What Heaven Might Look Like.

We’ve been talking about heaven at our house lately, ever since Dick’s mom and her hospice services joined our household. Jeri’s plan, once she’s past the pearly gates, is to sign up to be guardian angel to her great-granddaughter, Kendra. Kendra could use the help. She’s a bright and charming and energetic 7 year-old who likes Farkle, and fingernail polish and her yellow-Labrador puppy. But her home life is more chaotic than a great-grandmother, or anyone, would wish.

I think that’s a pretty good project, signing on to be someone’s guardian angel, and who am I to say her application won’t be approved? In fact, who am I to say I know what heaven is, or is not? Jeri clearly has trouble believing that heaven, and the way there, is accurately described by her Catholic faith. I have trouble believing God Himself, or whatever name an ultimate divinity goes by, is accurately described by the Protestant tradition I grew up with. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the conversation at the pearly gates goes something like this:

Newly Deceased: Well. Here I am, at Heaven’s gate.

Gate Keeper: Oh, geez, have you got this wrong. There is no heaven here. Your time on Earth? That was heaven.

ND: (looking around the misty clouds) Ummm… angels?

GK: There are no angels here. The people you mistreated on Earth? Those were the angels.

In The Lovely Bones, author Alice Sebold works with the idea that we each have a personal heaven. Heaven is whatever we want it to be, whatever most suits and comforts us. Of course, there’d be inherent conflict when one person’s idea of heaven contradicts another’s. Come to think of it, that’s the central conflict of being human isn’t it? The road to unhappiness is paved with trying to please everyone. And it’s the central conflict of all humanity — your tribe can’t have what it wants if it wipes out what my tribe wants.

So I think heaven, if it exists outside our time on Earth, must be sort of a Venn diagram of overlapping realities, pleasing to everyone in the overlap. And no one pays attention to the places that don’t overlap; they simply cease to exist.

I grew up believing I’d go to hell for thinking and talking about God, religion, heaven and hell the way I do now. But who am I to tell a dying woman that what she wants to imagine is wrong? I’m going to tell Jeri that heaven is anything she damn well wants it to be.



I’m in Madison this week, sequestered in the library at the Wisconsin Historical Society, making headway toward some writing deadlines. On one of my mid-day breaks, I walked up to Overture Center for the Arts to see Greg Conniff’s exhibit, 30 Photos. Beautiful stuff.

In his essay about his work, Conniff talks about why he photographs weeds, and the ordinary places weeds grow, seeping into controlled landscapes, rising at the edges of cultivation. “Weeds will inherit the earth,” he says, and he thinks that’s a good thing.

One of my favorite images in the show is a cornfield, row upon row undulating over a hilly field, a copse of ash trees in the far background, and in the foreground, dry cornstalks (you can hear them rustling) with a single Joe-Pye weed waving just above them. In this photo I feel, but do not see, a century or two of the Midwest weather that’s floated above this field, the changing light each season brings. I see the farmers who planted the crops, the farm children whose job it was to bring water jugs out to the field. I see the people who crossed this field when it was a hill on the prairie. And I see that the Joe-Pye weeds were nearby all the time, and stuck around long after Native American healers and early settlers used the plant to cure fevers. The weeds were, and are, the larger part of the ordinary in this ordinary landscape.

I’ve been thinking about the people I work with writing their life stories, and how they almost always start out thinking their story is too ordinary to be of any interest, to matter in the grander scheme of things. And how they’ve taught me to see, and come to see themselves, that being ordinary, living in the background, just being present in a particular place and time, matters very much indeed.