Phenomena Understood

En el ademán de conducir nubes (On the manner of addressing clouds), Ananké Asseff, 2010. Courtesy the artist

The Girl on the Lawn

Forget anxiety, overcaution, or just plain unhappiness. The real problem with parenting is philosophy.

Juliet is on the front lawn. She is four. Above her head brittle leaves dangle, then fall. It is October. She looks up. She sees an airplane moving above the clouds. As a two-year old she thought that her grandparents lived on an airplane and would occasionally come down to visit her. She knows better now. And yet still, when we see airplanes overhead, she stops what she is doing and says, “Oh! Hi Grandma. Hi Pa!”


She is four. Day by day this front lawn seems smaller and smaller to her. Her mother and I are her entire world, though she has begun to drift from us each day. Slowly. Imperceptibly. Like the drifting of continents. When she looks up now, she sees above the trees, above the clouds, above the airplane. “Is that where God lives?” she asks. I don’t answer her. “If a plane went up, up, up, would it be in Heaven?” she asks. “Or could we take a rocket ship?”


Her Grandmother has told her about God. My wife and I largely ignore the topic, though for different reasons. My mother-in-law thinks that it is essential for Juliet to believe in God and talks about it a lot when they are together. “Juliet, look at the beautiful flowers God gave us,” or “God sent us such a lovely breeze today.” At night, my wife will ask, “What do we do? I don’t quite believe any of that, but I don’t have a better answer.” At bedtime, Juliet asks questions about God and Heaven. Questions that her Grandmother is happy to answer, but that leave my wife and me dumbstruck. “It’s complicated,” we’ll say. Or, “That’s what some people believe.”


The oldest living thing on earth may be the giant seagrass Posidonia oceanica, which scientists estimate can live to an age between 12,000 and 200,000 years old. Modern humans emerged at the earlier of the two estimates. The continents as we know them were largely in place by then. Most of the plants and animals that exist today existed then, though countless have disappeared. The most recent ice age was yet to come. Though we have their bones, we know nothing of the inner lives of those first humans.


Our hominid ancestors had no spoken language, though assuming they entered REM sleep as all mammals do, they certainly dreamed. Perhaps they dreamed as you and I do. To the subconscious, language is suspect, too easily manipulated. At night, when we withdraw from each other, nothing is literal.


The problem as I see it is to explain a complex, abstract concept to a mind that demands the concrete. I’m fine with giving God credit, I say to my wife, so long as we can agree on what we mean when we say God. Each year I teach Whitman to my students. We talk about the natural, literal cycle of death and birth as Whitman sees it: There is a young man. He dies. He is buried. He decomposes and from the decomposition, from the breakdown of his organic matter into other organic matter, new life emerges. Eternal life exists within that cycle. That Juliet’s life will be directed by this process does not devalue her life. In a sense, it makes it even more precious.


This is literal: Mass cannot be destroyed, only converted into energy; life feeds on life. To my mind, that is enough. My wife prefers the figurative, which Whitman also allows for. This is the figurative: We each possess a soul. It is a part of a larger soul. At death the soul returns to that larger soul. At birth, we take our share of the larger soul. We can explain that, I say.


Tamil is one of the oldest languages still spoken today. It is still younger than Poisidian oceanica by at least 5,000 years. English has been a language for a fraction of that time. At the time of Christ’s birth, the words on this page would have been meaningless. If Posidonia oceanica were born today and were to live out its full life span unaffected by humans’ ability to pollute and alter its environment, it would likely outlive any of our modern languages. Juliet is on the lawn, her face turned toward the sky. At this age, she is willing to accept whatever she is told. “Is that where God lives?” she asks.

Continental drift causes the North American plate to move roughly 2.3 centimeters per year. An American woman born in 2010, like Juliet, can expect to live 81.1 years. In that time, the North American plate will move about 187 cm, or nearly two meters. In Juliet’s life so far, that’s more than 9.2 centimeters. Assuming that I am roughly three meters from her when she asks her question and that we are at or near sea level, it takes .009 seconds for her words to reach me. In that time, the continent has moved eight hundred-millionths of a centimeter.


Juliet turns to look at me. I feel like I’ve failed her by not having considered these questions more deeply before becoming a father.


Her mind works in binaries. Yes. No. God lives above the clouds or she doesn’t—Juliet hasn’t spent much time in church or listening to us talk about God using the gender we grew up hearing. She assumes God is female. I could answer “Yes, figuratively,” but it would be an evasion. I could answer “No,” and it would be an evasion as well. I’m fine with this, though at times I worry that I’m doing her a disservice, that I’m needlessly complicating things that she will one day be forced to figure out on her own regardless of what anyone tells her. As a child I was taught to believe in God, or at least I was told to believe in Him. One of my earliest memories is of turning around quickly and trying to see an angel before it disappeared. Sometimes I would think that I had. I’m not sure when I gave up on it all, though it has cost me little sleep in the years since. A car passes on the street.


My mother-in-law grew up believing she was adopted, when she actually was not. In the ‘50s becoming pregnant while unmarried was enough of a scandal to inspire countless elaborate, heartbreaking arrangements. Her own mother gave birth to her in secret, found a dying man to marry, and “adopted” her. My mother-in-law was 18 when she learned the truth. Did learning the truth make her childhood feel suddenly distant? Did it halt time and hold her in that moment of dizzying revelation?

Perhaps it’s too easy to suggest that this sudden biological uncertainty forced her to seek religious certainty. Having grown up in a stable nuclear family, I can’t begin to imagine what such a discovery might do to a person’s sense of self. When I was a child, my father took great joy in investigating our family lineage, in telling us stories about relatives too old for him to have ever known. I’ve come to see this as a sort of life after death—to live on in the stories we tell.


The shortest life span of any living creature belongs to the mayfly, which can be as short as 30 minutes and is no longer than a day. If we say that on average, the adult mayfly lives for 12 hours, Juliet can be expected to live to be 59,200 times its age. She has already lived more than a thousand mayfly lives. To the mayfly, Juliet is ancient.


We don’t know how old religion is. In many ways, it depends on your definition of religion. Early homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead over 300,000 years ago. More recently than that, cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic more than 13,000 years ago have been associated with religious ritual. Though there are competing theories, those drawings may pre-date language, perhaps by tens of thousands of years. In the grander scheme of things, written language is a relatively new invention, not flourishing until the Bronze Age.


Juliet is awaiting her answer. And it is up to me to answer her. This poor child, turning to me for answers when all I ever do is find ways to intellectualize and minimize my confusion. Her question has haunted humankind seemingly since the beginning of thought and now she is waiting for me to answer her with the only language I know. Language is not a thing. Objects are things. Language attempts to embody things in sounds. The subconscious attempts to embody things in the symbolic. Did our early ancestors feel more or less alone before they invented language? Could they even conceive of such a thing without the ability to articulate it? Juliet turns to look at me. Her face is concealed in shadows. I feel like I have failed her in some real way by not having considered these questions more deeply before becoming a father. What can I say to answer her? What words will suffice?


Though it is impossible to say how many words exist in the English language, one estimate by the Global Language Monitor put the number in 2006 at 988,968. Some of these words, though, are simply variations on the same words: think, thought, thinking. Some are words borrowed from other languages. Despite this wealth of words, when confronted with the need to express what seem like profound truths, I find myself unable to articulate my thoughts. Unable to articulate my most personal thoughts, I find myself questioning the very existence of the feeling. With Juliet beside me on the lawn, though, there’s no need for articulation. The feeling of love is so immediate, so primal, that words can only fail it.


Until Juliet was born, I didn’t know what it was to love selflessly.


The writer C.S. Lewis turned to atheism early in life when his prayers to God to save his mother’s life went unanswered. This atheism was reinforced during his tour of duty during World War I. One of Lewis’ most important early works, the poem Dymer, suggests that belief in God is a tempting allusion, “like the fantasies of love, lust and power.” It was under the influence of literary critics Owen Banfield and Hugo Dwyer and writers Charles Williams and J.R.R. Tolkien that Lewis rejected his atheism and converted to Christianity. He was 32.


Writing about his conversion in his autobiography, Lewis wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his readings.”


The concept of love was central to Lewis’ conversion. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis compares the unconditional love central to Christianity to the love that exists within families. The former, Lewis believed, was different because it offered no direct personal benefit. To Lewis, the ability to love selflessly was implanted in every human by God.


Lewis had no children of his own. If he had, perhaps he would have seen the possibility that the process might work in the opposite direction—that our ability to love God, or our very desire to conceive of a God, might come from our ability to love another human selflessly. Juliet on the front yard affects me so profoundly that words are inadequate. My love for her is so complete that words can only diminish it. They can attempt to embody the entirety of it, but they can never actually do so. Who can blame us for wanting to believe that this affection is more than a biological imperative, a mere trick that ensures the continuation of our species? It seems certain that our earliest ancestors experienced the sensation of love before they invented God.


When Juliet was born, my mother-in-law called her “a child of God.” I was struck not by the divinity of her birth, but rather by its animalism, how primeval her tiny body seemed. Even now, as she plays amongst the falling leaves, she seems very much like a young fawn. She belongs to the natural world.

The writers of the bible were right to tie mankind’s redemption to the birth of a child. What else in life can provide such infinite possibility and hope? What else can give our lives a design and purpose that extends beyond our own existences? A newborn is so utterly helpless and alone, so pure, that it seems touched by the divine. Until Juliet was born, I didn’t know what it was to love selflessly. Even in my closest relationships I was, deep down, more interested in my own happiness, my own well-being, than the other person’s. I suspect that, for most of us, this is always so, though it is not so with my feelings toward Juliet, my funny, curious daughter who loves to play jokes, make drawings, and pick out tunes on the piano. I don’t think it is reductive or dismissive to view all of this as a biological imperative.


Lately, Juliet has started another line of questioning: “What’s it like to be a dog?” she’ll ask. Or, “What’s it like to be a car?” Or water. Or wind. I answer as best I can. You’d love to eat bones and have your belly rubbed. You’d like to go fast. You’d be wet. You’d get to snap people’s umbrellas. These answers seem to satisfy her. “What’s it like to be Juliet?” I once asked her. She thought for a moment. “Good,” she said.


In his poem Song of Myself, Walt Whitman asks, “Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious? Who would I pray to if I prayed?” Elsewhere in the poem, Whitman states that he sees God in every object. I could tell Juliet that, yes, God lives in the sky. That God also lives in the trees that canopy the lawn. And inside her and inside me. Would that be evasion as well, even if it’s as close as I can get to what I believe is true?


It seems fitting that Lewis’ conversion was grounded in literature. In literature, we are able to embody the metaphysical in the physical. Characters engage in physical conflicts or journeys that are ultimately just the physical manifestation of internal conflict. The world of a novel is almost entirely symbolic. Because we lack the terms to express the metaphysical, we seek understanding through the physical. We tell stories.


The story of God as a loving father must seem especially meaningful to my mother-in-law, whose adoptive father died when she was very young and whose mother ended up neglecting her because of alcoholism and its accompanying problems. Abandoned by her biological father by choice and her adopted father by death, then neglected by her talented but troubled mother, she has spent her life in need of attention. Performing has been the most ready source of praise and acceptance she has found. Though she regularly performs in community theaters and in singing groups, it is probably in the church where she does most of her singing.

The Catholic Church, as punishing as it can sometimes seem, has been a loving metaphorical parent. My mother-in-law attends the same church where her mother was the choir director. Though she is divorced and was told that she could not continue to receive communion, she stands in line every week and is not denied. She serves as her church’s cantor. The congregation praises her singing, as if enjoying the gifts of one of the family’s talented children. She is insatiably hungry for this praise.


Myths are some of the earliest stories humans told. They endure because they allow us to escape the present moment and, in so doing, attempt to bring us closer to the divine. Religious stories seem to function in this way. And yet, to my mind, they remain mythological, stories that we tell ourselves to help explain what we do not understand. Perhaps it is a fault of language, which is both essential to the human condition and also inadequate for articulating our inner lives either to each other or to ourselves. The French social and literary critic Roland Barthes believed that myths served as a form of a language. Barthes, who wrote in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, that “To try to write love is to confront the muck of language; that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little,” also argued that a characteristic of myth was transforming “meaning into form.” Barthes believed that poetic language resists myth, that it is the inverse of myth. Where myths attempt signification through language, poetry attempts the opposite. “Its ideal,” Barthes writes, “would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves.” Juliet loves to hear and tell stories. Her favorite stories are about Madeline, a young girl who lives in a Catholic boarding school in Paris. Mostly, though, she makes up her own stories. At times, it seems as if she’s able to inhabit these stories, to live fully immersed in fiction of her own creation. She’d likely just giggle if she heard me say the name Barthes.


My mother-in-law believes the story of Christ to be literal. Her belief is unwavering. It allows her to see Juliet as divine, to believe that she possesses a soul that differentiates her from other living things. It is her own wish, though she feels compelled to share it, and so endeavors to make it Juliet’s wish as well. She tells her stories about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. She removes the mystery from the world. She creates God in her image. I believe that it is OK for us to dwell in uncertainty, that the questions are ultimately Juliet’s to wrestle with, to come to terms with on her own terms, in her own time. In trying to provide her this, though, perhaps I risk creating an empty space—a space my mother-in-law’s dogmatism might rush to fill.


To preserve the mystery or to provide explanation. If those choices are not mutually exclusive, they feel so in that moment. Juliet has lain with her head on the grass, dried scraps of leaves are trapped in her curly hair. She has given up waiting for an answer. Perhaps she never expected one. She runs to me and leaps into my arms. If my wife and I are her entire world, so too is she ours. Nothing I will ever do is more important than being with her, devoting myself to her. I don’t know why we are all here, only that we are and that it is sweet and good and beautiful.

It’s October. The airplane has gone from her line of sight. A shaft of light shines through a break in the clouds, through the canopy of leaves, and lands on the lawn beside us for a transitory moment and then is gone. The continents drift. The universe expands. Juliet grows older.

David Wilson is a teacher, writer, and the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter of the band Miss Ohio. More by David Wilson