"Hey, what about her?" asked Jeanne, pointing to a woman sitting in the corner of the coffeehouse. She was poring over something like Scantron sheets.
"You think she'd be good?" I asked doubtfully. I was put off by something —the boxiness of the blazer, the rigidity of its shoulders, its blindingly bright redness. We needed some creative, imaginative answers here, not soccer mom-isms.
But what the hell (or what the nothing), I thought. We approached her, and she agreed.
"Oh, does it have to be tape recorded?" the woman asked nervously when I put the tape recorder on the table. She looked at me and then to Jeanne for an answer.
"Well, I think she just wants to be sure she doesn't misquote you," Jeanne offered.
"Oh, well, okay," the woman told Jeanne.
Yoo-hoo! Over here! The one doing the story! Right here, sitting right here next to you, helloooo!I wanted to say, but I sat on the impulse.
"So, what do you think happens when we die?" I asked.
She looked away, obviously vexed. "Aw, man, that's a tough one. This is really hard. I believe in reincarnation. I believe that. And I believe in the idea that we're all joined together in one life force—like families and those that have passed before us? We all end up together in a higher place, whether you want to call it 'heaven.' I also believe in the possibility that rather than reincarnation, there's genetic memory.
"I've experienced a lot of death in the past few years of loved ones, so I've thought a lot about it for myself, and at this point, I'm not afraid of death. It's almost like I welcome it," said the woman, still looking at Jeanne. "I don't want to die. If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, of course I'd be upset. When I say I'll welcome it, I just mean I'm not afraid of it anymore because I figure those who I love so much are already there—wherever that may be. Look at all those people who have died before us, all this great company."
Jeanne and the woman began comparing near-death experiences—what it was like being pulled out of their bodies, watching themselves and the people in the room. How is it that people can not believe in something more, they both wanted to know, with all this evidence of spirits around us all the time?
"But you're open to it; you're open to feeling it," the woman told Jeanne. "You haven't shut it out. Probably because you've experienced death near you."
A part of me felt like intruding: Wait a minute! I've experienced the unimaginable, gut-wrenching, heart-rending, innocence-robbing, hope-crushing, worlds-crashing-down, soul-blackening, lights-going-out horribleness of death, too, and I still don't believe in anything more, so don't try to pull some kind of spiritual rank on me.
Then something weird happened.
As we were getting up to leave, the woman asked why I'd chosen her. She thought it was very strange because she'd just been sitting there thinking about death when Jeanne and I walked up.
"Um, well, uh, um, I don't know," I said eloquently.
See, the truth is that I didn't choose her. On the contrary, I'd not chosen her. It was Jeanne who picked her out of the crowd at the Gypsy Den, and who, in doing so, found a mirror of her own views.
Is that, perhaps, what I'd been doing all day? Was I somehow finding people whose views about death more or less corroborated my own. Was that possible? Was it just a strange coincidence?
We can say that everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs about the afterlife, but of coursewe think ours make the most sense and of course we don't really understand how others can differ. We live in the shadow of death and daily are only dimly aware of that fact because we build bright little belief systems to light our way through to an end we don't really understand. And though we can see and recognize other people's belief systems, we'd really rather not be forced to confront them too often. Who can live every moment in the face of death?
As soon as we got in the car, Jeanne and I started talking. We talked about anything and everything, but it wasn't so much what we were talking about but the act of talking, of pushing away the silence, that was important. The talking began the minute we pulled out of the Lab parking lot and continued for the entire drive back to Jeanne's car, which was in a parking lot where we'd met hours before, when it was still daylight and there was less on our minds.