Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Composing Heaven

This is a picture of my father and me in the summer of 1954:

I am seven and will turn eight by summer's end.  My father is forty-two and will die the year I am thirty-four.  I don't know about you, but I was still forming at thirty-four –– the me my father knew was a sketch, nor could I say that I knew him deeply either.

A few years before he died, my father remarked that he would eventually be going "to that great golf course in the sky."  And that's where he is now, in his heavenly home in my mind.  He died in spring thirty years ago, and each March I feel a heaviness I eventually link to his absence.  This year I have been trying to elaborate my father's heaven into something richer and more structured than a golf course, something more imaginally there.

But first, some prefatory thoughts about heaven.  Many think of heaven as metaphor for paradise in this life, others think it an actual afterlife place: heaven on earth versus heaven in the hereafter.  I will be trying here to work out a third type of heaven, using elements from both here-and-now and hereafter worlds.

Heaven On Earth

Here is a poem by Kenneth Patchen about heaven on earth, first published in First Will And Testament (1939):

     23rd Street Runs into Heaven

     You stand near the window as lights wink
     On along the street.  Somewhere a trolley, taking
     Shop-girls and clerks home, clatters through
     This before-supper Sabbath.  An alley cat cries
     To find the garbage cans sealed; newsboys
     Begin their murder-into-pennies round.
     We are shut in, secure for a little, safe until
     Tomorrow.  You slip your dress off, roll down
     Your stockings, careful against runs.  Naked now,
     With soft light on soft flesh, you pause
     For a moment; turn and face me––
     Smile in a way that only women know
     Who have lain long with their lover
     And are made more virginal.
     Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful.

Kenneth Patchen in 1939
Kenneth Patchen's
Facebook page, submitted
by Larry Smith, Patchen's  biographer.)
Patchen conjures a safe interior space, softly-lit and separate from the mewling and clattering of the outside world –– a heavenly world apart from a coarser world.  And heavenly because of that coarseness, for without the din and strain of ordinary life the extra-ordinary would have no meaning.  23rd street runs into heaven because of those trolleys, cats, and newsboys.  Its heaven skirts or materializes from the mundane: no pearly gates, no blaring trumpets, just a place apart invested with wonder.

It is also Patchen's personal heaven.  His 23rd Street respite is not yours or mine, but the immediacy of the poem, how he brings us with him into his refuge, the sense that time slows, light softens, noise hushes ... this is arresting.  It is a feat and a gift, this revealed glimpse of heaven.

   That's Heaven To Me: Sam Cooke

Here is a musical example of heaven on earth, Sam Cooke's, "That's Heaven To Me" (1957).  It begins this way:

     The things that I see as I walk along the street
     That's heaven to me
     (doo doo doo's)              
     A little flower that blooms in May        
     A lovely sunset at the end of a day
     Someone helping a stranger along the way
     (That's heaven to me)
     That's heaven to me
     whoah-oh  (doo doo's)        

And later on:
     It doesn't have to be a miracle                              
     In order for me to see, I know                                   
     The goodness of my, my savior
     Is everywhere to me
     whoa, wo-oh, awhoa-oh       

As with Kenneth Patchen, Sam Cooke* finds heaven on earth.  In Cooke's case, he is out walking and parts of what he sees strike him, becoming visually captured snapshots.  Heaven lies all around him; it just needs to be noticed, appreciated.  Seeing is believing.

Sam Cooke: 1957 Debut Album
*A digression on Sam Cooke, who gave me heavenly moments fifty years ago.
Prior to his 1957-1964 commercial hits, he sang lead tenor for seven years with the gospel group, The Soul Stirrers.  He wrote many of his songs, both gospel and secular, including "That's Heaven To Me."
That song's lyrics have hybrid crossover appeal.  While clearly a gospel song, its heaven is local and here.

   You Send Me: Sam Cooke

Its sound has crossover appeal as well.  Listen to "That's Heaven To Me" alongside "You Send Me," also released in 1957 and Cooke’s first secular hit.  Tweak the lyrics to "That's Heaven To Me" and its spirit is hard to distinguish from the R & B, pop, early soul of "You Send Me" –– which topped Billboard magazine’s R & B and pop charts in late 1957. (See Sam Cooke.)

Here are some other songs that echo or neighbor Sam Cooke's heaven: "Heaven Down Here" (1995), Tuck and Patti; "A Little Gracefulness," The Short Sisters; "I Arise Facing East" (2008) Cindy Kallet, Ellen Epstein, and Michael Ciccone; "Heaven's Here On Earth" (1995), Tracy Chapman; "Heavenly Day" (2008), Patti Griffin.  Each song casts a spell, evokes a better place.

Now in both Patchen's poem and these heaven-on-earth songs, two commonalities can be noted:

•  The possibility that routine sepia-toned life can be punctuated by    
    technicolor episodes, mental spaces in the flow of living which    
    bring a cushioning, even sublime relief.

  The personal and detailed nature of these episodes.

It is the gift of these artists that they re-present the features and feeling of their heavenly visions in ways that speak to us.  We get it.

This idea of an earth-bound yet transcendent heaven is an old and familiar one among the English Romantic poets.  As in this poem by William Wordsworth, a poem not explicitly using the word "heaven," but falling squarely within the tradition of finding the miraculous within the mundane:

     Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

     Earth has not anything to show more fair:
     Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
     A sight so touching in its majesty:
     This city now doth, like a garment, wear
     The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
     Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
     Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
     All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
     Never did sun more beautifully steep
     In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
     Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
     The river glideth at his own sweet will:
     Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
     And all that mighty heart is lying still!

William Wordsworth in 1798
(Portrait: William Shuter)
Here again, the sublime steps out from behind the ordinary; here again, that quality of personal subjectivity.  You or I, traveling by coach over Westminster Bridge two centuries ago, might or might not have been seized by that same sight and emotion.  But it was evidently no ordinary morning for Wordsworth, and he brings that to us.
(And just to say it, isn't that a deft usage of steep in line 9 of this sonnet? how Wordsworth saturates London in first light, how London is a cup of light.)

Heaven In The Hereafter

The afterlife heaven carries the weight of received truth.  For those who believe in it, its certainty is what matters, not its imagined features.  As such, "Heaven" is a placeholder name for a confidently fantasized future experience, a there you will confidently go to from here.  It has the reality Paris has for those who've not been there but who know it exists and who've been given tickets for the trip.  Not a metaphor for anything, this Heaven is a factual entity that can be given imaginal substance through metaphor.

Thus it may indeed have a look –– a kingdom, a bejeweled city with golden streets, a great mansion, a zone of light and singing, a banquet, a tree-filled garden with rivers of milk and honey –– and these metaphoric features do give flesh to the word.  But Heaven’s felt realness is the primary thing.

Why?  Because a real Heaven promises continuity or resumption of being on another plane, an eternality for loved ones and ourselves, a triumph over loss and death.  For me, such promise of reunion with loved ones is appealing.  If I truly believed I could once again talk to my dad in Heaven, and say the things I was too young to say when I had the chance, then details of the setting would matter little.  They could be added later; in fact, I'd have to add them later.  It's not as if I can google a map or travel guide to Heaven the way I can for Paris. Instead, I would furnish the place with imagined sensory details: dazzling streets, sounding choirs, scents of spice, aromas of food, a garden in which to rest. 

   I Will Move On Up A Little Higher:
   Mahalia Jackson

I think this is how gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) would have understood Heaven, as an absolutely factual place of reunion with lost loved ones –– with remaining details imagined or drawn from scripture, the pulpit, revered others.

Here is the middle section of "I Will Move On Up A Little Higher" (1954):

     I'm gonna move up a little higher  
     Gonna meet old man Daniel
     Gonna move up a little higher
     Gonna meet the Hebrew children
     Gonna move on up a little higher
     Gonna meet Paul and Silas
     Gonna move on up a little higher
     Gonna meet my friends and kindred
     Gonna move on up a little higher
     Gonna meet my lovin' mother
     I'm Gonna move on up a little higher
     Gonna meet the Lily of the Valley
     I'm gonna feast with the Rose of Sharon
     It will be always howdy howdy
     It will be always howdy howdy
     It will be always howdy howdy and never

Wow –– "It will be always howdy howdy and never goodbye."  If anybody could get me to sign on to this view of heaven, it would be Mahalia Jackson.

   Trouble Of The World:
   Mahalia Jackson

And here is that reunion theme in the middle verses of "Trouble Of The World" (1956), a song for which any praise is insufficient:
     Soon I will be done [with the] trouble of the world
     Trouble of the world
     Trouble, Lord, of this world
     Soon I will be done [with the] trouble of the world
     Goin' home to live with my Lord

     I want to see my mother
     I want to see my mother
     I want to see my mother
     Goin' home to live with God

Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson's mother died when she was five.  It is impossible not to feel the openness, depth, and truth of her longing in this song.  She means what she sings.  (See Mahalia Jackson for information on this artist –– who in 1961 sang at President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's inaugural ball, and who was friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., performing in 1963 before Rev. King's "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and five years later at his funeral; and who was a musical influence on Aretha, the daughter of her friend, Reverend C.L. Franklin.)

Lastly, I would mention two other songs of heaven in the hereafter. They are hardly necessary after Mahalia Jackson's, but I like them. One is "Orphan Girl" (1996) by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, a painful song of trouble-in-the-world and Heavenly reunion.  The other is "Heaven" (1973) by the bluegrass band, the Seldom Scene, a straightforward harmony-driven song of belief.  

A Heaven For My Father

And now, on to my father's heaven.  What I want is a mixture of elements inherent in Heaven On Earth and Heaven In The Hereafter –– an amalgam of the transcendent-in-the-ordinary and its personal details (Heaven On Earth), with the certainty of reunion (Heaven In The Hereafter).  This third type of heaven should be accessible in the moment, personally significant, and felt to be solidly real (even if imaginal).  In essence, I want to build a memory palace where I can find my dad –– a structure that lasts year round, so that maybe I won't be surprised each spring by that hollow feeling.  That is certainly part of it, but I am still working this out.

Anyway, here goes.  I don't have much to start with, my only building block being "that great golf course in the sky."  I do know my father would have wanted his wife with him, and I know also that my mother, who died six years ago, would have shared that sentiment.  In fairness to her, though, I should try to link her vision of heaven with his.  The thing is, I have no such vision.  She did not speak of heaven, either as fact or metaphor, except lightly as her "reward."  Mind you, I never asked her about it.

But I am asking her now, and she tells me she would opt for an elegant hotel, an older one with dignified wear to it; and she would live in a corner room on an upper floor, with windows overlooking a park and a street.  I am sure my father would be happy with this arrangement, although the corner room will probably have to be enlarged into an apartment.  And the apartment should have a den, with books, reading chairs, and a TV on which to watch baseball, golf, news, and old episodes of Columbo.

My father will need a workshop in this hotel, most likely in the basement.  An orderly, utilitarian space –– with screws, nuts, bolts, washers, gaskets held in recycled mayonnaise jars, their metal lids nailed to wooden ceiling beams.  My father will vanish into the basement from time to time, putter about and make things.

My parents' hotel will have to be near the golf course.  And as to that, I think my father would want his golf course in a pastoral setting, not backing up on buildings, noise, bustle.  And that pastoral setting should also be near water, since my mother and father had in their travels lived near and enjoyed the ocean.

Accordingly, my parents' hotel should be in a small coastal town nestled in a rural habitat, a town with temperate weather and surprisingly low humidity, given its seaboard locale.  It is a walkable town, with access to cultural offerings, shops, a few familiar restaurants, a hardware store for my father, a Goodwill for my mother.
There will be a large area set aside for a weekly farmers' market and flea market.

Beyond this, their heavenly furnishings are speculative.  But I do have a hue clue from the wider culture, which is that there should be an overall blue palette –– because blue is associated with serenity, relaxation, and higher things.  My father's heaven is blue, then, not in the sense of blue streets, trees, buildings, but as a backdrop wash provided by sky and ocean. 

Something like this:

Feels right to me.  And of course, no less an authority than Fats Domino spoke to this in "My Blue Heaven" (1956), a song my father knew and which he might have known to be a cover of the 1928 original by Gene Austin.  My father was sixteen in 1928 and Austin's song was wildly popular, selling five million copies. (See My Blue Heaven.)

Finally there should be music, a heavenly playlist.  But which music? Here memory falters.  I have the impression my father enjoyed music but seldom actually listened to it.  I ask my older siblings for their memories about his musical tastes.

My sister recalls our father's singing snatches of songs, and his playing Jo Stafford, big band, and swing records.  I too have memories of records, but not of any that were special to or played by my father.  In fact, my memories are more visual than auditory: a stack of 78 rpm records in yellowed paper sleeves, each record a shiny black disc surrounding a smaller color-disc with a hole in the middle.

My father would have broken into snatches of humming rather than song, something that embarrassed me at age twelve when out shopping with him in a store, but which I now look on as a modeling of something important.  The time frame then was the 1950s, a buttoned-down era of considerable form and surface propriety.  In hindsight, my father's public humming strikes me as a bit of unconcern, a playful counter to a zipped-up world.  He was hardly a rebel by any means, but he was never stuffy or false.

In any event, my sister's and my memories overlap but differ.

And then here comes my brother with an unexpected musical memory, which is that our father loved one artist in particular.  Guess who that turns out to have been?  Mahalia Jackson! the one I am so fond of.  My brother remembers our father's listening "with very keen appreciation" to Mahalia Jackson's weekly Chicago radio programs of gospel music in 1954.  I've absolutely no memory of this –– I was young.  I always thought my love for Mahalia Jackson filtered down through my brother, which I'm still sure it did, only just now I'm thinking that my Mahalia-lineage has a more complicated ancestry.  Some things get stored quietly and deeply.

Jo Stafford (1945) 
Wikimedia Commons
With input from my siblings, I can now compile a playlist for My Father's Heaven.  With a nod to my sister, I am including Jo Stafford,  too much Jo Stafford perhaps, but it turns out I really like her music.

Active mostly in the 1940's and 1950's, Jo Stafford had a pure vibrato-less voice.  Her songs had a romantic, nostalgic tone, many of them being sung memories.  Her New York Times obituary used the adjective "wistful" to describe her, and while she also sang uptempo numbers, that description fits. 

Nicknamed "GI Jo" by American servicemen, the Times obituary called her the "vocal embodiment of every serviceman's dream girl faithfully tending the home fires while he was overseas."  She personally answered fan letters she received from servicemen, and her Los Angeles Times obituary noted:

     Ms. Stafford's solo career began with an inextricable link to [WWII].
     A favorite of American soldiers, she was told by a veteran of the
     Pacific that "the Japanese used to play your records on loudspeakers
     across from our foxholes so that we'd get homesick and surrender."

In addition to Jo Stafford, and with a nod now to my brother, my father's playlist includes Mahalia Jackson songs.  One of them, the medley "Summertime/Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" is as definitive a version of either of these songs as you will likely hear. Lastly, the earlier cited versions by Fats Domino and Gene Austin of "My Blue Heaven" are included.  (See My Father's Playlist below to listen to these songs.)  

I believe my father would have liked this playlist.  And I am choosing to believe that music did matter to him, even if I'm fuzzy on specifics.  It also might not be a stretch to imagine that as a child my dad valued music.  Days before he died, he reminisced about building a crystal radio as a boy, and the excitement he felt when it worked, when he got reception.  This reminiscence was thirty years ago, and he was reminiscing then about an event some sixty years before that.  Tonight, sitting with that memory of his memory, with "one hand on the radio" myself, I am right there with him.  It is 1921, I am standing behind him and his crystal radio, smiling along, happy to be in the scene.  (It mirrors the 1954 photograph atop this post, with our positions reversed –– the grown son now smiling at the father's boyhood happiness.)

I have been trying to compose a heaven for my father: a place apart from the ordinary, with the vivid personal details of Heaven On Earth mixed into the realness-of-reunion and permanence of Heaven In The Hereafter.  With my father's heaven better structured in mind, perhaps his loss won't surprise me so much next spring.  Another benefit is that I can visit him more readily, now that he has a home.  And when I do, he will be glad to see me.  He was always glad to see me, even when I was young and unformed.  It will be my imaginal gift to say to him, "Hey, look what I did ... grew up, filled in, filled out.  Thank you."

In the end, maybe that's why we have heavens –– not just for reunion but for reciprocity, not just for return of loved ones but for fulfilling a return on their investment.

My Father's Playlist

1. My Blue Heaven, Fats Domino
2. My Blue Heaven, Gene Austin
3. I'll Be Seeing You, Jo Stafford
    (1940 version)
4. I Remember You, Jo Stafford
5. Blue Moon, Jo Stafford (1944
    (version with The Pied Pipers)
6. It Could Happen To You,
    Jo Stafford (1944)
7. I Didn't Know About You, Jo Stafford (1944)
8. Let's Take The Long Way Home, Jo Stafford (1945)
9. Blue Moon, Jo Stafford (1945 V-Disc)
10. There's No You, Jo Stafford (1945)
11. It's As Simple As That, Jo Stafford (1946)
12. This Time, Jo Stafford (1946)
13. You Keep Coming Back Like A Song, Jo Stafford (1946)
14. Give Me Something To Dream About, Jo Stafford (1947)
15. A Sunday Kind Of Love, Jo Stafford (1947)
16. Almost Like Being In Love, Jo Stafford (1947)
17. This Is The Moment, Jo Stafford (1948)
18. Haunted Heart, Jo Stafford (1948)
19. If I Ever Love Again, Jo Stafford (1949)
20. Our Very Own, Jo Stafford (1950)
21. Sometimes I'm Happy, Jo Stafford (1950)
22. Tell Me Why, Jo Stafford (1950)
23. If, Jo Stafford (1951)
24. Early Autumn, Jo Stafford (1952)
25. You Belong To Me, Jo Stafford (1952)
26. Fools Rush In, Jo Stafford (1953)
27. Embraceable You, Jo Stafford (1953)
28. A Fool Such As I, Jo Stafford (1953)
29. Winter Weather, Jo Stafford (1955)
30. The Nearness Of You, Jo Stafford (1956)
31. Summertime/Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child, Mahalia
      Jackson (1956)
32. It Don't Cost Very Much, Mahalia Jackson (1958)
33. I'm Goin' To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song, Mahalia
      Jackson (1958)
34. Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho," Mahalia Jackson (1958)
35. Didn't It Rain, Mahalia Jackson (1958)

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