Sun 23 Aug 2009
Mommy, he interjects, the word escaping from him for the hundredth time in an hour. he is a balloon steadily leaking demands and questions, all the air being pushed out to make room for the wonders of the world. i am apparently the keeper of these secrets, the one who will spill all the magic if only pestered properly. i forget this is a privilege.
my head snaps around. his gaze is blue, a little pouty. i can see the openness on his face turning inward, ready to flit to another of countless questions. yet he holds my eye. i sigh, and realize i’ve been waiting for this question since the day we decided to have kids.
i sigh because short of bringing out flip charts and diagrams for an impromptu Comparative Religion 101, pre-kindergarten version, i still don’t have an answer.
in our house, it’s not the Death Conversation that makes us quake. that one comes and goes, a familiar path, ripe with dinosaur bones and daily drives past the cemetery where my Nannie’s buried. we talk about Finn and uncle Stephen casually, occasionally yet regularly enough that O seems to accept them as normal, family members who are simply not here. the other night, before bed, we looked at the pictures of O and Rusty the Very Good Dog and i explained to Oscar that Rusty’d died that morning and we decided that was sad. and then he wondered if Clementine, our cat, would die tomorrow and i said probably not and he nodded sagely and told me that cat fossils are not as interesting as dinosaurs, anyway.
but talk of God and even Santa Claus ’round these parts and i am distinctly off-balance, out of my element.
it’s not faithlessness that tongue-ties me. i’m comfortable in my liminal space, straddling god with a small g and disdain for dogma with a hangover of reverence for the possibility of the sacred. i am politically a secularist, hardcore. personally, i have an encyclopaediac fascination with religion, but claim none for myself. yet i can talk religion from a position of inquiry until the cows come home.
it is the position of authority in relation to belief that freaks me out.
i have a firm, unshakable belief in, uh, not much. the value of the examined life, the principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” the consoling power of jellybeans. that’s about it. and so the heady responsibility to inculcate either belief or disbelief in my children freaks me out. i can blather on happily about the mythology of the Easter Bunny and the resurrection story and how they intersect until a three-year-old’s eyes cross and he offers me all his chocolate eggs to just shut up already…but it skeeves me out to tell him that a large rabbit actually entered our house and left said eggs behind. just as it skeeves me out to tell him Rusty’s in doggie heaven or Finn is an angel or any of the other doctrinal cultural narratives he’s starting to pick up from the world around him.
i don’t particularly mind him hearing them. they’re part of the picture, part of the mishmash of understandings he and Posey will need to come to terms with as members of this society. but from my mouth, all they’re ever likely to hear on those topics is, “some people believe…” or “historically…”
and in my heart of hearts, some small part of me longs for it to be different.
here, in the confessional of the Holy Blog where you can all pretend you can’t really see me through that little screened box thingy, i ‘fess up. when it comes to raising kids, i wish i had a faith to give them. any faith, really. i’m fairly equivocal. just some place to stand, to carve out and say, this is Mine. this is OURS.
i picture taking O on my lap, as my mother must have with me, and stating earnestly, reassuringly, “God is all-powerful. God is love. God looks after us.” i drool on this picture a little, it looks so pretty. so clean-cut and tidy. so achingly representative of belonging, which is the thing even after these years that i miss most about my lack of a faith community. so rewarding, to feel one is doing good. sharing the tenets of one’s deeply held beliefs with one’s children is a process that tends to feel good way down in the bones.
that good feeling has probably been the viaduct of cultural survival for millenia, my cynical self whispers. i tell it to hush.
part of me says no set of beliefs can simply be passed down from generation to generation like heirlooms. beliefs are living things, paths that must be walked. particularly in a pluralistic world where kids will eventually become aware that alternate paths are available, the faith of one’s fathers must be something that each person ultimately takes on for him or herself.
this part of me has it easy. my beliefs – which have their own ethic and structure just as those more traditionally coded “religious” do – don’t have a Sunday School version, no. they’re not easy to explain to a three year old. but then neither, really, are anybody’s. and a lot less is riding on my introduction.
because if my children grow up to reject what i believe, to cobble together their own paths, then the ethic of the examined life that i’ve held dear will end up, um, validated. i don’t particularly fear my children ending up religious, don’t fear for their souls if they should decide that the streams of Catholicism or Judaism or left-wing Protestantism flowing through the family are for them. the logical opposite of my own belief system is not faith but unawareness. and unawareness i can counter, starting even with the three-year-old, with my handy dandy homegrown Comparative Religion class. having Protestants, Catholics and Jews in the immediate family helps too.
but the belonging part is what escapes me. the good feeling part is what escapes me. i cannot point to a long family tradition of vague agnosticism and say this is who we are, child, these are our people, our history. i cannot dive into the infinite variety of doctrine out there regarding the sacred and say this is it, little one, this is the Truth, the Holy Word. i can say these are holy words to many, but that does not come with the same warm feeling of inducting my child into something that is holy to me.
i would like to. i cannot, any more than i can fly.
instead i settle Oscar’s solid little body in the space atop my crossed legs, up against me. i pull him close and i whisper, many people believe in an idea called God. for some of them, God is all-powerful: he’s like a Father, who knows everything and controls everything that happens here on earth. for some of them, God is a spirit of goodness. some call him by different names. some don’t think he’s a him at all.
and i feel the small heart beating under my hand and the tickling curls against my chin and i wish i could explain how it is these moments of quiet and talking and small bodies safely curled against me that make me reverent, thankful, full to the brim with the glory of that unnameable, unspeakable thing my own soul calls holy…but that would probably be sacrilege. and words would not do it justice.
still, i wish i had them.
for those of you with faith and without, how have you talked about it with your children? what parts have been hard to explain, or easy? are there parts of your own belief structure you most want your children to share and understand?
is there anything you wish were different about the process or its fit with your culture & community, but that just doesn’t jive with your own personal ethic or beliefs?