Oct/Nov 2009 Nonfiction

Almost Heaven

by Jim Krosschell

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

You’ve made the trip to and from DC scores of times. It was bad enough on the shuttle with the lawyers and the politicos taking up all the oxygen. But these days discomfort replaces distaste, for the airlines that trapped you in their frequent flyer programs have taken to flying BOS-DCA in soft little jets, euphemistically called "regional," in which you go outside to board, stoop to walk the aisle, and add to the calluses on your knees just by sitting. And they fly lower, in more turbulence, and today, especially today, your hold on life seems a little shakier: you wish you were a lawyer, in certainty of something, but you've been trained in eschatology, not tautology, and your mind reverts more than usual to the various ways of achieving salvation.

Naturally, heaven with a capital "H" jumps in first, and you sit there, flying through the saucy clouds in a tube of pasta, considering the possibilities.

In the Protestant world, if the plane could only climb just a few light years higher into pure eternity, closer to... Well, that's the way your relatives would urge you to think, but you think it's more likely that the plane will crash. Well, then, hallelujah! You'll be well-placed to be saved, theoretically at least, what with the predestination gruel you got in your Gerber's, but only if you work fast and repent of your 45 years of unbelief before hitting the ground. Your mother always hoped you would (repent, that is, not crash) (although it's hard to get on your knees in a Bombardier).

On tipsy transatlantic flights, Buddhism occasionally tempts. Reincarnation of flesh makes sense from the point of view of indestructible atoms, and Nirvana has the ineffable appeal of being entirely opposite of Heaven—no apocalypse; you can do it if you try; nothing and everything is real; paradise lives on earth.

Islam does not tempt, not even when you're stuck on the tarmac waiting out the terror of a storm cell. Its vision of Paradise is entirely too graphic (women, water, wine, wealth), so where's the intrigue in that?

You fly out of the turbulence just off New York. For one last time you think of the dreadful presentation you experienced just a few hours ago in DC, the nasty clients, how you haven't lost the ability to grin obsequiously in front of gritted teeth. But that's behind you and below you, and you relax a little. You're on the way home, and you've trained yourself over the years to indulge in the real fantasy, heaven with the small "h." The dream of retirement.

That dream sustained you through all the years of business travel—flying Boston-LA for a one-hour meeting, countless presentations in featureless hotels, cities awash in franchises, foreign countries foggy from jet lag, mercurial bosses—and all the years in an office. (Robert Frost: "The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.")

For all that time, heaven was spelled M-A-I-N-E. You had vacation tastes of it for 25 years: first a camp on a lake, then a house on the ocean. By the end of your office days, you were desperate for air and trees and unfettered time to think and write. You retired early. Except that the company asked you to stay on part-time for a while, and now you exist in limbo, half in proposals, half in freedom, still suspended between air and earth.

Your one-year anniversary of retirement approaches, and you still haven't figured heaven out, even though you now get to live there half the time. Maybe it's because you left a steady income at the same time the market bubbles burst. What's your worth as a man if every day the numbers are red? At least you haven't fallen down dead from a heart attack, bored and discombobulated outside the comforting tracks of the work-a-day world. You've got plenty to occupy your time, in this fumbling about for future happiness.

What exactly is the future? On days such as today, it's like a dose of oxytocin, giving birth to all sorts of fanciful rural ideas, and then, blissfully, helping you un-remember the kid behind you kicking the seatback, your aching hips and tender knees, the cost of those frequent flyer miles. You just fly away to another state of mind, where the office abuts Penobscot Bay. You slide from your airplane seat to the Adirondack chair down by the shore, where you get the water in the eye and the ecstasy in the muscles of which Buddha and St. Peter boast. There's that second or two of melting into nature as the luminescent future spans the Bay, and then, abruptly, it stops coming at you. A commuter jet, delighting in its approach to Knox County Regional just beyond the shore, blasts through the early summer air just above and makes you an ironic present of the present. OK, you think, yanked back to the Bombardier, the future never comes. Love the gifts you are given. Forget fantasies and investments. Deal with the surly prospects, the large dogs menacing your poodle on her daily walks, the large oil bills menacing your desk, the moss on your Maine lawn creeping northward, and the dandelions creeping southward, and the gray filling your beard. You will soon alight. The moment of the roaring engine's absence will be long and sweet.


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