I’ve been avoiding this topic for obvious fears of repercussion, but let me start by explaining why I am suddenly so interested in heaven in the first place. I recently had to leave China at short notice because the air pollution there reduced my lungs to a complete asthmatic disarray, and upon coming home here to Montauk, I have been hyper aware of two things; first, my own mortality (I’ve never felt so protractedly sick or been so scared of an illness moving into “life threatening’ territory) and secondly, the stuff above us - clouds, blue skies, clean air, and way, far above that…I guess the thing we call heaven. I’m 50 next year, so perhaps the combination of all these factors has suddenly rendered me metaphysical, religious, spiritual.
Let’s start with Wikipedia, always a good general definition, which describes Heaven thus:
“Heaven, the Heavens or Seven Heavens, is a common religious, cosmological or metaphysical term for the physical or transcendent place from which heavenly beings (such as a Sky deity, God, angels, King or Queen of Heaven, Heavenly Father or Heavenly Mother or Son of Heaven, heavenly saints or venerated ancestors) originate, are enthroned or inhabit. It is commonly believed that heavenly beings can descend to earth or take on earthly flesh and that earthly beings can ascend to Heaven in the afterlife or in exceptional cases enter Heaven alive. Heaven is often described as a “higher place”, the holiest place, a Paradise, in contrast to Hell or the Underworld or the “low places”, and universally or conditionally accessible by earthly beings according to various standards of divinity, goodness, piety, faith, or other virtues or right beliefs or simply the Will of God. Some believe in the possibility of a Heaven on Earth in a World to Come.”
That’s well and fine, but heaven in the traditional sense all feels a bit grandiose, big and boomy to me - lots of ascension and divinity, but a bit like going to the Met - sounds good on paper but is overwhelmingly pompous when you’re there. I get the idea of majesty, of somehow making ourselves revel in our smallness and insignificance next to the massive scale of something, but I want my heaven to be smaller and more personal. My father died several years ago and my mother has long held the view that he is sitting in a garden waiting for her, which is more akin to my version of it. I guess as a designer I’m both interested in the concept of heaven but also the aesthetics of it. I hope it’s pretty. Googling it and looking for images produces a startling amount of kitsch: dreamy mantras, endless cherubim and seraphim, many variations on pearly gates, lots of what I can only describe as tacky, and I am frankly somewhat concerned that I’ll end up in a really ugly poster-art-dreamy place, which to a designer would be more akin to that other state - Hell.
I wrote an article a few years ago conjecturing that heaven hopefully looked like YouTube: a big white, infinite space populated with billions of tiny movie screens playing the minute details of people’s lives - their pets, their vacations, their birthdays, their weddings. I still like the idea that heaven is somehow bespoke in some way - about me and tailored to me, not a rather generic channel playing everyone else’s’ stuff, but a perfect one that recalls the wonderful details of my life and memories in a way that I can summon them up: Heaven On-Demand. Perhaps there are filters that I can apply, like Instagram, to turn the mundane into memories, making the everyday grainy, washed out and poetic.
What Of It? Separating out the God/no God debate for a second, obviously there is no way to know. In the movie “Contact,” Dr. Ellie Arroway, portrayed by Jodie Foster, journeys to a far away planet and has an encounter in deep, deep space, ‘heaven’ perhaps. Rendered speechless, she says: “Some celestial event. No - no words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should’ve sent a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful… I had no idea.” Perhaps we simply have not developed either the visual or verbal means to either describe or portray heaven yet. From the Renaissance to the digital revolution, we have come so far, who knows what lies out there in the future - some perfect representation of heaven perhaps. So to end, I chose one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, John Keats, and an image that I took myself of the beach near my home, at dawn on Christmas morning. Instagram added the final touch, elevating this from image to memory. I hope I end up somewhere close to this.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its lovliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkn’d ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid-forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.