Traffic is light on the bridge this afternoon as I head to Washington College, my alma mater, to sit in Smith Hall for the first time in decades. Having felt that my soul existed long before I was born and that I will continue to exist (as me, not stardust or memory) when this life ends, I’m exploring this idea in a class titled “Near Death Experiences and the Nature of Consciousness.”
This feeling began when at the age of about 5, I ran up to the house from the river one June afternoon– breathless, barefoot– pausing beneath the shade of the redbud tree before heading inside to change out of my swimsuit.
For just a moment, I lay girl-belly down in the early summer grass—the blades making crosshatched indentations on my arms where they were flung wide–as if I were hugging the earth because I already loved it, or hanging on as she carried me around her star for the only the 5th time, when I experienced a sudden shift in perception.
The white-shingled house, my dad’s gray Volkswagen Beetle in the lane, the pine trees in the woods, abruptly appeared fake, insubstantial, like shimmering composites, and I thought, “Don’t close your eyes, or it will all disappear! The house, the VW, the pines, are no more real than Monopoly tokens.” I tried not to blink, not to lose the world I loved, then went in to tell my mother the news.
“It’s not real,” I said. “The world; it’s not real.” She smiled and asked if I’d fed Kimmie, the cat. The transitory nature of matter, she already knew.
On this perfect fall day, the cornfields along 213 North are partially harvested with lone regiments of dried stalks still standing here and there, and I’m reminded that Thanksgiving is approaching. As I pass a tree where green walnuts as big as apples have fallen to the ground, and gabled farmhouses stand shouldered by forests, a Methodist hymn from my youth comes to mind.
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin.
Religion is not required for reverence. And reverence is a spiritual practice of its own.
I pull into the lot closest to Smith Hall. The season of summer, of giving birth, of raising children has come and gone in my life. I run up to my classroom on the third floor. What’s next?
Most seats are taken even though I’m on time, and everyone seems to know someone else. I sat in this exact room as a sophomore in American Lit. My professor, who profoundly affected my life, recently died. I feel very alone, like I’m both here and not here. Real and not real.
The instructor welcomes us—he’s wearing a long-sleeved checked shirt, he’s warm, self-effacing, and immediately explains he’s someone like us, who has been interested in where we have come from and where we are going for a long time.
We learn about the researchers who have accumulated the most data on this subject in recent decades—Raymond Moody, Elizabeth Kubler Ross, Ian Stevenson, Bruce Greyson. Each is a physician, a Ph.D., or both, and I think how much like religion this is.
When something defies scientific proof and is difficult to test or measure, you can study the ideology, the values, and the anecdotal evidence, but you become a believer based on experience—and you can’t give your experience to someone else—you can only tell about it.
Years ago, living alone in a big house, children launched, husband in Europe for extended periods, I kept things very orderly—neat, clean—everything put away, especially before bed at night. It helped me sleep to have my outer world highly organized.
A friend had introduced me to an intuitive, a medium, and I had gone to see her out of curiosity earlier in the week. Sitting in her office, this woman, unaware of even my name, suddenly said, “Your father is here. He’s making my heart hurt.” She pressed her palm to her chest. “I don’t know what he did, but he is sorry, sorry you didn’t have his love and attention. He has gone to school, so to speak, on the other side, and he understands now what he cost you.”
I didn’t know what to make of this, but I was impressed because it was at least in part true. My father’s absence since the age of 9 had affected me profoundly. But going to school on the other side of life? Aren’t we forgiven and accepted as is? It seems to be the number one commonality in accounts of Near-Death Experiences—an overwhelming love and unconditional acceptance. A God who loves me as me, without a requirement that a new, improved version be in development. But. What if?
That night, I programmed the coffeemaker to come on at 6:30 the next morning, scooped in the ground beans, turned out the light on the stove, and started upstairs for bed when suddenly I remembered I had not added the water. I went back, filled the coffeemaker with water, and went to bed.
When I came downstairs the next morning, I was startled to see a note lying on the rug at the bottom of the steps. It had been perfectly placed, centered and lined up so that I could not possibly miss it, the writing facing in my direction. I’d never seen it before, and it certainly was not there when I had gone to bed. I picked it up and read in what appeared to be a handwritten script. “There is a surprise waiting for you.”
Bizarre, I thought. I walked into the kitchen, and the coffeemaker was humming on the counter, without coffee. It had turned itself on but made nothing at all. The counter was dry, with no leaks, spills, condensation, or water. Everything I had carefully added the night before had disappeared.
Two things I knew about my dad–he was very creative and loved practical jokes.
That afternoon, I researched the postcard in my office and discovered it had been part of a Talbots promotional campaign about a year earlier. I’d never seen it, but clearly, it had been somewhere in the house. “So that’s how you did it,” I thought, and the light on my desk flashed off, then on again. “No way!” I said aloud, smiling, and the light clicked off, then came on again.
I can imagine my dad laughing as he got my attention. But had he really been learning since he died? Becoming kinder? I can only tell you what happened. But. What if?
I’ve always thought that life-as-school was a very human paradigm, a Christian work ethic laid over a divine reality that did not require it. Now I’m not so sure. I see evidence of my father often. I’ll ask for help when I’m scared, and I’ll get it. Then, a gray Volkswagen beetle will appear in front of me at a stoplight and lead me all the way home. So maybe it’s true. There’s an opportunity to keep learning on the other side if you choose to. Is it the nature of love to continue to grow? What do you think? Maybe my father can love me better now than he was able to then.
Whether or not that is the case, there was indeed a surprise waiting for me. The surprise was the evidence that life does not end, learning does not end, love does not end.
I think my father was saying, it’s not that nothing is real; it’s that everything is.
Neither I nor the world will disappear.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.