Without it, many of us poets would be bereft of a fab subject. Artists paint it, rock stars hit its high notes, and I bet, everybody, even IRS agents, daydreams about it–at least once a lifetime. If you're a besotted lover, you feel as if you could be its tour guide.
What is this "it?" Not sex or money – though both may well be found in abundance in it. No, I'm talking about the Big It – heaven. As a (hopeful) agnostic, poet, and (would be) secular humorist, who loathes "devotional" writing and churchy chat, I'm always hesitant to bring it up. Yet, I remind myself, everyone from the most devout clergyperson to the least devout (forgive the pun) atheist, ponders what happens to us when we die.
I've no idea of whether or not there's a heaven. Yet, I'm convinced, without any proof, that my late partner Anne resides there. A recent accident (thankfully, I'm on the mend now) made my own mortality up close and personal. If there's a heaven I hope to be there – though I know it will take Anne's coat-tails to get me in.
"Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife" by Newsweek religion editor Lisa Miller deftly and engagingly summarizes 2,000 years of theological and cultural beliefs and fantasies of heaven. Miller presents a readable history of images, stories, arguments and commentary of and about heaven from the Gilgamesh epic to the Talmud to The Talking Heads to "It's a Wonderful Life."
If there's a hell, I hope there's a circle for (most) academics (particularly, theologians) who write. (Their punishment would be to read each other's writings throughout eternity.) I'm sure their hearts and spirits, are pure, maybe, even divine. Yet, generally, their writing is a crime – against understanding, style and imagination. If you don't believe me, try reading Karl Barth. I loved my years as a student at Yale University Divinity School; but it's amazing that I survived the thicket of thorny theological prose. One day, as a service to humanity, I'll start up my English as a Second Language institute for Theologians.
Miller gets props. "Heaven" is a tome which Virginia Woolf's "common reader" would enjoy. Along with an explanation of a New Testament renderings of the afterlife, or interviews with a scholars on Islam, Miller interjects such down-to-earth subjects as the "holy shit" factor involved in imagining heaven.
My fave part of "Heaven" is the chapter entitled "Is Heaven Boring?." As your Grade-A neurotic writer and poet, I thrive on conflict. Wouldn't I be bored to death with all the peace of heaven? What would happen to one of my great loves-gossip? Would there be poetry prizes? Who would read my poems if there was no grief or unrequited love in them? "The heaven-as-boring problem has theological as well as sociological roots," Miller writes, "the heaven preached especially by twentieth-century mainstream ministers was devoid of the cinematic particulars that made the visions of Dante....so tantalizing."
As the Talking Heads song "Heaven" says, "It's hard to imagine that nothing at all/Could be so exciting, could be this much fun."
Miller makes it clear that she's not convinced that there's any proof that there's a heaven or an afterlife. Though, she hopes. "I think again of my beautiful mother, and I hope," Miller writes after contemplating St. Paul's view of resurrection.
Yet, thankfully, Miller's no polemicist. First and foremost, she's a journalist – reporting on, (mostly, without voicing her opinion) many, varied depictions and viewpoints of heaven.
I'm still where I was before gulping down Miller's book. I'd love it if there's a heaven, and I could, in some way, be reunited with Anne and all those whom I've loved. If not, as Wood Allen muses while watching "Duck Soup" in "Hannah and Her Sisters," so what "if you only go around once," as long as you have the Marx Brothers, isn't that enough?
I leave you with my muse's musing on the afterlife.
The Daydreams of the Dead
I didn't expect to have
a fantasy life here.
Between lunching with old lovers,
shopping with my mother,
and finally reading "War and Peace,"
my calendar was full. But in eternity
there's time to kill.
The football player from Kansas
twirls the ballerina from Paris.
He's wanted to wear tights
since he was three in Topeka
but told no one. (Secrecy's
not needed here.) The gods
supply the tutus and brush his hair.
The Manhattan therapist takes
master classes. I'm the Uber shrink,
she thinks, but maybe the gods
could teach me something. Unpack
your therapy clock, Jung tells her,
there are termination issues here.
At the Last Supper CafĂ©,
I drink coffee and watch ghosts.
(You want caffeine even more
when you're dead.) Shakespeare
asks Garbo if she'd like a beer.
You'd think they'd let me alone here,
she murmurs. Fred and Ginger glide by.
Knocking my cup over, I join their dance.
My two-left feet steal the show in the afterlife.
Originally published in the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly