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Here’s an obvious truth: I am somewhat ambivalent about religion—and not simply the institutional manifestations, which even a saint could hate, but sometimes, too many times, all of it, the very meat of it, the whole goddamned shebang. Here’s another: I believe that the question of faith—which is ultimately separable from the question of “religion”—is the single most important question that any person asks in and of her life, and that every life is an answer to this question, whether she has addressed it consciously or not.


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“Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.” She looked me right in the eyes.

I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness. Nevertheless, I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its Pleistocene snapping turtles and water-bearded cattle, the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kremes and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her. I suggested she let the force of her longing and the fact of God’s love coalesce into a form as intact and atomic as matter itself, to attend to memory with the painstaking attentiveness of the poet, the abraded patience of the saint, the visionary innocence of the child whose unwilled wonder erases any distinction between her days and her dreams. I said all this—underneath my actual words, as it were—and waited while all that blond-haired, blue-eyed intelligence took it in.

“What do you mean, Eliza? Why not?”

“Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and”—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—“look how that’s worked out.”

“Daddy,” she said, “I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.”

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The Polish poet Anna Kamienska died in 1986, at the age of 66. She had converted to Christianity in her late 40s, after the unexpected death of her beloved husband, the poet Jan Spiewak. People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much. The two impulses are intimately related, and it may be that the most authentic spiritual existence inheres in being able to perceive one state when you are squarely in the midst of the other. The mortal sorrow that shadows even the most intense joy. The immortal joy that can give even the darkest sorrow a fugitive gleam.

so that someone can bury his face in itand sob out his love

Make the day rise brightlyas if there were no more pain

I have told this to a couple of people who thought it was heartbreaking, but I was so proud, I thought my heart would burst. I will love you in the summertime. What a piercing poetic thing to say—at two years old. And for weeks I thought about it. A year later, just after that dream I related above, I even wrote a poem about it. I will love you in the summertime. Which is to say, given the charmed life we were living there in Seattle and all the grace and grief that my wife and I felt ourselves moving through at every second: I will love you in the time where there is time for everything, which is now and always. I will love you in the time when time is no more.

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpanebumped by a bumblebee’s head

“Oh, Fiona sweetie, I bet you do,” I said.

I can’t tell a story of one daughter without including the other. Fiona, then. The olive-skinned and night-eyed child, the lithe and little trickster sister: Fiona.

But one night after my declaration, Fiona was silent. She just kept staring at the ceiling.

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What exactly does that mean: to pray? And is it something one ought to be teaching a child to do? And if we assume for a moment that it is indeed an essential thing to “learn,” then what exactly ought one to pray for? A parking space? To be cured of some dread disease? For the emotional and spiritual well-being of a beloved child? To be a unicorn? For one night of untroubled sleep?