There is a perfect mountain stream in heaven. I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s near the intersection of Orange Grove Boulevard and Green Street. The water is clear and cool, even in summer. It cascades over polished boulders of speckled granite. Here and there the water stills into quiet, shaded pools.
The stream flows down from a Tudor-style mansion through manicured gardens under the shade of Italian pines and ancient fir trees. There are tall, swaying date palms. There is a lush emerald lawn of dichondra clover. Come January the sky will be cobalt blue and there will be a clean line of snow below the ridge of the San Gabriel mountains.
The stream flows down toward a temple, as it must in heaven, down toward a majestic courtyard with a half-acre reflecting pool spanned by four bridges of black Angolan granite. Rising out of the pool are white quartz columns, 72 feet high, gleaming walls of glass and green Brazilian granite. In the evening, lit from inside by chandeliers once owned the Shah of Iran, it’s a vision of the heavenly city from the Book of Revelation. The marble staircases are gilded in 24-carat gold.
Sometimes in winter, thunderclouds billow up between the mountains and this place, with the air so clean and bright it is as if New Jerusalem itself has descended from heaven and landed at the intersection of the 210 and 710 freeways.
One winter, in 1979 or 1980, I excused myself from a church service to use the bathroom on the mezzanine level. The bathroom was a wonder in itself, with tile and black polished stone, gold electroplated fixtures, and a dispenser that miraculously spit out little paper-thin sheafs of hand soap. Before returning to the service, I stopped for a while at the mezzanine rail, looking out through three stories of glass, watching the winter thunderclouds with awe and longing. As I stood before the scene I would have prayed silently, perhaps some variation of ‘thy kingdom come.’ But then an usher approached me and told me to return to my seat inside the auditorium.
. . .
My family had only one formal picture made. It was taken in the early 1970s, and the photographer arranged us on a Japanese-style footbridge over one of the pools along that heavenly stream. It’s a picture of a young father with mutton chops and wide lapels, a churchgoing mother with a conservative pink dress. There is a smiling girl with long, blond hair, a redheaded boy in a baby blue polyester suit, and a little redheaded girl in pigtails propped up on the rail. It’s the picture of a family that found true religion in Pasadena.
When I dream of heaven, my earliest memories of Pasadena are resurrected. Some mornings I wake with the dream still fresh. I’ve been away half a lifetime now. Sometimes in my dreams I’m weeping because I’ve found my way home at last.
The dream is fresh, but the memories have grown faded and faulty. If we are what we remember it’s also true that our memories are narratives we craft for our own mysterious, subconscious ends. Or maybe, as smarter people than me claim, we make our memories into stories because at some level reality itself is a grand narrative.
It was never truly heaven, I know that. I was born after the Fall in the year 1968, when there was already a snake in the garden. The prophet turned out to be just another cult leader with white limousines, mansions and a private jet. It’s no longer even shocking. It’s a stock character from central casting. The one who preached rigid moral obedience — here’s a familiar story — hid unspeakable skeletons in his lavish closets. And that family picture, the picture of my family, was only a portrait of what might have been but never would become.
Even so, when I dream of heaven I dream of what I remember. Pasadena was my Garden of Eden. There was a day once — a Saturday I think, in 1979, during a season when the State of California had put the church into financial receivership, an event that for a moment rose to the top of the national news cycle — a day I remember when that great dichondra lawn, which was usually forbidden, was for a few hours opened to children. My parents remember the TV cameras, the sermons, the physical conflicts and sit-ins. I remember some of that, too. But I also remember rolling down a hill of the softest cool green grass the world has ever seen. This was for a moment the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Somewhere in the occult depths of fleeting memory there is a fragile, inarticulate glimpse of the one thing I have desired most, perhaps even the only thing I have ever wanted. When doubt sends a shiver down my spine, when all the prophecies of a new heaven and new earth seem too fantastic to be true — when redeeming grace itself seems like wishful thinking — there is something that remains unshaken. I have a memory of Pasadena, and beneath that memory some eternal longing.
I want to say, I know heaven exists because I have seen it with my own eyes.