Posted on: Friday, December 12, 2014

Let me tell you a joke.

I am eager to tell you the joke my daughter made up, if you have a moment. I want you to hear it because I want you to open it up and jump inside of it and delight in it. Because I want you to know that she is funny and clever, and not just a kid with issues. Because she won't look you in the eyes when she tells you her joke, and she will talk with a weird cadence and pitch, and walk nervously around the room.

Q: What kind of a glass does a volcano use?
A: A magmafying glass.

Look at that clever turn of phrase. Look at how she knows things that lots of kids don't. How she thinks about things from a different angle than most. A magmafying glass!

See, I already know you will look at her and think of her as different, so I am eager to recast "different" for you: She's quirky! She is delightful. She is an okay kind of different.

What I am really asking of you, I think, is not to listen to a joke, but to find a place for her in your world. The world of people who generally interact well with others--I want you to make room for her, the kid who prefers to be alone at recess, who is single-mindedly obsessed with her pet cat, who loves Doctor Who and all things math and science. And who doesn't understand when to stop talking in a conversation, and who cannot look at your face if she doesn't know you that well, and who has little tolerance for "silly" and hates the unexpected with a fiery, explosive, emotional kind passion.

Who cannot bear the thought of touching any kind of tissue paper.

Who literally panics when she's near babies.

Who cannot tolerate loud noises of any kind. Or stern voices.

Who hates most music.

Who avoids anything new.

Who abhors elephants to an almost pathological degree.

Who has a funny breathing ritual-thing she does if she doesn't like something, or really likes something, or just can't ignore the sudden slamming in her heart that happens for no reason at all.

Maybe it's not that I want you to hear a joke, or delight in it, or to find a place for her in your world (though that would be nice). Deep down I know that I am asking you, really, to help ease my worry a bit. This kid, this tender-hearted kid. How will she ever be strong enough to handle the world?

Q: What kind of glass does a volcano use?
A: A magmafying glass!

A: She is going to be okay.
A: She is going to be okay.

Posted on: Monday, December 8, 2014

I have to believe it matters.

In the cold, near a parade of warmth, lights and sounds and cheer and smiles, my daughter and her friend are enveloped in a conversation about faith. At this age, though, it's less a conversation and more a complex topic centered around a simple bargaining process. "If you believe in God," says my daughter's friend, "then I'll let you be leader of the club for a week." Their club is an exclusive recess club. They call themselves the Nature Girls. While Madeleine has always been the lover of nature--it's a central part of her identity at this point--her friend has been the de facto leader since day one.

I can see Madeleine shift, first in, then away, from her friend. I can see the strained smile, the growing worry. She's had this conversation before with other kids, many times, but this is her best friend. I squelch the urge to intervene and instead adopt vigilant worry, perched on the fringe. I watch the parade, waving at the little girls in angel halos as they sing "Silent Night" from a float bedecked in clear Christmas lights. "Merry Christmas!" my youngest daughter shrieks, waving wildly.

"I'm not going to believe in God," Madeleine says firmly. She's smiling. I see that it's a forced smile, that she's trying to keep it light. I see her friend lean in and say something so quietly I cannot hear it, but it's clear that Madeleine does. Her face falls, just for a moment, and then she shakes her head firmly, "No," she says. "You can't make me believe it." She looks unsure.

I can't help it then. I lean in. "Hey guys, now isn't the time for that discussion. Let's enjoy the parade."

And they go back to their spectating.

Later I find out that what the friend said was this: "I'm just worried that you're going to hell," is what the friend said. Madeleine relays this information to me at night, in bed, as she stares up at the ceiling twisted up in covers and swimming in stuffed animals.

Oh, the things we teach our children.

Oh, the things we forget to teach.

Madeleine and I have The Conversation, the one we've had over and over, and I say it again: You just have to ask her nicely not to talk about that stuff with you, that it makes you uncomfortable. You can tell her you're still figuring things out, but that it's nothing you're ready to talk about with her.

I think, not for the first time, how much easier things would be for her to have this simple code of beliefs to follow, a system, a bigger power to put her trust in. How she wouldn't have this thing that sets her apart from the other kids at school. How she's choosing a hard road to stick to, holding on fast to her staunch belief that all there is is nature and all there is is now, and no greater being created it, it's just a thing that is.

Her faith in things is all about the things she can hold. She dug up her pet rat in the backyard after it died, several times, to look at its body. To attempt to understand that big question: What happens to us after we die? To her, the proof was right there in her hands. A decomposing body, slowly becoming part of the dirt. She could see in an immediate way how it would feed the tree it was buried beneath. She could see the birds eating bugs from the tree way up high, she could see the way the light hit the leaves on that towering maple tree, and how the leaves would fall and decompose, and how it all keeps going, over and over and over again. 

This is what she believes in: the inner machinations of the universe, even at the smallest level, and maybe especially at the smallest level. This is what she trusts.

It's all the same thing, is what I want her to understand. You call it nature, others call it God, but it's all the same thing. But for now she wants what the kids who question her want: easy answers, and easy means a black-and-white view. Us/Them. Either/Or. God/No God. So she's still firmly against the idea of God.

Curled into her bed she wonders about hell. "Why would people even think of that? Why would anyone want to believe in that? And heaven? Why would people think of heaven?" She gestures around her room, her brown eyes deep and dark and fathomless. This is what there is, she says, almost to herself.

I see the line she's drawing with the waving of her hands: You and me and this bed and that pet and this pet and on and on and on. And I can't possibly disagree. And so I tell her goodnight, and tell her to stay strong, and remind her of our mantra: All that matters is to be a good person in the world. To create more good, instead of taking any away.

On the way out of her room I issue up a small prayer, and I don't even know where it's going. To the wide and endless universe. To the ear of God. To the God of small things now falling asleep in her bedroom. "Keep her strong in the face of doubt, without being closed off to infinite possibility," I pray. Up and out it goes. Somewhere. And I have to believe it matters. Faith is a funny thing that way.

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