We were somewhere between Conway and Maumelle when my son asked, “Where does outer space lead to?” It was around 8:30 at night, and there were few cars on the interstate. Out the windows empty fields stretched in each direction and thousands of stars filled the sky. Our other two children had already drifted off to sleep. As per usual, our middle child (only a minute younger than his twin brother) was fighting sleep by asking the deep, existential questions.
We had spent the previous few days in Yell County, and were headed back to Little Rock. Stars were on the brain. The night before—far away from the light and noise of the city—we’d looked up at fuzzy clouds of stars overhead, trying to pick out some of the constellations we’d been reading about in an old book I’d found about space. My sons are often taken aback by what they perceive to be more stars hanging over Dardanelle. My husband and I explained how the same stars are also overhead at our home in Little Rock; we just lose sight of them in the glow of so many streetlights. I felt dizzy that night looking up into the deep expanse. I remembered how, as a child, I used to love to take a flashlight and shine it up into the sky, baffled that the light never found something upon which to land.
As we drove toward home we talked about the solar system and the theories of an expansive universe. We talked about rocket ships and gravity and orbits and, per request, we talked about ideas of heaven and the mysteries of life after death. I dug deep into my brain to try to pull up what I could remember from that astronomy class so many years ago. I think I can speak for both my husband and myself when I say it was one of those moments when you realize how inadequate your understanding really is. In the end our answers came down to that frequent parental confession: “I don’t know.”
As my children grow older and ask increasingly complex questions, I find myself saying that phrase a lot. But I am usually able to follow it up with, “let’s look it up!” But this time I had the pleasure of explaining that even those who study space don’t know exactly what lies beyond. With the universe always expanding the beyond is still being created. We let the silence and the weight of the question hang in the car, a “beautiful mystery” as we like to call it in our home. I’ve always encouraged my sons to find hope in the unknown. After all, even with our advanced scientific exploration (something for which I also teach them to have great respect), there are limits to our understanding. I’ve always operated under the conviction that a reciprocal relationship with God can’t be built upon an evasion of mystery. It wasn’t long after that he drifted off to sleep and my husband and I turned our adult conversations toward more earthly topics like world affairs and plans for the following day.
There are a lot of decisions I’ve made as a parent that I later question. And I’m thankful each day for the opportunity for a do-over from the day before. But our bedtime rituals aren’t in that list. Over the years I’ve learned that connecting with children around bedtime is one of the more magical parts of the day. As they drift toward sleep they lose their shields, employing their growing vocabularies to ask questions that would baffle even the elderly. I’ve always seen this to be such an act of bravery on their part. As humans, being able to lay down in the night, in the stillness of our bodies, and look into that which we don’t understand isn’t for the weak of heart. As a parent I try to give space to this process and stick around whenever they want me near. My gut feeling is that encouraging this contemplation will likely serve my kids well as they grow into adults attempting to navigate a world filled with injustice and complexity. I welcome the chance to tell my children there is so much I don’t understand. Most importantly I feel these moments are one of the many ways in which they’ll learn to develop a relationship with things they cannot see.
Oh don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if every bedtime is a peaceful, mystical exploration of life’s greatest questions. In their fatigue sometimes they’re extra grumpy and fight about how their brother’s foot bumped against their foot or how they want the pajamas their brother picked out first. Sometimes they fight sleep by requesting yet another glass of water or arguing with their brother about who the blanket belongs to. In other words, it’s not all magic and mystery. I don’t think these are specifically childhood traits but rather human ones. After all, how often do we adults find ourselves thinking, even talking about, the importance of human connection, brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, only to get sidetracked into speculating on the worth of another human’s heart just because they spoke to us with a tone we didn’t like. It’s not as if kids have secured the market on being petty. In the end, we’re humans with human brains and human bodies. We get sidetracked. But sometimes, whether we’re fifty or five, we manage to cut through it all and reach toward something beyond ourselves. There is something about the darkness that encourages this reach. I want my children to feel unafraid in that balance.
A few more miles down the interstate, nearing the lights of the city, it occurred to me that I’d been so busy trying to answer my son’s questions that I hadn’t offered him the chance to explore his own thoughts on the matter. When we got back into town and he began to wake back up I asked what he thought. “Where do you think it leads to?” The moment had passed. He was groggy, and he didn’t really have much to say on the matter. But I’m glad I asked. I know he’ll file the question away, knowing that there is room in this world, and in this family, for his own ruminations. He’ll sit with them as he goes about his days and they’ll likely resurface some evening when he’s staring at the stars, or the ceiling of his room, making his way toward rest. I look forward to learning from his ever-evolving answers.