Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

Words fail me

woody and diane

Love is too weak a word for what I feel – I luuurve you, you know, I loave you, I luff you.
WOODY ALLEN in Annie Hall

I was born in the Sixties. My first two kids were born in the Nineties. But try to name the decade my youngest was born in, the one we’re in at the moment, and you’re left muttering clunkers like “the first decade of the twenty-first century,” or sounding like Grandpa Simpson by referring to the “aughts.” It’s called a lexical gap, a concept for which a given language lacks a concise label. German is said to lack a precise word for a person’s “chest,” while English speakers are left speechless when it comes to Fahrvergnügen.

When I first heard Alvy Singer struggling to express his feelings for Annie Hall, I thought it was just for laughs. But I’ve begun to struggle in recent years with precisely the same lexical gap — so much so that I’ve almost entirely stopped telling my wife and children that I love them.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The problem is the overuse of what was once, I suspect, a more sparingly-used, and therefore more powerful, word. The fact that Paul McCartney’s only response to the problem of “silly love songs” was to sing the phrase “I love you” fifteen times in three minutes seems to prove my point.

As a result of using “love” to express our feelings about everything from self-indulgence (“I love sleeping in on Sunday”) to food (“I love Taco Bell’s new Pizzaburgerrito”), I find the word “love” now entirely inadequate to describe the feeling engendered in me by my wife and kids. I don’t love them. I luuurve them.

No no, come back. I’m not going to wax rhapsodic. I’m zeroing in on a practical, lexical problem, that’s all.


impressive clergyman

Mawwiage. Mawwiage is what bwings us togevah today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam wifin a dweam. And wuv, twu wuv, wiw fowwow you, fowevah.
IMPRESSIVE CLERGYMAN from The Princess Bride

Whenever I think of the reasons I luuurve my wife, I recall an event I attended two years ago — a debate between an atheist and a theist. I described the scene in PBB (pp. 96-7):

When the discussion turned to morality, [the theist] said something I will never forget. “We need divine commandments to distinguish between right and wrong,” he said. “If not for the seventh commandment…” He pointed to his wife in the front row. “…there would be nothing keeping me from walking out the door every night and cheating on my wife!”

His wife, to my shock, nodded in agreement. The room full of evangelical teens nodded, wide-eyed at the thin scriptural thread that keeps us from falling into the abyss.

I sat dumbfounded. Nothing keeps him from cheating on his wife but the seventh commandment? Really?

Not love?

How about respect? I thought. And the promise you made when you married her? And the fact that doing to her what you wouldn’t want done to you is wrong in every moral system on Earth? Or the possibility that you simply find your marriage satisfying and don’t need to fling yourself at your secretary? Are respect and love and integrity and fulfillment really so inadequate that you need to have it specifically prohibited in stone?

I first dated Becca because of conditional things. Non-transcendent things. Had she not been so unbearably attractive to me, had she not had the most appealing personality of anyone I knew, had she not been so funny and smart and levelheaded, I wouldn’t have flipped over her like I did. It may sound off to say it this way, but she fulfilled the conditions for the relationship I wanted, and I, thank Vishnu, did the same for her. I asked her to marry me in large part because of these not inconsiderable things.

But then, the moment I asked her to marry me, something considerably more transcendent began to happen between us. She said yes — and I was instantly struck dumb by the power of it. This splendid person was willing to commit herself to me for the remainder of her one and only life.

Holy (though I try to keep this blog free of both these words) shit.

No, I am not waxing, dammit, I am making a point. We were moving into the unconditional, you see. She had moved from being one of the many attractive, magnetic, funny, smart people I knew to The One Such Person Who Committed to Me. See the difference? And then, once she actually took three small packets of my DNA and used them to knit children — well, at that point, it became hard to look at her without bursting into song. I’m still not over it. What was a strong but technically conditional love moved decisively into unconditional luuurve.

So yes, there are things beyond the seventh commandment that keep me from cheating on my wife. Like the hilarity I feel at the thought of finding any other woman with any amount of those conditionals more attractive.

As for the children…

You’re an atheist? So then…you think your children are…just a bunch of…processes?
JEHOVAH’S WITNESS at my door last year

Last week a radio interviewer asked about my kids, with mild facetiousness: “So how about your own kids? Good kids, ya love ’em and everything?” In addition to the pure silliness of answering such a question, I fell head-first into that lexical gap once again — and the resulting three seconds of dead air probably did me no favors with the audience. I finally sputtered something about them being amazing kids, terrific kids, but it fell short, as it always does, of my real feelings.

I don’t make up for this lexical gap with the kids by telling them I luuurve them. Instead, almost every single day, I tell them, “I do not love you.” And they smile and say, “Oh yes you do!” — and all is understood.

They know in a thousand ways that I am transported by being their dad. They’ve become accustomed, for example, to the sudden realization that Dad is staring again. They’ll get that prickly feeling and turn to see me lost in a contemplative gawk. They’re very good about it, usually returning a smile rather than a roll of the eyes, which I think is very nice of them.

Recognizing that the love of our children is rooted in part in biology — that I am, in part, adaptively fond of them — does not in the least diminish the way I’m transported by contemplating the fact of them, and of our special connection, and of their uniqueness, of the generational passing of the torch.

But it’s interesting to note that, unlike my relationship with Becca, this meditative gawking began on day one. The order of things is reversed. My marriage started in the conditional and added the unconditional. I loved her from the beginning, but only slowly came to be so completely slain by her.

Kids, on the other hand, begin in the unconditional and add the conditional. From the moment they emerged from my wife — seriously, reflect on that for a moment — they were unconditionally wonderful to me. They were half me and half she. They were our connection to the future. Etc.

Gradually we formed additional bonds based on their actual attributes. They are smart as whips, wickedly funny, generous and kind and fun to be around. But that’s all frosting on an unconditional cake. Marriage, on the other hand — if it goes well — starts with frosting and gradually slips the cake underneath.

So yes, my kids are “processes,” whatever that means, and so is my wife. But they are also the main reasons I wake up grateful and filled with meaning and purpose every single day.

(Wax off.)

36 days ’til Sex Day!

cosmic calendar
from Fraknoi, Voyages through the Universe, © Harcourt, Inc. 2000.

(That post title should do wonders with the search engines.)

Once in a while, a meme comes along that is so cool and worthwhile it simply HAS to catch fire — like “Chocolate Rain,” if it didn’t make me want to squish a puppy after three minutes.

Now Friendly Humanist Tim Mills in Edinburgh (no no, not “Eddinberg” — it’s pronounced “Eddinbudda.” Rhymes with “bread ‘n’ budda,” for no reason) Scotland has come up with the solution to the many humanist attempts to forge new, meaningful holidays — most of which, let’s face it, are weak and self-conscious, even if well-meaning.

First Tim posted this at the PBB Forums:

I’m currently in the thrall of Carl Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar analogy – scaling the entire history so far of the universe into a single year.

It has occurred to me is that this is potentially a cool source for a few humanist holidays. The two biggies (to me) are Big Bang Day (January 1, 15 billion years ago) and the Arrival of Humans (December 31, from 10:30pm on – the last 2.5 million years).

Other good ones would be:

May 1: Milky Way May Day, formation of the Milky Way galaxy 10 billion years ago
September 9: Sun Day, formation of the Solar System 4.7 bya
September 25: Abiogenesis Day, origin of life 4bya
November 1: Sex Day, evolution of sexual reproduction, 2.5 bya

And most of December, from the establishment of an oxygen atmosphere on the 1st (1.3bya) through the Cambrian Explosion on the 15th (~700mya) and then almost daily celebrations of new life (worms, trilobites, fish, land plants, land animals, insects, flying insects, …). We could have the coolest Advent calendars!

(If you aren’t familiar with Sagan’s Calendar, go here before reading any further.)

He elaborated in a recent blogpost:

A source of many potentially awesome holidays, at least in the final few months of the year, is the Cosmic Calendar, brainchild of the great Carl Sagan. In it, the entire 15-billion-year history of the cosmos as we know it is scaled into a single year, with the big bang at the start of January 1st and the present moment at the end of December 31st. Along the way you get events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (May 1), the Solar System (September 9), and the Earth (September 14), the origin of life (September 25), on up through our ancestors: eukaryotes (November 15), worms (December 16), fish (December 19), insects (December 21), dinosaurs (December 24), mammals (December 26), primates (December 29), hominids (December 30), and then down through the evening of December 31.

Tim’s idea hit me as brilliant, just as quickly as most such attempts hit me as lame. Pro-life Christians would quickly take over Life Day (Sept 25), of course — just like they took the solstice and the vernal equinox and turned them into…into… *Sigh.* It’s too fresh. I still can’t talk about it.

At least they’d keep their mitts off Sex Day!

The Cosmic Calendar is busy busy busy in December, so it’s the Advent calendar concept that I find particularly rich — celebrating the advent of complex life!

The advent calendars of my youth had little windows for each December day, behind which was a tiny toy or stale bit of chocolate. I picture a Cosmic Advent Calendar with gummy worms on December 16th, gummy fish on the 19th, Pop Rocks to represent the dinosaur-smacking asteroid on the 28th, chocolate monkeys on the 29th…and Flintstones vitamins on the 31st! Okay, help me out with that last one.

Imagine the educational potential in such a thing. I intend to mock one up for my family this year. Many thanks to the Friendly Humanist!

i’d like to buy another consonant

Went with Delaney to the “Dads ‘n’ Donuts” event at her school the other day. A fine selection. We finished eating and socializing in the gym a bit early, so we sauntered back to her kindergarten classroom. A couple of dads were already there, being toured by the hand around the classroom by their progeny. Laney grabbed my hand and we joined the conga line.

“This is where alllll of the books are,” Laney said. “And that’s the whiteboard. Here’s the globe, and the puppets…and this,” she gestured proudly, “is my desk!”

I barely heard the last two, since I was still riveted on the whiteboard — which, oh-by-the-way, had THIS on it — scroll ye down:




I am neither making this up nor exaggerating its appearance. Much. The actual medium was dry-erase markers, not tie-dye, but that is amazingly close to the actual appearance of the glorious crux splendidior on the whiteboard in my daughter’s public school classroom.

And what a cross it was! Every color of the rainbow! I’d have burst into a chorus of Crown Him with Many Crowns if not for eleven or twelve things.

Déjà vu. I flashed back to the near-encounter with FAITH at Curriculum Night. But this one was in full view. If anyone else had me in view, they’d have surely assumed I’d suffered a small but effective stroke. I was completely frozen and trying to stay that way.

I knew that if I came to, I’d leap onto a chair and point and squeal “CROSS! CRAWWWWWWSSSSS!!” I’d have no choice: the point-and-shriek is mandated for all encounters with crosses in the by-laws of the Atheist-Vampire Accords of 1294.

A little girl entered my periphery, guiding her father by the hand. “And this,” she said, pointing to the cross, “is what we’re learning about this week!”

She paused for dramatic effect, then announced, with pedantic precision, “Lower-case t!”

since you asked

A quick reply to a few recent emails and comments:

I read your August 15 blog entry and really enjoyed it, because you always have interesting and well thought-through things to say. I love soaking in your posts. But when I reloaded the page a few days later (to see if you’d posted anything new), I saw that your post had been modified. And I know this isn’t the first time (even excepting the forced deletions). So I would like to say, “No Fair!!” Now I will need to read through the post again and try to figure out which tasty morsels are new and which were already there.

I would like to encourage you to post your entries when you’ve decided they’re done enough for public consumption, then LEAVE THEM ALONE! If you want to say something else, put it in a new post so that all of your faithful readers will be sure to notice and to read it. I really really don’t want to miss anything that you have to say.

Except for the undeserved implication that my posts are interesting, I SO deserve that one. I do indeed make changes after posting, which is a blog felony — but here’s the deal. One of the only ways I can justify spending time on the blog is by using it to fulfill other needs. A writer needs to write every day and to practice revision every day. I never undertook this important discipline until beginning this blog, which now serves as an ongoing writer’s workshop for me. I write an entry, then edit, then post when I think it’s good enough. But I’ll return to an entry over and over to practice the tinkering arts.

I do not make substantive changes — I just replace a word or phrase here and there, or clarify, or tighten up, for the purpose of practicing the craft. I just changed the title of the previous post, for example, from “clever boy!” to “outfoxing the buddha.” Sometimes I make tiny changes in posts that are weeks old. If I waited until a post was really “done,” I’d never post.

Let us know when you’re going to be giving a talk, ’cause a lot of us would like to hear you speak. When I was first checking out your pages I came across one saying that you’ll be in DC on Sept 22 [sic], but I recently looked for that info again and couldn’t find it. At least make it easy for us, huh?

I promise to do better with this. After a burst in early summer, I actually haven’t done any speaking for awhile. It heats up again in the fall, though most dates are still up in the air. CONFIRMED AT THE MOMENT: Secular Parenting Discussion Panel at the convention of Atheist Alliance International in Washington DC this Saturday Sept 29 (which is sold out) and a talk at UUC Atlanta, one of the largest UUs in the country, on November 4 at 2 pm. Still nailing down Austin, Albany, Amherst, Raleigh-Durham, and San Francisco.

One reader says:

FYI I always enjoy the blogs with the kids experiences in them.

And another reader says:

I especially appreciate the posts that dig deeply and thoughtfully into a given topic.

As long as neither minds the other type too much, we should be fine. I’m trying to keep a good mix. I do notice that the posts involving my kids get the most comments.

More frequent posting is good!

I’m almost up to daily posts at the moment, though every other day is more likely in the long run. There may be a lull at the end of this week while I’m in DC — or I may be typing like mad in my hotel room. Who knows.

At any rate, thanks for reading, and for commenting.

outfoxing the buddha



1,000 years ago, on a moonlit night, a priest dreamed that Buddha told him where to find three springs with magical powers. This gave the priest much happiness.

Later, when the sun was shining, Buddha turned these springs into three wonderful waterfalls surrounded by trees. Each waterfall confers a different blessing on one who drinks of its waters. One confers health, another wisdom, and the third, love. But no one knows which waterfall brings which blessing.

If you are greedy and drink from all three, you will receive no blessing at all.

* * *

“So,” I asked Connor, my twelve-year old. “Suppose you want one of these blessings really bad. Let’s say health. What do you do?”

He smiled — he loves puzzles — and sank down into himself for a full minute.

At last he emerged. “Okay, I’ve got it.”

“Hit me.”

“Bring a friend who is sick. Have him drink from two of the waterfalls.” He flashed his braces at me. “If he gets healthy, drink from the same two waterfalls. If he doesn’t, drink from the other one.”

Clever boy!

Connor on stile
Connor in Upper Brailes, Oxfordshire, UK
October 2004

getting concrete: international day of peace


Regular readers of THE MEMING OF LIFE may begin to catch an unmistakable whiff of the concrete in upcoming posts. Don’t worry — I’ll continue to spatter the blog with incontestable pablum like “death is scary” and “thinking for yourself is good.” But I think it’s time to assert a few positions as well.

I don’t believe a secular, freethinking worldview leads to any and all possible conclusions with equal ease. I think a stated confidence in reason leads more decisively to some conclusions than to others. We will surely differ on what those conclusions are — Christopher Hitchens, for example, might dispute large whacks of this post — but he and I would presumably agree on the terms of the debate, which is the first requirement for sensible discourse.

There is a balance to be struck. If I tell my kids, “Hey, just think for yourself! Whatever you come up with is peachy,” that is indeed moral relativism. If I say, “Think for yourself, as long as you reach my conclusions,” that’s indoctrination wrapped in hypocrisy, a là Catholic intellectual tradition. (See? I’m not always nice.)

If instead I say, “Think for yourself — then be prepared to support your conclusions and to change them if necessary,” I’ve struck just the needed balance.

So freethought isn’t about declaring all conclusions equally valid — it’s about differing intelligently. Let me then begin my plunge into the concrete:

1. If war is necessary and effective, then war it is! Woohoo!

Aside from the gratuitous ‘woohoo,’ that should be fairly uncontroversial. Here’s a corollary:

2. War is rarely necessary and rarely effective.

Let’s define necessary as “something essential; something that cannot be done without,” and effective as “something that accomplishes its stated objectives.” I believe war fails to meet both of these criteria. It is unnecessary, because there are most often alternatives that have been proven to work brilliantly, and it is ineffective because it most often exacerbates the very problems it seeks to solve.

Some stats to consider:

One in seven countries are currently at war.
More than half of war deaths are civilians.

There are now over 250,000 child soldiers worldwide.
Children account for two-thirds of those killed in violent conflict since 1990.

An increasing percentage of world conflicts involve poor nations (formerly one third, now one half).
The average civil war drains $54 billion from a nation’s economy.

25 million people are currently displaced by war.
Mortality among displaced persons is over 80 times that of the non-displaced.

Half of all countries emerging from violent conflict relapse into violence within five years.

SOURCE: UN Development Programme Human Development Report, 2005

Yes, stopping Hitler was a splendid idea. Unfortunately, our public discourse now evokes WWII as the justification for all wars instead of recognizing it as one of the very few necessary wars in our history.

Time for a final assertion:

3. Except in the rare cases when war is necessary and effective, peace is preferable to war.

Seems reasonable. And one of the many voices in agreement with this final assertion is the long and noble tradition of Catholic peace activism. (See? Discernment.)

So why do I bring this up today? Because — though you wouldn’t know it from the yawning inattention of the media — today is the 25th annual International Day of Peace, an observance created by the UN in 1982 “to devote a specific time to concentrate the efforts of the United Nations and its Member States, as well as of the whole of mankind [sic], to promoting the ideals of peace and to giving positive evidence of their commitment to peace in all viable ways… (The International Day of Peace) should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples.” (from General Assembly Resolution UN/A/RES/36/67)

Not only do the stats and history seem to support the futility of war, but the foundation of secular ethics is this: in the absence divine safety net, we are all we’ve got, so we ought to try very hard to take care of each other. If war generally fails to accomplish its objectives while impoverishing and killing millions of us, secular ethics ought to oppose it — except in the profoundly rare cases when there really is no alternative. When it comes to this standard, most of our national violence is far more analogous to the Mexican-American War than to the fight against Hitler.

So today, the flag of the United Nations is flying in front of our house, and the preference for peace was the topic of conversation at the breakfast table. Connor plans to use some of the money in his “others” jar to buy a Peace Bond from Nonviolent Peaceforce. I will donate a day’s wages to NP’s Work a Day for Peace program, which runs through October 2, the International Day of Nonviolence.

I’ll post about nonviolent action on that day. For today, talk to your kids about your preference for peace, the futility of violence, the situation of child victims of war — and the fact that all of these opinions flow quite naturally from a secular worldview. Donate to Nonviolent Peaceforce, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, or another organization that’s out there doing the heavy lifting for humanity.

(Watch Ken Burns’ powerful new seven-part documentary THE WAR beginning this Sunday September 23 on PBS. He lays out precisely the case that is needed: that WWII was “the necessary war,” and that its misuse and mythologizing is leading us to disaster. Catch a long preview here.)

i heart sam & richard

I am a skimmer — notoriously so in our household. Life is too short to read carefully. When my wife asks what was in our email inbox, I report that somebody had a baby and somebody died.

Same with books. My first time through the bible, at age 13, was an admitted skim. I essentially got World is made, humans screw up, are drowned, then enslaved, then escape. Something about breasts like clusters of grapes, rounded thighs, and hands thrust into openings. [I was 13. Of course the Song of Solomon got more of my attention than Psalms.] Prophets foresee the coming of a guy. Guy arrives, dies, then returns with bronze feet and smites. And there is much rejoicing.

I got more the second time through the bible because I was careful and more interested. Took notes. The closer reading didn’t improve my opinion of it. (Even Song of Solomon suffered from a second look. Your hair is like a flock of goats??)

Some books are best skimmed and cherry-picked, as any minister will tell you.

And so, skimmer that I am, it serves me right that I was the recent victim of a skim-and-run. Poetic justice. A turn of the karmic wheel, as it were. A comrade in the fellowship of bloggers over at Bore Me To Tears skimmed a recent post of mine and thought sure I had dissed Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris:

In recounting his interview of Hemant Mehta, nice atheist Dale McGowan (blogger and author, Parenting Beyond Belief) attacks Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for being mean. He says that new atheist authors are malicious when they call religious people names like “stupid” and “ignorant” (even though they don’t)…He also claims that Dawkins and/or Harris have/has said that religious people are “too stupid to live” or that they “better damn well be gone before I count to ten.”

Oof! Did I actually say that about Dawkins and Harris? If I did, she’d be absolutely correct in calling me on the carpet. They do NOT say those things, and I am desperately tired of people mischaracterizing Harris and Dawkins as mean-spirited, one-sided fundamentalists. I work hard to correct that false perception so they can be heard. Anyone who makes such claims about Dawkins and Harris (1) has not read Dawkins and/or Harris, AND/OR (2) read them through through a theistic fog, AND/OR (3) is not clear on the meanings of words like “mean-spirited,” “one-sided, ” “fundamentalist,” or “is.”

Imagine my relief when I reread my post and discovered I didn’t say those things.

But so many people do indeed make such claims about Dawkins and Harris that BMTT can be entirely forgiven for thinking I was doing it as well. I’d much rather be accused wrongly in that case than have those two go undefended. So KUDOS to Bore Me to Tears for stepping up to the plate.

I won’t bother to list the many, many ways in which Dawkins and Harris engage in thoughtful hemantic discernment. Read their books. They don’t call religionists stupid, but others do. Recall David Mills’ infamous dog-poop video. (Here’s a very sharp blogpost that lays out the difference between good satire and mindless nail-spitting quite well.)

Then there are the countless non-discerners on the other end — those who declare all religious expressions “beautiful,” all religious ideas “different paths to Truth.” This, too, is dangerous nonsense.

Harris and Dawkins strike a thinking balance between these nonthinking poles.

Life is short, and we’re all reduced to skimming. Various media facilitate our mental toedipping by painting in broad strokes. Among other things, they find it convenient to mislabel the confidence of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins (new meme: “Harnekins”) as “atheist fundamentalism.” Harnekins are confident because they’ve done their homework extraordinarily well. They don’t say I’m damned or stupid or evil if I disagree with them. They say I’m wrong. I am then free to counter with evidence or argument to the contrary. And yes, at times, the difference of opinion matters so much that they will not “agree to disagree,” preferring to hash it out. I admire their courage in doing so.

I’ve begun to pick up the label of “nice guy” atheist. This too is a broad stroke. In fact, I am as nice as I can reasonably be, and no nicer. Like Hemant and Harnekins, I know that there is a point of no return. I know that beliefs have consequences, and I am morally obligated to drop the nice-guy routine when damage is being done. And so I do. But reporters are so fond of quick and easy labels that in nearly every interview an attempt is made to distinguish Mister-Rogers me from the “nasty” Harnekins. I have learned that I must bat down the attempt forcefully or it will end up in print the original source.

To wit: Here’s a portion of a recent interview I gave (to the best of my selective memory):

REPORTER: So, have you read Dawkins’ latest?

DM: The God Delusion? Yes, I have.

REPORTER: I was pretty mixed about it. What did you think?

DM: I do represent the choir, but I must say I thought it was brilliant. I found it compelling and well-balanced.

REPORTER: What about his assertion that religious parenting equates to child abuse?

DM: Funny you should mention that one point. That’s the only assertion in the entire book that goes further than I would go.

[Reporter scribbles in notes, “Doesn’t go as far as Dawkins.”]

REPORTER: I sometimes feel that he and Harris don’t distinguish sufficiently between moderates and fundamentalists. They lump them all together.

DM: Actually I don’t think they do. They offer a separate, distinct critique of moderates, one that I support. Moderates do too little to challenge fundamentalism, and in fact arm them by promoting faith as an unquestionable virtue.

[Reporter scribbles “Pick up cheese and milk on way home.”]

The final piece included the following:

Atheist curmudgeons Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens lump religious zealots and moderates together. Do you?

I agree with them that we shouldn’t have to say please and thank you to religious people simply because they’re religious, but I don’t go as far as they do.

That’s right, it’s more poetic justice. She skimmed her notes.

In order to set the record straight, now and forever, let me say that I DO GO AS FAR AS THEY DO. I differ from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris only in being less articulate, less famous, less wealthy, less brilliant, and better looking. In virtually all matters of substance, we are in agreement. I hereby carve on the trunk of the World Tree that is the Internet:


paging billy-bob?

All three of my kids have always gravitated naturally to friends with different ethnic heritages from their own. Not sure why, but I’m delighted. Erin went from hanging with Saolia, a Liberian friend in Minnesota, to Yosh (from India) and Dhakshi (Sri Lanka) here in Atlanta.

During a van ride to Grandma’s last week, Erin asked if she could invite Dhakshi and Yosh over sometime for a playdate.

“Oh, I want Ushme to come over too!” Delaney chimed in.

This was finally too much for Connor, who threw his hands in the air. “Dhakshi, Yosh, and Ushme?! I’m sorry, but these Southern names are just strange.”

far above the world


I’m on about bedtime again— but this time it’s the soundtrack.

My mother sung me to sleep for most of my childhood, and I love her for it. In hopes that my own children will profess love for me in their eventual blogs, I sing to them every night as well. And for no other reason.

At an average of two songs per child per night, that’s nearly 20,000 songs so far. Easily bored as I am, the repertoire doesn’t stand still for long: Stardust, Yesterday, Danny Boy, Kentucky Babe, Long and Winding Road, Witchdoctor, Cat’s Cradle, Unchained Melody, Stand By Me, Blackbird, Michelle, The Christmas Song, Lady in Red (not that one), Imagine, Close to You, Mean Mister Mustard, Everything’s All Right (from Superstar, with Judas’ angry outburst included), Happy Together, The Galaxy Song, Our Love is Here to Stay…you know, stuff like that.

A few nights ago, an old friend floated into my head, unbidden—and I began to sing a song that once reached further into my imagination than perhaps any other before or since:

Ground Control to Major Tom…
Ground Control to Major Tom…
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…

“What…in…the…world?!” Erin’s head was off the pillow. I could feel the puzzled glare cutting through the dark.

(“10”) Ground Control (“9”) to Major Tom (“8”)…(“7”)
(“6”) Commencing countdown, engines on…(“3”)
(“2”) Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…

“This is weird,” said Delaney.

“This is TOTALLY weird,” said Erin, leaning forward on her elbow.

“This is…”


I was only slightly older than Delaney when Neil Armstrong celebrated my wedding anniversary by landing on the moon 22 years in advance, to the day. It was the same year David Bowie gave us Major Tom. I watched the moon landing with my parents, who tried very hard to impress the significance on me. I was a complete NASAholic by age eight.

As I built model after model of the lunar module and command module and watched telecasts of one Apollo crew after another in grainy black-and-white, I recall being both awed and miffed at the astronauts—awed because I wanted so much to be in their boots, and miffed because they were all business. Houston this and Houston that. Engaging the forward boosters, Houston. Switching on the doohickey, Houston. Even in elementary school, it occurred to me that there should be a little more evidence of personal transformation. I wanted to hear them say Ooooooooooooo, in a fully uncrewcutted, unprofessional way. Holy cow, I wanted. I’m in outer space.

Eventually we got golfing on the moon and some zero-G hijinks. That’s fine. But that’s not transformation. I wanted evidence that they were moved by their experience, that they would never be the same after seeing Earth from space. They wrote about it years later when I was in college, but it was in high school that a Bowie song I’d never heard before finally said what I’d waited to hear. Take it, Major Tom:

Here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past 100,000 miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

For three days now we’ve listened to Bowie’s version rather than my own at bedtime, complete with those epic Mellotron strings, and debated what exactly happens in those final stanzas. The girls demand to know: Is he okay? What happened? Does he come back?

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you hear me Major Tom?
Can you

Here am I floating ’round my tin can,
Far above the Moon,
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

“Omigosh,” said Connor after one hearing. “He killed himself.”

“No he did not!” I was indignant, partly because it had never occurred to me.

“Yes he did. ‘Tell my wife I love her very much’—and then his circuit goes dead? Come on, Dad.”

I’d heard the song a thousand times. Yes, I thought he might not have made it, but it never once occurred to me that he’d done himself in. Huh.

It makes sense. He was moved, all right. He was so transformed by the experience that he liberated himself from Ground Control, unhooked his tether, and went careening, blissfully, beyond the moon.

Okay then. Be careful what you wish for.

Ariadne’s threads

I was seeing my girls off to sleep Sunday night when suddenly, without warning, the Bronze Age broke loose.

It was one of those breath-holding parenting moments when you can’t believe your luck at being there to capture it. Delaney (5) announced that she had made up a myth of her own. For some reason I had the presence of mind to grab my laptop and transcribe as she spoke. Read it, then we’ll chat:

The Wall of Parvati

There was a girl named Medusa. And she knew this wall, a big wall, and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat with her sharpest sword and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying, because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian), and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep, and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

Before I yak this to death, let me repaste her myth with elements cross-referenced to the myths Laney has heard as bedtime stories in recent weeks:

The Wall of Parvati1

There was a girl named Medusa.2 And she knew this wall, a big wall,3 and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat4 with her sharpest sword5 and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying,6 because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian),7 and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods8 down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes9 and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep,10 and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

1 She knows Parvati from Ganapati Circles the World (Hindu). Parvati is the consort of Shiva and mother of Ganapati (aka Ganesha or Ganesh). Parvati’s also a Gryffindor, of course.
2 From Perseus and Medusa (Greek).
3 The Iliad (Greek). Much is made of the hated wall around Troy in this excellent retelling for grades 2-4.
4 Several of our recent myths included sailing quests — The Golden Fleece, The Iliad, The Odyssey (Greek).
5 Perseus killed Medusa with the infinitely sharp adamantine sword of Hermes (Greek).
6 Shiva’s pro-wrestling name is “The Destroyer.”
7 No idea. We haven’t done any Egyptian myths yet. The Disney flick Prince of Egypt, maybe?
8 This has been a theme in several of the myths we’ve read lately — the sending of surrogates on tasks — including Cupid and Psyche (Greek) and Proserpine and Pluto (Roman).
9 We’ve encountered two magical snakes recently: in the Garden of Eden (Judaic) and in the Sioux myth of the three transformed brothers. And Medusa has snakes for hair, of course, so maybe she plucked one out and sent it on a mission.
10 A jealous Venus tricked Psyche into inhaling a sleeping draught (Roman).

In that context, maybe you can see why I was all agog. My five-year-old daughter had constructed a syncretic midrash.

Midrash is a process by which new interpretations are laid on old legends or scriptures, and/or new stories are synthesized out of elements of older ones, usually for the purpose of instruction. Though early Jews freaked about syncretism across party lines–don’t make me link to the golden calf!–the construction of fictional midrash from within Judaic sources is recognized as a vital part of Jewish teaching.

In The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty argues, with brilliantly grounded scholarship, that the gospel of Mark was just such a midrash, and that “Mark” did not mean it to be taken as literal fact any more than Delaney did. It was a teaching fiction.

But Laney’s work more closely resembles a deeper kind of mythmaking, one common in the Mediterranean Bronze Age and beyond: the syncretic merging of elements from different belief systems into something new and useful. There is much to suggest that the later character of Jesus is such a syncretic construct, sharing as he does the heroic attributes and biographical details of such earlier mythic figures as Mithras (born on Dec 25, mother a virgin, father the sky-god, 12 disciples, entombed in rock, rose on third day, etc), Krishna, Osiris, Tammuz, and countless others.

A fascinating tangent, believe you me, but I’ll never find my way out if I start with that.

So ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures spun new tapestries from the threads of religions all around them. Now here’s a 21st century kindergartener doing the same thing. Makes you think we’re onto something fundamentally human.

If we’d exposed Delaney to just one culture, one religion, she could be forgiven for imagining a no-kidding god on the other end of that one dazzling thread. By instead following a hundred threads, she realizes there are just lots of people on the other end — just plain folks, like Delaney — each of them spinning something lovely and new from the old threads they picked up. Follow enough of those threads and you find yourself outside the labyrinth of religious belief entirely, blinking in the sun.

The thing that left me most awestruck is that she even thought of mythmaking as a thing she could do. Picture a Sunday School kid making up his own bible story. Even though that’s just how Matthew and Luke were elaborated out of Mark, once the 4th century bishops weighed in and made it “gospel,” further creative energies have been (shall we say) discouraged. With rare exceptions, we are now receivers of that written tradition, not co-creators. That’s why the experience of hearing Delaney spin her tale moved me so deeply. She recognizes other human hands in the spinning of the mythic tapestry — so why not add her own?