Theology for the Very Young

“Mom, what’s a haunted house?”

With Halloween approaching and ghosts popping up everywhere, I was actually prepared for this question, asked — as usual — in the car, en route to preschool. Niko, nearly five now, is a thinker, a ponderer, and a worrier, and these quiet twenty-minute excursions are fertile ground for some deep questioning sessions.

We watched Inside Out last summer, and the concepts in the story have been really useful as we dissect and examine all those complex and intertwined emotions that some kids Niko’s age experience. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s a wonderful movie about emotions. I mean, literally starring the emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. I highly recommend it, though Niko’s age — 4 years old when we watched it — is borderline for being ready to handle the range of feelings and experiences the story covers.) But also in the story was Riley’s observation that her new home, empty and lonely, looked like a haunted house. Niko had mentioned this once not long ago, and I’d deflected the question in a truly skilled manner, but I knew I’d have to face a barrage of questions sooner or later. In preparation for the coming onslaught of inquiry, I did some thinking, pondering, and, yes, worrying of my own.

Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.
Riley and her parents dispel the blues in their empty house with a rousing game of hockey.

So when the inevitable question arrived, I had a triage of answers ready, and I began with the simplest. “A haunted house isn’t real, but in stories, it’s a house where ghosts live.” There. Simple.

“Why did Riley think her house looked haunted?”

“People sometimes think that ghosts like to live in houses where people don’t live. Riley’s new house was empty when they got there, so she thought it looked like a place a ghost might like to live. But really there weren’t any ghosts there, because ghosts aren’t real.”

“What’s a ghost?” Of course. He was going for the long route. I could tell this was not going to be a short conversation. He’s known about ghosts for awhile, naturally, but it’s recently occurred to him there must be more to them than a silly white sheet with a cheerful grin; otherwise why would people be afraid of them?

Still, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t satisfy him, I went for the next answer on my list. “You know what a ghost is! You’ve seen lots of pictures. They’re little white floaty guys.”

“But what’s a ghost really?” 

I moved to the next response on my mental list, finally shifting into Real Answers mode. “Ghosts aren’t real,” I said (why change a formula that works so well?), “but in stories, they are spirits of people who have died but who haven’t gone to be with God yet.”

“What’s a spirit?”

“A spirit is a special part of a person that God has made that lives forever and can always be with God. That’s the part of us that talks to God. Our bodies don’t last forever, but our spirits do.”

“Why do our spirits last forever?”

“Because that’s the way God made us.”

“But what if a bad guy comes and takes our spirit?”

“A bad guy can’t take our spirit. It’s not something you can see or hold in your hand. Nobody can take it from you. It’s just for you and God.”

By this time (oh thank you God) we were pulling into the parking lot and entering our flurry of unbuckling, collecting lunch box for snack, collecting little sister, putting that special toy back into the car, looking both directions to cross the parking lot… and the questions were cut short.

Really, I thought, I’d acquitted myself quite well. My answers were clear, concise, and to the point, each giving the information requested and no more, never overwhelming with too much. That was one paranormal/metaphysical/ theological discussion of which I could be proud. Right? Right?

Fast-forward to this morning. Aaron was working on the chicken coop; I was puttering in the garden shed, tidying away dried lavender and sweeping shelves and floors and organizing tools and doing all those odds and ends one needs to do if one wishes to actually use one’s gardening shed for gardening. Niko was running the length of the yard, now visiting Dad, now Mom, in his peregrinations.

As I organized, I caught sight of a collection of pinwheels we’d used to deter birds from eating our berry harvest, and realized I was missing one of the sturdy metal ones. I sent Niko running for it.

He returned in a few moments, his face sad and anxious, holding out the pinwheel in two pieces. Its head, made of brightly-colored flower-like spinning blades, had detached from the sturdy stake. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said, “I could only bring you its spirit.”

I’m telling you, teaching theology to a preschooler is hard. 

A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?
A blue pinwheel: possessing a spirit that can commune with God?


Photo copyright Pixar Animation Studios, found by me via a blog post called “Mental Wellness in Movies: Inside Out,” from  Projected Realities.


If I Ran the Summer

It’s all ripening. All at once. I am more pleased than I can say that this year’s garden is producing prodigiously, especially considering the late start we had due to seeds that didn’t germinate (Planted too early? Eaten by birds? Too old?) and other issues.  I’m delighted with the potential for delicious uses for all the produce. This year I planted far more Roma tomatoes than last year, hoping to be able to make salsa and soup to can, and considering the number of nearly-ripe tomatoes reddening on my windowsill and on the plants and the still-green ones that will be ready soon, I think I’ll have plenty. I’m making raisins from the seedless grapes, jelly from the wild blackberries, pickles from the cucumbers that my vines are suddenly producing in large quantities, and frozen and pickled green beans. With my mom here for a spontaneous visit, I actually have a better-than-usual chance of getting all of this done before the fruit and vegetables pass their prime.  

Still, I have to say, it would be really really great if I could set a timer on all my garden plants. If I could regulate summer vegetables’ and fruits’ behavior, things would be different. We’d kick off spring with blueberries and strawberries, three glorious weeks of each, then reducing the amount produced to a manageable cup or two per week thereafter for snacking. I could set the peas and lettuce to ripen with the carrots, along with cherry tomatoes and lemon cucumbers, so we could have fresh salad while freezing peas for winter. I’d time the Roma tomatoes, peppers (which are currently too small to harvest), and basil (which has now bolted) to mature simultaneously. The broccoli could provide three small heads and the zucchini a few small squash each week throughout summer, enough to eat some fresh and freeze the rest. The pickling cucumbers could ripen over a few weeks after the Roma tomatoes were done, with the dill (which I forgot to plant this year) ready to pick at the same time, and blackberries following soon after.  And the weeds? They wouldn’t get a timer. Nothing for weeds. 

 Yes, if I were in charge of summer, things would be much more orderly. None of these crazy amounts of fruit and vegetables all demanding to be picked and processed daily, lest they over mature and go to waste. No more weeks of waiting followed by weeks of frantic activity. No more vegetables rotting on the vine while others are being pickled and frozen. No more peas ripening to floury overmaturity while we frantically get weeds under control. No more! 


Sweet Corn Harvest

Growing up, I always lived in areas with a short growing season.One year, when my family lived in a remote area of British Columbia, we planted a big block of corn, hoping to get a harvest despite our short, cool summers. I remember eating some fresh corn — but I also recall walking past frost-bitten stalks filled with immature ears, victims of a predictably early fall. As far as I remember, we didn’t try that experiment again. 

Now my husband and I live in Oregon, where the summers are long and warm — even hot and dry, though my Oregon friends say the arid heat these last few years is unusual. Last year, we moved to our new 2-acre home a little late for serious gardening. This year, we’re growing a lot more vegetables, including our very first attempt at growing sweet corn. 

If you research growing corn, the first thing you’ll read is that the corn should be planted in a fairly compact block several rows square. That’s because corn is wind-pollinated, and it doesn’t pollinate well when the ears are far apart. 

Our first attempt at growing corn was a complete failure. Not one single seed germinated. I don’t know whether I planted too early, in soil that hadn’t yet warmed, or whether the birds got them — my second batch of peas, planted at the same time, also didn’t  germinate, and I did see birds pecking up the peas. 

In any case, they didn’t grow. So, despite knowing that corn isn’t really meant to be transplanted, we bought several pots with two or three little plants each, and planted them out in rows at the end of our vegetable garden. I knew they were supposed to be in a block — but we had less than a dozen, and already-established rows. I wasn’t convinced they’d survive, let alone succeed, and reworking the garden seemed like a lot of work for these straggly little plants. I planted them in three short rows of three or four each so they at least had neighbors, rather than one long row. 

I suppose my half-hearted attempt at planting in a block helped. We actually got ears, and the first three or so ears to mature were mostly full of plump kernels — just a small area at the top was unpollinated. 

However, today’s harvest was an excellent example of why corn should be planted in a block. Observe:  

 All of them were like this, if not worse. 

So there’s today’s object lesson: Plant corn in blocks! Otherwise, THIS happens! 

On the other hand, though imperfect, the corn was sweet, juicy, and flavorful. And I can’t think of too many more satisfying activities than stepping out to the garden with small ones in tow, making a quick harvest of corn, zucchini, and cucumbers, and then lunching on freshly picked, buttery sweet corn.