The question of an afterlife was pretty much settled during the time we lived in San Jose, Calif. The year was approximately 1971 or ’72.
It was a normal tract house. 1970’s facade. Lava rock. Juniper bushes. Inside, cylindrical lampshades in cream and gold hanging on chains from the ceiling. Normal. Boring. (A rental).
But the house was not normal; it was haunted. When strange things started happening (lights on or off, sounds, feeling weird), my mom asked the neighbors about it—“have you ever seen or heard anything weird from the house”—and they revealed that a little boy who had lived there had been killed a few years before while riding his bike on the street.
The final straw--when we decided to move—was the day we walked up to the house and heard a big party going on inside. A huge commotion. With the TV, and the radio and people talking. And mom was confused--pushing my little brother in the stroller as we walked up—because she had just walked to the grocery store to get a few things, and Dad was at work, and she didn’t know what was going on. Had Dad gotten home early? But then where was his car? And why the big party after work? What was going on? So she took out her key to see what was going on inside—to see who exactly was in there partying it up in our house—and as soon as she turned the key, everything stopped. The house was completely silent. With no one inside.
Walking up to that house that day—the noise, mom’s confusion then fear--is my earliest memory, and the most terrifying thing I’ve ever been through.
But it settled the matter of an afterlife pretty quickly. Since there’s nothing like sheer terror to birth a believer.
When we moved to Utah, I geared up for the anticipated Mormon-salvation-fund-drive onslaught by trying to find a proper church for our family.
Because I had two daughters and their souls were at stake--souls not adulterated, like my own, by a lifetime of slovenly and sinfully-wonderful neglect--and there’s one thing I knew about those Mormons: they liked themselves some souls.
I had some experience with Catholics—dad, friends, grandma—but the whole Catholic thing had soured in Virginia when I had had to wait a full 5 minutes to cross the driveway of their church after Mass. With my baby. Car after Catholic-filled car saw and ignored me, as I waited there--damning them for all eternity--with my big and visible stroller that held my hot and hungry premature baby. I was thoroughly disgusted and learning the hard way that "Sunday believing" no longer even lasted for the entire Sunday.
So I looked at Episcopal. But it was so fancy and formal. And I’m not fancy. Or formal. In any manner of speaking. Clotheswise, I’m like a step up from what a dachshund wears on a walk in the winter. I’m just too busy for fancy; if my clothes can’t disguise the coffee I spilled on myself that morning, then I’m not going to put it on. Episcopal was out pretty quick.
I then researched Presbyterian, and Lutheran, and Methodist, but they were all way too clear and proscriptive about things. If there’s one thing salvation needs—in my view—it’s wiggle room. Because God—my God, the God I believe in—isn’t trying to squash us like a bug. God wants us to succeed, and to be kind-hearted, gentle people in whatever way we can manage. If we want to commit ourselves to living like the Buddha, address God in the feminine, and believe that the Bible is the National Enquirer of religious texts then—as long as our intent is not malicious--we should be allowed to feel as worthy as anyone else. But these denominations were all pretty clear on the entry fees for membership and I just couldn’t spiritually afford it.
Things eventually trickled down to the Unitarian Church.
Laid back and down-to-earth, they didn’t use just one religious text; they referenced and accepted several. They believed in the spiritual-authenticity of many types of human experiences, and in giving back to the community/world. They believed in singing, and coming together in prayer, and meditating on healing. They refrained from dogmatically pursuing the free-thinkers in their congregation--a congregation composed of academic (scientific) types--and retained both a male and a female pastor.
All in all, it seemed balanced; and like it would be a good fit. It seemed like how I wanted to raise my kids. With tolerance towards others. With a sense of curiosity towards the world that would be accepted by the congregation without judgment. With the implication that the whole enchilada—the whole sum-game of our spiritual existence—was about finding, within ourselves, the voice of God and God’s impeccable kindness while at the same time foraging with courage amongst the emotional uncertainty that comes with absolute freewill. And that's what I wanted for my kids.
I went to the Unitarian Church a few times, twice taking my girls. And, after a particularly cynical sermon given on the subject of human nature, made a tough decision.
Because during that sermon the pastor's pretentiousness was like an odor that cleared my head of everything except how awesome she thought she was. In spite of all the things it was supposed to be—freethinking, nonjudgmental, caring—this church was still just the product of the egos of the people who ran it.
This pastor clearly knew the “right” way for us to live--HER way--and, just as clearly, I knew where the door was.
Because that isn't what I wanted. And that was my last hope. The final frontier.
I now describe ourselves as "free range." Like the chickens. Because we faithfully and without restraint go where life takes us, facing challenges with compassion and dignity, making choices using our own moral compass, and trusting the inner guidance system granted to us by what I've always believed is a benevolent God.
And I don't believe that God loves us any less.
Because, to me, God places the utmost value in the curiosity of human beings, and questioning and wondering and being a "seeker" is the most natural thing in the world to someone utilizing their God-given free will.
So, we're free range.
Like a chicken.
The experience in that house set up a pattern of lifelong nightmares the theme of which is that--during the dream--I am tasked with saving everyone and everything from a haunted house—to include, currently, my daughters, my pets, and our treasured possessions—because the torment of unseen spirits has literally forced us to flee the safety and security of our home. In the dream, I'm often resigned to walking away from the investment in my home so that I can save my loved ones.
Sometimes—in the scariest dreams of all--I’ve managed to find my daughters and have collected my pets—we are all safe together and ready to leave--but the ghosts/spirits are so intent that they purposefully distract me, and I look away for one second. Just enough time for the girls to be snatched.
Life is such a perilous journey.
Filled with incredibly scary things that can't be rationalized. Like awful memories of abnormal houses, or nightmares in which your kids are snatched. Or a fear-filled notion that your religion-less children could be lured away by sparkling celestial promises.
Perhaps even too perilous for "free range."
But making choices filled with compassion and integrity--right in this second, while possessing the free-range to make either the wrong or right decision--is really the only way we can be certain that our choices are reflecting the authentic goodness that resides inside of ourselves.
And my daughers--ages 15 and 12, and in spite of an absence of direct instruction—understand that the afterlife isn’t like the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. They know that there is no “big win” at the end.
Because there is no “end.”
There is just committment--out of love and loyalty, and with complete devotion--to the goodness that we already know exists in the world. There are just interconnected seconds, and minutes, and feelings, and experiences, during which we are charged with handling fear and challenge with compassion, strength, and humility.
There is no "end." No far-distant reward.
There are just choices. And reflection. And continuation. and evoluation. During which--you don't even realize--the journey is the teacher, and your soul the spiritual adviser, and you cement--subtly, gradually, and in both mind and body--that faith is actually something that you become, and not just something that you believe.