March 31, 2017
“Tante, how do you make a guy?” asked my 4-year-old as he stared hard at the yarn in one hand and the crochet hook in the other, tapping them pointlessly against each other.
As you can see in the above picture, my son was seated next to my sister (“Tante” = “aunt” in German) on the couch, both with a crochet hook in their right hands and some colorful yarn in their left. My sister had been churning out creations like these:
…and my son was obviously impressed. But the chasm between his knowledge and hers is currently so large that to him it seemed practically like magic that she could take the same materials he held and make something complicated and recognizable and cool out of them. To him, changing yarn into superheroes was akin to Rumpelstiltskin changing straw into gold.
So he stamped his feet, ripped himself in half, and disappeared through a fissure into the bowels of the earth.
Just kidding, but did you know that’s the original ending to the Rumpelstiltskin story? Cheerful.
NO, my four-year-old is still intact, but “making a guy” out of yarn remains an unsolvable puzzle to him. (Note: my sister is quite kind and patient and of course she showed him what she was doing. He just literally can’t even.)
Do you remember being a kid? Do you remember wondering how things came to be, and finally just giving up and accepting that it was so?
I worked in a kindergarten classroom for a little while, and one day a helicopter pilot came to talk to the kids, and one of the kids asked him how many days he had to study to become a pilot. Isn’t that cute? Not years, months, or weeks. Days. That’s how a 5-year-old’s mind thinks. Everything is small, and explanations bigger than that begin to sound like fairy tales rather than reality. (By the bye, I’ve read that it takes one to two years to obtain one’s helicopter license.)
My son’s question to my sister is like that student’s question to the helicopter pilot. He wanted a simple, manageable answer, one he could fit into his little mental framework. (By “little” I don’t mean he has a small imagination, because he certainly does not. I’m referring to his experience, not his imagination.)
But when she started talking about loops and rows and…reverse triple back handspring stitches (sorry Tante, my crochet-related vocabulary is no better than his), he might just as well have heard “bippity boppity boo.”
I still have things like that. I keep trying and failing to understand how zeroes and ones become outrageously complicated software systems (or even outrageously simple software systems…zeroes and ones! making things happen! what?!). I asked my 12-year-old if there’s anything like that for him and he immediately said “time travel.” (No hesitation.) “It would just create so many paradoxes,” he said. “All these decisions that we take for granted, they could end up having huge ripple effects. I just can’t wrap my brain around how it could actually work.” (Personally, I would like to leave time travel in the same world as Rumpelstiltskin, but I think he puts it in the same world as zeroes and ones.) I asked my husband what it is for him and he said nuclear power which, quite honestly, wasn’t even really on my radar as a thing to try to understand. But he’s wicked smart.
Our brains are so limited and yet so extraordinary — limited because we can never understand everything we want to, yet extraordinary because there is no end to the possibilities of what we’re capable of knowing. And if technology ever loses its luster for us, we have all of creation to keep us on our mental toes.
Like my son looking at the yarn and marveling that it can become a guy, or me looking at zeroes and ones and marveling that they can become the Netflix app on my phone, so we all ought to look around us at every single created thing and marvel. Grass and flowers, water and sand, butterflies, lizards, tigers….and us. We came from less than yarn, less even than zeroes and ones. We came from zeroes only, from nothing. And yet, we also came from something infinitely more than yarn and zeroes and ones. We came from the heart and mind of the creator God — Elohim — the first name by which we meet God in the opening verse of the Bible. In the beginning, Elohim created. (Actually, it’s bereshith bara Elohim. Which I had to Google. Zeroes and ones.)
I think my son’s question of my sister was adorable. And as he grows, he will keep on encountering things to wonder about in the same way. How does this become THAT? And if he lives to be a thousand years old and manages to explore every field of study the earth has to offer, he still has to consider the infinite emptiness before our world began, and then look at himself and wonder, how did THAT become THIS?
We talk about DNA and how a person’s entire genetic code is written there, but there are precious few of us who really understand what we mean when we say that. It’s just words. “DNA,” “genetic code,” “chromosomes.” As though somehow saying those words can account for all the miraculousness of man, the skin and bones and blood and sweat and thoughts and love and pain and empathy and humor and everything that makes you the person you are. Look at pictures of a mom’s DNA and a dad’s DNA and then look at yourself and marvel. How did that become this?? I believe in a creator God who did that, but frankly, even if you don’t, is it anything but beautifully mind-boggling?
If the knitting together of a crochet superhero is magic, then the knitting together of a human being is a magic beyond magic, magic from before the dawn of time (as Aslan might say), and the most miraculous creation of all.