Carolene Heart is telling everyone about the time she met Ben Franklin.
He stood there — naked except for belt, socks, boots and watch fob.
"I'm a nudist," he told her. "What's wrong with that?"
Heart is 66, grandmotherly, a retired kidney transplant nurse and a two-time near-death experiencer. She's sitting in a circle of chairs in the back of a bookstore with crystals and incense and two-dozen people hanging on her every word.
In some places her story of Ben Franklin and 11 others surrounding her as she floated on a purple stretcher would be met with snarky disbelief. But here at the monthly Metaphysical Meetup, a group interested in exploring "beyond the physical world," no one laughs.
"When you were seeing these 12 beings, how did they appear, as solid or light?" a woman asks.
"Oh yes, solid," Heart says.
Nods and silence. A tall man with white hair leans forward, asks her if she saw any "nonhuman beings."
"Did you see ET?" blurts out the man's wife.
"I didn't want to go so far out there," Heart replies, "but there were two unique shapes and faces and they had eyes that faced upwards."
"Did you have any special connection to Ben Franklin?" someone asks.
"Not that I'm aware of," she says. "But since then he's visited me and he's given me so much information. . . . I've found out he really is a nudist."
• • •
Millions of Americans have reported having a near-death experience. It is the subject of numerous research studies and a scholarly magazine, Journal of Near-Death Studies. One book on the subject, Evidence of the Afterlife, by Jeffrey Long, was on the New York Times bestseller list earlier this year.
I stumbled across the near-death experiencers on a list of area meetups in my e-mail — somewhere between the swing dancers and the croquet players. It was being hosted by the "Metaphysical" group, which meets to talk about ghosts, aliens, UFOs, past lives, the afterlife — anything that "doesn't happen in our physical world."
As the two-dozen people seated in a large circle of chairs introduced themselves, I could see that most of them were interested in this topic for a reason. A nurse who'd had a near-death experience of her own. An artist who said he entered another realm to do his paintings. A psychic who had grown up in a haunted house. An elderly woman whose murdered daughter had come back to tell her she was okay.
But listening to them discuss their experiences, it wasn't too different from a book club gathering. The tone of the conversation was so normal. Here Heart's story of seeing Ben Franklin was accepted, respected and discussed like a recipe for her best Dutch apple pie.
One lady said she could see auras over all of us. I couldn't resist. I went up to her afterward and asked her what she saw over me.
"Well," she said hesitantly, "I could see you saying, 'Wow, that's interesting.' But at the same time, you were wondering 'How could that be?' You didn't necessarily believe everything you heard."
Maybe my body language? Who knows.
I'm a live and let-live kind of person. To each his own. I'm not really sure about things I can't see, which is to say that I don't necessarily believe in them. But I'm not going to say you're wrong for believing what you believe.
• • •
Joyce Vermilyer is 56, short, blond, a widow. She helps people lose weight for a living. Heart nudges her to tell her story, puts her arm around her shoulders to encourage her.
"I've never done this in front of strangers before," Vermilyer says. She clenches her hands anxiously, breathes deeply.
Her story comes out haltingly at first. She talks about the death of her husband, the realization that he was still with her in some form after he died, how he'd hug her.
Three years later, she had a brain aneurysm.
"All of a sudden, I was forced into beautiful, beautiful light," she says, her words coming out faster and faster. "And it was loving and peaceful and there were thousands of angels and a lot of family members and my husband was there but he wouldn't let me touch him. He said, 'Honey, I love you but you have to go back.' "
After her near-death experience, her husband would show up and take her flying. To Iraq and Jerusalem. To a spiritual university.
One time, she said she felt the hand of God on her shoulder.
"So God touched you on the shoulder . . . Can you describe God to us?" asks the tall man with white hair.
"Well he was very good-looking and very, very tall," Vermilyer says. "He was just an average man."
The man has his hand on his chin, pondering this.
"In what way was he good-looking?" he asks. "Like John Wayne or Omar Sharif?"
Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640.