It was a clear, hot night in late July. In an old Hudson River town of New York State, I was in labor with my second child. Three weeks before the due date, premature labor had moved the baby into the birth canal, leading the obstetrician to order an emergency induction. Now, ready to deliver, I was anesthetized according to common practice.

What I knew next was that I found myself awake and somehow flying over a building. A quick glimpse backward—oddly, with no sense of turning around—and I could see box-like structures on the roof of what I thought must be the hospital, because there, up the hill, was the window of the classroom where I taught. There was the town, receding below me, and then the dark outline of hills along the river, and the earth’s curvature (“It’s true, it really is round!”).  Years later, I would describe it as hurtling into space “like an astronaut without a capsule.”

The speed was puzzling. It felt like drifting but covering enormous distances at what seemed to be an angle, headed northeast. (Is there a northeast in space?) The nighttime darkness turned into immensity and a different sort of dark: it was “thinner” somehow, not opaque, shading inexplicably toward what might have been a paler horizon—except that there was no horizon. My impression was that God was over there.

There was a sense of form to me, I recall, or at least of presence but no body—as if I were made of veiling—just insubstantial. But I was thinking. Did I have a mind, or was I being a mind? An unanswerable question.

Perhaps a half-dozen circles appeared ahead and slightly to my left, half black and half white, clicking as they moved toward me, white‑to‑black, black‑to‑white, sending a wordless but authoritative message: “This is all there is. This is all there ever was. This is It. Anything else you remember is a joke. You are not real. You never existed. Your life never existed. The world never existed. It was a game you were allowed to invent. There was never anything, or anyone. That’s the joke—that it was all a joke.”

I argued passionately to prove them wrong, throwing out details of my mother’s girlhood, stories of my husband’s youth, facts from history—things I could not have experienced myself. How would I know these things if someone had not told me? And my first baby, the toddler waiting at home—I couldn’t have made her up! And childbirth! What woman (even an imaginary woman) would invent childbirth?

“Whatever you remember is part of the joke. Your mother, your babies—they were never real,” they mocked. “This is all there is, all there ever was. Just this.”

But God? The thin darkness stretched off into nothingness,  and the circles kept clicking.

And then I was entirely alone. The circles moved out of sight, and there was nothing left—the world unreal and gone, and with it everyone I knew and loved (but how had I known them, if they were never real?), and hills, and grass, and robins. There was not even a self to go home to. I thought no one could bear so much grief, but there seemed no end to it and no way out. Everyone, everything, gone, even God, and I was alone forever in the swimming twilight dark.

And then I was groggily coming to in a hospital bed. My first waking thought: that I knew a terrible secret. “Calvin was right! Predestination, and I am one of the lost.” That is what is out there, I thought, what it will be like when I die. There is something so wrong with my very being, even God has willed me not to be.

The hospital released me early because I was so upset—the baby’s uncertain condition, they thought—and after some days the baby came home, so she and I met. Now it seemed there were two little ones. At night, hearing a cry, I wondered, How can so much tiredness exist in a person who does not exist? Should I get up? If they are not real babies, do they need to be fed?

As time passed, what might or might not be life moved on, seeming easier when I repressed thinking about the message. Actual or not, little girls were fed and changed and tended to. Beneath the thinnest of emotional shells, despair ran roughshod. God had no place for me; the circles waited; nothing was real. I tried once to tell my husband about the experience, but stopped. Who can love a person and want to describe something so full of grief? I would not speak of it again for twenty years

Six years went by, and one afternoon I visited a friend for coffee. Heading into the kitchen, the friend gestured to a book on the table. “Jung’s Man and His Symbols. It just arrived. Take a look.” The book was large, profusely illustrated, something about images, and I leafed through it with interest. But then, turning a page, I froze. One of the circles stared back. They were true! Someone else knew about the circles! In a storm of terror I hurled the book across the room and fled from the house, too frightened even to say goodbye. (Twenty-five years later, the friend would laugh and say, “Yes, I did think it odd that you simply disappeared.”)

It would be several years more before I discovered that my “circle” was the Yin Yang. Not only had I been I troubled by the experience itself, but now—how does an unrecognized ancient Chinese symbol became a message-bearer in the experience of a mainstream Protestant in New England?


This experience of Nancy Evans Bush is copyrighted. It may be copied and quoted freely, provided its source is acknowledged;