The Horsies Upstairs

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the eve of Christmas Eve the family was all out in the forest where my daughter and son-in-law and three dogs and three horses and a cat live. Three of them live in the horse-barn and the pasture at the top of the hill, five of them in the log-cabin-style house at the bottom of the hill, and one of them in great style in a studio cottage with a heating pad all her own, which in winter she deserts only to hunt mice in the woods. That afternoon it was raining, as it had been all December, so everybody was inside, and the kitchen-living-dining room was pretty full of people, the eldest eighty-three and the youngest two.

The two-year-old, Leila, was visiting with her mother and her step-aunt from Toronto. Seven of us had come over for the afternoon, and six were staying there — the hosts upstairs, the Torontans in the study, and one hardy soul out in the trailer. (There is no bed in the studio cottage and Mimi does not share her heating pad.) The dogs were circulating freely among us and there were many good things to eat, arousing much interest in the dogs. For anybody as young as Leila, it must have seemed pretty crowded and noisy and full of strangers and strangeness, but she took it all in with bright eyes and sweet equanimity.

That morning, when it stopped raining for a while, she had gone up the long, steep driveway with the women to the horse-barn and riding ring. They played with pretty Icelandic Perla, and Hank, who stands a stalwart ten hands high and is convinced of his authority as the only horse (as opposed to mare) on the premises. Leila sat in the saddle in front of Aunty Cawoline on Melody, the kind, wise, old cutting horse, and very much enjoyed her riding lesson. When Mel picked up her pace, Leila bounced up and down, up and down, and softly sang “Twot! Twot! Twot! Twot!” round and round the ring.

Photo by Caroline Le GuinSo, then, that afternoon, indoors, at some point among the various conversations, somebody said it would be dark before you knew it. And somebody else said, “Pretty soon we’d better go up and feed the horses.”

Leila took this in. Her eyes grew a little brighter. She turned to her mother and asked in a small hopeful voice, “Are the horsies upstairs?”

Her mother gently explained that the horsies were not up in the loft but up in the pasture at the top of the hill. Leila nodded, a little disappointed perhaps, but acceptant.

And I carried her question away with me to smile over and to ponder.

It was both charming and logical. In Toronto, in the limited world of a two-year-old, when somebody talked of going “up,” it would almost always mean “upstairs.”

And to Leila the log-walled house, which is very tall though not really very large, must have seemed immense, labyrinthine, unpredictable, with its doors and staircases and basement and loft and porch, everything unexpected, so that you enter the back door at ground level, walk through the house, and go down a long flight of steps to get to ground level … Leila had probably been up the loft stairs to the bedroom only once if at all.

Anything could be up those stairs. Melody, Perla, and Hank could be there. Santa Claus could be there. God could be there.

How does a child arrange a vast world that is always turning out new stuff? She does it the best she can, and doesn’t bother with what she can’t until she has to. That is my Theory of Child Development.

I wrote a short story once, all of which was true, about going to a conference on the Northern California coast among the redwoods, and having not the faintest idea I’d ever seen the place, the cabins, the creek, before — until I was told, and realised it was true, that I’d lived there for two intense weeks of two summers — that this very place was Timbertall, the camp my friends and I went to when we were thirteen and fourteen.

At that age, absolutely all I had noticed enough to remember about the location of Timbertall was that we all got on a bus and rode north for hours and hours talking the whole way, and got off, and were there. Wherever there was.  There was where we were. With the creek, and the cabins, the huge stumps, the high dark trees, and us, still talking, and the horses.

Oh, yes, there were horsies up there, too. That’s why we were there. That was what mattered, at that age.

I was a kid who, thanks to a wooden jigsaw puzzle of the U.S.A., had the states fairly well located, and had been taught enough geography to acquire some notion of continents and nations. And I knew the redwood country was north of Berkeley, because my parents had driven with me and my brother up that coast when I was nine, and my father was always clear about compass directions.

And that was all I knew at fourteen about where Timbertall was, and all I cared to know.

I am appalled by my ignorance. Yet it had its own logic. I didn’t have to drive the bus, after all. I was a kid, carted around by adults the ways kids are. I had an adequate arrangement of the world, a sufficient understanding of my position, for my needs at the time.

No wonder kids always ask, “Are we there yet?” Because they are there. It’s just the harried parents who aren’t, who have to have all this huge distance between things and have to drive and drive and drive to get to there. That makes no sense to a kid. Maybe that’s why they can’t see scenery. Scenery is between where they are.

It takes years to learn to live between, and thus to get the relationships between things arranged, to make sense of them.

It probably takes the weird adult human mind, too. I think animals are where they are in the same way a baby is. Oh, they know the way between places, many of them, as no baby does, and far better than we do — horses for sure, if they’ve been over the ground once. Bees, if another bee dances it for them. Terns above the trackless ocean…. Knowing the way, in that sense, is knowing where you are all the way.

At fourteen, unless I was in a very familiar place, I had very little idea where I was. More than Leila, but not that much more.

But at fourteen I knew the horses were not in the loft bedroom. I knew Santa Claus was not at the North Pole. And I was giving a good deal of thought to where God might be.

o0o

Children have to believe what they are told. Willingness to believe is as necessary to a child as the suckling instinct is to a baby: a child has so much to learn in order to stay alive and in order to be human.

Specifically human knowledge is imparted largely through language, so first we have to learn language, then listen to what we’re told, and believe it. Testing the validity of information should always be permitted and is sometimes necessary but may also be dangerous: the little one had better believe without running any tests that the stove burner could burn even when it isn’t red, that if you eat Gramma’s medicine you will be sick, that running out into the street is not a good idea … Anyhow there’s so much to be learned, it can’t all be tested. We really do have to believe what our elders tell us. We can perceive for ourselves, but have very little instinctive knowledge in how to act on our perceptions, and must be shown the basic patterns of how to arrange the world and how to find our way through it.

Therefore the incalculable value of true information, and the unforgivable wrongness of lying to a child. An adult has the option of not believing. A child, particularly your own child, doesn’t.

A scenario: Leila, instead of contentedly accepting the information, begins to wail in disappointment, insisting, “No, the horsies are upstairs! They ARE upstairs!” A soft-hearted grownup smiles and coos, “Yes, dear, the horsies are upstairs, all cuddled up in bed.”

This is a lie, though a tiny, silly one. The child has learned nothing, but has been confirmed in an existential misunderstanding which she’ll have to sort out somehow, sometime.

That “up” means up the stairs, up the hill, and a whole lot of other places too, and that its meaning may depend on where you are at the moment, is important information. A child needs all the help she can get in learning to take that vast variety of meanings into account.

Lying, of course, isn’t the same as pretending. Leila and a grownup might have a fine time imagining the horsies in the bedroom, with Hank hogging all the blankets and Perla kicking him and Mel saying Where’s the hay? But for this to work as imagination, the child has to know that the horsies are in fact in the horse barn. In this sense, truth to fact, insofar as we know what fact is, must come first. The child has to be able to trust what she’s told. Her belief must be honored by our honesty.

o0o

I brought in Santa Claus for a reason. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the way we handle him. We had Santa Claus in my family (in fact my mother wrote a lovely children’s book about Santa Claus in California letting his reindeer graze on the new winter clover.) When I was a kid we read “The Night Before Christmas,” and we set out milk and cookies by the fireplace, and they were gone in the morning, and we all enjoyed it. People love pretense, and love ritual, and need both. Neither of them is counterfactual. Santa Claus is an odd, quirky, generally benign myth — a real myth, deeply involved in the ritual behaviors of the one great holiday we still have left. As such I honor him.

Very early in my life, like most kids, I think, I could distinguish “Pretend” from “Real,” which means I knew myth and fact were different things and had some sense of the no-man’s-land that lies between the two. At any age I can recall, if somebody had asked me, “Is Santa Claus real?” I would, I think, have been confused and embarrassed, and blushed red in case it was the wrong answer, and said No.

I don’t think I missed anything not thinking Santa Claus was real the way my parents were real. I could listen out for reindeer hooves with the best of them.

Our kids had Santa Claus; we read the poem, and left milk and cookies out for him; and so do their kids. To me, that’s what’s important. That the bonding ritual be honored, the myth re-enacted and carried forward in time.

When I was a kid and other kids started telling about “when they found out about Santa Claus,” I kept my mouth shut. Incredulity is unlovable. I am opening my mouth now because I am too old to be lovable, but still incredulous when I hear people — adults! — mourning over the awful day they found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real.

To me what’s awful is not — as it is usually presented — the “loss of belief.” What’s awful is the demand that children believe or pretend to believe a falsehood, and the guilty-emotion-laden short-circuiting of the mind that happens when fact is deliberately confused with myth, actuality with ritual symbol.

Is what people grieve over the pain not of losing a belief, but of realising that somebody you trusted expected you to believe something they didn’t believe? Or is it that in losing literal belief in our fat little Father Christmas,  they also lose love and respect for him and what he stands for? But why?

I could go on from here in several directions, one of them political. As some parents manipulate their children’s beliefs, however well-meaningly, some politicians play more or less knowingly on people’s trust, persuading them to accept a deliberately fostered confusion of actuality with wishful thinking and fact with symbol. Like, say, the Third Reich. Or Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom. Or Mission Accomplished.

But I don’t want to go there. I just want to meditate on the horsies upstairs.

Belief has no value in itself that I can see. Its value increases as it is useful, diminishes as it is replaced by knowledge, and goes negative when it’s noxious. In ordinary life, the need for it diminishes as the quantity and quality of knowledge increases.

There are areas in which we have no knowledge, where we need belief, because it’s all we can act on. In the whole area we call religion or the realm of the spirit, we can act only on belief. There, belief may be called knowledge by the believer: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” That’s fair, so long as it’s fair also to maintain and insist upon the difference, outside religion, between the two things. In the realm of science, the value of belief is nil or negative; only knowledge is valuable. Therefore, I don’t say I believe two plus two is four, or that the earth goes around the sun, but that I know it. Because evolution is an ever-developing theory, I prefer to say I accept it, rather than that I know it to be true. Acceptance in this sense is, I suppose, the secular equivalent of belief. It can certainly provide endless nourishment and delight for mind and soul.

I’m willing to believe people who say they couldn’t live if they lost their religious belief. I hope they’ll believe me when I say that if my intellect goes, if I’m left groping in confusion unable to tell the real from the imagined, if I lose what I know and the capacity to learn, I hope I die.

To see a person who’s only lived two years in this world seeking and finding her way in it, perfectly trusting, having her trust rewarded with truth, and accepting it — that was a lovely thing to see. What it made me think about above all is how incredibly much we learn between our birthday and last day — from where the horsies live to the origin of the stars. How rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires, all of us.

— UKL

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The Horsies Upstairs — 26 Comments

  1. Graham, just my thought as well! Too old to attempt being lovable, possibly, but not old enough to escape it! 🙂

    I have a very thoughtful nine-year-old who is grappling with the difference between belief and knowledge at the moment: I am going to translate this to him, I am certain he will both enjoy it and learn from it. As did I.

  2. Ursula knows very well that she is loved. So I choose to interpret her statement that she is too old to be lovable according to my own context: once you get past a certain age, which may vary from person to person (in my case this happened about my 75th year), you can’t be bothered to try to please others anymore because you having finally learned it is either an exercise in futility or at the cost of being your truest self, a sacrifice you are no longer willing to make. What for?

    Of course I don’t know precisely what Ursula had in mind when she wrote that statement; we hardly ever know except approximately what a writer really means because how we understand something is always colored by our own filters and projections.

    Just my two dollars worth (that’s “my two cents” adjusted for inflation over my nearly 80 years).

  3. Thank you. This explains why I hated relatives to either lied or else told “stories” as truth followed by their laughing at my childhood gullibility. All I had to go on was what adults told me. And, you know, the world is a MUCH different place than they told me.

  4. Telling the truth to small children can be fraught with peril and humor. When my older daughter was five and I was pregnant, she quite reasonably asked how the baby was going to make her way out of my tummy. She was unfazed by the thought of a Caesarian–which is how she was born–but her expression, when I explained the non-surgical route, was priceless. “G’wan, pull the other one.” I pulled out the Baby is Born book that she’d been reading over and over and we went through the diagrams she had skimmed in favor of the cute pictures of baby animals, and at last, grudgingly, she believed me. “But that’s stupid and disgusting.”

    I’m not sure, sixteen years later, that she feels differently about it. I’m not sure I do either, actually.

  5. My parents 50+ years ago handled Santa Claus both very simply and very truthfully: “Santa Claus is a let’s-pretend that adults and children like to play together.” I was happy to play along (and my parents did too), I never felt disillusioned, and I did feel very sorry for friends of mine whose parents did insist they believe SC was “real.” Today I am shocked and angry when I hear someone say to their child “If you aren’t a good girl, Santa Claus won’t come.”

  6. Thank you for not writing short blogs.
    Thank you for this frank and thick discussion of belief.
    My own experience at 60 is that I’ve never ‘lost’ belief, but belief has vanished, or been shaken out of me, or has suddenly turned conviction to laughter, or has demanded more of me than I was prepared to give. But what I know without knowing I know it, never seems to be much affected by belief and its vagaries; on the other hand, I wonder, because that unknowing knowledge in me has much resoonance with what people say they believe. I most liked your profound statement about a two year old having to believe, and our obligation to honor her belief with honesty.

  7. Ursula

    Hrrmph. I don’t like it, but I’ll take your word for it that Santa Claus is not real.

  8. Our kids would put sherry and cake out for Santa and now
    our little grandson, 18 month, is drawn into the imaginative
    world of Christmas, where good resides up a chimney!

    Perhaps we need this annual reminder of the world of the
    imagination and are drawn into the childlike world of trust.

  9. Thanks for this delicate observation of our dealings with children, and the fragile – almost tangible – construction of their worldview with our words.

  10. I read this blog post to Helen Farnsworth here in Berkeley. She’s doing great at 96 and she enjoyed it thoroughly. She woke up in the middle of the night this week, turned on the radio and heard Ursula’s interview on the blog project. From here on I’ll share the posts with her. She remains Ursula’s biggest fan.

  11. Thank you for “Earthsea”!I speak not well on English but i very want tell you many warm words.Thank you

  12. All of this entry resonates with me quite deeply at this particular time, and especially the end of the second to the last paragraph.

    My mother was born in 1929 and had a birthday on the 17th of this month. She was a woman of intellect and well honed perception who is walking away from me into a world of uncomprehending nowness that I am mourning and struggling to understand.

    I shy away from my feelings, and grasp at numb objectivity- and am jostled into an awakened melancholy when I encounter a present, eloquent, cogently desirous woman of the same age. I did so on the train home to Portland from visiting my mother at Christmas, and I have again here. Despite a sort of envy, I am in gratitude.
    I’m not really sure what I envy, I just recognize the bodily sensation; I do have a sense of why I am grateful though.
    It is because it re-engages me with my compassion for my mother and myself in an unexpected way. I think maybe because the contrast forces me to really see her, invoke her as she is and not pretend otherwise.

    And yet, I also am grappling with the idea of truth in my relationship in another way:
    I have been and am wholeheartedly lying to her actively and through omission. Specialists in the area of dementia have advised that she is unable to comprehend and remember for more than a short time, a very recent tragedy.
    I pretend that tragedy hasn’t happened, so that she doesn’t have to continuously relive it with no resolution.
    I wish there was a better way, a specialist who could gently unravel those neural threads in such a way as to allow a person in her world to become at peace with loss. To be able to speak to some inner part that still knows.

  13. When I was about seven years old, I heard from some other kid that there was no Santa. Disturbed a bit, I took the issue to my mother and this was her answer: “You know, most children at some age stop to believe in Santa, so that he stops bringing gifts to them – and then their parents start to arrange Christmas gifts for them just to prevent their being unhappy. As for the rest of children, they get their presents from Santa.” I admire a subtle way in which this answer balances the truth and pretending.

    There are good reasons to oppose C.S. Lewis’ statement that “myths are lies even though lies breathed through silver” (I am sure UKL knows Tolkien’s opposition to it although I understand she possibly does not share his opinion), and I think there is something natural and healthy in children’s willingness to extend their trust and to accept things that are obviously, even to them, not literally true. Musings about horsies living upstairs would not make the little girl much harm, especially if accompanied by a warm invitation to go there together and check it. What seems a real crime to me, is lying to a child in order to get rid of her, or to make fun *of* her. Children love to participate in making up some fantastic stories and enjoy being playfully teased as well as they appreciate some dose of delicate irony (in fact, I believe that kids who are not given such possibility may have serious problems with their social relations later on). It is the sarcasm or elder’s total lack of interest that is truly devastating to a kid since it breaks the basic bond of trust and reliance, being a verbal equivalent of a physical attack against a baby.

    On the other hand, one must be really careful about science’s claims to objectivity and soundness. To give just one example: you can as well say that the sun goes around the earth. Actually, it really does (exactly in the same way in which the earth goes around the sun)! The only reason to place the Sun at the center of our planet system was to make the picture of the whole system simpler. If the Earth were the only planet around, there would be – in terms of dynamics (in contrast to the underlying gravity) – absolutely no reason to prefer the solar center description. In fact, choosing the Earth as the center is much more convenient and natural, and was quite successfully employed by the ancient astronomers. Literal “scientific truths” sometimes conceal as much as they reveal, especially to non-specialists. After Einstein, the gravity force seems to be something else than it seemed to sir Isaac Newton (which is not to say that he was wrong about it), and there are good reasons to believe that physicists’ way of thinking about it will significantly change in future. And yet, would you say that a school teacher is lying to your child when teaching about Newton’s gravity concept without referring to the general relativity theory? How far is it from Santa stories?

  14. With much hesitation, I decided to add yet another comment. There is enough space for belief in science, although certainly it is a different type of belief than the religious one. I am a mathematician, so let me illustrate it by a mathematical example (for the sake of brevity and clarity I will slightly simplify my explanation, in the way a high school teacher might mention not Einstein’s theory when discussing Newton’s gravity law with his pupils; I will not cheat though):

    It is true that two plus two is four. We all learn it at some point as a (natural) revelation, and practical tests along our life confirm this simple truth, showing that it is compatible with everyday needs and other arithmetic operations, and rules we learned at school. Some of us discover at some point that this is actually a mathematical theorem – once you understand well enough what “two”, “four”, addition and equality mean, you can try to prove it. It is a bit tricky, because one must really distinguish between assumptions and assertions (if you define four as a sum of two and two, then there is nothing to prove, right?). It is also much more complicated than most people presume – Russell and Whitehead undertook the task of formalizing the proof of “1+1=2” and have contained it in their famous “Principia Mathematica”. It is neither simple nor obvious. However, difficulties of the proof are in a sense of purely technical nature.

    Now there is a place for a little surprise. One can legitimately ask the following question: “Can a mathematician, using the same tools of arithmetic, algebra etc. which he used to prove 1+1=2, prove that 1+1=3 or 0=1”? Obviously, all mathematicians believe/hope/trust that the answer is no. Whenever in history of mathematics somebody got 1+1=3 in one’s computations, a careful and serious study have revealed some mistake in them. Mathematics would not make sense at all if the answer were “yes”. But the question is: can we prove that there is no valid proof that 1+1=3? Russell and Whitehead believed it can proved, and their belief was shared by many logicians and mathematicians of late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It seemed just a matter of time, hard work and perhaps some spark of genius to prove that everything was as it should be. However, Kurt Goedel’s (“oe” denotes German “o umlaut” which I cannot produce here) incompleteness theorems of 1931 showed that the mathematical reality is much more complicated – either there is a contradiction in arithmetic and then one day someone simply may find a mathematically sound proof that 1+1=3, or such a contradiction does not exist but then there is no mathematically sound way to prove it! In other words, if we want to use mathematics as a consistent, coherent system of knowledge, we must simply believe there is no contradiction in it (and we may be wrong about it, and there is no way to make sure unless the answer is bad news)!

    Most people think “Sun does not go around Earth” follows from “Earth goes around Sun”; in the same way they think that if mathematicians can prove that “1+1=2” then they can also prove that it is not possible to prove that “1+1=3”. In both cases they are wrong. I guess Lao-Tzu would enjoy it (and swiftly discard it as an example of completely useless knowledge).

  15. Thank you so much for this blog and for the lovely time we spent with your family at Christmas. I am touched that Leila and I inspired you to write such a thoughtful piece. I share very much your views on belief and knowledge and in fact have always wanted to raise Leila to understand that when it comes to religion everyone has their beliefs and beyond that we have no real way of knowing if anybody is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’-and that most likely no one is either.
    On lying to your children intentionally- strongly disapprove the other day i noticed a quote highlighted in an article about surrogate parenting the said “We just explained to our kids that Mommy;s tummy is broken” find that type of dumbed-down, inaccurate cutesy-poo language totally depressing and discouraging. Is there not a simple, child-friendly way to explain the truth or at least to acknowledge that the ‘tummy’ is not ‘really the issue in cases of infertility?
    Anyway, thanks again and I do hope we will see you again in not too long.

  16. I enjoyed your discussion here about the importance of being truthful to children. As parents we always strove to be as truthful with our daughters as their age and level of understanding permitted, but you have explained beautifully and succinctly why this matters so much. My girls are young women now, out in the world making sense of it for themselves, so I hope that they have also understood the lessons we tried to teach of being careful about who to believe, and how to make that judgment call…

  17. I have immense respect for your intellect, but far more so for your ability to observe ,in a poetic sense as well as a prosaic one. And even more for your ability to share that reality with me…it expands my reality. Your craft is like an ocean wave which both supports and moves me, my experience enlarged.
    I would like to offer my experience in another way
    You state that in Religious or spiritual terms belief is all that is possible. In my experience, if belief is all you have to work with, then you can be religious and if challenged you may become an extremist within whatever religion you beliefs fall.
    If on the other hand you have experience, you are likely spiritual, and no threat will make you extreme.
    If God is, then God is in all creation….that includes us,and if God is not found [and experienced ] within
    God will never be found without.
    One last comment on Myths as a whole genre …they posses a power that simple prose will never have…the ability to engage the entire being, not just intellect. The difference is palpable…and creates an experience, as it involves our emotions, our intellect and our imagination. A whole experience.
    Thank you for sharing your experince

  18. Actually, even some SF authors admit that there is some problem with pressing too strong to replace trust with knowledge. The temptation to know for sure, once and for all, goes back at least to Rene Descartes – well, the temptation is surely much older (recall Adam & Eve story, for example) but perhaps Descartes was the first one who claimed that you can really fulfil this ideal, and whose claims were considered realistic by many of his contemporaries and followers. While I think that some of the attacks against Cartesian ideas, and against ideals of the Age of Enlightenment in general, are strongly exaggerated, I have much understanding for Blake’s warning against single vision and Newton’s sleep even though I certainly do not have much access to its underlying mystic meaning.

    There is a short story “Newton’s sleep” by UKL (in one of her more trusting moods) in which she nicely shows how much the Cartesian dream is built on distrust and obsessive control-drive, and how sterile and unlivable it gets.

  19. Okay. Well…and “Knowledge heals belief”…….
    I remember this. I thought what you wrote was very good, when I read it, and since.
    After all, we’re not obliged to believe all we are told.
    Or we would believe in elephants wearing suits like Babar. Koalas that can talk like Dorothy Wall’s “Blinky Bill”. Puddings that you can “cut and come again” like Norman Lindsays fabulous Magic Pudding. Tiny toddlers having adventures in gum trees, and wicked banksia men, like in “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.”
    Magical bulldozers like in “Bob the Builder” (can we fix it). Well: talking to fantasy writers is an odd place to discuss belief anyhow.

  20. @ Karen Young

    Actually, I think fantasy writers are by nature experts in trust (or at least “suspension of disbelief” – as Coleridge’s famous phrase, used also by Tolkien, has it). Quite like illusionists, sleight of hand type, they have only this craft to win their audience and make something out of “nothing”. But in contrast to illusionists, they may achieve much nobler and deeper goals than pure amusement and amazement.

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  23. I loved discovering this blog of Ursula K le Guin’s , her philosophy, how she lets the subject at hand take her on in her thinking to the connections. I do that too. Perhaps it is being ‘old’, I am 82 as well, but I think I have always let my mind do that. “The Horsies Upstairs” is wonderful in it’s completeness, as is the Christmas tree and following commentary, the language of love of the world, a world view that sings of integration with the whole. I would love to hear her speak, hopefully will sometime, in person. Katharine

  24. What word would be best used to explain apocryphal to a small child? At the risk of being naive and grouchy, I’d like to ask what’s wrong with telling kids that St. Nicholas was a man and having died isn’t the same as having ceased to exist or ceased to perform work, even if the stories told about him are fantasy. I think I figured that out as a kid and wonder at people’s missing the point so. Believe me, when I’m stuck on someone’s gift, I always ask him for help and it always comes.