Do you remember the first time you ever prayed? I don’t. Prayer seems to be one of those things that I’ve just always known about. I kind of regret this. Not that prayer is a part of my life, but that I don’t have a clear sense of before and after. There are certain prayers that I have prayed that stand out in my memory, most of them having to do with people who are sick or dying. I remember a few prayers of thanksgiving and joy, like when my daughter was born. Mostly, though, prayer feels like trees or sky: something that is always around me everywhere I go, often without me even noticing.
I can’t say I’m real clear on what prayer is or what it means or how it works. I do believe it makes a difference. Not in any kind of magical thinking, genie-in-a-bottle kind of way. I’ve heard too many prayers at the bedsides of dying people, including my own brother, to believe that prayer is a formula whose correct and thorough recitation triggers supernatural intervention in the course of world events. But I have seen it change the way people act or talk or feel. I’ve seen anger soften, tears flow, anguished frowns turn to smiles, voices lowered or raised, hands and arms joining, all during or after a prayer. A month ago, I prevented a patient from receiving a sedative injection because I prayed for her and her heart rate and blood pressure dropped to safe levels. I knew what I was doing; I have a calm, soft, soothing praying voice, and I was aware of the patient’s faithful belief that prayer is powerful. She and I might have had different beliefs about what makes prayer powerful, but in that moment, it definitely was.
My own prayer life is a little less certain. I rarely pray out loud by myself. Even silently, I don’t compose an inner monologue or speech. Prayer is more about awareness and mindfulness, of creating an inner space of connection with the larger world around me so that I might let myself be reassured of the sanctity of this life and my relationship with others. I suppose “meditation” might be a better word for it, but I can’t let go of the word “prayer.” In my cultural upbringing, that’s the word for it, and as much as it might have evolved from what I was taught in Sunday School, it still feels like an important spiritual practice for feeling grounded in my relationships: to my loved ones, to my self, to the larger community of humanity, to this creation I’m lucky enough to live in.
So of course I’ve tried to teach my child to pray. I’m not the only one, of course; she goes to church and Sunday School. Her preschool is run by a church, so she gets it during the week, too. She knows how to say “the blessing” before each meal. The common one, sung to “Frere Jacques,” goes:
God our Father, God our Father
Once again, once again
Thank you for our blessings, thank you for our blessings
It’s simple, easy to remember, and mostly I like the simple message. (Mostly; I have my typical liberal resistance to male imagery of the divine, but that is how Jesus prayed, and I still have some years to sneak in feminine imagery.) Some nights if she’s really hungry, she just prays, “Dear God, thank you for this food, amen.” Which is still pretty great.
We’ve also taught her to say prayers before bedtime. Not every night; bedtime is sometimes a delicate dance, and I am not going to disrupt it by praying. (Note to Jesus: Sorry, but that’s how it is. If you have a problem with it, then make my daughter fall asleep faster.) When we say prayers at bedtime, she usually speaks only thanks. “Dear God, thank you for Grammy and Pappy and Grandmom and Granddad and all the people in this city. Amen.”
I love that my child’s first prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. She hasn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how lovely her life really is, which is why I’m touched to hear her spontaneously give thanks for things like her new doll or butterflies and flowers. I’m thankful her life is good enough that she has the luxury to pick and choose so many things to give thanks for.
I want her prayers to start incorporating an awareness beyond her own good life to others who might not have it as good. She’s already starting to gain some sense that other people have it harder than she does, and it seems a good time to introduce prayer into this awareness. So my new practice with her is to have her say a prayer anytime an ambulance or fire truck races past us on the road.
“Someone is sick or hurt,” I say.
“Who is it?” she asks.
“I don’t know, but that fire truck / ambulance is rushing off to help them. Do you want to say a prayer for them?”
The first few times, of course, I did it for her, to model what it sounds like. Only a sentence or two, to ask God to help whoever is hurt. Just enough for her to practice thinking of other people in her prayers.
This past week, we had the luck of seeing the person we prayed for. A fire truck raced past, followed by an ambulance.
“Uh oh,” my daughter said from the backseat. “Someone is hurt.”
“Sounds like it. Should we pray for that person?”
“Dear God,” she said, “please go be with the person who needs help and make them feel better. Amen.”
Proud and touched, I said, “That was a very good prayer.”
“I know,” she said, nonchalant. “I’m a very good pray-er-upper.”
Of course this made me laugh at loud. Then we drove past the ambulance, which had stopped on the sidewalk. Apparently a runner had fallen or collapsed; he was sitting in the ambulance talking with the EMS tech, and the fire truck was driving away with its sirens off. “Look honey, that’s who you prayed for.”
“Who is he? Is he okay?”
“I don’t know for sure, but it looks like they’re taking care of him. Maybe he fell.”
A few moments of silence before she said, “I’m glad they’re taking care of him.”
To be glad that a stranger is getting care is prayer to me. If my five-year-old child can experience that, can allow herself to be concerned with another person’s suffering for a few moments, then she is indeed a good pray-er-upper. I hope I can continue to teach and learn alongside her the joys of connection and empathy, praying up her own spirit as we go. If prayer is about connection to those around us, I am grateful for the joy that comes in praying with my child.
Some weeks ago, my daughter asked me to tell her a joke. I told a knock-knock, which I quickly realized she didn’t understand. So I had to teach her. Which immediately struck me: the knock-knock joke is a cultural language that has to be learned. I don’t remember the first knock-knock joke I ever heard; I just remember it as an assumed structure of language and simple humor. But somewhere in my life, someone had to explain it to me.
Me: I say “Knock knock,” and you say, “Who’s there?”
Me: Like someone is at the door. I’m knocking on the door, and you want to know who it is. “Knock knock.”
Her: Come in.
Me: No, you ask “Who’s there?”
Her: Oh, okay. Do it again.
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who’s there?
Her: Come in, Harry!
Me: No, you say “Harry who?”
Me: Because you don’t know which Harry it is. You’re asking for Harry’s last name.
Her: Oh, okay. Do it again.
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Her: Harry, what’s your last name?
Me: No, just say “Harry who?”
Her: Oh. Harry who?
Me: Harry up and let me in!
Me: Maybe you’re not quite old enough for knock-knock jokes yet.
Her: No, do another one!
Me: Okay, we’ll practice with this one. Knock knock.
Me: Remember, ask me who it is.
Her: Oh yeah, oh yeah, sorry. Who is it?
Her: Banana? <breaks out into laughter> That’s funny!
Me: But that’s not the joke.
Her: <still laughing> A banana at the door!
Me: You’re supposed to say “Banana who?”
Her: Oh yeah, oh yeah, okay. “Banana who?”
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Me: <whispering> “Banana who?”
Her: <annoyed> I know! Banana who?
Me: Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Her: Banana who? I got it!
Me: Good job. Knock knock.
Her: Who is it?
Me: <opening my mouth to prompt her>
Her: I know! Orange who?
Me: Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?
Me: <smiling> See?
Her: Okay, my turn! Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Her: Pootie tootie.
Me: Uh, okay. Pootie tootie who?
Her: Aren’t you glad I didn’t say wicky wicky? <wild belly laughter>
It went on like that, with her offering dozens of knock-knock jokes, all of which followed this pattern:
Her: Knock knock.
Me: Who’s there?
Her: (nonsense phrase 1)
Me: (nonsense phrase 1) who?
Her: Aren’t you glad I didn’t say (nonsense phrase 2)? <wild belly laughter>
Of course, the best knock-knock jokes are really puns, told with a particular set-up. Part of the humor is knowing the set-up and seeing how the pun fits. Puns, despite being considered by many as not the highest form of humor, are still a little too sophisticated for a five-year-old. Even after learning (mostly) the set-up of a knock-knock joke, her grasp of the English language is still too literal for her to grasp the structure of a pun.
However, obviously, this didn’t prevent her from finding humor. The key to humor is not just surprise; it’s subversion. And subversion is always at someone else’s expense. The pun is a subversion of linguistic expectations, implicitly at the expense of the listener who is expecting a typical use of the word “orange” and receives instead a sentence substituting “orange” in place of “aren’t you”. My child is still learning the language; she’s not familiar enough with it to appreciate sound-alike subversions.
But she’s not too young to appreciate the subversion of structure, which is why the more of her knock-knock jokes she told, the funnier they were. She learned the basic structure of the knock-knock joke; in fact, she learned the structure of a particular knock-knock joke. Then she continually subverted that structure – while adhering to it! – by inserting nonsense phrases she made up. These jokes were, implicitly, at my expense. After all, it was my expectation she would use the structure of the knock-knock joke appropriately. She took the structure that I, the authority figure, gave her and then repeatedly handed that structure back to me with nonsense inserted so as to thwart my expectations of following the appropriate structure.
Children are really, really good at this. They are exploring the world without pre-existing expectations, and when they bump against boundaries, their first impulse is to test them. Subverting language happens even as they are learning it – indeed, you might argue that subverting language is how they learn it. They also subvert social norms, which is why “poopie” jokes are always funny to a kid. A part of me really admires my child’s careless subversion of the norms and expectations around her, although I don’t love that it’s often at my expense. But the thing I’m most jealous of is how much fun she has doing it. Children are true jesters, cheerfully poking holes in everything they see. My child reminds me that transformation should be a strange, delightful, even fun endeavor. Humorless activism is missing something.
As best as I can, I want to continue to join my child’s absurdist perforations of the expectations and structures of this world. It’s called play, and it is serious business. It’s how we learn, grow, and transform. May all your knock-knocks be weird, absurd, and provoke you to belly laughs.
“Is she with you?”
I’ve never received a text message that sent such cold ripples through my body.
We were out of town a few weeks ago for a wedding. We stayed in a hotel – our daughter’s first time – and I had gone out to do some crate digging at local record stores while she and her mother took a nap before getting dressed and heading to the church. When I’d left them, they’d been each in their own double bed, sound asleep. Two hours later, across the town in a shop by myself, I received that text from my spouse.
“I hope yr kidding” I texted back. But the chills seeping into my body could not be mollified by a mere text, so I called.
“She was still asleep when I woke up,” she told me, “so I got in the shower. I heard the door open as I was getting out, I thought it was you. She’s not here, I was hoping you’d taken her somewhere.”
“I haven’t been back,” I said slowly.
“I don’t know what to do. Please get back here now.”
I knew it would take me fifteen or twenty minutes to get back to the hotel, and I had harshly practical realization that if things were not okay within that time, they would never be okay. She had to be in the hotel, right? I mean, where would she go? What bad things could happen to her in a hotel? Of course, someone could snatch her up and take her away, but honestly, what were the chances that there were child predators prowling the hallways of a mid-class family hotel hoping a child would wander out unattended?
But what if she wandered outside? What if she wandered into the street? What if this was actually the very day that a child predator really was staying in the Holiday Inn?
“Found her” came to me before I even started the car. Then: “In the lobby in her pjs” with a frowny face emoticon.
(There’s really no emoticon that adequately captures the overwhelming mixture of reassurace, irritation, dread, and thwarted proleptic grief that comes with finding your lost child. But the Germans probably have a word for it: meinKindGottseiDanknichtwidertun.)
When I got back to the hotel room, my spouse met me at the door. “Don’t scold her,” she said. The story she got from our child is that she woke up, thought we’d left her, and went down to the lobby to wait for us. Why didn’t she check the bathroom first? Who knows. But when my spouse rushed into the lobby in wet hair and dirty clothes, after frantically calling down the hallways of two floors, she saw our child by the window, and the two tearfully reunited, apparently with equal amounts of fear and relief. There she’d sat, in a chair by the window, in nothing but her pajama top and underwear, clutching her stuffed orange kitty and watching, forlorn, for a familiar car to pull up to the door.
Everyone who has heard us tell this story says something like, “Every parent has to have that experience when they lose their child. May this be your only one.” Amen and amen to both statements. Yes, dear Jesus, let that be the only time we feel that kind of gut-crushing panic. But also, yes, universe, thank you for giving me a taste of that feeling. It is humbling and grounding to be reminded of my mindlessly fierce love for my child. Scary as it was to face a few eternal moments of fearing the worst for her, it is a touchstone I can go back to in those moments when she is driving me crazy. Seriously: thank God for the luxury of her driving me crazy by splashing me at bathtime; for the beauty of her refusal to sit still and use her fork; even the maddening fits and tantrums become reasons for rejoicing – we found something we might have lost.
Jesus, the Christian religion’s perfect avatar of a lost child found again, tells a parable about a woman who loses a coin and turns her house upside down to find it. When she does, she throws a party with all her friends to celebrate. “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found that which I lost.” Commentaries will attempt to explain what made that one coin so valuable (She was poor! It was her dowry! It’s just a story, lighten up!) , but Jesus explains the meaning by saying that heaven rejoices with equal measure over just one sinner who repents. Or, in other words, that God feels this way about all of God’s children when they are lost and then found.
I know there are times when I have felt left behind, times when I woke up and felt God – or Whoever – had gone away. And like my child, I didn’t stay put or check obvious places, because waking up alone in a strange place is disorienting and frightening. So I wandered to a place I thought I was likely to be found, looking out into a scary world, exposed, pitiful, deserted. The next time that happens, I will remember to take with me the knowledge that even in those lonely moments when I feel most forsaken, there is a divine and holy spirit frantically searching to find me.
I grew up in an evangelical community where I often heard the aphorism, “If you’re feeling distant from God, remember that you’re the one who moved away.” I suppose that might often be true; my child was the one who the left the hotel room, although her mother did get up to take a shower. But I have compassion and understanding toward my child who, in her confused and startled mind, made a decision she thought best. If we move away from God, it’s not because we’re wicked, wayward sinners; it’s usually because we’re bewildered and afraid and uncertain. And if we move away from God, it’s good to know that God will then be storming through the building with wet hair and dirty jeans, calling out to find us.
Last night, I asked my daughter if she knew what Easter was about.
“Jesus,” she said. “And the cross.”
“That’s right,” I said. “What is it about Jesus that makes Easter special?”
“Because he got dead.”
“And then what?”
In fairness, it was Maundy Thursday and not Easter Sunday, so chances are good that are church has not been teaching her the end of the story yet. An appropriate liturgical move, I suppose, but perhaps not the best narration for a five-year-old’s understanding.
“He didn’t stay dead,” I tried to hint to her. But that’s a crazy thing to say and she looked at me accordingly. “He came back to life,” I tried to explain. Then I started to worry about whether this would get twisted in her literal brain, the ways that she already doesn’t understand death to be permanent. “They buried him, but he arose from the dead.” Which seemed equally ridiculous, because “arose from the dead” is such a high-church phrase that the only way to make it not sound silly is for it to be sung by a choir.
“Daddy, did he make himself dead?” she asked.
“No,” I said slowly. This is harder than I anticipated, I thought. “No, other people killed him.”
My brain started racing to figure out how to answer the next logical question – “Why?” – but it didn’t come.
“So they buried him,” I continued. “But three days later, the tomb was empty.”
She cocked her head in that beautiful inquisitive way she has. “You mean his grave?”
“Yes!” I said. “There was no body in it, because Jesus was alive.”
“How could anyone tell?”
“They put him in a cave,” I started. Then I was hit with the inspiration of using the resource materials our church uses my tithe dollars to buy, and I pulled out a worksheet she’d brought home from church. “See?” I said, pointing to a picture she’d colored of the empty tomb. “They buried Jesus in this cave and rolled it up with a stone. But three days later they came back, and the stone was moved and the grave was empty! Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive!”
Recognition moved through her eyes, and her face lit up with a smile. “Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed. “And that’s why we celebrate!”
“That’s right,” I said. “We don’t celebrate that he died, we celebrate – ”
“That he didn’t stay dead!” she interrupted me.
“That’s right. We celebrate that he’s alive.”
I started to wonder if she could understand this, but then she said: “He’s alive all around us, everywhere we go.”
“Yes, he is.” So she does understand, I guess, as much as any of us.
I grew up in a tradition that skipped straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. I didn’t attend any Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services until I was in seminary. But for a church that seemed to skip right over the violent tragedies of Holy Week, our theology seemed to focus an awful lot on Jesus’ death. “Died for our sins” and “shed his blood for me” were phrases that got thrown around an awful lot, so anyone would be forgiven for deducing that we celebrate Jesus’ death. But that’s not what Easter is about for me, and that’s not what I think the Christian faith should celebrate.
Then again, it is what the world around us seems to exalt in. Unarmed black men are killed by police. Militants slaughter university students, or cartoonists, or marathon enthusiasts. A pilot flew a plane into a mountain. Some psychopath went on an HBO television special and basically admitted to murdering people. So anyone could be forgiven for deducing that this world celebrates death.
But not my God. And not me.
Life persists and thrives and grows all around us. I see my daughter put things together in her head. She can spell “cat” and she can beat me at Crazy Eights and she can color pictures of the empty tomb and stay inside the lines. She builds and creates and imagines. Everywhere she goes, she sees life: butterflies, or the full moon, or colorful rocks, or clouds that look like things. She sees death, too; she’s smart and it’s unavoidable. There will be plenty of crosses for her to encounter in this world. But there will also be empty tombs.
I pray that this weekend you are filled with your celebration of life. May your face light up with rejoicing when you, too, recognize the mystery and abundance of aliveness all around you.
I’m not one to believe that dreams are magical messages from the great beyond, or that they are mysterious premonitory glimpses into a higher reality. Dreams do not come from outside of us but from inside of us, interpretations of the squiggles and flashes our eyes pick up while we sleep. Mostly, I tend to think to dreams as odd little bits of nonsense thrown together by a lazing brain, like letting monkeys loose on typewriters and then reading the results. But even the most mischievous monkeys of our imaginative minds can occasionally come up with something compelling and powerful, particularly if the typewriters they are using are borrowed from the deep, tender places of our unconscious. And sometimes I find that I have a dream so vivid and powerful that it brings some deep intuitive wisdom to the surface. I had one of those dreams this week.
Like most dreams, this one was a string of loose, unconnected episodes strung together with no particular connection beyond a common setting or character. I’ve forgotten the early episodes of that night’s dream anthology, but they brought me into a large house that my family and I were sharing for a vacation. I was alone in the house, my parents, spouse, and child having gone to town to do something. I wandered through the house, looking for something, but the house was full of closed doors that did not lead to what wanted. I meandered through the house with a vague sense of purpose until I came to a door different than the others, a door of heavy ornate wood. On the other side of it, I heard someone faintly calling for help.
I went inside, and in a room lit only by the sunlight from a wide window. Lying in a bed was my maternal grandmother, who died sixteen years ago. As I entered the room it became clear to me that my family had gathered in this house to keep vigil with my grandmother, who was dying. She was calling out because no one was around and she was afraid.
I immediately went to the bedside and sat down next to her to reassure her. She sat up and told me she was afraid that everyone had left her. I assured her everyone was coming back and that I was here and not to worry. She sat up and I hugged her and told her everything was fine.
Then I spoke the words: “You don’t have to wait for everyone.” What I was really saying to her was It’s alright to die.
Then I spoke the words: “If you see anyone I know, say hello.” What I was really saying to her was Please look for my brother when you go wherever it is people go when they die.
And in that strange dream logic, I knew that she understood exactly what I was really saying to her even through the ambiguity of my spoken words.
She patted my hand and thanked me for reassuring her. She told me I didn’t have to stay with her, that she would be alright, that I could get back to whatever I was doing. Then I heard a door in the house open and knew that my mother was home. I told my grandmother I would go get her. We looked out the window and saw some children playing, and I saw my daughter in the yard playing, her mother following a little ways behind. I pointed out the window and said to my grandmother, “That’s my daughter. Isn’t she beautiful?” She nodded and we sat and watched.
After a few moments, my daughter started to cry. In the instinctive ways that all parents learn to interpret their children’s types of crying, I knew that my daughter was upset about something minor: not injured or afraid, but upset about some disappointment or frustration. I saw her mother watching her and registered her mild concern, and it was that familiar mundane parental moment of knowing that your child needs some brief, simple, easy care in order to get over this mostly insignificant setback and be on her way again. I stood to go give my spouse a break and then I was awake.
When I awoke, I was weeping. Indeed, I believe that’s what woke me up. The emotions that were flooding over me in that tiny early hour were ones of gratitude, affection, and the soft aching longing of having touched something sacred.
I would guess that ninety percent of the dreams I remember (which is itself probably only ten percent of the dreams I actually have) are silly, insignificant, mildly entertaining snapshots of absurdity and strangeness. But there have been a few in my lifetime that have stood out to me as so hauntingly evocative as to persuade me to understand those who talk about dreams as if they were visitations from something outside of ourselves. When a dream evokes that kind of emotion, then I believe there’s something inside me – something deep and foundational and wise beyond my awareness – that I need to listen to.
In my work, I live with my feet in two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dying. I have sat on the beds of people who are in their last hours on this earth; I have stood with people who have whispered words of leaving to their dearest friends and family members. I have also sat next to people who are in their first hours on this earth without someone they love; I have heard and seen expressions of grief and disbelief. I also spend a good bit of time with others who occupy this transitional space between the healthy and living and the sick and dying.
It’s my assessment that not many people occupy this space in between life and death with any regularity. We’re so afraid of death we deny it at all costs. We numb ourselves to our own mortality with food, TV, money, celebrities, sports, whatever. Most people only put a foot down in the world of the dying if they’re dragged to it by sudden loss. Of course, all of us are dragged to it eventually.
The thing is, though: I don’t think you can put a foot in the world of the living unless you’ve sunk your feet into the dirt of dying. So it isn’t about people avoiding the world of the dying so they can stay in the world of living; it’s about people choosing to avoid the world altogether.
I was still in college when my grandmother died in her sleep in a nursing home. Her roommate died the day before, and the story my mom’s family tells is that my grandmother saw the peace and rest that awaited and decided she was ready for it, too. She died before I started dating the woman I would marry; she died long before I became a parent. When I think of how I live in the worlds of life and death, I like to imagine my grandmother seeing her great-granddaughter playing in the yard. We are shaped by our ancestors, even the ones we never meet; the way of life is paved for us by those who have lived and died before us.
I’ve pondered what it meant that the last thing I see in my dream is my daughter crying. In the most embodied interpretation, I wonder if I saw her start crying because my actual body was crying. In the same way that I sometimes dream I’m looking for a bathroom only to wake up actually needing to go, I wonder if my body responded to the emotion and the physical sensations of tears were projected into my daughter in the dream, because that is the person I was watching. There also may be a shared generational grief that might be reflected in my daughter’s tears. She may be young, but she’s not disconnected from life; she is, perhaps, more connected than I am. She knows there are people who would have loved her who have died. She knows that I once had grandparents. She knows I once had a brother. Perhaps her tears in the dream are my own grief experienced with more depth and reflection reflected by my child.
There’s grief in everything, everywhere. That’s what it means to have one foot firmly planted among the dying. But grief isn’t all there is. The emotions that came over me in the dream as I watched my daughters tears weren’t sadness or loss, but warmth and love and, well, duty. I needed to comfort my daughter; I have a life to live. If my grandmother represents death, then it means a lot that she told me I could go back to what I was doing. After a moment of showing death the most beautiful piece of life that I’ve ever seen, I knew I needed to get back to the task of living it.
Our existence is not meant to be spent wandering between closed doors. That’s what we do when we deny the richness of our lives, but to fully see that opulent splendor we must visit the beds of the sick and dying, for they will be our own beds one day. But not today. Today is for living the luxurious, lavish gifts of love and grace and compassion and warmth of – and for – the people around us.
I hope that your heart might feel as full as mine has felt this week and that you might honor those you’ve lost by loving those you have in all the sweet, mundane ways this existence gives to you.
I have a very distinct memory about the first time I can remember feeling shame. I was in preschool, maybe four or five years old (my daughter’s age – spoiler alert!). I did something I wasn’t supposed to do. I was put in time-out in a corner of the room after being called out by the teacher. I was scolded in front of the class and sent to the time-out corner. There I sat, being watched by my classmates, as I cried and sulked.
As my earliest memory of shame, I’m intrigued by the things I don’t remember. I don’t remember what I did to get into trouble. I don’t remember who the teacher was. I don’t remember any of my classmates. I don’t really remember what the classroom looked like. I don’t remember what happened to get me out of trouble. I assume that, at some point, the teacher decided I’d paid my debt and released me from time-out to rejoin my peers. But I don’t remember that.
Here is what I do remember: I remember sobbing. I remember being very angry. I was angry that the teacher was punishing me; I was angry that my peers were watching; I was angry that I’d done something wrong. I also remember feeling guilty. Whatever it was I got in trouble over, I knew I’d done it and that it was something deserving of punishment. My guilt had perhaps a touch of defiance: I had done it and I wouldn’t pretend I hadn’t. And yet, more than anything, my guilt was about regret, because whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t worth the humiliation and pain I was then experiencing.
More than anything, I remember wanting to disappear. I wanted to hide from the looks of my classmates. I can recall my recognition that each of them had at one point been where I was, but at that moment, it was me and not them. Their expressions were a mix of pity and relief and they burned me. I didn’t want them to see me crying, but their seeing me made me cry harder. It seems reasonable to guess that I had perhaps experienced emotions of guilt, anger, embarrassment, sadness, and regret before that moment. But the hot burning sensation of all of these emotions – the deep, overwhelming shame – well, this was new and terrible and I’ll never forget it.
This foundational memory was brought to the surface of my consciousness yesterday when I picked up my daughter who was obviously having her own foundational shame experience. The signs became painfully obvious and right away and it didn’t take long for me to recognize what was happening to her.
When I walked in, she was standing by herself playing with some blocks. She refused to look at me, even when I said her name.
The teacher explained that she “might be a little upset.” She told me my daughter had just gotten out of time-out for coloring on another classmate’s paper. Three times the teacher told her to stop, but she didn’t.
I told my daughter to get her coat, that we were going to eat dinner with her grandparents. She announced to the room, “I’m going to my Grandmom’s house!” But it wasn’t with delight or glee; it was clearly in anger and defiance. She might as well have added, “And none of you can come!”
Robin (not his real name), the victim of my daughter’s errant coloring, then came over to show me his artwork. He, with great animation, pointed to a large swath of yellow on an otherwise unimpressive drawing of who-knows-what and said, “This is what she did!” With that, my daughter burst into tears and ran from the room into the hallway. The teacher apologized, offering that this was the first time she’d had to correct my child. Of course, I assured her no apology was necessary, that she’d done the right thing. And in that moment, I could feel my own foundational shame coming back to the surface, albeit with a new adult distance of respect. If my child needs correcting, I want her to get it, I thought. And I also thought, oh I hate that she has to feel what she’s feeling right now.
I went out into the hall and found her sobbing in a corner. I put her jacket on and held her hand as we walked to the car.
“Can you tell me what’s making you cry?” I asked as gently as I could.
“I didn’t finish my artwork!” she wailed.
I waited a moment, and asked, “Is that really why you’re crying?”
“I had a rough day,” she admitted as I buckled her in. “I got put in time-out.”
“What did you do to get put into time-out?”
“Robin said I colored on his paper, but I didn’t!”
“Why would Robin say that?”
“I don’t know! He’s telling stories!”
I didn’t believe her for a second. And in that moment, I comprehended her shame so clearly: it hurt so bad to be seen, by her teacher and her classmates and now her own father, that she was resorting to lying. She was that desperate to hide.
“Please don’t lie to me,” I said. “Your teacher said she saw you.” I waited a moment. “Sometimes we mess up and do bad things and get in trouble. I want you to be honest with me. Did you color on Robin’s paper?”
Whimpering, she nodded, “Mmm hmm.”
“So Robin wasn’t telling stories, was he?”
“Why did you lie to me?”
She said, “I didn’t want you to find out.”
Which, of course, makes no sense on the surface. The teacher told me right away, not to mention Robin himself. I’d already found out. You can’t unfind things out.
And yet… wow. How many times have I tried to fudge my way out of a painful truth? When I was fifteen, I snuck out of the house with my friend during a sleepover. When we came back to the house, my parents were up and looking for us. It was immediately clear we’d been caught, and yet I still scrambled back into my room through the window desperately trying to come up with a story that would explain away where we’d been and why nothing was wrong. Even now as an adult, I catch myself trying to minimize my mistakes, shift blame away from myself, downplay any negative effects. Ultimately, I wonder, if we all try to weasel out of responsibility not because we’re afraid of the consequences of our mistakes, but because it feels so toxic to be seen making them.
I tried to go for the teaching moment in the car with my daughter. I told her I wanted her to be honest with me, and honesty meant admitting our mistakes and accepting the consequences. I told her I loved her, even when she did things wrong. I told her we can learn from when we do bad things, and that everyone does them. I promised her that if she always told me the truth, even about things she did wrong, that I would try to be more patient and calm than if she lied and tried to cover over her mistakes. I don’t know if any of that will sink in; it’s the parental duty to snatch a teaching moment, even if it doesn’t take, so I went for it. But what I really wanted to do for her, even in the teaching, was to help her tolerate being seen messing up. So I told her again that I loved her.
There’s no shaking our shame. Shame is some goddamn potent shit, no question. I still have plenty of my own shame still lying around; to this day I can feel the hot rise in my cheeks remembering my preschool classmates watching me cry in the corner. And that’s just my earliest memory of shame; if I were ranking my most intense memories of shame, that one wouldn’t make the top five. Even with all that shame that still follows me around, what helps me heal, what keeps me from collapsing under its crippling weight, is the very thing that feels so lethal: being seen.
I know deep, deep down in my darkest depths the burning, consuming fire of shame that comes with being seen as we falter. I know, too, how poisonous it feels when the eyes seeing us belong to those we love the most. This is the most insidious irony of all: the eyes that are actually the most forgiving usually feel the most deadly. More than teaching her honesty, I wanted to teach her that being seen by those who love us can be healing. I sure wish I had learned that truth sooner.
Up until maybe a few months ago, there was an essential beginning stage to our daughter’s bathtime routine: Naked Running. While we ran the water, she would strip her clothes off and then run naked through the house. Usually there would also be squealing involved as she thrilled to the sound of her voice. Once the bath was full, there would be one last lap down the hallway, and then into the water.
In the last few months, our lives have gotten more full, which results in the compression of routines. I didn’t realize that Naked Running had been excised from our bathtime routine until last week, when my little girl suddenly asked if she could do it before bath. Why not, I reasoned, even as I wondered where that part of the ritual had gone. Through the house she ran, giggling and delighting in the tactile pleasure of a little breeze rushing through the places where the sun doesn’t shine. It dawned on me that we have begun to set boundaries on the way she treats her body, particularly her private parts. She wipes herself after using the potty now; I encourage her to wash herself during bath; we tell her that she should only talk about her “gina” with family and the doctor. I also now request privacy from her when I am in the bathroom or shower, and encourage her to claim her own. This feels like an age-appropriate shift for teaching modesty and respect. But I couldn’t help but grieve a little as she delighted in her own nakedness, streaking through the house like a freed wood sprite. I know she can’t do that outside our house; that this society and world is really not safe for a young girl with no personal boundaries. But I really wish it were.
At the beginning of this Lenten season, I am mindful of the creation story. We are, Ash Wednesday reminds us, made of dust. According to the creation narrative of Genesis 2, we are creatures made of earth. Literally: the name “Adam” is from the Hebrew word adamah, which means “dust from the ground” or “earth.” None of the other animals are described as being created this way; only humans have the distinction of being formed out of the dust. God then splits this living earth creature into two genders, man (ish) and woman (ishshah). Genesis 2:25 tells us they “were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
But oh how things change. There’s that one tree that God tells them not eat fruit from, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. You know the story: the serpent makes a pretty good case for eating the forbidden fruit to the woman (who had not been created when God first pronounced this tree off limits). She eats, gives it to the man, and then “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” When God comes looking for them, they hide. God calls out to the man, and the man says, “I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” God, puzzled by this turn of events, queries, “Who told you that you were naked?” Then the blame begins: the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, everyone involved gets punished. God’s final word in his litany of punishment comes in Gen. 3:19b: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
To me, sin means all the ways we learn to be ashamed of our nakedness. I’m sad that we’re already teaching our daughter that nakedness is the exception; that such delighted freedom can only be safely enjoyed in rather strict circumstances. That is, unfortunately, the world we live in: broken, fallen, sinful, whatever word you want to use. We are so quick to hide our nakedness from others, even those who have seen it before. God had seen them naked; God made them naked. Yet they were ashamed and hid.
Lent is usually a solemn time, a time of fasting and repentance and self-reflection. I contend it might also be a time of celebration. Perhaps we might celebrate our dust-natures; maybe we could love our earthy, loamy body-selves in all their dirty glory. Penitence usually means that we allow ourselves to stop hiding, bringing our darkest selves out into the light. This Lent, perhaps it is time to do this without shame. After all, we’re not just unique because we’re the only creatures God fashioned from dust; we’re also the only creatures into which God breathed life.
So this year, Lent means to me an uncovering of my nakedness. My child, bless her, hasn’t learned to be anxious about her nakedness yet. She loves the uninhibited freedom of being unhidden. So this Lenten season, I’m going to try to be a little more naked. Don’t worry, I mean that metaphorically. I’m tempted to slip in a joke about how no one wants to see me naked, but you know what? I’m not going to do that. I’m not going shame my body like that. You can trust me to be socially appropriate, but I’m not going to make self-deprecating jokes about why I ought to stay hidden. I’m giving up shameful hiding for Lent.
We are dust and to dust we shall return. But we are dust with breath and that is something to celebrate. I hope your spirit finds opportunities in the next forty days to run free and unencumbered, to feel a little breeze rushing through those places you normally hide. Let go of some shame and rejoice in your naked dust-nature. And if there is also some squealing involved, thrill to the sound of your own voice. May your soul do some Naked Running.
(Inspiration from Mary Oliver)
I plan to put a record on
in my basement tonight after the sunlight fades.
Lady Soul, which came to me while
my fingers sifted through crates of cardboard,
the scent of earth and oil hanging
on my shirtsleeves. Behind the counter
a grizzled traveler sorted seventy-eights.
Each corner is a crinkled knuckle of
blue and faded white and I will
slide the black wax back into my palm,
with its label like the dusk against night
and the silvery shimmering circles
blinking bright in my eyes.
Ah, and the warm crisp crackle that will
fill the room like strong ale!
Tender tasks of care draw my child, and as I
lift my finger away from the needle she may
appear at my waist with eyes of questions and
curiosity (or maybe mischief).
Perhaps we will dance with the manners of
four-year-olds, stuttering limbs and wavering jabs,
and I will try to teach her to love all the ways
her little body moves in this world –
with a touch more joy, I pray,
than I have loved my own body.
There are only five songs to the side and then
the little one will tire. I will be left with the sound,
but before all this – before the grooves run out and
the stylus scrapes the sticker with thickening
stillness – before the dark sparkling slows to
a stop – before the pops of full-bodied
analogue dwindle – before the imperfect
wows and flutters smooth away to space –
I have this record to play.
On Monday, our daughter had a bad day. Her teachers scolded her for not listening. Her classmates didn’t want to play with her and told her she was mean. She came home in a bad mood over it. Not, as her usual bad moods manifest, hostile and defiant; but rather sullen and despondent.
At dinner, she spoke a little bit about it, telling us that her teachers had threatened she would miss a field trip if she didn’t listen better.
“Uh oh,” I said, trying to strike the balance between empathetic and didactic. “What was going on?”
“I had the issues,” she said.
Her mother and I looked at each other, puzzled. “What issues?” we asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t listen. I had the issues today.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” her mother asked.
“No,” she said, “it’s too ridiculous.”
Just a reminder – she’s four. I can only imagine what dinner conversations about bad days are going to be like ten years now. (Actually, I imagine they’ll be exactly like this one.) Mondays are tough and more likely to be bad days than other weekdays. And, like most bad days, it’s not entirely other people’s fault. The more we drew out of her, the clearer it became she contributed to her own bad day.
“No one wanted to play with me today,” she said.
“They didn’t?” I asked. “What did they say to you?”
“They said I was mean and they didn’t like me.”
“What made them say that to you?”
“I was calling them names.”
“Oh. I see…”
So it’s true: she had the issues.
I can completely identify with her. After all, my worst days are not days where annoying things happen to me. They aren’t days where people seem to treat me rudely or dismissively; days when work doesn’t get done or some project fails; days when I am unexpectedly inconvenienced. Those things are not fun, of course, and don’t usually make it to my list of Good Days. But the worst days are days when I get into a frame of mind such that everything is awful. Often, something on the above list might provoke me into a gloomy, stormy mood, but not always. Some days I just wake up in a bad place and the day follows me there. My worst days are not days where the outside world is mean to me; they are days when I am the one with the issues.
My daughter’s insertion of the definite article in describing her issues struck us as cute and funny at first. I imagine she heard one of her teachers say something like, “You’re having issues today,” and she heard the ing sound as a the sound, interpolating this as “You have the issues today,” much like one would have the sniffles or the shits. How many times a week do we hear someone – ourselves included – say “I’m having issues.” It’s a popular vernacular term, and I have no problem with one of her teachers using it to describe her.
I think there’s some powerful – and unintentional – wisdom in my daughter’s mishearing the definite article. Generic issues, I mean, we all have those, am I right? But the issues, that’s different. The article “the” is often used to indicate something that is known as superior, such as “That is the camera to own,” or “They are the team to beat.” It is used to refer to proper nouns of particular significance; i.e., the Smoky Mountains or the Beatles. Anyone can have issues, but when you have The Issues, well, that’s of particular concern and import.
More than drawing attention to the significance of said issues, however, I think the definite article “the” draws attention to the most insightful aspect of one’s possession of issues. “The” can be used in place of a possessive pronoun when referring to someone’s belonging, body part, or possession. “I went to answer the phone,” or “I got kicked in the shin,” or “It’s in the car.” The implication, in all these examples, is that “the” stands in for “my.”
So when my daughter says “I had the issues,” it doesn’t just mean “I had the issues” but also “I had the issues.”
Our encouragement to her after a day of having the issues was, in its way, an invitation for her to take ownership. We told her she could do better the next day; that she could work to listen better; that she would have more friends if she didn’t call people names. But she was already taking ownership – linguistically, at least. It must have worked: Tuesday was a better day, she got to go on her field trip, and her friends have started playing with her again. It seems an important lesson to learn at her age – well, at any age – that a really bad day isn’t just about what happens to and around us, but how we respond to and internalize those happenings.
Generic issues are everywhere; we have them all the time. But our day only gets ruined by certain issues in particular – you know the ones. They may be different from mine, but we all have our issues. And they are our issues. That’s okay, we’re entitled to them, but if they’re going to ruin our day, we should claim them so they don’t claim us. Those truly bad days are usually happening inside of us. The issues get the better of us – that’s why they are the issues. But we have them, so we can respond to them.
Next time my day spirals out of control, I will think of my daughter. And I will have the issues.
Last week, driving home from picking up my daughter at school, we stopped at a busy intersection where a man in ragged clothes stood on the corner.
“Look at that man,” she said. “What’s he holding?”
“It’s a sign he made,” I said.
“What does the sign say?”
“‘Homeless and hungry, please help,’” I read.
There was a moment of silence in the car.
“He doesn’t have anywhere to live,” she said, processing.
Then, softly, she said, “We could give him some money, maybe.”
“We could,” I said. “But the only money I have with me is the two dollar bills your Grammy sent you. Do you want to give him those two dollars?”
“Yes, we should help him.”
I rolled down the window and the man came over. Both his hat and sweatshirt had the U.S. Navy insignia on them. “It’s not much, but I hope it helps you,” I said.
“God bless you,” he said.
We drove off. My daughter was quiet for a moment. Then, quietly enough so that it sounded like she was talking to herself, she said, “I hope he finds someplace warm to sleep.”
“I do, too,” I said, sad. “It’s very cold out.”
“I wish he could come to our house and stay,” she said, “and we could be friends.”
I looked in the rearview at her, watched her looking out the window into the winter dusk.
“That was very nice of you to give him the two dollars Grammy gave you,” I said.
She looked at me in the mirror and, as if reassuring me with an obvious fact, she said, “I’ll get more.”
It’s true that kids aren’t very good at sharing, but it isn’t because they don’t want others to have their things. This was the same kid who just a few weeks ago fought with her cousin over every toy either of them opened at Christmas. But I’m convinced that children don’t fight over toys because they’re stingy, but because they don’t understand the idea of limited resources. It doesn’t occur to them that if they take another child’s toy, it means that child will no longer have that toy. Likewise, I don’t think my daughter understood that giving her dollars to another man meant she would have less. Her primary orientation to the world is an expectation of abundance.
The world is not always abundant to all of us. It certainly isn’t abundant for that veteran standing on the corner last week. But my little girl is right about her own abundance: she will most definitely get more dollars from Grammy. She has a bed to sleep in all by herself; it’s big and warm and it’s in a room of her own in a house that has food and clothes and warm running water. She can’t see the ways she’s privileged and entitled, how she ignores the abundances of her life when she throws a fit because she can’t watch another Curious George cartoon or eat a piece of candy. But she isn’t selfish; she doesn’t want to withhold from others; she innocently wants everyone to enjoy the same abundance she takes for granted.
She’ll grow out of it. We all do, don’t we? Somewhere along the way we begin to learn that when we give something away, then we no longer have it, and we focus on the things we lack at the expense of others’ needs. The expectation of abundance quickly becomes one of scarcity. We give only when we’re certain we have plenty to spare or when it benefits us to give. We look at others in need and we hurt for their very real losses, but their scarcity reminds us of how we close we might be to our own lack, and abundance loses out. It won’t be long before my child understands that most of life is zero-sum and that giving means not having – and the most important thing is to always have.
I wish that wasn’t what happened to us. Because I think that there is actually a great deal of abundance in this world. I believe there’s enough food for all of us, enough shelter, enough water, enough light, enough work, enough friendship, enough love. I suppose that’s a little naïve on my part, but we drive through some rather nice neighborhoods on our way home and my daughter likes to point out the houses that have more than one chimney. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that there is enough heated indoor space in this city to physically accommodate every citizen with a warm place to sleep.
There are limits to the abundance we personally experience. We don’t have all the time in the world, or all the energy and investment, or all the resources. Sometimes individually we don’t have enough money, enough energy, enough love. The idea seems so scary because I have stopped trusting that others are out there to help me. Maybe it’s because I know that the world has bought into the lie of zero sum. Maybe it’s because I would rather take on too much responsibility so I won’t have to ask for help. Whatever the reason, I’ve forgotten that when my well runs dry, I can say with confidence, “I’ll get more.”
I hope that this year is a year of abundance for you and your family: health, money, happiness, etc. But more than just being a recipient of abundance, may we reclaim that sweetly beautiful belief that we can give because we’ll surely get more.