Recently a friend of mine, who I hadn’t seen in thirty years, invited me to meet him for lunch in Manhattan. He had been traveling, rarely came to New York, and suggested we get together and compare notes on our spiritual journeys. It’s a long drive from Woodstock to the City, and I hadn’t done it alone in years. My anticipation felt unfamiliar to me, since I had grown up across the Hudson River in Bergen County, New Jersey, and spent every weekend as a child driving in with my parents to visit my grandmother and aunt. After college and living in Europe for a year and a half, I settled in Manhattan, went to Columbia for a postgraduate premed program, and eventually wound up living there full-time on the Upper West Side with a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My life was driving in and out of New York, up and down the avenues, crosstown, through the Park, taking subways and buses. I felt as though I knew the City like my hometown. Now, after years of living in Connecticut and Upstate New York, I felt trepidation at traveling to the Big Apple. How had it changed? How had I changed? Would it be too different for me to recognize or find my way around?
I bundled up my courage and set off on a new old adventure, with Google maps and advice from a friend on where to park. The traffic was, as it used to be, a bit chaotic and unnerving. But I made it to my destination almost on time, with my friend a bit worried and ready to call my cell phone. It was good to see him again, although after thirty years we both look a bit worse for wear. I admired the apartment he was staying in, asked him about his long trip abroad, and attempted to answer questions about my spiritual journey as a healer and pastoral counselor, teacher and author. He told me how he remembered me from college, apologized about forgetting our meeting in California years later, and expanded on his dedication to his own spiritual path of meditation, leading retreats and writing.
My friend introduced the topic of life after death. He noted how many books have been published in the past few years discussing people’s experiences of dying and what happened in their consciousness while they were “on the other side.” He had read a book by a neurosurgeon that moved him, and suggested that I read it. I had been aware of many of these books over the past thirty years, and remembered reading one of them when I was ten years old. I can still remember sitting in the back yard and reading with fascination the story of a woman who remembered another lifetime while under hypnosis. Are we now at the age, I considered, when thinking about death is more interesting than thinking about life?
After lunch overlooking Central Park, he asked me how I had managed to keep going. At one point he stated, with a sweep of his hand, “I’m done.” You’re done? No more books? Retreats? Travel? No, he said. He just wanted to receive back some of all he had given out to others for the past thirty years. I knew what he meant. When I first moved from Litchfield, CT to Woodstock, NY, I took a tiny cottage on an island by a stream near a waterfall. I put all my things in storage and moved in with nothing but a few suitcases and my cats. The first time I sat down on the floor in front of a few candles and my statue of Buddha, I closed my eyes and realized that I never wanted to get up again. It was a profound moment of truth. I was done. I was spent, exhausted, at the end of something without knowing if there was a beginning to anything else.
Not knowing, once you’ve known, is very hard. I had known all though my life what my next step would be. I had confidence in myself and my purpose in life. I had traveled the roads that took me to places I wanted to visit, experiences I wanted to have, and people I wanted to meet. I achieved a great deal, although not all that I imagined, and found myself coming to another place. A place unfamiliar. I remember the end of the movie Resurrection with Ellen Burstyn. She played a woman who developed healing abilities after being in a terrible car crash that killed her husband. Her new healing abilities did not set well with many people in town, since she wouldn’t claim any particular set of beliefs. She kept talking about healing as Love. After dealing with people who tried to stop her, people who challenged the good she did, and struggles to help and heal people, she retreated to the desert and a small garden in back of a roadside gas station. The dramatic shift in the movie jarred me. I can remember the feeling to this day. What just happened? One minute she was helping people and the next scene was an RV rolling down a road in the middle of the desert. In the final scene, the RV stops to get gas and Ellen Burstyn comes out. She sees that the little boy is gravely ill and asks if she can give him a hug. As she does, her face becomes radiant with love, compassion, light. We are left wondering if he will be healed. And if she will, as well. No fanfare. No special purpose to save the world. Just living life with love and kindness. Just living life while knowing that the only certainty is death, and maybe, just maybe, an afterlife. After living a life already full of love and kindness, maybe heaven will be quite recognizable.