Nunani: Beulah Land
I live in glory,
I drink from an eternal spring
And I eat manna;
I live in Beulah Land…
That is some kind of hymn my father always sang aloud when tending to mundane chores.
I would tag along, listening, a small shadow absorbing a vision of a much better land beyond. “Beulah,” in Inuktitut, sounds a lot like “piulaaq,” which means “the best.”
Where did my father think he was headed? A vision of a far-off place, a much better land, danced in my head. I suppose singing of his personal paradise swept his mind away from the dull repetition of knotting and unknotting countless little squares of fish net.
My paradise, then, was a living one, with endless summer days under a stunning blue sky. The world was a kaleidoscope of vast wild flower patches, bird nests containing tiny, perfect, pale colored eggs, tundra as far as the eye could see.
Only children can actually make work out of intense play. There were the constant trips to a friend’s tent for games, where I would watch kids cook homemade candy over a camp stove, getting the caramel consistency just right by adding powdered milk.
I was not allowed to play with food. Both sugar and milk were in scarce supply. To my parents, a couple of cups of sugar seemed a scandalous amount to waste on such an uncertain experiment. Was that what it was like to live on manna, I sometimes wondered, as in my father’s song? Was it being able to use as much of an ingredient for your cooking as you wished? Was that the manna, falling like snow?
I tried asking my father such questions, the answers never satisfactory. The limited answers only encouraged more questions.
For example, if my dad died and went to heaven, where would I be? Would I find him up there? What if I got lost or taken somewhere else, like one of my friends who got sent to the wrong community upon returning from a prolonged stay at a southern hospital. Would “they” (whomever regulates the afterlife) know where to take me?
Most importantly, what if my father didn’t go to Beulah Land? What if he went somewhere else? Where would that place be, and did spirits have to “live” someplace? What if we died as children, never growing into adulthood. If my sister died first and I got to see her much later, as an adult, would she know it was me?
I got the usual: Don’t ask so many questions. To this day, I don’t remember ever being given a satisfactory answer as to what happened to children when they died, except some stock thing about angels bringing children up to God. I remember thinking, in frustration: Who wants to go to Heaven? You would just have to listen to angels sing all day.
And I was haunted by that song of my father’s, for he wasn’t singing about Heaven. He was singing about Beulah Land, where everything is piulaaq … the best.
Sometimes, when I’ve thought back upon my father’s answers concerning angels and Heaven in the afterlife, I’ve wondered: At what point did all that, his conversion, take place? My father was brought up in a most traditional society. There shouldn’t have been anything in his background to make his ideas so Judeo-Christian. To this day, his conversion still nags at me. Not the fact, just the “when” and “how” of it. What is it like to be … converted?
Yet I suppose Inuit have always modified Christianity to suit themselves, a traditional cosmology with the formal overlay of religion. And behind it all are hidden personal beliefs – the isuma – reflecting the individual’s secret cosmology. That was why I wanted a glimpse at this Beulah Land, my father’s secret paradise, so perfect to him that he had to express it in song. But the fact that it was my father’s own vision precluded my ever seeing it.
The strangest thing happened last week. I called my father to wish him a happy 83rd birthday. I ended up chatting with my youngest brother, mentioning that there was this hymn our father always sang during chores. My brother told me that he still hums that very tune.
For half a century, singing of Beulah Land.