Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Religion: Through the Eyes of a Child

            What does a four year old really comprehend about religion? God is abstract, an unseen being to whom our elders encourage us to pray. Faith, they inform us, means trusting in his existence without proof. But four year olds need things to be concrete – they need to see, touch and feel for something to be real. In my son’s room, statues of Buddha, Ganesh and Jesus stand guard beside his bed. When his friends visit, he explains, “They protect me when I sleep.” He speaks to each of the deities, carrying on conversations with them before bed. He is familiar with their histories and has brought each statue into school for show and tell. Enthusiastically, he spoke about how Ganesh’s father, in fit of passion, chopped his head off; how to appease his brokenhearted consort, he resurrected Ganesh with an elephant’s head. Studiously, my son informed his class that Buddha spent his life fasting and meditating; he preached compassion and non-violence as the cornerstones to one’s life. And finally, he explained to his class that Jesus was born in manger and that he had two fathers – Joseph and God; when he grew up he would die, but not really, because he is alive in heaven. Innocently, my son confuses theologies and asks if Jesus and Ganesh are friends in heaven. He thinks Jesus is real, he knows Buddha existed and he loves that Ganesh looks more like an animal than a human, but this doesn’t mean that he has internalized any of it or that he honestly believes in God the same way an adult might. 

            Eleven months out of the year he is Buddhist because I’m teaching him to meditate, Hindu because we attended a religious festival and Christian because he goes to church. But come December, he emphatically declares himself to be a Christian. His reasons some might condemn or label as being less than pure, but remember he is only four. In December, for many Christian children, being Christian means believing in Santa. And unlike God, or the statues in his room, Santa is real. Go to any mall in America and children can see, feel, touch and speak with Santa. There are apps for phones so that Santa can speak directly to children. And best of all, Santa’s existence is confirmed annually by the pile of presents he places under the Christmas tree.  Though children never catch a of glimpse of him coming down their chimneys, the gifts are distinct proof that the man in the red suit exists.

            As adults, we are wiser. We know that Santa doesn’t exist, that he is just a myth meant to entertain children. But if you think about it, one could argue that he is a metaphor for God, a stepping stone for children to comprehend or even forge a more personal relationship with God. Many Christmas traditions have counterparts in religious worship. Prayers, for many people, are synonymous with petitions to God to have their dreams and desires fulfilled. Dear God, please let my grandmother live, please let me pass this test so I can earn my degree, please let me have the child I so desperately want, please let me find a job, any job. This form of prayer is strikingly similar to letters that children address to the North Pole, requests for toys and games that will make them happy. Dear Santa, please bring me Star Wars Legos, please bring me the book about Beowulf, please bring me a toy gun, please bring me a stuffed animal.  If you are good, if you do as you are asked, if you live a good moral life God will reward you by granting your wishes and permitting you to spend an eternity with him in heaven. Children who behave get presents from Santa. Adults who sin or lead reprehensible lives are condemned to hell. Children who cry, pout and misbehave find coal in their stockings. In sort, be a good adult and God will reward you; be a good child and Santa will reward you. Be bad and you will be punished. 

            But for now, Christmas is over and my son has moved on to obsessing about his birthday. He no longer asks me daily – and I Christian?  For the immediate reward of believing in Christ has been removed. But his interest in religion - thanks to his uncle – hasn’t dwindled. His uncle, knowing of his interest in deities gave him a statue of Hanuman – the Hindu Monkey God - for Christmas along with a children’s version of the Ramayana – one of the two great Hindu Epics. The story tells of Rama’s journey of which Hanuman is a central character. Before bed, I have been reading him the story, a few pages at a time. Tonight, when we encountered Lord Shiva in the story, my son’s eyes grew wide as he excitedly interrupted my reading. “That’s Ganesh’s father,” he exclaimed. 

            “Yes, he is.” I answered, and watched as his face suddenly became pensive.
            “Is Ganesh real?” He asked. “Does he really exist?”
            “Ganesh is a myth,” I tried to explain. “But Hindu people believe he is real, just like Christians believe that Jesus is their savior.”
            “And he lives in heaven.”
            “Yes, but it’s a different heaven.”
            “No, there is only one heaven,” he announced definitively. “And I believe he is real, so I’m Hindu.”
            “I thought you were Christian.” After all Christmas only just ended.
            “I am Christian, but I’m Hindu too. I like all the gods so I’m Christian and Hindu and what is Buddha?”
            “Yes, Buddhist. I’m Buddhist too.”
            And all I could do was smile. Yes, he is only four, but what, I wondered, would the world be like if we all embraced religion in a similar fashion?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas in Manhattan

            Four years ago, when my son was eleven months old, my parents proposed taking him into Manhattan to see the big tree at Rockefeller Center. Over the years, it has become a family tradition. That first December, getting ready to celebrate his first Christmas, my son did not understand the hustle and bustle, all the excitement that enveloped us as we walked through the big city. Eyes opened wide, his mind spun in overdrive trying to process the experience. He had just started to walk, but his steps were unsteady, not yet ready to compete with the racing crushing crowds that descend upon the city during the holidays.  Mom pushed him through the streets in his stroller. When we reached our destinations, I lifted him up, carrying him in my arms so that he could more easily see and explore the sights.  He stared at the tree, looked in awe at the statues in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and when stopped for lunch he drank his bottle, ate some pureed fruit and nibbled on some bread.  Exhausted, after a long exhilarating day, the subway rocked him to sleep in a matter of minutes and he looked like a little angel lying sweetly in his stroller.
            Every year the core of our adventure remains the same. We rise up out of the subway to encounter the tree looming largely over the ice skating rink and then we head over to St. Pat’s where my son spends a small fortune lighting candles to nearly every saint in the church. My mother, prepared for his endless requests, brings a wad of singles – two dollars per candle – so that he will not be disappointed. This year, he especially had to light a candle to every member of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He also wanted to light one for the Christmas angel who brings him a piece of chocolate every night during Advent – a small thank you for the sugary treat. My mother ensured that he lit a candle to St. Anthony, the patron saint of finding things, and she instructed me to offer up a prayer that he would help me find a job. After five years, the plea growing more desperate each time, the job still eludes me. As we were exiting the cathedral this time, my mom reached into her pocketbook for two final dollars, guiding my son over to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Yes, it seems I, or rather my inability to find employment has been categorized as a lost cause. My son lit the candle, and I wondered if would help – was St. Jude really listening.
            One year, when my son was old enough for us to ditch the stroller, but still light enough for me to carry a mile or more, my parents took us to the Central Park Zoo. We walked uptown from Rockefeller Center, my son clinging to my neck the entire way.  He loves animals, so seeing where we ended up zapped him with a jolt of energy. He dove out of my arms and eagerly bounced around the zoo to see all the animals.  We made a special stop at the penguin house to visit Tango, the baby penguin in one of his then favorite bedtime stories – And Tango Makes Three.
            This year, Legos are my son’s favorite toy. He has specifically asked Santa for Star Wars Legos and Superhero Legos. In prior years we always popped into the Lego Store at Rockefeller Center for something to do, a brief respite from the cold. Last weekend, however, it was a near religious experience for my son. The moment we stepped through the door, his eyes gleamed with pleasure, his face radiant with excitement. With awe he studied the Lego version of Atlas hold up the world, and immediately wanted to possess everything in the store. In earlier years, my parents bought him a duplo set to place under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve – a gift from Santa to remind them all of their trip into the city. This year, they maintained the tradition, asking my son to pick out the Lego set he wanted most. He didn’t hesitate, heading straight to the Star Wars section. While my dad distracted him, my mom went to pay. This year, however, they veered from tradition. Knowing how much pleasure he gets out of putting the Lego sets together, how much he enjoys playing with them afterwards, they bought him a second set, one he could take home as a souvenir, a memento of the afternoon
            Even though my son gave up napping a year and a half ago, the rhythmic rocking of the subway, coupled with the afternoon’s excitement, lulled him to sleep as it did nearly every other year. Groggy, he cuddled up on my lap and snuggled his head against my shoulder. When we got to the car, Dad announced a detour. Instead of going home, he took us to Eddie’s Sweet Shoppe to cap off the day with ice cream. Hearing that magical word, all sleepiness drained away from my little man.  Legos and a chocolate sundae – what more could a little guy want?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Letters From Berlin: A Review of Sorts

I had no desire to go back to school – none.  I was done. My friend Diana, however, thought differently.  For years, I had been writing and running headlong helter-skelter down one dead-end after another. It was tiring, frustrating and depressing to exert so much time and energy only to amass a Mt. Everest sized pile of rejection letters. So this past spring, she gently nudged me to consider returning to school to study creative writing. Okay she didn’t nudge, it was more like she sweetly coaxed me to the edge of a cliff (how about we meet up for dinner) and then gently shoved (how about this low residency writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson?) me over the edge. I fell headfirst, the wind knocking my breath out of my chest so that I couldn’t even scream as I landed feet first in a campus no more than twenty miles from where I live. It all happened so fast – one minute I was camping in the Catoctin Mountains with my son, the next I was scrambling to read five books and write two essays so that I could attend my first residency program during the first week of August. I wasn’t prepared, but somehow not being prepared has always worked in my favor.

            Anyway, I admit that my biggest reason for deciding to follow through and enter this creative writing program was the hope of making contacts and eventually finding a home for one of my stories with an agent or at a publishing house. Already having two master’s degrees to grace my resume, I wasn’t as concerned with the credential as I was with the practicality of the experience. How can I make my writing better? What do I need to do to make it more marketable? As a result, the biggest question I had upon arrival was – Have any graduates of the program gotten anything published? One of the professors assured me that several students had published but hearing that it was done is completely different than seeing it done.

            And then I met Kerstin Lieff. One evening after dinner, we – the writing students at FDU – were congregating on the lawn outside the Mansion in preparation of that night’s readings. The air was warm, but a slight breeze made it comfortable. The moon was nearly full and, though it was not yet dark, it was clearly visible in the sky. I stretched out on the grass, and rested my head on my shoulder bag, closing my eyes to better concentrate on the reading. One of the professors introduced Kerstin Lieff - a recent graduate of the program - to the audience. In the introduction, I learned that Lieff had worked on her thesis with one of the professors who would be mentoring me in the upcoming semester. I listened a little closer. Her thesis, Letters From Berlin had been published in 2013, and it was from this published work that she was going to read. Bingo! It was true. There was hope. Perhaps for once, I was exactly where I needed to be.

            As Lieff began reading her voice captivated me. One point in her narrative, as she was describing the allied planes that bombed Berlin, as if on cue, planes – headed who knows where – began flying overhead (I nearly flinched expecting a bomb to fall right on top of me). The timing could not have been more perfect. When the reading finished, I rushed up to purchase a copy of the book, totally breaking my vow of not spending any money on books that I could easily borrow from the library. But I couldn’t help it. I felt possessed. It wasn’t just that wanted to read the book. I needed it as proof, a reminder that perhaps my goal was not unrealistic.  With book in hand, I then did something very uncharacteristic, something I have never done before. I approached Lieff, and with a tone of excitement that I’m certain made me sound like a teenage girl, I asked her if she would sign it. She did and later that evening I had the opportunity to chat with her about her experience writing the book.

            While I had wanted to dive into the book immediately, there were other books and essays that I had to read for class. Since I wanted to be able to enjoy Letters From Berlin without the maddening sound of a ticking clock reminding me that there were things to read and papers to write, I put it off until I could budget a fair amount of time to read it at my leisure. And that time finally came earlier this month.

            I enjoyed the memoir immensely, but I also learned a lot from it. I love history and I’ve read a fair amount about World War II but the perspective of this story was new for me. I’m used to reading books that demonize Germany, books that conflate the German people with Hitler.  As a result, it is easy to forget there were indeed innocent civilians struggling to survive on a day to day basis. 

Letters From Berlin begins with a touching introduction in which Lieff explains why she felt compelled to hear her mother’s (Margarete Dos) story and how she convinced her mother to speak of her experiences during the war. What follows is an emotional tale of one girl’s journey from childhood to adulthood in Nazi Germany. Lieff does a spectacular job of describing the misery and fear that were a persistent part of life during the war.  From hiding in the bunkers during the carpet bombing to tending to young boys – so young they were tripping over uniforms way too big for them – Lieff brings the horror alive for the reader. And when the war ended, the nightmare was only beginning. Taking a train supposedly bound for Sweden, Dos found herself deceived. Instead of tasting freedom in Scandinavia, she ended up trapped in a Russian prison camp. After experiencing the misery of life in the Gulag, Dos prayed for death until one kind doctor revived her hope and helped her get back to Germany.

I very much recommend this memoir to anyone who is interested in memoirs, historical fiction or the history of Germany and World War II. However, I do totally admit that my opinion regarding this book is biased. For me it’s not just an engrossing memoir, it is a symbol of what I hope to achieve by the time I graduate. So thank you Kerstin for giving me something to strive for over my next two years at FDU. Won’t it be wonderful if in two years I can return to the university, published memoir in hand, and do a reading from it that just might inspire some new first semester student.

If you are interested, more information regarding Letters From Berlin can be found here: http://www.lettersfromberlin.com

Friday, October 24, 2014


You know you are a book nerd when your four year old child wants to be Beowulf for Halloween.  Despite my son’s love of mainstream superheroes, he completely bypassed Superman, Batman, Green Lantern  – the usual -  and went straight for a classic hero instead.  The tales of Beowulf’s heroism have captivated my son ever since I first read him the story back in April.

It all started when my cousin suggested that I read him folktales from around the world as a stepping stone into historical fiction – a genre that my family tends to be a bit fanatical about.  Since I love culture and anything international, I immediately headed to the library to see what sort of folktales they might have and which ones might interest my son. As I was browsing the shelves, my eyes fell upon Beowulf and the English major in me did a little dance. Really, I thought, and even though there wasn’t a mirror in sight, I knew my eyes were glowing with enthusiasm.  A kids’ version of Beowulf – what could be more spectacular than that? I grabbed the book. I turned to the first page and then scanned the rest of the pages to assess the picture to word ratio.  Too few words to a page and the story ends too quickly. Too many words and boredom will likely whisk my son away to dreamland. And the absolute last thing I want is for my son to think that reading has the potential to be boring.  My initial evaluation was that the story might be too long, but I checked it out anyway. My son loved stories of adventure and was at that age where heroes are the equivalent of gods. Why not give it a shot? The worst that could happen was that he hated it, but that was the general consensus in high school anyway. At best, he might learn a little something. From the first page, when Beowulf slaughters the sea serpents, my son was hooked. The highlight, of course, came later when Beowulf rips Grendel’s arms from his body and blood pours from the severed limb.  So enamored with the book was my son that he brought it to preschool for show and tell and recounted – in great detail - the gruesome scene to his classmates. 

In midsummer, after having renewed and reread the book so many times both my son and I practically have it memorized, my son declared that he wanted to be Beowulf for Halloween. What an awesome idea, I thought. No other kid will have the same costume. Exactly, no other kid would conceive of being Beowulf, but that meant we couldn’t easily pop into Party City or Costco to pick up a costume. The law of supply and demand pretty much guaranteed that Beowulf would not be sold anywhere. We couldn’t disappoint our son – not when he was in the midst of idolizing a literary legend (albeit one very few people knew or even remembered from their boring high school days). And that is when my spouse decided that she would make the costume – tunic, pants, armor and helmet - from scratch. The project started in August and occupied her for nearly three months.  Yesterday, my son even expressed a bit of anxiety when he asked me, “Do you think Mommy will finish my costume on time?” And his concern was well founded. My spouse is the Queen of finishing projects ten minutes after they are due. But Halloween is a week away, you might say. And it is. But my son’s school party was tonight. Therefore, with no extra wiggle room, my son needed his costume to be completed by 5 o’clock this evening.  He was not disappointed. My spouse stayed up until well after midnight last night to ensure that the finishing touches had been added.

My son – as uncooperative as he was during the fitting process – was super excited to wear his costume this evening. And with Grendel’s arm proudly tucked under his, he headed off for a night of sugar, pizza and games.