Can we halt the Joy to the Worldliness for just a moment?
This won’t take long, promise.
At dinner recently, a friend unexpectedly asked about the hereafter — not the most seasonal of subjects, but one never knows when a cosmic question will arise.
“What do you think happens when …?” she began.
“When what?” I asked.
“When, you know, we’re, uh, gone?”
It was a topic all the more surprising given the venue — a South Shore natural food restaurant where customers looked exceedingly robust and healthy and of utmost good cheer.
While my friend and I addressed matters of eternity, patrons elsewhere drank and laughed. It was the holidays, after all. Spirits were high.
A fulsome roar went up from a table of eight women by the window. Nearby, a young fellow and his date gazed at each other over entrees of lentil loaf and grilled cauliflower steak. Servers hurried to deliver tofu crabcakes and customers sighed appreciatively. Glasses clinked amid toasts to the season. Bartenders restocked bottles of Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.
Deck the halls, absolutely
No matter. My friend — who, at 55, is hale and hearty and not expecting to depart any time soon — persisted.
“Lights out, pal,” I answered, finally. “Good night.”
But what, she asked, about, our energy, our souls, the essence of us?
Though fortified by a boyhood of loyal Sunday school attendance at St. John’s Lutheran, Prospect Avenue, Brooklyn, and the dutiful assurances of the Rev. Werner Jentsch, I could not get aboard.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid it’s sort of kaput.”
Deeply unconvinced, my friend devoured a chocolate vegan cupcake as if that somehow settled the matter. What greater trust could there be in the prospect of immortality?
As it happened, two days later Wink, my wife, and I met old college buddies at a Colonial-era inn on the bank of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. George Washington once knocked on the door of the place but was turned away by the proprietor, a Tory loyal to the British crown. Even then, you couldn’t duck politics.
The inn was in yuletide overdrive — wreaths and holly and Bing Crosby, the works.
Hoping not to dampen the mood, I nevertheless recalled my conversation with the 55-year-old and asked our companions what they thought about, you know, the inevitable.
As devout churchgoers, Walter and Kathy have thought this through.
There will be heaven and it will be bliss, they declared. Walter, a learned fellow who happens to be an ordained minister, offered his professional perspective. He described a place of peace, harmony and redemption. Kathy imagined lovely vistas and gentle people.
We all will “shed” our worst impulses, Walter promised, mischievously sipping an Earl Grey martini. As for the transition — the instant of earthly liftoff — nothing alarming. “It will be like walking from one room to the other.”
What a nice thought — from one room to another. Comforted for the moment, I nodded and looked outside at the bridge and swift-moving Delaware below. How long would the currents swirl? How long had it been so? Yes, and how high is up?
We moved easily to other matters — our old school days in the Midwest, family updates, a tiptoe into politics, good-natured and prudently brief. Walter and Kathy recently had been to Britain and showed us gorgeous photos. We spoke of food and television shows.
We gave each other small gifts to signify the season. Walter and I had double espressos.
It was grand.
On the way home, fighting traffic on the interstate and then in Brooklyn, I thought of years gone by, Christmases past, friends lost and those still here. A backup on the elevated Gowanus Expressway looked exactly as it had when I was driving my father’s dollar-green ’51 Ford. Somehow, I found significance in that, too.
That’s how it works, right?
One minute you’re changing lanes on the Gowanus or eating a tofu crabcake, the next you’re contemplating the meaning of life.
Everyone has a private notion of what comes next and eternal thoughts are apt to arrive when we are least prepared — sudden as Santa in the fireplace.
Like everyone else, I’d like to know the unknowable — be sure there was space in that glorious arrival lounge Walter mentioned — but that can never be.
Hey, you know what? Let’s worry about that another time.
Much too heavy, don’t you think?
For now, friends, sit back, chill out, enjoy the season.
Merry Christmas to all.
And to all a good night.