Original art and digital magic, H.J. McEnroe

Definition:  A state of being that has overcome the limitations of physical existence, becoming independent of it.

So, there’s this date…with a dark angel.  Stealthily, it approaches…as the hours race by like stallions.  

Seven years ago, I surfaced – from the murky waters of general anesthesia – to the searing pain of spinal fusion of my lower vertebrae.  I was very much alive, but fearing the worst possible prognosis.  Would the surgery restore the use of my left leg, reduce any of the chronic pain?  Though I hoped, I dared not pray too fervently for a “full” recovery, given the extent of life-long damage my unfriendly bones had wrought upon my nervous system.  Another mitigating factor:  I was a twelve-year opioid addict.  After all, what kind of “recovery” could I honestly expect?  Was my faith too weak?
Once more, on May 20th, 2021, I faced a tug-of-war with the angel of death…this time, on the opposite end of my spinal column.  ACDF (Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion), as the name implies, accesses the cervical spine from the front of the neck…a ghastly little procedure.  Like its predecessor, this latest spinal fusion was about restoring feeling and sensation toward limbs, while (hopefully) alleviating pain.  Like before, the risks were…daunting.  However, an inherent risk of this procedure is the possible loss, or permanent alteration, of one’s voice.  To be sure, there are those who may welcome the silence.  I have not led a perfect life.  But again, in saying so, do I display the weakness of my faith…?
Last weekend, resurfacing from that surgery – stirring restlessly in the middle of the night – I stumbled upon a Facebook post from my freshman high school English Composition teacher, Nancy Elliott.  In it, she spoke stoically of her impending demise in the merciless grip of Stage IV cancer.  She asked – not for flowers – but for donations to the Nancy Orr Elliott Scholarship Fund.  From the darkness beyond the window of the hospital room, I heard the cacophony of corpulent raindrops splattering against the glass, wind howling like banshees.  Suddenly, I saw something alight upon the pane.  It was, of all things…a butterfly.  Chrysalis complete, it clung to the window, peering in upon the soft glow of lamplight…and I imagined our opposite perspectives:  me – clinging greedily to hope and life – while it had already relinquished its former life.  It simply was, reimagined by our creator into a new form of life.  In that mystical delirium, I thought about Mrs. Elliott, soon to embark within her own chrysalis…to emerge, radiant…transfigured.  In my solitude, I finally understood what she had clearly comprehended:  that our energy and substance – down to our very molecules within our cells – are never lost.  We transcend.
The Physics of Transcendence
Unable to sleep, to reason with an unreasoned brain still heavy with general anesthesia, I thrashed and tugged at the neck brace securing my fused cervical spine, and prayed for God to afford Mrs. Elliott more time with her obviously-loving daughters, who were commemorating her life – and her influence upon – forty years of English composition students.  I learned that on Saturday, May 29, 2021, a kite-flying event was being sponsored in her honor…building and flying kites being a medium through which she endeavored to reach and teach every student about the art of transcendence…through the English language.
At five a.m., I happened upon something online that I had long since read and forgotten.  It was a rationale for wanting a physicist, of all people, to speak at one’s funeral:
“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
…According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.”
Aaron Freeman

The case for a life “less orderly”
At fourteen, I entered an old classroom for my first glimpse of our new English composition teacher.  This square-framed brunet with a sixties’ chiffon curl and broad shoulders, sporting cat-eyeglasses, a maroon dress and black pumps, marched into a classroom of farmer’s kids, roughneck dropouts, miscreants and sexual deviants…her shrill, commanding voice boomed, “Allll RIGHT!  Eee-NOUGH!  Sit DOWN!” 
She was kicking ass, taking names, and the message was clear…she was afraid of nobody!  That demeanor would serve her well.  It was also the impetus for inspiring us to journal…to commit our thoughts and feelings to the written word – no matter how badly written, and regardless our trust issues.  What I couldn’t know was how she would ignite and kindle, in me, a desire to tell stories…stories I had harbored in secret, stories I could never acknowledge.  It wasn’t that I had nothing to say; I had only too much chaos and dark musings swimming in my hormone-addled brain.  Here I was…the ‘Holden Caufield’ of my school, yearning to become the most inappropriate reprobate to which I could possibly aspire.  And there she was:  a high-energy, prim and proper college-grad chick with a lilt in her step and hot coals in her eye sockets…taunting me to go further, become more hyperbolic, and explore the outer reaches of my degenerate imagination…regardless the cost to my self-respect.  In short, she was the muse for my most bombastic creations:  a werewolf with iron-deficiency; a lamenting vampire who suffered insomnia, and just wanted to be understood; a boy with a secret that would imprison his parents and render him orphaned.  
Aaron Freeman’s pontification on transcendence aside, nothing was inherently orderly in Mrs. Elliott’s classroom.  She encouraged, and we ran, experiments, presentations on nothing in particular, or current events.  Over time, what evolved from Mrs. Elliott’s imagination took shape as its own form of transcendence within us:  making and flying one’s own kite…for a grade!  Sometimes, it resulted in foibles; other times, in some of the most exquisite projects any student would accomplish in their formative high school years.  And that was the point:  to commit oneself to a cause and an outcome whose only merit was to prove that they had the spirit and imagination within themselves to launch a kite into the sky that would actually transcend their own current, finite existence…hope for a life less orderly, less predictable…and infinitely more fulfilling. 

Beyond the Veil
Early Christian theology held that God is both transcendent, yet immanent…not a completely distant God, but one present in the reality of our earthly chains.  Yet, this entity, God, is fundamentally different from every other form of created being.  He sustains all being, yet exists separately from every other living being.  How could God possibly relate to our mere mortal existence?
The father of modern Western Philosophy, Augustine of Hippo, pondered this conundrum at length in his work, “Confessions” (Book I, Chapter 6):
“But dust and ashes though I am…all I want to tell you, Lord, is that I do not know where I came from when I was born into this life which leads to death – or, should I say, this death which leads to life?”
I find, in this brief admission – from a philosophical giant like Augustine – a profoundly humiliating ponderance that we’ve all shared, at one time or another, in our earthly existence: “Why am I here…?”
If we can’t see God in the smallest, physical details of every day we live and breathe among his creatures…how, then, are we to see Him at all?  Teachers – it strikes me – in particular, understand a simple truth, distilled from this ponderance:  regardless our unanswered questions by the paradox of life on this planet, give a child what they need to help them transcend their current existence, regardless how meager, and they will figure out for themselves the truth of God in their life…the truths of life itself.
This unassuming mantle, demanding students respond to such primal tugs at their souls, drove Nancy Elliott to help students like me expect more from their own selves than they ever dreamed possible.  She taught us to build and fly our own kites.
She accomplished in me, though I never told her, what I had thought impossible:  to learn to value my gifts in God’s sight.  I attest to witnessing this same metamorphosis in many of Nancy’s students from my class.  Such teachers needn’t teach about God; they teach us how to pursue God with zeal and reason…and faith.  When Nancy transcends the thinnest veil separating her from the eternal, what awaits her?
I believe Jesus’ own words, spoken in his parable of the talents, are what Nancy will hear in that hour:
           “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”
                            - Matthew 25:21
In this context, I am moved by one of Blaise Pascal’s most poignant observations about faith:
“In faith, there is enough light for those who want to believe, and enough shadow to blind those who don’t.”
For me, Nancy Elliott ignited a flame of faith.  She first showed me the light, and nurtured my impulses to lean in that direction.  She offered me the gift of transcendence through learning to communicate the written word from my soul.  And when next I see her – as I pray I will – my first words, offered in embrace, will be humbly, “Thank You.”

​Nancy Elliott transcended the earthly veil to new life on Saturday, May 29, 2021. 

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