now they registered an attitude of weary sadness. He was skinny, too—very skinny—and that in combination with the strange new vulnerability of his expression gave me the general impression of a bird out of its nest with no one around to pick it up and put it back. Looking at this new and disconcertingly different version of my father, I thought of a remark he’d made to me some years back, when he was in his seventies. “You know, I forget, until I look into a mirror, how ancient I am. Inside, I feel the same as I did when I was twelve.”
My father half-smiled, held out his hand, and pressed mine. Then he gave a kind of shrug, as if to say: You see how it is.
Twenty minutes later, he was embarked on a lengthy, and familiarly urgent, description of Pope Pius IX’s responsibility for the rise of the Nazis and the role of the CIA in covering up the evidence of greenhouse gas buildup. Despite his loss of weight, despite the new and distinctly uncharacteristic atmosphere of weakness he had about him, he was, underneath it all, still himself: so much so that it felt to me like it had been less like a decade and more like a week that we’d been out of touch.
Throughout that fall, I made a point of calling my father every few days to check up on his mood and his physical condition. On a Friday in mid-December, I told him after a short chat that I’d be down again soon for another visit.
“If I’m still around,” my father said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just joking. I’m fine.”
The following night, Saturday, I went to bed early. I took the phone off the hook just in case somebody might call late. It was past eleven the next morning before I remembered that the phone was still off the hook from the night before. I placed the receiver back in the cradle and checked my cell phone. There was a message on it from Rebecca.
“Ptolly, if you get this, please give me a call. If you want to see your dad again, I think you better get down here as soon as possible.”
I called my father’s number. Rebecca answered and told me he’d taken a bad turn in the course of the previous evening. My wife was away till late that evening so I got a neighbor to look after our dogs, packed a small bag, and headed down to the parking lot. It was a chilly, overcast day, and as I drove the weather got worse. By the time I hit the Pennsylvania border it was getting dark and starting to snow. I called my father’s number, and this time my sister Robin answered. She’d been out of contact with my father for a lot longer than me, and had always had a considerably harder a time getting along with him than I had. But in the wake of his diagnosis she’d taken a stab at patching things up with him as well, and had just arrived from the airport a few hours earlier.
“He’s alive,” she said, shocking me with the implied suggestion that he might already not be. When I finally pulled in around 7:00 PM, Robin and Rebecca were seated by my father’s bed. His eyes were closed, and Robin was holding his hand.
The cancer had spread to my father’s liver, and his liver was now failing. Later that evening, his doctor told us that his condition was now terminal. “All you can really do,” he said, “is make him as comfortable as possible with medication.”
Someone needed to be sitting by my father’s bedside at all times. Feeling that I had been of little use elsewhere up to this point, I elected to take the night shift. Over the following two days my father never completely regained consciousness, but instead alternated between a dead slumber in which the intervals between his breaths stretched out to an almost impossible degree, and a strange twilight state in which he appeared to be traveling through some country located between sleeping and waking consciousness. Beneath his closed lids his eyes moved back and forth as if taking in some alien landscape, and his mouth moved as he uttered words to persons or entities unseen by me.
Every now and then when he was in this latter state his eyes would, out of the blue, pop open. He would look blankly into space for a moment, then focus on me, sitting in my chair in front of him. Sometimes, taking me in, he would look completely shocked, as if to say: “What on earth are you doing here?” At other times, however, he seemed to take my presence completely for granted.
Sometimes, in these latter moments, he would say things to me: things that, because of his extreme weakness, I could rarely make out. But I knew my father, and I knew his attitudes. And there was no mistaking what he was attempting to do now.
He was trying to tell me something.
A few times I made out a bit of what that something was. Once, opening his eyes and seeing me, he smiled a (for him) curiously benign smile and said, “I’m just trying to see if I can walk on the bottom of it.”
Walk on the bottom of what? I had, of course, no idea. But there was no getting around the feeling that my father was speaking to me in a voice that, in different circumstances, had been his all of his life: that of an explorer. Another time, opening his eyes and seeing me, he again smiled that strangely uncharacteristic smile and said, “I’m trying to understand it.”
“Trying to understand what?” I asked.
“What you and the sunlight bring me,” he answered, cheerfully and almost matter-of-factly.
My father, while a great talker on the subject of the importance of happiness over the years, had never, to my view, really been all that happy. That, I’d determined in the end, was why he had needed such an endless succession of women, why he’d wanted attention all the time—why he always insisted on making such a grand, sloppy, colossal mess of his life. In his last days, the sadness of that knowledge had been written clearly on his face. But now, lying there in bed, thinner than I’d ever seen him, unable for the most part to talk or even keep his eyes focused, my father would occasionally open his eyes and look directly at me with an expression that communicated, simply and almost shockingly, an unmistakable emotion:
So it went. Sitting there in my father’s office-lair, surrounded by row upon row of books on the occult and esoteric subjects he’d spent his life studying, I found myself trying to put together a rough picture of what might be happening to him. Not from my outside, third-person perspective, but from the inner, first-person perspective he was seeing things from: the perspective that, as my bosses were always reminding me at Guideposts, was the one that really counted.
From Edgar Cayce to Rudolf Steiner to the Theosophists and the Rosicrucians and all the way down to the cheerful new age afterlife commentators my father had recently discovered, there was, I knew, a general consensus about the basics of what happened to a person at death. As the physical body waned, the nonphysical body loosened itself until it floated invisibly just above the physical body, attached to it by a slender cord like a boat at anchor in a shallow sea. Over the course of several days immediately after death, this spiritual body was supposed to gradually disintegrate into the ether of the spirit world, like an Alka-Seltzer dropped in water. During that time, I also knew, my father would presumably go through the initial postmortem experiences familiar to me from my near-death reading. He would, at a certain point, find himself outside his body and able to move around the room. With a slight chill, I realized that in fact, according to the literature, he could already be out of his body and standing right next to me now, seeing me clear as day but unable to communicate with me. At some point after that he would slowly but inexorably be pulled into the beyond, where he would encounter… what? A being of light radiating love and compassion? A review of his life including all the good, not so good, and downright awful things he’d done in it? A crowd of demonic beings who would mock him and pull at him and perhaps even try to devour him as they had Howard Storm?
From new age wonders to Buddhist terrors, all these sundry spiritual concepts swam around in my head, competing for my attention. Yet out of this vast jumble of ideas and images, there was no single picture that rose above the others. Just as my father had been present when I entered the world, giving me the unlikely name that would travel along with me through my life, I was now going to be present when he made his departure from it. But the details of this departure, as I tried to envision it, were maddeningly vague and unfocused. I knew, it occurred to me, too much about the afterlife, and at the same time entirely too little. What I wanted, at this enormously important moment, was a clear and simple picture in my head. A picture that might not have been correct down to the very last detail, but that was at least sufficiently right, sufficiently clear and believable, that I would be able to hold on to it and use it to orient myself.
By Tuesday afternoon, the occasional brief moments of lucidity passed altogether, and my father slipped into a state of unconsciousness from which he would not again waken. Later that day, and much to my irritation, his estranged wife arrived from Italy. I was still so set against her that I didn’t want to let her into the house, but my sister insisted, saying that it was no time for indulging negative feelings whether justified or not. That night, after everyone else fell asleep (including the estranged wife, who soon succumbed to jet lag), I drank my usual two cans of Red Bull and sat by my father’s side, listening to my iPod and feeling—as I had the previous two nights—strangely serene.
At a few minutes after six the following morning, just as the other members of the house were awakening and I was preparing to head off to the couch in the kitchen to get some sleep, my father died. In the end, his breaths were coming so slow, and the intervals between them were stretched out so impossibly, that it took me a full minute or so to understand that he had, really and truly, at last left his body behind.
I was still getting used to that idea when, a few weeks later and back in New York, I walked over to Nicky’s apartment, just a few blocks away from mine. Nicky did a lot of work for the Dalai Lama, much of it in Dharamsala, in northern India, the Dalai Lama’s headquarters-in-exile in the wake of the Chinese invasion. Though Nicky had suffered considerably at my father’s hands over the years, and though it was no doubt the last thing in the world they’d wanted to do, he and his brother Alexander had paid my father a visit in West Virginia the previous fall and made their peace with him as well. Sitting on one of the maroon futon pillows that were pretty much the only furniture in his apartment, Nicky listened without comment as I laid out all the details of my visit, and of my father’s death.
When I was done, I couldn’t resist asking a question.
“So where,” I said, “do you think he is right now?”
Nicky looked away, taking the question seriously and seemingly really thinking his answer over. For a moment there was only the muted sound of Greenwich Village traffic coming up from outside his closed windows.
“I don’t know,” he said finally, and not without what struck me as a real tone of compassion, and even pain, in his voice. “Some hell, I imagine.”
Another person who had not been present at my father’s death was my brother Timothy, or TC, as he liked to be called. Fifteen years older than me, and just nine months younger than Robin, TC had long since absented himself from my father’s world, and had resolutely refused to enter back into it during those last months of his life the way Robin and Nicky both had. In May of that same year when my father died, shortly after leaving my job at Guideposts to work full time on a book about the spiritual life of animals, I traveled down to Memphis for a few days for a wedding. TC lived in Atlanta, and walking around downtown Memphis, I got the idea to give him a call and tell him where I was. TC had been having a lot of difficulties lately, and I couldn’t help but suspect that a big reason for them was his refusal to talk to my father before he died. He usually didn’t pick up the phone when I called, and I was planning on just leaving a message. But this time he picked up on the first ring.
My father didn’t come up in the conversation at all. Like me, my brother had had some serious struggles with alcohol and drugs over the years, and in recent months he had been sliding back into all of that. In fact, the main reason I didn’t call him much anymore was because even on those occasions when he did answer, he was rarely in much shape to talk.
Today, however, his voice was strangely and surprisingly clear. For ten or fifteen minutes, as I meandered around the streets of downtown Memphis, we had one of the more interesting conversations we’d had in years. It was, when I thought back on it later, weirdly philosophical in its tone. In particular, TC seemed to be concerned that I myself not be drawn back into drinking and drugs… all the kind of stuff that had been plaguing him in recent months. Normally I’d have been offended at the arrogance of him doing so. After all, who was he, given his recent troubles, to worry about me? Yet there was something in the earnestness of his voice that kept me from getting my nose out of joint at what he was saying. Finally I wished him luck, we hung up, and I went into a few tourist shops to buy some souvenirs for my friends back north.
A few hours later, during dinner at a crowded restaurant, my cell phone rang. The caller ID told me it was TC.
“What’s up?” I said into the receiver, wondering why he would be calling me again so soon. It took a moment, straining to hear over all the noise in the restaurant, to realize that it wasn’t TC on the phone at all, but his son, Henry. Just a few hours earlier, Henry told me, and no more than an hour or so after our conversation, TC had gone into the bathroom of his house, wrapped a towel around his head, placed the barrel of a .32 revolver beneath his chin, and pulled the trigger.
TC’s suicide was the catalyst for a difficult summer. By the end of July my wife and I had split up and I was staying in Nicky’s West Village apartment while he was away, once again, in India. One day during my stay there, I walked over to Twelfth Street Books, the last of what had once been Greenwich Village’s many used bookstores, and discovered that it was moving to Brooklyn. All the stock was now discounted, and picking around the stacks of books I came across a Library of America paperback edition of Walt Whitman’s collected writings. The last thing I needed, at that point in my extremely disjointed life, was another book. But I liked the way it looked, with the familiar floppy-hatted sepia shot of Whitman from his later years on the cover. So I bought it, took it back to Nicky’s, and put it on one of the several stacks of books I’d carried over from my wife’s place.
Nicky’s apartment was small and, to say the least, sparsely furnished. In fact, it was less someone’s apartment than a Buddhist shrine. Scrolls of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas lined the walls, and prayer bowls and incense trays took up shelves that in another apartment might have held photographs or knickknacks. Over the next few days, writing my animal book in this tranquil but strangely intense environment, I found myself repeatedly picking up that Whitman volume and leafing around in it. Whitman had seen a lot of death close up in his life, especially during his days as a nurse for the Civil War wounded, and much of what he’d had to say about the subject had appealed to me when I’d stumbled across one passage or another over the years. While putting together a piece on Emerson and Transcendentalism at Guideposts a few years back, I’d been particularly interested to discover that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman had all been believers in reincarnation—though it appeared they had envisioned it in a somewhat different manner than the Eastern religions they’d picked up the idea from.
Now, as I stumbled from one intriguingly suggestive line of Whitman about the soul’s destiny to another, an idea began to form in my head. Though I didn’t know a huge amount about his life, I did know that Whitman had been born into a significant time in America’s spiritual history. In the mid and later years of the nineteenth century, the first English translations of Far Eastern spiritual ideas had made their way to America’s shores, and Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau had been among the first Americans to read them seriously. When Whitman had written of himself as “I, Walt Whitman, a cosmos,” and had sung of the countless lives that lay behind and ahead of him, he had had not just Buddhism but, most important, the Hindu doctrine of atman, or soul, at the front of his thoughts.
During those same years of the nineteenth century, the first occult and esoteric ideas that would one day meld with Eastern thinking to produce that loose body of ideas known as “new age” were making their way to America as well. Whitman had done his best to take in this new mix of ideas and forge them into a vision of the soul and its destiny that was genuinely capacious enough for the unique time he found himself living in. It was a vision that, in Whitman’s characteristically all-inclusive fashion, had room for Christianity, for the mystics of the East, for spiritualism and the occult—and last but not least for science as well, for Whitman saw science not as an enemy of the spiritual perspective but potentially the source of its full and final validation.
Whitman had sought a picture of the soul and its destiny that would honor all these different perspectives, but at the heart of his vision was an insistence that death was something not to be feared, but celebrated.
Joy, shipmate, Joy!
(Pleas’d to my soul at death I cry,)
Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy, shipmate, joy.
The world, my father had told me many a time, was, from a certain perspective at least, a kind of hell: a place where, whether we wanted to or not, we just about always ended up doing damage to others, and to ourselves as well. But if we could learn to see this life within the context of a larger life that lay beyond it, all of that would change. All of life’s pain would still be there, but by changing one’s perspective one could transform the way that one experienced that pain. While things might still hurt, they would not hurt in the so often supremely horrible way they hurt for people who had no larger picture—no story-above-the-story—within which to see their lives.
Leafing through my copy of Whitman’s writings, and with all those Buddhas and bodhisattvas of Nicky’s staring down at me, it occurred to me that I had been born into a time when the beginnings of a genuinely new vision of that narrative, of the story-above-the-story that every culture needs if it is to make any kind of deep and lasting sense of life, was coming into being. This story had started to fall together a while back—at least as far back as Whitman’s day—and the new age narratives my father had raised me on, narratives of the soul’s journey through a cosmos that exists not to punish or torment the soul but to season and educate it, were versions of it as well. They were imperfect versions to be sure. But they also held—beneath their inconsistency, outlandishness, and, occasionally, their outright silliness—an allure that I simply couldn’t deny.
It also occurred to me that my encounters with traditional religious/spiritual perspectives—from Nicky’s Buddhism to the Christian readers of Guideposts—had in the end only made me more curious to understand that emerging story and to find the ways in which (in its smartest and best versions) it contradicted, and the ways in which it agreed with, those traditional visions. How, in its best and deepest form, did this emerging narrative of the soul and its destiny, this new master narrative of life and afterlife, really run?
What follows is my own best attempt to sketch it.
© 2012 Ptolemy Tompkins