“I want to know how long infinity is,” my son said between bites of avocado toast. “People say it’s forever, but I want something more specific.” He was six, and therefore, six years into his life’s work of understanding the universe.
It was 2019 and we were sitting at our hand-me-down Ikea table in the kitchen of our apartment in UC Berkeley’s student family housing. I was watching his round, rosy, green-crusted cheeks chew on his favorite meal. A quick google search turned up nothing. Infinity is a concept we are ill-equipped to even imagine, a concept that keeps people up at night and drives some people mad. The best I could offer for an answer: the image of a circle, of a Möbius strip, of the infinity symbol itself.
* * *
One evening I was standing at the kitchen window washing the dishes. I let the water run a few degrees too hot as I scrubbed peanut butter off knives and coffee stains out of cups. I played my music a few decibels too loud because it felt good, like I was inside of it, surrounded. I was dancing at the sink, singing to feel the vibration in my chest as my voice rose, while my son skipped back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, his golden hair swaying upward with each bouncing step, back and forth song after song after song, because he was thinking.
At recess, with all that space, he said he skips in circles—he skips thinking his thoughts. This is what he told me when I asked probing questions about who he plays with at school. He said it all began one day in kindergarten—he discovered he thinks better when he’s moving.
On this particular evening, I stood at the window, hands soapy, shriveled, and he approached me, nearly breathless, and said, “Mom, do you ever think maybe God does exist?”
I turned down my music, turned off the sink, dried my hands, turned to him to respond and he began again, “Well, I really think he doesn’t. I mean, plants come from seeds, not God!”
We are atheists. We have no answers for our children. We have the words “Ask More Questions” in bold black typography on a turquoise poster hanging in our living room.
“When I was your age, I was taught that God existed, so for a long time I thought he did, but I don’t ever think that anymore,” I said. “As I grew, and asked questions, and came to my own understanding of the world, like you are doing now, God stopped being a part of it.” He said something, confidently, about science, and skipped away.
The closest thing my children have to a bible is a children’s book called Older Than the Stars that tells of how billions of years ago the universe popped into existence as a dense speck of dust that grew and grew, and that as it grew atoms were formed, then clouds of atoms, then stars that exploded and formed new atoms and new stars and planets too, even us, made from the same atoms as our earth, made from the stuff of exploding stars in this great unfolding, this ceaseless process of change, this grand network of events that is the universe.
* * *
“Hey Alexa, how many seconds has a six year old lived?”
“Hey Alexa, how many people have ever lived?” He wrote down the number next to a drawing of a person with Xs for eyes and a tongue hanging limp at the mouth.
“Roman, can you stop running up and down the hallway?”
“I’m just thinking!”
* * *
When my son was seven he began to speak often of paradise. “That would be total paradise,” he would say of things he liked. “Wouldn’t that be paradise?”
“Is a road trip a trip to a place far far away that is paradise?” he asked once when I told him we’d be taking one.
The word paradise has its roots in an old Iranian word for a walled garden. It is a space apart, a peace protected.
The word paradise plays in my kitchen as I sing along to the Kinks while I wash the dishes, “as long as I gaze at Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.”
In the spring of my junior year of college, I spent a semester abroad in Amsterdam. One day, having eaten mushrooms, I lay in the grass in Vondelpark, white petals falling, floating like snow all around me and over the pond that stretched before me, the weeping branches of trees swaying above. I spent the walk along the canals back to our apartment—just two doors down from the Anne Frank House—in a blissed-out rambling to a friend about a vision of my future children: “We will live in a garden and eat only ice cream and strawberries. Motherhood will be the chance to create, for someone, a beautiful childhood—a dream, Eden—I can give them Eden!”
Eden was the paradise I was told we’d been cast out of. Heaven was the paradise I could enter if I was very good. From the beginning, I had inside me this idea of a place without suffering, of a perfect good. For so long I had thought there was somewhere I was going.
But it troubled me, as a child. It troubled me that when I’d get there it would never end. I’d lie in bed at night with the covers over my head, because I was afraid of things, and ponder infinity. I don’t remember if I knew the word for it then. The possibility of forever kept me awake at night as a child.
* * *
In the second grade my son walked out of school each day at 1:15pm speaking of the gods.
One afternoon, blue palm-patterned backpack dangling open from his left hand, Minecraft water bottle in his right, nudged into the crease of his elbow, he recited the story of Medusa as we made our way down the sidewalk. I asked him, “What did you play during recess today?” He said, “This is the day I learned the words immortal and mortal.” I felt certain he must have known those words before that day, but it seemed important to him, so I withheld my doubt.
This idea of immortality was how he knew these gods aren’t real, cannot be real. This point felt important too. “If you are immortal you can get hit by a flaming crossbow and you won’t die, you can fall into lava and you won’t die, you can get shot by a gun and you won’t die. If you are mortal and any of these things happen, you will die,” he said from the back seat of our minivan.
Every day he came home with news of another god or goddess. When I asked him what he would like for his eighth birthday he told me there was just one thing, and I need not wrap it. He would like his very own book of Greek mythology. I suspected that he was curious about gods because he does not have one.
When I proposed, on that drive home, that the stories of the gods are a way for people to understand the forces that control the earth, he said, without hesitation, “What’s controlling the earth is time. If someone asked me what god is, I’d tell them it’s time. Time will be here forever: you can’t reverse it, you can’t destroy it.”
Then, suddenly, he added, “We need to grow more trees, let vines grow around more things.”
I have books on quantum physics that tell me that change is all there is. That time is how we measure it. That even things, like planets, like rocks, like us, are “just events that for a while are monotonous.” I have a book on ecology that tells me that all life forms are processes, not things, that nature is an event that never stops, that we think of animals and plants as matter but actually they are systems through which matter is continuously passing.
And I had a grandmother, who, when I was young, would say to me, “this too shall pass, this too shall pass,” as if it were a comfort. And when she would say this to me I would wonder, what must I do with my life so that someday I might be a person who finds comfort in that too?
* * *
For a few weeks our upstairs neighbors had a pet guinea pig, and then it died. One evening they knocked on our door to see if we would like to walk with them to our community garden to bury it, and we did. The four children stood circled around, heads hung, staring at its stiff, dead body—the first dead body they’d ever seen. The youngest boy petted it over and over, whispering to it gently, “wake up guinea pig, wake up.”
The father dug a hole in the wet black dirt of the flower bed in their patch of the community garden, placing the pet gently into the earth.. My son wanted to say some words. He said he thought it was a good pet and that his friends cared about it very much. He said now its body would help the earth—would enrich the soil that feeds the garden.
This is what we’d told him. My neighbor said he would plant a flower there above its grave. The guinea pig would turn into a flower—this was how my son imagined it.
* * *
We were sitting at the table in our kitchen in Berkeley when my children first learned they will not live forever.
It was 2017, a time when I didn’t care much for making dinner—when my husband worked so much he was never home, but the children and I always were, so I often fed them rotisserie chickens from the nearest market. They didn’t mind, but one night they started to wonder how it could be that the chickens clucking around the little farm up the hill shared a name with the meal on the table.
And, “do humans die?”
“What do humans turn into when they die? Does anyone eat humans?”
“Will we live forever? Will I die?”
In silence both of them stared up at me through the wide, blue innocence of their three- and four-year-old eyes, waiting for an answer. I told them only what I believe, wholeheartedly, to be true. To which my three-year-old daughter asked, “But will we still be able to talk after we die?”
“Do sharks die?” my son wanted to know.
“Let’s look it up, I don’t think you’re right.”
It is a hard enough thing to live with silently, a hard thing to say to them aloud while making it sound like it is not a hard thing to say. I told them everyone has their own forever. That life has a cycle that begins with birth and ends with death. That you start as a baby and grow and grow until you are very, very old. I told them that human lives are longer than they could even imagine. That when we die we become one with the earth and all living entities. I told them that people have many different ideas about what people turn into when people die, and explained some of the things some people believe, like heaven, nirvana, and reincarnation. I want them to appreciate cycles, the interconnectedness and the interdependence of things, and to find meaning and purpose in that. I want them to know they are a part of a whole and that the whole is more than we have yet come to comprehend as a species.
My son woke at three am that night and lay awake for two hours. When I curled up beside him to help him fall back asleep, he wrapped his arms around my neck and asked, “Mama, how long is forever?” He asked, “How will I become something else when I die?” If chickens become food, what would become of us?
Soon after, picking dandelions in our village courtyard, blowing their feathery seeds into the wind, I asked him what he wished for. Without hesitation, he replied, “I wished that we would never die.”
At five and a half years old, from his car seat in our minivan, he said to me, “Mom, when I grow up I want to be a scientist and make a medicine that can make people live forever.”
For a while he liked to say he wanted to be a tree when he died. He’d seen this on a TedEd video about what happens to postmortem bodies: the future of human burial is to compost ourselves into trees. Sometimes he’d point out that trees don’t have eyes to see or mouths to talk, confirm that yes they are still alive, and seem content with his decision.
“Science is how we understand the world,” he often tells us, “everything is science.” He’s interested in the elements, how they make everything, how everything is made of billions of particles too small to see—even us.
He’d skip up and down the hallway, back and forth, day after day, sometimes pausing to share his thoughts, because as he’d skip, he’d think. “Nothing is ever still,” he’d say. “Everything is spinning. The earth beneath our feet is spinning along its orbit of the sun, and the atoms that make us up are spinning too.” He reads these things, and hears them in videos he finds online, and he recites them back to us. When everyone is too busy to listen he lectures his iPad, making science videos of his own. He wants people to see them.
Because we feel that we are moving, we imagine we are going somewhere. We want that somewhere to be better, if not for ourselves than for our children, and their children, and everyone else’s children.
I’d hoped if they never had a god, if they were never taught that yes they have a soul that will live on forever, maybe they wouldn’t want one, and maybe they wouldn’t wish to. The scholar Donna Haraway says, “It matters what stories we tell to tell stories with; it matters what concepts we think to think other concepts with.” One story at the root of the problem, I think, is the one we tell about ourselves—that we are bounded individuals. We are each a system of processes, in a larger system of processes—ever moving, never still, ever-changing, never stagnant, never concrete, never complete—an amalgam of influence and experience, existing at a particular intersection of time, place, and ideas. Participant-observers, able to be and to know, each of us, an emergent form made of earth and stories. We are so much more than ourselves.
* * *
“Do humans sometimes decay?” I heard my son ask my husband at the kitchen table a few days after the guinea pig burial. “Yeah, well like teeth decay,” my husband said.
“No, like, does your whole body decay?”
“Well, when people die.”
“So it’s impossible for us to decay, at least while we’re alive,” my son decided, satisfied.
He walked toward me from the kitchen, to where I sat on the couch, “So, what are the two kinds of decay?” he asked, handing me my new copy of The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso. My children are always opening our packages, expecting something for themselves. Having not yet read the book, I had no answer.
What I could tell him: to decay is to decompose, to decline, to fall into ruin. It is wasting or wearing away. It is to rot through the action of bacteria or fungi. Without decomposition there can be no composition. Decay is the breaking down required to generate something new.
The stories I grew up on were not of cycles, of regeneration. They were linear; they were stories of progress.
* * *
Once, passing a pizza shop a week before Halloween, my daughter, age six, pointed to a paper cut out of a gravestone taped to its window and asked, “What is that?” I did wonder sometimes where all the graveyards are hiding in California. As a child growing up in New Jersey I felt constantly surrounded by them, the town graveyard bordering our school on two sides, my grandparents running the graveyard at the end of their street out in the woods, the street where my parents now live. Anywhere we drove it seemed there were graveyards along the road.
My parents no longer live in the house I grew up in, but when we visit I like to drive my kids through my old town and past my old house. My mom takes her dog for walks along the creek in that town so one afternoon, on a summer trip to visit our families, we joined her. Between our old house and the creek we passed the elementary school where I spent nine years of my young life, and on the other side of the school, we passed the town cemetery.
I pointed and told my children, “That is a cemetery.” “It has a lot of rocks in it,” my son said. “Do people think there are a lot of spirits there?” he asked as we made our way to the spot where we would walk the dog. He thought it looked like the kind of place a movie would set a scene full of zombies. “Why do people think those stones are a good way to honor people?” he wanted to know.
One afternoon that fall, back home in San Diego, we sat on our blanket on the soft sand looking out on the waves washing the beach. Resting in the sun, he sipped from his water bottle and spoke to me about graveyards. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of rocks we planted a tree over a person’s buried body? Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of fields of gravestones we grew forests? We should protest graveyards, he suggested, we should make signs and go to cemeteries and tell people this is no way to honor the dead. We should tell them about soul trees. “Soul trees?” I asked. “Yes, I think that’s a good name for them,” he said. I agreed. I agreed with the name and with the idea but explained to him gently why I did not agree with protesting cemeteries.
My son prefers to imagine a body returning to the earth to feed the trees and the flowers, to be a part of the cycle of life. A lawn of rocks to honor the dead feels like the antithesis of a thriving forest or garden. The oldest parts of this graveyard run along the edges of the woods and were always my favorite.
* * *
The way I remember it, I spent most of my childhood in an old dogwood tree in our backyard and in the cave of a pine that stood outside my bedroom window—twice the height of the whole house, and in the tangle of junk behind our stand-alone garage. I spent my childhood with moss beneath my bare feet, with the giant seed pods of giant trees, with the pile of dirt at the edge of the woods. Our very own mountain. Each tree was a house, each thick branch its own room. I’d bring my friends and my dolls.
As children, my sister and I spent several days each week in the care of our great-grandparents while our parents worked. They lived in a log cabin beside their own personal lake, which was more of a giant pond really. But I was young when I spent my time there, so it was a lake. Beside the lake, behind the log cabin, stretched their farm, which was actually a large vegetable garden. We ate fresh and well for all of my childhood. I shucked the corn—brown paper bags of it—with my mother on our back porch, year after year. I remember the bugs and the worms, creeping around the kernels, that I’d discover beneath the husks.
They had a coop next to their garage where they kept guinea hens sometimes, and chickens once—either way the coyotes always got them in the end. There was a junkyard of sorts at the back of the property, in front of the shed that housed the tractors, a place to keep things you don’t use anymore, but don’t know how to get rid of: rusting cars, rusting tools, broken wheelbarrows. Their land was surrounded on three sides by forest, the pinelands of South Jersey. There was space to roam and wonder in.
It was dark inside the cabin, with a stone floor from the entrance to the kitchen and carpet from the 1970s in the living room. The living room had a ceiling tall enough to fit a loft, where a taxidermied black bear perched on a log. The loft and its tables of ceramic knick-knacks hovered over the fireplace, next to the wooden staircase. The staircase was especially dark and lined with sepia-toned family photos. At the top of the stairs to the left was a narrow office with a large desk and beyond that a spare room where my great-grandmother kept her organ and a wardrobe full of old coats. There were two twin beds up there that we never got to sleep in.
To the right of the stairs was a door, slanted on the top like the door to a small, secret place, and beyond the door was the room where she kept her Singer sewing machine, family photo albums, and stacks of board games. This room led to the loft and so it was my favorite room and considered dangerous. When I was upstairs at my great-grandparent’s log cabin I was inside a children’s novel. I crept about the rooms, enchanted and full of longing for the revelation of a deep secret—that we were descended from royalty, or witches. If anything interesting was going to happen to me, it was going to be at the top of that dark staircase, just beyond that hobbit-sized door.
Downstairs at the end of the hall was the cabin’s only bathroom. The lock on the bathroom door was broken. My great-grandmother would always remind me, “Don’t try to use the lock, it’s broken!” I’d wonder sometimes, over the years, why no one ever bothered to fix it.
We visited my great-grandparents weekly for as long as I lived in my parents’ house. Sometime in my teenage years, I walked to the end of the hall, shut the door behind me, and sat on the toilet wedged between the sink and the shower, staring at that wrought iron lock. As I stood washing my hands inside that bathroom, beside the heavy wooden door, I wondered, how exactly is it broken? I raised my hand to the forbidden latch, the room closing in on me, as it had as a child, imagining I would end up trapped, imagining the door getting hacked down by firefighters to free me.
I slid the little metal bar in and out. It stuck a little, but it was not broken. It was just an old latch, the kind that slides in and turns down to lock, that you need to flip back up and slide out to open. That they’d just been afraid I’d lock myself in that cramped, windowless room, hit me then, suddenly and finally. The broken lock was a white lie. It was embarrassing, how many years I’d used that bathroom, old enough to realize this, but hadn’t—my acceptance of the broken lock, how that prior belief stuck so that I never even bothered to try.
I can’t say that I remember what was different then, on that day, that made me notice. What I can say is that my life since has been riddled with discoveries of broken (not broken) locks—one long process of unlearning—because my childhood, like many childhoods, was wrapped deep in layers of myth. Myths mostly, unlike this one, believed by all my elders—because our civilized earthly atmosphere is thick with stories. Like the dust that gathers in the corners, that settles on the bookshelves, once I catch sight of it perhaps in a sunbeam spraying through the window, the more I see of it—the more I see that the dust particles are everywhere.
My project, while I carried my first child in my womb, was to disentangle the web of stories I was living within, salvage what I could, dig up ideas to make my own, and assemble the atmosphere of their upbringing. There can be no composition without decomposition. I did not want to maintain the conceptual structures of my upbringing: I wanted to break them down.
What I want to give my children is a wilderness, a place where things grow from the rot of what came before, the space to roam and wonder in.
* * *
There is a park down the street from our apartment in the east bay, a peninsula that juts out into the bay, where people build statues out of trash. My children and I would walk down the sidewalk outside our front door, through the redwood grove, past the elementary school, along the street, over the bridge, beside the marshlands and the bay, until we’d reach what is called the bulb, where we’d hike along the water’s edge, climbing slabs of cement. A canvas of rubble with views of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’d bring chalk and they would make their marks on the empty spaces of stone otherwise tagged or sprayed or adorned by those who came before. They liked the climbing best, the hopping from slab to slab, the challenge, the thrill of risk, of danger. Sometimes we’d end up at a castle, Mad Max’s castle, according to the map. The castle is a concrete tube with a spiral staircase and windows. The castle is crumbling. They’d climb the stairs to nowhere—King and Queen of the broken castle on the sea, the wind always whipping at us from the water.
I like this park. I read it was a landfill once, dumping grounds for industrial waste. Local environmental activists put an end to it and nature took over. Migrating birds put it on their maps and hikers came to see them. The unhoused built camps and lived there for a while before being forced out. Artist collectives came to work, to build with rubbish, piece by piece until new forms emerged.
We would wander the paths that wind around the bulb in search of its different installations—a driftwood bull peaceful as Ferdinand perched in a patch of grass facing the bay, flat spirals of stone, a fence assembled and strung with found objects, a tunnel made of sticks and flowers, pots and pans strung up like instruments, a rainbow fort of brick and palm trees, three different tree swings.
We would turn back and head to the north side of the peninsula, a sandy patch, a sculpture garden on the beach where an upcycled man glares onward from his splintered stare—a giant whose rust is patched with paint by whoever it is that goes back to that place to make adjustments, to maintain it. He stands with one leg forward, armor-like petals along his limbs, perched in the sun amidst wildflowers who flourish through the work of bees, because everything is a process.
Nothing comes from nowhere is a thing my Introduction to Anthropology professor liked to say, “nothing comes from nowhere.” She could have said everything comes from what came before, or everything is situated, everything exists in context, and maybe she did. She must have said lots of things I don’t remember, but “nothing comes from nowhere,” I do. She talked about bricolage, how she loved that term. I can see myself now, scribbling it into my spiral notebook, bricolage: the construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. How cultures adapt, merge, transform themselves through time. How we make ourselves up.
Each time we’d visit the bulb we’d find the art transformed with new bits that were reclaimed. The lady of the sea leaning forward, her sheet metal skirt outspread, twigs for hair stuck as in motion, gold chains strung along her driftwood chest, and look kids, a red ribbon sash, a pearl, where once hung fishnet and bumper stickers. The tide of the bay nips her heels, but still, she stands—it rises, it recedes, she welcomes you—a testament to those who could take rusted bottle caps, broken glass, license plates, and pipes, and rig up a lady of the sea, her arms outstretched. A thing rebuilt relentlessly, out of what there was to work with.
Ashlee Laielli is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Antioch University. Her work has appeared in The Normal School. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and their two children. Twitter: @leelaielli ig: @ashleelaielli