Ideas About Heaven

On Halloween, Della looked up at the dark sky and saw stars, and she said, “Maybe heaven is in the sky, and when somebody dies they turn into a star. Maybe Nanny Rosie is a star.”

In November, we read The Snow Queen. A little girl was looking for her friend Kay. She asked the roses if he was dead. They said, “We have been in the ground. All the dead people are there, but Kay is not there.”

Della said, “So heaven is in the ground!”

The next day, when I brought my camera to the lake, there, very clearly, was the sky in the water, lapping the stones. So heaven is in the ground, I thought as I crouched to catch the reflection of the sun on the surface of the reservoir.


And I thought about Thoreau walking across a frozen pond and peering through a window of ice into the water, which spurred him to write: Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.


When I was in college, I would walk past a tattoo parlor on the way to the grocery store, and those words were the cleverest thing I could imagine inking on my ankle. They are an assertion of humanism, an expression of faith in nature, a hymn to the here and now.


When the reservoir is low you can scrape bottom and look like you are sprinting across the stars, I wrote in the fall. I was referring to the bright yellow leaves on the little trees that had sprung up only as recently as the water had receded, and that would die under the snow. I was referring to some resemblance between breaking through and breaking down.



When I flew with the kids to Utah to move here in April, on our descent we passed through the clouds, they were peachy and the sky was blue, and the kids started waving at the window and saying, “Hi, Nanny Rosie!” And I thought, when did I tell them that heaven is in the sky? Hadn’t I said that heaven is all around us? And did I mean that heaven is what you feel but can’t see?


In January, Della drew a brown squiggly line that swerves recklessly around two pages of my lined address book, open to the letter Y.

“I drew a path to heaven,” she said, tracing the line with her finger, then landing on the orangish red scribble in the bottom left, “and this is Nanny Rosie dying.”


My mother spoke about wanting to retrain her brain. She said, essentially, the pathway to psychosis had been cut, and she needed to practice taking an alternate route. Rerouting the flow before it cut too deep, becoming the only passable way out of the valley.

But it was too late.

Della’s line circles back to itself, the way things do.


Another time, Della said, I want to ask the StoryBots why the moon is a circle.

I should have read her the Black Elk quote written on my mom’s bathroom wall and engraved in a medallion inlaid on our circular front drive.


Psychosis is: obsessive fixations, circular thinking. Some circles are holy, and some are hell holes. My mother’s journals are disappointing because they are not a record of a life, they are a broken record. Always the same record, always locked in the same awful groove.

Psychosis is: trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is not.

The sky on the surface of the reservoir is only a reflection. An anniversary is only an echo. Heaven is only an idea.


Della said sometime before we left Virginia, “Mommy, when I am a mommy, you will be a grandma.”

I said, “Yeah, you will have a baby and I will be that baby’s grandma.”

“And you will die, and I will cry for you!” She started to cry. “I’m crying because you’re going to die.” And then she said, somewhat hopefully but still crying, “And you will see your mommy in heaven.”

I said, “I won’t die for a long, long, long time. You don’t have to worry, sweetie. I’m going to stay here with you. I’m not going to heaven.”

I wanted to say, It was unusual that she died so young. It isn’t usually like this.

I should have said, I don’t want to go to heaven. I would so much rather stay here with you and be your mommy. I would rather be yours than see mine. If I could choose. If I had to.


Not too long ago, Steve said to me in bed, “You’re not here. You’re not with us.” It was a Saturday night. I knew what he meant.

He even said, “Sometimes it seems like you think you would be better off without us.”

The next day was dark for us both. Steve took Della skiing and I cleaned out the pantry. It was the last space we had left to go through. Everywhere there was evidence of my mother’s excess and eccentricity. Or just evidence. Evidence of her. Light-up frogs on felt lilypads. Glow sticks purchased in bulk. Paper plates and plastic utensils by the thousands. Party lights. Harmonicas. Gallons upon gallons of Crisco. Dried and jarred lovage. Jams. Teas in old tins and a velvet-lined wooden box. Little notes and labels. Her handwriting. Electric candles. Homeopathic pills. Containers I will save to make Della a witch’s kit.

That week I talked to a friend who told me it is completely normal for me to feel that parenting can be hard, overwhelming, too exhausting, terrible beyond words. Normal to want to disengage, as I sometimes do.

But there are some people who are really spectacular parents. My mom was. She made it look easy. Maybe it wasn’t as easy for her as it looked.

I do need to be here. There is nowhere else but here.

Heaven is under our feet.


8 thoughts on “Ideas About Heaven

  1. Thank you Johanna for your honesty, beautiful pictures, and compelling words. Going to the women’s march tomorrow, which Rosie would have loved.
    Love to you.

  2. So lovely, so eloquent, so insightful, so thought provoking, so inspiring! Gorgeous pictures! Thank you for sharing Johanna. You are an amazing young woman and a wonderful mother to your precious, lucky little kids 🙂

  3. Oh, Johanna, your words are amazingly profound and raw! You’re a wonderful Mom! Your children are healthy, happy and 100% authentically them! You are allowing them to learn and grow in their own way, and I love witnessing this! I love you guys!

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