Comics and Spirit
If I were to confess that I imagine I get “messages” from my late husband and son in the comic page of the local newspaper, you would probably think, “Now, here’s someone who could use some time on the couch.” The preposterous series of events are no doubt the product of my imagination, but they are also bone tickling funny, and philosophically deep, resonating with layers of meaning.
First, you have to know my family’s philosophical take on reality. My husband John Flowers was a popular professor and psychologist, the author of over two hundred journal articles and a number of popular books. In other words--his vitae was thick. In addition, it should be noted, he had another advanced degree in the philosophy of science. He was a hard-core empiricist, a great thinker and an atheist. In fact John loved science the way Christians love Christ.
Likewise, our late son, Jonpaul (he died eleven months after his father at the age of 23 of an antibiotic resistant infection) was not just the smartest person in the room, but certainly the most engaging and hilarious know it all you’ve ever met. Father and son, close as all get out, shared a great love of all things books. An autodidactic from the start, Jonpaul shared his father’s favorite subjects: atheism, (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett) physics, (Brain Green, Stephen Hawking, Lisa Rendell, Michael Brooks) and evolutionary biology. The list of their favorite science authors was long indeed.
The point is John and Jonpaul believed you go kaput when you die. The collective religious beliefs of billions upon billions of humans throughout time were elaborate fantasies to help us cope with that inescapable period at the end of our sentence. Which is not to say either one of them ignored the powerful belief systems we call religion. Jonpaul especially found religions fascinating. He read the bible twice, the Koran, and the Book of Mormon. He knew more about scientology than most scientologists. Religion was just another favorite subject.
As a writer and a life long yogi (my mom gave me yoga books to help with my gymnastics and while the gymnastics went the way of all things, yoga was forever), my philosophical understanding of reality is painted with different colors. A byproduct of a life long yoga practice (meditation and pranayama especially) is mystical experiences. These are difficult to describe. As all writers know, religious experiences lose all semblance of coherency and meaning when put into words. Then too, the serious yogi understands that these experiences, while often informative, are not the point. Still, they contradicted John’s understanding of the world and whenever one of these experiences happen, I’d rush to him for an explanation.
“Fortunately Jen, I don’t have to explain it,” he usually said with a chuckle.
Personal experience is not the criterion for reality, according to the empiricists. I get this. If I see a little green dragon on my shoulder does that mean it is there? Over time, John and Jonpaul convinced me my religious experiences were just a product of my imagination interacting with the altered brain chemistry that arrives with meditation and too many headstands. In time I took comfort in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan take on this subject—imagination is the vehicle for mystical messages. In any case, as all thoughtful people know: reality is certainly interesting enough.
The other thing you have to know about John and Jonpaul was they both had a well-exercised sense of humor. Sometimes it seems as if we found more things funny than not; laughter punctuated most all of our lives. Jonpaul especially seemed to relish making fun of his mother.
For instance, my life long love affair with newspaper comics. I not only know every character appearing in the comic page of our local newspapers, but I could write an amusing biography for each one. Whenever Jonpaul came across me reading the comic page, he’d snatch the newspaper from my hand, scan randomly, read one out loud and then look at me with the condescension born of extra IQ points. “Mom. Really?”
I’d snatch the newspaper back and search for one he might find funny, only occasionally meeting with success. More often he just sighed with a sad shake of his head.
About two years after John and Jonpaul died (or ‘transitioned’ as yogis say,) I was reading the comic page of the newspaper. There came a moment when I felt Jonpaul’s presence. This is not an uncommon experience for me. His presence arrives as a powerful warmth, a delicious tinkling sensation and a buzz in my right ear. This all translates in my mind to Jonpaul’s love. With the comics in still in hand, I was suddenly remembering how he always teased me about them.
On impulse, I asked him to send me a message though the comics.
Now the rules of engagement with the spiritual realm are fuzzy indeed; they are very much a mystery. I never thought he would or even could send a message through the comics. The idea is, admittedly, ridiculous. I try to imagine how this might work. His consciousness merges with the comic creator, thoughts are exchanged and boom, a comic is born? Still, being intimately connected with the power of our imagination, the best-case scenario was that a generic ‘message’ would appear in the comics, something I might imagine carries a special meaning, but commonplace enough for the wider audience.
Nothing happened for about three weeks. I completely forgot about it.
Then Harry Bliss Bliss, a single panel comic, showed a Franklin stove. The caption reads: No, it is a Voltaire.
I do a double take; I stare for several long minutes.
I wrote a play called Ben and Me. (It was John and Jonpaul’s favorite of all my stories.) Briefly, the play opens with Ben Franklin waking up writer Jane Roth in the middle of the night. Ben has become a frequent visitor in Jane’s life, appearing at inopportune times: her young daughter’s piano recital, an important teacher’s conference, and a friend’s wedding. He tries to convince Jane to write a play about his life, and they begin mining the wealth of this history in search of a story for a play. The hilarity comes not just from the treasure of Ben’s wit, but also from Jane escaping her ordinary life for the ongoing imaginary and infinitely more rewarding conversation with Ben Franklin. In this way, the play is about how art overwhelms real life. And there is one part of the play where Jane asks Ben what happened in the meeting between him and Voltaire. Ben pauses and because he is not really there and no one knows what happened at that meeting of two great minds, he replies, “What do you think happened?”
I immediately sought outside verification of a phenomenon. All my friends have been at actors’ readings of this play and I rushed to show them the comic. “Jen, you know you sound ridiculous?”
“Yes, yes, of course, but think about it. How many people even know about Ben Franklin's meeting with Voltaire? And unlike most of Harry Bliss’s comics, it is not even funny! It doesn't even really make sense! Let’s face it,” I pressed the point, “Voltaire or Ben Franklin are not often the subjects of a newspaper comic strip."
Accustomed to humoring my flights of fancy, most of my friends laughed, but dismissed it as a happy synchronicity.
Next I spot a comic called Frazz by Jeff Mallett. Here a school janitor/triathlete/songwriter Frazz listens to a kid’s take on Pythagoras of the famous theorem. This seems more like a coincidence, except that Pythagoras is my favorite philosopher. Not only did he believe in the transmigration of the soul, but he was the first vegetarian advocate in history. My daughter and I wrote a book on the science supporting a vegetarian diet. (I’m one of those irritating animal rights nut cases, which my friends mostly forgive me for.)
Just in case, I cut the comic out, place it with the Bliss comic and again, completely forget the whole thing, until the next Sunday when I’m reading the paper and come to Pearls Before Swine. This is a comic where the familiar characters: Goat, Rat, make fun of the cicada's seventeen-year reproductive life cycle--it is a hilarious comic about the inexplicable nuttiness of cicada's reproductive life cycle.
During the avalanche of my grief, I came to understand a thing or two about losing our loved ones. First, time does not heal all wounds. (It just gives us more wrinkles.) Love is grief’s antidote; love heals all wounds and fortunately, the way love works, it lasts forever. Armed with this knowledge I began writing my favorite memories of John and Jonpaul. This included some of their conversations, often hours long on all manner of subjects. The very first one I wrote down revealed the breath of their interests; I knew of no other people remotely interested in the evolutionary rhyme or reason for the nutty lifecycle of this particular insect.
“Hey dad, did you hear about the scientist who cracked the cicadas mystery?”
“The seventeen year cycle?”
“Have you read about it?”
“In one of Gould’s books.”
“Did he explain why a seventeen year cycle? What about it works for breeding opportunities?”
“I don’t remember?”
Jonpaul chuckles. “It’s a prime number! An ingenious way to fool predators.”
“Oh, right. Gould discussed it…”
Again, I poll my friends. The verdict was the same—another amusing synchronicity. My imagination is often an amusing sideshow for my friends and I employ it now to imagine what John would say (after he stopped laughing) “Let’s just think a minute, Jen. Setting aside the troubling idea that reality could be so trite, so surprisingly hackneyed that souls in the spiritual realm drop ‘messages’ into the comics, which is more likely—you, a writer, imagine meaning where done actually exists or we are all ‘spirits’ having a physical experience?”
So I tuck this precious piece of newspaper into my wallet and like all of us, I continue on the material plane, one foot in front of the other until, of course, I am reading the comics and discover Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy where Bucky, the sociopathic cat imagines a fight between Pavlov’s dog and Schrodinger’s cat.
Now, this is hilarious on many levels.
I sense Jonpaul laughing at me once again.
Have I mentioned that John and Jonpaul loved thought experiments?
But never mind that. One time I was in a museum with John and Jonpaul. John was trying to explain to a teenager the difference between Picasso’s cubism and Brocks. The only art Jonpaul appreciated (that wasn’t classical music) was Banksy’s and he was having none of his father’s discourse.
“Dad,” he said, “it’s like talking about Schrodinger’s cat.”
John threw his head back and laughed. “Good one.”
The more we thought about it, the funnier it became.