The night before Valentine’s Day was going to be celebrated at my daughter’s school, I received the following text from my husband, Jonathan:
Emmy bought God cards. Won’t give them up. Crying. Help.
To translate our married shorthand, he was telling me that our 9-year-old, Emerson, had somehow selected religious Valentine’s Day cards, and now that he had discovered the fact he was trying to explain why she simply couldn’t hand them out to her friends, and she was very upset.
I called the house and he answered on the first ring. “How bad?” I asked.
“Like ‘Jesus died for you have some candy’ bad?”
“Like, one puppy telling another puppy that God wants us to be friends.”
“Also, there’s a Bible verse.”
He felt terrible about it, but in all honesty, those cards were sneaky:
Awww. Puppies! I’m glad we’re friends too, puppies!
Wait, hold up a sec…
In the grand scheme of things, one animal baby telling another animal baby that God brought them together in friendship is no tragedy. But there are several factors operating here that made this a Threat Level Red, Zero Card Thirty, codename God Cardgate situation.
First, there is the fact that we live in the kind of neighborhood where trying to find the owner of a lost blue hat can turn into a culture war. I just want to write my check to the PTO and bring my pie to the annual pie-related fundraiser, not set off a debate about the imposition of religious values on a multicultural community through the distribution of propaganda with a kitten on it.
More significantly, we’re Jewish! Sort of. I’m Jewish, culturally at least. Emmy is technically Jewish in the same way I am, because she’s the child of a Jewish mother. Jonathan was raised Catholic. We’re both Buddhist. And yet, in the sprit of Candy is Delicious and Everyone Loves Presents, we celebrate all the things, our Christmas tree glowing in the light of our menorah, Easter candy decorating our Passover table. We leave offerings to our Ganesha statue when faced with an obstacle. We welcome Persephone on the first day of spring. We smudge any new apartment we move into. My point is, if we were going to hand out God Cards, they would not feature the God of 1 John 4:8.
“Put her on the phone,” I said, standing to pull on my coat. It was now 7pm, I was still at work, and the evening suddenly included buying replacement Valentine’s Day cards, bringing them home, helping her to fill them out, and soothing her hurt feelings. Oh, and explaining God to her.
So, a typical Thursday.
“Helllloooo moooooommmmy,” she warbled in a tiny little voice.
“Hello baby,” I said. “I hear you picked out some cards with God in them.”
“Yes,” she said, crying. “I don’t understand. Daddy says I can’t hand them out, but they are just puppies. And I worked so hard on them. And there’s one for my teacher. And why is there anything wrong with God saying we should be friends? That’s nice!”
“I know, sweetheart,” I said. “And I’ll explain everything to you when I get home. But for now, you just need to trust me. I’m going to go to the store and buy you some other cards, and you can give those out.” We negotiated a deal. She would shower and put on her pajamas. I would buy new cards and bring them home. We would fill them out together, and I would try to find a way to tell her about the difference between puppies who love each other under the benevolent gaze of a gentle deity and the centuries-long bloody complexities of organized religion.
I thought about what I could tell her, while I shopped for cards at the CVS and rode the subway home from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was raised in an atheist home. My mother is so anti-religion, such a disbeliever, that she threw a fit when I wanted to mention heaven in my grandmother’s eulogy. In the house where I grew up, no book was off-limits, no movie inappropriate, no cultural or political topic not worth talking to death, and my boyfriends started sleeping over when I was 16 — but no one talked about religion. I once asked my mother what she thought happened when we died, and she said she thought it was nothing. No heaven, no hell, no ghosts or spirit, no afterlife. Just the power going off in a house about to be demolished. Nothing left but the memories other people had of you, and a pile of paperwork to be attended to.
I met God my freshman year of college, in a Western Civ. class taught by a professor who captured my full attention. More than God, he showed me god in all his forms, and hers. A universe of myth and story stretching from the underworld to Asgard, spanning time from the moment that first prehistoric ancestor looked up at the sky in awe to me in the drugstore buying cards for my good-hearted daughter, and in doing so wrestling with ancient mysteries about what we wish, what we fear, what we stand for. I minored in Religious Studies in college, and while it may have started as a way of flirting with my professor and horrifying my mother, it matured into a genuine fascination with the sacred places of myth and faith, the archetypical stories of heroes and gods, goddesses and monsters. But for all this, I am no true believer. I have no answers. I’m just another traveler. Another curious wanderer. A storyteller who loves a big yarn. Perhaps, I will concede, better read than most.
I arrived home to find Emerson freshly showered, her thick hair combed out, wrapped in a blanket on the couch. I showed her the cards I’d bought. They had gel window clings on them, in the shapes of dragonflies, butterflies, frogs and owls. She thought they were wonderful. And I’d brought a special card for her teacher, too, with Snoopy dancing on it. We sat at the dining table together, me and my sweet girl, and I read her the names of her classmates while she carefully filled out each card, selecting just the right cling for each friend — a butterfly for Sophie, an owl for Gus, a dragonfly for Paloma.
“Mommy,” she said when we were done. “Why were the puppy cards not ok? They were so cute!”
They were, I told her, they were adorable. But the thing is, those cards were about a specific God, the God that is in the Bible called the New Testament, and not everybody believes in that God. The people that do are called Christians, and not everybody is Christian. Some people are Jewish, and Muslim, and Buddhist. Some people don’t believe in God at all. And if you are a person who doesn’t believe in that Christian God, or any God, it can feel upsetting or confusing to get a card about that God. And anyway, religion is between the religious person and the God they believe in, we don’t impose those kinds of beliefs on other people. And giving out those cards could feel like you expected the person you were giving it to to believe in that Christian God.
She nodded. “Ok,” she said. And then she asked me the real question, the question at the heart of it all. “Mommy, what do you believe?”
What do I believe? I believe that religion is the cause of endless suffering, of war and hatred. That it’s a way to control the rebellious, creative, far-reaching, fierce thing that makes us human to start with. That it is yet a another way of dividing the world into an “us” and a “them,” and we have far too many of those. I am no fan of religion. But I do believe in something bigger than me, something vast and ferocious, made of rage and pain, pleasure and goodness, vengeance and forgiveness, something unknowable and unsolvable. I believe that sometimes god is a lion, with hot breath and a rough mane, and you visit him by sneaking through a wardrobe. Sometimes god is a grey-eyed girl who carries a bow and a quiver of arrows. Sometimes he’s a dangerous swan. Sometimes she’s a demon slayer. Sometimes god is a lightening bolt, a crash of thunder, a flood, or a fire. Sometimes he is a dancing elephant who clears the way forward. Sometimes she is a fierce mother who finds you in the dark and rescues you from the arms of a monster. I believe in the stories we tell, in the kindnesses we do, in the ways we find to love each other. I believe in the mysteries. I believe in what I don’t know. I revel in everything I don’t know.
“You’re so silly mommy,” she said, and she crawled into my lap and hugged me. “God is a lion?”
“Sometimes,” I said. “His name is Aslan, you’ll read about him one day.”
There were several cards left over, and Emerson asked if she could have the clings. She arranged them on her window, a little scene where the dragonflies flitted with the butterflies, and the owls kept company with the frogs. “They’ll be so pretty when the sun shines through,” she said, and she climbed into bed. I kissed her and hugged her, wished her sweet sleep.
I do not know what she dreams about. And I revel in that too.