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The Dazzle of the Light

Upon passing a cemetery on the way to play group yesterday, Chloe was prompted to a line of questioning that led to the question of death: not only her death but also the death of me and Val. Val was alone in the car with the girls and did her best to avoid retelling those tempting stories we mortals tend to tell ourselves to assuage the ineluctable burden of our finitude.

Yet, what does one tell a three and a half year old asking about the limit of her own existence? Her humanity presses in upon her and she responds with a natural wonder that must be nourished, however much it challenges the securities we have won over the course of a lifetime of living in the shadow of the limit.

Whitman helps me here, although the help is hard to hear:

You are asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.

Sit a while dear [daughter],

Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I kiss you
with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.

Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every
moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout,
and laughingly dash with your hair.

-From Leaves of Grass, 46 ("son" changed to "daughter" by cpl)

To invite and hear the questions, to admit the impossibility of answers, to nourish our children and to empower them to be bold swimmers are the true gifts we parents have to offer. In return, there is a nod, a shout, a laughing dash of hair: the dazzle of the light. Let us habit ourselves to every moment of our lives.


  • Leigh says:

    hi Chris,
    This is a beautiful story… but I still wonder what exactly you (or Val) did say to her?
    I am assuming that you didn’t actualluy read the Whitman poem…

  • Hey Leigh,
    You are right that we didn’t read the Whitman poem to her, but I think we are trying to live that poem somehow with her. Val told me that she felt ill-equipped to respond and I thought that recognition in itself was an important and honest response, one that we both have expressed in different ways to Chloe.
    Now, interestingly, all Christmas story references to Jesus, be they spoken or sung in a carol, immediately prompt her to ask about an image she once saw of Jesus bleeding on the cross. “Is Jesus hurt?” she asks. She wants to hear the story of the crucifixion over and over again. In telling her the story, she insists upon the details: the nails through the feet and hands, the thorns on the head, the blood. While I emphasize the presence of his family and friends, I also say simply, “he died.” I intentionally do not say anything about the possibility of “rising again.” Although when Chloe asked if Jesus was going to come back, I told her that some people believe he will but that I am not one such believer.
    Then, of course, there is Socrates, about whom she also asks each night. She likes the fact that he walked around bare-footed and looked sort of funny, but she wants most to hear about the hemlock.
    With both stories, and perhaps this is really the response to your question, I insist that although they died, their teachings about caring for one another, living just lives, and courageously acting in ways that make the world a more loving and beautiful place, live on for those of us willing to listen.

  • Leigh says:

    It’s interesting that kids can be so (innocently? non-self-reflexively? genuinely?) fascinated by death. And it certainly seems like Chloe has managed to hone in on the “big” deaths (Jesus’ and Socrates’, not to mention yours and Val’s).
    Enjoy your blog.

  • Peter says:

    I have a 6-month-old son and think about these things a lot because I know that one day, as we glide along the ecliptic of the earth’s path through space round our sun, Sacha will ask me this question. What to say?
    My father is 65 and diabetic. We both love Hume and Lucretius and Ecclesiastes. I am an atheist and he an agnostic. We don’t see the afterlife and yet we anticipate how much we will miss one another knowing that I will miss him and his missing is only premeditated and will never occur. He will be gone. So what to tell Sacha?
    Leaves of Grass is a wonderful consolation. I take Lucretius (here in paraphrase):
    For all of time before my birth I experienced nothing as me and so did you. Each night, when I sleep, I am in that place of oblivion when I know not that I am. And when I die, I won’t miss living for it will be what I was before. All of that is in the nature of things.
    Thank you for the excellent blog entry.

  • Peter:
    Thank you for the paraphrase of Lucretius and for your thoughtful comments. I hope you are enjoying Sacha as much as I am enjoying Chloe and Hannah.

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