Monthly Archives: March 2014

“Sorry, Honey . . .”

Athena Captures a Centaur (Botticelli)“Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend,” I said once to a child of mine.

Which child and when—those details have left my head. But the sentence stuck. I liked how it both stated a fact and expressed a wistfulness about that fact. No one is in charge, but life might be easier if Someone were.

Last week, writing to a friend who was advising me on a book pitch, I said it again. I hoped (I wrote) that my memoir about raising atheists would give nonbelieving parents the encouragement they might need to say to their children, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend.”

Writing back, my friend suggested that I add, “I think.” As in, “Sorry, honey, I think God’s just pretend.” My “claim to know the unknowable” made her uncomfortable. I don’t have proof that God does not exist. Should I really state as an absolute truth, as she put it, “that which we cannot know”?

Should I?

Consider the following:

“Mom, are monsters real?”

“Well, honey, some people think they’re real, but your dad and I believe that monsters are just pretend. When you get older, you can decide for yourself what you believe.”

This, of course, would never happen. On the contrary, it would be perfectly acceptable—even predictable—to say, “Don’t worry, honey, monsters are just pretend.” And it works if you’re not reassuring a child, as well; no one would raise an eyebrow at “Sorry, honey, Athena is just pretend” or “Sorry, honey, fairies are just pretend.”

So we can assert the nonexistence of things for which there is no evidence. Even if we have no absolute proof that they do not exist.

Monsters and fairies and Greek gods may seem like frivolous examples, in no way equivalent to God. But they are logically equivalent. They just aren’t culturally equivalent. Most grownups (today) don’t believe in Mount Olympus or fairies or monsters; to state that they don’t exist is to state the “obvious.” And (to state the obvious) the same is not true when it comes to God.

More to the point, they are not emotionally equivalent. People who believe in God usually care whether He is real. Sometimes they care a lot. To dismiss unapologetically something that someone else cares about is just . . . rude. I suspect that the whiff of the impolite—or at least the impolitic—is partly what made my friend wrinkle her nose.

I don’t want to be rude. Which is why I would never say, “Sorry, honey, God’s just pretend” to a niece at her bat mitzvah or to an athlete in a post-game interview.

But to my kids, who are trying to figure out what to believe? Absolutely.

Wellskringle: A Tale of Love and Lying

What follows was my contribution to a reading called “Eat the Past,” held last night at the Arts Center in Troy and hosted by food writer Steve Barnes. (Note: Those of you who signed up for thoughtful essays on atheist parenting will have to suffer through the occasional food essay. Those of you who signed up for amusing food essays, hey: you’re in luck.)

♦ ♦ ♦

batterChild Number 1 looks at dinner and says, “Can we have pizza tomorrow night? I mean, no offense.”

Child Number 2 finally takes a bite and says encouragingly, “It’s not that bad.”

Child Number 3, oblivious to the fact that we were this close to stopping at two kids, wore a look on her face that said, “Do I have to?”

“Do I have to?” she asked.

No matter how often I hear the chorus of complaint—no matter how many desserts I have withheld as a result—I still find it shocking. I myself, a Child Number 2, remember complaining about dinner precisely once. My mom was a rock solid dinner-on-the-table cook, and we enjoyed a regular, slowly evolving rotation of family favorites. Occasionally she tried something new—something clipped from the newspaper or discovered in the encouraging pages of The Silver Palate. One night, Mom served us a new dish called “Indian Potatoes,” which (as I remember it) somehow compelled Children 1, 2, and 3 simultaneously to put down our forks and shake our heads. (Could it have been burned garlic? Rancid mustard seeds? The adult cook in me asks; the child eater in me won’t say.)

Perhaps because we never complained, Mom looked abashed and did not make us finish our dinners. An error had occurred, and that was that.

Things were not so simple with my father. Daddy didn’t cook the daily meals; he made big weekend breakfasts and he fried things. French fries, onion rings, scallion pancakes, donuts. If anything fried emerged from my parents’ kitchen, he was behind it, in an explosion of dishes, on a dusting of flour, getting batter on everything he touched.

Big mess, big food, big gesture. And because he cooked to treat us, not just to feed us, he expected a big, enthusiastic response. One year Daddy found a recipe that suited his twin impulses for drama and generosity: Wellskringle. This was a sort of batter you spread onto a baking sheet and baked into a pastry, which you then drizzled with icing. You could even spread the dough into the shape of a letter; that’s why Daddy decided it was the perfect birthday treat.

It turns out that food should never be chosen on the basis of whether or not you can write with it.

Wellskringle was awful: gooey and eggy and bland and right in the nauseating noodle-kugel no man’s land between sweet and not sweet.

Children 1, 2, and 3—my sisters and I—all hated it. Actually, Child 1 recently told me that she had liked it . . . sort of. She may be telling the truth. But as I recall, in a cruel reversal of the Santa effect, just the smell of Wellskringle baking on our special day could keep us in bed a little longer.

But we didn’t dare complain. We thought that rejecting Wellskringle would be like rejecting Daddy—that he would take it personally. So we grinned thanked him when he presented—ta-da!—the steaming platter of A, K, or S. We glanced at each other quickly for support, ate the drier edges where the icing pooled, and declared ourselves full.

Why didn’t he notice that Wellskringle was disgusting? He refused to eat it because he didn’t like eggs. I wish I were allowed not to like eggs, I thought at the time. But food refusal was a privilege reserved for grownups.

Eventually, after years had passed, and when it was no one’s birthday, Children 1, 2, and 3 managed to allow that Wellskringle wasn’t our absolute favorite thing. I was an extravagantly well-behaved child; I’m pretty sure that was my rebellion.

My father, in case you’re wondering, survived the attack. He still fries things for us and now he makes us martinis, too.

Meanwhile I have become a very good home cook—with my mom’s reliability and my dad’s sense of adventure. I have also become a parent, and my parents obviously influenced that, too. My kids are expected to eat, to try new things, and to value the dinner party as the highest expression of domestic endeavor. What’s harder to teach is that fine line between honesty and rudeness: what I call the “no offense” line.

To judge from the results of my parenting, I have erred on the side where they feel entitled to say “yuck.” I don’t always have the energy to punish them for complaining about dinner. But I try never to get offended. I don’t want my children to choke down something they hate for fear of hurting my feelings. I want them to choke down something they hate because they know they are lucky to have food placed before them.

And because their mother has the fortitude to sit calmly and say sweetly to the little girl who really has no idea she almost didn’t exist, “Yes, dear, you have to.”

Giving Up Lent


Me . . .

red wine

. . . and my friend Mary

Except for the fact that she is a Catholic and I am an atheist, Mary and I are practically the same person. We’re both stay-at-home writers. We both love to cook and eat, and we both wish we didn’t love to eat quite so much. We both have three children who are absolutely perfect as soon as they’re sleeping and we have a drink in our hand. I mean, I’m a martini girl and she’s more about the red wine, but I try to be open-minded.

Mary posted on Facebook the other day that she was getting excited for Lent, and as usual, I totally got it. Lent is like spring cleaning for the soul, and I’m all for spring cleaning that doesn’t involve actual housework. I do what I can with New Year’s resolutions, but the duration of those self-improvements (forever!) is too long: you’re doomed to fail. But forty days? I could be a better person for forty days . . .

So I envy Mary her season of fasting and good works, especially because I know at her house it will be serious. Not self-serious and humorless, just the real deal. Mary does nothing by rote: she thinks about ways to make each ritual resonate. And when she writes on her blog about, say, figuring out what to give up for Lent, since she doesn’t eat junk food anyway, and she’s practically a vegan for her older daughter’s sake, I always think, This is how I would be if I were religious.

Religions have these built-in days—or entire seasons—whose purpose is to snap you to attention, to make you mindful of your life. I love mindful! I want a season like that! And I could have one so easily, if I embraced the religion that’s been handed to me. Passover is Judaism’s spring cleaning season, and at some point every April, I find myself at my in-laws’ table for Seder, dreaming about how I would observe the holiday if I were Jewish in belief and not just name.

Oh, how thoughtfully I would Jew! Forget eating boxes of matzoh and drinking quarts of Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda for a week. Instead the kids and I would brainstorm a way of eating that truly made us feel like we were under stress as runaway slaves. We would eat only food we could make from scratch in 10 minutes or less. Or only food from the freezer—no grocery shopping allowed. Or only food we could buy from gas stations, as if we had to escape through the desert in our minivan (now that would be an Odyssey . . .).

The “we” in this riff is part of the fantasy: the idea that the kids enthusiastically join in regular bouts of aggressive self-betterment. In real life they would probably be as enthusiastic as they are about the other kind of spring cleaning. (Me: Why are you sitting down? Child: I cleaned the coffee table. Me: Is the room clean? Is the house clean? YOU MAY NOT SIT DOWN UNTIL THE HOUSE IS CLEAN!)

I know for a fact that Noah, my eldest, does not, um, notice the mess in the house, figuratively speaking. As we were approaching Yom Kippur last year, he said casually, “I think I’ll fast on Wednesday.”

“Oh, really? Why?” This is the child, remember, who was flirting with the idea of a bar mitzvah. So I wondered where we were on the religiometer.

“Well aren’t we going to a break-the-fast at Grandpa’s?” (after the sun sets on the Day of Atonement, the most self-reflective day of the year).


“Well, I want to be really hungry.”

“Are you also going to be thinking about all the ways you could try to be better this year? ’Cause that’s kind of the point.”

“Nah, I’m not doin’ that.”

Can you hear the disdainful teenager? Can you feel the frustrated mom’s sudden need for a martini? It’s not that I want him to be religious, it’s that I don’t want him to do the outer part without the inner part, the ritual without the meaning.

But of course that’s what I want, too, when I dream of doing Passover for real, or envy Mary her Lent. Oh, I want the inner part all right, but I don’t want the core: I want meaningful living without worship of God.

Sure—employing my nimblest interpretive skills, I could use the Torah—its prescribed fasts and celebrations, its seasons of repentance and its rituals—to express my own morality, to help push myself and pull my family toward the kind of people we should be. I certainly know nonbelieving Jews who do that. But where’s the line between aggressive interpretation and misreading? I can make Passover all about oppression and liberation, quote Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., at my Seder, but only if I studiously ignore the source text. The Book of Exodus is a fiercely sectarian celebration of a cruel and capricious God. Read it for what it is—and not for what you want it to be—and you won’t even be certain that “We Shall Overcome,” much less be in the mood to sing it.

Lent rests on three pillars: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. No matter how creative Mary gets with her Lenten experiments, she’s always guided by the Catholic catechism (on which she has literally written the book). She means what she says and what she does—and not just metaphorically, and not just the taking-a-break-from-red-wine and trying-to-be-a-better-person parts. The closer-to-God part.

Living mindfully, for me, can’t start with God. And therefore it can’t start with Lent or Passover or Ramadan or any other helpful, ready-made framework the world’s religions have created. It has to start with giving them up. Then I have to decide— on my own—what to do about the martinis.