“Where is heaven?” I asked, but he only shook his head and smiled.
My imaginary inner professor and I peered down from our perch on a hillside overlooking the City of Denver, still shrouded by the sepia haze of smoke from the wildfires consuming unprecedented miles of forest and the lives of courageous firefighters in the Pacific Northwest. Swept east by the broom of an insatiable, punishing wind.
The murky whereabouts of heaven had seemed a legitimate question, ever since I’d lost my favorite aunt (when she was only twenty-four and I only seven) to a cerebral hemorrhage, and was subsequently told by the tight-lipped, chain-smoking crew of adults around me that she had gone to heaven, leaving her husband, their infant daughter and, I knew it was too selfish a thought to utter aloud, but, well—me!—behind. God in his holy, mysterious wisdom had apparently “taken” her for his own peculiar reasons. Just like he had taken President Kennedy and, the following year, would take my grandfather. I was expected to swallow the assertion that this was somehow a good thing. Despite the fact that she was the only person I’d met so far who seemed to really “get me.”
Needless to say, the question—where is heaven?—had weighed on my proverbial mind all these years, unasked and unanswered. It seemed newly, achingly pertinent, too, given the absence (since her move to Seattle) of my twenty-two-year-old daughter, another of the handful of humans on the planet who seemed to so effortlessly “get me,” still no easy task.
I could not say how long we had sat here on this boulder, side by side, or how I had gotten here, for that matter. But I could suddenly feel the forgotten, balled legal sheet of paper I’d brought him in my clenched, sweaty hand. I opened it and smoothed it against the flat, gray rock beneath us, cleared my throat, and began.
“I’ve been keeping a list,” I said, “Just like you asked.”
“Of things that worry me, I mean. Distract me, can never be solved.”
“Go on,” he said, pushing the wacky, hot pink sunglasses I’d given him that he’d taken such a fancy to back up on the bridge of his nose.
“Just in the last 36, hours, mind you.”
“Right?” I cleared my throat again.
“My feelings over her absence,” I began; the seeming unsolvable source of my discontent that had staked out permanent real estate at the top of every list of troubles du jour. “My feelings over his and that other her’s difficult presence. My impossible, unrealized goals that I can’t even remember anymore, past regrets, flawed relationships—I mean, are there any other kind?–that found me googling personality disorders again and finally making some actual headway.”
His brows shot up the way they do.
“My painful, deteriorating—in ways I never even dreamed possible–body and colossal lack of will power. The water-ruined bathroom window that, have I mentioned took three months for someone to finally begin to fix (although he refused to call a professional), that is still not finished, and has probably already exposed us to lethal mold. Finding someone to care for our extremely sensitive dog (now that we’ve lost her long-time caretaker) when we’re gone. The confounding, surging popularity of the Donald–need I say more? The blob of toxic algae bloom stalled off the west coast causing seizures and death in marine mammals and impacting the seafood population on the west coast—honest to God, I am not making this up—well … Protecting my PC and devices from the ever-escalating capabilities of hackers to drain my already hemorrhaging bank account. Wall Street’s tumble and its effect on our anemic investments (as if we could ever really afford to retire, deteriorating bodies, be damned). Whether or not I need to protect my car from the threat of hackers taking control of it and forcing me to become an accomplice in some kind of huge, terrorizing plot …”
I drew another ragged breath, prepared to go on to unsolvable dilemmas of the international kind, but had already largely exhausted myself.
We sat a while longer in silence, save for the alto hum of distant traffic below. I thought about how easily I exhausted myself these days. How difficult I found it to muster the energy to react for long to these lists of accumulating and newly arising seeming “assaults.” And yet, conversely, how tantalizing I still found this really quite embarrassingly ordinary eventuality involving my daughter having grown up and moved away. How instead of getting easier, my sense of the space she seemed to have left behind seemed, like the blob sitting off the west coast, only to have malevolently spread. How walking my dog yesterday and running into our neighbor it finally struck me, as I politely asked about her children, that it was back-to-school time again—oh, my! That this was the first year in decades in which I had no involvement or responsibilities tied to that particular seasonal transition.
The realization of that “liberation” sent me storming off to a “restorative yoga” class, magically hoping through calming bodily sensations to somehow restore right-mindedness. Only to find myself lying on at mat, closed-eyed in a darkened room with a handful of other seeming grownups, twisting and curling into a variety of Gumby-doll like positions, as an inner slide show of sending my daughter off to school in the slanting light of late August days past, from the time she’d first teetered under the scant weight of her Little Mermaid backpack through the playground of the Montessori preschool to the last several years spent moving her and her newly purchased belongings into freshly painted dorms and apartments that seemed so bright and promising in the deceptive light of another imaginary new beginning, ripe with possibilities.
“Hell, the smoke isn’t even a problem up here, is it?” I said, after a while, because it was true. “Christ, the Donald, I mean, The Donald isn’t even a problem up here!”
I sighed. I knew the answer to the list I’d just delivered aloud that, for reasons beyond the puny understanding of my brain, no longer disturbed me, and the ego’s lifeline masquerading in the continuing malaise I clung to involving my daughter’s absence, was sitting right beside me. Right here, right now, above the smoldering battleground of my so-called world. Somewhere far, far away in a mind I still couldn’t locate on a map that was also as close as my next breath. But I didn’t know how to look at the issue of my daughter with him from our perch on high, because a part of me must not want to.
“I know what I’m really craving has nothing to do with her,” I said.
“I know you do.”
“But I mean—Jesus! If there’s no joy here in the dream, only in the ‘there’ outside the dream, how in holy hell can I experience the peace of being there when I’m feeling so bereft over losing her here and don’t even know where ‘there’ is? I mean, my body, my goals, the window, and, Christ, I really can’t even believe I’m saying this–the Donald–are one thing. But, I mean, my daughter? ”
“We’ve talked about this,” he said.
“I know we have. I know there’s no real hierarchy of illusions and I also know you don’t expect me to be beyond taking this, my most precious of all, seriously. I mean, I’m still in school, right? I know you’re not asking me to let go of what she’s meant to me, means to me, but it just seems to have triggered this horrible identity crisis, you know?”
“I mean, I know I’ve been using her as a substitute for the real eternal Love I secretly think I pushed away and no longer deserve. And now that she’s gone I’m frantically (and I do mean frantically) trying to find substitutes for her—art classes, meditation classes, writing projects, cleaning projects, volunteer opportunities. But they all feel so futile, so impossible, so freaking doomed! Because I know–I really do know–that none of them will work. The blob, the toxic bloom of my belief in the ‘tiny, mad, idea’ of separation just keeps growing when I refuse to look at it with you. But what the hell would I be without the void she once seemed to fill in me?”
He started to take my hand, but I pulled away, shook my head.
And so we sat some more. “It’s just that everything I reach for to try and feel better, everything that’s worked in the past, isn’t working anymore. I mean, I don’t know where to put my energy. I feel like a giant, walking, blundering, babbling, blubbering, aging, empty-nesting cliché! I can’t connect with solutions or people who think the problem is here in the world, in my life, but how the hell am I supposed to trust you when your solution throws me into the free-fall of the real seeming void again. The belief that there’s nothing left there, in the promised land of your so-called heaven, to return to. So, Jesus, where the hell is heaven, anyway? What if Gertrude Stein was not really talking about her childhood home in Oakland, California, when she famously stated ‘there’s no there there’!!!!?”
“You’re not going to answer me, are you,” I said, after a while, because we had been here before.
He shook his head.
“I know what you’re saying,” I said.
“You always do. Eventually.”
“It ain’t over till the fat ego sins. Ooops—Freudian slip—I mean sings.”
He threw back his head and laughed.
“I can’t possibly locate heaven from the perspective of a split mind that still believes in time and space, in a there, being there in which to play out my complicated dream of a special life with special others that come and go, get me or don’t. But I can learn to realize this game I’m playing with my daughter in my mind that says, you left, and now I can’t be happy, is not loving. Even if I’m not quite ready to let go of the neediness of my story with her that protects the belief in a story of a vulnerable me, I can still come and sit here with you. Because, well, I know you always get me, wherever I think I am, in whatever condition I think I’m in. You know that what I do or don’t do, believe or don’t believe; has never, could never, keep us apart.”
We sat in silence some more, well, not exactly silence, there were birds singing, apparently. I hadn’t noticed that before. The stubby, pebbled grass all around us was embroidered with a rainbow of tiny, brave wildflowers. I hadn’t noticed that either.
“I see what you’re saying,” I said. “Maybe I can’t yet know where, or what, heaven is. But I am learning it is only as far as the distance I insist on seeing, at any given moment, between me and her, or anyone else, really, which is really only the distance I still insist on seeing between me and you.”
“Imagine that,” he said.
I yawned. I still didn’t really want to hold his hand, but I did lay my head on his shoulder, after a while. I was tired, after all, and it just seemed like the reasonable thing to do.
“You merely ask the question. The answer is given. Seek not to answer, but merely to receive the answer as it is given. In preparing for the holy instant, do not attempt to make yourself holy to be ready to receive it. That is but to confuse your role with God’s. Atonement cannot come to those who think that they must first atone; but only to those who offer it nothing more than simple willingness to make way for it.” (A Course in Miracles Text IV. paragraph 5)
Susan Dugan’s books Extraordinary Ordinary Forgiveness, Forgiveness Offers Everything I Want, and Forgiveness: The Key to Happiness are available at RMMC and on Amazon. She writes about ACIM based on Ken Wapnick’s teachings at ForaysInForgiveness.com and teaches Tuesday nights at RMMC.