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State of Nothingness

[This chapter is dedicated to David & Ginny Wayland, Lew & Judy Clements, Ted & Mary Ann Weiss, Henry & Gayle Wells and Cliff & Kathy Daly, who – along with my parents - were kind enough to indulge me as a 13-year know-it-all while at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, Kentucky].  

Now that I have given myself license to write chapters longer than 500 words (in this case, way longer than 500 words!), I can now start to tackle a few topics that take longer than that.  Once someone with a life-threatening illness moves beyond the whistling-past-the-graveyard stage (see chapter 34), I think it’s natural to begin to start “getting your affairs in order.”  For most people, I assume that is a mixture of both financial affairs and spiritual affairs.  I have found myself doing a fair amount of the former of late, just to make sure that I am leaving things as well organized as possible for Diana should something eventually happen to me.  

Getting the spiritual house in order is a bit of a different thing.  To be honest, I don’t really “practice” religion anymore (for a special treat, find a video online of former NBA superstar Allen Iverson talking about practice – it is hilarious).  Thankfully, I have enough muscle memory from years spent reciting the same liturgy over and over again that I could likely walk back into church today and never miss a beat.  I was raised Christian, as a member of the Episcopal Church - the American equivalent of the Anglican Church in the U.K.  I lovingly describe the Episcopal Church to my Catholic friends (and others) as “Catholic without all the rules and guilt.”  

I was introduced to the Episcopal Church by my parents somewhere around the age of 11 or 12, where I was soon after baptized and “confirmed” by a Bishop in a somewhat bewildering process and ceremony that ultimately concluded with congratulations from other parishioners and a post-service celebration involving cake and punch. 


Shortly thereafter, as a direct result of what I believe to be full-blown nepotism (since my parents were the adult leaders of the church youth group), I was elected President of the youth group.  One major perk of the gig was that I was sponsored by my parish to attend a national youth conference at the YMCA Camp of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado.  I attended with my fellow “officers” – Brad Fry and Dottie Clements – under the watchful eye of our chaperone, Lew Clements.  Lew was (and is) an affable, good-natured, well-humored, high school music teacher and band leader who had the perfect temperament for the trip.  He was always patient and had a wry smile and thoughtful gaze that instilled confidence.  At 13 years of age, this was my first flight on an airplane and the whole experience was nothing short of intoxicating.  

I will never forget the “opening session.”  There were literally hundreds – many hundreds – of other kids around the country who were there with their chaperones/sponsors.  There was music by a well-known gospel singer named Andre Crouch and a stand-up comedy performance from a comedian named Mike Warnke (for just as much fun as the Allen Iverson video, Google “Christian comedian Mike Warnke” and check out this guy’s Wikipedia page – as it turns out, he had no business masquerading as a Christian in front of a group of 13-year-olds).  That said, I will never forget one of the guy’s jokes.  He was talking about different religions and in describing Buddhism, referred to nirvana as a “state of nothingness,” which he quickly followed up by saying “I thought that was Iowa.”  Killer stuff for a 13-year old crowd.    


That conference, and the decade thereafter was when I would say I “peaked” as a practicing Christian.  By the time I married in the Episcopal Church at the ripe old age of 21, I had pretty much memorized the entire liturgy, which I could recite word-for-word.  With the attention span already starting to wane, sermons seemed ever longer and – if I am honest – I began to think of church as a perfectly good way to waste a Sunday morning.

During those formative years, and with my exalted position as youth group “President,” I was honored to become part of my parents’ inner circle of fellow church goers - the Waylands, Dalys, Weisses, Clements, and Wells.  They were some of the “movers and shakers” of Trinity Episcopal Church, who often spent time at our house with my parents in a post-movie discussion, a coffee-and-dessert gathering after a play at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, or to discuss whatever book was currently ascending the New York Times best-seller list.  Real egghead stuff.    

As such, they were sitting ducks for my witty repartee consisting of baseball trivia and whatever other insightful comments that my 13-year-old brain could come up with at the time (during this era, my father would also call me a “Philadelphia Lawyer.”  Because this was pre-Google, I had no idea what that meant, but I could tell he didn’t mean it as a compliment given that he was generally exasperated and would call me that through slightly clenched teeth.  As it turns out, it was actually a backhanded compliment!).  

My father would tolerate it to a certain point, and ultimately dismiss me for bed once I had worn everyone out and overstayed my welcome.  This group included some of the most gracious people I have ever met, and they still hold a special place in my heart.  They did not wear their religion on their sleeves.  Like so many Episcopalians, they were very understated in their evangelism (or lack thereof) and in a weird sort of way, they practiced what they did not preach.  In many ways, they were the model for how I do things in my own life.  I am very much a “Golden Rule” guy.  The Golden Rule makes things incredibly simple and when followed, removes the barriers that divide people along religious lines while making the world a better place.   

Lately, I have found myself thinking more often about what happens when the end comes.  Logic can sometimes get in the way of faith for me, and I wonder whether we do just pass on to some “state of nothingness” (like Iowa) or even just cease to exist.  I think back to March 2000, on the bottom part of the ski mountain at stunning Lake Louise in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  As I often did, I had skied ahead of Diana, going as fast as I could (as Diana would call it, “hair on fire”).  While looking up the mountain and waiting for her to come down in her careful, hourglass-shaped twists and turns, some dude slammed into me doing whatever-the-maximum-speed-that-someone-can-ski speed.

I woke to the aroma of smelling salts, with a group of ski patrollers standing around me, in a puddle of my own blood, which was pouring out of my nose at the time.  I remember bright sunshine in my eyes and one of the ski patrollers asking me where I was from and “who is the President of the United States?” to which I answered “Bill Clinton.”  My eye socket was broken, along with my wrist and one of my thumbs.  I have no memory of what happened, the assailant-on-skis did not stick around to help, and there was no video to shed any light on how it all transpired.  It was awful, but at least I was alive.


In the aftermath of that accident, I have thought many times about the fact that that could have been it.  The end.  Game over.  If the impact had been greater, or the blunt force applied at a different place on my head, I could have been dead just as easily as I was knocked unconscious.  And if so, was that it?  No gentle, comforting, white light, or peaceful tunnel to pass through, no paved streets of gold if you had been good, or bubbling cauldrons of hell fire if you had been bad?  Just… gone… over… a state of nothingness.  I have had similar thoughts following surgery where anesthesia was administered and you just go off to sleep, where you felt nothing, and remembered nothing – as if nothing ever happened.  Just lights out. 

 It's now 40 years later, and I must say that my church attendance is dismal.   My spirituality is more humanist in nature – informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.  Will I go through a reckoning prior to passing someday, or will I just continue to practice the Golden Rule, be nice to people, and take my chances?  Too early to know.  

My head tells me that there may be no bright light, or tunnel to pass through – that maybe it is just a state of nothingness.  However, my heart tells me that there is something spectacular that defies explanation that created this universe that transcends all our understanding.  That perhaps there is something else to go on to after all, in whatever form that may be.  The truth is that none of us really know, but I am happy in the knowledge that my faith and practices were formed and informed by observing the quiet grace and kindness of people like those mentors at Trinity Episcopal Church, whose attention and approval I coveted at the age of 13.  


Until next time,



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