My dad used to pick me up at my mom’s house on Friday afternoons on his way home from work. Every other Friday afternoon, to be specific. The whole transition of it would buzz with energy, like I was changing selves or stepping into a different story. I was a different kid. His house was only on the other side of town and truthfully our weekends were made of typical weekend stuff- errands, soccer games, cookouts. We were always on hiking trails and exploring state parks; we’d spend the whole day walking around and climbing and never get bored. I would stay up late reading grown up books from their endless book shelves. War stories, more or less. Into the Wild, A Tale of Two Cities, Gone With the Wind, the Red Badge of Courage. I’d sometimes get brave enough to read the book jacket for a Steven King novel, and then I’d have to sleep with the light on while I cursed myself. Never again would I be so foolish.
While he drove, my dad would crack me up with stories of my brother, who was Terrible Two- potty training and refusing all food that wasn’t The Holy Fish Stick. On and on as my brother grew older my dad would issue solemn warnings for when we got home. Nicky had developed an obsession with toy guns and swords and I should not walk by the playroom without guarding my shins. The knights were launching tiny plastic cannonballs and the pirates were returning fire. At one point, Nick was banned outright from using the word “stupid”. He resorted to calling everyone “Stew” from the Time Out corner, usually after he’d plastic-pistol whipped our baby sister Caroline who was, and is, too pretty for war games. My dad would mime her big pouty lips and innocent wide-eyed bewilderment and I’d nearly pee my pants laughing while he described her drool bubbles. I adored how much he adored them. How he still refers to my stepmother as “My Darling Bride” in a silly voice but we all know that he’s dead serious. I liked being a character in this show and liked the person I imagined myself to be when I was with them.
I became sillier around my brother and sister, being so proud when I could make them laugh. I tried to break out of my crippling shyness at least once at a pool party. Maybe twice. It didn’t take, but that is OK. I remain Eddie’s kind of weird oldest kid that almost said Hi one time.
One time I tried to be brave and watch Aliens with him, even though I just hid behind his armchair and watched the screen through the holes of a crocheted blanket. While I watched the movie he’d snuck over the back of his chair, silent as anything. He descended on me with a howl and his hands curled up like claws just as some terrible monster on screen did the same. I screamed for my life and I’m certain I peed my pants. I’d probably do the same if he managed to scare me like that today.
One afternoon as I buckled myself into the passenger seat, my dad rolled his eyes dramatically and gestured towards an enormous hard cover book on the floor. The Big Book of Why.
“He’s in his Why Phase. God help us.”
“What is a Why Phase?”
“Oh it’s when little kids learn if they say the word Why over and over again their dad’s head will explode.”
He smirked at me and said, “Yeah, exactly.”
I picked up the book to leaf through it. Dad asked if I knew there was such a thing as a marshmallow plant, and I thought he was messing with me but it turns out the Big Book of Why is actually chock full of accurate information. This was back in the pre-internet days, when people couldn’t just decide to find out the history of modern marshmallows on a whim. If your punk kid asked you why rubber balls can bounce so fabulously, you had to already have that stuff in your head while painting the garage or doing the dishes or trying to drive to some birthday party without GPS. Or you had to schlep to a library and just sort of figure out what book or publication would have a satisfactory answer. Satisfactory for whom? Well, if you’re the sort of person that wants to answer your punk kid’s bouncy ball question badly enough that you left the dishes and went to the library then you’re probably the sort of person that will have to break your answer up into categories and talk about the composition and manufacture of rubber, elasticity in general, kinetic and potential energies…Man you’re going to be there all day. My dad is that sort of person. I think I’m that sort of person too, I’m just much more spoiled by technology. Sometimes I have the thought, “Ugh I don’t want to Google all of that!” and am sort of amused and appalled at myself that I can be overwhelmed by having to type my questions out with my Pretty Princess Fingers before I can actually read the answer that appears in front of my Pretty Princess Face.
Why can’t it just be inserted somehow into my thought stream?
Dad? Do you know why? Can you help?
My oldest boy is about to enter first grade. He has followed in his uncle’s footsteps of being a tornado of a boy who is feared and adored. My youngest boy is all of that, only concentrated into a thirty pound wrecking ball of shrieking demands for popsicles and an insatiable urge to destroy the homes of his grandmothers and aunts. My own pretty girl has big sparkling eyes like her aunt Caroline and can pout her way into getting whatever she wants. Mostly she uses her powers to get cuddles, but sometimes she’ll get a person to be her personal Piggy Back Provider for as long as she wants, and they do it gladly. It’s witchcraft.
These days, I am the one to brag about the wild creatures that live in my house and tell people stories of the outrageous and adorable things they do.
It’s now my turn to give the answer when a punk kid asks me a question.
I don’t know why I’m surprised that a kid that comes from me wants to know the answers to things like, “Mama, what comes after space?”
They don’t care much about bouncy balls but will march up to me first thing in the morning and sort of shout at me in bullet points.
- Are bad guys evil?
- Can anyone be evil?
- Am I evil or good?
- Mama are you a good guy?
- How do you know?
There is not enough coffee in the world.
I tell them what I can as honestly as I can. These are questions that open secret passageways and lead us on winding staircases that don’t actually go anywhere. They are not satisfied with non-answers. They want to know what comes after space. They want to know if a person can be a little bit evil and a little bit OK at the same time, and if I am sure.
Yesterday they got me good.
“MAMA! If there’s no god then who is everyone praying to?”
“Yeah! Who are they praying to if he’s not real and why would they keep on DOING it?”
They gang up on me like Existential Question Elite Forces. Sometimes they’ll high five each other for stumping me and then they run off. I’m left there holding my coffee cup and wearing one of my dad’s expressions across my own face. It’s a lot of eyebrow action and flared nostrils, and it means You’re All a Bunch of Punks.
Here is Thomas, or Tomzilla the Tom-Bus as I refer to him, who has also inherited the elastic faces of my father. He doesn’t say much yet, but he always lets us know what he’s thinking.
“You’re all a bunch of punks.”
I never introduced the idea of the Christian God, or any gods, to my kids. I knew they’d pick it up from the dominant Christian culture and they’d bring me their questions as they thought of them. All this spirituality, fantasy and magic are around them in real life- there’s a god in their pledge of Allegiance, there are good witches and bad witches. Spindles can magic you to sleep, true love’s kiss will wake you. A single tear somehow has the power to bring people back to life, if it hits before the last rose petal falls, and some friends and family say bedtime prayers to a god as well. They sang God Bless America on Memorial Day.
I barely feel comfortable telling them what I believe because I don’t want them to think my answer is The Answer, the way it is for all the other stuff they ask me. Spiritual stuff is so personal and sacred and such a big part of being a human. It was for me, anyway. I don’t want tell them that there is or isn’t a god. I don’t want them to be satisfied with an answer from anyone but themselves. They don’t like this wishy washy business from me.
I tell them about the Abrahamic god that they think of as ‘the god in Heaven’, the one that everyone is praying to all the time. I tell them about the gods on Mount Olympus and how they were sometimes very good and sometimes very bad, just like regular people. I tell them about the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods and the magic that seems silly to us now, but was very real to the people who believed it. I tell them about how afraid we were before we knew things about our planet, how storms seemed like punishments or earthquakes seemed like monsters until we knew better.
I tell them the story of Arachne like my aunt told me when I pestered her with questions about gods and men because I knew she always told the truth.
They love these stories, they cannot ask me “Why” enough and they listen so intently.
Still, they want to know what I believe. They’re looking at me for an answer.
The little punks.
I have told them honestly that I am an atheist, or a humanist, or maybe even a pantheist but without all that mysticism and god stuff. Sometimes I stare at the moon and think of becoming fuller, or letting go. It’s not in worship or belief in anything that I perform little rituals or celebrate the changing seasons. I just like doing things that people before me have done. I like stepping into the prints someone else has made in the snow. It makes me feel like a superhero or a goddess or a time traveller. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it just warms my heart.
When I was my son’s age, the world was a confusing and scary realm of spiritual warfare. My dad was technically Catholic but I wasn’t raised in his church. I lived with my mother and extended family and we attended a church that was a part of a Faith Healing cult. I remember lying in bed at night, terrified of the demons that I just knew were inches away from me. I tried desperately to pray in tongues to be able to keep myself safe. I pretended to catch the holy spirit in church. I waited as patiently as I could for God to choose me back but he never did.
God was a terrifying, angry figure that I was sure loved me very much, because everyone always told me so. He seemed dangerous, a man who liked to bask in attention and praise. The grown ups at church were pushy and cold and they used their piety as a weapon to compete with each other. God seemed to be more like the wormy guy with an ugly mustache who knew that I had to respect and obey him no matter what. He would call me Sister Jennifer and say “Hallelujah!” the loudest out of anyone, but he made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was sinful to think such things or question my elders, but I was always sinning without ever meaning to. I figured out early on that I was just evil and if I ever did anything good, it was only because I was pretending at being good. I just couldn’t get it right. I couldn’t figure out what bad meant, and I couldn’t trust anything that called itself good. Everything was a trick.
It feels really nice to be able to believe in nothing and everything now. I don’t feel like I’m setting some cosmic trap for myself. I am figuring out how to be a good person through trial and error, a lot of error. My punishment isn’t hell, it’s guilt and shame. Then those become the amends I try to make and then they become acceptance. I become better for the bad things I’ve done. I like my version of religion a lot.
My kids don’t know the scary god. My kids have no idea what Satan is and they certainly don’t think he’s waiting under their bed to grab them for messing up. They think the god in Heaven is a Santa type figure and that praying is something you do to ask him to use some of his magic for you. I like their version of religion, too.
I like that they ask me Why without hesitation or any guilt at daring to wonder, or not understand in the first place. It feels like some kind of divinity that for the times when I can’t answer them, I am not afraid at all to say that I don’t know and that we’ll figure it out as we go.
We’ll stay up late reading Big Books of Why. We’ll choose an answer and change our minds. We’ll look at our family’s faces and see ourselves reflected there and maybe that will feel a little bit like god, too.
I found a world of answers in the books that nobody forced me to read.