The novel I’m working on (I love saying that. Working on a novel. I recognize it’s an activity nearly as common as dog-walking. Still, I’m happily ensconced in my made-up world. “Imagination, free thyself.” It doesn’t get any better than that). Wait, where was I?
Ah yes: The novel I’m working on is set in New Orleans, a city practiced in resilience and experienced in all things magical, mysterious and inexplicable. The young girl at the center of the story copes with tragedy and with the blurred line between life and death.
I thought about my protagonist as I recently tuned into yet another show about what lies beyond. Television writers and producers appear fond of the idea that we can reach out to, talk with or even resurrect the dead. Every show features a skeptic (always a person of science), a believer (usually associated with a classic religion like Catholicism), a child (because they are more open to what is inexplicable—or maybe more easily manipulated) and some new age person who assures the ones who are grieving that their beloved is “happy.” Honestly, though, the focus isn’t about the comfort of the departed souls but about comforting the survivors. Once we let go of the idea the deceased might be suffering in some unspeakable place or wandering aimlessly about, the needs of those puzzling over life and death become paramount. They’re the ones left behind to hurt and also to fret about what happens next. The departed presumably already know.
The skeptic in me squirms. The curious part of me ponders. Logic and belief fight for primacy. What do I think happens after death? What do I need to think happens? What difference does it make?
Thinking about it is human. Worrying about it is unproductive. What happens happens. Meanwhile I need to make certain any explorations into my ever-evolving beliefs don’t interfere with my life in the here and now. It’s far too easy, especially as one gets older and, let’s face it, less relevant in the world, to slip out of engagement. I’m guilty of passing, some might say wasting, time on various social media sites. Online social networking offers some interaction but it’s virtual. I’m not saying that makes it invalid, only that relying exclusively on that sort of interaction is limiting.
Most of us these days take in our surroundings indirectly. We share videos and read summaries of articles and get our news from our friends. As much time as I spend in front of a computer screen of one size or another, I’m a novice compared with the next two generations. Healthy and mobile for the most part, they seem to regularly wander past the wondrousness around them, heads down, looking at their hands or their wrists. When they catch a glimpse of something uniquely marvelous, they record it or photograph it rather than look at it in situ as it were. They see the world through the lens of a Smartphone camera or worse, behind them, in the background to their endless selfies. If a tree falls in the forest and we’re all watching via Skype, what has actually happened?
Sometimes direct observation is impractical: We can’t all be Ernest Hemingway-style adventurers. Sometimes it’s impossible. Most of us will die but once, making post-life reporting unlikely. Meanwhile, this existence deserves our full attention. Who knows? Maybe we’ll stumble upon something while alive that suggests a journey far beyond anything we ever imagined.