“I’ve got a question. You know Eric, right?” asked Tim.
He and three more of my friends, Dylan and Lydia and Calvin, had just sat down to lunch. They were at a buffet off Highway 63 in Kirksville, Missouri, the town where we all went to college. I wasn’t there to see it; Tim didn’t tell me this story for months. I don’t know why he decided to ask these questions. Hoping to prove a point, I guess.
They nodded and wondered why he asked.
“Would you say he’s a good person?” asked Tim.
The three of them nodded. Sure, more or less. They were my friends, and they wouldn’t have been my friends if they thought ill of me.
“Okay then,” he said, eager to spring his trap. “Do you think he’s going to Hell?”
Calvin, who didn’t know me as well as the others, and who was in any case a committed and conservative Christian, said yes, absolutely, with no hesitation at all. Dylan and I were closer – close enough that I was his Best Man several years later. He said that he didn’t know for sure, but questions like that kept him up at night.
Lydia looked down into her lunch, didn’t answer. Tim pressed her, until she finally, quietly, replied. “Yes.”
I don’t blame her. Sometimes I think so too.
* * *
What happens to you when you die?
It’s the most common question I’m asked after people find out that I’m Pagan, after “Wait, really?” and “Can you fly?” I guess it’s a reasonable one. Christianity – or at least American Protestant Christianity – defines itself by the afterlife: it’s the point of the exercise. Heaven and Hell, and a life on Earth spent bumbling towards one or the other.
So, in the US, a nation of mostly Protestant Christians, it’s the question that shapes everything we think about a religion, whether or not we, ourselves, are Christians. Nobody in the public sphere ever discusses Islam’s Five Pillars, but everybody knows about the supposed 72 virgins. I doubt most could rattle off the Four Noble Truths, but we all know Nirvana means something more than the guys who recorded Nevermind. Because the afterlife is the foundation of Christianity, we expect it to be the foundation of everything else; a religion without an afterlife, that doesn’t worry about the afterlife, doesn’t seem like a religion at all.
What happens when you die?
There’s the trouble. I don’t know. I don’t even suspect.
The beauty of eclectic religion lies in its vastness of possibility – that anything could be true. Why choose? We speak of the immaterial and the transcendent, things that can’t be quantified or proven. Why can’t they all be true?
Well. That’s easy to say, so long as we’re only talking about generalities. Particulars are harder. When it comes to one’s own soul – to my own soul – well – I mean – something has to happen. Right?
If I were a better Heathen, I could confidently say I would go to Hel. (Being a portly coward, I doubt Valhalla is in the cards.) It sounds like an okay place. The landlady could be nicer. The Greeks give us the various suburbs of Hades: Tartarus, the Asphodel Fields, the blessed isles of Elysium. (Elysium, another home to valiant warriors, also seems like a stretch.)
Perhaps the Summerland? I heard about that one sometimes, growing up, though it seemed altogether more vague than the others: endless August afternoons, rolling hills and blue skies and warm breezes. Since the Summerland is a Wiccan idea (albeit one we stole from the Theosophists, like so much else), there is some variation: the Summerland might be an eternal summer vacation, or it might be a pleasant layover between trips. It may be the place where you survey your past life and plan out a new one, a tourist at the Triple-A station of the soul.
Yes, reincarnation: a popular option. Wicca conceives of time in a circle, after all: day gives way to night gives way to day, the Wheel of Year turning again and again. So perhaps we live, we die, we’re born again; no afterlife required. Hoof and horn, hoof and horn, all that dies shall be reborn.
But as much as I like the idea, I worry that it’s too appealing. It opens the door to vain recollections of past lives among the powerful and infamous. Whatever you do in this life doesn’t really matter, because you used to be Arthur Conan Doyle, or Hatshepsut, or whoever you read a book about this year. Reincarnation is a perfect answer: the circles all come around. I am suspicious of perfect things.
There are others. The Guf, mystic birdcage of souls. T’ien and Tír na nÓg and Takama-ga-hara. The one my parents made up for me when I was a boy, the Grandmother Country, where my Grandma Mae sits in a farmhouse and watches over all our departed dogs and cats and hamsters. And that’s before all the spookier options: spirits, poltergeists, zombies…
Hundreds, thousands of afterlives, all potential destinations, all acceptable, all real – except for two, the two that can’t be, the two can’t be allowed. The two that, in my heart, I will always fear are the truth.
* * *
My dad once had a friend who called himself Image. He died when I was 18. Image was the tallest, thinnest man I ever met. He kept a shaved head and worked hard at being Goth. I don’t think he ever kept a job for long: at one point he mucked the elephant pit for a one-ring circus, and that was the steadiest work he ever found. Mostly he made art. My favorite was an ambient record called “Surfacing,” which sounded like the soundtrack to a drowning. He was into the occult, too – he and my father were in a magickal group together for most of a decade.
There was more to Image that I never knew about: drugs and fetishes and other things I never looked into. But he was a soft-spoken person, and he was always nice to me, and as far as I know, he never hurt anybody.
A year or two after he died, when I was home from college for a few days, my dad asked me to come with him on a trip. We got into the truck and drove for a little over an hour. We came to a part of Missouri I had never seen before, somewhere out in the country. We pulled into a graveyard and drove around, taking pictures of interesting headstones, drinking sodas. Finally, my dad parked the truck.
We came to a headstone near a tree, and my dad stared at it for a long time. It belonged to someone named Paul F. I’d never heard the name before. I realized, when I looked up from the headstone, that my dad was crying.
“If you’re going to walk around in my dreams,” he whispered, “you could have the decency to stop and say hello.”
We didn’t talk at first after we got back in the truck. Garrison Keillor’s voice filled the silence. We passed a little river, far from the highway, and then dad said, bitterly, “Paul F. ‘Freddy.’ Image hadn’t called himself that in a decade.”
He turned down the radio. “His father was a preacher. Ugly man, self-centered. Everything in the world was always about him. When his son ended up as a cross-dressing magician instead of a Bible-thumper, he took that as something horrible happening to him. And when Image got sick, that was something happening to him, too. Just another shame Image made him endure.
“I heard about what he said at the funeral,” my dad continued. He had been in California when Image died and missed it. “He didn’t say anything about Image’s art, or the things he cared about. He just said it was a wicked life cut short.”
My dad wasn’t quite talking to me; he needed me there, needed me to listen. He needed to purge the words from his mind. Rip away the bitterness. He needed a witness. I didn’t say anything. I let him talk. It was what he needed.
But I thought about Image, and Image’s father, and what his father must have thought while preparing that sermon – what it must have been like, for a man so sure of the afterlife to have been faced with a son beyond saving. He had outlived a child – awful enough – but had outlived a child he knew to be damned.
Knew. Knew for certain.
That kind of certainty looms large against one person’s doubt.
* * *
During my last summer in Kirksville, I spent a lot of time with my friends Harry and Jenn. We were at their apartment one night, had just finished watching one of Harry’s beloved B-movies, when the subject of religion came up. You know my opinions on the subject. Harry and Jenn are both atheists, though the amicable sort.
Jenn got more emotional about it than I expected, aided, perhaps, by the three glasses of wine she had put away. “There’s something about it I don’t think you guys understand. You’ve both always been the way you are now,” she said. She was right: Harry’s parents were atheists. Mine were Pagan. We had taken after them. “But me, you know, I used to be Catholic. That’s how I was raised. And let me tell you something: you never get over that. I know what I want to believe, how I want to act. But in the back of my head there’s always this fear: I’m going to Hell. And it doesn’t go away, ever, no matter how much I try to convince myself that I’m beyond all that now.” She paused, shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s something you can’t understand.”
She’s right. I don’t know what it’s like to have been a part of that system, or to reject it. But I know what it’s like to be haunted by the bad dreams of a religion I’ve never followed, to lay awake wondering whether it would be smarter, or safer, or saner, to try and square myself with the God of Abraham.
Because sometimes I think about that lake of fire, and Lord, I can feel the sweat start to creep across my skin.
(By the way, if you like my essays here on the Wild Hunt, good news: my first book, The Lives of the Apostates, comes out on June 28th! It’s available in ebook and paperback. It’s a novella about a Pagan kid in the Midwest. It’s got Sabbat rituals, awkward kissing, theological debates, Julian the Apostate, and a hearse. Order it from your local bookseller through IndieBound, or buy it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. For more news on the book, might I humbly recommend my Facebook page? Alright, end of shilling. Thanks! -Eric)