Saturday, May 7, 2011

On Mothers and Heaven

When I was in high school, I began playing the piano after a hiatus of many years. I had some lessons as a very young child, but they didn't take. Once I returned to the instrument, during my junior year of high school—buying sheet music for then-popular songs like “Piano Man” and “Sister Christian,” and painstakingly committing them to memory—I received my greatest encouragement from my mother. No matter how many times I had to play some difficult piece or passage over and over again, she never complained at the repetition; she would be working in the kitchen, listening, occasionally commenting, but always encouraging.

A few years of this passed by and I dropped the piano again, this time for a dozen years or so. But after we bought a piano for our first daughter, just after I had turned thirty, I began to play again. I still had some sheet music, and I bought some more. Once again I found myself able to get lost for hours in learning and memorizing songs, and taking great satisfaction in the process.

When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in September of 2003, I had been at it for a couple of years, practicing very diligently, and I had a book of classical songs that I worked very hard at. A month or two before she died, I called her on the phone and asked her to listen while I played her something. I set the phone on the piano, and fumbled my way through a halting version of Puccini's “Nessun Dorma,” one of her favorite classical melodies. In retrospect, it probably sounded horrible, but of course she praised it nonetheless.

In the years following her death, music became a much larger part of my life. I took up several other instruments, learned to write music and play with other musicians, and helped form a band. We're still going strong; we've played hundreds of shows, and we have recorded five songs that I wrote.

My mother never saw or heard any of this—she knows nothing of the fruits that her early encouragement have borne, or the great happiness and interesting opportunities that music has brought into my life.

Or does she?

According to Lisa Miller's Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (HarperCollins, 2010), nearly half of all Americans believe that I will be reunited with my mother in heaven. There, I suppose, either I will learn that she has been watching and listening all along, or I'll have the opportunity to tell her all about it. To believe such a scenario may one day come to pass would make my heart glad.

But I'm not sure I believe it will—which made my interest in Miller's book, which has garnered both strong publicity and well-deserved praise, all the more intense. I came to the book hoping, as we probably all hope, to find more and better reasons to believe in an afterlife of eternal joy and reunions with loved ones.

The book certainly left me more convinced that belief in an afterlife seems to be an almost universal experience for the human race. Miller does an outstanding job of tracing the history of our belief in the afterlife, and of comparing theories of the afterlife across Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The similarities in conceptions of heaven are far more striking than the dissimilarities: visions of heavenly gardens, for example, or of re-union with loved ones cut across religious lines. I was also quite pleased to hear that most religions imagine heaven filled with music: “Not only do souls see God in heaven,” Miller writes, “they praise him, constantly, with song. To their arsenal of heaven's pleasures, the faithful always add singing.” Count me in.

To her concise and powerful descriptions of our heavenly visions, Miller adds a healthy dose of statistical information about what and how we believe. I was quite surprised to learn, for example, that a 2007 poll revealed that 81% of Americans believe in heaven. That number represents a rise of nearly 10% from a 1997 poll that showed around 72% belief.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the way in which Miller embeds her histories, statistics, and theories into real characters. The book features many scenes in which Miller sits down over coffee or wine—or, in one case, in the back of a limo on the way to the airport—with a theologian or popular author, asks them questions about heaven, and then uses their statements to help introduce or frame new ideas.

She also does an excellent job of situating herself in the narrative. She does not seem to have any kind of orthodox belief in heaven, or in any specific religious tradition, but she conveys both a deep respect for religion and deep learning about its place in American life. She has worked for many years as the religion editor for Newsweek, and her skills and experience as a journalist come across in every page.

Overall, Miller handles this sensitive and important topic as well as I could possible imagine: she combines the learning of a diligent scholar with the instincts of an investigative journalist, and the writing is sharp and clear throughout. I finished the book wanting more.

The book did not quite convince me that I will see my mother again one day, and that I'll have the chance to sit down at a piano and play her the songs I have written, at least one or two of which describe the sense of loss I felt at her death. I still can't find it in me to believe this with certainty.

But I don't disbelieve it, either. Miller concludes her book by defining heaven as “radical hope”: even though heaven may be “what we cannot reach” here on earth, she claims, it is still “worth a human life to try.”

I'll keep trying.

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