**Please note that some names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
This essay will come out on Mother’s Day. Since I don’t have kids and my completely fabulous mother prefers avoiding attention, I’ve been playing with article ideas that might commune with the day. I know some childfree women who love to emphasize that they, too, have motherly qualities. They shower their maternal impulses on their nieces and nephews, their friends, their students… whoever might be relevant. These women make the key point that motherhood doesn’t have to involve genetics or full-time rearing.
But, honestly, I’m just not a mother in any sense that involves relationships with others. I love my two nephews, but I relate to them more as a quirky fellow child than a mom-like aunt, or even an adult. When they complain about school or camp, I share my own relevant memories with them and often express complete agreement with their gripes, while the adults try to get them to understand why the assignment is in fact worthwhile… or whatever. Last year, the three of us kids had a whole fantasy world going on. I was included because I played along, unlike the adults, who encouraged us to focus on the “real” world. For months, I addressed one of my nephews by his fantasy name, and he would perk up and smile at the unexpected joy of having someone like me acknowledge it.
If motherhood is essentially creation followed by nurturing, that fantasy episode provides clues to how I might find a place within it. I think all the time, and I often don’t let those thoughts die. Similar to my encouragement of my nephews’ fantasy world, I coax my own ideas along and draw them out with passion and even a kind of love. I ask big questions, of myself and of the world: Why is money necessary? Can we fix school so it helps all students learn and grow? Why is sex so important to so many? What happens to each individual consciousness when we die? And then, like any good mother, I help my thoughts develop and flourish.
Anyone who knows me well knows which issue drives me most fiercely. Over the past months, I’ve been writing up potential mystical scenarios that might shed light on the afterlife. Some, like the one I’ll share below, substantially draw from our current reality. Others veer from it more radically. I hope that they will become part of a book about my quest for insight into our fates after death. Imagination builds a line into hidden realities that most of us can’t access in our usual, here-and-now state. Maybe. Or maybe the realms it reaches are just, you know, imaginary. Either way, giving birth to an afterlife realm is a momentous task, tapping into deep-seated fears and hopes. I am honored to share one of many such realms here. It’s rough and unfinished. Surely it sparks more questions than answers. But aren’t most children mysterious and ready to blossom from others’ input?
My worst fear has come, and I don’t even know it. Somehow, my sleep seamlessly shifted to deeper sleep and then cracked open some kind of mystical door and brought me here. Yes, everything is different, but I accept it easily. And then the truth dawns on me and I wonder why my body failed with no warning. But I’m so immersed in this new existence—and so thrilled that I’m still thinking and perceiving—that I don’t feel shock. It is what it is; I am where I am. I don’t seem to have a body or a physical presence, but I accept even that. I’m a beam of concentrated energy that holds my consciousness intact. It’s an amazing shift: light years more cataclysmic than any change or move I experienced during life. And yet I’m me; that much is clear. I mean, woah: I’ve even retained the tendency to obsess over my past.
It feels kind of like I’m watching a movie of my life, from my first moments of self-awareness up to the present. It’s not like there’s a screen in front of me and I’m sitting in a chair: the movie resonates throughout the beam that is me, taking me over. I become every sight, sound, and feeling from the movie. Everything is exactly the same as it was the first time, with one enormous difference: I experience everyone’s thoughts and sensations, not just my own.
The perspective is so odd. Seemingly big events—family celebrations, large parties, reunions—are sometimes sped through lickety-split; I have the sense they just weren’t so important. Tiny moments that never would have made it into a formal showcase of my life are often blown way up and dissected with a slow meticulousness.
I find myself at the summer program I went to after seventh grade. I’d been to sleepaway camp before, but many of the kids were spending their first extended time away from their families, and the drama could be rich. The mystical lens drops me down into, of all places, the bathroom near the class I was taking. There’s a bunch of girls gossiping by the sink: petite, athletic Sondra Chu; smiley math genius Beth Lamont; national spelling bee finalist and newly popular Daniella Lewis; and me.
I’d come to this camp because I knew it was a haven for ultra-nerds and super-academic types… and while I didn’t fit that scheme myself, I didn’t really fit any scheme, and I was incredibly excited to see who would show up. That electric curiosity fills me, perhaps even more strongly during this “movie” than during my actual time at the camp. I feel it all again: the thrill of meeting these kids, seeing how they acted, what they looked like, how they thought.
“That Nancy Ziegler is the weirdest thing ever,” Beth says, wetting her fine blonde hair slightly and fluffing it up by the sink. I remember the moment well, tiny as it seems, but there’s a new element: I feel what Beth feels, think what she thinks, as the event unfolds. Beth is thrilled to have friends, finally—people she can say something like this to and get some laughs. This moment in a slightly grimy college bathroom is enormous for her: she feels like part of a crowd for the first time in her life.
Sondra and Daniella giggle, and, all of a sudden, the whole thing strikes me as hilarious. I start laughing so hard I almost choke. My three bathroom buddies take my cue and begin roaring: laughing so hard and loud the floor seems to vibrate.
“Hey, Steffi, guess you’re with us on Nancy then. We were talking about her earlier at lunch. You weren’t there. You should have been: too bad.” Sondra pats me lightly on the back and grins. I feel an exhilarating spark of belonging. I should have been there. With my new friends. Never mind that they were all nationally acclaimed at one thing or another and I felt like I had qualified for this program because of a lucky test day.
“Oh yeah, I’m with you. She is so strange. I think about her sometimes, just wondering. Like today, when she sat there ripping that paper into shreds and rubbing her knees over and over. I mean, what was she doing?”
Daniella looks at all three of us, kind of spanning her eyes across all of ours. I can feel what she’s feeling, and her thoughts become mine. She’s thrilled to be among friends, just like all of us, but something else is going on too. I experience Daniella’s anger, her bitterness, a kind of hatred, even, for Nancy. Nancy symbolizes something for Daniella. As I move more deeply into her thoughts, I see what it is: Nancy has an extreme version of Daniella’s social awkwardness. Daniella looks at her and feels rage, for she can see herself there: a Daniella that she has worked hard to submerge but still comes out more often than she’d like. Daniella would sit there slapping her knees too—or playing with her fingers or whatever—if she didn’t work so hard at squelching those tendencies.
I absorb these thoughts in seconds, but I’m not amazed; that’s just how things are moving here. Then Daniella says: “You know, Nancy really shouldn’t be allowed to stay in our class. She is so distracting. I feel like we’d be learning so much more if she weren’t sitting there pulling all her weird shit.” She looks straight at me. “What do you think, Steffi? I notice you talking to her sometimes.”
“Yeah, I see what you mean,” I say, without much thought. I don’t really agree, but I don’t want to lose the social footing I’ve managed to achieve here among all these fascinating, precocious souls.
A moment later, Nancy bursts out of one of the stalls, sobbing. Something clicks within me when I realize she had been in that tiny stall the whole time, listening. For the first time since this replay began, I fully and excruciatingly identify with myself: the actor known as Steffi in this scene. I experience the effects of my last comment on Nancy: she felt a searing shame, a hurt that ran so deep she couldn’t stand being alone in that stall, her hefty body taking up almost the whole space. She had the sense that she was all of everything in there, and, since she hated herself right then—hated being the girl who was too weird even for this weird, geeky bunch—she had to leave that stall, despite the mortification of facing everyone.
And now she catches my eye. I couldn’t sense this when it happened during my actual life, but I sure sense it now, during the replay: Nancy is waiting for me. She wants me to clarify, take back what I said, defend her. She and I have spoken. I’ve been curious about her and tried to get to know her. Nancy is hyper and hard to talk to; often she doesn’t say much that I can latch onto in connection. She’ll mention her boring town, her difficult parents, whatever… but won’t really respond to attempted conversation to get a little deeper. Her body is heavy, her face round and reddish… and she despises the sight of herself in the mirror, walks around with a constant sensation of self-disgust. Nancy wishes that she could disappear into herself, transform, and re-emerge into something better, someone who could find a place somewhere in this world. Someone who could be liked. Love is more than she can hope for.
I wish I could go back in time and change things: say something—anything, really—that would show support. But that’s not possible. This is a replay, not a second chance. I stand there and say nothing, communing with Nancy’s sense of herself as an enormous, hateful human being.
Nancy is furious with herself for being herself… but feels an equal rage towards me. I shouldn’t have agreed that she should be kicked out of our class, however noncommittal I may have sounded. I should have defended her, explained that I enjoyed having her around. Nancy expected it of me, thought I would come through, and was devastated when I didn’t.
I feel something deep and black calling out to me, then enveloping me, and I cry—not physically, but soully, if that makes sense: on a fundamental soul level. I sense it in the body of middle-school me and, more fundamentally, in the point of consciousness I’ve now become. Then I find myself traveling through a tunnel. I have no body, mind you, but my consciousness’ perception shifts as if it were moving, and I re-experience various events as I travel.
I remember fights with my parents when I insisted on my side despite the pain they were feeling: pain that, even in life, I recognized but chose to bulldoze over with my insistence. I remember picking up my plate and moving to the other side of my table at a restaurant to avoid looking at a man who was missing an arm. He knew what I was doing—I feel it now, the shame he battled on his first day in a restaurant after his accident. Each event is distinct. There’s no melding; that would be absurd. Every happening is a universe: an intricate interplay of my mental world and at least one other person’s.
The best analogy I can find is suffocation. I want out; I want it to end; I wonder, briefly, whether I’d rather lose consciousness entirely than experience these all-too-vivid memories forever. Then I feel horror: a good horror. I still value myself; I must hold on to myself, to my world, to my particular flavor of thought and perception. I love myself.
With that thought comes a shift. I recall all the wasted time from my life: sitting on my bed for hours on a weekend, languishing, when I could have started my day and had an active adventure. I’m furious with myself, disappointed, but I intuit a kind of cool, happy wind, and I feel peace. I can learn from this. If I love myself, I should make the most of myself: work, do, think, play… experience to my fullest capacity. I should learn from my mistakes and forgive myself. If I can forgive myself, the universe can follow. I am the universe… for me… just like each person I’ve touched is the universe for them. It’s tricky, but it’s all true, and while it may seem to conflict, it doesn’t collide.
I try to remember some of the goodness I’d created in life and have a hard time pulling anything specific out. Then the smallest but grandest events start to emerge. That month when I spoke to an ill friend every evening on the phone. I enjoyed it, didn’t think much of it, but I feel that it saved her from unbearable loneliness and boredom. The back-and-forth emails with a student who had fantasized about suicide in a paper. I sense that I stopped him from going through with it: that something I said made him find any suicidal action unthinkable. The time when I was the only person who showed up to a friend’s birthday party on a snowy night.
I was never an overtly helpful person, mainly because I worried I’d do more harm than good. I was physically small, weak, and uncoordinated; unable to drive; terrible at organizing things; unable to cook… just not adept at daily life. But I had done some good—some mind-blowing, life-bending good—though it felt minor and barely noteworthy at the time. I fall into the feeling that knowing this gives me, sense that, if I focus on it with enough sharpness, I can squeeze some kind of energy from it, let it propel me into a new phase where I’ll be able to interact with fellow consciousnesses more profoundly: know their pain and use my perceptive powers to combat it and help them grow from it.
I see that my life wasn’t good or bad; it just was. I did what I did. Each small action had so much power and potential, some of it wasted, some of it profoundly actualized, some of it smashed into negative energy: sadness, rage, despair. Each time I opened my mouth, a world might have emerged. Sometimes it did. All too often, I wallowed in waste: of time, of energy, of feeling that could have been focused towards growth and transcendence of something that needed to be outgrown.
Concentrating all my will and psychic power, I try to push myself forward into another dimension: a state I can feel lapping against me, but hidden, like the glimmer of a spark I sometimes sensed when I tried to imagine what it might be like to perceive a fourth dimension. I feel my awareness, my energy, as it speeds forward into something new.
A wise, all-encompassing love seems to call me, and I’m scared. How inappropriate is that? Wouldn’t most souls run towards love however they could, if they knew it was waiting? But don’t forget: I’m still me. I’m skeptical. I want to protect myself. I’m afraid I’ll screw something up if I head into things the wrong way. This is not a sweet, easy love. I know—I just do—that it has a rough side.
Then I realize: the love is me, and yet it isn’t. It’s me and yet more than me. I am me and yet more than me. That doesn’t make sense, but maybe it will come together if I can push myself forward. I focus myself like a white hot beam. And I find myself in bed, in my apartment in Cambridge, MA, slowly gaining strength. I’m angry and relieved: I wanted to go forward in that new world, but I probably wasn’t ready.
For a cool, bright moment, I think I’ll lead an almost perfect life from now on. I know just what to do and how important it all is. Soon, the rage and sickness of my old feelings return. I’m furious at so many who have hurt me. I wish them harm. And maybe that’s OK; maybe that fits with some kind of balance in the universe that is me. But I sense that I have a long way to go before I’m ready to face the new dimension for real, in a bigger, more lasting way. And I smile, because I’ve always hoped for a long and rich life.
**Image credit: “We Are Born of Stars” by Ania on flickr, January 24, 2009.