Faith Gong: Be like little children
I have a confession to make: With five children in our family, I can no longer remember important individual milestones. Were you to ask me at what ages each of my children walked, talked, cut their first tooth, I couldn’t say. I could give you a range, which would be, “Somewhere between the ages of birth and two.”
I love my children deeply for the individuals that they are; ask me today about their personalities and tastes, and I’ll tell you in detail. But past details have all receded into the fog of thirteen years of sleep deprivation. I cannot recall my fourth child’s first word, what everyone wore for Halloween two years ago, and I have difficulty remembering everyone’s current shoe size.
I mention this to give you a sense of how significant it is that, over the past month, three of my daughters said things that I felt compelled to record in my journal so that I wouldn’t forget.
These incidents happened over the course of weeks, but they seemed connected in some way, as if they were all facets of the same stone.
1. My youngest daughter, who is seven years old, began suddenly updating me about who she was each day. She would say at breakfast, “Mommy, today I’m going to just be myself.” Or, “Today I’m going to be someone else until lunch, and then I’ll be myself for the rest of the day.” When she wasn’t herself, she was often being herself as an adult, or even more interestingly, one of her future children.
We might be tempted to smile patronizingly at this childish identity-switching. But I feel a deep admiration — tinged with envy — for my daughter, because she knows when she is herself. How many of us adults can say the same, with such confidence? We are so used to layering identities on top of ourselves: this is me as a working professional, this is me impersonating a good parent, this is me stifling my true feelings. These are not necessarily bad things, but it’s so easy to wear them like garments handed to us by others, without really evaluating whether their style suits us. How many adults know who we truly are anymore?
2. My nine-year-old lost a tooth, and then she lost the tooth. Now, I feel that there’s enough magic and imagination happening in our house without me having to go to a lot of trouble to deceive my children; although my children place their teeth and letters to the tooth fairy under their pillows, and receive letters and quarters in return, they are all fully aware that I am doing the tooth fairy’s work. Which is why my daughter was covering her tooth with blue clay so that, when she burrowed into the box in my dresser where all my children know I stash their baby teeth, she could tell which tooth was hers.
The problem arose when she left the clay-covered tooth on the dining room table and forgot about it. When she remembered, the tooth was gone and nobody could find it.
My daughter was devastated. “I can’t get a quarter if I don’t have a tooth to leave!” she wailed to me. (And remember, she is fully aware that I am the tooth fairy.)
“Why don’t you just write a note explaining what happened?” I suggested. “I’m sure the tooth fairy will understand.”
“No,” she sobbed. “That just won’t work! I need to leave a tooth!”
What struck me about my daughter’s seemingly illogical response was how very logical it is if you assume that there are certain moral laws that govern the universe. My daughter wasn’t concerned, as we adults so often are, with the apparent disparity between fantasy (There is a tooth fairy who trades quarters for teeth) and facts (My mother IS the tooth fairy) — those two things could co-exist without causing her any psychic distress, and were beside the point. The POINT was this fixed rule: It’s not right to expect to get something for nothing.
I don’t happen to agree with my daughter’s rule, because it denies any opportunity for grace (in the end, some weeks later, she did write a letter of explanation and get her quarter.) But it seems to me that adults, who get so hung up on what is provable fact (especially these days) could stand to learn something from her: Perhaps we might navigate the world more smoothly if we focused less on what is fact and what is fiction, and more on what is right and what is wrong. They are not always the same.
3. My eleven-year-old daughter piped up at lunch one day: “Sometimes I wonder if, whenever we blink, we go into another dimension.”
It was such a fascinating thought that we did a little research and learned that we blink 15-20 times per minute. This means that all of us spend about 10% of our waking hours blinking. Think of the possibilities! What if we did go to another dimension every time we blinked? Over the course of a single day, we’d spend almost 2 hours there!
In this case, what captured me was my daughter’s wonder; her belief that anything might be possible. It’s far too easy to become weighed down by the responsibilities of adulthood and the worries of a pandemic and an election year. But what if we could recapture some of our childlike wonder and envision possibilities beyond this difficult moment in history?
Last night, as darkness settled in our valley and a yellow moon peeped over the mountains, my daughters convinced me to go for an evening walk before bed. There were still dishes piled by the sink, baths to take, and stories to read, but I strapped the baby into the stroller and set out behind my daughters down the driveway. They were all dressed in robes and cloaks, channeling characters they’d created, and they led the way with flashlights and lanterns. The crisp evening air prophesied the end of summer.
On the return home, after they’d cavorted and shrieked at rustles in the bushes, we walked together and talked about the clouds and the dome of the sky.
“Gosh, I feel so small,” one daughter said. But she said it without fear.
Most of the adults I know are afraid right now. Afraid of illness, of losing our freedoms, of the wrong party winning the election, of climate change, of culture change, of law enforcement, of violent protesters. In a divided country, in a divided world, the thing that unites us is fear.
Perhaps we can learn from our children: to be who we really are, to focus on what is right above what is true, to stay open to the wonder and possibilities around us, and to embrace our own smallness without fear. And perhaps we can help this rising generation of children to preserve these things as they grow.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.