So now we have a kindergartener in our house.
Yep, big times.
All week, folks have been posting “first day of school” pictures of their kids on Facebook and Instagram. Sparkly new backpacks, squeaky new shoes, tentatively forced smiles – I’ve seen them all week of kids of all ages. (By the way, major props to those friends of ours who actually got their high school kids to pose for these pictures. I’m slow-clapping for you right now.) We have one, too.
When I ask my child how she’s feeling about starting at a new school, she tells me she’s jealous. The first conversation we have is that the word she means is “nervous” and that “jealous” means when you want what someone else has. Then the second conversation we have is what she is feeling nervous about. She usually says some variant of a) it’s all new and b) she doesn’t know what her teacher will be like. Makes sense to me, I tell her. Heck, I think kids get nervous at the start of every year of every level of education for wondering what their teachers will be like. It’s okay to be nervous, I tell her. Were you nervous when you started school? she asked. I sure was, I say.
What I’m not telling her is that I’m nervous now. Seriously, I have no idea what’s going on. When I went to kindergarten, life seemed pretty simple and straightforward. I was nervous about making friends and what my teacher would be like, but I don’t remember my parents having to deal with all the things that we’re having to deal with just to get our child into a school. Seriously, if Franz Kafka had children in today’s school system – and wouldn’t we all like to know what those kids would have made of themselves? – then The Trial would have been called The School and Josef K. would not have been summoned to an unexplained court date but rather an unexplained teacher-parent conference.
For instance, we went on the website and clicked on the “School Supplies List.” A detailed inventory came up with the instructions, “When you pick up your supply box, double check that each item is included.” There was a box of supplies specifically for kindergarteners, and the cost was listed as $66.32. Hmm, well that would be convenient, but where does one pick this up? So on the first day of class, I stopped a teacher.
“Is there a place where we can buy and pick up a box of supplies?”
“Yes, if you ordered one.”
“Oh, how do I do that?”
“Well, the orders are due by the end of the previous school year.”
When I signed her in on that first day, I was asked to fill out a contact information form. This would turn out to be the first of ten such forms. It asked for my name, my address, my phone number, the usual. Then underneath that, this question: “How will your child be going home?” Well, that seemed an odd question to ask on a contact information form. We had decided that she would ride the bus on some days, but on other days her grandparents would pick her up. So I simply wrote “bus / pick up.”
Two hours later, a teacher calls me. “We’re a little confused,” she said. “Are you picking her up today, or is she riding the bus?”
“Today?” I asked. “I’m picking her up.”
“Oh, we couldn’t tell since you put both ‘bus’ and ‘pick up.’”
When our child got home, she told us we had forgotten to pack her a snack.
“Were we supposed to pack you a snack?” we asked.
"Yes," she said. “But it’s okay that you forgot, the teacher let me have some of her crackers.”
“Forgot,” I grumbled through clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s what happened.”
Every question we asked came with far more complicated answers.
How much does lunch cost? “Well, it’s tough to say, everything is a la carte. But the easiest thing to do is to set up an account online that automatically drafts money to her account.” And how do I do that? “You’ll need to go to the school system website, open an account, and link it to her student ID number.” Okay…
If she is going to ride the bus home, what does she need to do? “If she’s listed as a car rider, she’ll need a written note from you to ride the bus. It should be emailed to the transportation account for the school. But if she doesn’t ride within a ten-day period, she’ll be dropped from the passenger list, and you’ll have to register her again.” Do I do that with the transportation account? “No, you’ll do that with the city bus account.” Of course…
I spent an hour last night just filling out forms – most of them requiring the same basic contact information – and surfing through dozens of layers of the website trying to create and link accounts and find basic information to what felt like frequently asked questions. Now, I’m an intelligent person. I’m an accomplished professional who manages and supervises close to a dozen other professionals. I have two degrees and three professional certifications. If I am having such a hard time navigating the school system, how much harder is it for parents who don’t have the same education? Or don’t have access to the internet? Or don’t speak English? Or don’t have the luxury of taking a day off from work to stand in the hallway on the first day of school asking what feels like stupid questions?
It worries me that a child’s experience in school is so dependent on his or her parents’ ability to navigate the system. I understand that this system is probably in place to protect and ensure each child’s safety, but that school officials would assure me it’s necessary. But no one is trying to make it any easier for us to understand.
I’m doing my best to shield my child from the stress and anxiety it is causing me just to get her into school. I’m having a little more sympathy for the stereotype of the over-involved and anxious PTA parent; it feels like the system lends itself to creating them. So I’m both nervous and jealous – jealous of those parents who’ve already had a child through the system, jealous of all the teachers and administrators for whom this is old news, jealous even of my child whose anxiety about kindergarten newness seems small in comparison to things I worry about for her. The Kafkaesque procedures of getting her enrolled notwithstanding, I so hope for her to have a positive school experience, and any ball that gets dropped feels like a small failure as a parent, even if no one has told me they were going to be throwing those balls at us in the first place.
I suppose that’s just more of the same when it comes to being a parent. Complete responsibility, complete powerlessness. Why should the school system be any easier or different? I don’t always understand why parenting has to be like this, but I’ve learned that it is a constant stream of things to worry over, stress about, pray for, laugh at, and shrug off.
When she got home after her first full day, she chattily told us bits and pieces of the day. “The teacher moved me to blue!” she announced proudly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes at my cluelessness. “Daddy, there’s red, then orange and yellow. Then green, blue, purple, and finally pink.”
“Oh,” I said, my eyes narrowing. “I still don’t understand.”
She sighed with exasperation. “It means I was listening, Daddy.”
“Oh right, of course. Well, good.”
We almost look like we're having fun.
My little girl turned five this summer, and you know what that means? The training wheels came off.
When she turned four, she got her own bike for her birthday. It’s pink, has Hello Kitty all over it, and had training wheels. She took to it right away, dragging me out into the street to watch her ride, showing off when she made it up a hill, proudly displaying her helmet and the flashing pink light on the front.
The other kids in the neighborhood, however, don’t have training wheels. They all bike faster than she does. (They’re also all older.) So she announced she was ready to take the training wheels off. I told her it would be harder, that she would need practice. Will I be able to go faster? she asked. Yes, I answered. I can keep up with the other kids? Yes, after you’re used to it. So it was decided, when she turned five, we would take the training wheels off.
A week after her birthday, I took her to a level parking lot of a church near our house, unscrewed the training wheels, and told her all she had to do was pedal.
I have never seen another human being so not able to ride a bike.
Any bystanders watching would be forgiven for guessing that my child had never before sat herself on a bicycle of any kind. She could barely bring herself to put her feet on the pedals. She couldn’t push herself forward like she had every other time she’d ever sat on it. She asked me to give her a push, which I did, but the pedals didn’t ever make it 180 degrees before she threw her feet down to the ground.
The tears started immediately. She never fell down; she didn’t try enough to even lose her balance. The tears were accompanied by exclamations of the impossibility of her ever biking and some implicit condemnations of herself for failing to ride.
I tried to reassure her that it took some time and practice. Keep at it! I encouraged her. You’ll get it, it takes practice.
Why can’t I ride it now? she wailed. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never do it! I never want to ride a bike again! When will I be able to do it?
Ten minutes of that, and I told her to pack it up, we were going home.
She was so impatient. Where on earth could she possibly get that from?
Once we’d both cooled down a little, she whimpered that she wanted me to put the wheels back on and that she would try again when she turned six. I told her that it took practice and patience. Remember when you were trying to learn to walk? I asked. She nodded. No you don’t, I said. But if you did, you would remember that you fell down. A lot. Because you weren’t born knowing how to walk; you had to learn it. No one is born knowing how to ride a bike; everyone has to learn.
She asked, When you were a kid, did you have to learn how to ride a bike?
Of course, I said. Everything I do I was once not good at. Playing guitar, cooking, driving a car – I had to learn all these things. You had to learn to walk – and to eat, and dress yourself, and use the potty. But you learned, because you did them over and over. No one does anything perfectly the first time, sweetie.
She nodded, but I don’t think she believed me. I can’t blame her; nobody believes that shit. We all expect to do it right the first time, and every time after that. Who among us is ever really a student? As an educator of adults, I feel like I spend more of my time trying to convince my students that it’s okay that they don’t know things than I do actually imparting any skills or knowledge. Perhaps that’s what education truly is at its heart: creating a safe space for a person to accept herself not knowing how to do something.
If so, I didn’t do a very good job of teaching my child to ride a bike. I was just as wrapped up as she was in seeing her do it perfectly the first time. Because, you know, riding a bike is easy for me. You just do it, right? Exactly like all the other things I learned to take for granted. Maybe the reason that none of us give ourselves permission to be learners – to truly not know something and still love ourselves – is because it is rare to be in the presence of someone who communicates that same kind of acceptance.
Subsequent bike rides have been a mix of different techniques on my part. Letting her practice without training wheels while I hold her up; putting the wheels back on but raised so that they don’t touch the ground; lots of positive affirmation when she does well; even more reassurances that she will get it one day. But the biggest change I made is working to let go of my own impatience. If I let my own ego as a parent get too tied up in how quickly my child learns to ride a bike, what will I do when she starts sports? Or brings home her first report cards? Or takes up a musical instrument?
More than anything, a child needs her parent to recognize her imperfections and still clearly love her. And to offer that to my child, I really need to offer it to myself. Which is still a work in a progress. Some days, when it comes to being patient with myself, I still need the training wheels on. But I will stick with it. I can’t parent perfectly, either, no matter how much I expect to do it just exactly right the first time and every time. I’ll stick with it, which sometimes means trying enough so I’ll lose my balance. That way I can give myself – and everyone else living in my household – the grace to not know what we’re doing all the time.
It’s been an emotional week to be an American. A lot has happened and I’m conflicted about my hopes for the future of the culture my child will grow up in.
First of all, let me state how excited I am that my child will be able to grow up in a country where equal rights are extended to all people who want to marry someone they love. Only a few years ago, I took my daughter with me when I went to the polls to vote against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which barred any legal recognition of a relationships that weren’t legally registered marriages between men and women. A man accosted me in the parking lot and told me I needed to vote in favor of the “marriage amendment” in order to “protect your little one’s future.” I threw some choice curse words at him. It was maybe not my finest moment, but I feel vindicated today. I also feel sad for that man, wherever he is, for believing that my child’s future might actually be affected by marriage equality in any way that isn’t positive. I posted a blog
during the Amendment One campaign about why I was against it. Although there were many reasons I opposed, my argument was that I would not vote for legislation that restricted love. Of course, my family has never needed protection from gay people; the idea is ridiculous and laughable. And yet the amendment passed, and I can remember how dismayed I felt that fear, misunderstanding, homophobia, and crass political grandstanding would carry the day. And here we are, only three years later, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of equal marriage rights (nearly a year after our local circuit had already ruled such legislation unconstitutional). My child is still too young for any of us to know what her orientation and gender expression might look like, but I am less prone to worry now because I know that our unqualified support for who she grows to be is more likely to be reflected in the society around her.
My excitement and joy over this ruling does not, however, overcome my fear and anger over the most recent mass shooting in this country, which took place in Charleston last week. I am glad that the Confederate battle flag has come down in South Carolina. I suppose we can all slow clap for South Carolina’s decision to do something that is only 150 years overdue. The ongoing national conversation about our country’s deeply rooted racism continues, and although I am not always sure what to say, I am trying as hard as I can to listen closely so that I can raise a child who will be an agent of healing and change. I want to be intentional about bringing up a child who can notice her own social privileges and notice the disadvantages and struggles of those around her. I am hopeful in the promise that she will be smarter and kinder and more compassionate than I am and will be an enthusiastic ally for the cause of rooting out racism in our society.
However, our conversations about a flag and the racism it symbolizes have given the country an excuse to not talk about something scary and terrible: our nation’s obsession with guns. It seems this time around there has not even been an attempt to even pay lip service to the idea that the gun laws in this country need to change. I suppose this means I need to give up any hopes of there being gun control in this country. That is frightening to me because I don’t want my child or my family to be murdered. But more than the real fear that it might one day be my child who is senselessly gunned down by a psychopathic murderer is this stunning realization: America truly does not care
. Despite the pain being suffered by the families of victims of gun violence, despite my fear for my family, despite my own grief and anguish about how violent our culture is, our society is a place that simply does not care if innocent people are murdered. We’ve seen it recently with the countless cases of police officers killing unarmed black men with seemingly zero repercussions or accountability, and now we’re seeing it with the complete lack of any discussion regarding changing gun laws. Nine innocent churchgoers murdered during a prayer meeting, and nothing. Two years ago, it was twenty kindergarten children; nothing. So clearly, I must draw the conclusion that America does not give a shit
I have plenty of friends and family who are gun owners. I have heard all the reasons they give about why gun control is bad and gun ownership is good. I accept none of them. A gun is a tool whose sole purpose is to kill. That is why guns were invented and that is their only use. If you buy a gun, you are seeking to own the ability to easily kill. If you use your gun for hunting, then you are using your gun for killing. If you use your gun for protection, then you hope to scare off other people with your ability to kill. Apparently, America is so in love with possessing the ability to easily kill that it will gladly and willingly accept the periodic murder of innocent people as a result. That is the society we live in; that is the society my child will grow up in. Used to be after we had one of these shootings – in a church, or a school, or a movie theater – people would ask, Is nowhere safe? And the answer is no and we’re fine with that.
I can already anticipate the arguments that this post will elicit. Because, you know, Americans really fucking love their goddamned guns. It’s their guaranteed right under the Second Amendment! If anyone ever read my blog (which mostly they don’t), then I could expect my comments section to fill up with trolls telling me a) how stupid I am, b) what a pussy I am, and c) why I represent everything wrong with this country. Fine. Every time you talk to me about why you own a gun, what I hear is why you want to have the power to kill. And if not seeing the capacity to easily take another life as the primary achievement of humanity makes me stupid, then I am stupid. If valuing life over the ability to kill makes me a pussy in your eyes, then I gladly accept that. And yes, my anguish over gun violence definitely makes me wrong, because this is a country that loves gun violence.
I am befuddled, infuriated, and despondent that there is more investment and energy in this country in keeping marriage benefits away from gay people than there is in keeping guns out of the hands of psychopathic shitstains. That is seriously fucked up. What propels us to be so fearful of the wrong things? Gay people getting married doesn’t kill anyone.
I am glad that our society is coming around to accepting people of different sexual orientations and, hopefully, of different gender expressions. I am hopeful that my child will grow up in a culture that will not constrict her as she seeks to discover who she is and commit her life with whomever she finds love. I’m glad my child will be able to marry anyone she wants. That’s assuming she doesn’t get killed by someone’s gun. I’m glad we’re moving towards some measure of inclusion, but I deeply grieve the violence that undergirds the foundations of this country. I’m afraid for my child, I’m afraid for my family, and I’m afraid for the soul of my country. Not just because we are a violent culture, but because we have stopped pretending to care. Well, I still care and it’s breaking my heart.
A few weeks after our daughter was born, my mother-in-law said to us, “It will go by so fast. Before you know it, she’ll be starting kindergarten.”
A few weeks ago, we went to her kindergarten orientation.
Parents are all the time saying things like “It goes by so fast” and “Before you know it…” I heard it all the time, I usually just shrugged at it as if it were a given fact. As it turns out, “it goes by so fast” is, in my experience, not true. The past five years have not gone by fast. They feel like at least five years, possibly more. Parenting is a bit like Louis CK’s joke about divorce: it’s a time machine that travels forward at exactly the same pace as actual time. Because, although it does not feel as if it has gone by fast, it is true that it came before I knew it.
Why do we not know it before things are here? How come every new little milestone arrives before I know it? Suddenly she’s about to go to kindergarten and I think, we’re here already? And then I think, of course we’re here already; it’s been five years. It only feels fast because I let it sneak up on us, and I let it sneak up on us because I kind of didn’t want it to get here and so I tricked myself into thinking it would take more than five years. But it doesn’t. It takes exactly as long as it takes.
As adults, we can trick ourselves into not seeing ourselves age. Some of that is because we age slower than children do. I haven’t had a growth spurt in several decades. I measure advancing age these days mostly by the increased discovery of muscle pains and the hopes that my hairs go gray instead of disappearing altogether. Children, on the other hand, are impossible to ignore as they grow. We buy my daughter a new pair of shoes every six weeks. Every other day we have to redress her in the morning because something no longer fits her. American adults are in denial about getting older, but children force us to reckon with the unstoppable march of time by changing and growing in obvious, demonstrable, concrete ways all the time. It’s like when I get caught up in some task at work that consumes my time and energy and then I look up at the clock and think, it’s 4:30 already? Except that it’s been a long day and of course it’s time to go home.
I am not aging any slower or faster than my child. I’m getting older at the same pace as she is. Because God wanted to rub this in my face, my child was born on my birthday. Sharing a birthday with your child means a) you have to really work to get people to celebrate your birthday in adult ways; and b) you cannot forget that you and your child are getting older. It’s crazy: every year she gets older, but so do I! It happens before I even know it! Except that I should know it, because the math stays pretty consistent. I can’t catch up to her youth nor can my wisdom catch up to my earlier lack of knowledge. I look at my own baby pictures and think, my parents were younger in that picture than I am now. Which seems impossible for my younger self to have noticed, but you can’t go back to appreciate youthfulness before it’s gone.
Six years from now we’ll be preparing for middle school. It will take exactly six years. In that time I we will have six joint birthdays. It won’t be any faster than time has ever moved. I will be six years older and so will she. And it will be here before I know it. Not because it’s fast, but because I don’t want to know it. I’ll look up and think, Is it sixth grade already? Oh right, it’s been six years, but I’ve been too busy buying her new shoes and counting my gray hairs before I lose them. It’s so much more comforting to not know something is coming so that when it gets here it’s always before we know it. Sixth grade, ninth grade, college, graduation. And then I retire and then I die and all of it before I knew.
I suppose I could pay more attention to the future so I’ll be prepared. But truthfully, I like not knowing until it’s here. I’d prefer to enjoy the buying of shoes instead of focusing on where we’ll buy bigger sizes when she needs them. It doesn’t go by fast, it just goes by, but I like the surprise. Kindergarten already? Of course. And – it came before I knew it. My baby’s getting older, just like the rest of us.
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.