In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland. All that the Child knew was the depth of the darkness that closed in around his existence, that flowed past the parts that had yet to be discovered, that filled his interior as if he himself was a part of that darkness, yet to be pulled from it with a great rushing of wind as a fish is pulled from the sea. Fish breathe the sea. And so, too, this Being breathed the darkness. Rushing, enclosing, an embrace. Vague sounds came through, but those would only be heard later. Now, all was rushing and embracing. A place to settle into the warm pre-glow of a dawn that is yet far-off.
And so, when his time came, this Child was pulled from water as a fish is pulled from the sea. A fish dies in the air. But a Child continues to live. And so he learned the strangeness of cold air in lungs that had before only held the warm scent of his mother. And there was light and strangeness and a touch that was different from the constant embrace of the dark.
When our first child was born, one of the cards we got carried the notion that with each baby, the universe is created again for the very first time.
The first few nights are the toughest. The infant is in a new place – the sounds that reach his ears are more clear than they’ve ever been before. Mama’s voice is the same… but somehow different. Daddy’s songs carry the same intonations but now has the edge of strange consonants interrupting the softer vowels. The infant screams when he is hungry, unfamiliar with this new sensation of empty belly (so small, needing so many feedings!) and low energy (at 39, I still get ornery when my blood sugar drops). The first few nights, the infant screams, frantic at this sensation of the beginnings of starvation – the first stages of death. Mama puts the tiny Child to her breast and, frantic (but guided by instinct), he finds the place he needs to be and, cries becoming muffled by flesh, he begins to suck and feed and is suddenly satisfied. Child, the universe is not so terrifying when Mama holds you close. And not so bad when Daddy falls asleep with his nose nudging the back of your head. After a few days of this routine, the first seeds of trust begin to sprout: the Child’s cries are not so frantic when he’s hungry. Now the cries are just his speech. He cries so that you hear him. And when you pick him up, the cries drop until he’s put to the breast when they stop immediately. The human part of the brain is growing. Trust, understanding. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was.
And so the Child cries because it means something. It is a symbol for something beyond the fear that filled an empty stomach. And Mama comes, as sure as the warmth of sun in the morning. And Daddy watches as constant as the moon over the benighted ocean. And God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.” Is it the Child that has been made in this image with his new understanding, his growing trust? Or is it me who, at 30, was again remade in this image, nurturing new flesh in this world with tired but happy hands?
For each Child, the universe is created anew. For the very first time.
We have a four-year-old right now who needs to ensure that his peanut-butter-and-jelly meets the necessary specifications to be an actual peanut-butter-and-jelly. It’s lunch time when I pull the bread, the jelly, the Jiffy, the knife, a few apples for all the kids, carrots and ranch, and plates. Our kitchen is small enough where I can gather all this stuff in somewhere between five and ten seconds. This is important because I want to deal with the food before I rush off to change the two-year-old’s diaper which, by the smell, I realize may have been filled long enough now to require a wet washcloth rather than the standard swath of wipes and a finishing coat of A&D.
But the four-year-old needs to ensure his universe isn’t suddenly off-kilter, isn’t plunged into chaos: “I want a peanut-butter—“ he pauses, distracted by a shout from the 8-year-old. This is going to take a while. But it’s important to him. I’m his Dad. And so I have to listen. “I want—“ another distraction. “I want a peanut-butter-and-jelly made with the good jelly. The red jelly.” I nod as he keeps thinking about what comes next. “I want a big sandwich cut and then cut again.” I wait – he’s not done. I can see there’s something else. “And I want it with the good jelly.”
Four lunches need to be made. A diaper badly needs changing. There are soccer practices that need to be planned, scout meetings that need to be structured… the chaos surrounds me.
Slowly, I repeat: “Henry, you want a peanut-butter-and-jelly made with the good jelly. You want a big sandwich that is cut and then cut again, right?”
He smiles. He gets little wrinkles in his eyelids when he smiles – that’s how big his smiles are. He smiles and he nods and shouts, “Yes!” The universe has been kept whole.
I’ve seen the usual images of the Holocaust, of starving children in Somalia, of aborted children, of skeletal families imprisoned in North Korea. The universe has a coldness that tears at the edges of all that we know. But what do I know? I know pain and hunger. I know anxiety. I know fear. These things are small. I could shrivel up and disappear tonight. A small part of northeastern Wisconsin might see an obituary. The world would continue.
What does Henry know? He has his peanut-butter-and-jellies and a small voice to ask for them. If that voice goes unheard, the chaos and darkness begin to well up all around him. And so I listen. And then I let him know that he was heard. I’ll get to the lunch-making. I’ll get to the poopy diaper. There will be time and there will be time. I’ll find a way to find the time.
I checked the news this morning. I’d been intentionally avoiding listening to the recording of crying children at one of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection centers. That recording popped up on my speakers as I clicked on a news article. A Child is heard wailing for her Daddy. She cries for Mama. And she wants Daddy. Either one of them, both of them, please. Where are they? The Child wants Daddy. She wants the smell of him close, the familiar arms. The sky has been ripped apart and is bleeding only desert heat right now – a sun too big for such small eyes. The world is sterile and uncaring. A dome stands above the child – a canvas tent, chain-link walls. (The trust is withering and is quickly destroyed. The animal part of the Child’s brain ravages and is feeding on the fragile human part of that organ. There is a pitbull in my neighborhood that flashes wet teeth behind its own fence. This child is not yet hindered with muscle, opinion, or prejudice. She only wails, alone in a cage.) God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky.” The dome here is only canvas. And Daddy is nowhere now, cannot show the Child the stars outside. Above, only canvas. A foreign material. Chain-link all around. The Child wails. Told not to touch her, CBP agents do not tend to her. She’s fed like a dog is fed. The steel and canvas stretch out like a terrible emptiness. A terrible, meaningless emptiness to the eyes of a 2-year-old and, as the dark gathers and the lights are turned out, the Child wails herself into exhaustion and sleep. She wakes every few hours, her fear laying claim to hours that should be spent in sleep, wailing again until exhaustion once again drowns the fear. This is her cycle now: fear and exhaustion, fear and exhaustion. This is the darkness of death. This is an animal chaos.
I remember seeing headlines about Duterte claiming to have thrown a criminal from a moving helicopter. There was an article on Kim Jong Un possibly using political prisoners as target practice for heavy artillery (what do high explosive rounds do to human flesh running through an open range?). There was a piece on the Russians shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 (reminiscent of the Soviet downing of another Korean passenger plane in 1983). These are the fruits of fear. Fear breeds hatred. Hatred breeds death. Fear has no time for listening. Fear has no flexibility in the machinations of our world. Fear calls only for unmeditative action. There is no pause. There is no time to take a moment and listen to the sound of the wind that is suddenly emptied of another human breath. These are not the kinds of things we would have done in our country.
And yet, now they are. They are done here. A Child cries for her Daddy, her Papa, the only flesh that she knew that could hold her even in a place that was steel and concrete. That could hold her anyplace and make it OK. But now there are no arms to hold her, no breath to whisper to her, no smiling face to listen to her. There is only an insatiable emptiness that eats all that she is to the point that her wails become futile, meaningless, and disappear into forgetfulness.
The universe is cold. The world can be hard. Winters are deep. The summers wither away the life. These things are not God.
But God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.”
Humankind has been made to reflect what is God – the time to listen, the hopeful silence, the flexibility to pause the machinery of our laws that can crush our lives like soft tissue caught in the gears. “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.” The ability to pause. To listen to the need of a Child. The world will forget these children. But I can’t.