Bowling In Purgatory

On near-death experiences.

Image: Eric Brochu

Purgatory is a game of lawn bowls. The bowlers — British retirees dressed in identical white rainsuits — launch small black balls across the green. They roll the balls again and again, and mark the results on a hieroglyphic scoreboard. Months pass without change. The bowlers persist.

I watch from somewhere above. I read Margaret Thatcher’s two-volume autobiography, The Downing Street Years, and David Hume’s On Suicide. My dorm room window looks down on the Oxford City & Country Bowls Club, the garbage alley behind a Tesco supermarket, and a copse of leafless woods. I am 21 years old and enrolled in a prestigious international program at the University. I see friends, write papers, and make good grades. I am convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, that I will die soon.

I am not sick or suicidal and so I know, logically, that my anxiety is crazy. Emotionally, it is not that simple. It’s just — it can happen at any time, right? And we toil in ignominy. On the bus to my weekly tutorials, I wild-eye the other passengers: One day none of us will be here and nothing, not books or movies or museums, will help the future understand us. The fact that the college pub was established before my hometown wigs me out. I miss America where the past is two centuries long. I miss my mom.

Sleep seems like a gateway to a dark eternal nothingness and I try to avoid it. What comforts me at night is the testimony of Denise F., who writes on The Out of Body Experience Research Foundation’s website,“I suddenly woke up inside my mind in the darkness. I knew I was myself, my spirit, in my body but separate from my body….Parts of the experience were so experiential that words in current language were not adequate to fully describe or express them.” Denise F. writes that she had a brain tumor and during tumor-removal surgery, she died a little bit. Not to worry, she says, it was incredible.

Jeff H. also relaxes me. He took a nap and died for a few minutes: “I now was into the clouds and could see mountains way down below (we don’t have mountains in the Midwest so I thought I must have travelled far). Then the clouds turned into very beautiful, bright, colors (self illuminating)… It felt warm (like you feel as a child when your mother holds you except the feeling was ten times stronger) and I could feel love radiating.”, The Out of Body Experience Research Foundation’s internet compendium of “OBE”s (Out of Body Experiences) and “NDE”s (Near Death Experiences), features more than a decade of reader-submitted anecdotes about witnessing the great beyond. A minority of the accounts are scary, but most detail the light at the end of the tunnel. Dr. Jeffrey Long, a radiation oncologist from Oregon, and his wife, a lawyer named Jody Long, moderate the forums. Jeff founded the site in 1998 after he experienced near-death visions. He authored the New York Times bestseller, Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences. A grainy photo next to his online bio shows a kind-faced, spectacled white man.

I don’t read the Near Death Experiences to learn. I crouch over my laptop screen at 1 am and read for memorization. If I know them by heart, I figure, they’ll become true. I recall them as incantations against the fear.

My obsession with NDEs plays out not at the dawn of my faith in God but at its collapse. I grew up in Tennessee and went to church camp and youth group among left-leaning “cool” Christians who offered proof of the divine by pointing at the southern night sky. Do you really think that all this, they would say, gesturing towards the tree tops, is just random? My grandmother taught me: The universe is connected by bands of love. We become more and more perfect.

Still, I never put much stock in the afterlife. But I also didn’t think about what it would mean for it not to be real. A terrible image occurs to me while in England: Death is like what happens when you close a compact mirror and all the reflected disappears. Death means absolute nothing, and it goes on forever, and this thing I do — read Montaigne’s essays for a passing grade — makes no sense.

The Out of Body Experiences work for me because they aren’t about faith. They are about proof. They offer sublime confirmation to soothe nonbelievers. Hayo J. writes, “I was 14 years old and in my attic room, from nowhere….total happiness, I was somewhere else but I also wasn’t, I just was it.” Jeff and Jody Long, in’s form survey, query Hayo: “Did your vision differ in any way from your normal every day vision?” Hayo: “Yes, I saw nothing with my eyes but I was There, I was It, with all my sense organs and all that I am, as a whole.”

I want so badly to be a whole.

Fall ends and winter comes and the lawn bowlers retreat. I finish 20 essays on economic reflexivity and Leibniz’ theories of elementary particles. I go to college chapel on the evening that they read the names of Oxford’s WWII dead. I stare down the chaplain. Does he feel, like Hayo J., that he is just it? Whatever “it” is? In the spring the lawn bowlers come back to the field. Am I crazy, or do I notice some depreciation among their numbers?

In truth, it doesn’t get better, but I keep waking up. English summer days end at midnight and begin at 5AM. I like falling asleep in the middle of the night when it is still dusk out. I spend less time online at night.

In July, I take a jumbo jet back to America. Before I go, I think: The plane will crash and my soul will float out of my body. Or it will not crash and I’ll make it home. Every plane that flies can either crash or not crash. My body is either a hermetically sealed pocket for 21 grams of extractable somethingness or it is a random coalescence in an indiscriminate cosmos. Either way, I’ll board the flight.

Eileen Townsend is an M.A. candidate at the Columbia School for Journalism. She writes about art and the Internet.