NAVIGATING AROUND
THE DINNER TABLE

JULIA SWEENEY

I loved being Catholic. Well, most of the time. I mean, I didn’t like it when people didn’t answer my questions or take my sporadic natural skepticism seriously. But other than that, I felt lucky. I mean, being Catholic was cool to me. I felt sorry for the people I met who weren’t. Which were hardly any people. Because everyone I knew was Catholic. And they belonged. Not just to parishes and schools, but to this great big club called Catholic. And there were rituals we all knew and outfits we wore—school uniforms. And the priests wore all black except when they were saying a Mass, when they wore a cape! I mean, come on, it rocked. Plus there were all the other medieval-like things associated with being Catholic. You knelt in obedience and submission, but to me this was not humiliating—it was like you lived in a castle! And incense was strewn through the church on occasion, and that, too, seemed mystical and otherworldly. And then there was the fact that everybody I knew, knew everybody else and where they went to school and where their parents went to school. It was a close-knit, safe feeling.

But then I grew up, opened my eyes, and realized I didn’t think there was any supernatural reason for doing all these things. I didn’t think there was any good evidence for a God at all, let alone one who cared who showed up at church. And I moved away from Spokane to Los Angeles, a place where Catholicism didn’t knit the community in the way that I had experienced. Even when I did go to a Catholic church in L.A., my mind had this pesky habit of actually listening to the words being said at Mass. I would inevitably leave angry, or bemused and distant like an anthropologist, but certainly not connected. Eventually I stopped going and just got used to describing myself as an atheist. Then I got proud of saying I was an atheist. And during this time, I adopted a little girl from China.

It didn’t dawn on me right away that I wasn’t raising her with any religion. I mean, religion to me meant those old ritualistic ceremonies that we went to when we visited my hometown. And it was still a little fun to go—I mean, my dad or my brother would hold my daughter, and she wriggled like the other two- and three-year-olds. But then a couple of things happened that changed everything.

The first thing was that my dad died.

Wow. Just saying that shows you I had changed. I didn’t say he “passed away,” because he didn’t pass away. He died. My daughter was four and a half at the time and very close to my father. He was the guy she made Father’s Day cards for on Father’s Day, the man whom she liked to have hold her. My dad used to take naps next to my daughter on the bed, and I remember seeing them in there—my father with his oxygen machine and my daughter curled up next to him—and it was all so dreamy and loving and cute. And so, it was a big deal when he died. And my daughter had questions.

When she asked, “What happens after we die?” I said, “To be honest, darling—we decompose.” And she wanted to know what that meant. A bird had died in our backyard and so we watched how it disappeared a little bit every day. When I tell this story to people, they look at me horrified. Like I was forcing some horrifying truth onto a little kid too small to understand it. But actually, she got it just fine, possibly because I didn’t only say that. I said two more things. “When you die, your body decomposes,” I said. “It breaks down into all these teeny parts you can’t even see—like dirt or air even. And then those particles become part of something else.” And my daughter said, “Like what?” And I said, “Well, like a flower or air or grass or dirt or even another person.” And she said, “Well I want to be another person!” And I said, “Yes, I understand. But even if some of your molecules became part of another person, it wouldn’t be you. Because You are You, and when You are gone, there will never ever be another You in this world. You are so special and unique that this world will only ever make one of You. With You they broke the mold, so that’s it! Only You. Right here, right now.”

And she seemed to kind of get that. In fact, it made her feel special.

And then I told her a second thing: that her grandfather did live on after he died, inside of the people who were remembering him. And in the ways he influenced those people, even when they weren’t thinking of him. Like how Grandpa just loved orange sherbet. Now, because of that, we eat orange sherbet too, and we remember him when we do it. Or even things that we might not think about him while we do them, like when we watch some basketball on TV. We might do that because of Grandpa, who loved to watch basketball on TV. Because of him, we are different. In probably thousands or even millions of ways. And that difference is what makes him live after he dies.

And she really got that.

Only one problem: Her friends at school were asking her if her grandfather was up in heaven. And she was thrown, because to say no sounded bad and to say yes wasn’t what I had told her. One day we were walking home from the park with one of her friends, and the friend said, “Did you see your grandfather’s spirit fly up to heaven when he died?” And my daughter looked at me and said, “Did it?” And I said, “No, we don’t believe in things like that.” And my daughter parroted me, “Yeah, we don’t believe in that.” And for a second she looked confident repeating me, and then her face crinkled up and she frowned and directed her eyes downward.

imageI was seized with compassion for my little girl and how she will be navigating herself in a world where she will be a little bit different. I didn’t have this burden. I was told what everyone else was told.image

Suddenly I was seized with compassion for my little girl and how she will be navigating herself in a world where she will be a little bit different. I didn’t have this burden. I was told what everyone else was told. Grandpas died and went to heaven. You would see them later when you died. Vague memories arose of my own childhood images of heaven, of a long dining table with a gold tablecloth and a feast. It was easier for me, in that way, than it will be for her.

But while I was having all these thoughts, my daughter and her friend had nonchalantly moved on to talking about their American Girl dolls. No biggy. But that moment, I think, is when all of the “what we believe” discussions began. And it made me uncomfortable. My daughter would often start conversations with me by saying, “So, we believe that . . .” And frankly I hated the whole word “believe,” and I also hated that she was just taking what I said as absolute truth, because in the perfect world of my head, she wouldn’t be indoctrinated with anything. She would come up with her own answers, and she would never say things like, “We believe” or “We don’t believe.” But then I got more seasoned as a mother and realized that basically that’s what we do all the time as parents, no matter what we “believe.” Our job is to socialize our kids, and they have evolved to look to us for answers. Not providing those answers is wrong.

I got a little more comfortable saying things about what we “believe.” Like, we believe it is good to take the garbage out. Honestly, it seems silly now that I write it. But that’s how I got comfortable with that word. We believe in treating people nicely. We believe you shouldn’t tell people lies. We believe that you should do your homework. That kind of believe.

Finally, I would say things like, “Lots of people believe that after someone dies, they live on. But I think that is just their way of not feeling as sad as they might about whoever they loved who died. I think that when people die, they die. And we should feel really sad and also feel happy that the flower of that person ever got to live at all.” And even though many of my friends thought this was too big of a concept for a four- or five-year-old, after explaining it several times, I do think she got it.

That didn’t mean, of course, that other people, like my mother, weren’t also telling her what they believed about my dad’s death. When we visited my mother, she and my daughter would make cookies, and I would hear my mother going on and on about how Grandpa was in heaven and we were going to see him again and he was there with Mike, my brother who passed away. And later, when my daughter asked about this discrepancy, I just said, “We believe different things.” And amazingly, Mulan got that just fine—even though it sort of made me mad. Because what story is going to seem better? The one where someone decomposes or the one where he’s at a big dinner table in the sky with other people who died? Decomposition does not stand a chance against the dinner table. But for me and Mulan, those discrepancies or different stories didn’t become as traumatic as I thought they would.

A few months after this, Mulan started kindergarten at our local public school. And as part of her day at school, she said the Pledge of Allegiance. She proudly repeated it to me, and the “under God” part made me flinch. “You don’t have to say ‘under God,’ you know,” I said—and her eyes widened with fear. “What do you mean?” I said, “You can just keep your mouth closed during that part. I don’t believe in God. These people in the government allowed that to get stuck in there much later. I wouldn’t say it if I were you.”

A few days later she came home and said, “I have to say it. Because it’s nice, it’s being nice to say it. You have to be nice and so you say it.” I don’t think I have ever heard a more heartbreaking sentence from my child. I am probably more sensitive to this, for many more reasons than religion. I have tried for years and years to stop doing things automatically because they are “nice,” because I find myself drowning in doing a million things for people because it’s “nice.” On the other hand, it’s expedient to pressure children to conform. It makes sense. It encourages community and all the behaviors that we are trying to instill in them. I understood her dilemma.

Fortunately, a friend of mine suggested a solution. “How about telling her to say, ‘under laws’ instead of ‘under God?’” Brilliant! I told my daughter the idea. She looked at me like I was from Mars. It was her first truly I’ve-got-an-insane-mother look. But now when she comes home from school, as the year has worn on, she’ll tell me, “Today I said, ‘under God.’” Another day she will report that she said “under laws.” And I figure she will find her own rhythm.

Recently I was in Spokane with Mulan on Memorial Day. The whole family was making their way up to Holy Cross Cemetery, where many members of our family are buried. Even though this is a Catholic cemetery, and icons litter the lawns, I love it there. I am all for burial in a plot with your family. I find it extremely comforting. I have picnicked there on days when it wasn’t Memorial Day. In fact, everyone in our family does this. It’s a destination for us. And I love it.

Well, we were heading toward the cemetery, and my daughter was in an ornery, crappy, poopy mood. She didn’t want to go. My mother, who was driving, made the mistake of saying, “God wants us to go.” She was mostly trying to be funny. But my daughter yelled out, “I don’t believe in God! I only believe in things that you have evidence for and there is NO EVIDENCE FOR GOD!” The way she said it was petulant and snotty. I was so angry with her. But in that instant, even though I had to reprimand her for her “tone” and demeanor, and even though she started a tantrumy cry and begged for a cheese stick and began kicking her legs and I wanted to throttle her for it—in spite of all of this, I knew instantly that ultimately she would be okay. She had spirit and gumption, and she could say something that was unpopular (at least in that car at that moment). And more than not believing in God, that seemed like the best influence I could ever have on her.

Grammy Award–winning comedian JULIA SWEENEY is also an actor, playwright, and monologist. Since her years on Saturday Night Live, Sweeney has been featured in films, including Pulp Fiction, Stuart Little, and Monsters University. Her monologue Letting Go of God, which chronicles her journey from faith to philosophical naturalism, was Critics’ Choice for the Los Angeles Times. She received the 2006 Richard Dawkins Award for raising public awareness of the nontheistic life stance and serves on the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America. Her adoptive daughter, Mulan, 16 at this writing, was not named for the Disney character.

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