I can remember the word “heaven” being tossed about since I was a child. At Sunday school, as an altar boy during Catholic Mass, throughout the parochial education I received in elementary and high school, and in virtually every religious ceremony I have ever attended, elements of an ethereal afterlife were always suggested.
When I was 10 years old, my homeroom teacher showed us a small painting of a world with billowing clouds and endless streets made of golden bricks (flanked on either side by singing choirs of angels no less). He showed this painting numerous times and held it as if he was dangling fruit to tempt the hungry.
I understand what that was now. What is deemed as an “education” by some is often a form of propaganda, even if it is well-intended. I see that now, and I actively question the need for the existence of heaven and any form of an afterlife.
I get it. Death is scary, and the fact that all beings are not immune to it does not make it feel any less terrifying. But does this justify the desire for a payoff at the end?
And what if the end is nothing more than blood and bones dissolving into the earth? Is that so bad?
For the sake of discussion, let’s imagine that when we die there is absolutely nothing else that follows. As bleak as that sounds, this scenario offers one glimmering possibility that comes to mind.
What if heaven is a place of our own making while we are alive and breathing?
During our lifetimes . . .
What if we chose to deeply and joyously love those who love us and to build long and meaningful relationships?
What if we relinquished scenarios and people who cause harm and unhappiness?
What if we regularly gave ourselves time to rest and refresh our spirits?
What if we invested intention and willfulness within every second of every day against forces that fuel our discontent?
What if that which gives us joy in real time is actually the heaven we seek?
No one truly knows what happens after we take our last breath. I imagine that, after years of steady engagement, the human body does not completely shut down immediately. After the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing, other, more remote, corridors of the body take their time to cease operations. Beyond the biological disintegration, no one truly knows what happens.
If there is, in fact, heaven after we die, then so be it, but whether or not there is, would we not be better off to make the most out of what we have right now? To have adventures and be audacious? To go big? Or, if it pleases you, to find depth and joy within the small footprint of your daily existence? Travel? Learn new things? Actively refuse to live a life of discontent?
I propose that we explore the vast, unlimited possibilities of life before death.
Heaven could be somewhere laid out right in front of you, but you have not seen it for what it is yet.
And when we die, we can go toward the unknown knowing the thrill and exuberance of the lives that we have lived already.
If you build your own heaven in the here and now, then come what may, you will always have the sweet and wholesome memory of it until the end.
Alas! With the Labor Day holiday now come and gone, our summer days have now passed us. The last three months away from school has given me a lot of time to rest and do more of the other activities that I enjoy outside all of the academic work.
One such activity is reading books. This summer, I read seven books, and I wanted to highlight some of the more noteworthy ones here.
Dazzle Camouflage by Ezra Berkley Napon
In the interest of transparency, I actually know the person who wrote this book as well as a few of the people whose work are documented within. This book chronicles theatrical styles of grassroots activism that have been carried out in various regions of the US. If you are interested in the type of activism that extends beyond the usual protests, rallies, and boycotts, this book provides a striking view of the ways to incorporate performance art, satire, and unconventional artistic expression into all kinds of public advocacy work. The writing is easy to understand, and the historical anecdotes give clear examples of how this kind of activism can be done.
The Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei
I was drawn to this book primarily because I actively seek out books about pianos and pianists. Needless to say, this historical fiction and autobiography certainly met that criteria and then some. This story shares the struggles of a young pianist who has to survive the harsh conditions of a work camp along with the ravages of the Chinese totalitarian Communist regime that sent her there. It shows how her love for playing piano sustained her spirit during the tumultuous and dehumanizing cultural revolution in China.
Well–paced and thoughtfully written, there is a delicacy and sweetness to this story that makes the whole saga purely satisfying to read.
A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles
Simply put, I loved this book. It has the makings of classic historical fiction. The book’s central character Count Alexander Rostov is an endearing and enigmatic man of many passions. I could not help but cheer for him as he lives a simple but rich life living under house arrest in Russia’s iconic Metropol Hotel in Moscow. There are flashes of whimsy, intrigue, romance, and sheer delight in this fantastic narrative. The writing displays the author’s commanding gifts in the arts of storytelling and descriptive prose. I would emphatically recommend this book to anyone looking for a well-written and dynamic story. This is the best fiction I have read so far this year.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
I have been making changes in the way I engage with social media and the digital aspects of modern life. This book has inspired so many ideas for me that I wrote about it in a recent blog post:
I have read many of Newport’s books and follow his blog. This book finds him in top form dispensing thoughtful ideas and practices toward combating the perils of modern technology (like cell phones and texting) and addictive social media usage. For anyone trying to live a life that is more engaged with actual human beings and the physical world around us and less entrenched in corporatized technology and websites, this book is for you.
Now that fall has more or less arrived, I have a set of new books to explore as the weather gets cooler and the beautiful fall colors start to arrive in my forest neighborhood. If you have any great book recommendations, let me know.
Find a wonderful book to settle into, and open up your world to limitless possibilities!
This past Wednesday (on my birthday), I released my short film YUP on Youtube! It was one of several film projects I worked on in the past year and a complete departure from anything I had ever done in the past. This week on my blog, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts about the project:
If you have not seen it yet, here it is:
Maybe you have a bunch of questions. Such as . . .
Where are the Chihuahuas?
What do the gym members drink when they enter the space just before getting slapped?
What is the code?
Why is Minerva besieged at the end?
I will tell you now that every detail of this little film serves some purpose. I put a lot of thought and intention behind the script and visuals. Entry into the space where everything happens is only granted by at least one swallow of the mystery liquid and a violent slap on the face. The answers to all of the other questions relate what happens further down in the story. If and when the sequels are made, all will be revealed.
When I was developing this piece, I had a few goals I wanted to accomplish:
I wanted to be bold and adventurous with the story. This meant creating a narrative that, in the long run, would not be linear in a traditional sense. There are a few elements that seem random, but this is by design.
I wanted to work with the immensely talented artists in my community here in middle Tennessee. Out of their willingness to help me tell this story, there was a synergy that bonded us together. It was magical.
I wanted to experiment with movement and dance. Again, I chose to express this in a non-traditional way. The stretching, the “reach for Satan”, the Versatile dance, and the “sinister approach” by the three spies near the end all reflect my ideas in this regard.
I wanted to use rich jewel and neon tones in the costuming and make-up. There needed to be bold splashes of color in as many shots as possible.
I wanted to take a stab at creating music made exclusively for this film. “WAWA” was the direct result of this. It was the first thing I worked on before filming, and I connected with my friend (and producer) Rob Tonini to record it shortly after filming wrapped.
I wanted to be creative with the dialogue by building frames through the movement of the arms and body.
Mostly, I wanted the film to be quirky and swim against the tides of convention. The opening sequence features what appears to be a man with a purse and wearing a tutu. A woman named “Laxatavia” wears strange make-up and seems to have violent tendencies. Another woman has the name “RaRaaa Kaka Kaka!!!” and uses kitchenware as a weapon. And then, of course, you have the “gently abrasive exfoliating skin creme”. What’s up with that?
Originally, this film was an assignment for my Single Cam II class at my university in which I simply had to film a conversation of any kind. I let my imagination run wild with this piece, and I gave myself permission to delve deep into dance and movement, make-up and costuming, and comedy well beyond the actual conversation in question.
I understand that this film was a creative risk. It may certainly be an acquired taste for some more than others, but I am okay with that. I was (and still am) vastly more interested in the creative process and development of this piece than its reception.
Sometimes, you simply have to create purely for the sake of creating. I am happy that I did just that.
This week, I thought I would share with you, dear reader, some of the random thoughts that pop up in my head. I have an inquisitive mind, and questions of all sorts often bounce around my brain. Over the last few days, I made a point to notate such queries for the purpose of sharing them here.
Without further ado, my bullet points are at the ready:
Random Thought #1:
Why are there 50 states in the United States of America? That is a sizable number of semi-independent, largely self-governing entities!
Doesn’t that mean that we have 50 governors, 50 sets of state legislatures, 50 state capitals, 50 stars on the US flag, and 50 SETS OF EVERYTHING? It seems a bit much. Does it not? How much money, work, and time goes into the upkeep of 50 SETS OF EVERYTHING? The words “exhorbitant”, “redundant”, and “excessive” come to mind. One can argue that Canada is at least as large as American but, as such, has managed to exist without the need of 50 SETS OF EVERYTHING.
So then, why couldn’t North Dakota and South Dakota just be “DAKOTA”? Maybe North Carolina and South Carolina can just be “CAROLINA”? How about Virginia and West Virginia? We could combine Rhode Island and New Jersey into the fabulous state of Jersey Island (or Rhosey Jewland?). For that matter, the singular football team the New England Patriots is sufficient enough to represent several northeastern states. In that case, couldn’t we just lump all of them together? What if we combined several states so that they had an average size equal to California or Texas? Wouldn’t that possibly level the playing field? Or make our elections simpler? This could justify making over the troublesome electoral college framework once and for all!
Also, what if we decreased the existence of 50 SETS OF EVERYTHING to the manageable and more reasonable number of 25? Imagine how much money we would save? Imagine the need for fewer politicians!
People say that America is the land of excess. Certainly, it is.
Random Thought #2
It is unfortunate that here in America it is not socially acceptable for men to wear skirts. Given that the male anatomy has a lot more going on below the belt, it seems more fitting that the clothing should be more spacious and accommodating down there. Going full commando could be AMAZING!
This resembles the difference between merely staying in a small and cramped motel or flourishing in a top floor penthouse suite that is light, bright, and airy! Conversely, it seems quite appropriate that women can wear pants. That suits their anatomy just fine. Go figure.
Random Thought #3
I wish that the cars we drove were more like golf carts than the actual cars we use. They don’t cost nearly as much to manufacture, and because they can only go so fast, they would be safer to drive.
Seriously, do we really need the ability to drive 50 to 100 miles per hour? On the freeway, there are led-footed drivers who endanger EVERYONE by driving well beyond the posted speed limits.
They seem to require less energy to operate and would have a much smaller environmental impact. We could take trains and airplanes for greater distances, but to toodle around town for daily use, these little guys could work just fine.
Also, they’re kind of adorable.
Random Though #4
The Sun is over a million times the size of the Earth. At the current rate and on a planet that size, how long would it take to fly on a standard airplane even just halfway around its circumference?
I can’t even.
Okay, that’s it for now. I’m a little weird, and I am perfectly happy with that.
It was late in the sweltering afternoon. The day was Thursday, August 8, 2019, in Washington, DC. I was lucky to find a street vendor who sold cups of ice cream. I ordered my favorite flavor, cookies and cream, and sat down on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building nearby.
I needed that ice cream. I needed it more than I usually would. I needed it because I had just spent most of the entire day taking in the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
If you have never visited this place, you should know that it is almost entirely devoted to the mass killings of millions of Jews (along with quite a number of gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, and homosexuals among them) at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi German forces during World War II. There is a palpable, almost surreal, sadness about this place. This is what separates this museum from the Smithsonian and other attractions in our nation’s capital.
You will not find delightful enjoyment here. What you will witness is a sobering account of how hatred and evil can manifest themselves in a real-world scenario and how resilience and compassion still bloomed against impossible and incomprehensible odds.
The first part of the museum I experienced was a section called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.” Pages of a diary that a boy named Daniel had written introduce each part of this exhibit. We essentially see the world of the holocaust through a child’s eye. You walk through a replica of the small and downtrodden home he shared with his sister and his parents. With each step, you gradually get to understand the intense severity of his life.
Yet, despite such desperate and meager circumstances, there is a child’s innocence that resonates in those diary pages and in those spaces. I thought this exhibit, which seemed to be tailored for much younger patrons, was incredibly clever, tastefully designed, and very rich. As an adult, I thought it was particularly heartbreaking, but maybe a child would not think so.
Up next, I went into the auditorium. The museum had invited a holocaust survivor named Kurt Pauly for its First Person Speaker Series to share his stories and answer questions on this day. For over an hour, I got to hear about what it was like to be a Jewish child growing up in that era and what his father had done to get his family out of Germany.
Afterward, I got to meet him, ask a question, and get a portrait taken with him by the professional photographer on site. (As soon as I get that photo, I will update this post to feature it.)
Finally, after leaving the auditorium, I headed toward the sliding doors that took you into the main event. The permanent exhibit winds itself around the building in a way that makes you go up and down different levels. It certainly feels like a journey as you travel through and the darkness of it all slowly unravels.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but at every turn along the way in the museum’s permanent exhibit, I felt waves of sorrow crashing into me. Just when you think it could not possibly get sadder, you walk over to the next part of the exhibit from where you were, and it does.
There are historical details that are shared along with numerous stories about the sheer hopelessness and devastation of it all.
One beautiful space (among many) displays hundreds of photos of families. These portraits are mounted on the walls and go all the way up into a high skylight. You can see entire families in their daily lives, children with bright eyes and warm smiles, friends among friends, tender moments with laughter, and quiet moments of dignity. It crushed me to know that all of the people in these photos were cruelly decimated and wiped out of existence for simply being who they were.
I could go on and on about the rest of what I saw, but that is not a story for me to tell on my own. I hope that, by writing this post, I have planted a seed of interest in you, my dear reader, to someday make a pilgrimage to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is not an easy place to experience, but it is completely worthwhile.
I took my time going through the entire exhibit, but there were still several components that required closer attention. I could easily spend another day combing through everything. Even all that I have shared with you in this post is but a small fraction of what the museum has to share.
I’ll leave you all with a question that I have an answer to.
Was it all hopelessness and devastation?
Amid the ruins that are laid bare are stories of scrappy, gritty survival and countless stores of heroism and compassion by people who did not stand idly by. People from all walks of life carried out covert operations to save Jewish families and children across Europe. These people, despite the danger to themselves and their own families, did all they could. They were extraordinary.
I have seen Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, and I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank. I thought I knew enough about the Holocaust. I was wrong. Here is a short list of what I took away from my day learning about the holocaust:
Nationalism, when it sweeps over an entire nation, will be blind to the danger it presents against those who deviate from its demands.
Question and defy anyone who teaches you to disrespect and devalue another human being.
Adolf Hitler was the epitome of evil.
One cannot imagine how truly terrible it was to live in a Nazi concentration camp. Try to do so, and the truth was worse than that.
The holocaust did not end with the demise of Nazi Germany. It is still happening against various ethnic groups across the world to this day.
My heart goes out to the survivors. To know that the lives of their loved ones were taken in such a cruel, inhumane, and heartless way is simply soul-crushing. They carried this hurt in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
The United States government could have done more to stop the World War II holocaust from happening, but they did not. This is infuriating.
The US government, despite knowing what was actually happening, turned away Jews from coming to the US to escape persecution and death.
The country of Denmark secretly transported 7,800 Jews (along with almost 700 non-Jewish spouses) by small boats and across the sea over to Sweden, thereby safeguarding their lives against the Nazi’s and their concentration camps.
RAOUL WALLENBERG. Find out who he was, and then carve out a small space in your heart to remember his name.
It might surprise you to know that my visit to the USHMM was an item on my life’s bucket list. I am extremely happy and grateful to have been able to do this. Thank you to my friends Rob and Preston for unknowingly helping to make this happen.
So yeah, ice cream. I sat on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building that stands across the street from the museum. Most people look happy and content when they eat ice cream. I was a total sad sack, and I must have actually looked quite pitiful. My energy was depleted, and after all that I had seen that day, I felt so sad. The flavor of that ice cream started to draw me out of that dark place.
At the end of the exhibit, patrons are invited to write on sheets of paper and share thoughts about what they learned from it all.
First, I expressed gratitude for the careful and thorough attention paid to every detail. I believe that the exhibits at the USHMM are of the highest quality. They are tasteful, poignant, unsentimental, and honest.
Lastly, I wrote the words, “Compassion must guide us, all the days of our lives.”