North Carolina’s State Fair is ten days of crispy deliciousness. This annual fall celebration beckons residents from all over our state to our capital, where “in the name of agriculture!” we deep fry everything.
The autumn after my father’s death, Fred and I made our yearly trek to the fair. Enticed by the sign, “Free Hushpuppies!” we stood in line at the Old Grist Mill, a small wooden structure where corn morphs into Southerners’ favorite appetizer.
The line wove down the paved path for longer than anyone would have liked, but North Carolinians cannot resist the siren call of hushpuppies.
As we waited, a man two yards behind us began to holler,
“What are they a-doin’ in there, grindin’ the meal? This is takin’ too long!”
The town crier was a tall, slender man with a long white scraggly beard and unkempt hair that poked out of his ball cap. His faded overalls hid what may have been a cirrhosis pot belly; he scratched his groin and removed a red handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose.
It was my father, just as he would have looked and behaved had he lived long enough for his jet black beard to turn white.
“Hurry-it-up!” The man cuffed his hands to his mouth, shouting in staccato.
I elbowed Fred. “It’s him!”
Fred turned around to see which him I was referring to.
My husband never met my father, but they spoke once on the phone. My father chattered non-stop about his “monastic” lifestyle in his rural Indiana trailer. When Fred, exhausted, handed the phone back to me, Daddy shouted from the earpiece, “Boy, Fred doesn’t shut up! I couldn’t get in a word!”
Fred snickered at my attempt to reincarnate Daddy. “It doesn’t work that way, ” he offered.
How could my father’s postmortem appearance at the state fair be hijacked by theological details?
“How does it work, then?” I asked.
“He may not have even come back as a human,” Fred said. “Depends on his karma.”
“What the heck would he be, then?” I asked.
“I dunno—an animal maybe.”
“Do you think I’d recognize him if I saw him?”
“Probably not. You don’t recognize anyone else from your past life, do you?”
“You really think I had a past life?” I asked.
“Of course. You’ve had many of them.” He said.
“The soul is eternal. It is our bodies that change, just like we change clothes. We change our clothes when they were out. We change bodies when they wear out and we call it death. Your soul is eternal. It only changes bodies,” Fred added nonchalantly, deciding whether to forego the hushpuppies in lieu of kettle corn.
“Hurry-it-up! I ain’t gettin no younger!” The old man yelled, exasperated.
We stepped out of line.
It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I began to fear death.
The anxiety came on as the sun set. The day wrapped up neatly, another routine completed, and I lay in bed frightened that death would mean end to this rhythm, separation from the people I love.
Theologically, I trusted what Christian scripture taught me about the promise of eternal life. From Sunday School to seminary, I was humbled Jesus’ teachers of love and sacrifice that pointed the way toward God.
But, amid the loss of my father, and one year later, Fred’s father, the cycle of grief overwhelmed any eschatological comfort Jesus offered. Why hadn’t God developed a better system, one in which we could all stay together here, in the lives we’ve always known?
Death felt too final; heaven felt too far away.
But, death and grief hadn’t gripped Fred’s spiritual assumptions the way they had mine. He wasn’t anxious by physical separation from his father. Instead, he was comforted knowing his father was a soul, not a body, and that his soul was back here on earth, giving it another try.
“But, how is that possible?” I asked. “If I’ve ever been reincarnated, I don’t remember my last life.”
“Do you remember what outfit you wore on a Monday, twenty years ago?” Fred asked.
YOLO is a popular acronym most recently coined by Drake that stands for, “You Only Live Once.” While its intention is as old as the sun, it’s become a modern invitation to indulgence and risk.
For Christians, a theological YOLO means getting it right this round. Go to church. Find Jesus. Get saved. Be a good Christian and share Jesus with others. This is your one shot at eternal life.
But, the more I’ve been exposed to Hinduism, the more I’ve realized that it’s really difficult for everyone to get it right spiritually in one try. There are many factors at play: exposure to Jesus as “the way” (according to Orthodox Christian doctrine), getting “saved,” living a Christian life, establishing spiritual practices, learning life lessons, and trying not to screw up too badly.
I cannot parse out the doctrines of eternal life, original sin, salvation, karma, and reincarnation in one post. But, I can encourage you to ask yourselves and one another: do we really only live once? And, if get one chance, what does that mean for our lives, relationships, and faith?
I’m not God. I have no definitive answers about death and afterlife. With each new death in our family (Fred’s Granny died in January), I continue to hold Christianity’s linear eternal life path in tension with Hinduism’s cycle of reincarnation.
But, I do know that the hushpuppy crier made me wonder what it might mean to consider both of the faith traditions represented in our household. I keep asking myself, do I live just once? Or, have I lived (and will I live) eternal lifetimes?
I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever pondered reincarnation? Post your thoughts and experiences with death, grief, the afterlife, eternal life, and reincarnation in the comments.
 Bhagavad Gita 2.22