Maybe This World Is Our Heaven
As we sat waiting for the world to end in the golden light of a beautiful Saturday afternoon, watching a large family pose for photographs on the lawn of the venerable Inn at Shelburne Farms on Lake Champlain in Vermont, my wife sipped her wine and remarked, “Well, if we have to say goodbye, this is certainly a nice place to do it. But there really seem to be more beginnings than endings.”
She was right, of course.
On the lawn before us, backdropped spectacularly by the broad sweep of a great lake and the sun tilting into the ancient Adirondack hills, little girls in flowered dresses teased one another, and easy laughter drifted over the lawn from their chaotic efforts to arrange themselves for the perfect sunset shot. There were two sets of smiling white-haired tribal elders present, along with a number of middle-aged folks and some politely embarrassed teenagers, not to mention the aforementioned flower girls, who looked like twins.
Moreover, around us on the beautiful old inn’s broad terrace were dozens of couples attending a graduation party for the local Waldorf School, proud parents of pint-sized graduates, celebrating a new beginning.
We, in a sense, were the only real interlopers, having talked our way into the private celebrations at the fabled inn — a former Vanderbilt summer home — where my daughter Maggie has recently begun working as the inn’s food and wine intern.
After an unexpectedly challenging road trip from the Sandhills to Vermont — during which our other college student, following in his car, blew a tire in the middle of a violent thunderstorm on the New Jersey Turnpike, requiring an unplanned excursion to nearby Bordentown — it was nice to arrive and find the sun shining again and the lilacs in bloom and the lake looking like a postcard from the Almighty.
The good news was, we had a entire luxurious hour to dawdle on the terrace and sample wine made on the estate before we were due in Burlington for our own family dinner celebrating the aforementioned daughter’s graduation from the University of Vermont.
The bad news was, according to the clock on my new iPhone, we were only two minutes away from everything vanishing in the twinkling of a wrathful eye.
Though I’m a practicing Christian — I never stop practicing, as a friend likes to say — I had a sneaking suspicion I’d probably be “left behind” with other deeply flawed citizens of this planet if the Rapture bus pulled out on schedule. According to the latest prophet of doom, who’d spent more than $100 million promoting the event all over the world, the End would come at the stroke of 6 p.m. EST.
For the record, as crazy as it may sound, that’s the way I would prefer it, too — being left behind, I mean — in part because I sure did want to see my daughter graduate college (Billie Jean King was the scheduled commencement speaker), but also because Jesus himself explained that nobody will know the moment when this world yields to another, hopefully improved version.
Besides, he preferred to be among the broken and struggling masses, those of us who occasionally stumble upon joy and find unexpected meaning in the daily trials of living.
His favorite traveling companions were rough-cut fishermen and fallen women, after all. Throughout human history, those who seem in such a holy rush to leave this world behind in favor of some spiritually pasteurized cloud kingdom — counting down their days the way Silas Marner counted his hoarded gold coins — never seem particularly concerned about the revolutionary ideas Jesus brought to this beautiful, troubled planet.
Those ideas included compassion, service to others, non-judgment, and God’s grace to every creature great and small.
To New Beginnings
As a kid who grew up surrounded by large and loving Baptist and Methodist clans, I was always fascinated by hellfire preacher men who could describe the streets of heaven in extraordinary detail, yellow brick roads made of pure gold, angelic choirs singing, nary a rain cloud in the sky.
Even then, I thought a trip to Wrightsville Beach would be much nicer, counting up things I would dearly miss in such a boring homogenized heaven — rainy days, my mom’s macaroni and cheese, getting muddy, playing baseball, spitting, blowing up things with firecrackers, gorging on Oreos, playing my guitar, and being in love with shapely Della Hockaday.
Nowadays, getting a little long in the tooth myself, I’m convinced heaven actually lies right before our eyes — if we only have the eyes and hearts to see it. The way to heaven, as a Buddhist friend likes to say, is heaven itself. Everything is passing before our eyes, she notes, including ourselves, so don’t miss the chance to love everything and every one in every minute you’re here, allowing tomorrow to take care of itself.
I believe Jesus said this, too.
Curiously, when the world is seemingly at its worst, many of us are at our best. The cataclysmic upheavals that seem to be cosmic billboards to the eager End-timers have the redeeming effect of making everyday heroes out of ordinary strangers. During Japan’s tsunami and nuclear crisis, there was not one report of looting or violence; thousands lined up patiently for food and water and pitched in tirelessly to help each other recover or just endure.
The apocalyptic images of landscapes left in the wake of killer tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa and other places in America’s heartland have spawned endless stories of everyday angels and heroes.
Anyway, there I sat, finishing my tasty Cayuga white with one minute to go, hoping all my old dogs would be waiting for me in whatever heaven I manage to get to, assuming I manage to board the right bus, when a cute couple who looked to be in their early 20s walked past us and stopped at the edge of the lawn, framed by the lovely sunset.
As they kissed — and I’m not making this up — 6 o’clock arrived and passed, leaving nothing but a beautiful afterglow and a fine memory.
“Here’s to our graduates and new beginnings,” said my wife, right on cue, touching her glass to mine.
‘To Love What Is Mortal’
For the record, Billie Jean King’s commencement address the next afternoon was a real kick. With wit and charm, this pioneer of women’s sports and human rights advised the 3,000 or so undergrads to seize the joy and opportunities of their relationships in order to improve the world around them and thus their own lives.
She topped off her remarks by forehanding autographed tennis balls into the appreciative audience. A mom two rows ahead of me managed to catch one.
Our graduate, the one who achieved high honors in Italian and will spend the next few months learning wine culture at beautiful Shelburne Farms, was predictably teary and a bit sad that her college life had passed away so quickly.
Her mom, her dad, her Scottish granny and both her loving step-parents tried their Sunday best to assure her this precious moment was simply the beginning of a good and great journey, a true new beginning, the enlightening ups and downs of a glorious adventure into the sweet unknown.
Even so, when you’re 21 and all your chums are scattering to the four winds, the bittersweet impermanence of things can seem frightfully apparent in a world that is constantly under assault by tornadoes and free-spending doomsayers.
As for me, a fellow who tends to think this might really be heaven fanning out all around us: A few hours later, we bid the graduate a teary goodbye and I left my beloved and accomplished daughter standing on the lighted porch of her cute little house on Murray Street, remembering my favorite line from the poet Mary Oliver as I waved to her and she waved to me, and we drove off in the darkness for home.
To live in the world
you must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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