Bedtime Koans


Nearly every night after a book and then a chat about the day past or the dreams to come, I turn off the light and Boy offers questions that feel like koans—they are that difficult. “Why do people have bones?” or “What is the world?” or “Where do robots come from?”

Tonight it is “How do birds stand in trees?” and I find myself wanting to answer right away, because we really do need to get to the end of the conversation and also because I am the parent and therefore should know certain things. So I say, “Birds stand in trees using their legs and sharp claws, which hold fast to branches or to the deep ridges in bark.”

“No,” replies Boy, “How do birds stand in trees?”

It’s clear that I’ll be here a while longer, because I’ve got it wrong somehow (I always get it wrong somehow)—I’ve misunderstood an essential meaning or finer point of emphasis. Or, possibly, Boy isn’t quite asking what he thinks he’s asking. “Well. . .” I say, slowly turning it over in my mind, what I think he’s really getting at. “They can’t always fly. Even birds must rest sometimes.”

This answer gives Boy pause, and then there is a long, frustrated breath. “No, Mama. How do birds stand in trees?” I realize that he’s using my own over-enunciated patient voice with me, the one I’ve cultivated to get through the more challenging moments with my children.

This time, I aim for a Zen answer because what have I got to lose? I say, “A tree bows before the wind.”

“No, Mama.” Boy’s voice is quieter now, less pointed. “How do birds stand in trees?”

I hold his little hand as his eyes flutter open and shut. “I don’t know, sweetie—let me think about it.”

Boy doesn’t answer, so I sit with him a few minutes longer in the darkness of his room before moving into the blinding light of mine.

3 thoughts on “Bedtime Koans

  1. Lovely article yet again, Tracy. It’s such a pleasure to read your writing.

    I love children at that age. The workings of their minds fascinate me as do their (highly successful) efforts to communicate with limited language skills. (That’s not an insult to Boy; I’ve studied a few languages and I am in awe of how brave and ambitious children are in using the language that they have.)

    When children (or other people) ask me unanswerable questions, I like to ask them, “What do you think?” Obviously, this works differently depending on the child/person, the timing, the relationship, etc. But sometimes it moves the conversation from one-way/vertical to two-way/horizontal and opens up into something really interesting.

    “How do birds stand in trees” could be asking so many different things. If you ever find out what this is about, I hope you give us an update. 🙂

  2. Your response is a human and loving one–souls reaching across distance to try to find connection between different perceptions and worlds. I find I have to tamp down my impatience in these moments, to make myself pause to put away my frustration at my inability to understand and be understood. (That my reaction is anger and frustration is fairly telling.) We learn and grow and refine as we go–as Boy will, too.

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