We were playing the alphabet game as one does on road trips far too long, except our ride home from the beach was perhaps too quick and far too familiar—sometimes one needs a reason to look out the same windows again and again, especially when the ocean is behind you and you are covered in sand. The game was a tie between my son and the radio.
My youngest boy was six at the time, and he had been speaking nonstop since his fourth birthday. The sun was setting behind golden hills and the sky was the stuff of magic hour, that soft, brilliant glow of perfection that Hollywood is always talking about. The singsong sway of his voice in the background met the strings of a wayward guitar somewhere over my right shoulder and they spun for a moment in the air between us, then a dip, a moment, and parting is such sweet sorrow.
“Q” was hard to find as it always is, especially on a single-lane street fast losing light and no other cars to speak of. It usually shows up on a license plate if we wait long enough, but as I said, this trip was short. I made it longer until we found promises of service full of quality and quick. Once found the letters are always everywhere.
“R” was from a road sign. “S” came with a running commentary about the quaint, tiny shoppes that are spelled that way. “T” was a question I hadn’t heard before.
“Why does that building have a little “t” on it?” he asked as soon as I had missed it.
We were on “W” when he asked again.
“There,” he said. “That building had a little “t” on it, too.”
I slowed the car in direct contrast to the urgency in his voice and looked upon the letter in question.
“That’s not a little ‘t,’” I told him. “That’s a cross.”
The boys have been raised with no religion to speak of, despite the lure of grandparents living loudly on the fringes. My wife has been in and out of her faith’s good graces, a hokey pokey of the highest order, spinning herself round and round, left to dizziness and wondering what it’s all about. I was reared on Sunday school and youth groups, never reaching however many thimbles of wine needed to feel anything close to the boundless joy of those singing and praying around me. By the time I found out it was grape juice I was venerating by rote and eyeballing the exit. I was 16 when my parents divorced and realized that my mom would rather have spent her Sundays shopping, and my dad just dug in all the deeper.
I spent years trying to hide it. I would stand in a circle in my grandparents’ house, holding hands with family and friends, their heads bowed beneath words of thanks and praise and my eyes meeting quietly those of like-mind and gentle courtesy. Ours was a club of nods and knowing—mostly when to keep our mouths shut.
By the time I finished college I was comfortable in my skin and cared little for the convictions that were sure to rise against me. However, it wasn’t long before I realized my beliefs did not make me the minority that the media and ministers had led me to believe, but rather a thick slice of humanity that did right because it was right, with no need for fear or promises. They were not the godless masses of hate and evil that sell papers and page views, but people of kindness and logic with open hearts and welcome laughter. It was in that circle that I finally felt at home. The words are full of thanks and praise, and all our eyes are open.
When we had children it was important to my wife that I not indoctrinate the kids with my views on faith, and I agreed. I want the kids to explore and question the world for themselves, not to accept the answers that we are all so easily given. However, her family’s religion did not celebrate holidays of any sort, and so we had to compromise, they attended her halls to hear about the kingdom and together we celebrated a Christmas filled with Rudolph and Crosby. Our promise was a simple one, I would never tell the kids there was no God and she would extend the same respect to Santa. Everybody wins, and most of the time we’re happy.
To say the boys have no religion is not to suggest they are without a basic understanding of it. They know that people believe different things for different reasons, and that some use said beliefs to make the world a better place while others as an excuse to make their own lives better. They have been taught morals and values, right and wrong, and they are learning it still through trial and error and the trial and error of the examples we set. There is much good to be found in religion and a lot of things that we all should be ashamed of. The key, we have found, is the same as it always is: Meet each person with respect and know them by their actions and compassion. Good will out. It always does.
“What’s a cross?” he asked.
“It’s a symbol,” I said. “It’s the symbol for Christianity.”
“Oh, like the star for Jewish people.”
“Right. Like the Star of David.”
“What religion are we?” he asked.
“That’s for you to decide. You’ll grow up, learn and experience things, and you will make up your own mind based upon the way that it all fits together.”
“Like a puzzle?”
“Like a puzzle.”
“W” was a neon something and “X” was nestled in the bosom of an exit sign. By the time we got to “Z” we were out of billboards and businesses. We drove slowly past driveways lit in stars and headlight with hopes of finding one last letter resting carelessly on the backside of a sleepy bumper. The night was warm and the road rocked smooth like a cradle. The “Z” found him somewhere on a side street, and there were plenty more where that came from.