Whoa-oh, what I want to know is are you kind?”
— Grateful Dead
There is a certain kind of comic moment that restores balance to the world in a way that is always recognized as beautiful and fitting. My daughter Mara often creates this kind of moment, unintentionally of course, as the by-product of signaling to me that she’s done with a particular line of conversation and needs to move on.
Example? I thought you’d never ask. It happened tonight in fact. We were at the drug store fetching some medicine. Mara was eyeing a rack of Silly Bandz™ packets and coveting them vocally, despite the fact that she’d got a packet of the popular and colorful shape-holding rubber wrist bands in her Christmas stocking just two days ago. She hadn’t realized there were so many different kinds available. Pink pony ones! Finger sized ones! She told me she wanted me to get her some of the pink pony ones for her birthday.
As we walked out of the store I smelled cigarette smoke and said “Yuck, someone’s smoking.”
Mara, holding my hand as we (I) dodged puddles in the parking lot, looked around for the offending individual and said “That’s so unjust!”
I chuckled and said, “What does unjust mean to you, Mara?”
She enlarged to the effect that people aren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes. I explained that actually, in the State of Washington, it was neither unjust nor unlawful to smoke cigarettes unless you were doing it indoors in a public place. Then, because she seemed interested and engaged, I explained that unjust meant “deeply unfair”, and that justice had nothing much to do with the law, that in fact some laws were unjust.
As we drove out of the parking lot, she directly behind me in her booster seat, I cited by way of example the fact that not many many years ago there was a law saying women could not vote. I explained that that law was unfair and people eventually realized it was unfair and got rid of that law.
Mara seemed favorably impressed by this news, so I went on.
“We like to obey the laws,” I said. “The laws are created, most of them, to keep us safe and make sure things are fair. But God doesn’t care so much about the law as he does about what’s fair and just.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into the whole Jim Crow thing with her, but Mara had responded with interest to the sufferage issue, so I kept going.
“There used to be laws in many parts of our country that said that African Americans and other people with dark skin couldn’t go into certain stores or ride on buses with white people.”
“Why?” asked Mara.
“Why? Wow, I don’t even know why. That just seems wrong, doesn’t it?”
“What was wrong about that?”
“Well, it wasn’t fair. Imagine if you had white skin, like we do, and you were hungry and you went into a town where most of the people had dark skin, and they said you couldn’t buy food there, and you said but I’m hungry and I need food, and they said I’m sorry but we don’t serve people like you here, how would you feel? Would you feel that you were being treated fairly?”
“No, I think that would be unfair. I think that would be unjust.”
I beamed a smile she could not see as we puttered home in the dark rainy night. “That’s right,” I said. “I’m so glad you get that.”
And then, I admit, the spirit took me. The pontificating urge rose up. The image of the father teaching his daughter in the way of truth just congealed in my head. It seemed to be going swimmingly, and I couldn’t stop.
“So you see, Mara, laws are things that people make, but God is the one that speaks in our hearts about what is fair and just.”
I imagined Mara in conversation with a friend someday, perhaps long after I am gone, saying “My dad used to say that…” and she would repeat the gem of an adage that I was just now saying to her in the car on this cold and rainy night. Only I was having trouble distilling the point into a gem. I kept fumbling for it in pithy little fragments.
“See, what we decide is lawful isn’t the same as what’s just. You can make all the laws you want, but…”
I was homing in on it. I was close. I was wound up and feeling that the truth and importance of what I was saying would carry this moment into the end-zone. My role as the parent, dispenser of knowledge and calibrator of the moral compass for my daughters, had wrapped me like a mantel and I was putting the cap on a speech that was worthy of that role.
“Dad?” she interrupted. “For my birthday will you get me three packs of Silly Bandz?”
The stage notes at this point call for a slight pause, and in the light reflecting off the rear view mirror onto the father’s face we see a look that we might have seen a million times on the visage of Dick Van Dyke or Bob Newhart. Jack Benny. The moment was deflated. I had lost her, and all I could do was look at the camera and be wry.
“Yes, sweety. We’ll get you three packs of Silly Bandz for your birthday. It’s a long time from now, so you may have to remind me.”