I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately, driving around the United States and finding myself fully realizing the words to ‘America, the Beautiful,’ as amber waves of grain roll by my car windows. I’ve fallen into describing the awe-inspiring landscape as “heavenly,” meaning it brings peace, visual pleasure, and possibility into my frame of visual reference, and thought. In hotels, I’ve slept on more than one ‘heavenly bed,’ some because they are branded that way, and others because they bring the possibility of sleep and the chance to unbend my frame from it’s too-frequently seated position. And from airplanes, of course, I’ve looked down at an ocean of puffy white cotton-like clouds outside the window and thought, ‘this is what they say heaven looks like.’ Yet upon my return to Orcas (the island I’ve made home base this fall) after a few weeks away, it occurred to me that if there is a heaven on earth, it is not a place or a vision, but a smell.
Smell transcends time and place. It can carry you from where you are now to where you were when. Think about it: the smell of fresh-baked cookies – anywhere – in a home or a bakery or wafting down a street in any small town or large metropolis – any where in the world, can pull you from the moment you are in, to another moment, possibly long ago and far away, that is anchored by the smell of warm chocolate chips and dough that sinks back to hug them as they cool on a rack, and defined by the moment of peace or hope that it brought to you back in that time and space. Isn’t that what heaven is? The transcendence of the present to a larger realm of peace and possibility?
I am a person of place. I always have been. I engage in a place by falling in love with its landscape. When I lived on the east coast, I often longed for the west coast with its cold ocean and high foothills. I longed for the hilly streets and old Victorians of San Francisco. I longed for the stillness of this island on which I’ve spent much of the last two months, and for the serenity of the view from where I now sit – over the grass, beyond the apple trees to the sound, to Lopez Island, to the sky above it and the Olympic mountains standing guard behind. For most of my life, I have associated this anchoring, this peace, with this place. I believed, for much of my time living in Dallas, that what made it difficult was that city had no hills, not enough trees, too much strip mall cement.
And then a week ago, I drove off the ferry, cracked my window, and was in my heavenly home. The smell of clean air, laced with sea salt and rained grass, rushed in to welcome me. In the distance was a top-note of wood-stove burning off fall chill and deep, deep beneath it were undertones reminiscent of the sun warming sugar out of last summer’s blackberries.
Suddenly, all the smells came to me. It wasn’t San Francisco I missed when I was on the East Coast. It was the smell of old book stores filled with history and revolution. It was salt floating on fog on early mornings when I waited for the bus to work. It was eucalyptus trees carrying their native Australia to Tennessee Valley. Strip malls weren’t the problem with Dallas. The air was. Except when it was raining, and the air was filled with the electricity of a storm, Dallas atmosphere stagnated. There was no news being brought on the wind. You couldn’t tell where the ocean was by inhaling. There was no possibility blowing through.
And so, as I prepare to leave for lands that smell of dewy mornings in thin air, of the dirt road beneath your feet, the slow burn of trash in a neighboring field, the diesel of combis and collectivos that roar by, I’m taking some time to absorb this heaven. Lying in bed last night with a rain pounding wind down through the alder and rushing the scent of leaves and water through the roof eaves to where I lay, I inhaled deeply and held my breath, absorbing just a little bit of heaven on earth to bring with me on the road.