I may have mentioned that my drive to work and back is unusually beautiful. I drive past three different waterfalls, five working farms, and past a parade of old stone walls, apple trees, and white clapboard houses. It is eye candy.
It is also the beginning of serious countryside. And one thing about rural America: it takes its religion seriously.
Near the end of my morning drive, or the beginning of my evening commute, there is one particular ranch house that works hard to make sure everyone who drives past understands how seriously everyone inside that house takes religion. They have one of those signs, one of those semi-professional ones, that can be changed to show a different Christian slogan every month or two.
Perhaps because my drive is my best reflection time, I not only read the sign, I read it and think about it, too.
Lately, the sign reads, in one direction, "Jesus will give you REST," which I actually try not to focus on, because I read that side on my way into work in the morning, and I am quite sleepy enough without thinking about REST, whether it comes from Jesus or from turning off the alarm clock.
But in the other direction, for my return trip, the sign reads, "WHERE WILL YOU SPEND ETERNITY?"
Now, I haven't been living under a rock for the past forty-nine years of my life. I am well aware of what thoughts of eternal damnation and salvation I am meant, by the poster of that sign, to be having on my commute. And it's not his fault that I'm a bit of a rebel: I have never been impressed by the carrot-and-stick approach to theology the sign is meant to imply. The god it is meant to imply has always seemed to me to be a bully. Worship me, or I'll torture you forever would be a pathetic demand from a human being, and I, for one, expect more from my gods than from people--not less.
However, as I said, I do take that sign seriously. I think about it. And what I think is this: Where will I spend eternity? I don't really know.
The likeliest possibility seems to me to be this: that I will die one day, and my body at least will go either into a small wooden box to be planted in the ground--if my Quaker meeting is able to work out the details around green burial before my death--or will be put into a superheated furnace, to emerge as smoke and ashes.
I'm not sure about the smoke, but either the ashes or the decaying body I leave behind will go into the ground.
I've given some thought to where in the ground. Part of me would like to have my remains put right here, in the land under this house I live in. My molecules and atoms can leach into the soil that nourishes the woods I love.
I do like the idea that, although land can never really belong to us, perhaps we can eventually belong to the land.
But Peter might not want to live for the rest of his life in this same house. What if What if he were to become too ill or too weary to manage to live well here, in this house? I would not his needing to move away to be made even harder and lonelier than it otherwise would be, if he felt as if he was leaving me behind.
So perhaps Mt. Toby's burial ground is the best place for what is left of my body, whether as ashes or decaying flesh.
We chose Mt. Toby as our meeting, after all, in part because we loved its land. Mt. Toby sits at the edge of pastures, and owns pastures and woods, a beaver pond, a hillside. There are trees there, and grass, and even if it is not land I have lived on daily, it is land I have loved.
And it is New England.
I love my home. I love New England. Could I ask for a better end than to be here, as seasons wheel overhead, as generations of dandelions, sugar maples, white-tailed deer and black bears are born, grow, and die? Could I ask a nobler home than stone walls warmed by sun in summer, and by hibernating squirrels in winter? Than hillsides that are home to hidden spiders spinning webs in hemlock gloom, or even over the snow and ice of midwinter?
There's life here! The earth is rich and smells like spices, and birds set up a racket first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I would like for my body to feed that life. I would like to return to the home I have loved since I was born, "giving something back," in the simplest and most literal way.
Someday, the continents will move into fresh shapes; mountains will grow and be crushed. Ice will recede and grow again, species will disappear, and even the sun will go dark. But I'll still be here: home, however changed.
What of my spirit, though?
Well, what of my spirit?
Sometimes I think there may be something more that happens when we die. I know that, if there is a heaven--a Summerland, as the Pagans and the Spiritualists like to call it--for me, that heaven could look like nothing so much as a New England autumn. Give me the smell of woodsmoke and fallen leaves, the tang of apples in the air and a chill beneath the day's warmth, like the bones beneath the fur of a cat... that's my heaven. Keep the harps! (But send my Herne to me, to carry me there, if that is what there is. I only want to look into his eyes, and see that he can see how I love him.)
Sometimes I think there might be such a thing as reincarnation. That might be nice. I don't care if I come back as bat or owl or white pine tree, as long as I am alive, part of this wonder. (Of course, do I need a spirit to be part of life that way? Isn't that what happens when we go back into the soil, the earth, anyway?)
Then, sometimes I think that my spirit, all the things that go into shaping me, and making me who I am, may be a bit like this body of mine: cobbled together from whatever good things were on hand as I've been accreting over time, from birth to the grave. What happens to my spirit then, when I am done living as who I am? Perhaps, like my body, I go back, flowing out again to become part of the landscape... part, perhaps, of God.
But you know what? I'm here, now. Today is the Kingdom of Heaven. Today is the day of Spirit. Today is the day I give myself, recklessly, laughingly, delightedly, to Eternity.
I hold myself out, like a handful of ashes on the wind, and I give myself to this earth I love... right now.