We don’t talk about Heaven

I was listening to a report on NPR about the destruction of Palestinian home. A mom and her family were standing outside the rubble. A reporter asked her “what will you do now? Where will you go? Where will you house your family now?” And the distraught mother replied “I tell my children God will provide us many beautiful houses in Heaven.” That sounds great, I thought, except you have to be dead to get there.

I’ve always had issues with Heaven. This place that is super great and peaceful, has nice weather all the time, and big houses for all, but comes at the cost of death. Heaven as a place people have fought and died for, heaven as a dream for which people martyr themselves. Heaven as a promise. Heaven as an excuse to not revolt against injustice because the downtrodden would find their reward in Heaven. Growing up, I was presented with a view of Heaven as the promise of eternal life, as a reward for being good, a place where followers of Christ can go home. “Sure, but what are the mechanics?” I thought.

When I was eleven my Bestamore died. Her real name was Borghild, but all us kids called her Bestamore– the Norwegian word for Grandma. I remember she died and my father spoke at her funeral and cried big grown man tears. Bestamore had lived with my dad’s family when his brother and sisters were growing up, and I think too Bestefar, whose name was Johannes. My dad had all these delicious child memories of her, of her in their house, of her Norwegian speech and lilting accent, of her praying, of her at dinner. She would come to our house some holidays. She would sit in the camel colored wool chair. It wasn’t so soft she’d fall in, not so hard as to be uncomfortable. It was right by the fire in the living room, right near the dining room.

Bestamore would say “yinyaire” instead of ginger in ginger ale; she would say “yingla” instead of jingle in jingle bells. In Agios Nikolaus, visiting my Auntie M and Uncle P in 2009 for Christmas, we went to an English sing-along, and with childish glee Mere and I jumped into Jingle Bells with a resoundingly loud YINGLA BELLS, YINGLA BELLS! Before we realized we were a verse too early and way off key. We laughed loud. We still glory in that moment.

My Dad’s tears made me uneasy, and what grief I had vanished into a feeling of isolation. My step-mom explained that my dad loved his grandmother very much. I remember myself wearing an odd purple outfit with culottes and a corduroy vest and a puffly sleeved shirt, but I don’t know if that’s real or just part of feeling like I stuck out all over the place. At once point I brought my weeping cousin to tears with laughter by making some jokes that were specifically funny for us being at a place where we weren’t supposed to be laughing. I got in trouble for that.

The pastor talked about how Bestamore’s soul was going up to Heaven, but also about how she’d be taken up to Heaven during the rapture at the end of days. I asked my Uncle B how it could be both, and he directed me to ask the pastor, which I did. I think if the pastor had given me an answer that made sense I would have remembered it, but since the concept of how a soul can be in two places at once– under the ground awaiting rapture and somehow already in Heaven– still doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t think he did.

I’ve been visiting schools, checking out kindergartens for C next year. There are approximately a million schools in Brooklyn, with costs varying from $0 to $40,000 for one year, and to get a sense of what’s out there, I’ve been going to them all. There’s one thing they all have in common: a big emphasis on “what do you want to be when you grow up,” and lots of academic work. Academic work in kindergarten is problematic for all of its own reasons, but what really bothers me is this “what do you want to be when you grow up” stuff. There’s this idea that if you work really hard, and add enough extracurricular, and get into a good college, and work really hard, and have enough extracurricular, and know, deep down, What You Want to Be When You Grow Up: you will achieve it, and you will have a big house, and it will be Paradise. It’s like we’ve sold ourselves this idea that we can secure Heaven on Earth for our children.

You don’t have to die to get there, but you still have to give up your life to get it. It’s like we’ve eliminated the fantastical Heaven in favor of higher expectations here on Earth.

What if you do all the right things and have all the passion and still don’t have a big house, or even any house? What if the thing you spend your whole life striving for isn’t quite the bees knees once you have it? What if we put so much emphasis on What You Want to Be When You Grow Up that nothing you come up with, or even achieve, will ever meet the expectations we have for it?

What if Paradise isn’t attainable on Earth? No matter what people achieve, they want more. No matter how many illnesses are cured, we want to cure mortality itself. We’re not satisfied with ourselves, our bodies, our world, our friends, our neighbors, our incomes, our homes. We only value these things in retrospect, when the people or homes are gone, when the diseases get worse. Everyone says super nice things about dead people, but we’re never quite so kind to the living. What do the dead need with mortal kindness?

There’s a thing in here about expectations and dreams, about the joy of anticipation and the security of faith. There’s a thing in here about wishing. When I was in the glorious throws of trying to decide What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up, when astronaut, ice cream man, big game hunter, and movie star were on the table, I knew that I wanted to make art work, I knew that I wanted to write. I wanted to be in New York, and I wanted to be with Dave.

I know that from the outside it can’t possibly look like I’ve achieved that which I wanted. It doesn’t look that way from the inside all the time, either, or even most of the time. I feel an insane pressure, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. The pressure tells me I have not lived up to the given expectations, that I am failing in my pursuits, that this life that I wanted pales in comparison to what I ought to have set out to achieve.

When I think of Heaven it comes with more pressure. Not just the pressure of mortal life but the pressure of eternal salvation on some Eden planet circling a pristine star. I think “did I see that toothless, babbling, swollen footed homeless man with God’s eyes? Did I love my neighbors with God’s love?” The answer, inevitably, is no, not by a long shot.

At bedtime, C asks “Is Daddy and Uncle J’s Mommy died?”
“Yes,” I say, “A long time before you were born.”
“Is she in Heaven now?” C learns theology in his Catholic school.
I want to say lots of things about electrons riding on strings of energy through everything in the universe. “Yes,” I say.
“Yeah, because I met her before I was born, because I was there before I went in your body.” He is confident in his assessment.
“Did she talk to you about life?” I ask.
“Yeah, and that’s when I picked you and Daddy to be my parents.”

We don’t talk about Heaven, but maybe we should. For C it doesn’t seem to come with pressure, it comes with autonomy and self-determination. I don’t know how that happened.

Cold but sunny is perfect park weather.
Cold but sunny is perfect park weather.
poem on the subway
poem on the subway
Our park's namesake
Our park’s namesake

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