The old rules no longer apply. It can be confusing at first but people are pretty good at getting used to almost anything.
Let’s say you’re walking down a particularly splendid cobblestone alleyway in Barcelona. The sun slants down amongst the aged brick buildings, the laundry lines, the green vines, and an old man in a doorway tunes a beat up guitar. At the end of the crookedy block, you’re strolling barefooted along a secluded Caribbean beach and the waves are saying ‘hush,’ over and over to the shore. Where did your shoes go? When you turn around to look for the old man, you are standing in Central Park and a little boy (do you recognize him?) is tugging on your sleeve, asking you to watch him do a cartwheel.
Or once, I was walking down the small hallway of the house that I grew up in and everything smelled as though Mom was making applesauce in the kitchen. I opened the door to my old bedroom and found myself inside the most magnificent cathedral. I stared upward into a symphony of marble heights, stained glass kaleidoscoping collages of color throughout that magnificent space. I was certain that I had never been there before and sat down in an empty pew, gazing about, listing to the choir sing an ascending cantata that I couldn’t quite place.
When I pushed out through the massive front doors, I stepped from the doorway of a small bookshop in Pike Place Market in Seattle. The afternoon was warm and smelled of salt and I heard someone banging out a tune on a tiny piano. The fish sellers were calling, each to each, and white seagulls spun silver circles, crying, above the shining spires of that city. When I had walked down my hallway, it had been October and now it was July.
You learn to accept it in the same way that one accepts a dream. But it isn’t always so chaotic. I’ve spent months, years (there really is no increment), wandering in a green wood that unfolded seemingly without end. I was perfectly alone, discovering shadowy, mist-shrouded groves. I sat on a rock with my legs in a cool stream and listened to the arpeggios of birds and a quiet breath shushing the latticework of leaves and branches. I stood, as tall as I could, amongst a forest of topless redwoods and crested a hill of yellow and purple flowers. I didn’t know the names of the flowers but their perfume almost broke my heart with beauty and I could see forever in every direction.
Then, just like that, I was at a familiar corner café in San Francisco. I spent several lifetimes half-reading a marvelous novel, half-thinking. I stared out at the every-colored street traffic, enjoying a fine cup of coffee. A kind waitress would stop by to refill my cup and we would make small talk about this thing or that. But mostly I just sipped my coffee and I was just so thankful to be enjoying that particular cup of coffee.
But it’s the people, more than anything. Such people! Everyone I’ve ever loved. My friends, my family. The countless billions of good folk I’ve never met. Sometimes they are old, sometimes young. Now, I’ve known them as long as I can remember. Then, we meet again for the first time. Once, I spent a whole day with my Grandpa Floyd next to a bombed out building in northern France. He sat on a windowsill in his army fatigues. Clouds moved across the sky, slow as Oklahoma. I was wearing my green hipster t-shirt that reads “B.S. Organ Company” and I sat on the stoop of what once was a courthouse (I think). We talked and talked. Him, mostly about my grandma Betty and me, mostly about my wife Ingrid. We were the same age and got along fine. He’s a damn funny fellow for a chaplain!
We spend eons, sometimes all together, sometimes one by one but the conversation is still surprising and there is still a sigh after long laughter. Poets still write poems. The politician who should have been a gardener tends his garden. Lovers still make love. Teachers still teach and there is still so much to learn.
Some things are still difficult to explain. For example, it’s hard to explain why there can still be learning, excitement, surprise, anticipation when there’s no real past or future to speak of. It’s difficult to describe what a “new” experience is when there is no time. It’s also extremely hard to put into words an existence without pain. Joy and suffering, happiness and sadness, triumph and defeat, elation and depression; these were always twins. One was always the cup filled by the other.
But those are the old rules. And while it may not entirely make sense, or at least the sense you used to expect, you get fairly good at rolling with it. Afterall, you’re pretty good at getting used to almost anything.
It’s funny, you know? When I was alive, I didn’t entirely believe in such a thing, couldn’t really. I sang songs about it in church. I read poems about it by Dante. But I thought it was a pretty fairytale to assuage the deep grief of loss. I figured it was a nice story we told ourselves when we were afraid that everything might come to an end. That the lights might go out for keeps.
Well. I always thought I knew more than I actually did. Still do, most likely.
I will tell you this for sure though: I have never seen streets made of gold. Unless, that is, you count when the sun comes out after the rain and Broadway shines so bright that it almost blinds you.
And yes. It still rains.