In Eloghosa Osunde’s column Melting Clocks, she takes apart the surreality of time and the senses.
When I say the name Heaven, someone I love answers me through two realms and a time machine. It doesn’t matter where our bodies are in the world, what distance separates us, or what headlines are going on about, I say that name and we appear elsewhere. When we rechristened each other recently, we gave and received three names each. They call me [redacted] or [redacted] or [redacted] and the world stops. I call them Heaven or [redacted] or [redacted] and the Earth’s core shifts. All six of our names have different emotional hefts for me, but I suppose Heaven carries a particular weight. There were borders between us when I chose the name, so they didn’t see the choice in real time, but they know my why. They cried, too, when they first heard it, because they know what this word means to me.
There was a time when I was obsessed with staying saved and helping loved ones get on the road to heaven. I called that love. That level of conviction gave me something to live for, but after I released it, I realized the obsession added indelible bass to my anxiety. Sometimes, when I get still enough, I can still feel the reverb thudding through me. When people die now, though, I don’t see them facing a heated binary, standing before a white light: Heaven or Hell? Instead, I close my eyes and support their spirit in what it believed. I wish for them what they wished for themselves. And beyond that: I imagine with them what they imagined for themselves, or what their spirit would have dreamed of if they weren’t afraid. It’s been this way for years: I see dead people deciding, because a sure thing I know is that every person has a spirit—whether they are awake to it or not—and our spirits have agency, so that we can cocreate our own realities with God.
But I suppose if you’re vanilla about life, the way I think and talk about death in person—openly, vocally, quasi-casually—would be considered morbid. It’s both big and small talk to me, and I do both. Even then, I (still) find myself holding back more than I would if I wasn’t scared of scaring the people I love. Now largely unplugged from religious imaginations of The Afterlife, I know what I am working toward instead. There are implications for what I see as possible beyond death, and those implications double as instructions coded onto my spirit. I accept the challenge without flailing. To get to that thing, that place—my own personal heaven—there’s work I have to do in this lifetime; there are things I have to allow to change me, because when I die, I don’t want to be wished into an eternity I did not conceive, an everlastingness I did not imagine, a heaven that cannot hold me. My loved ones know what I have agreed with God instead. I’m at peace with that.
What even is a heaven, anyway? My old faith described it as a place where we are blameless and holy, or God’s dwelling place. I still partly agree. But sometimes, I find, a word weighs you down because you are carrying an impersonal definition. What’s different now is: I believe that God has multiple addresses—inside and outside and beyond and before and after us—and I define heaven as a(ny) site of spiritual rest. When asked what I wanted the most in love, I used to say rest. Rest from pain, rest from hypervigilance, rest from the violent volume of the world. I still mean that. That’s relevant here because we chase heaven, mostly because we’re chasing rest. Sometimes, I’m still so shocked by the absurdity of aliveness I have to slap my own thigh to remember I’m in a body, but that doesn’t change the fact that love lives in my body and I inside God. Because of that, I think of God—as in Love—as heaven, the boundaries that fence my life as heaven, the tenderness weaving through my chosen family as heaven, community as heaven, my dining table as heaven, a home with full acceptance as heaven, the absence of pretense as heaven, right now as heaven.
For months now, I’ve been building heaven into a playlist for my chosen family, as a portal into rest, respite, relief. These are people I commit my life to, people I hold deliberately, and I have always loved them with loss in mind, because love’s a sieve in a sense, I think. Whatever you love will pour through you or you through it. It keeps me careful. It keeps me awake. So, Kokoroko to Obongjayar to Shabba Ranks to Joan Armatrading to Gyptian to Tanerélle to Buju Banton to the Cavemen. Old Tuface meets Dawn Penn meets Nneka meets Flying Lotus meets Duendita meets Sampha meets Florence Welch meets new Wizkid. Through the making of this space, I’ve been thinking a lot about how if love is the surreal location where I can catch a loved one’s head before it rolls off their neck from sheer weight, where they can stroke my wing before I even know I need to cry about the shameful shade it turned, where we can breathe in our spiritual other-bodies, separate from the weight of flesh and hierarchical definitions, then that’s where I want to spend the rest of my life. Heaven is, in the end, wherever we are fully known and fully loved.
Naudline Pierre’s work is a place like that. Have you ever met a painting you immediately wanted to climb into because you were sure—you could bet on it with your life—that nothing painful could touch you there? When things get too tiring on this side, I project her work onto the wall in my home, close my eyes, and move to the edge of my body, readying myself from the inside. To live in this world is to have the body be the loudest thing. But there are—and have always been—other just-as-true realms in which we have form. Pierre’s work is a spiritual reality that’s happening right now. It helps me take breaks from whatever hurts, whatever has crushing weight. It helps me remember that to think of the immaterial world, the Other World, as my first address is not escapism, it’s fortification, strength making, muscle memory. Pierre’s work wakes my memory of my inside self, my spirit self, my body beyond flesh, my love with echoes surrounding it. I enter the world she centers and turn immediately celestial. More than myself. Bloodless but multilimbed and massive-winged. I’m spiritually present and cared for. And not just that, but I have kin, people who brush through my heavenly hair, who link their careful arms around each other’s ankles, who cover their loves with full and lush feathers. Hot beams of light pour out of all our heads, our faces haloed by complete love. Inside there, we’re visible, outrageously colorful and unmasked, boldfaced, touching and unsorry. It’s not quite the heaven I grew up believing in, even though that place has its own glorious music, a score. People fall down still, we stumble. I know. We float off into weightless clouds. I see that. But I notice how we’re hardly ever alone. We’re always being caught, upheld, hallowed in this place that goes beyond respite and right into the heart of pleasure for its own sake. I’ve been wondering, then: What if the most exciting thing about that heaven isn’t the colors, or the wings, or our other-bodies, but the relationships, the togetherness, the touch?
In 2016, I wrote to one of my favorite people in the world:
Touch is a strange thing.
I’ve always believed that we ought to approach each other with wonder, trepidation, adoration, and a sweet trembling every time, because every body is a mystery. Every body has fears, resentments, passions, worries, excitements, desires stored in them. I’ve always thought that it’s lazy and disrespectful to approach another person’s body, eager to display “acquired experience”—because that comes with a lazy assumption that one already understands what all the other person’s fearsresentmentspassionsworriesexcitementsdesires lead to. But we aren’t taught to consider that. I don’t think of sex or sexual acts as urgent or utterly necessary. It has never been that way for me. But I don’t say those things out loud anymore.
There’s no better way to say it than I’ve had to relearn touch as a walk on a tightrope. I’ve had to give up on being approached tenderly and with reverence, on being touched by a person who isn’t afraid to leave all their senses open. I’d given up on someone who would not only understand silences but would encourage them because they needed them, too. Someone who could, for example, walk by me in the kitchen and not talk to me or pull me in but plant a kiss on the shoulder to register presence, to remind me of hereness and let that be enough. I’ve always wanted to have my hands held or my face traced or my partner’s nose chasing the back of my neck and feel the world explode in my chest. But I learned that people mostly do things like that on their way to a “bigger” act or to something explicitly sexual.
I have wanted attentiveness more than I’ve ever wanted formula.
But bad things come out of trusting the wrong people. So, I create my safe spaces myself because I’m not sure of the possibility of anyone else considering them. I’ve subconsciously adopted certain mainstream desires as my exoskeleton to protect myself. Desire as defense. They’re not necessarily me, but they are bearable until. Endurable, until. They are understood in the accepted language that people who touch each other speak. In a way, it’s sort of like learning a language for survival value because you’re in a foreign land. You don’t want to stick out too much so no one preys on you and hurts you. Or kills you.
Many minds later, my favorite way to be touched is like I can be lost. My favorite thing to remember is that something else is always possible. To touch or be touched well, I think, is to remember that people are floorless, cannot be known without being known or mastered at all. We suck at this until we don’t; we fail at it until we learn. Recently, when a lover and I were sat with our feet in the pool, I said, We won’t get to the bottom of us. You can’t get to the bottom of me, because even I haven’t met the bottom of me. I can’t get to the bottom of you, because same. To believe this about myself and others is to keep my senses open. It’s how we stay awake. It’s how we stop waiting for death and give ourselves a chance at heaven. Now.
Reading Cruising Utopia recently, I came across the difference between queer time and straight time. It made all the sense in the world to me. To experience the world through a time stack is to experience queer time and to experience queer time is to spend significant moments in the future and work backward from there. In the future, everything starts and everything ends. Sometimes, I hope from there because change is not just possible but certain. Sometimes I grieve from there because I’m humbled by how little I can control. Meditating on grief affects how I love now, how I touch. That bittersweet spot is where SBTRKT and “Wonder Where We Land” meets Hundred Waters’ “Show Me Love,” for instance. Every day, I think this about the people I love: If I’ve seen what the loss of you has already done to me when you go, what the loss of me has already done to you when I go, how can I not be deliberate about you? If we’ve shattered each other already in tomorrow; if we chose to go deep enough for you to reach me here, for you to mark me this absolutely on purpose, what’s more important than you holding me now? The goodbyes are inevitable, really. But the world is passing, and I’m holding your hand. The world is passing and I’m holding your hand.
To queer time is to love like I believe in our right to not just eternal but immediate rest. To be free is to act from inside a yes I can take for granted, to work toward regretting nothing. I can’t always meet my own standards, because being in a body means my capacity can crumble before my desire. That hurts, but I try to try. The other day, I got a WhatsApp missed call from December 31, 1969. It was a glitch in my phone but I felt touched by the past. One of my parents was eight years old then. Sometimes a memory you weren’t there for grows an arm just to touch you. Other times, possibility finds and peels you open, shows you how wrong you’ve been about what you think is (im)possible. Sometimes, you’re shaken to the core by all the ways your heart surprises your body; by a hand landing on you too correctly, too gently. I’ve been touched like that before. That was heaven and I grew wings, let me tell you. I haven’t lost them since.
Eloghosa Osunde is a writer and visual artist. Her debut work of fiction will be published by Riverhead Books in 2021.