There’s a holy war raging on my children’s school playground, and I’m trying to teach my daughters to survive.
Children crave identity. Without an organized religion, I knew our kids would struggle. Along with spiritual lessons—like why we help at the Thanksgiving soup kitchen and stop to watch clouds pass—we try to teach them about why some friends have menorahs, others don’t celebrate their birthdays, and the politics of religious freedom our country professes to enjoy.
My husband’s family is Buddhist on his mother’s side, our kids are one-quarter Japanese. We’ve sampled spam musubi at the local temple’s annual festivals while powerful Taiko drummers pounded and wiped their brows. In Hawaii, we attend services for deceased relatives, chanted in Japanese, where smoky incense floats to the exposed koa beams of the temple. At annual graveside visits, the girls scrub bronze headstones, shine them with baby oil, and fill buried, metal vases with waxy, red flowers and water.
After eight years of these rituals, my older daughter, Joy, began to identify with her grandmother’s cultural traditions. In third grade, Joy declared herself a Buddhist to her Catholic friend, Dawn.
“You’re a Buddhist? So does your family worship idols?” asked Dawn. “Well, I sure hope you change your mind soon because otherwise you’re going to burn in hell!”
After consoling Joy as I drove, I asked, “But if she doesn’t respect your right to choose your religion, is she really someone you want to be friends with?”
In my rearview mirror, Joy sunk into her pre-adolescent silence under the full weight of her brow, eyes aimed at me beneath narrowed lids, lips pulled together in a tight knot.
In the doctor’s office a few months later, my younger daughter Emma said, “Mommy, Elijah was mean to me today at school.” Long eyelashes blinked over teary, blue eyes.
“What happened?” I asked. Perhaps this time, it was more than just another lost first-grade debate over the red crayon.
“At recess, I asked him what he was drawing, and he said it was a picture of God making the Earth. I told him how my family believes in Evolution and that there was a big explosion and we…we were made from chemicals.” Her words and hands were flying before me, as if she were creating a world right there in the doctor’s office.
I pictured him, this boy whose curled eyelashes blink like a butterfly, showing her a drawing of his God. Then I thought of the way her face lights up when she shares a story, a star unable to contain its own energy.
“And then he said, ‘You know what, your Daddy isn’t your real Daddy. He’s your fake Daddy. God’s your real Daddy!’ And then he shoved his fist in my face and chased me!”
Between my ears stirred a surge of fury. At the boy, the parents, the church. Then, in my mind, I glimpsed the wind move through both their curls as they ran, wide-eyed, across the playground.
“I’m proud of you,” I said, hugging her, “for saying what you believe, even though it was scary.”
But mostly, my mother-heart ached.
Over the next few years, Emma became increasingly close to a conservative Christian neighbor named Monica. Emma and Monica’s heated exchanges about evolution and creationism often signaled the end of playdates with snotty tears and slammed doors.
But one day Emma said, “Monica respects my beliefs now,” nodding with pride at both the closeness of her friendship and her debate skills.
Emma reported that Monica is even beginning to open up to the idea of gay marriage: “Monica says that the Bible talks about how men and women are supposed to be together. And she thinks that if a really mean boy married another mean boy, that would just make more problems for everybody.” Emma rolled her eyes for emphasis. “But, Monica thinks that if a poor, hungry girl married a rich girl just so she would have enough to eat, then that would probably be OK.” Emma’s head danced up and down with her voice to highlight the reason in this argument.
With gritted teeth, I watch my daughters take baby steps across that giant minefield of a playground, hoping that this peace doesn’t come at too high a price.