The Great Beyond… Where the hell is it? by
(168 Stories)

Prompted By The Great Beyond

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Perhaps I’ve seen plenty of death, although we can never get enough. We’re not allowed to; the damned thing just keeps on comin’. And I doubt that we are morbid by nature; we simply have no control over the end of life beyond the magic and ministrations of good medicine from CAT scans to ayahuasca.

I can’t measure cause and effect versus coincidence here, but the deaths of parents, friends, loved ones, important figures in my life don’t bring me to wonder at the great beyond.

I didn’t wonder where my father, my grandparents, my uncles and aunts, my childhood friends and my musician pals went. I’ve thought I was going to die, right then, right there. I reeled under blows of abandonment and empathized with sickness. I ached with sadness as deep and natural as a river’s flow. And I cringe from the regret that comes from loss: I’ve only I’d… I coulda… woulda… shoulda…

But I survive and shelter my memories in fond real-life recollections that can evoke tears, smiles, or great loneliness. But loneliness and loss, even rage at abandonment is human, very here-and-now. It’s a life thing, death, and it does not for me, evoke a stairway to the great beyond.


I’ve never been able so see or hear ghosts, despite the fact that everyone in my San Francisco household heard the angry expletives and useless thumping in the upstairs bedroom closet. I never had a clue, despite my comrades’ testimony.

When we were mining for silver in a Colorado mineshaft, we were all on the lookout for a ghost who was supposed to hang out in the dank gloom of the abandoned stopes, or side tunnels. Nobody ever heard or saw that guy either.

I’ve always had a hard time with reincarnation, where, ostensibly, beings die, travel to the great beyond, and return in another form. I once thought I might be the reincarnation of a soldier who died on a barren Russian steppe, but I’d probably just seen a photo. The folks I did know always seemed to reappear from former lives as Egyptian princesses or brilliant musicians. That didn’t make sense.

After the demise of trillions of bugs, slaves, eels, serfs, overanxious merchants, intestinal bacteria, and downtrodden whores, why did my friends come back with memories of life in grand palaces, royal sarcophagi or thrilled audiences? I don’t seem to have the facility to reincarnate, not even as a cutworm.

My own private beyond?

My personal great beyond began in childhood with a set of closet-door mirrors. I could close the mirrors around me and watch my body disappear down a curving corridor of a million reflections, each image becoming murkier until I disappeared into the subsequent loss of light. Then I’d imagine that, no matter how fast I changed my expression in that mirror, my new grimace would reverberate into the distance at 186,000 miles per second, quicker than I could ever catch it.

My great beyond-edness burgeoned thanks to early exposure to astronomy, via my old man. After I plagued him nightly to describe the distances of intergalactic space, I would scamper off to bed. I had painted the far wall of my bedroom an inky, deep-space blue and glued stars to it — a launch pad into my great beyond.

Then, as I drifted off to sleep, I taught myself how to transport myself from my bedroom wall to the farthest point I could imagine in our galaxy. If I travelled at 186,000 miles in a second, how far would I travel in a minute? An hour? A day, a year, a million years? Wow!

I would grok myself to that distant place and start again, imagining a deeper, farther, more distant galaxy and then I’d leap to other galaxies until I reached the edge of the Universe. Then I’d try to picture what lay beyond that. Jeez!

For a while, my old man worked at M.I.T. with “Papa Flash,” Dr. Harold Edgerton, a high-speed photographer who developed the stroboscope (my old man helped perfect the exactly timed electronic flash for Papa Flash’s image captures).

I would stare at Edgerton’s photos of a light bulb shattering with a projectile suspended in the dissembling glow, of milk drops suspended in a perfect crown above a flat surface, imaging the strobe light splitting time down and down and down to microseconds.

Later, as quantum physics emerged, I peered deeper into the micro beyond, down to a yanctosecond equaling one second divided by 10 x 10 x 100 to the twenty-fourth power, one septillionth of a second, watching scientists hover over monstrous magical-mystery colliders, seeking to establish the elapsed time for a quark to decay.

Today, I like to imagine the great beyond as cartoon expansion and contraction of the Universe. Bwoop! The Universe explodes. Bweep! The Universe contracts, bwoop, bweep, like chewed bubblegum or warm silly putty squeezed and released and squeezed again between the infinite thumb and finger of an ethereal hand. From this perspective, the great beyond elicits laughter. That’s good enough for me.

A final mystery

I did learn to the great beyond of death one more time, when I held my mother’s hand and felt her breathing slow in hospice. After one long, last, calm, quiet breath, her heartbeat stopped and her body collapsed. A diminutive casper ghost-spirit squiggled brightly out of her fourth chakra and rose into the room above her bed. I knew that what I’d seen was real, connected to the great energy of the Universe but I had no idea where my mother’s tiny casper spirit went. Once again, the great beyond showed me its mysteries but not its truths.

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

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Characterizations: right on!


  1. Patricia says:

    I’m stunned to hear about your private beyond as a kid, because I too did the mirrors-to-infinity thing, and had my own trying-to-fall-asleep reveree. I would lie in bed and try to visualize nothingness. Asking myself over and over why was there anything instead of nothing? Trying to picture where and what the universe is. It wouldn’t take long for me to start hallucinating and I’d have to force myself stop thinking about it. Never did answer the question, but it’s probably the beginning of my fierce interest in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Bweep, Bwoop–my new favorite thing!!

  2. That is a stunning revelation, Patti! Now that you mention it, I think I did the nothingness caper, too. And certainly my early explorations have dovetailed with my obsession with quantum mechanics and cosmology. Great minds! And a great prompt from Retro!

  3. rosie says:

    Remarkable story. I only wish I’d had the sense to study hard in the sciences and maths so that I could have a better idea of what you are talking about. Still several things you discussed were ironic because I recently had a conversation with my older brother, where he talked about not believing in reincarnation, because everyone he knows was a metaphorical “Napoleon” or some other favorite famous person. My 2nd Cousin was a Jewish atheist, like many relatives loved hanging with the culture, but didn’t believe in reincarnation, he said though that if there was such a thing, he would wish to be far away in the stardust somewhere.

    There are so many takes on this. I’ve had odd experiences, and I used them as lessons of things I could learn about myself. I wasn’t particularly extraordinary….just another wandering soul soaring through the universe.

    I am going to look for your book. Still love your writing.

    • thanks, Rosie. I get a kick out of my skeptical kinship with your older brother. I hope I didn’t sound as if I was debunking any of these mysteries. I’m perfectly happy to be surprised by inexplicable mysteries, including reincarnation. Re: novels. Go on Amazon or go into any bookstore and ask them to order either. They’re distributed by Ingram which puts publications into every store’s database.

  4. John Zussman says:

    There’s so much to like about this story, but like Patricia I’m drawn to you as a kid, trying to visualize both the vastness of the universe and the infinitesimal fraction of a second. But then, space and time are the same, aren’t they?

    • Such a good prompt! And yes, writing about those early great-beyond explorations became quite vivid as they emerged from hibernation. And yes, according to my sources Higgs, Hawking, and Albert, space and time do seem to have an intimate relationship.

    • Great prompt. Those early great-beyond explorations came out of hibernation with a grin. Fun to think back to those trouble-free discoveries. And yes, according to my sources (Higgs, Hawking, Albert E), space and time appear to have become quite intimate with one another.

  5. Suzy says:

    Wow, there’s so much here to absorb, from the speed of light to Heinleinian grokking to ayahuasca as medicine. You are really making all of us think! And your last moments with your mother are beautifully touching, the great beyond showing you its mysteries but not its truths.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Mind-blowing, Chas. I confess, I didn’t think about the great beyond, or nothingness as I lay a-bed at night. I sang folk songs to myself! But the image of holding your mother’s hand as she drew her last breath is unforgettable.

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