Friday, November 28, 2008


When our daughter Lillian was about five years old, she started thinking about the natural end of all the things she knew. She started thinking about dying and death.

I don't know why she did, but she did, and it made her sad and worried. She didn't want to lose her mother and me and her grandparents to death, and she was frightened that she would.

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Because she was a bright kid and a problem solver, she tried to think of a solution, some way around death, and the solution she thought out was her own personal vision of heaven.

Heaven, she figured, would be a place where she and her parents and all the people she loved would live in some perfect place, interacting with all her favorite characters from all her favorite books.

It sounded great, and I used to love to hear her talk about it. She and Linda and I would be in the same perfect place as the characters in Laura Ingalls Wilder and C. S. Lewis. We would have lunch in a park with Laura and Lucy and Edmund and Susie and Peter and Aslan, the compassionate, kind, loving God of this Heaven.

I loved to hear about Lillian's vision because her vision of heaven would have been more pleasant than mine.

My favorite books were Crime and Punishment, Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, Grapes of Wrath, Sound and the Fury, and Toni Morrison's Beloved. Gloomy books, every single one of them.

And I knew that my heaven wouldn't be the golden place Lillian's heaven was. My heaven would be a sad place, a heaven-noir where every day would be filled with rain and snow, misery and grief. In the dark gray shadows of that heaven, we would all huddle around in the cold talking the language of loss.

God would be a penniless peddler with an empty push cart.

Lillian is now 29 years old, and sometimes when I'm thinking too much about Dostoevsky and Morrison and Faulkner, I call her up and say, "Hey, Lillian, remember the time you imagined that heaven was a place where you and Laura and your mom and me would play tag?"

And Lillian says, "Yes, I sure do, I remember when Aslan would ...."

(The photo above is of Lillian and my dad and my mom's brother Uncle Walter.)


Urkat said...

"My heaven would be a sad place, a heaven-noir where every day would be filled with rain and snow, misery and grief. In the dark gray shadows of that heaven, we would all huddle around in the cold talking the language of loss."


Urkat said...

I think we should all design our own heaven. I want to play scrabble with Joyce, e.e. Cummings, and Edward Lear while being read to by E. A. Poe. In my heaven we could talk to flowers, clouds, birds, cats and dogs. You can drink out of ponds and streams. Guardian angels are everywhere, and innocence and altruism are the rule, not the exception.

"And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame, but each for the joy of the working, and each in his separate star, shall draw the thing as he sees it for the god of things as they are."

Alexander said...

I can relate to the sad heaven concept. Like you, I'm the son of a survivor; my father was a Christian survivor of Auschwitz.

Phil Boiarski said...

Adult heaven is by the very nature of adulthood, less playful and innocent than childhood heaven. I was always convinced I would end up in Purgatory, which was where you went when you weren't quite good enough for heaven but not bad enough for hell. This is what your heaven sounds like, John, an imperfect place for imperfect souls, where they wait out their penances until they can be in God's presence. Heaven should have great music, Nina Simone and Etta James, Mozart and Beethoven, Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. There should be a beach there because everyone needs a beach to truly relax, perhaps with golden sand and silver star fish. The food of course is the best imaginable, everyone's favorite dishes and no one gets fat, every body stays perfect and youthful. And the evenings are time for fires on the beach and counting stars. If your imagining a heaven, for Pete's sake, make it fun!

John Guzlowski said...

I received the following from my friend Barbara:

John, it was with interest I read of your daughter Lillian’s conviction of heaven and what it was like.

It made me remember that, when I was a child, I had plenty of religious explanations of heaven, mainly, a place where we would see our grandfather in whose house I was born and had died when I was very young, where the angels lived, and on and on. It is my memory that among the books we had, and when I was old enough to read it, was INTRA MUROS by Rebecca Ruter Springer (Hardcover - 1898). this copied just now from eBay. It was about someone who had a dream of being in heaven and what a beautiful place it was, streets of gold and doors of pearls. Everything was so perfect. I wanted to believe it, but one thing I wondered was how it could float in the air with all those heavy buildings and such. The loss of my grandfather had followed close on my loss of Santa Claus. It didn’t really make sense to me and perhaps started the sequence that ending in loss of the idea of heaven. Still, I have to smile because each slip from traditional religion also reduced the likelihood of hell. Another shock was a visit of the Presbyterian minister who visited my mother, a Presbyterian in a totally Missionary Baptist area. He saw a book on the table at the end of the settee, picked it and said to my mother, “You shouldn’t have this book in your house,” and summarily threw it into the burning fireplace.

Books were revered in my home in the middle of the Great Depression, and I asked Mother why he did that. She couldn’t answer and never was a person who questioned religious authority. I asked why it was that book, and what was in it, and she said it was a book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I finally came to know that Presbyterians were violently opposed to his writings on Transcendentalism, but not until many years later. My shock at his action was reinforced when I saw pictures of the Nazis burning books in WWII.

One thing after another like this one eventually has caused me finally to delete traditional religion from my beliefs. I strongly believe in love, kindness, and the fact that a man named Jesus lived at one time and taught good things. I have read with some sense of humor, part of the Bible written by Thomas Jefferson, who copied the New Testament exactly, deleting any reference to any surreal happening, miracles and the like.

I also believe that this life is over when it is over, and we should make the best of it while we can. I know your parents suffered extremely in the prison where they were forced to work. I also see that they themselves persevered and look at you, a fine man with a very good, comfortable life. I have just written about my brother, a very talented person, who became an alcoholic in the Air Corps in World War II, and wonder about how he would have a much better chance if he had been born at a later time. Maybe not

I have found the most devout religionists have used their beliefs to uphold them in instances when they were not strong enough to cope with their sufferings by themselves, and I in no way would depreciate their feelings. It may be that I have just never suffered enough to need those answers. But once I took possession of my own life, I have felt a supreme relief, yet a greater responsibility about caring for others and for the world we live in.

I am not writing this to do anything except to say that I recognize in your Lillian the need to find an explanation that makes sense of the bad things of life, and the explanations have produced various gods as man’s condition has evolved. But they all started with the curiosity Lillian had, I believe. My dog worries not at all about tomorrow. This search is limited only to homo sapiens that we must find an explanation for everything. That’s all

Urkat said...

It seems that many of us conceive heaven as a place of atonement, even though that is supposed to be accomplished prior to admission. I personally want to apologize to God, if it turns out He exists, for my own shortcomings and also the failures of kindness on the part of humans. I want the words, "Please forgive me/us" printed on a banner and towed behind an airplane, simply because I regret some choices I made and continue to make.

Heaven-noir. The strange thing is that if we don't suffer voluntarily by working to mitigate pain and suffering, we suffer involuntarily when our desire to live comfortable lives lets things go on that shouldn't. The equilibrium of suffering and joy is, according to William James, one of the mysteries of the so-called "religious experience."

Our virtues are the things we deny ourselves, the temptations we don't succumb to. We pride ourselves on abstinence because we're tempted by lust.

Ralph Waldo Emerson--yes, a very dangerous thinker there--haha. We create not only our own heaven but our own God and in some cases, don't create Him because it seems too childish and naive for our grown up, responsible brains.

Logic will never make us happy. The things that lighten our lives are mostly illogical and irrational.

Marty said...

Beautiful post. I threw up when I was around 12 thinking about everyone I knew dying. I couldn't explain to my parents that I threw up because I thought of them dying and my grandparents and the whole crisis, it seemed to me then, of mortality. Heavens always seemed like rigid places, like gated communities seem from the outside.

On the other hand, my son used to speak directly to god when he was three years old, while he sat on the toilet. "Who were you talking to in there?" He'd always say, "God." He was serious. He also remembered being born, and could describe how it felt in some detail. He doesn't remember any of that now. It's good that you and Lillian do.

Urkat said...

It's better to befriend a leaf than to be lonely in a well-swept world.

Deacon Jim said...

Just looking at the picture brings back fond memories. That's part of the heaven I imagine. We had the exact same color brick on our house, the same stoop, web chair, screen door, and Busha tending the roses and vegetables. A place where I can sniff the flowers and grass without sneezing and crying. Amen to that.