Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Fear not! I am not an evangelist. I can care less what you believe, and have no desire that you believe as I do. I am not completely naïve enough to truly believe what I just said, so let me temper that statement. Objectively, I can care less what you believe, but I share that weakness of most human beings that, emotionally, I would find some smug satisfaction in knowing your beliefs coincided with mine. There is within me that typical all too human hubris--my beliefs are better than those of others. Yet I hope that my hubris is but a mote in my eye of objectivity, and not a log. Ha! That is a hope, which is far different from a fact. I am not even sure that such a thing is possible. So upon the shaky presumption that I am not trying to persuade your beliefs, please read on. To a degree I feel confident in my lack of mission here, for what would I change your beliefs to? Fundamental Brand X Religion? Which one? I believe that all of man’s religions are inspired by the Divine, and all of them to be corrupted by the hand of man. So I am not sure what it is that I would have you believe. I believe in all of them. A religious friend told me one time that in believing in everything, I essentially believe in nothing. Interesting! Because I refuse to pick a favorite flavor, I dislike ice cream?

For the most part I want to discuss a window, a work of art, and a philosophical problem. Despite the fact that most, if not all, denominations of Christiandom will gladly declare my Soul condemned to an eternity of burning in the fires of Hell for my beliefs, there remains a shard of Christianity in my corroded Soul. There are certain aspects of Christian theology that for some reason resonate with me. One of those is Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to his betrayal and arrest. I am not knowledgeable enough to sift through the fine details of the meaning of Gethsemane, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me."
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."

Matthew 26: 36-39 (NIV)
Hmmmm! Biblical quote! Not something you will find often in my writing. In fact I am really uncomfortable doing so. As a reader, a quote from the Bible usually sets off an alarm klaxon in my mind: “BONG…BONG…BONG! Incoming religious propaganda! SHIELDS UP!” So please read on. Again I am not trying to evangelize.

If you take Christianity at face value—which I seldom do, because which face value would you take--there is for me a Divine Contradiction to the prayers of Jesus at Gethsemane. Jesus is the Son of God. He has recognized his Divinity. He also fully understands the prophecies. He must drink from this cup of suffering. Yet Jesus is also a human being and knows fear and doubt. On the one hand he is Divine and should be above fear, and yet to truly suffer for the sins of man, he must suffer as a man and know true fear, doubt, and a sense of abandonment. He must suffer the temptation to walk away from all this. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus suffers these agonies to the point of sweating drops of blood. He asks his Father to be spared this cup, not by my will but by Yours.

Not to undermine the passion of Jesus on the cross, for his suffering had to be immense—beyond imagination, but I believe that Gethsemane may have been worse. At Gethsemane, Jesus had a choice. He could walk away from this and there had to be a grand temptation to do so.

One of the joys in my life is to get in the car and ride aimlessly about in the country. I find a great comfort in the asphalt of a lonely country road sliding under my ass at 45 mph with nothing in front of me and nothing behind. In one such journey one evening, I came across an old church in Saxonburg, Pennsylvania that has a beautiful stained glass window. As stained glass windows go, this one is quite simple. Yet I believe it is the simplicity of the image that is the source of its poignancy to my Soul.

The first time I noticed this window, I was stunned…it seemed to speak directly to my Soul. I went around the block and came back, parked the car and just stared at this window. When I returned home I did an image search on the Internet and found a piece simply titled Tableau Gethsemane. No artist, no explanation. Over the years, I found other similar images and came to find out that the window and Tableau Gethsemane are a variation of Heinrich Hofmann's painting Christ In Gethsemane. According to Wikipedia, it is one of the most copied paintings in the world. John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased the painting and it resides in the Riverside Church in New York City. There is another variation of the painting by E. Goodman.

In the telling of this story, I have not been perhaps totally honest. The layout of my post would suggest that my interest in Gethsemane fired the passion for the window and painting. Yet truth be told, it was quite the opposite, the window fired my interest in the agony of Gethsemane. I of course knew of the story of Gethsemane, but until I experienced that window, it was for most part another Biblical story. The window inspired my interest, which then inspired the contemplation. The contemplation has not been an entirely happy one for me. I am often faced with Gethsemane’s of my own. In relative magnitude, small potatoes, the agony of death does not await me. But far too often, I am faced with minor moral quandaries, nothing Earthshaking, but something where there is a clear correct path…and the easy path. The correct path usually requires some modicum of courage. The easy path? Simply walk away. I find more often than I would like to admit, that I take the easy path. Ignore the racist or sexist comment. Laugh at a cruel gay joke. Participate in the innuendo against another person. Choose not to defend that person.

I have mentioned in the past the bell curve of goodness. That sounds dumb, let’s call it the bell curve of morality. I place myself on this curve roughly at slightly better than average, mirroring IQ, I would like to think I am a 101 to 105, with 100 being the average. IQ? Let’s call this bell curve the morality quotient. MQ!

When I think of all my moral failings, I am not sure I can maintain that lofty albeit somewhat average 101 to 105. I feel below average, perhaps a 90. Whoa! A 90! That can’t be right. At 90 shouldn’t I be conducting breaches of the law on a regular basis? Shouldn’t I be in front of a magistrate at something more than the average rate? The fact that I have never been in front of a magistrate would indicate that I can’t be at 90 (or that I am very lucky—which I am not). So how can I justify placing myself at a 90?

By knowing better. Good God, I feel an arrogance oozing from me just by saying that. Much too often I do not challenge a lapse in morality. I may not participate directly, but I don’t protest it, and I know better. How do I know this? I feel the cowardice at the moment. My conscience sounds a protest, but I remain mute. So you see it is failures of omission for which I am guilty. It is easier to go along with crowd than to take a moral stance. In the best of times, the lack of moral courage results in a slur being ignored—a tacit approval, in the worst of times it allows a nation to commit genocide. Same principle, different magnitudes.

So I find Gethsemane to be an iconic reminder of my moral failings. Jesus chose to face death on the cross, and I choose not to piss off someone who is saying something ignorant. I believe that God speaks to us in many ways. I usually do not listen. But one evening God spoke to me through a window, nothing but colored glass, and my Soul has been somewhat troubled since.

IMAGES Note, click on the image to see full size.

1. Memorial United Presbyterian Church, Saxonburg, Pennsylvania. Forgive me for the quality.

2. The Window, Memorial United Presbyterian Church, Saxonburg, Pennsylvania

3. St-Takla-org, Jesus-Praying-in-Gethsemane-Garden

4. Wikipedia, Christ in Gethsemane, Henrich Hoffman.jpg

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Few Thoughts

Most of the reason for this post is to get a small post in front of that monstrosity, Tunnels 1, 2, & 3 so that I can get to the post archives on my Kindle. The Kindle format places the archives at the end of the post, which is hundreds of pages for Tunnels on the Kindle.

Now for a few thoughts.

The final count of my brother-in-laws California trip was 335 new species. Unfortunately, I lost the breakdown and do not want to trouble him for it again.

I read some quotes by St. Teresa of Avila. She writes in a remarkably modern conversational style for someone who died in 1588. I suspect the translations are somewhat inaccurate.

Old Baguette, having been born in the middle of August, you are as much a daughter of the Perseid Meteor Showers as you are a Leo. Perhaps my mother saw a falling star during your birth.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tunnels Part 1

Eighteen years ago my cousin died at the early age of 57. Here is a chapter I wrote in my never published book about the experience of going to the funeral home and some speculations on the afterlife. At the time I was 43, a different man than I am now, yet oddly the same. Due to the length I broke the chapter up into three posts. This is part 1. Click here for Part 2 , and here for Part 3.

I am driving on the Penn Lincoln Parkway west bound into Pittsburgh. My mother and I are going to a funeral home in Greentree. My cousin, Helen, has died--quite unexpectedly. Hell she was only 57. Not very old for dying. It is a cool day, actually quite seasonal for early March, and it is threatening rain. The traffic is very heavy for a Sunday afternoon. My mother is telling me about Helen's health problems as I try to navigate through the heavy traffic.

"Helen had been suffering from gall bladder trouble for some time now."

We approach the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and the traffic comes to a start/stop crawl as it always does at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.

"She went into the hospital about two weeks ago and had her gall bladder removed. Apparently she was doing quite well."

We continue to inch along like a herd of snails toward the tunnel. According to the newspaper, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission is spending a 100 grand to study why people slow down as they approach this tunnel and immediately speed up when they enter it. No one can explain why there is a perpetual traffic jam for a good mile before entering the tunnel, yet the tunnel is always clear and the traffic moves quickly through it. This phenomenon does not seem to occur anywhere else. Myself, I think it's just a charming Pittsburgh custom. When in Pittsburgh, do as the Pittsburghers do: slow down when approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, but go like hell through it.

"Well then something happened and she just spiraled downward. Seems as though she went into congestive heart failure."

We are now moving 20 feet, stopped for 30 seconds, moving 10 feet, stopped for 45 seconds. . . lurch forward, stop, lurch forward again.

"Hells bells, nobody expected the poor girl to die," Mom says.

I chirp in, "Well you know Ma, she always hit the old cigarettes pretty good."

I am doing a slow soft shoe routine on the brake pedal--no need for the gas, we are moving too slow. We round the bend, and the tunnel slowly comes into view. The traffic in the opposite lanes is moving briskly away from the tunnel, much brisker than the 55 mph speed limit.

"Yeah, but good God, 57, that's an awful age to die."

"Well Ma, you know, nobody gets out of this world alive."

Ahead, there is a cacophony of brake lights. . . on/off. . . flash-flash-flash. . . on/off. . . . It is a random percussion of red. As we start our final approach to the tunnel, some drivers up ahead, forgetting tradition, realize that there is no reason to be driving so slow. Suddenly the entire lane lurches ahead like a poorly connected train. Being a follower in this train, one must rapidly step on the gas and keep up, or suffer the complaint of a multitude of horns. But then, the spirit of some demented Miss Manners appears in the side view mirror of the leader of the pack, gently reminding: "In Pittsburgh, we slow down while approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel and drive fast only when inside." The leader, realizing his faux pas, now slams on his brakes and brings the entire lane to a screeching halt.

"That is true, my boy, but is it too much to ask for it to come later than sooner?"

"Well now Ma, if we could control that, everybody would just keep putting off the inevitable. No one would ever die," I reply while slamming on the brakes.

The brake and accelerate dance continues as we get closer to the tunnel. This routine requires a bit of skill and attention. Too slow, you get blasted by horns, too fast, you will end up in--as the British say--a smash up. Lurching forward and quickly stopping, we continue for the mouth of the tunnel, riding past the old slag dump. There it sits, right next to the Parkway, in all of its gray/black ugliness stating "this is Pittsburgh: once a great steel town." I can now see into the tunnel, and as usual, there is no traffic jam inside.

"My God, Son, where are all these people going?"

"Beats the hell out of me, Ma."

We are inching closer and closer to the entrance of the tunnel. I can see freedom a mere 15 cars ahead, just on the other side of the entrance. We lurch ahead, 10 cars now. Miss Manners strikes again, quick slam on the brakes. Way behind, some fool has a lapse of attention and the enraged horns of the followers trumpet their displeasure. Now we are moving again, and suddenly for a vague instant, I am the leader of the pack. To hell with Miss Manners, to hell with tradition, to hell with the Scaifes, the Mellons, the Fricks, and the Olivers. And to hell with the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, I floor it! Four cylinders, 98 raw horses of Henry Ford's pure power leap into life. The engine howls like an over-wound gumband, (Pittsburghese for rubberband) and into the tunnel hops my froggy looking Tempo. Our triumph is bathed in a glorious divine golden light--not from God or heaven--but from Penn DOT, our sacred state highway department. In the first 200 feet of the tunnel, they have installed bright yellow lights; the sun pales in comparison. I suppose that these lights are to help you see until your eyes accommodate to the relative gloom in the middle of the tunnel. We rapidly accelerate up to 45 mph. My mother continues to talk about Helen, but I can't follow her. I am feeling a bit of panic as the tunnel walls and ceiling rush by. I get the feeling that the walls are constricting, becoming narrower and smaller the faster we go. I can't stand these tunnels. It's not claustrophobia; I can go through slowly or even stop and not be bothered. The thought of being under millions of tons of earth doesn't scare me. No, it is the speed causing the illusion of the tunnel walls constricting that I can't stand. My intellect tells me, and my eyes can see that I am OK, but the illusion bothers me nonetheless. My knuckles, if I dared to look at them, are pure white. My palms are sweaty. My mother has asked me a question. We are up to 53 mph. Don't look at the speedometer. Keep your eyes on those walls. Fools in Pittsburgh, why do you crawl at a snail's pace outside the tunnel and go like a bat out hell inside? Half way through, my mother, again, asks me some inane question. Damn it! Can't she see that I am busy here? Some idiot is blowing his horn! A big diesel is running up through the gears! The damn walls are getting tighter and tighter! Shrinking in on me! The walls are going to squeeze the life out of us! The head lines will read: MOTHER & SON KILLED IN UNUSUAL TUNNEL MISHAP! I can hardly stand another moment of this. Damn Helen, what did you have to go and die for? Why can't you, at least, be laid out in Monroeville?

At last! Thank God! Brake lights! We have reached the geographical point in the tunnel where the second mandatory Pittsburgh Squirrel Hill Tunnel tradition kicks in. Three quarters of the way through, the traffic rapidly slows down to about 30 mph. The walls slow down and widen. The ceiling becomes higher. I relax my grip on the steering wheel. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We will survive this trip. My mother apparently gave up on her question and is talking about the old days. We slide out of the tunnel at a harrowing 25 mph and burst into the brilliant day light. Immediately the traffic speeds up to--well, I don't know. I level out at a cool 58 mph and they are passing me like it's the end of the world. My 58 mph speed, of course, instantly attracts a tailgater who is having a nervous breakdown trying to get around me. Meanwhile in the opposite lanes, now approaching the tunnel, the traffic is a bumper to bumper snarl backed up for over a mile.

We shoot down the hill, losing one tailgater only to gain a fresh one. Around the bend, we go past the site of the old J&L works, a steel mill. There is nothing left of it now, it's completely gone. It was a fascinating sight when I was a kid. We would pass it on our way to Helen's. Great clouds of acrid orange smoke would belch out of the furnaces. The air smelled of rotten eggs. Huge blue flames shot out of a variety of stacks. On the sides of the blast furnaces, little cars hurried up an inclined track to dump something into the top of the furnace. There was drama, excitement, contraptions, noise, and stench. What a fascinating place for a kid! All gone now.

Mom continues her discussion of Helen back in the old days. She describes her wedding, the birth of her kids, houses that they lived in and so forth. I am not really paying attention because I am beginning to feel a sense of dread. Helen was only 57--too young for this. I don't handle funerals in particular and social occasions in general very well. This affair is going to be tough. My dread is ratcheting upwards as we zing through a tangle of overpasses, on ramps, off ramps, and big green signs with rhinestone letters. You have to pay attention to those signs. This is Pittsburgh; pinched between two rivers, real estate is prime here. There is not enough room to build an adequate highway with sensible exits. Driving down here requires the ability to read and change lanes with split second accuracy. One would be better served with a joystick rather than a steering wheel. The odd thing about this section of the road, the lower downtown portion of the Parkway, is how fast you seem to go. The buildings and the overpasses are very close to the road, and they just seem to whiz by.

I am about 15 years younger than Helen, so we were never exactly childhood chums. My parents were much closer to her than I ever was; she seemed more like an aunt than a cousin. That is not to say that we didn't get along or that she was mean. No, we just didn't have much in common. I have no recollection of it, but I gather from my mother that she was an occasional baby sitter for me. I have no memory of Helen not being an adult. What I do remember was an attractive woman with a gift for lively conversation, if not down right gab. Most of the laughter and carrying on went right over my young head. It was probably tastefully dirty. What a shame to have missed out on that. She was hooked on Pepsi and Parliaments. I got this strange memory of a heavy aluminum tumbler filled with Pepsi sweating down into a glass coaster. Next to the tumbler is an ashtray full of Parliament butts with bright red lipstick on the filters. Near the ashtray is the ubiquitous pack of Parliaments and some kind of a jazzy female cigarette lighter that did not work very well. Weird thing to remember, but mention Helen and the image jumps uncontrollably into my mind.

We drive up a ramp and make the sharp corner onto the Fort Pitt Bridge to cross the Monongahela River. This bridge is a complicated affair with several merging lanes of traffic on this side, and an exit and the Fort Pitt Tunnel on the other side. The bridge is fairly short and much of the traffic must change several lanes. It's amazing with all these complications, the traffic flows smoothly across the bridge and into the tunnel. The very same people who insist on a bumper to bumper snarl at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel--a paragon of simplicity by comparison--seem to be able to drive across this bridge, read a myriad of green signs, change several lanes, and enter the tunnel with no fanfare. No starts and stops, no horn blowing, no waiting. It's simply amazing.

We enter the tunnel. Because tradition does not dictate a traffic jam outside of the tunnel, there is no need to attain warp speed inside. With a sensible speed, I do not suffer from the constricting wall syndrome that frightened me inside the Squirrel Hill Tunnel. Overhead and slightly to the right, on top of the hill, is the house that my father and Helen's mother were born and raised. One more street to the right sits the house were Helen grew up. It is odd to be passing hundreds of feet below where my father lived and played seven decades earlier. There is a tremendous amount of family history passing overhead, most of it unknown to me. It's kind of weird.

In my youth, Helen's daughters were boring little girls considerably younger than I. My sister could have a good time with them, but I was always bored. As I grew older, of course, so did they and the last I can recall, they were boring, shy, awkward girls in their very early teens. Now at that time, I was a boring, shy, awkward young man in my early twenties home on leave from the Air Force. That half generation difference in our age always kept me somewhat out of tune with Helen and her family. I never had much in common with them.

We have left the tunnel behind and are now climbing the long grade up Greentree hill. It won't be long now. My dread for this affair is increasing exponentially. My mother prattles on, and I throw in a few Uh Huhs, but I am not listening, I am wallowing in anxiety. I am a boring, shy, awkward middle aged man in my early forties with a balding head and a pot belly. What the hell am I going to do? What am I going to say? I don't know what to do at these deals. My wife is lucky, she is at home watching the kid. Me, I am about to be fed to the wolves. Oh I hate this.

At the top of the hill, we exit right onto Greentree Road, and, in no time, we are in the funeral home's parking lot. The funeral home is standard American funeral home architecture--a big, ungainly, white, ugly, frame building. Apparently in some handbook for morticians there is a picture, STANDARD AMERICAN FUNERAL HOME. And why call it a funeral home or parlor? Why not a funeral office, a funeral center, a funeral dealership, funeral agency, or perhaps a funeral institute? Stupid looking place. We pick our way through the crowded parking lot, seem to go up a lot of steps, and--oh shit, here goes--open the door. In we go.

Center stage is Bill, my cousin's husband, with his younger daughter Amanda. By God, it is amazing how this boring little girl, turned awkward teenager, grew into such an attractive and engaging woman. We approach, shake Bill's hand, and give Amanda a quick hug. Poor Bill tells, for probably the one hundred billionth time, the sad story of Helen's illness and death. Standing about the room are clusters of strangers. Boy, this is terrible! Bill is doing admirably. He describes the unpleasant details with composure. He is solemn yet gracious. He is doing very well. I attempt to say " Oh Bill, this is terrible. No one was expecting this." But I only get half of it babbled out. I choke up, and tears well up in my eyes. Bill quickly looks away, bites his lip, and recovering, continues his sad story. I stand staring at the floor, gulping at the lump in my throat, and fighting back the tears, no longer hearing Bill's words. I try to reason with myself, "Come on dope get a hold of yourself. Bawling at the funeral home. Come on. Come on." More people come in and Bill finishes. It is, thankfully, time to move on. I, still incapable of speech, pat Bill on the shoulder.

I start for the safer ground of the sidelines, but my mother slips her arm through mine and says "Well Son, let us go over and view poor Helen." Oh shit again! I hate this! Why the hell do we want to go over and "view" poor Helen? It's not going to do her one bit of good, and it sure as hell is not going to improve my day. Damn, do I hate this! This is weird!

We approach the coffin and my mother is murmuring inaudibly. As I stand here before my dead cousin, all I can think about is how bizarre all this is. I sneak a peek at Helen, then quickly look away. I can smell that "near the casket" odor. I wonder what that odor is. You can always smell it around the damn coffin at a funeral home. Maybe it's something the manufacturer puts in the coffin to help mask the embalming fluid. Maybe it's the dye they use in that yucky vanilla colored fabric that lines the coffin. Perhaps it is some kind of air freshener that the funeral director sprays around. Boy this seems ghoulish, standing in front of a dead person like this. I sneak another peek at Helen, but for the most part I look at the coffin lid, the flowers, the kneeling apparatus, anywhere except Helen. The flowers? Of course, you fool, the flowers, that is the "near the casket" odor. A sudden joy of recognition hits, I like figuring things out. And that explains the eerie feeling I get in flower shops; it's the damned flowers giving me the "near the casket" creeps.

Mother continues to murmur. I am feeling very awkward and stupid. What in the hell am I supposed to be doing in front of this coffin? Perhaps I should murmur. I take another quick look at Helen. This is weird. In the coffin lies a body that, yes, I could identify as Helen, but only in the sense that a statue or a painting would resemble her. Clearly what is in the coffin is not Helen, it only resembles her. Oh don't misunderstand, there has been no terrible mix-up. The body in the coffin was Helen. . . . WAS HELEN! . . . What remains is not Helen! It is a lifeless shell.

Sure, sure, I know she is dead. I don't expect her to wink at me, laugh, or take a drink of Pepsi and a drag on a Parliament. There will be no dirty jokes. Ok, I know she is dead. However, what remains in this coffin is so totally foreign, so strange, that I can not say "there lies my cousin Helen." The body is so empty, so devoid of life; it simply is not Helen. Helen is gone. The body does not look natural, it does not look like she is just sleeping, it does not even look like she is dead. It looks like a stranger, like someone I do not know. It looks like a mannequin.

I noticed the same thing when my father died. The body in the casket was not my father. I felt no kinship or even sympathy for what remained. My father was gone. The grief and sense of loss I felt was for my father, not for the body. I felt no need to be with it or any necessity for a final farewell or even to look at it one last time. Nor did I feel any antipathy to it. The body was just something that had to be dealt with. It had to be processed through the funeral system. I grieved and hurt for my missing father, not for that body. It simply was not my father, and I had no relationship with it.

It seems that we have been standing in front of this coffin for several eons now. My mother is still murmuring. Good God, what in the hell can she be murmuring about? She is not given to fits of public prayer or chanting. What is she doing? I listen in and I hear my mother softly say "Oh my. Oh Helen. This is a shame. Oh my, only 57. Oh Helen." I realize that we probably have not been there all that long, it only seems that way.

I sneak another peek at Helen. I sneak these peeks because it does not seem right to gawk or stare. I don't know--what the hell are you supposed to do when you "view" a body? What does one look at? Should I stare old Helen in the eyelids and remind her that it was probably the damned cigarettes that put her here? Should I take a morbid curiosity of what a dead person really looks like? Perhaps note the technical skills of the undertaker--Bravo! a real ten on makeup. Should I run over and tell Bill: "Oh she looks like she is just sleeping"? Really, what is the function of "viewing" the body? Is it to comfort the immediate family? If so, how is it comforting? If it is to pay last respects, couldn't we do that with the casket closed? Probably, it is a method for everyone to verify for themselves that, yeah, good old Helen is indeed dead. There must be something wrong with me. I just don't understand these affairs. Are there people who are attracted to the body? Do they feel close to it? Or is this just something that we do? It seems terribly morbid and just plain odd to me. Maybe it is one of those things that loners do not have the capacity to understand. No one else seems to be awe-struck with the macabre abnormality of this entire affair--this "viewing" of a corpse.

Well perhaps I should join in on the ritual. I take a good long look at Helen. What the hell, she can't tell that I am staring at her. Besides, I'm "viewing". The body is in good shape. There is no sign of a long devastating illness or trauma. The undertaker has done a good job, I suppose, really I am no judge. The makeup is tastefully conservative. I have seen a few that had a garish, "let's party" look. Her hair has been fixed nicely, and she is well dressed. On the surface, she looks like she should be in the crowd with us. But there is a quality about the skin that the makeup does not quite hide. It does not look natural. It has a pale, thin wilted look, almost like onion skin paper. There is a translucent milkiness about it. It appears as if the skin, in a final act of desperation, is absorbing the color out of the light and is reflecting back from some internal chalky depth only an alabaster of lifelessness. It reminds me of the way some mushrooms have a translucent luminance. The face is totally devoid of any expression. There is absolutely not a trace of Helen to be found in this casket. Only this piece of artwork. All the humanity has been drained out of it. Must be a pretty good trick when you stop and think about it. Imagine having a freshly expired corpse. A messy thing, I'm sure. Think of the technical problems, the things that must be done. The law, of course,


requires that certain things must be done to the body. But what does it take to get a corpse into this unnatural preserved state of

"Son! Come on."

plasticized sterility that permits us to casually stand by and socialize so urbanely? What to do with the various goos that are so essential to life? What must be done to certain body orf. . .

"Son! Let's go!"

My mother has a firm, almost painful, hold on my arm. There is an edge to her voice that I remember from my youth, mostly the teen years that indicates she is running out of patience with me. She is backing away from the coffin with me somewhat incoherently in tow. Returning to reality, I gladly follow. We stop at Bill. Mother murmurs something to him and pats his hand. Myself, I am feeling guilty about having such morbid thoughts about his wife's remains. Good grief, that is family lying in that casket, how can I think such things? What is wrong with me? Swept up in guilt and sorrow, I feel the tears welling again. So once again the boring, shy, awkward, middle aged man stares into the floor and says nothing. Look at Mom, she knows when to murmur and when to pat. She seems to know the right things to say. My father was even more collected. He could handle himself at these things. He didn't stand around with his thumb up his butt, fighting back tears, swallowing lumps, or thinking about morbid techniques. Good God, didn't I inherit anything from these people? Look at Amanda, struck with grief no doubt, but functioning with grace and dignity. She can handle herself, and it's her mother. What the hell is wrong with me?

Even though I have seen Helen and Bill only three or four times in the past 20 years, always at funerals, I do care about them. They are family. My family. Although, I was not close enough that I visited them or even called, I do care. At what point do you draw a line around your life and say everything on this side of the line is important and everything on the other side is not? Things fall in gradients, not black or white, but with infinite shades of gray. Undoubtedly, there are people in this room that I am related to and don't recognize--distant relatives that knew Helen. Not knowing them, their passing would be meaningless to me. I would not attend their funerals because it would be pointless. And Helen? Well, Helen's death will make little difference in my personal life. I won't miss her everyday or mourn her passing for a year. But I do feel an intense sorrow, right here, right now. Not for me, not for Helen, but for Bill. I feel very bad for Bill, and that is where these damn tears are coming from. I don't share his loss, but I do have a compassion for it. His wife for almost a third of a century lies still in a coffin not four feet away. What will he do without her?

Mother continues to talk to Bill and Amanda, and I see an opportunity to slip off out of the limelight. What the hell, I can't say anything anyhow. Why stand here and stare at the floor? So, I carefully slide out behind Mother, and slip off to a safe empty place on the sidelines. I need a moment to collect myself. I am not worth a damn around Bill, and the best thing to do would be to stay the hell away for him.

What the hell is wrong with me? I don't consider myself a weeping sissy, although anymore, I am not sure. Some of it is the M.S. Maybe all of it is. The disease intensifies emotions and decreases ones ability to handle them. Anger and sadness seem especially sensitive in my case. Actually, I don't see anything wrong with men weeping under the proper circumstances. But in this case, the weeping is inappropriate and perhaps hypocritical. I was not that close to Helen and Bill. It reminds me of a neighbor lady. She told my wife that she was in shock over the death of another neighbor's father. Well, fine, however the fact that the guy was 88, had cancer, lived in California, and never met this woman seemed less than the proper circumstances for shock. But as my mother says, it takes all kinds to make a world.

The conversation ends in the middle of the room. My mother looks up and seems surprised by my absence at her side. For a brief instant, she searches the room with the intensity of a parent looking for a lost toddler. The look is oddly fitting. In some fashion, I have never managed to grow up. I'm still a little boy who shouldn't have to do unpleasant things like go to a funeral home. I feel guilty over abandoning her during the condolences. What would it take to stand solemnly and offer a few words of kindness? What would be wrong with standing at Mother's side and provide some strength in a delicate situation? Why is it that all I can do is stand, head down, and stare stupidly into the carpet? Why slink off at the first opportunity?

Mom starts my way, but then spotting someone heads off and disappears into another room. Here I stand all alone, not knowing anyone around me. My gaze goes to Bill and Amanda. Bill is doing very well under the circumstances. He greets each visitor and tells his sad story. But he smiles, he laughs when appropriate, and he acts as though he is very pleased that everyone has come. Bill is the type of person who probably is pleased that people have come. He is a nice guy. I have to admire his composure. He is handling himself well. The events of the past few weeks have taken a toll on him. He has a tired haggard look, a little hollow in the cheeks. maybe a bit of pallor, but I have to hand it to him, he is putting on a damn good show.

I spot a lonely looking young man, about 30, across the room who seems in dire need of someone to talk to. The poor guy doesn't seem to know anyone and has a lost puppy quality about him. In an unusual burst of compassion, I walk over introduce myself. He is "Bawhhy" something or other from "New Yawwk", and is a boyfriend to Helen's oldest daughter, Lynn. Oh crap, some obnoxious bastard! How could I judge him so wrong from looks and behavior? I immediately look for some way out of this conversation that I have so stupidly started. I am mumbling some small talk and desperately looking for Mom. This slick huckster from New Yawwk continues to talk, and I feel my discomfort ratcheting upwards. What the hell did I go and do? Good God, he is saying something about his "cawhhh". But wait, there is something wrong here. What is it? It is very subtle, but something is wrong. It hits me, this guy is actually not so bad, he just sounds like a know-it-all bastard. He is asking me something about my "cawhhh". I continue to talk with Barry and find that my initial assessment was correct. He is a nice guy who happens to have a New York accent. Once you get past the accent, the guy is very likable.

I continue my conversation with Barry, but my attention returns to Bill and Amanda. Despite Bill's performance, I can see that he is nervous. He does fine when talking to a visitor, but the in-between times when just he and Amanda are together, he is jumpy and his eyes flash about the room. If you look into his eyes--as I can do from a distance without bursting into tears--you can see the exhaustion, the hurt, the confusion, and the grief. His eyes contradict the performance. Bill quite simply is hurting very deep down. I am sure that he loved his wife, and that he is going to miss her very much. But I doubt that the reality of the situation has altogether sunk in. It will take some time for that. First the obvious things: no more dinners together, no conversation, an empty bed at night, a missing companion. But long after the initial shock and hurt have subsided, more sorrows large and small will appear. In a few weeks, the daffodils that she planted five years ago will come out. She won't be at his side at the Pirate games. The neighbor couple will have to find someone else to play cards. In a drawer, he will find the watch that she gave him on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Bill will have to decorate for Christmas alone this year--why even bother? Small hurts to be sure but not insignificant. Part of Bill will be buried with Helen tomorrow.

I have come to the realization that much of Bill's success in handling this situation is due to Amanda. He is using her for a crutch, and she bears the load well. I feel an odd pride in Amanda. She has not left her father's side. In spite of her own hurt, she is there to get her dad through this thing. She helps with the greeting of each new visitor. She says little to most people other than a greeting, but she listens attentively to yet another retelling of Helen's passing. She gives quite a few hugs and pats in her capacity of aide-de-camp to her father. She is a strong presence next to him.

Barry is talking about the Grand Tetons, but I only half listen. My gaze returns to the ashen figure in the coffin. There is something terribly missing from the body that used to be Helen. It is not something readily definable, it defies words. It is more than that which make us alive, or that which makes us human, or that which makes us the individuals that we are. It is a summation of all these qualities that make us who we are, but also extends beyond them. Perhaps it drives them. It is far more than the simple characteristic of possessing life. It is that which put a glint in our eye.

Years ago my father had a cerebral hemorrhage and a stroke, both of which he survived. While in the hospital, he shared an intensive care room with a man who was in a severe coma. Technically, this man was still alive; he was on no machines except a heart monitor and an IV. He breathed, his heart beat, he metabolized, but something was missing. The only difference between him and Helen was that he had better color. That essential core quality was gone. This guy was dead, but his body had not found out yet. And I can well understand why the families of these unfortunate people can pull the plug on life support. Their loved one is gone, only a breathing empty stranger remains. A body that exists in a bizarre limbo between life and death--possessing a shard of scientifically defined life, but otherwise dead. Of all the miracles of modern medicine this ability to keep a corpse "alive"--often against the wishes of the immediate family--has to be the most heinous of "blessings". The body, that shared my father's room, did expire, four and half months after the man had died.

So what is this indefinable quality that makes us alive? It is not simply life. The man in the coma had life, but he was not alive. In the after word to Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig asks this about his murdered son Chris:

. . . the question became obsessive: "Where did he go?"

Where did Chris go? He had bought an airplane ticket that morning. He had a bank account, drawers full of clothes, and shelves full of books. He was a real, live person, occupying time and space on this planet, and now suddenly where was he gone to? Did he go up the stack at the crematorium? Was he in the little box of bones they handed back? Was he strumming a harp of gold on some overhead cloud? . . . What was it I was so attached to? . . .

The loops eventually stopped at the realization that before it could be asked "Where did he go?" it must be asked "What is the 'he' that is gone?" There is an old cultural habit of thinking of people as primarily something material, as flesh and blood. As long as this idea held, there was no solution. The oxides of Chris's flesh and blood did, of course, go up the stack at the crematorium. But they weren't Chris.

And there you have it, the crux of my ramblings: What is it that was Helen, and where did it go? If Helen is just a body, then we could be quite content with a good preservation job--take her home and display her in a glass case next to the grandfather clock. Visitors could come in chat with her and comment to us how fine she looks. Perhaps to give her a good effect, the eyes could be open, tack a smile on her face, and for extra good measure a half consumed Parliament in her hand with red lipstick on the filter. But that wouldn't really be Helen, now would it? The thing that was Helen only resided in her body, much like the thing that is your family only resides in your home. Take away your family and your home becomes merely a house, a structure, an empty shell. The analogy fails, as most analogies do, in the fact that another family can take up your house, but no other "thing" can take up Helen's body. What is this thing? And where does it go?

Lynn appears across the room and walks toward Barry and I. Another boring, shy, awkward teenager metamorphosed into a beautiful woman. And beautiful is the word. Amanda is pretty, but Lynn is beautiful. She is poised and, like Amanda, knows how to handle herself.

"I see you two have met," Lynn says.

"Yes, we have been tawwking about New Yawwk, deahh."

I offer my condolences to Lynn, and the three of us chat small talk. I wonder if Lynn and I would have recognized each other an hour ago on the street. It is not as though Lynn and I go so far back that we can converse easily, but she has a moderate dose of her mother's gift for gab. Barry is not lost for words either; they make a good couple. By now, I have come to like old Bawhhy and find his accent charming. It is a part of him, and without it, he would be a different person. Imagine Scarlet O'Hara without her southern drawl--not the same. Lynn wanders off to mingle, Barry continues his story about highway contracts in New York, and I drift off again.

We had two questions: What is this thing that was Helen? And, where did it go? First, let us consider the question What is this thing. What is the "he" that was Pirsig's son Chris? What is the "she" that was my cousin Helen? Pirsig offers these thoughts:

What had to be seen was that the Chris I missed so badly was not an object but a pattern, and that although the pattern included the flesh and blood of Chris, that was not all there was to it. The pattern was larger than Chris and myself, and related us in ways that neither of us understood completely and neither of us was in complete control of.

Now Chris's body, which was a part of that larger pattern, was gone. But the larger pattern remained. A huge hole had been torn out of the center of it, and that was what caused all the heartache.

A pattern, that's good, I like the notion of a pattern. But now, what is this pattern? And when we define the pattern, we can then ask "What is the definition of this definition?" and so on endlessly. Perhaps we may have to accept that we will never successfully define this quality with mere words--each definition begging for a further definition like an endless chain of Russian dolls. But while concrete clarity may allude us, I think that we should pursue the question nonetheless. Perhaps the ultimate answers are beyond our limited understanding, yet I think that we can at least get a sense of direction to where such questions lead.

The question "What is the thing or quality that was this person?" is very profound. It cuts to the core of our being; it questions our basic beliefs. As such, people will tend to regard their views very seriously. I should imagine that if you asked enough people, that you would have about 5.3 billion different answers to the question what is the "she" that is so terribly missing in Helen's casket. I offer my answer, not to proselytize, not to change your mind, not to anger or shock you, but merely to offer an opinion. If you are looking for an answer, perhaps mine will encourage your quest. If you know the answer, then you can marvel at my ignorance. But lacking any hard evidence, I feel that my opinion is about as valid as any of the other 5.3 billion opinions. But also remember, what follows is the ramblings of a guy who works in a factory. I am not a philosopher, nor a theologian. Nor am I very bright, well educated, or even well read. Most of what follows is not original thinking, but rather a rehashed condensation from many sources: books, conversations, TV and movies, church, school, and some personal pondering.

What is the "she" that was Helen? I think that Helen was a dichotomy of the real and the mysterious. Both my intellect and my faith are needed for this answer. The real? Hell, that's easy. Helen was a human being, female, Caucasian, certain height, such and such weight, brown eyes, brown hair--on and on it could go like a coroner's report. As such, Helen was a body. It still exists, although nonfunctional, lying in the casket across the room. Less evident, but well established by science, is that Helen was a mind. Her brain had trillions of neurons. It was the mechanism of her thoughts, emotions, direct experiences, memories, personality, and psyche--her conscious awareness of herself and the world about her. As a body and a mind, Helen was indeed a pattern. She was the sum of all her mental and bodily experiences. Helen was a huge grand total of facts, events, people, places, emotions, experiences, relationships, and things. Her individual pattern stretched out to weave in with the patterns of others joining in a huge tapestry of humanity. She was the lover of Bill, the mother of her children, a friend of the lady down the street, my cousin, and a member of such and such church. Here, the hard evidence ends. If I had to rely only on this hard evidence and my intellect--that is ignore my faith--I would have to stop here. Go no further. When the body died, the mind ceased to exist. Helen ceased to exist.

But I do have faith, the mind and the body are only the tangible aspects of the dichotomy. I think that there is much more to Helen. So what is the mysterious half of our dichotomy? Here I have no direct evidence, no proof, only faith. Faith that is based on some possibly silly religious notions, thin circumstantial evidence, anecdotes, a couple of low key miracles (no great shakes really), and the observation that things just don't seem right. Taken all together, this great body of shaky evidence (none of which would stand up in court or to scientific scrutiny) seems to indicate that there is more to the universe than matter, energy, body, and mind. I think that the universe and we ourselves are driven by the mysterious.

I believe that the third and most important part of us is the Soul. It is the Soul that is so terribly missing in Helen. So what is the Soul? I think that it is a minuscule chunk of Godstuff. Less than God in magnitude, subservient to God, a very tiny but highly significant part of God. Why highly significant? I don't feel that any one Soul is any more significant than any other Soul, yet all are highly significant in that they are part of an Infinite Whole. The significance lies in the fact that a Whole minus one is less than a Whole. The loss of one Soul would change the Infinite to the finite, (granted my math is flawed but I think the Theology holds) and we mortal human beings, no matter how evil we may wish to perceive ourselves to be, can not vilify God. We are powerless to change the Divine Nature that lies at the core of our being.

Am I proposing that we should go around calling ourselves God? No. We are not God. We are mortal beings with mortal minds that will cease to function several moments after our last heartbeat. But I do believe that we are fired by a Divine and Sacred Soul that can not be destroyed. It is for this Soul that the entire universe and everything in it exists. It is for this Soul that we exist. The body and the mind are tools for the Soul. It is this Soul that is missing in the casket across the room. That is why Helen is not here, the Divine Fire of Helen has left, and with it went Helen.

So the "she" that is missing in Helen is the Soul. What is the Soul? A chunk of Godstuff. What is Godstuff? We have reached the practical limits of our understanding. The Russian dolls become impossible to identify at this point. This is where words fail us. Adequate words for the task, do not exist. We can't define God or Godstuff. Do so and you'll come off sounding like a holier-than-thou evangelist, which to be damn honest with you, is about what I have been doing here. I know, it sounds like a cop out, and perhaps it is. I am not an evangelist, I work in a factory, remember. But try this, try visualizing in your mind four dimensional space. Ok, so you're smart, try five dimensional space. Can you visualize it--up/down, in/out, left/right plus two more nestled in there somehow? Can you see how the dimensions are orientated? Good, now draw a hyperpentahedron, showing all five faces occupying all five dimensions. Then send it to me, I would like to know what such an object looks like. Most of us ordinary mortals can not visualize four dimensional space yet according to mathematics such things exist. In fact, according to relativity and most cosmology theories, our universe is four dimensional with time being the fourth dimension that curiously only seems to flow in one direction. So, if we can not visualize something as simple as four dimensional space, how are we possibly going to understand the Infinite?

God is beyond definition. Try explaining a sunset to a person who was born blind. Explain a symphony to a person born deaf. We simply do not have the capacity to understand God. Yet that does not mean that it is sinful to try, or that we must accept the definitions given by others because we are too stupid or lack access to the Divine. It simply means that any understanding that we may perceive would be limited, far more limited than a toothpick is to a universe full of Sequoia forests. But in spite of this limitation, I think we should attempt to contemplate, understand, and love God. I think we should question our beliefs, try to prove or disprove God. (I part company with the typical evangelist.) We should try to define for ourselves just what God is and what God means to us, rather than blindly accepting the dogmas handed to us by others. When you approach God on your own terms, I think that you will learn a lot about both God and yourself. But remember, our definitions will fall woefully short of the real essence of God. You can not define the Infinite.

This is the end of part 1. Click here for Part 2 , and here for Part 3.

Image Credit:

Traffic backed up at the Squirrel Hill Tunnel inbound to Pittsburgh.

WTAE Channel 4, The Pittsburgh Channel

Tunnels Part 2

This is part 2. Please read part 1 first. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 3.

Mom heads my way with my cousin Gary and his wife. Gary is Helen's brother. He lives in South Carolina, so I seldom see him. He is one of those people that you can't help but to like. He has a great sense of humor, and a gift for telling jokes. He is 13 years older than me. After a brief session of "how do you do's" and the standard funeral home conversation, Gary hugs my mother and says:

"This lady is great, she taught me every dirty word I know."

That starts a barrage of good natured cutting up between Gary and my mother. This is an aspect of my mother that I seldom see. There is almost a girlish quality about her as she goes to verbal battle with Gary. The amazing thing is that she holds her own, no small achievement with a pro like Gary. On and on they go, launching insults and innuendos and laughing like hell. They clearly enjoy each other's company.

As my mother and Gary go at it, I, as usual, slowly drift off back to my thoughts. I think I have addressed what the "she" is that is missing from Helen, though probably not to anyone's satisfaction--nor to my own. This stuff is difficult material! We had the dichotomy of the real and the mysterious. The real being body and mind, the mysterious being the Soul. Again, we have only hard evidence of the body and the mind. The Soul is something that I want to believe in. I have no proof, only faith. So keeping this dichotomy in mind, lets look at the second question: Where did the "she" that was Helen go to? Here again a profound question with 5.3 billion highly opinionated answers. Bearing in mind the caveats I gave previously, let's consider where did Helen go? I see three distinct possibilities: 1) eternal nothingness, 2) Heaven or Hell, or 3) eternal evolution.

What if there is nothing more to us than mind and body, the first half of our dichotomy. It is a very real possibility. We have no evidence for the Soul. When the body ceases to function--when it dies--so does the mind. When the last neurons quit firing in the dying brain, the mind is forever lost. The totality of experience that was Helen blinks out like a candle flame in a strong wind. Gone forever. The mind of Helen is gone. A dead brain remains, but the mind is gone. It is like pulling the plug on a computer. Without energy, the hardware can not run the software. What is missing in the casket? Helen is missing. Where did she go? No where! Quite literally no where, she just ceased to exist. Eternal nothingness. It is the answer of the atheistic scientist stereotype. Lacking evidence we have to allow for the possibility that nothing survives the death of the body. What is eternal nothingness like?

Is it like sleep? For the most part, when I sleep I do have some awareness about myself. But I have had some really deep sleeps, where time seemed to stop and I, for some period, ceased to exist. Upon waking it took some effort to sort out who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. Yet if one was to take an EEG (electroencephalogram) during one of these slumbers, I am sure that plenty of brain activity would be present. Also, I have never failed to wake from one of these sleeps, or went on for hours sleeping through a blaring alarm clock. Anesthesia for surgery may approach the feeling of eternal nothingness, but not deep sleep.

Well maybe death is like before you were born. I try to think back to a time, a definite point, when I did not exist. Yes, I know this is an odd exercise. I get a mush brained feeling when I try this. The idea is to remember your very first memory and then go back one step further. As I try to determine my first memory, I get lightheaded, an actual physical vertigo. Images swim and swirl through the dusty corners of my mind, but I can't say "well, gee, this is the very first thing that I remember." As I go back in years, time loses its continuity. The further back I go, the more discontinuous my memory becomes. My earliest memories have absolutely no sense of linear time--one event occurring before another. Instead, there is a disordered pile of snapshots. Reach in and grab a snapshot. When did that occur? Beats the hell out of me.

My memory is like a poorly kept film library in an old Hollywood studio that hasn't prospered as of late. As the film lies in its canister, it deteriorates with age. Go back a few years and the films are mostly intact. But go back 10 or 15 years, you'll notice gaps. Go back further still, there are large sections of the film gone. Keep on going back in time, you may have only a few frames here and there. At some point, you will find films in which only a single frame remains, and most of the films are completely gone. It is a waste of time to watch these films--to try to remember--there is not enough footage left to make any sense. On some of the canisters, there remains a description of the film or reviews of it. These are the tales of things that I did which I have no recollection, but have been told to me by my parents. When I was about two years old, I said to one of our neighbors: "Hey Harry, gimmie a beer, and let's sit down and bullshit for a while." I don't recall the incident, but my mother likes to tell the story. Most of my early life is remembered through such external tales.

Suddenly, I look up from the carpet, and everyone is looking at me with an amused sense of expectation.

"You remember, don't you?" Mom says to me.

Gary is looking at me, ready to bust out laughing. I have no idea of what the hell they are talking about. I have to try to pay more attention to the conversation at hand when I go off into these daydreams.

"Sure, you remember!" Gary says.

"Well ah. . ." I mumble. Everyone starts laughing like hell and Gary slaps my back. I still don't have the vaguest idea of what they are talking about, or what is so funny, but I laugh too. The conversation continues with Gary telling some stories on his wife. She must find herself a frequent target in his stories and good naturedly reacts with mock anger. I slide back into my thoughts.

Try as I may, I can not recall any first memory that would mark the point of me being a rational conscious person. There is no firm line in which intelligent rationality begins. It is like looking down a very long and progressively darkening corridor. You can't see the end, it's totally black. In fact it could be endless, you can't really tell. And you can't see any definite demarcation between light and dark. There is no line that states "Rationality starts here." If we take a solipsistic view of our memories--disregard any external view or external history, we have in a vague sense lived forever because we can not determine, internally, a beginning point to our lives. Our intellects, of course, tell us that we did have a beginning, that we did not exist before the point of our conception. Yet we must rely on an external source for that information.

The point that I am trying to make is that we have no idea what eternal nothingness would be like because we can not remember of any point in which we did not exist. It would be a pretty good trick if we could remember not existing! We have no conscious memories of conception, life in the womb, being born, or being an infant. Somewhere in our early years, toddler to age three, we begin to retain some conscious memories. Human consciousness is not like a light switch, where snap, you come up to a full 100 watts of consciousness. No, it is like a slow dimmer switch that comes up to full power gradually over a period of years. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it won't snap off like a light switch, or at least a very fast twirl of the dimmer switch at our deaths.

Perhaps the eternal nothingness of death is like how things were for us during the Civil War. The battle of Shiloh didn't bother any of us, now did it? This notion has a certain intellectual appeal, but it does not tell us what nothingness is really like. What we imagine eternal nothingness to be like is probably infinitely richer than the hard reality of being stone cold dead, with no mental function, no experience, no past, no present, no future, no time, no love, no spirit, no God, and no existence. We can't imagine what that is like. How would we detect it, how would we experience it, how could we observe it? It sort of goes back to the observer idea in quantum mechanics. With no observers, how does this state, eternal nothingness, exist?

I have to allow that eternal nothingness may indeed be our fate. If we are nothing but mind and body, if the entire universe is nothing but an anomaly busting out of the vacuum for no apparent reason, if there is no God, then we are doomed to the black, still, quiet of eternal nothingness. I don't want this to be our fate, nor do I believe that it is, but I have to allow for the possibility of it. In moments of doubt, it is a fear of mine. I fear that we will close our eyes and . . . nothing. If you look at all the senseless tragedy that occurs in the world: the terrible loss of life among the innocent, the horrors of war, the devastating natural disasters, endless poverty and hunger, then it all makes sense. Maybe there is no God, and we are nothing but accidents--statistical improbabilities that exist for a moment in an unlikely universe for which there is no reason. The loss of life of one person or the entire planet is of no consequence what so ever because we are nothing but glorified electro-chemical computers. We have no rights, no reasons, no high purpose. We are nothing more than chemical processes, why all the fuss?

We are such beautiful beings with our intelligence, our emotions, our mysteries, and our wonder. We live in such a beautiful world. Is art, science, mathematics, music, tenderness, passion, love, and God just the worthless firings of some accidentally created collections of neurons? Is a kiss no different than murder in the overall scheme of things? While there is a certain intellectual fascination to be had in the idea of nothingness Big Banging, congealing, and evolving into human consciousness, I find a profound sorrow in the notion that we could be nothing more than meaningless little chemistry sets. Everything that is important to us is phony. We have no Divine Mandate. I have to reject this idea in my heart. Even my cold rational intellect has to reject that we are nothing but accidents. There has to be something more than just body and mind. Sure the world is loaded with senseless tragedy, but it is also loaded with beauty, love, justice, and I think the Divine Spirit. The body in the casket across the room is experiencing eternal nothingness. But not Helen, she left the body, she is not in the casket.

Mom and Gary's wife have gone over to talk with Lynn. Gary and I are trying to convince Barry that New York City is not fit for human life. A couple, about my mother's age, approaches Gary and shakes hands with him. Gary then introduces me to them. Neither they nor I have the foggiest notion of who the hell we are to each other. Gary then explains that I am Jim's boy.

"Oh! Of course, Jim's boy! Well, how do you do?"

I do not get an explanation of who they are; I guess I am supposed to know by their names. They stick around until the conversation gets a little strained. Then with a "Well it is very nice meeting you, we really should go over and see Annie and Ruth", they thankfully leave. I don't know who in the hell Annie and Ruth are either. In fact, I wonder if they even exist. Boy, I hate these things. Talking to people I don't know, listening to a bunch of mindless small talk. Yes it does look like rain, so what? And no, Helen does not look natural, she looks pretty damn bad to me. So why do we keep on dwelling on how good Helen looks? Hells bells she's dead, why does she have to look good? It is getting hot in here.

I have a friend who claims that about 20 years ago, he overdosed on some chemical sounding something or other--a drug overdose. He has an incredible story about the events that followed. Shortly after taking the drug, he experienced a severe pain in his chest and couldn't get his breath. He collapsed to the floor, and an instant later found himself high in the room, near the ceiling, looking down on his body. On the far wall near the ceiling was a doorway, similar to an elevator door. A beautiful golden light shined out of it. He says that the light was blindingly bright by not painful to look at. The light was more than just light, it had a profound and deep sense of love about it. He wanted to experience the light and know the love. The love was very intense and he wanted to go to it, join with it, and be with it forever. He looked down at his body and felt disgust for it. All he wanted was to get to the light; his body was worthless.

His friends tried to revive him and tried to make him stand up. It seemed that his friends were somehow preventing him from getting to the light. He yelled for them to leave his body alone, that he was ok up here at the ceiling. They couldn't hear him and started to drag his body outside. He wanted more than anything else to go to the light that was shining from that doorway. The sense of peace and love was so powerful and the light so intense that all he could think about was to go and be with that light. There it was, just across the room, beckoning, but his damn friends were blocking him somehow. He frantically pleaded with them to leave him alone, but they ignored him.

Once in the fresh air and standing, my friend seemed to revive and slowly returned to normal consciousness albeit probably higher than a kite. He does not recall of actually returning to his body. He says that the experience changed him. He is not very religious, but says that the experience more than anything else has given his life meaning. He doesn't fear death and looks forward to joining with the light. My friend believes that there is life after death, and that it is a much better life than our mortal existence.

I can not vouch for this story. All I can do is pass it on to you. I can vouch for the fact that my friend is not a bull-shitter. He tells no other incredible tales. He is very earnest in telling us that it was a drug overdose, but he does not feel that the drugs caused the experience with the light. He says that the experience was different--much greater clarity--than being high. Today, he is a sincere person with an intense interest in science. He enjoys life immensely and no longer uses drugs.

This phenomenon had been dubbed the "near death experience" by Dr. Raymond A. Moody Jr. The experience has been studied by Moody and others for better than 20 years. Moody has written several books on the subject, and cites a Gallup poll in The Light Beyond that would indicate that about 1 person in 20 has had some sort of near death experience. The experience is common enough that no one seems to question its existence. What the experience represents, however, is under considerable debate. There are those who say that the experience is a look at the afterlife. Others say that it is the final defense mechanism of the dying brain. Carl Sagan gave a persuasive argument in Broca's Brain that the experience is a recollection of birth.

Again, who knows? There definitely seems to be some phenomenon that people from all the various cultures on Earth have experienced. Yet every one of us has experienced birth, and we share the same brain chemistries. So yes, it could be the brain's last hurrah. But it also could be a preview to the afterlife. My sentiments, of course, lie with the latter. If it is nothing but a defense mechanism, we can at least take stock in the thought that death will be a pleasant experience. Before the infinite depths of nothingness set in, your mind will arrange a pleasant fairy tale to help your transition. While that may sound disappointing, you must admit that it is a whole lot preferable to a physically painful and psychologically miserable realization that THIS IS THE EN

Again emphasizing that I have no proof, I think that the near death experience is the beginning of the afterlife. While I have no proof supporting the afterlife, no one else has any proof against the afterlife. These questions remain a matter of faith. This brings us to my second possibility: Heaven or Hell. This is the fate that awaits us in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And here I enter a slippery slope. Trying to describe what these religions believe is a task not to be attempted by a guy that works in a factory. First, we are dealing with very different religions, each with major schisms, denominations, sects, and cults. Next we are talking about faiths that are found on every continent and a wide range of cultures. Last there are billions of adherents. Trying to describe what several billion people believe with a few paragraphs is a foolhardy venture. So what I am about to say will please no one.

Here we go. The above religions believe in God, who is the only God, and He is one God. And here is where I should stop, but on we go. God created the universe and man. In order for man to be able to fully love God, he had to be a free moral agent. That is man had to be able to decide for himself whether to love God or not. Being a free moral agent allowed man to fall to the ravages of sin. Man has embraced sin to the point that it has become an irrevocable part of the human condition. While God loves man, He abhors sin. God offers man redemption from sin through His grace, but it must be actively sought after by the individual during his or her mortal life here on Earth. For those who have believed and atoned for their sins, God offers eternal bliss in the kingdom of Heaven. For those who fail to believe and atone, their fate is eternal damnation in the fires of Hell.

So where is Helen? No one can know what Helen truly felt in her heart. So we have to allow for the possibilities that Helen could either be in Heaven, Hell, perhaps purgatory, or even on hold for Judgment Day. But let's create a scenario for Helen's passing, Helen was a Christian, at least she attended church. How she faced her last moments, I don't know, nor do I have the courage or the audacity to go over and ask Bill. But let's simplify matters and assume that Helen did one of two things: 1) she asked God for redemption of her sin, or, 2) being totally angry about her condition, she railed against God for allowing this to happen to her.

So now it is the moment of truth, Helen's tired heart has beat its last beat. All efforts to resuscitate her are failing. Darkness is sliding into Helen's consciousness, the pain in her chest is starting to wane. Suddenly, Helen seems to slide out of her body, her pain and fear ceases. Rising to the ceiling, she looks down at the doctors and nurses frantically working on her body. She no long cares about it. She rises up through the ceiling effortlessly passing through the upper floors of the hospital. Hearing a rushing noise, she finds herself in a dark tunnel. Helen begins to rise rapidly through this tunnel toward a distant beautiful light. Approaching the light, Helen departs the four dimensional space-time of our universe and enters a realm that has no time or dimension. She continues to rise toward the light. Along the way are long departed relatives and friends to welcome her. She sees her mother and father, her grandparents, and her Uncle Jim. Helen continues to rise in the bright golden light feeling love and peace.

So far these events are typical of the near death experience described in Moody's books. But at this point, I am going to depart from Moody's standard description and incorporate my own fictional account of a fearful judgment day conducted by the stern just God of the Old Testament and my religious upbringing. Please note that Helen's sins are fictional as are the events regarding Lynn's former husband.

Suddenly, Helen finds herself sitting in an austere courtroom brightly illuminated with a harsh white light that has no apparent source. The room is empty except for a large oak judiciary bench. Behind the bench sits a stern old man with a long white beard, steely eyes, and white robes.

"Helen Lynn Donnoly, thou stand in judgment for thy mortal life. Doth thou understandeth these proceedings?"

Helen replies "yes."

"WHAT?" bellows the figure in white.

"Er, ah, ah, well, ah"

"Speak woman, doth Lucifer have thy tongue? Doth thou understandeth these proceedings?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good, let us proceed."

In a flash Helen's entire life appears in the court room. There are many scenes that are surrounded by a red flashing border. At the bottom of these scenes the word Sin flashes on and off in red. Good grief, Helen is amazed at how many sins there are, was she that bad? Holy hell, this guy has the goods on her entire life. She starts scanning the red bordered scenes. She sees herself as a little girl pulling Gary's hair. She advances up a few thousand frames, and there she is cheating on a history test in eighth grade. She continues forward. Oh no! It is a year before her marriage, and she is in the backseat of Bill's old Dodge at a drive-in theater--neither her nor Bill are watching the movie. Helen watches in fascination as the red bordered scene unfolds before her eyes, occurring just like it had over three decades ago. She is swept up in the passion of the memory of her first time. She is so in love with Bill. Bill's hand is now sliding down her . . .

"HELEN! Doth thou want to bloweth thy chances of getting into Heaven? Take pleasure not in thy sinful mortal passions."

Fearfully, Helen returns to looking at the other scenes. Everything is there, every moment of her life; even the thoughts are there. She sees her wedding. There is a red border around the scene of her opening a wedding gift from her mother-in-law. The thought "cheap flatware from a cheap old bag" is flashing in red. She advances up through her life noting that the intimate moments between he and Bill are no longer bordered in red. Whoops, here's a red one. Wow, it's the fantasy she had about a good looking neighbor guy in 1966. Moving up through the scenes, she come to a very painful incident involving her hateful thoughts for Lynn's former husband. She feels the pain and hatred tug at her heart. She continues on up through the years, amazed at the detail and clarity of the scenes. She finally get to the hospital scenes.

Here, we must consider the two possible endings, which depend on what Helen felt in her heart in those last moments of life. Let's have a look at each possibility.

ENDING # 1. There is one scene bordered in white near the end of her life. It is Helen lying in the hospital bed with the knowledge that the end is near. In this scene, the near dying Helen says:

"Dear Lord, forgive me for all my sins and please give Bill the strength to continue on without me. Please watch over Bill and the girls. I give my spirit to you, oh Lord, have mercy upon me."

She then recites the Lord's prayer.

Helen looks at the remaining scenes of her life after the white bordered scene. To her surprise, there is another red scene after the white one. What is this? She looks at the red bordered scene. It is her hateful thoughts for Lynn's former husband.

The figure in white softly says "Helen, you have asked for forgiveness of your sins. This I am prepared to do yet in your heart you have not forgiven this man of the hurt that he has caused your daughter. Remember, Helen, the words you spoke in the Lord's prayer, 'and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Helen, you must resolve this conflict in your heart before you can go to Heaven."

Helen is very fearful at this moment. She loves God and seeks forgiveness, Yet how can she forgive that son of bitch for the terrible way he treated Lynn. The hatred and the fear well in her heart.

"Help me oh Lord in my moment of weakness! Try as I may, my hateful thoughts continue!" she cries.

Suddenly, the life of Lynn's husband appear in front of Helen. She sees the death of his mother, the cruel treatment from his stepmother, and the beating from a drunken father. In his marriage to Lynn, she sees moments of genuine love and tenderness between he and Lynn. She also sees some unkind things that Lynn did to him. Lynn wasn't entirely blameless in the failure of their marriage. Helen begins to understand that while Lynn's husband did some terrible things, there were some reasons for his behavior. With understanding comes forgiveness, it wells up and flows through Helen's soul. She feels the best that she has felt in years. It is good to be rid of the burden of hatred that she has carried for so long. Helen looks up and notices that the red bordered scene at the end of her life is gone. The final scene is the white bordered scene before her death. The figure in white smiles and says:

"Congratulations, Helen, you have made it to Heaven."

Pearly gates immediately appear at the right side of the courtroom and once again Helen is bathed in a beautiful golden light. . . .

Now, we must return to the final scenes of Helen's life and consider the other possibility.

ENDING # 2. There is one scene bordered in black near the end of her life. It is Helen lying in the hospital bed with the knowledge that the end is near. In this scene, the near dying Helen says:

"God how can you let this happen to me? You know I think back on all the shit that I have taken in this life, and to think that it has come t this. What about all the damn money that I gave to the church? Didn't that account for anything? And that son of a bitch that Lynn married, the no good bastard made off with half of our savings. Lord, goddamn it, how could you let this happen to me."

The figure in white now bellows at Helen:

"How dare thou, mere mortal, blame me for thy problems! It was the cigarettes that put thou in that hospital bed, not I. Had thou given as much wealth to thy fellow man as thou spent in the evil of tobacco, thou would not find thyself here. The pittance that thou gave to the church was only to satisfy thy quilt. Thou can not buy piety! Instead of giving Lynn and her husband love and understanding, and help them through their problems thou gavest them a hard time and some pieces of silver, again to help not, but to alleviate thy guilt. And further more, Never! Never! say goddamn to me. I hate that word!"

The figure in white then puts on his sternest face and slams his gavel into the bench top. Lightening shoots down through the bench and Heaven and Earth shake with the thunder. He then says:

"Helen Lynn Donnoly, because of your sins, you are condemned to eternal damnation in Hell beginning immediately."

The river Styx appear on the left side of the courtroom. Charon, grinning from ear to hideous pointy ear appears in his boat. Helen takes a seat in the boat, and Charon, with a flap of his repulsive bat like wings, fires up the engines, a pair of 150 horse Mercury outboards. . .

I am telling Gary what I can remember of him before he went to South Carolina in the late fifties. I like Gary; I like him a lot. On the surface, he is a dry humored wise guy--minor league wise guy. He has a quick wit that strikes like lightening, but it is not a mean wit. Make a blunder and Gary gets you, but he usually will take two or three cracks at himself as well. Gary likes to have fun with his wit, but he never makes you suffer. Underneath, he is a very complicated sensitive man who has known more that his share of sorrow. Gary can talk about the painful incidents of his life, and how he feels about them with a sincerity that I envy. Gary gives me the impression that he can handle anything, not because he is tough, but because pain and sorrow are a part of life that he has come to accept. I gather that he and Helen were close and that he will miss her. Gary is a person that I could learn from. I wished we lived closer together. As Gary and I continue to talk, I notice that the temperature in this place is getting hotter than hell.

And just how hot is Hell? Could Helen tell us? She may be there. Dualities bother me. On/off, right/wrong, white/black, one/zero, good/bad, righteous/evil, life/death, Heaven/Hell . . . it is all so cut and dried. It doesn't leave any room for gradients, for some good old analog shades of gray. Is running a stop sign the same as murder? Should we execute shoplifters? In our lowly system of justice, we mortal humans seem to recognize that there are degrees to the severity of ill behavior. We match the magnitude of the punishment to the crime, at least in theory. We don't execute people who double park their cars, nor do we fine serial killers 25 dollars. Yet God in all of His wisdom can not make these distinctions. Adulterous thoughts about your neighbor's spouse is a sin. Axe murdering 29 children is a sin. Is there no difference? It seems very easy to get into Hell.

It could be argued that it's extremely easy to stay out of Hell also. Just ask for redemption for your sins and all will be forgiven. That sounds great. Hey all I got to do is occasionally ask God for forgiveness of my sins and I got it made. What could be simpler? You know, it is one thing to say "God forgive me of my sin", and it is another thing to feel genuinely sorry for your sins and to want to improve. Those who think they can pay lip service to forgiveness play God for a fool. Why bother to even say it, why not video tape yourself asking for forgiveness, and play the tape daily while you go about your more important business. Redemption through the modern convenience of your VCR. Like Don Corleone, many of us think that by spending an hour on Sunday morning, we can go about business as usual totally absolved of any responsibility of what we do. Sorry folks, God ain't that stupid.

Try this. Think of all the rotten things that you do--all of them now, petty as well as big. Now try to feel genuinely sorry for these wrongs and promise yourself that you will no longer do them. No lips service here, you must be genuine. Now think of all the rotten things that people have done to you. Can you forgive these people of their trespasses? Could you now offer them your friendship, love them like a brother? Can you turn the other cheek when they lash out at you again? Hey, getting into Heaven is tough.

I mentioned earlier that there are many different divisions in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are radically different religions that share some general concepts. Within each religion there are many further divisions. We find ourselves like birds flapping about a huge tree with several main trunks, many limbs, and a tangle of branches. In which branch do we build our nest? How do we choose? An almost universal constant in these various religions--if not stated overtly with pride, then at least felt in the hearts of the majority of the adherents--is that "Ours is the ONLY True Way". So we are faced with a truly important question here. Which way, which branch is the True Path to God's heart? How does one choose? This is crucial, your fate for eternity depends on you making a correct choice. How do you choose? What really is the determining factor to the True Path to God?

Geography! Yes, for the most part geography is the deciding factor in the quest for the True Path. What is the True Path to God? The average citizen of Rome, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Salt Lake City have very different answers based primarily on geography. Not many of us go about finding a religion like Vladimir the Great who reportedly studied all the great religions and decided that all of Russia would be as moved as he with the beauty of the Orthodox Eastern Church. This beauty affected Vladimir so much that he dumped 800 pagan wives and settled down with one respectable woman. I am not sure whether Vladimir was trying to civilize his country or his domestic life. But unlike Vladimir, most of us are born into a religion and stick with it for life.

Yes but this is America, we have freedom of religion here. One can choose. Me? I was brought up Lutheran. Why? Were my parents from a long line of Lutherans that could trace their ancestry back to sixteenth century Germany? Did some great, great, great, grandfather hold the 95 theses on the Castle Church door while old Martin pounded in the nails? No. Well then did my parents, like Vladimir, study all of the various religions and make a conscious decision that the Lutheran way was profoundly beautiful and indeed the True Path? No!

My parents were vaguely protestant. That is more a statement of what they were not rather than what they were. Specifically, they were not Catholic, Jewish, or one of those "holy rollers". So how did we end up Lutheran? Well, geography mostly. There was a Lutheran church within walking distance of home. My sister and I could make it to Sunday school and the religious instruction classes ("You know Jim, they call that Catechism up there. It sounds so Catholic." my mother used to fret to my dad) on foot. Well nobody wore a yarmulke or hollered during the service, and there were no statues around the place. It wasn't quite Methodist or Presbyterian but it would have to do--"Mickeys that forgot their Latin" lamented my mother. Within a five mile radius of our home, there were probably a dozen Presbyterian and Methodist churches, plus any other flavor that you care to mention. But the Lutheran Church was within walking distance, so I am Lutheran. Geography!

So I have been Baptized, Sunday Schooled, Catechismed, Confirmed, and Communioned into a Lutheran Heaven by geography. Walking distance from home--you sure wouldn't pick an investment banker or even a car dealer that way. But in matters of the eternal, what the hell. How can I be sure that the Right Path was chosen for me? With so many voices declaring that they are indeed the Only Way, how can one be sure? For the most part, you or geography makes the decision and then you maintain great faith that you are correct. It helps if you think about how all those other infidels will broil in Hell because they don't do the this or the that which defines the True Path to God. Of course, one is struck with an occasional late night doubt, "what if I am wrong?" Maybe I should try the other church down the road.

Alas, by conscious decision, I have been condemned to a Lutheran Hell. I don't have a piece of paper declaring this, nor does my name appear on some computer list within the church files that I know of. I just know in my heart that the church will not approve of my lack of attendance in the past 25 years, my ecumenical beliefs in all religions, my belief in the Divinity of the Soul, my dabbling in Eastern mysticism, and a few lusty thoughts, words, and deeds for which I am not sorry about and thus seek no redemption. For these sins I will, no doubt, spend an eternity in Lutheran Hell.

Being condemned does have its liberating side. A guy on death row is not particularly worried about tax audits, termites, the movement of the Dow, proper etiquette, or arthritis. And so it is with me. A number of ecclesiastical worries went right out the window with the realization that I couldn't make it to Heaven. There are too many problems, too many things that don't jive in my religious upbringing. Surely, if you look at the entire Judeo-Christian family, it is hard to believe that the True Path was provided to me by virtue of the church being 847 feet away from my parents house. What of all those poor Souls in Rome, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Salt Lake City--not to mention Bombay, Shanghai, or Tokyo? Why are the chosen people of antiquity always in the mid-east? Doesn't God love people elsewhere? What happened to all the Souls in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas before there were missionaries? What happens to all the Souls that through conquest or repression were not given the correct faith? What happens to a guy that has most of it, say 95 percent correct, but misses out on some dogmatic detail? If one looks at history, it appears that many of the divisions were political in nature rather than ecclesiastical. Should we canonize slave traders for bringing the infidel savages to the True Path? Think of the Souls they saved. What ever happened to the concept of turning the other cheek? Does God really give us the right to Inquisition, Crusade, Jihad, enslave, plunder those who do not believe as we do? And why is God so mean? We don't hold ourselves to the same standards that God holds us to. We seem to understand that we are human. But God demands perfection even though we are helpless to do anything but sin. And why all of this preponderance on sin. God never seems to recognize any of the good that we do, only the bad. Do you berate your child for getting a D in physical education on an otherwise straight A report card? Why does God look down on women? Women can't do this and women can't do that. Why is God so thin skinned? Any doubt or question you may have is a terrible sin. Throw your intellect away and have faith. To get into Heaven you must have faith, you must believe. There is no room for private thought. And within an individual church, why does God seem to love certain people more so than others? You know who I mean, those certain people who seem to get right into the middle of things and push the church in the direction that they see fit. Salvation always seems automatic for them, yet the rest of us have to labor at it. Why out of a population of 5.3 billion Souls, only a small minority (you choose who) will make it to Heaven? And why, why above anything else does God allow us to spend an eternity in Hell for the mistakes of a lousy three score and ten years of miserable mortal life?

This is the end of part 2. Please go on to part three. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 3.

Image Credits:
1. A Soul Brought To Heaven, William Adolphe Bougouereau Brian Yoder's Good Art

2. Charon The Ferryman Middleschool of Astrology

Tunnels Part 3

This is part 3. Please read parts 1 & 2 first. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 2.

Everyone has drifted off to go chat with someone or other, and I am left alone again. I look about the room at the furnishings and the decor. The joint has a STANDARD AMERICAN FUNERAL HOME INTERIOR DECOR look, somewhat too fancy for modern tastes. Funeral homes seem to be a hold out of the nineteenth century. Maybe it instills a sense of perpetuity among the clientele. There is a slight ornate vulgarity about the place. It is not helped by the fact that everything is well worn. You can see paths in the carpet, bald spots on the overstuffed chairs, a little rip here and a small crack there. The place is well kept but worn. It reminds me of a mansion of some ancient wealthy family of English nobility, who is running out of money--like the guy in the Schweppes commercials. Of course, this stuff is not some priceless heirlooms, but rather the capital equipment of a company. Most of it looks like it is beyond a depreciation write-off.

As I said before, being condemned does have its advantages. I am free to find God on my own terms. What difference does it make, I am going to Hell anyhow! The first thing I decided is that God is to be loved, not feared. I am not a God fearing man, I am a God loving man. So how can you love someone who wants to damn you to Hell? No problem, discard the concept of Hell and it's easy to love God. I don't believe in Hell. The place does not exist. I do not believe that God will damn me for all my petty sins. God may not be too pleased with some of the things that I do, and in some fashion I will have to answer for them, but it won't be eternal damnation. I believe that Hell is a human institution that has served the powerful well. How better to control us, the dung encrusted masses, than with fear? We will do exactly as the powerful want or else God will send our Souls to broil in Hell forever. The great thing about the whole deal is that God sees everything all the time, so the entire process is automatic. We won't get away with anything, even if we escape the mortal powers, because God will ultimately get us in the end. Therefore, we had better do what the high priests want us to or else Hell awaits us. Myself, I do fear the eternal nothingness, but not Hell. If there is a God, and I believe there is, then there can not be a Hell. God would not permit it. Why?

Defining God is a dangerous business, but in my opinion God is not petty, thin skinned, jealous, sexist, racists, or hateful. Quite simply God is a nice guy, or nice gal if you prefer. I don't think God cares whether we think of Her, or think of Him, or think of It. Take your druthers, but I think that God does like when we do think about God using whatever pronoun that we wish. I don't think that God has any particular religion, but I think She is hurt by all of them. Some religions want to cut out your heart and offer it to God while it still beats. Others, more subtly, only want to cut out your mind. Either way it's human sacrifice that does not serve God. When our religions do good, which they frequently do, I think that God takes a lot joy in that good and is proud of us. Most of all, God has love, time, and patience. I think that She has enough love, time, and patience that He can straighten out the worst of us, without any help from our fellow mortals. That is, I think God would prefer that we worry about that log in our own eye instead of the speck in our brother's eye. So when you have love, time, and patience, of what value is Hell. How can Hell possibly serve God?

I have to admit that here is one thunderhead in the fair skies of my belief in no Hell. In The Light Beyond Moody claims that there have been some Hellish near death experiences. The only represent 0.3 percent of the total cases in three different studies, but they do exist. Now to be fair, if I believe in the good near death experiences, shouldn't I also believe in the bad? Well, I have to admit the it does inspire worry. What could be the possible explanation? Perhaps Hell does exist! Personally I don't believe so because I don't believe that God would permit Hell to exist. So we are back to faith. What else could it be? I see the distinct possibility that these could be bad dreams that parallel the near death experience. The incidence rate is so small as to indicate that the experience is not genuine. Another explanation, although highly questionable is perhaps some Souls need to experience Hell. Nothing permanent, just a nasty resort for the masochistic Soul. I am not sure what the bad near death experience means, but they do not shake my faith that God has no requirement for Hell.

You are probably thinking, well if God is such a nice guy, if Hell does not exist, if God looooooooooooves us soooooo much, what moral imperative do we have for being good? Can't we just raise hell, and the good old Boy will forgive us no matter what?

I think that we will have to answer for our wrongs, but not forever. This brings us to our third possibility eternal evolution. Evolution, a word sure to raise the blood pressure in many people. Well for the record, I believe in biological evolution, so go ahead and hate me. But here I am not talking about biological evolution, but rather spiritual evolution. So when I speak of evolution don't think that I mean that your great grand father was an orangutan. Instead, think that maybe he was Alexander the Great. Oh no, not reincarnation! Yes reincarnation! There are better than one billion believers in the various religions of the East, why not reincarnation? Again, I am not scholar enough to state what the various religions of the East believe, only fool enough.

The Eastern religions de-emphasize the concept of God. Instead they consider the Soul. In a very general sense, the Soul must repeat human life over and over until such time that Enlightenment is reached. Enlightenment or Nirvana is a state of One with the universe, or One with the Ultimate, it is a release of human concerns and a recognition of the ultimate nature of existence. When this state of Enlightenment is reached the Soul is released from additional incarnations and will remain forever in this state of Oneness.

Reincarnation makes a lot of sense. If you consider our mortal bodies being a vehicle for the Soul, then we shouldn't be overly concerned with the tragedies of the world. They are lessons for the Soul. All Souls must experience all phases of life, both good and bad. Our mortal lives become something of an automobile which the Soul will use and discard as it sees fit. No one gets too upset with the junking of an old car, and so it should be with our bodies. Death is but a doorway to a new life. There are no sins, but rather an automatic recording of deeds called Karma. Bad deeds must be countered by good deeds until the Karmic balance is zero, at which time the Soul will have reached Enlightenment.

Reincarnation also makes a lot of sense form God's point of view. If I were God, I would not want to see a Soul condemned to Hell for eternity. It would break my heart. Yet you can't just be an old softy and let them get away with murder. So why not just sit back and let them do it over and over until they get it right. They will get it right eventually, if not in this life time then in some future lifetime. Why be a big meany and have all this Hell and damnation stuff when you can be jolly and let Karma take care things automatically. It is a great justice system: as a Soul sows, so shall it reap. Each Soul determines its own destiny. If you lust over your neighbor's spouse you can expect to feel the hurt that lusting can cause. But if you axe murder 29 children, you can expect to make 29 very big sacrifices in your future incarnations.

One thing to note about Karma, it does not serve the high priests very well. There is no broiling in Hell for some dogmatic oversight or disbelief. Failure to obey the ecclesiastical authorities results only in whatever unpleasantries they can cook up for you, very unpleasant to be sure, and the vague threat that you will have to come back many life times to make up for your short comings. What the hell, most of us recognize that we got a long way to go anyhow so it is not much of a threat. You see with Karma, the high priest is the ultimate son of a bitch, not God. You may get your eyes spooned out for your theological shortcomings but at least you won't broil in Hell.

From God's point of view, it's a hell of a lot easier to shave in the morning knowing that eventually all of His Souls will rejoin Her. In the end nothing will be lost. All experience good and bad will contribute to the Infinite One. God is relieved of the role of the Ultimate Meany, yet a moral imperative is maintained.

So then what happened to Helen? I think our previous scenario--exiting the body, tunnel experience, beautiful light--would still hold. But instead of a harsh trial by a stern Old Testament God--the Ultimate Meany--there would be a life review conducted by the Being Of Light as described in Moody's The Light Beyond:

After meeting several beings in light, the NDEer [Near Death Experience-er] usually meets a supreme Being of Light. People with a Christian background often describe Him as God or Jesus. Those with other religious backgrounds may call him Buddha or Allah. But some have said that it's neither God nor Jesus, but someone very holy nonetheless. Whoever he is, the Being radiates total love and understanding. So much so, that most people want to be with it forever. . . . It's his [the Being of Light] job to take them on a life review. When the life review occurs, there are no more physical surroundings. In their place is a full color, three-dimensional, panoramic review of every single thing the NDEer have done in their lives. This usually takes place in a third-person perspective and doesn't occur in time as we know it. . . . the person's whole life is there at once. In this situation, you not only see every action that you have ever done, but you also perceive immediately the effects of every single one of your actions upon the people in your life.

So in this life review, there would be no red bordered scenes, no lightening and thunder, no criticism or condemnation, instead just love and understanding. Helen would come to an immediate understanding of all the implications of her actions on herself, others, and the world as a whole. With this understanding, Helen should improve in her next life. At this point, I should imagine that Helen could either come back to mortal life in a new incarnation, or take a respite in the spiritual realm for reflection. When she is ready to incarnate, all she has to do is enter a fetus in any stage of pregnancy.

A reasonable question is why don't we have any memories of our past lives? There are those who claim that one can be hypnotized and recall past life experiences from the subconscious, in what are called past life regressions. I have never tried this myself and I am not sure that I would want to know what I had done in the past anyhow. Which is why I think we can't remember. How would you like to start out life knowing that you were Adolph Hitler and have all that Karma hanging over your head? We start each life with a clean slate. The Karmic debt is still there, but we are unaware of it so that we are not overwhelmed with our past deeds. Also, I don't believe that things are predestined. Even though the Soul has a Karmic debt and has made plans, I feel that life is essentially a collection of chance events. We are not acting out some great play that God and our Souls have written for us. Things happen by chance and we learn from these occurrences. If it were all a play, why not just remain in the spiritual realm and review the play rather than live it. No, it is not a play, we are the masters of our own destiny only to the extent that we can determine our future Karmic debt by our present action. Otherwise, we live in a universe of pure chance. Life is pretty much as rotten or as good as we care to regard it. It is not some meaningless play. But good or bad, exciting or boring, rich or poor, the Soul continues to learn.

If it sounds as though I am a believer in reincarnation, it is only because it makes so much sense. We are relieved of the task of getting everything perfect in one life. God is relieved of damning Souls to Hell for eternity. It doesn't really matter which religion is the True Path, essentially they are all correct and all wrong. It doesn't matter because sooner or later we will have to get it right.

Other things come to mind that support the concept of reincarnation. How about phobias and déjà vu. Why do I have a revulsion for gambling? I have had no experience with gambling one way or another yet I have an extreme distaste for it. Why is my wife terrified of sharks, yet has never been around them? I am terrified/fascinated by electric chairs, but not electricity. I don't think that I want to delve into that one. I suppose that some of it may be from movies or stories when we were young, yet I don't know why gambling would affect a young child.

Still alone, I look over at Helen in the coffin, same blank uncomprehending expression on her face. She probably is the only person here that is not bothered by this heat. I wonder is she floating nearby? Did she watch me sneak my peeks, tune into my morbid thoughts? Or is she gone to some far distant realm? Bill and Amanda have moved off to the side lines. The guests are standing about in various clumps about the room, clumps based on familiarity I supposed. Some people are starting to leave. As I look about the room, there doesn't seem to be all that much grieving going on. Everyone is talking and having a hell of a good time while poor old Helen stares at the ceiling through closed eyes. The bizarreness of this affair once again strikes me. But then again, what would I have everyone do? Stand and weep silently? Pray? Declare bitter lamentations? I don't know, it just seems that everyone is having a better time than the situation warrants.

Do I believe in reincarnation? I think fear would be a better word than believe. It is my profound hope that there is no such thing as reincarnation. Yeah, it's preferable to nonexistence and certainly Hell, but I find little comfort in the notion of reincarnation. I am too damned tired of mortal life to want to go through it all over again. I just don't think that I could take the prospect of doing this again, and again, and again, and again. . . . I'm a long way from Enlightenment, centuries at least and perhaps millennia. The notion of going through life over and over just makes me tired. The thought of being on my death bed and thinking "well gee, in a few minutes I'll be back to do it all over again" is depressing. Imagine--little league, junior high school, getting the shit kicked out of you, religious instruction, wars, finding a job, having children, allergies, arthritis, taxes, old age, death, birth. . . over and over. I am not ambitious enough for all that.

Then consider this, I have been given a rather cushy life in a rich, well fed, western democracy. What have I done with my good fortune? Not much! While I am not a particularly bad person, nor am I a particularly good person. What have I done for my fellow man? I give an occasional twenty to Care or the Salvation Army, but I am not breaking myself. I am no Mother Theresa, that is for sure. So having been given so much opportunity to help my fellow man in a world of such dire circumstances, and having done so little, couldn't I expect to come back in Bangladesh or some other third world hell hole? Somehow going through junior high again doesn't sound so bad. I suppose that I could rationalize this worry away with the thought that I spent my time in hell holes in previous lives and now it's my turn for the cushy life. But does that relieve me of the responsibility of helping my fellow man? When I think of the inequities between the third world and western life, I feel pangs of guilt, but not so much that I am going to turn over my savings account to Care. But I do fear that I may pay a price in later incarnations, especially because I recognize the problem. Shouldn't I cast off my material wealth, modest as it is by western standards, and devote my life to helping the wretched of the world? Yes! Am I going to? No! Bangladesh, here I come. This is a fear of mine. So why don't I do something about it, indeed become another Mother Theresa? As I said before, I am millennia from Enlightenment.

Let us suppose that reincarnation does indeed exist. Now we can ask this question: how nutty, how bizarre does it sound for me to give my savings account, my home, all of my possessions to charity, join the Salvation Army, and devote my life to the poor, sick, and wretched? How insane does that sound to you? If it sounds real nutty, if you think that I am a real wacko for entertaining such ideas, then I should think that you can look forward to a long career of many Earthly incarnations. The less insane this idea sounds to you, the closer to Enlightenment you are. If it sounds like a damn good idea for you to do, then I should think that you are damn near there. To me it sounds like a fair idea, but I don't have the courage or the conviction to do it. Yet if I heard of someone else doing such a thing, and (here is the crux) being perfectly happy and contented with themselves for doing so, I would envy them. If I were to cast off my possessions and devote my life to the poor, it would be due to fear and guilt, not love, compassion, and the pure joy of helping one's fellow human being. The entire time I would feel that I was crazy for doing this and that the world owed me something for it. All the wrong reasons for doing the right things. My modest wealth would do absolutely nothing to the curve of human misery, what perhaps feed one millionth of a percentage point of the worlds population for a month? Allow 50 children to die of starvation next year instead of this year. And I would not be contented with myself. As I said before, I have a long way to go to reach Enlightenment, and I am unhappy with the prospect.

From both God's and the Soul's point of view, reincarnation makes a lot of sense. From my point of view, it stinks. The elements in my life that I find least satisfying are those that are directly related to mortal life. First possession of a body. In my case an ugly, achy, bald headed, potbellied, piece of biological compost that I well could do without. What advantages do I get out of body ownership? It certainly is no joy to look at in the mirror. My back hurts, knees ache, sinuses raise hell continuously, and I got M.S. You got to feed a body. I don't much care for eating, digestion, elimination, nor food shopping (worse yet agriculture), cooking, washing dishes, and taking out the garbage. A body must have shelter. I have found home ownership worse than body ownership, at least the body fixes itself some of the time. A body must be transported, automobiles are another pain in the ass. A body must be clothed. Spending money on clothes is the pits. A body must work to provide all of the above. My job is no joy to me. In fact any concern of the body and its requirements I find to be nothing but a headache (with the exception of sex, that I do enjoy). Bodies, houses, cars, clothes, (my wife adds child birth, gynecological exams, and cottage cheese to this list). . .mortal life is nothing but a wallowing in the second law of thermodynamics--things tend to go from a state of order to a state of disorder. Entropy! You live life and watch things fall apart all around you. Then you experience the queen mother of entropic events: lay down in a coffin and go for a ride in a Cadillac station wagon. No thanks, I can well do without mortal life. The things I enjoy--learning, contemplation, classical music, science, philosophy, religion--I could do better without a body (except sex and I hope there is some spiritual version of sex that will make mortal sex look boring). The prospect of owning hundreds of these pain ridden contraptions before I finally get it right is not a happy thought. I hope and pray that there is no such thing as reincarnation.

OK, if I don't want nonexistence, Hell, or reincarnation, then what do I want? How about levels of spiritual evolution. When you die you go to the bottom level. You clean the spiritual toilets so to speak, do spiritual good deeds, earn your wings. If your name is Mother Theresa, you could expect to spend a day on this level. If your name is Sextant maybe you'll be there for 50,000 years or perhaps a million years. If you're Adolph Hitler, expect to clean toilets for the next 17 trillion years. No matter who you are, you will spend your time, pay your dues, make up for all the rotten things that you did, and move on to the next level. The first level will be something less than Heaven, but better than Earth. As you evolve, you will move upward through the levels but you will never reach the top. There is no top, God is Infinite.

So where is Helen? I hope with all my heart that she is happily cleaning the spiritual toilets of Heaven, doing her spiritual good deeds. Perhaps, she is a guardian angel for someone, helping them through the rough spots, the hurts of life. Maybe she is helping Bill with his new life without her. Perhaps she is guiding my pen. I think it would be an appropriate first spiritual step for the Soul, the guidance and assistance of those still living on Earth. I think I could enjoy doing that for the next 50,000 years. I would like helping someone do the things that I never had the skill, talent, creativity, or courage to do. It would be a way that I could make life better for someone in a lasting way, and make up for my own failings in life. This is my hope and this is my faith.

Mom comes over and whispers in my ear that we ought to leave now. Viewing will be over in 15 minutes, let's beat the rush. She has a point, this place is loaded. While she gets her coat, I go over and sign the book for both of us. What is the purpose of this book? Does anyone actually look at it, or does it get tossed in a drawer and forgotten? Mom walks over with her coat folded across her arm. Oh shit, time for good-byes, another crisis time in the lives of the socially awkward. Fortunately, Bill and Amanda are talking to strangers. As Mom and I approach I sort of slip behind Mom, let her do all the talking. Mom takes Bill's hand and gives him a condensed version of the earlier condolences, but now there is an air of finality to what she is saying. Bill thanks us profoundly for coming and wishes us well. Once again I am struck with the innocent simplicity of this man and the grace in which he conducts himself. Here comes the lump again--shit! As I shake Bill's hand, I mumble something totally inaudible--I don't even know what it is. Bill thanks me heartily. Another quick hug to Amanda, and we start for the door. There is no one else near that we know, so we slide out the oversized front door, go down the steps, and turn a corner around a large beautiful rhododendron, its leaves dark green and waxy.

The air is fresher now, a little less threatening than before but still dismal. In the air you can feel rain, it's coming, but also a hint of spring. You can smell the early vestiges of spring in the air. It feels great: this fresh, spring, rain smelling air--especially after the ornate, vulgar, dark, hot, stuffiness of the funeral home. For a brief moment, it feels really great to be alive. It is wonderful to pull the clean, cool, spring laden, fresh air into my lungs and feel it there. I pull another big breath of fresh air into my lungs, and think about it--gases are exchanged, blue stale blood turns red and fresh. Life courses through my veins. It feels good. It is such a contrast to poor Helen, lungs collapsed, chemicals stagnating in her listless veins, heart still, cold and dead. I take several more deep breathes to try to purge the nineteenth century and the death out of my being. I feel
more alive than usual, noting the reaction of the asphalt against my feet, the pure joy in being able to walk, the cool breeze brushing my face and hands, the rub of my clothes against me and, of course, the ambient noise. It's rainy day noise, louder than usual. It is good to be leaving this place.

As we pull out on to Greentree Road, Mom says that she does not want to come back for the funeral tomorrow. Neither do I, but in some fashion I feel that I should. Mom's tone of voice indicates that this is not up for discussion. So I let it drop. There is no reason why I can't go. I don't want to. I don't know these people all that well. I showed up, did the respectable thing, why wallow in this? Nobody mentioned the funeral tomorrow, it's not expected. Me showing up, will just underscore that Mom isn't there. These are just Mom's in-laws, but they are my family--I should go. She is just my cousin. What the hell, I never went to see her when she was alive, nor did she come to see me. Would she bother with my funeral? That is neither here nor there, the fact is that I should go. It is time for me to start behaving like an adult, I should go. I don't want to go!

I make a value judgment. I draw the line tighter around me. Helen in her casket lies on the other side of that line now. I am not going to the funeral. No excuses, no rationalizations, Helen's funeral is not worth the bother. That sounds so harsh, couldn't it be said more euphemistically? Yes, but it would be watered down bullshit. I have had enough of death and socializing. I don't have the courage and the stamina for another day of this. How easy it is to write someone off--too much bother, to hell with it. Doesn't Helen's life and death have any more meaning than that? Perhaps, but the decision stands, I am not going tomorrow. I am not very proud of these thoughts. An old sage at work, now retired, once told me that I cause myself much unhappiness by thinking things through too much. He was right. I don't want bothered with this funeral, but I am going to thrash myself the whole way home for being immature, a coward, socially awkward, a louse, and generally an uncaring no good son of a bitch. The decision still stands.

We are on the Parkway now, heading down the hill, moving through time and space. Time still exists for Mom and I. We have a future, a present, and a past. Space still exists for us: we see it fly by, photons firing the neurons in our retinas, images processed in our brains, we are conscious of the surroundings slipping by, the motion of the car below us. We are aware of time and space, time ticking away, the car sliding through the three dimensions of space. The noise of the engine marks time as it pushes us through space. You can feel it--accelerations, decelerations, the centripetal acceleration when rounding a bend. I have never thought of it before, but it's strange, you can't feel simple velocity. You can feel the changes in velocity, the accelerations, but not the velocity itself. Nor can you, for that matter, feel space. How can you feel the space around you? You can't. Even if you are squashed in a hydraulic press, the space hasn't changed. It is still there, it is only occupied by something else. It is not the lack of space that will smash the life out of you. It is the tons of steel driven by thousands of PSI of hydraulic pressure that kills you, not the lack of space. The space is still there.

Imagine standing on the edge of the universe. What would happen if you tried to step over the edge? Would you simply drag time and space with you, would you become the leading edge? Or would you explode like a super nova in some horrible reaction of ordinary matter with super space? Perhaps you would suffer a gravitational collapse and become a mini black hole, quite literally dying from the lack of space. Mom and I have active memories, current thoughts, and expectations for the future. What does Helen have? Only a past that is remembered by others. No present, no future. She occupies space-time now as a thing, an object. Space and time can act on her, but she can not react back. Why am I thinking this? I believe Helen is fine in the afterlife, don't I? Or has the reality of Helen's lifeless body lying still and cold in that coffin shaken my well thought out beliefs? I accept no one else's word on matters of the eternal, I have to figure these things out for myself. Standing next to Helen and staring down into the depths of the lifeless alabaster, the only thing I could physically verify was that Helen was not there. Did she cease to exist? Is it so wise to determine all of these things for myself? Maybe having faith in someone else's religion is not so bad. Perhaps I do think too much. Maybe I should sit back, relax, and accept word for word someone else's dogma. I could find no evidence that Helen did anything but die and cease to exist. It's odd, when considering the truly important questions, we are not much further ahead that the ancients. Everything is a matter of faith.

I do think Helen is OK, don't I? Yeah, but it is good to entertain doubts and think through them, it tempers your faith. I am feeling depressed though, I guess mostly for Bill. I got my old milepost feeling. It is an odd emotion I get at graduations, weddings, retirement parties, funerals, and airports. These are major transitions in our lives; things will be different after them. Change is the mileposts of our lives. The feeling that I get is an admixture of melancholy, happiness (if appropriate), uncertainty, loneliness, and perhaps fear. It is difficult to dissect a feeling, to smash it into elementary emotions. The milepost feeling is the milepost feeling. It is bittersweet, as most things in my life are. . . . Why airports? The partings mostly, but also the arrivals. Airports can be very sad, very happy, and often very lonely places. Helen's death is certainly a milepost. I suppose from our point of view, her last. But I do have faith that for Helen, her death was the first milepost on an endless road through eternity. But there is change, there is sadness, there is loneliness, and there is fear. We will all have to pass that milepost one day. I feel really bad for Bill.

It occurs to me that I didn't take a last look at Helen. I left without a farewell glance. I'll never see her again. That is an odd realization that always occurs to me after a funeral. It always knocks me over for a moment. I'll never see her again. I'll never hear her voice again. She is gone and I didn't take one last look. It doesn't matter though, I told you before, Helen was not there. What is the point of looking at a dead stranger one last time?

It scares the hell out of me…death. Not my own, in a very vague sense I almost look forward to it--the end of a less than happy bodily existence that I spoke of earlier. It is the prospect of my wife's death that frightens me. What if my wife goes first and I have to be the master of ceremonies at one of these God awful affairs? How am I going to handle choosing a casket, telling the sad tale, listening to condolences, meeting people that I don't know. How am I going to handle the tears, the damned smell of the flowers, the lumps in the throat, the sight of that yucky vanilla fabric? But most of all, how am I going to be able to stand back and look at my wife and see a lifeless stranger lying still and pale in a coffin? I won't be able to do it. I could do it for my father, will eventually have to do it for my mother, but not my wife. I just will not be able to go through with it. I couldn't stand to see the sweet warm face that I have kissed so often--the body that I have loved so passionately--lying cold, dead, still, pale, and expressionless in a coffin. The woman I love gone, the body I love a stranger. I can't do it, I won't do it. I hope I go first. And that is purely a selfish notion because I know she feels the same way. Yet I couldn't bear the emptiness.

Quite actually, I hope we go together. In a car accident? No, too simple. I should think that it would be thrilling to be somewhat of an embarrassment to our heirs. When we have outlived our usefulness, I hope that we die together--while making love. At the moment of truth (you know when I mean, that point that the "how to" books make such a big deal about, and which she and I have always had this amazing synchrony) the furnace explodes. Blows sky high. The force of the explosion instantly slams the life out of us. The heat of the explosion and the ensuing fire melts our bodies together in an inseparable mess. The mortician gives up trying to separate us, and places us--ventral flesh fused as one, pleasure locked on our faces--into one closed coffin. Another closed coffin, filled with sand bags, is provided for the sake of decency. "The caskets must be closed because of the terrible condition of the bodies from the explosion," everyone will be told. Yet the pall bearers can not understand why one of the caskets is so heavy, almost twice the expected weight. Hopefully, the rescue workers that showed up after the explosion will be a bit gabby--strange rumors will keep surfacing. Can you imagine the hem hawing around that will go on during the telling of the sad tale? Think of the gossip that our mutual arrival at the ground floor of the Great Beyond will cause. We will have the place buzzing, and I think God will be amused. What a way to go.

At the bottom of the hill, we plunge into the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Again I imagine that I can sense it passing overhead, all that family history. Overhead and a quarter mile to the right, Helen lived for 10 years. My mother met, fell in love with, and married my father overhead. Both my sister and I were conceived overhead and to the right. Until I was five, we lived directly over the Liberty Tubes, another tunnel about a half a mile up the river. I owe my existence to events that occurred on top of that hill in space and over 40 years ago in time. All of that history passing overhead at 59 feet per second. A history that is remembered in progressively fewer of us. One day all that will remain will be a few tombstones and some entries in long forgotten dusty volumes in the county records.

I accelerate. The walls, sliding by at 73 feet per second, constrict and the ceiling drops a little. I hit the gas a little harder, the pitch of the engine increases, Mom glances at me. The tunnel narrows again, it and the history overhead are streaking by at 88 feet per second. I wonder if Mom can sense it, the history? I would never ask her. A hard realist raised on a farm during the depression, my artsy notions have always irritated her. I accelerate again, but chicken out. What the hell am I trying to do, join Helen? The narrow tunnel walls continue to fly by. We can see the bright light at the end of the tunnel. We rush through the mountain, dirt and history roaring by. My history on top of the mountain is but a speck of the history in this hill. A few feet through the wall of the tunnel lies sedimentary rock that was laid down 300 million years ago in the Pennsylvanian period, some 80 million years before the first dinosaurs. It was the coal age and there is a lot of coal in Pittsburgh. All that history, all that geology, all that time flying by at 88 feet per second.

So is this what it is like, dying? Rushing through a dimly lit tunnel toward the light. Your life, your history, your passions, your sorrows all rushing past and behind you as you move forward to the bright and lovely light. We burst out into the intense glorious light. And there it is! The suddenness of its appearance always surprises me. It's beautiful. Heaven? No, just downtown Pittsburgh suddenly appearing at the end of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

This is the end of the 3 part series titled Tunnels. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 2.

This is part 3. Please read parts 1 & 2 first. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 2.

Image: Downtown Pittsburgh from the portal of the Fort Pitt Tunnel.


Moody, Raymond A. The Light Beyond. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance. "Afterword." New York: Bantam Books, 1974 & 1984.