We talked to our kids about souls

Swinging Bridge at Babcock State Park, West Virginia, autumn on andreabadgley.com

Swinging Bridge at Babcock State Park, West Virginia

“Hey Mom, are trees living things or living beings?”

Our nine year old son looked into the forest then up at me as we hiked side by side along a gurgling brook. His dad and sister walked a few steps ahead of us. Upstream was the Glade Creek Grist Mill in West Virginia, a rustic wooden building with a pitched roof. Today its wet planks were framed by yellowing autumn trees.

“I guess that depends on what you mean by living being,” I said. “I think of a being as — ” I tried to think of words that would be familiar to him. I failed. “As a sentient being — something that has a soul.” The path was littered in gold, red, and toast brown leaves, and I kicked at a drift with my leather hiking shoe.

“Personally, I think of trees as living beings,” I told him, “but I think a lot of people probably think of them as living things.” Our son looked up the mountain into the dripping forest.

“What’s a soul?” he asked.

I sucked in a big breath. “Oh boy,” I said. Up ahead, our daughter twirled a red maple leaf between her thumb and pointer finger. “Your soul, if you believe in souls, is…” I struggled to find words. “It’s the part of you that makes you you.”

“You mean like your personality?” he asked.

“No, the spirit part. The part that is left after you die,” I said, then immediately knew what was going to come next.

“So like a ghost then!” our daughter said.

This was difficult.

“Not quite.” I searched my brain, trying to find language to describe souls to a seven and a nine year old.

“Your soul is the parts of you that aren’t physical,” my husband told them. “Your feelings, memories, friendships. The emotions you feel. Love.”

Our son tilted his head. “But isn’t all that stuff just your brain?”

I looked up to the trees again, hoping for some help. There was no wind; the trees were not talking.

“Yes, that’s one way to look at it,” I said. We like to give our kids a suite of options when it comes to spirituality and religion, to let them know that there is no hard and fast answer. No agreed upon truth that works for everyone all at the same time, and that they get to choose what they believe. “Some people believe that what Dad and I are describing as spiritual — feelings, intuition, love — is purely physical. A series of chemical reactions in our brains, nothing more.”

He kicked at leaves, thinking. I was still stuck on the soul thing. I wasn’t satisfied that we’d explained what a soul is.

“Remember when we talked about reincarnation?” I asked. The kids had asked about religion several months prior, and I told them I thought there are as many paths to God as there are people on earth. Then, in typical over-informative fashion, I gave them synopses of several religions of the world: Christianity and Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, Wicca, and Islam. The concepts of reincarnation and karma resonated with them more than the idea of heaven and hell did.

Iridescent blue green insect on dry leaf, Babcock State Park, WV October 2013 on andreabadgley.com

Our son’s ambition: to be a bug

“Yeah.” He looked up at me. He remembered the reincarnation talk. “Like I could come back as a bug!” This excited him, the idea of coming back as a bug.

“Remember how I said that when you die some people believe you go to heaven or hell, or in the case of reincarnation, you might come back as something else – another person, or maybe a bug?” I said. “The soul is the part of you that would go from one life to the next, that would go into that bug after your body died. It’s the part that would carry everything you learned in each incarnation.”  I gestured uselessly to my heart. “The spirit part.”

My brain hurt from the effort of describing this. Soul, sentient, spirit. How do you explain these things? “But reincarnation is just one idea. Brain chemistry is another.”

“So nobody knows the real answer,” our son said. “What happens when we die, whether our feelings are just our brain or part of our soul.”

“Nope. It all depends on what you believe,” I said. “Nobody knows for sure.”

The leaves in the trees rustled a little. Not much, but enough to remind me of our son’s original question.

“I think mostly people think humans have souls, and maybe animals have souls, but I don’t know that a lot of people think of plants as having souls. So most people would probably call trees living things.” I looked up at the green and orange and yellow and red leaves, and the strong trunks with rough or papery or chunky bark, and I saw how all those trees were nestled together as a community on the mountainside, gathering sunlight, being beautiful. I thought about the times that I have felt one with the whispering forest, when there was no doubt in my heart, or mind, or soul that trees are part of the same absolute that I am a part of, that we are kindred.

“Do you ever feel a connection to nature?” I asked our son. “Like, in your heart, a feeling that doesn’t have words, you just feel it when you’re out in the woods or by a stream or something?” It was my last hope, in this “thing” versus “being” discussion, that he would know what I was talking about.

“Yes.” He said this without hesitation, and I knew he would get it now.

“Me too,” I said. “Sometimes when a breeze blows through and the trees sway and their leaves rustle, I feel like they are talking. I don’t know what they are saying, but they are saying something.” I looked up to the forest again. “In their tree language.” Our son giggled. “I feel connected to them somehow, like they have spirits, or souls, or whatever you want to call it.”

“So when I think of trees,” I said, “I think of them as living beings and not just living things.”

Our son’s eyes flared with understanding as he looked up at me. “Yes,” he said. His body relaxed with the contentment of a seeker who has found the answer he sought. “I think you’re exactly right, Mom.”

Yellow is autumn trees to me. Originally published October 17, 2013.

Lost Balls

Maturity line graph from "Lost Balls" andreabadgley.com

Last holiday season, when I worked at the Barnes & Noble in Minnesota, a clean-cut 30-something man, about my age, approached me at the information desk. His short, sandy hair was neatly trimmed, his face freshly shaved, and he wore a grass-green long-sleeved polo, tucked into khaki chinos. He stepped up to the counter where I stood waiting to help him and said, straight faced, “Yes, I’m looking for a book called ‘Lost Balls.’ “

It had been nine years since I’d worked in the world, having stayed home with our kids until I started this job at the book store. Though I dressed the part in a pale pink button-down shirt and tailored black slacks, light makeup and petite pearl earrings, I wasn’t accustomed to maintaining professionalism. I smiled involuntarily, tucked in a giggle, and said, “I’m sorry, did you say ‘Lost Balls?’ “

“Yes,” he said, squinching his eyebrows and looking somewhat perplexed.

I typed it into BookMaster and tried to school my face, the hilarity growing inside of me as I watched the letters, one by one, fill in the search box. L-O-S-T- -B-A-L-L-S. The corners of my mouth twitched, and my eyes watered, and the more I tried to remain stoic, the harder it became to contain my Beavis and Butthead reaction. Huh huh. He said balls. I stifled a laugh, but my lips cracked into a smile despite myself.

He tilted his head a little, still serious, still knitting his eyebrows. “It’s about golf balls,” he said.

I looked up from the computer screen, straight into his searching eyes, stretched my mouth into a full grin, and said, “It’s still funny.”

Venn diagram of Intersection of the hilarity of balls, farts, and friends at andreabadgley.com

P.S. I am in our kids’ elementary school cafeteria, seated in the half moon arrangement of folding chairs as I wait for our son’s 3rd grade concert to begin. Sitting next to me is a small child – maybe three? – farting up a storm. He squirms around in his chair, his butt aimed mostly at me, and I suffocate in a noxious cloud of toddler toots while he jabbers on, oblivious to his killing cloud. It is all I can do not to burst into laughter as I smell this kid’s farts and write about lost balls. (Okay, I did burst into laughter. The kind that you try to keep in, but still it escapes, through snorts and squeaky giggles. Our daughter is looking at me weird, head tilted, eyebrows squinched. Not unlike the man at the book store.)

Venn diagram balls farts subsets at andreabadgley.com andreabadgley.com
P.P.S. I added the graphs last minute in response to the WordPress Image vs. Text challenge. That last one really has me thinking. Who is a subset of whom?

Originally published February 19, 2013.

Have you ever learned a critical lesson from an only okay book?

A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.  – Howard Jacobson

Have you ever read a book that just didn’t do it for you, but had one character, one scene, or one line that has stuck with you forever? You’re going through life, feeling sorry for yourself that you don’t have more time to write, and then BAM. You remember a line from a book you had otherwise forgotten, and you thank God you read it?

That’s how it is for me with the line above from Jacobson’s novel, The Finkler Question. The book itself was only okay to me. The characters, meh. Kind of endearing, but kind of annoying, too. The story was not funny in a laugh out loud kind of way, but was witty, in an internal chuckle kind of way.

But that line. I have come back many times to that line. And it made the whole reading worth it.

I met with a fellow writer recently to trade critiques, and our conversation gradually transitioned to where to submit, who pays, who doesn’t, you could pitch it this way for this publication, that way for that journal. She is far more seasoned than I am, and when I asked whether her writing contributes substantially to her family income, she responded, “It doesn’t supplement my husband’s salary, but it pays for my writing studio.” And I was instantly jealous. A writing studio!  God, how I’d love a studio. A room of my own, with a window seat, and light on my face, and a door that closes.

But more than that, a designated room would mean that writing was more than a hobby. That it was something serious, that I had time to do, that I wasn’t squeezing into an hour here, a half hour there. I’ve got 17 pieces I have started, then abandoned when it was time to wake the kids up, or volunteer at the school, or shop for groceries, or meet the school bus. By the time I get back to the essays, the mojo is gone. I’m not with the feeling anymore, and I can’t finish.

At these times I get frustrated. I fantasize about having large chunks of time to focus on writing, to research, to finish pieces, to edit, to polish. I go into my head, mulling all those incomplete essays, thoughts for this one jumbling with ideas for that one, and I think, if I were alone, and didn’t have all these responsibilities, I could take care of these. I could get them out, get them done.

A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.

And then that line from The Finkler Question snaps me back to reality, reminding me what it would really mean, at this stage in our family’s life, if I dedicated that kind of time and mental focus to a life of words. Because that line, regardless of its context within the novel, is about more than the emptiness of fame and fortune, or the loneliness of the writer’s life. It’s about throwing yourself into something so deeply, dedicating so much of your attention to this passion, or job, or hobby, that you risk losing contact, sacrificing closeness, with the most important people in your life.

There will come a time in the not so distant future when our children leave home, and there will be silence where their voices once were. Like the writer in The Finkler Question who lost his wife, I will rattle around in our empty house, with all the time in the world to write, and every room will be a room of my own. I will think of the pies I made with our daughter, of reading The Old Man and the Sea with our son, of answering their questions about sex and bad words, and I will give thanks for that single line in an only okay book. The line that reminded me to take my time, to enjoy my kids. A woman can be lonely in a room of her own, no matter how many readers she has.

The Finkler Question by Howard JacobsonThe Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson.  “Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize, Jacobson’s wry, devastating novel examines the complexities of identity and belonging, love, and grief through the lens of contemporary Judaism.” (Publishers Weekly)

During the holidays I will be republishing posts from my first couple of years on Butterfly Mind. My site has this fancy new look now, and since I don’t foresee myself writing a lot over the next couple of weeks, I didn’t want the makeover to go to waste. This post was originally published two years ago today, on December 18, 2012.