How do I help a soul unfold?

Pointing toward the future. May 2023.

The other day I was out walking with only my younger son (a rare occurrence for this neglected second child), and I took the opportunity to drink him in: his sun-dappled curls, his impish grin, his swooping eyelashes, his insistence on carrying my water bottle for me as a sly ploy to keep sipping from it. We spent 25 minutes on a 50-foot section of trail because everything was Important and Magical and Deserving of Pointing, and I couldn't resist standing several feet away from him in the hopes I could better observe him without distracting him.

Gazing at him from a distance, I experienced one of those vertiginous dips that happen to me more frequently in my current phase of parenthood, an out-of-body/out-of-mind experience where time Jeremy Bearimy'd around me. As I stared at my wee sweetheart, I fast-forwarded him to his graduation, his wedding, his arriving home for the holidays via train, stepping onto the platform with a small carry-on, taller than me, broad-shouldered, his still-impish grin set off by laugh lines and his enviable eyelashes framed by the faintest of crow's feet.

Then I plummeted back to the trail and crash-landed in front of my toddler, who was sneaking another sip from my water bottle and giving me a saucy look that clearly said, "What are you going to do—be mad at me?"

The longer I am a parent, the more it astounds me that I have created two humans who I know intimately yet not in the slightest. They are not mini versions of me or my husband. They are not carbon copies of each other. They are not interchangeable with other children I have known. They are distinct, wholly themselves, and the concept that they have their own souls—an essence or nature that exists beyond their corporeality—blows my mind on the regular.

When I first wrote a few years ago about my incredulity in parenting, I said, "I did not think I would always see our lives and deaths bound up in [my child]." The sentiment remains; contemplating my children's souls shares an existential root with my own contemplation of mortality—why are we here? where will we go?—but also externalizes it: Why them, why now? Who will they become? Where will they go? (And please dear God, don't let them go there before me.)

When I pictured my toddler as an adult, I saw a blurred-edge version of a grown man with some physical details in place yet few emotional ones. I know how I'd like him to be—sweet, compassionate, generous, good-humored—but this is the part of him I am most nervous to project, because what if that's not who he is? Or, even more stressful to consider, what if that's not what I nurture in him?

Despite my vital role in bringing him earth-side, I don't believe I have full control over how my child turns out. But I do take seriously my role as steward for what I believe to be his fundamentally good nature, the same one I believe all humans start with. What will happen if I fail in my duty? What if his light dims? Worse yet, what if it never ignites?

These are the kind of terror-tinged musings I'm prone to when the precious little souls in my household interrupt my sleep one too many nights in a row, so I take my own questions with a grain of salt. On second thought, though, maybe I shouldn't. Asking them clarifies and emphasizes a mission I can easily lose sight of in the relentless march of daily life. Just as I stand at a remove from my toddler on the trail to truly see him, maybe stepping back from poopy diapers and petty tantrums and vegetable refusal recalls me to my most vital role in this messy, exhausting endeavor: to help a soul unfold.

Prayer #389: "Why Are There Socks in the World?" (Alternate Title: Soles)

"Why are there socks in the world?" my 4-year-old moaned. His were not cooperating with him that morning, yet another personal affront in a daily routine full of them, and his pained, confused expression when he asked me his unanswerable question mirrored my feelings in that moment as a parent—aggravated, flummoxed, and suddenly conscious of just how much in our life defies explanation.

Why are there socks indeed, God? For that matter, why are there souls? At least I can point to the practicality of socks; we want warm toes, dry feet, fewer blisters. But ineffable, numinous souls? They're the epitome of extra, a transcendent "too much-ness," a dripping, goopy cherry on top of an already overwhelming existence.

Sometimes, a gift this lavish can feel like it's choking me. Help me see its abundance instead, the rich opportunity it presents to probe for my soul's outer limits and to discover, astonished, its infinitude.