In the morning when Eve and Adam
woke to snow and their minds,
they set out in marvelous clothes
hand in hand under the trees.
Endlessly precision met them,
until they were grinning in time
with no word for their close
escape from that warm monotony.
- Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven
I’ve explained it twice now, and both times I felt as if I was betraying some pact I had signed in blood years ago while I was still sleeping. It had very little to do with how they reacted, although the “hmmms” and the hesitant head nods could have added something to my self-consciousness. But it was more so the hearing it come out of my head, listening to it transposed into the vibrations of my unique voice, the forming of my own syllables into words to attempt to explain a mystery that is, as mysteries often are, better left unexplained. It was that which left me feeling pale and drained of life, my hands cold and wringing, my heart brittle and far too near the surface of the skin.
I wonder now, in retrospect, if that’s what it feels like to stand so close to truth. To say the unspeakable things outwardly and wonder if they’ll survive the harsh conditions of the “real world” which is not at all as real as everyone likes to think it. I may have been closer to death in that instance than I have ever been. Or at least I must admit that some sort of death hung in the balance surrounded by all that vulnerable life.
All that life which I first experienced the day I sat in the cozy room full of wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling white bookshelves, complete with two red wooden ladders made to slide along a track. I tried to slide one of those ladders once, imagining it would slide with a fluidity like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, with me on it, soaring romantically from one set of shelves to the next. But it squeaked and it resisted and it felt as if to force it would mean to knock it off its track like I used to do with the screen door to the back deck as a child, much to my mom’s chagrin.
But lean in close, because here’s the part that I never tell anyone. I prefer the red ladder to stick. In fact, precisely because the red ladder resists, I feel at home in that room. I am the one that invites such hindrances into the story, and this feels like some sort of major confession as I type it. As if I am Eve taking a bite of a juicy piece of fruit and then tossing it over my shoulder and hoping it decomposes before anyone notices. The truth is, I am the one screwing it up for everyone.
I sat there that day while my daughters read chapter books a room over, while my husband nodded off over a book somewhere near the fireplace, and while my boys sat at my feet zooming Thomas Trains along a big wooden table with tracks. More tracks.
I am the one always off-track, I said to myself. (And then in a whisper that only the ancient light of stars could interpret I continued…) Most days, I actually prefer it that way.
I picked up a compiled poetry book that day and was flipping through it. Poems for Saying Goodbye, or some sort of melancholy title like that. It reminded me of the time my daughter came upon me art journaling, reading over my shoulder the prompt I had collaged in my book - How to get the most out of death.
Her brow furrowed, “Why would you write about something like that?” She asked. To which I replied, “It’s quite enjoyable actually. Relieving even. I don’t mean it like I’m actually dying. I mean it like I’m letting things go. Letting nature have its way. Like leaves have to die and fall off a tree. Death is a sort of getting free.”
And so there I was sitting in my most favorite bookstore reading a book about goodbyes because I am always ready to part with more if necessary to keep my cargo light. It was in this moment, between train crashes with sons and daughters asking me, “What is this word?” that I stumbled upon Jack Gilbert and his words,
“It’s the having not the keeping that is the treasure.”
I flashed back to reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine where Lena says,
“How long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last?…After awhile, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let’s have something else…Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away…if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness.”
This is the moment I felt more alive than ever. Like the room was spacious. Like I was floating. Like I wasn’t my kids’ mom or my husband’s wife, but I was love and joy and meaning personified. Like finally someone somewhere knew what I had been thinking all along just had been to afraid to say. If we find out that there is just one like us on the face of this planet throughout all time, then somehow we can continue being ourselves. And that day I felt like I shook hands with myself and then wrapped my arm around my shoulders and said, “Let’s go for a long walk, shall we?”
I flipped to the biographical information about Jack Gilbert. I read that he had written a book called Refusing Heaven. I read that as controversial and rebellious as it sounded, Jack Gilbert preferred this life with its uncertainties and messiness, with its mixture of struggle and alienation and delight, to any sort of paradise. That perfection bored him and contentment was a land of monotony.
“Yes!” I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream it and then I wanted to jump on a rusty resistant red ladder and squeak and shimmy my way in mere millimeters at a time across the room.
Yes to mystery. Yes to uncertainty. Yes to unknown. Yes to dissonance and unresolved musical scores. Yes to discontentment that keeps us searching and finding and searching again. Yes to sunsets that don’t last. Yes to heavens that don’t drone on with predictable answers. Yes to resistant red ladders. And yes to my life, the one I’m living now for the last time.
I hate to admit it, because it leaves me vulnerable, with my heart pulsing too near the skin, but I am the one who likes the coffee my friend spilled on my purse in Starbucks, leaving a stain that crept its shadows across the twill of the houndstooth pattern.
I am the one for which the story contains the hiccups, the resistance, the tension, the answerless questions, the chipping paint, the mess. I am the one that has put us in this predicament, and I am the one that is not even apologizing for it. I’m not out looking for a way to escape to a realm where everything has been cleaned up because I actually like finding the portals, the secret gardens, the open gates hidden by overgrowth that lead out into the wild. I like finding heaven on earth. Kingdoms already come. Living in all this dying and hellos in all these goodbyes. I am the one for which paradox was created. I am the one with my heart beating far too close to my skin.
Does this make me the one refusing heaven or embracing heaven as it is already given?