This morning, that old sailors-take-warning-red sky. Actually, magenta, and a lurid, putrid violet. A puffy, vapid breeze from Kona-way. Flash flood warnings on Oahu. And the news that a man we knew in Homer died of a heart attack, suddenly, without warning, after a day of skiing. And of course the message is clear for that split second as the news sinks in: it can all change, just like that. Cancer diagnosis or not. Old or not. I didn't know him well, but I will remember Steve with an achingly blue March sky as backdrop. I'll remember him on the cross-country ski trails 12 miles east of Homer, where I'd see him, mainly as a flash of arms and legs and long poles and tanned face under a knitted cap and that glorious vee his perfectly carved strides left in the snow behind him. He had that athletes glow, those wind-reddened cheeks, 100% organic, alive on earth.
There are days, or minutes, or hours, there's no doubt, this earth is a heaven. The times I encountered Steve on the ski trails, flying across the snow, heart pounding, breathing in freezing cold March air, lungs burning, leg muscles aching: moments of heaven on earth we were living. And this morning, running on that sugar cane rail bed along the ocean, I thought of Steve and felt myself in that heaven, blessed today with legs strong enough to carry me to Kapa'a and back. Poet Jane Kenyon, who died of cancer, begins her poem "Otherwise" this way: "This morning I got out of bed on two strong legs; it might have been otherwise." If we look and listen we'll find them, pilgrims further along the road than we are, pilgrims who leave messages behind, to guide us. "One day I know it will be otherwise." That's how the poem ends. How to live on earth, knowing?
There are days, minutes and hours heaven is somewhere else, inaccessible. In a hospital in Boston a little boy I know, eight years old, endures the torture of chemo. What kind of world is this? Steve's wife's name is Anne. She grows the most beautiful purple cauliflower I've ever seen, and sells it at the farmer's market. She arranges her produce in baskets. You hardly want to ask her to remove one stalk. What earth is she living on, right now? Heaven and hell just breaths apart.
One of my favorite poets named Cyrus Cassels, in his book "Soul Make a Path Through Shouting," writes: "Let this earth become a heaven." A fierce prayer. Who is it addressed to? A God who too often seems to be looking the other way? So maybe it's us. Let's take up our (metaphorical) swords, our pens, our hands, bread dough, coffee cups, binoculars, snow shoves, knitting needles, hammers, ski wax, paint brushes, and meet the day, red sky and all. Sailors, fair warning: no one gets out of here alive. No one gets out unscathed. Let's go find it, that heaven. Like Frog and Toad in those children's stories, let's get the cookie jar down and eat every single one, even the crumbs, sitting together at the wooden table, the chocolate chips staining our fingertips and faces.
This morning, my friend Neil, who knew Steve, wrote to me of the heaven he lived in this morning: how he skiied into his cabin near Seldovia, how he axed through creek ice to fill buckets with cold water, how he chopped wood, how he boiled the water and drank cocoa in front of a fire in his woodstove.
It makes me want to chase down the heaven on earth in this day -- cup of green tea, bran muffin, crazy-gorgeous open-faced yellow hibiscus flower, orange-spotted green lizard -- to touch every heaven on earth while I can.