Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Church: Prologue, "This Is a Song"

On a Sunday last fall, I was working downstairs with the space heater on and the office doors closed when the phone rang. The caller ID read DAN KOIS, which meant that it was my wife, upstairs, calling our home phone from my cell phone. As is often the case on weekends, we were trading carefully-negotiated Work Periods. I was writing while she looked after the children; later, I would take the kids while she worked. Later still, we would maybe eat dinner together and then put the kids in the bath.

I answered the phone. In the background I could hear crying. Alia said, "You have to come upstairs right now."

"Okay, I'll be right there," I said.

"I am not facing this alone," she said.

"Okay," I said.

In the dining room, our four-year-old, L., was sobbing.

"I don't want to die!" she wailed.

Her sister H. was standing next to her, wearing a two-year-old's idea of a concerned look, and patting her arm. "She's crying," she told me. Her job done, she tucked a sippy cup under her arm and wandered off to the living room.

"What happened?!" I asked.

"I don't want to ever die!"

"Oh, honey," I said, kneeling down next to her. "It's not something you'll have to worry about for so long! Not until you're very, very old." I could feel the heat from her cheeks. She wasn't calming down. I didn't know what to do. Why was she freaking out about dying? She is four! What could I say? I didn't want to lie to her, but I realized immediately that I absolutely would lie to her if necessary.

"It's something that happens to…" I stopped myself, hearing her questions spinning out from there: Will Kiki die? Will Mommy die? When will Mommy die? So many conversations with L. get derailed by us not thinking three steps ahead. "It's not, you don't–"

She interrupted me, thank goodness. "Where will I go?" she asked.

"Well," Alia hazarded, "We don't know exactly what happens when you die."

"Why we don't know what happens?"

"No one's ever told us," I said. "It's a mystery. Some people think you just go to sleep and never wake up."

"I don't want to sleep and not wake up!"

I picked her up. She was bereft, betrayed. Her anger-hey, this was never part of our deal-was only exceeded by her panic. It was horrible.

Alia stepped in. "Well, some people believe that when you die you go to a wonderful place with all your family and friends."

"What's the wonderful place?" Other than a grandparent-instigated christening, our kids had never been inside a church.

"It's called Heaven," Alia said.

"Or, or," I said, grasping, trying to head off her next question ("Why are my family and friends in Heaven?") before it came. "Some people think that after you die you come back to earth as something else."

"Like what?" she said, muffled, her face pressed against me. A glimmer of interest.

"Like a, like a ladybug–"

"I don't want to be a ladybug!"

"Or a giraffe! Or an elephant! What if you came back as an elephant? Wouldn't that be crazy?"

I felt her smile into my shoulder. "Or a monkey," she said.

"That would be crazy too."

"Ooh ooh, aah aah," her sister said from the other room, helpfully imitating a monkey.

She straightened up in my arms and looked me square in the face. "Wouldn't it be funny if I died and I came back as an elephant?" she asked.

Oh yes, I thought, looking into her eyes. Wouldn't that be funny. I have had nightmares about something happening to you, kid, and in the nightmares the logical next step is to just fucking kill myself. When I wake up from these nightmares, the realization that you're not dead makes me weep with gratitude, my fat awful tears dampening the pillow.

"Yeah," I made myself say. She put her head back on my shoulder. My eyes met Alia's. "If you died and came back as an elephant, it would be really funny."

* * *

Later that night I turned down the lights in L.'s room to the level, somewhere just below full daylight, at which she will agree to sleep. She was scrubbed and washed and brushed and wearing new pajamas as she padded around, putting her babies to bed, each doll with its own blanket and pillow. "This baby wants a baby doll to sleep with," she told me, and tucked a small action figure of Space Jam-era Michael Jordan under the doll's arm.

furfamilycoverWe settled down together on the floor for books and songs. She'd chosen her book, the Richard Scarry collection she loves; I chose Little Fur Family, a book I'd been reading to her a lot. Margaret Wise Brown's story of a little fur child and his adventures in the wild wood appeals to my appreciation for the anarchic and the enigmatic in children's stories; it doesn't exactly make sense, but it feels right. L. plopped down next to me on the floor and draped herself over my legs. Her closeness was both endearing and irritating. "Can you move a little bit, so I can read the story?" I asked.

The little fur child caught a fish and threw it back. He caught a bug and let it loose. He caught "a little tiny tiny fur animal"-himself in miniature-and kissed its little fur nose and set it down on the grass. The little fur child returned home to his family, and his big fur parents held his hand and sang him to sleep:

Sleep, sleep, our little fur child,
Out of the windiness,
Out of the wild.
Sleep warm in your fur
All night long,
In our little fur family.
This is a song.

I took the book with me, leaving L. humming herself to sleep in her well-lit room. She hadn't mentioned dying since the freak-out this afternoon, and we hadn't raised it. After dinner, Alia told me it all started when they'd been discussing fairy tales, and L.-remembering the story of Sleeping Beauty, who wakes up when she is kissed-asked what would have happened if no one had ever kissed her. And from there everything spun out of control.

While in theory we want to be as honest with our kids about the world and its trials, in practice we've shied away from any discussion of death at all. (The week of Michael Jackson's overdose was a week of total news-radio blackout in our car.) The larkish nonchalance with which Alia and I, and all our friends, discuss anything grave-that generationally understood shorthand that connotes, "Yes, death and terrorism are terrifying, and I take them seriously, but que sera, right?"-doesn't signify to a four-year-old. Four-year-olds are serious. Four-year-olds do not want your ironic worldview. Four-year-olds want to know how to feel, how you feel.

I opened the book and looked at the little fur family, the father and mother singing, the little fur child snug in his bed. It feels, sometimes, as though we lack even the framework within which to talk about real life with our little fur children. They never catch fish or run through the woods. They never decide whether to let the bug loose or to squash it underfoot. All we can give them are borrowed traditions-offering other people's theories one after the other, hoping one interests them enough to push us gently to a new topic. We talk to L. about the sort of person we want her to be, and we do our best to be those sorts of people. But her world is full of little fur families who talk and act and look and believe-or don't believe, or can't believe-as we do.

This is right and this is wrong, we say. This is kindness. This is a song.

Other than that christening, and a handful of weddings and christenings and Christmases, I hadn't attended church in 16 years, since high-school Methodist Youth Fellowship. A few weekends after that day in September, we put on our Sunday clothes and drove around the corner to Rock Spring Congregational. There were other reasons we returned to church besides that terrifying conversation with L., of course. But as we walked through the big wooden doors-the greeter shaking our hands warmly and leaning down to compliment L. and H. on their dresses-I was thinking about the little fur child as he lets the tiny, tiny fur animal loose on the grass and watches it run.

Dan Kois writes about movies and plays and books, too. Also, he has a new book out, about that Hawaiian guy with the ukulele. Why not buy it?

93 Comments / Post A Comment

Ronit (#1,557)

Thanks for this post.

I've been thinking about joining a church for a couple years now… will be following this series with interest.

berthamason (#740)

Crikey, this is a beautiful piece. Thank you so much for this.

bong hitler (#3,233)

One of the most empowering things about being a parent or guardian is lying to children about the afterlife. It's like being L. Ron Hubbard

HiredGoons (#603)

Yeah, but they don't have any money you can take. Stupid kids.

Kevin (#2,559)

But they can be trained to perform house and yard work.

metoometoo (#230)

I love this. Something about the way it is written, and I think the pacing specifically, made it so exceptionally pleasurable to read.

LondonLee (#922)

I'm dreading this conversation with my 3yo. We have the added complication that my wife is a Christian and I'm an atheist.

Lovely post.

Bittersweet (#765)

Same situation in my family with my 7yo, but we've agreed that I handle the Big Questions for now. We figure she'll have plenty of time to rebel against Christian dogma when she hits college.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

LL- I know what you mean. I'm a former-RC agnostic, and my wife is a militant atheist, so we met in the middle & attend an Episcopal church. I think it's good for kids to have a structure to rebel against, so they're not flailing in a void. That way lies born-again weirdness.

Fortunately my little Jimmy took a shine to Humanism and Terror, quickly ending his struggles with both existential doubt and hipster irony.

Resist. Don't do it. God is a late-night infomercial.

Tell the kid that when we die, it's like when she rips the heads off her dolls. They can be put back but they'll never be quite the same. Works for me.

jolie (#16)

"Sometimes dead is bettah."

HiredGoons (#603)

@jolie: "Raaaaachel…"

ARGH! This totally just thawed my icy black raisin heart!

xarissa (#3,317)

lovely and well-written.

rj77 (#210)


Bittersweet (#765)

Thirded, with gusto.

Our 5-year-old has already experienced the death of 4 people close to us or in extended family. We've had the "[weeping] But I don't want you and Mom to die" situation. Then, you reassure that you won't die for a long time, when you're very old. Then, they start asking the elderly, "Are you going to die soon?" He asked the elderly couple we were chatting with, who were sitting next to us at a hotel continental breakfast.

Looking forward to the next installment.

mathnet (#27)

My nephew did that exact thing when he was 5 1/2. His next question to the old man was, "So. When'd you lose your teeth?"

This was a beautiful piece, but, yeah, I'm a little conflicted about the church part, too.

My mum took me and my sister to a straightforwardly traditional, non-bible-thumping church on many Sunday mornings throughout my childhood. At the time, it gave me a framework, a vague sense that there might be big explanations for big issues, and an ability to get bible references in classical literature. It in no way colored my religious beliefs – I was allowed and encouraged to figure those out for myself as my curiosity matured. Maybe I was just lucky, but I don't regret or resent her choice for us.

Also, sunday school=no sermon, whacked out stories and getting to draw pictures.

HiredGoons (#603)


(this was so good!)

portmanteautally (#1,015)

I am solidly and fervently anti-church, but the Little Fur Family was my absolute favorite book as a child. As a result I am left with a confused mux of feelings about this post.

Al the beautiful moments with your kids, where you feel your way to what parenting really is. Followed by CHURCH. Blech.

I just don't know how to feel. I think I will choose JEALOUS, that apparently modern versions of this awesome book some with Pat The Bunny style furry innards to stroke as you read. Seems like the safest choice for my delicate psyche.

Mary HK Choi (#1,469)

That was wonderful. Also, really stressful. I'm going to have to cauterize my ducts. Thanks a lot.

mathnet (#27)

She was bereft, betrayed. Her anger-hey, this was never part of our deal-was only exceeded by her panic. It was horrible is what made me die.

Mary HK Choi (#1,469)

mathy! stooooooooooooooop! Gaaaaaaaaaaaawd. DON'T LOOK AT ME. *scrunchface*

mathnet (#27)


HiredGoons (#603)

"But I don't want to die!"

That'll change.

(God, I'm so fucking jaded).

Moff (#28)

Dan Kois, today I am finally forgiving you for that bullshit piece you wrote for Slate awhile back about how R.E.M. is much better than U2.

This was awesome, the Congregational church is awesome, and taking kids to the Congregational church-or any good house of religion-is awesome. Because there is a great deal to be said for growing up as part of a community that is willing to talk about the long, dark nights of the soul and all the stuff science can often break down but not address.

HiredGoons (#603)

Well put, and that's coming from someone who only goes to churches to look at the art.

mathnet (#27)

Wow, I would go to church if it were like that.

Moff (#28)

It's not 100 percent like that, but it's more like that than, say, work or Toastmasters is.

mathnet (#27)

Have you ever visited a Unitarian Universalist church? I'm kind of curious about it.

Bittersweet (#765)

Grew up in the UU church, found Jesus as an adult and joined the Episcopalians. UU churches are great communities, very open and tolerant, discuss the Big Issues. They vary a lot from church to church depending on the minister(s).

Moff (#28)

The Unitarians call them meeting houses, and actually, Madison has a pretty famous one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (It is really beautiful and, as I understand it, totally inconvenient for many fairly ordinary needs.) I have not actually been to a service, just 'cause I have a church here, but we know quite a few people who go. I don't know whether any of them attend for spiritual, seeking reasons (just like normal church, it's also good if you just want to network!), but my understanding is that that sort of things is part of the deal if you want it.

Anyway, the people we know who go are smart and thoughtful and at least one is a very satisfied atheist. I approve of the whole thing heartily.

Moff (#28)

(BTW, I meant to edit the thing about meeting houses and forgot, because I don't know if that's an across-the-board thing or a Madison thing or just a thing with the Unitarians we know.)

Dan Kois (#646)

This is all very interesting, but R.E.M. is still better than U2.

Moff (#28)

OMG. It wasn't true before 1997 when they still had a drummer, and the case has only gone downhill since.

On a related note, though, Michael Stipe's cover of "In the Sun" from a couple years ago made me lose it in public a couple of times, more than just about any other song ever has. Something about him singing, "May God's love be with you…" about ripped my heart out.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Yeah but REM was better than U2. Hello! (That word "is" threw me there for a minute but obviously we are talking about the distant past.)

Dan Kois (#646)

Yeah, sorry, was. They both is currently crappy.

Moff (#28)

@Tulle: That statement does not bear even the most glancing scrutiny, but U2 fans can afford to be expansive about it, so if your silly illusion makes you feel better, I say more power to you.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I am going to be very disappointed if this is not a long series at the Awl. "Prologue" sounds like a promise to me.

So I hope to find out how it all works out for you, but I am still a little skeptical about the idea that the thought of death will be less terrible if you go to church.

If the thought of death is not terrible, you're just not doing it right.

Moff (#28)

Seriously? I mean, dude, if it's so bad, then why does everyone do it?

mathnet (#27)

I'll totally do it, but only when I'm old; that's how it's really done.

HiredGoons (#603)

As long as I'm not eaten alive, I'm fine with it.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Moff re: Frank Lloyd Wright church. My brother was married there. It's a beautiful place. Though the location could use some help.

OuackMallard (#774)

If you have the patience, compare Accelerate to No Line On The Horizon and your case for REM has only gotten stronger.

Excellent post by the way. I'm struggling with this with my own child at the moment.

Moff (#28)

@Abe: It's gorgeous. But apparently the floor in the sanctuary needs frequent repainting because people walk on it in nice shoes, or something, and Frank didn't anticipate that.

@Ouack: I actually think a lot of No Line deserves defending, but I don't really have to, because Accelerate doesn't really absolve R.E.M. of the the three, count 'em three, albums that preceded it. I would also point out that R.E.M. has never made a singularly great, classic album, but I don't have to, because Peter Buck said so himself. It's too bad; they're a good band.

jolie (#16)

@Dan Kois: REM is absolutely better than U2. And this was a lovely, lovely piece.

QueenWasp (#926)

This is the part that made my office awfully dusty:

Oh yes, I thought, looking into her eyes. Wouldn't that be funny. I have had nightmares about something happening to you, kid, and in the nightmares the logical next step is to just fucking kill myself. When I wake up from these nightmares, the realization that you're not dead makes me weep with gratitude, my fat awful tears dampening the pillow.

Churching or no churching, this is good meditation on parenthood (and peoplehood!)

That was exactly the part that got me, too.

Can't say much that hasn't already been said, Dan. Just beautiful!

Fuck, I just returned home from the snow and was looking forward to snuggling up with Julie Klausner. I'm bookmarked near a lot of peen and blowjobs!
Dan writes a lovely piece, but I'm gonna get back in the mood now.

My copy just arrived yesterday! Can't wait.

libmas (#231)

A while back, a person of whom I think well Tumbled the line: "Life is hard, and people die."

Later that night, I wrote the person an email:

I've been drinking, and I'm working right now, but I still know better than to preach…

But seriously… people die, and life is hard. And the longer you (I) live, the more manifestly true those blunt statements become.

So what came to me today at Mass (the first reading was taken from Job) was this: why do people shake their heads so pityingly at Christianity and stupid Christians? Why do they mock as if Christians are just inventing shit without reason (hello, Flying Spaghetti Monster)? I mean, sure, Christians say a lot of outlandish things, but look at the root: Here were people – those first disciples – who said, "Hey everybody – you know those two enormous and awful truths: people die and life is hard? Well, we've seen something that 1) offers the promise that death is not the end and 2) gives meaning to human suffering. What's more, we're so certain of what we've seen, we will cheerfully go to our deaths rather than deny it."

There are probably any number of points where you think the Catholic Church is more or less inhuman. Fine. But maybe on this, there's a case that She is profoundly human?

I'll shut up now.

Bittersweet (#765)

Well said. There is a deep and penetrating optimism in Christianity that people have trouble embracing. Including me, even though JC has already lured me into the Fan Club.

HiredGoons (#603)

I'm not trying to pick a fight, but do you think gay people go to Hell?

LondonLee (#922)

You lost me at "She"

HiredGoons (#603)

(bride of Christ)

Moff (#28)

One thing that gets me is when people disparagingly call Christianity (or any religion, but I'll focus on the one I know) a "crutch." For one thing, yeah! I can use a crutch sometimes, because this can be a crippled-ass world.

And for another, that is a weird fucking crutch that often doesn't really help you get where you were going so much as compel you to (1) take the long way and (2) carry some other people with you, too. (Obligatory "Not that I am anywhere near as good about that as I should be" qualification.)

libmas (#231)

I have a very hard time thinking of *anyone* going to hell. Speaking on behalf of my own soul, I'm a big fan of Purgatory – the notion that sinful souls (like mine) may be purified after death – and avoid damnation.

The Catholic Church does teach that hell exists, and that it is possible to go there. It has never taught, to my knowledge, that any particular human soul actually has gone there, gay or straight, Christian or atheist, etc. It does, of course, also teach that homosexual sexual acts are intrinsically disordered (which is, of course, a whole other discussion). But it does not presume to dictate the motions of God's mercy with regard to anyone.

libmas (#231)

Like the man said, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

HiredGoons (#603)

"it does not presume to dictate the motions of God's mercy with regard to anyone."

Mmmmmmmmmm, I thought that was the whole reason for it's existence?

libmas (#231)

Well, not if you subscribe to the notion that Jesus founded the Church when he said to Peter, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." The Church has been called The Bark of Peter – the boat gathering struggling souls onto its deck ("I will make you fishers of men," etc.) and carrying them home.

HiredGoons (#603)

Ugh, don't listen to me who can't even use 'its' correctly.

HiredGoons (#603)

I'm not trying to attack you by the way, I'm sort of a Buddhist and I think all beliefs have beautiful sides, I'm just very suspicious of an organization that says there is something in inherently wrong in who I love.

libmas (#231)

Sins against grammar…

But I've rambled too long. Main point: wonderful piece, Mr. Kois. Thank you.

HiredGoons (#603)

On this we can most certainly agree.

libmas (#231)

Understood. You might look up Eve Tushnet online sometime.

Bittersweet (#765)

I'm way late to this threat, but Goons, I don't think gays go to Hell. In fact, I try not to think too much about who's going where in the afterlife, and just work hard on my own case for passing through the pearly gates.

And LondonLee, I'm with you on the 'She' – I was just ignoring it in light of the other well-phrased ideas in libmas' original post.

Bittersweet (#765)

late to this thread, egads.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Not true. In 1462 Pius II publicly consigned Sigismondo di Malatesta to hell while he was still alive, even.

Evan (#1,473)

Yes, HiredGoons, you need to pick that fight, because it's easy for the religious to talk about their puppy kisses and pretty flowers beliefs, but you also have to peel away the layers to find out if they also have grotesque, inhuman beliefs, such as eternal suffering for the majority of humanity.

Moff (#28)

Actually, I think most of the religious people with sincere grotesque, inhuman beliefs are pretty wear-it-on-their-sleeve about it. And in other cases-for example, that of the Roman Catholic Church-there's frequently a pretty gaping disconnect between what the people nominally in charge espouse as official dogma and what most of the followers really believe.

barnhouse (#1,326)

The Catholic Church, so complicated. I love the confession part, where if you really repent for the bad things you did, they are totally wiped clean. Very handy psychological technique, that. Freud ought to have worked some form of it into his system. But Evan #1473 is super right about the damnation part, which is so incredibly stupid and harmful.

HiredGoons (#603)

That black bear is absolutely terrifying.

Dan Kois (#646)

I KNOW. Or is it even a bear?!

HiredGoons (#603)

Golem, fer sure.

Bittersweet (#765)

Terrifying, are you kidding? He's adorable. Garth Williams was a frickin' genius.

Matsfro (#2,778)

I felt her smile into my shoulder. "Or a monkey," she said.

"That would be crazy too."

"Ooh ooh, aah aah," her sister said from the other room, helpfully imitating a monkey.


This was truly a great read. It seemed to be the perfect mix of story telling, reality and thought. Thanks for using the internet to do something other than depress me.

SpeedyGonzalas (#3,348)

We did not invent God. We just don't understand God. Not Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Atheist, nor any human. I think that is possible, though, that wolves do. And most likely cats. And dogs, for sure dogs, and …

barnhouse (#1,326)

I liked this so much. So far I have bequeathed my own total confusion on these subjects to teh kids! yay

Church: I'm super-lapsed Catholic but thought I'd try hauling my kid to a Quaker meeting, this one time (non-judgmental! pacifist! etc.) and the kid wanted NO part of it. I thought it was ok myself, all very sincere and granola, and whatnot. I liked them, but had trouble imagining hours every weekend with them? It's always kind of in the back of my mind that I would be a better person if I didn't worry about stuff like that.

But church! Their explanation of what happens after you die is just the WORST. Some people "make it" and some don't? What about Hell? Retarded! The world is some kind of freak game show?!

I grew up going to Quaker Meeting and enjoyed it. As an adult, I'm grateful
that this was the chosen method of drug delivery. Not so strong as to have rendered me a lunatic, no traumatic flashbacks, was just enough to make me chill. Can be a gateway to others, or just enough to get you by. Try another meetinghouse maybe?

barnhouse (#1,326)

Yes, you are lucky I think. I especially like the being quiet for one hour. Really sorts you out. Plus they organize volunteering and demos and things really well. We haven't really got many meeting houses in L.A., is the thing. But I might try it again one day.

HiredGoons (#603)

"The world is some kind of freak game show?!"

You don't watch reality TV, do you.

Lurker (#3,045)

This was beautiful. I was at a funeral today, a dear friend's father passed away suddenly. She said to me "I never once doubted for a minute that I was loved." I'm certain your daughter feels the same. I'm just feeling mushy about father-daughter stuff today. Some of my favorite memories of my Daddoo revolve around reading books at bedtime and comforting me when I would have a neurotic childhood breakdown. So….target audience.

vergible (#1,399)

holy shitbombs. i work at a church and I have more or less given up hope as as a christian, but now i am sort of getting it back, which, thanks but no thanks on that bridge to nowhere I sometimes feel like, but this was great.

Eureka Street (#1,349)

I remember when I was about 10 I randomly panicked one night thinking about how long the world would go on after I died, about how it would just on and on and on without me, forever. (I guess by then I had ruled out Heaven.)

Sick to my stomach and probably crying, I woke up my parents who were somehow able to comfort me by assuring me that everyone I knew and loved, everyone who had ever lived — from Grandma to Martin Luther King to Michael Jordan (my childhood heroes) — was in the same boat. That that was life and we lived it. And that we do our best to love and enjoy every second of it even if — or perhaps simply because — we know life is all there is.

If your (wonderful) answers ever stop doing the trick I suggest trying what my parents tried on me. It was nice to not feel alone.

Also, I enjoyed this. You sound like a great dad.

narnio (#38)

Ok, hey. I have a lot of trouble reading things on the internet lately. Not this. This read like the beginning of a novel I'm about to really enjoy. Kudos Kois, I can't wait to read more.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

'Beginning of a novel,' struck me the same.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

I don't know if this has to terrify us. My dad died when my kids were quite young, so the subject was forced on us, and they turned out to be surprisingly durable. The cerebral one sometimes asks deep questions about, and I tell him I don't have any answers. The dramatic one sometimes cries about it, but it doesn't bother her nearly as much as losing a hair clip. Why lie? I tell them that many people believe in heaven but that we don't know, and so far they're OK with it. I take them to church, and they like the stories, but they don't mind if they hear them contradicted. Little kids don't seem to need to know if something is empirically true.

SemperBufo (#1,849)

Also- what an AWESOME book that is. Margaret Wise Brown wrote some really interesting stuff.

6h057 (#1,914)

This has been the best thing I've read all week.

Really happy right now.

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