Wednesday, July 3, 2013

California Death Trip

A few days ago, I returned after an entire week away only twenty-two miles west of home. Although the distance was short, the duration felt long. "Death in Philosophy and American Popular Culture" invited fifteen of us to engage in an intensive seminar in a residential setting which enabled us to meet and chat during and beyond the assigned workshops. Kevin O'Neill taught, and all but his wife and another participant (who'd been a former classmate of a transfer student) along with me had attended Johnston, the experimental college (now alas incorporated into the University of Redlands) where the professor had spent around four decades honing his half-avuncular, half-anarchic approach to bringing out the best by bold inquiry, to confident students in an encouraging environment open to individualized learning and consensus.

As my older son has finished his second year there, and as my wife graduated during Johnston's post-hippie heyday, I welcomed the chance to become, and to be dubbed by my classmates, an honorary member of this Buffalo (nickname for Johnston's clan as opposed to the U of R Bulldogs) community of lifelong learners. My entry {see here for testimony published the following November by its convener and we who participated} will remain shrouded to protect the names and insights shared; death's implacable gaze challenges ourselves and those around us with uncomfortable truths.  Reality and mortality cast a cold eye on what my Catholic h.s. teacher dismissed in my senior religion class as "pious pishposh"; as a monsignor he surely wearied of platitudes as a no-nonsense, bulldog-jowled, and formidably dour (at least as his public persona to schoolboys) Mick.

I fear my end as does T.C. Boyle in typically dour Mick fashion via a New York Times interview, "Doomsday Preacher".  "Since the moment of consciousness hit, I’ve been death-obsessed. Who isn’t?" Asked what he imagined his own death to look like, he responded: "We’re in our latter phases of life, so we are holding on now for the great promise of the last two years of our lives having lost our minds, having angry immigrants change our diapers for us." My sentiments, or lack of, exactly. Still, as a begrudging Mick (I admire Boyle, in fact, and met him, kindly despite his glowering mien on dust jackets at an empty Vroman's Bookstore signing table when I stumbled upon him and his great, early romp Water Music back in college days; I tucked away my signed copy "con amistad"), I aver his Frank Lloyd Wright 1909 estate in Montecito up this half-ruined half-dazzling coast must provide him some solace so he can write still more dire satire of shared humanity's hapless hubris.

Down that coast, if five miles inland, I had only been given work approval to attend two days before the seminar. The day before, I managed to wrangle additional consent for my own room. This turned out perhaps unnecessary, but my doing this freed up all but one room for everyone else to be alone. 

Imagine a room under the dining room near the stairs. 6:17 a.m. seems to be the alert for wheels to roll out above my head. My room has six spartan beds. Two metal hooks over each. One dresser dating back to the days of the original house for all I know. Three nightstands, between the beds. Each stacked with linens, a pillow, a duvet, and a blue blanket like you used to get on an airplane. I hear treads overhead often. Out of a splendid sleep night one rap jolts me so loud its rattles walls of the basement next to my form. It must have been around 6. The employees for Gelson's must park around the corner from the store, so I figure they get their payback on their customers very very early.

Yet, it is my room; propped by pillows, I type away. As I had no idea what to expect at the retreat house, envisioning a dorm, I needed solitude apart. I faced a long reading list and little chance to prepare. My own courses were in their seventh week and finals and end-term projects waited although in anticipation (and I had all but given up hope of going weeks before even though I planned just in case) had been shifted for one key meeting. So, I could work online and still attend.

Driving up the dreaded 405, I had looked first at Sigalert on mid-Friday afternoon and found it clear remarkably to LAX before green shaded into yellow, orange, and red. So, I hooked around the airport onto Lincoln from the 105 terminus and this shot me around my old college (now far spiffier and twice as large) and down to the Marina. There I navigated around the harbor circuitously into Venice, where I never had been on Pacific Ave., a block in from the beach. It jammed up, full of tourists and near-weekend traffic on the longest day of the year.  Still, I figured it beat the 405 bumper-to-bumper.

I heard the next day at the seminar of a SNL skit "The Californians" where everyone begins every conversation with such a burst as I just did. That's why it's there. And let me tell you once I hit Santa Monica and PCH. Well, about eighty-five minutes later, the thirty-three miles had been completed and I drove into Aldersgate Retreat House. It had been moved from L.A.'s Wilshire district where it'd had been built in 1892 to a new town founded by Methodists, Pacific Palisades, in 1928. Mission-Craftsman design, as a lone lodge around the bluffs can be seen here. Once home to the nation's largest Sunday School, "We Boys" flocked to beloved Mrs. Burch. Hard to believe, wedged next to massive 80s-era condos, a Gelson's, and overlooking Pali High, as busy Temescal Canyon Road funneled traffic as constant hum and the squeaks of basketball shoes on the gym floor echoed.

After a genial welcome by the director and the chef we ate and introduced ourselves. The generations spanned the history of Johnston; some from near if not at its founding four decades ago and one a new graduate, a testimony to the draw as I reckoned few students freed would return so soon for rigor. But it was rigor tempered by flexibility, and this combination for the poised student no matter the age spoke well of all gathered, for we learned or knew already to let others think things out first.

Each day for the week fit a routine. I exercised in my room, same routine I have adopted the past years, adding to it until now it's about half an hour. I ate at the fixed mealtimes, heaping up yogurt, granola, oatmeal and sometimes half a bagel or eggs too for breakfast. Lunch tended to be sparer, but the fake fajita meat was truly tasty; dinners were moderate, healthy, satisfyingly basic but varied fare.

I treated the stay as a partial retreat, and used most of my free time to catch up hurriedly if no fault of mine on the readings, and then to do my own teaching online. When the humid sun set in the evening after dinner, I walked around the bluffs, strolling past little dogs, fit owners, and their often ugly and sadly newer McMansions in this neat neighborhood favored by the quieter celebrity film set. It's a forty-five minute circle around a vast tract (named mostly after Quakers and their colleges, bisected by a Via de la Paz) that surrounded Palisades Park on the elongated hilltop from Sunset to a vista above PCH and the ocean, from Palos Verdes far off to the Santa Monica pier closer with its Ferris wheel on one side, and then the highway and tail-lit traffic always weaving its way towards Malibu past the Getty villa. Moments before reaching the bluff, the ocean entered your ears and moments after leaving its sight, it faded on cue. But I could not smell it at all; blame the muggy summer air.

Saturday we heard two overviews by Kevin in the charming Buerge Chapel; great for a wedding as you can view on the link here but less comforting for us not suited to wooden Methodist pews with neither cushions nor depth. I think he wanted to declaim there all week, but we opted for the parlor, which many said reminded them of the same rambling dorm my son and wife knew well at Johnston.

The first took us from the ancients to now, from Plato to Kierkegaard, a greatest highlights of philosophy filled with anecdotes from the classics to Kant, Marx to existentialists, and I marvelled at its range and scope. I wondered how many students had heard this in two hours (well, maybe more). 

His second overview followed American reactions to death, from the first settlers to haunted Puritans to the Great Awakening and the burned-over district, and the immense impact of the Civil War: photography, parlor memorials to the dead by the optimistic Americans confident of salvation, embalming, funeral homes (to replace parlors for an urbanizing working and middle class prone to sudden doom on factory floor as well as farm or battlefield), and the replacement of family plots in a village by once-rural, soon suburban (if a downscale area!) subdivided cemeteries outside of cities. Mount Auburn, a large cemetery outside Cambridge, featured this pattern, one that we'd soon see duplicated and updated for Forest Lawn. Post-mortem photos fascinated me: imagine a dead child propped up in its mother's embrace, a brother peering in at his sibling's bier, a toddler's final stare. The fact that ten minutes were demanded for an exposure only deepened these scene's poignancy.

The afternoon concluded with some free time. We all needed this, for Sunday afternoon we spent sharing our encounters with death. I was about 13:15, so by the time four hours-plus had elapsed as the others talked, my talk was truncated. Still, I covered some fresh ground beyond that of what one might expect, from those closer to the circle of life and death in families. My early memory of reading about how to survive a nuclear attack in the back of a black pocket dictionary (near a list of U.S. cities over 100,000) as a late Cold War child's realization; the alarm drills the last Friday at 10:15 in the morning at school as we hid under desks; the tallies of the North Vietnamese always higher than the RVN or the US forces on the nightly news but somehow we never were winning the war; the naming after a WWII only brother of my mom, and parents far older than me who people thought were my grandparents, and the distance between me and their generation, speaking of aging.

This led to my often-stated perspective on another kind of death, that of a landscape from childhood. I tied this into Redlands-bound students, whom over decades might or might not have witnessed the end of the orchards and then the vineyards as the chaparral where I played north of Claremont, my open space, turned undeveloped land into tracts, warehouses, and always another Stater Bros. I told them that the new 210 freeway rushed past that scraggly scrub which for me once filled with life.

Well, once I dwelt on my Airedale's eerie demise during high school, that typically left little time for people! My wife's aunt, her parents and mine had to be quickly conflated: "anticipatory grief" as a term I learned dealt with this as younger children had years to get used to the calls late at night, the ins and outs from the ICU, the worried waiting repeated over surgeries and consultations. I never got to my dear beloved more recent Fido, but anticipated it, as the eyes of her followed me out the door the last time as they had of my parents, both of whom I saw as the last family member and both to whom I returned to kiss as if a premonition, after I'd closed the door the first time that last time.

The next morning, Freud occupied our thoughts. I added a bit about his observation on how rapidly WWI had lured people away from loyalty to higher principles than jingoism and vengeance to serve the State. Kevin had mentioned in passing Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones and I looked up on this very blog my 2011 review for an apropos excerpt. (It also works well with Foucault's warnings of power.) Told by an SS officer in retrospect after WWII, this controversial, feverish novel upset many. If they had read such passages as this more closely, they might have been even more disturbed:
If the State one must serve is made up of ordinary folks, some will find themselves on the wrong side of history, then as now, not by a chosen career path or personal preference, but by the pressures of bureaucracy and the exigencies of the moment that pressure people into acting. Not all victims are good and not all executioners are evil, Aue reasons.

The State, both sides agree as do we, must exist, must call its male citizens to take lives in its name and its female ones to serve its demands. Free will vanishes if a soldier is assigned to a concentration camp or mobile killing battalion: "chance alone makes him a killer rather than a hero, or a dead man." (592) We give up the right not to kill and our own right to life, if male, he warns, to do our wartime duty to our masters.

"The real danger for mankind is me, is you. And if you're not convinced of this, don't bother to read any further. You'll understand nothing and you'll get angry, with little profit for you or for me." (21)
As I admit impatience with Freudian theory, I found "Thoughts on War and Death" much more accessible than the pleasure principle or mourning essays. A pity we had little time to nod even to Gillian Rose's "Mourning and the Law," which reminded me of a classic text unspoken this week, Antigone. Rose makes sharp contact with the camps that Max Aue's icy if picaresque tale evokes.

Heidegger, we found in Kevin's necessary tutelage, tricked us. By examining a couple of sauntering and deceptively genial passages of Being and Time, we found we'd been duped by another German's clever qualifications. Less direct than Aue, who at least wrestles with his dark angel before swooning, Heidegger's notorious reluctance to dismiss his admiration of the State Aue served (H. apparently thought like Aue however his masters and fellow servants vulgar) ties together strands worth pursuing. To think, not as trope but as a culture, that he and his ilk were reading Heidegger as a bestseller. One sign of a successful seminar is how much you come away wishing we'd covered.

In slight retrospect,  I append with fear and trembling my brave attempt for a general reader to sum up an anthology of Schopenhauer's essays, so death-haunted, that influenced Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and many gloomy Europeans. As obviously a non-philosopher, I beg your indulgence as I tried a few years ago to explain this daunting thinker to myself and the online masses.

Another title reviewed I include as it's a Foucault-influenced diatribe in decidedly entertaining fashion by a current French critic, Michel Onfrey. It's more anti-theology than a philosophical assault. Agree or not, it arguably crams in more cackles than certain gloomy Europeans, as it decries the "death wish" Onfrey finds within monotheisms. We still gaze up at the heavens, even we skeptics.

I had looked for the super moon Sunday. Tuesday, this the southwesterly photo I post shows how little it late loomed: it delayed a day or two. My smartphone leaves me very underwhelmed. For my birthday I awoke for the first time since '07 in a place where no family waited to celebrate. But this time, at least I could call and talk to my wife and get a note from younger son; older at a concert caught up with me the next day by e-mail. So we communicate our wishes these days when apart.

Derrida's Aporias (a word I never heard pronounced before; attesting to the company I keep) proved less difficult than Heidegger; its placement fit neatly as he took on previous philosophers for their lack of consistency. He dismissed Aries and sauntered past Freud. As I'd glanced in my diss. at Aries as one of the pioneer historians of death, Derrida's disdain intrigued me, although it seemed harsh.

Another Johnstonian professor and colleague, Bill McDonald, came by to discuss Homer and the Greek heroic treatment of death. This ran over 2 1/2 hours without pause. Far more lecture-driven than the symposium-reclining style of Kevin, I found both teaching content and contrast instructive.

Following at a local Middle Eastern garden cafe, we suitably surrounded ourselves with vintages. Note to self: Dohringer's Pinot Noir likely very pricy but smooth; Joe Barry's Australian Shiraz fantastic. My salmon kebab was last to arrive out of the party of seventeen, so most people had finished by the time I started my meal. But another few hours raced by, as they do when intellectuals talk about ideas. My tablemate, who'd known South Africa well, and I discussed J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace, which to my surprise Johnstonians had collaborated on as a model novel to teach. I confess some chagrin on reviewing my review and finding back in 2008 I'd forgotten that 2013 would find me matched in age this birthday to its protagonist. No wonder my tablemate--going through traumatic changes this same week with fated timing--fit me into its situation, if not all its occupational hazards. Suffice to say a technical college, courses in communication rather than literature, downsizing, dogs, and the fate of one who deems himself "a clerk in a post-religious age" in a hot climate loom large.

I walked at 10 p.m., after a call home. Much darker by then, the streets emptier, the smell of wild fennel as weeds around construction sites (always more McMansions) lingered. I walked on and on. Each night, I'd precariously perch on a child's swing swung over a eucalyptus over the cliff high above the stretch towards the Pier. I figured I would not pass that way, at least after the last night.

Falling asleep I imagined a stretch limo, the kind I despised, the prom kind fifteen seats deep, would whisk us off to Forest Lawn. An Armenian man, who lived near there, picked us up at 9 a.m. in what you'd take to the airport rental agency. The air failed to reach me, wedged politely in the worst seat in the last row, so I looked out at the city that birthed me while all around me chatter of the fate of classmates--death, disappearing, disease, divorce, diaspora--engrossed some of my fellow passengers.

Past downtown, so near my house--I pointed out the hill blocking it from us as we turned from the 110 to the 5 north, it felt odd being a mile from home turf without returning there. The heat hit, and I again compared the Pacific proximity of the Palisades to the summer's glare for us more down the trickle-down pecking order.

We tumbled out likely far more giddy (no theory; practice) than most extended families shuffling into the "reception center" at Forest Lawn, outfitted like the nearby Tam O' Shanter (founded 1928 and frequented by Disney animators on what was then a dirt road as Los Feliz) in a mock-Tudor style. I had driven past this entrance hundreds of times, as it's on my way from my house to downtown Glendale with its library. I'd read Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One poking fun at this milieu and watched the James Mason film. But I had not passed the wrought iron gate since around first grade.

Galen, a minister turned grief counselor, escorted us past the desk and around the side up the stairs, the interior furnished like a studio facade of a mansion it felt to me, to a smaller room. This was were the bereaved would view a body. A video display terminal was lit behind. Many of my classmates noshed on cookies and coffee, but an hour after breakfast. I don't snack, but I do love cookies if not coffee. I wondered what the video display revealed, but instead some of my classmates peppered poor Galen with questions parsing the rights of the dead vs. the survivors. He insisted on the shareholders as it were with a stake in the property being the dead, as their rights if they signed them pre-need trumped the claims of the outraged or vengeful or upset survivors. As a (purportedly as Kevin might have it) non-denominational cemetery, it appealed to the kind of large Filipino families occupying a room like this with babies, cousins and noise nowadays more than the modest "We Boys" once there.

That trend, evidently, showed the demographic imperative. I noted Indio, Coachella, Cathedral City and Palm Springs as cemeteries among the nine in Southern California. Either land was filling up as it would in Glendale soon, or the thousands of oldsters golfing in 120-degree heat now out there would be keeling over soon, and would continue to do so for a century to come. Me included, even if neither golf nor Indio appear likely in the vicinity of my theoretical interment. Galen pointed out that "(burial)" recently had to be added in the price list as customers confused the long-standard phrase "interment and recording" of the death certificate with a video recording of said proceedings.

A classmate active in marketing pointed out later what the representative, Susan from Shakespeare's own Stratford, did not. Although a non-profit (and the marketing VP regaled us with how much $$$ a non-profit could creatively spend to meet guidelines), Forest Lawn had to pay for itself. Fees had to cover the future--one way L.A.'s Catholic Archdiocese realized in typically conniving fashion as it drained the cemetery funds to pay off the sex abuse cases as that was the only source of stable funds. You enter the downstairs area, way off from the stairs leading up to the bereavement display rooms.

There, the showroom awaits. It's not obvious. A side door takes you to a small room with urns ("a lifelong fan of the Dodgers" with space for your name to be engraved is yours for less than $500 in the shape of a cookie jar baseball; military and golf themes are also prominent), but you might not see this, as the main route takes you first to a growing product line: ashes worn as keepsakes in necklaces, as dusted in snow globes discreetly, or as what otherwise might be mistaken for another pendant, burnished with the name of the departed or his or her portrait etched into the wood or plaque. Plenty of such variations demonstrated the consumer demand burgeoning at first online and then onsite, as Forest Lawn tried to keep up with the market and with its competitors. Having pioneered in California fashion 108 years ago the one-stop funeral home-embalming-display-burial, it now faced a full first memorial park (weddings popular there too) and an aging crowd giving way to ethnic groups wanting to frolic, lament, or commemorate in previously rare fashion their own deaths.

A second room stretched out to show how military or sports or hobby themes might cater to the deceased one's past. Then, a third room angled so you did not face the center cut-away opened casket and the ones around it until you were there. Entering on the right you'd be guided slowly past the cheapest on up. The priciest was at left as a counter-clockwise (bad luck in Tibetan or Irish and many Indo-European culture as this reversed the sun's deiseal although it may be symbolic too) progress took you past marked packages. Just as at a car dealer, the bundled deals meant discounts. If you spent enough, the casket (not "coffin") was "free." It ranged from $8 to over $16k for a package deal.

I pushed down the support in the show casket. It gave a little under my pressure. You only live once.

One companion of mine, with whom I'd laughed at the Dodger urn, lost it. We were gently advised by Galen we did not have to enter the little room a bit apart in the hall of the containers and caskets. Little coffins for infants, as if large shoeboxes covered in satin, candy striped, or my sad favorite, the most expensive fabricated in a soft cover I stroked of heartbreaking wool, surrounded the viewer. My companion later explained that the sight of stuffed bears on a rocker, reminding him of his two-year-old son, brought him to tears. We reflected a few days later at the grief therapist's presentation how such a scene signified the juxtaposition of the toys of life amidst a scene of death. A child hugs a bear after he leaves his mother or father, of course. Until very recently I thought I knew where my childhood pair, named long ago Bear white with orange eyes, and Dog with torn ear, a bell within tinkling in pre-safety days, and a battered blue body, resided in my closet. But after another remodeling and another shift of my things when I was not there, they are nowhere to be found.

After another salmon kabab meal at Elena's, spiffier than it had been last time I ate there, we returned to see the showcase. I'd seen this as a pious child and still remembered it. The founder of Forest Lawn, Dr. Hubert Eaton, had taken the world's largest canvas by Polish artist Jan Styka to be enshrined on a hilltop faux-Gothic cathedral sized edifice. You can see it from the 5 Freeway for miles around, surmounted by a lit cross at night as the structure towers over the cemetery.

There, the Crucifixion and Resurrection (painted later in decidedly ecumenical and inclusive if still apparently Christian fashion by another muralist) appear in an enormous auditorium. It's curious to see the same outer sense of a holy site as in Europe, but without the interior presence of a millennium's worshipers, statues, stained glass, and altars. Instead, the air thickens as you enter the inner sanctum to sniff the same gloomy atmosphere you'd anticipate from elsewhere at the site.

The voiceover was now I suppose on video rather than projector as it might have told the backstory to me, a kid not much older than when I read the nuclear survival tips a few miles away at the Sears parking lot in Van Nuys on a blistering summer day (what day is not around here), but the story the same. For me, a resigned medievalist in more ways than one, what else could one do stuck with narrating a depiction with the Passion Play's heroes and villains, taken as gospel truth? But those around me (if not the quiet Filipino family of elders and parents who waited as Galen talked to us about grief before the showcase unveiled) tittered and muttered. They, whether raised Jewish, Christian, or nothing, bristled. Galen had tipped Kevin off to the "evangelical" content he gently dissented from, and I was curious to see what that might be. My classmates recoiled from the Cecil B. DeMille-vintage accents of the villains and saints as vocal talent, ca. 1950 studio casting calls.

Was this a vaudeville-tent revival lingering into an ecumenical era, or a white elephant atop a knoll in the heart of Hollywood-Burbank once-removed to Glendale? The museum, dimly recalled as stuffed with statues, showed these, but all crammed into the first of three rooms. They were neck and neck, Lincoln, Egypt, classics, and I wondered if they'd been relegated into a third of their former space. What took up room two were odds and ends from stained glass; even the Durer underwhelmed. Despite my admiration for this art, only a fragment of a nun's face from a Spanish medieval church moved me. I looked at her eyes and brow, and I reflected on her piety for a Church I'd moved past.

The third room was full of another Spaniard's craft. Lego sculptures. This attracted me little. I hunted for a magnet to add to my collection, but even a forlorn Lincoln for a dollar from some terminated exhibition in this same room tempted me not. I choose my additions with care, but none fit the bill.

We went to the gravesite of a seminar member whose grandfather helped create Johnston. His granddaughter (now forty) had not seen the grave due to spousal contention post-interment, so we verified, after winding around (I predict an app in a year to guide the mourners to a marker) the verdant slopes, with graves lined up all under the cut of a mower but on some steep inclines and even near tree roots by now, that indeed his grave marker boasted "He lived the impossible dream" and his widow, two years later, "She survived the impossible dream" as had been rumored in her family lore.

Someone asked to form a "Johnston circle." As an outlier, I figured this custom de rigeur. We held hands and a few people gave thanks while the classmate who is a rabbi spoke a prayer and chanted a la-lie-lie-lie sort of wordless niggun as sung at Yom Kippur. The granddaughter lay a food offering of pickles and kabab from the lunch leftovers and we paused in silence. A day after Michael Jackson's anniversary of his death, flowers and posters and a few well-wishers crowded a designated slope near a chapel. A car drove in, its window in foam scrawling out "Long live the King of Pop."

Then it was back to mid-Wilshire, not far from the site of Aldersgate originally on Harvard Ave. A surprise awaited. My wife and sons and their summer roommate (also a Johnstonian halfway to graduation) were our caterers. I knew we'd get dinner at the home of Kevin and his wife, but I was never expecting--yes, more salmon. Copper River, my favorite, and Dead Guy Rogue ale and an Icelandic porter I tried. Cupcakes with shortbread inscribed in frosting R.I.P. I regaled all with a dutiful nod to a previous birthday ambush, my 40th at the short-lived Hollywood Museum of Death.

I returned that night and under the sea-bluff eucalyptus thought as I walked in the dark past a party on the lawn of an ocean-facing manse what it must be like to see that view every day and night. Like the Donegal shores I'd gazed at from my tiny upstairs dormer six years earlier, did the residents tire of beauty? Is novelty and newness, as they tell us, the only way to wrangle fresh memory against time?

That night I closed down the house. Last one up locks the door and shuts off the light. It was me after midnight. I stayed in the elegant parlor (Kevin told us in 1901 Good Housekeeping advised readers to call the parlor not by that name associated with grief but as an affirming, American "living room") typing up and revising an idea the night before had begun to generate.

Each participant was assigned an area to introduce for that day's talk as the week progressed. I liked this. In grad school seminars I had to do this, but it was more like preparing to be grilled by a tough professor and jealous classmates about your assigned topic. Kevin, on the other hand, angled each of us towards an author or subject matching our expertise.

Well, sort of. The rabbi given a warm-up for the first of two current and staggeringly enduring bestsellers on near-death experiences, Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo "as told to" Sarah Palin's ghostwriter Lynn Vincent, may seem an odd pairing. She dissected its craven claims and as one skilled as a chaplain at Stanford found herself well-placed to discuss its spurious appeals, but ones which to desperate believers craving solace might not be so easily shunted aside. I doubted many at that institution carried the same heartland faith which infuses Burpo's Colorado-Nebraska border downhome appeal as Vincent phrases it, but four-year-old Colton's testimony to a rainbow horse for a purple-sashed towering Jesus who consigns unbelievers to a fate better left unsaid and prepares Dad for his place in a Last Days battle defies as any afterlife account does, logic. That, I recall in passing, made Mark Twain's sendup of the doggedly literal so telling in a harbinger of homiletic humbug and positive thinking, in his last published story in 1909, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven.

Spiritualism as Kevin reminded us, and the New Age, also marked Twain's era all the way down to ours. Eben Alexander's Proof of Heaven, we learned after lunch, was as I'd suspected not titled that originally, but the scientifically astute "The X of Me" as in the unknown factor. Two participants noted how packaging of a book idea into a more lucrative pitch dominates today's industry. This Harvard-trained neurosurgeon's 2011 memoir recounts his DMT-like near-death experience, through a dark dim tunnel of the Earthworm's soul-absent, self-annihilated tormented vacuum view (shades of How It Is by Beckett if you ask me) to a spinning wheel of music and a voyage on a butterfly's wing of one he later learns (a feature in common with Burpo as the uncanny sight of a relation not familiar to the visionary prior to their submersion) is his never-known adopted sister. He gains consolation.

All is love, and you are loved. No worries. Peace and utter bliss.

Who can argue against this? Sam Harris with his own combined training as atheist philosopher and neuroscientific student does. Endorphins? DMT dump? Psychotropic E-coli? He denies Dr. Alexander's neo-cortical cortex shut down, and while Dr. A. tries in a very understated appendix to sum up and dismantle ten claims like this, I found the counter-claim of Harris cannot ultimately be dismissed. As Carol Ann Zaleski made the clever parallel in her Otherworld Journeys (back in 1987 this inspired my doctoral studies' direction) of medieval and modern NDE accounts, so I find in Alexander, whose acknowledgements and endnotes attest to a more New Age than Harvard School of Medicine orientation now, verification as in Burpo. The afterlife tends to be what you expect.

After lunch and rehearsal and revision as most of the class drove down to see mortuary statuary at the Getty villa close by, I delivered my preaching of purgatory as a performance. I figured teaching this concept from a very late medieval perspective gradually revealed might better entertain the audience than "the Lateran Council was held in 1215 to enforce yearly Confession and Communion" might.

As that barn-chapel nestled outside, I approached the classmates inside as if villagers of Aldersgate and I a wandering scholar of Irish kinsfolk who'd been invited in and had been listening to St John's parish conversations under the care of Doctor of Philosophy Kevin (trained at Cambridge as that is to Oxford as Yale to Harvard). Each of the fourteen participants played a role in my explanation.

The pastor's own dangerous leanings to German heresy, French schism, and North African infidelity must be countered by attention to orthodoxy as the Church needed the villagers' inclusion into the Communion of Saints. Joining those in heaven, those on earth by not only good works but indulgences and intercessions could give alms for the fulfillment of the penance due when venial sins could not be paid in full for the debt due them when death suddenly arrived. From the Treasury of Merits flowed grace earned by Christ's sacrifice, but even that abundant exchange was not one-sided.

Instead, investments in chantries and trental masses enabled pre-planning (shades of Forest Lawn, whose Passion Play caused me concern for it was taken so lightly, while its imagery fueled my recall of Gehenna's fires) brought the living and the dead together to move towards heavenly salvation. Three I cast as students of the Old Law despite the exile of the Jews from England; two nuns and an abbess raised funds from a generous woman who assisted orphans so as to amass alms for Masses and piety. I praised a teacher ambitious whose calling had to be that of a priest as more Masses must be daily recited; I bewailed a notary's news of a neighbor's suicide which had to prove his damnation; I comforted a widow who after Last Rites had been procured found her husband nearing heaven.

One (Kevin's wife) was the oddly devoted student of the learned but freethinking pastor; another a "healer" in whom many confided their woes. Finally, a student of the law whose "real" recital of a daydream of being chased by a bear as a more fitting Alaskan death than overdosing on Benadryl generated my earnest appeal to turn from disbelief and pagan, diabolic temptation to tell a tale worthy of a shrine, where pilgrims might flock to hear of a purgatorial deliverance into the arms of the Savior. I tried to convey this with humor and wit, but also feeling and intellect, as if a proto- phenomenonological dramatization advocating this doctrine against Lutherans and Lollards, in its last gasp as Thomas More's purgatorial treatise yet met with defender of the faith King Henry's trust.

My alliterative, elongated in a tinge of archaic style if as lyrical nearly early modern English, exemplum met with applause, and doubly. I was happy. As I confessed later to the "notary" and "law student," I wasn't the creative type. It sprang into my mind as a quick flash to enlighten a doctrine lively and compelling to a modern, dim, sensibility far removed from any sense of what made it once so vivid in the imagination. Feeling stymied when it comes to creativity rather than criticism, two poems hovered. I'd picked for my poetry contributions Emily Dickinson's I heard a Fly buzz when I died and Christian Wiman's untitled verse beginning and ending his new memoir My Bright Abyss.

When asked about my own views of the afterlife, I recalled the white light somehow earned at the conclusion of the film The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Teilhard de Chardin's immanence. Intellectually, that model of the Jesuit theologian combined with the nibbana into where the candle's flame drifts once vanished jibes with what others had surmised that week, nature's energy transfer. Whether I believe in Teilhard's Noosphere I find it logically impossible to say, but it's a fun concept.

That evening, we convened around a circle, pizzas at the long table. I asked in our look back how Johnstonians regarded what they learned in the bustle of the give and take of a seminar education. What did they manage to keep when entering higher education or the corporate or business world? Some revealed they continued to be the outspoken, the negotiators, those who wouldn't accept the usual deal. My education never fostered these qualities nor did my upbringing, but my son and wife's did. Kevin noted how the less quick (like myself) at a quick parry and thrust might have in meetings or papers more chances to express themselves, and how the consensus-building favored some types.

Here as there, in Bill's session too, I could see this. But I also understood how patiently Kevin and my classmates let the week unfold, as we listened far more intently. At academic conferences, the speakers demand attention and expect acquiescence. You may casually meet a professor and share what you've written or read, but it's also a forum to make one's mark. At Aldersgate, far fewer egos clashed. The enrollment was large enough to let all kinds of personality types attend but small enough so you could follow each person's train of thought. A few minor differences among participants only deepened the knowledge gleaned as airless theory met atmospheric enclosure of death as a site--a grave at Forest Lawn, and a real person among us who had yet to mourn at a gravesite--and not an existential situation to be pondered only in a seminar room or a densely composed monograph. The presence of a recent widow among us and those recently grieving heightened this sense of relevance.

We spoke of such wisdom earned. Kevin was given as a gift from us a very rare book he did not have, a first edition of collected 1890s small town stoic and forlorn photography, Wisconsin Death Trip. Then I went for my last walk around the circuit. Unlike all other nights, a marine layer moved in. Not really fog, but mist even if you did not sense it on face or hair. I walked through it, a novelty in late June. Where I live, the fog never gets that far inland. I wish it did. I'd love to live above that shore.

At the very end of the bluff portion, in my solitary trudge I almost crashed into three classmates going the opposite direction. Naturally, we halted. They--the teacher, the nun who raised funds and wrote verse, and the law student in my saga-- waited for a fourth, the notary, who arrived soon with a paper bag. A $40 pinot noir (or so it seemed) had been procured at half the price, for nobody could figure out at the store the price as it lacked a bar code. He bargained. We passed around the bottle of a quite tasty vintage I had no idea of label or provenance. We stood around for an hour, the vista totally reduced to dim lights of cars and the hum of PCH traffic along an ocean invisible and one whose surf could not be discerned a few hundred feet away and maybe a hundred-odd feet above the sand.

We Gen-Xers (ok, I'm the first year as an echo boomer) talked of job layoffs and of firings, and then three drifted to a bench. I talked with the fourth about canon law until we all realized the teens around us had vanished. Figuring we'd better vamoose before the posh neighbors noticed, we walked up leafy and shadowy Radcliffe Ave. Soon we met nearly half a dozen classmates, back from a bar, and we combined to trek back to teetotaling Aldersgate (named after the tree under which John Wesley began his ministry; a tree next to Buerge chapel there rose splendidly). There, I spent another few hours, first with listening in on a discussion of Stephen King, and then going to a outdoors fire (!) to chat with my son's former classmate--the sword-wielding secret student of the Old Law up the northern coast, about to go off to SIU for graduate studies in philosophy. We conversed about in turn Sherlock Holmes' t.v. adaptations one British, one American now aired, Tolkien's The Children of Hurin, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, Mongolian beliefs, Indonesian languages, medieval weaponry, the Torah portions on Amalek and on the first seven plagues, and more Tolkien.

Midnight ended the novelty of an inviting fire near an ocean at night in the open air. The last day we met to learn about grief counseling. This reiterated what Kevin and others taught. Grief whether from death or not must be faced and not rushed past. It has no set stages or deadlines, and it cannot be avoided. It may delay and hit in many ways, if the one who has gone has been there for you in many ways and many roles now left unfilled and waiting to enter your reveries. But between nine months and sixteen, if you are resilient, grief may fade. I reflected to myself on how a year's passing as yahrzeit or anniversary symbolizes this event. A woman of Polish Jewish parentage, elderly, told of her work as a therapist, of what to expect when you're lamenting. It sounded harrowing. I took notes, knowing I would need these again sooner or later. "If you stand with one foot in the future and one in the past, you piss on today." I asked her if that was Yiddish. She did not know, but I suspect such.

At lunch, I reflected with two classmates. I continued to remain rather reticent (and I do so in this entry to preserve some individual and mutual privacy as the nature of this week continues to percolate and simmer inside those of us there), but the intimacy of the gathering and the fleeting but necessary bonding allowed us to confide. I had come here dragged down. I felt my work not rewarded enough by emotional support and intellectual stimulation. I wondered what a death seminar would do to deepen my malaise. What I learned during of all moments a poetry discussion was the need to live for now, a truism but as poets better trained than I can express, one worth expressing.

One by one earlier that morning in the chapel and through lunch, people departed for flights. We each hugged each in turn each time, with a few personal words added. Despite (shared by the teacher) an aversion to hugs with those I barely knew, I felt the hugs were necessary and earned, as had been the hand-holding at the grave. (I only learned later that this was not a Johnston tradition, to my surprise). The night before the healer spoke what I'd been thinking that week. On our deathbed, some of us might remember our meeting place. Repeating it that last morning in chapel, the healer left with tears.

Finally, it was my turn. Only two others remained in the silent parlor. We hung around a while: they checked online for directions and I watched as my Sigalert colored the 10 freeway eastward red. One was heading north to the 101 up the coast and the other south on the 5 to San Diego. Then I hugged. Thick traffic clogged all the way up Sunset Blvd. I passed where I had submitted my dissertation, where I had bought LPs, where I had taught, where I had eaten, where my sons went to grade school. A few blocks from where my wife--we married twenty-two years ago that past Sunday--worked and blocks from where I first set in motion the way we'd meet.

Inland, to where Southwest temperatures hit record highs for June. Less chaparral always as the city exurbs stretched east, warmer weather as we paved under the cooler soil. Twenty-two miles to home.

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