Suburban Bardos: Death and Rebirth in the American Dreamscape by Walker Storz

This essay originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of Today’s American Catholic—Ed.

This weekend I went shopping at the Hampshire Mall with my mother, getting some groceries and some amenities for my on-campus apartment. This particular mall is not very special—just a lukewarm iteration of a rural-suburban shopping center, nothing mega—except that due to an accident of geography I grew up going there while I was visiting schools in the area, and often in between visits to my cousins’ house in suburban Connecticut. (The mall is right off I-91, which takes us from northeastern Vermont to a suburb of New Haven).

I always remember being comforted by the ambiences of malls and grocery stores, and loved to accompany my mother while she shopped, so I enjoyed these stops even though we never really ended up buying that much of anything, at least anything fun. There was one trip that has been flashing through my head recently, triggered by the insomniac lighting and brand-new smells of outlet stores and the misted jungles of produce sections.

I had been having a crisis of faith in the most dull and literal sense, for probably close to an entire year. As a child I had been obnoxiously, proudly atheist.  But I gradually became to realize the ramifications of a materialist worldview. I found the universe cold and hard-edged and hated it—hated that I would be annihilated and that everyone I loved would be. This is the year that I tried really hard to believe in God, almost entirely out of fear and melancholy. So when we went to visit my cousins—the only practicing Christians or even the only members of any organized religion left in my extended family—I took advantage of their willingness to convert me. I threw myself so sincerely into going to church that they were at least a tiny bit suspicious, though for the wrong reasons. This year, the year I turned 12, was a blur—my grandfather got sick and died, which meant a lot of shuttling down to spend time with our cousins and grandmother, a lot of tight collars and hospitals and time in and around churches and receptions, with lots of comfort food, both ideological and literal. I had lots of chances to dress up and talk to pastors and to my cousins about God and church, and to engage in speculation about the afterlife that in retrospect was almost grotesque—imagining all of our dead relatives meeting and hanging out and becoming friends.

One time that year, when my mother and sister and I were staying at my cousins’ house, I picked up a book from the floor and started reading it. It was a young-adult novel called Elsewhere, and the premise drew me in, with all of my religious fears and hopes.

In the book, a young girl dies and wakes up in the afterlife. A lot of the usual evangelical ideas of heaven as a reified paradise are there. You can hang out with celebrities and watch your loved ones on Earth. But you don’t get to stay there; you are growing younger, and you live backwards until your rebirth, with a shiny new mind that doesn’t remember any of your family or life or story.

This idea of the afterlife disturbed me immensely. I didn’t even know if it was better than my usual concept of complete oblivion. I couldn’t stand an afterlife that I wouldn’t inhabit with my loved ones, and I couldn’t stand the idea of being wiped clean like a hard drive and resetting each cycle around. The book’s vision of the afterlife seemed like the perfect suburban purgatory: a perpetual waiting room full of artificial scents and colors designed not to upset you. Hospital art.

In this new light, everything seemed suddenly fragile and tentative. My mother’s voice was sweet and muted. The sun in the parking lot was seeping out of a cracked spirit. I did everything my mother asked, exactly and with no argument, because I hated the idea that I could be petty and small with someone whom I shared such a brief, stunned passage with. We left Connecticut that morning and chatted on the way back north, listening to the Springfield classic rock station, me trying to be bubbly with my mom but feeling uneasy. We stopped at the mall. I think we went to the Barnes and Noble, possibly Trader Joe’s. Does it matter? I shopped with an extraordinary vigor, as if convinced that if I kept putting things in the cart my mother would never die, I would never die. It’s certainly a cliché that shopping covers up unease and spiritual vacuity, but for a reason. Accumulation and order: these fetishes distract us from the abject and disorderly. The virus that is a franchise or a suburban street spreads out into the world with a message that you can construct your own world completely, down to the scented candles and bestsellers about grieving. There is a product for everyone, every situation, and that implies that every problem has a clear-cut solution, just a click away. War, children—just a click away.

Capitalism, and especially American culture as the prototype for reification-based consumer culture, or object culture, is rooted in a denial of death. Limits, whether they are ecological, physical, financial, or even temporal, remind us of death. Subscribing to any kind of limit is a fundamentally melancholy experience. On the other hand, the excess and plenitude and unlimited growth of capitalism is a manic experience, a stimulant binge where the comedown is suspended by disbelief. Like any extreme stimulant binge, psychosis can and will follow. Our culture is rooted in a society-wide denial of death that is massive. I would argue that one of the main ways neoliberal capitalism differs from fascism is that fascism embraces and even fetishizes the death drive more, even though they are fundamentally similar in terms of political economy.

Shopping malls are like deserts or wastelands. Religious leaders, übermenschen, come out of the desert. But the thing about this particular kind of desert is that it’s reproducible. There is what amounts to a kind of religious experience happening in any given Panera Bread in the world daily. The psychosis is collective, hyperreal, a false religion based on simulation.

I remember feeling so temporally fragile that day at the mall, like the proverbial dust Christians talk about. I was just a speck of dust, concrete dust, touched by light, in a parking lot that could be any other parking lot. I am still alive, and all of my loved ones are still alive. Going back to that mall through the passage of time has been a lilting, sad form of religious experience. I never made it work as a Christian, but I can go back to that Target and marvel at the fact that sunlight hit it the same way five years ago, but so much else has changed. I don’t think that I’ve ever had a chance at having an “authentic” religious experience, so I’ll have to settle for this.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead talks about the visions of the afterlife that everybody has while in the bardo, the intermediary space before reincarnation. They are psychological projections, and so personal that a sincere believer in any religious tradition would see the afterlife they expect to see while in the bardo. There are also many false visions and lesser lights in the bardo that distract from the greater light that one must aim for in order to have a good reincarnation. I want to know what our mutilated, death-shy consciousnesses will see in that space. I wonder if we’ll see nothing. I wonder if we’ll see pavement the color of honeyed cream, flat fluorescent lights. How will we aim, on this bullseye playground? ♦

Walker Storz is a musician, artist, and writer living in Vermont. His work covers the themes of faith, suffering, and illness.

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