“What is God?” I asked my best friend Naomi, as we made our way in the afternoon sun toward the woods behind our New Jersey houses.
“God is everything,” she said with some authority.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “All I know is he is.”
I pondered this, as we followed a band of our older friends, crossing the last known suburban street in our universe, heading toward the discovered-only-by-kids entrance to the woods. Naomi and I were the little ones tagging along, five-year-olds who’d already enjoyed a busy afternoon on our own, doing entirely unspiritual things. We’d ridden our tricycles in front of our houses, then watched Let’s Make A Deal on Naomi’s color TV while savoring her mother’s tuna fish on toast. After that, we’d watched her father climb a ladder, and hook their new set of wind chimes to the eaves of their porch roof. He stood back when he’d finished, then lifted up one silver-hued tube and swung it lightly toward the remaining five. The sound they made, as each gently struck the others, made us think of the way rain pings into puddles. “Remember that,” Naomi’s father said, looking at her. “That’s our sound.” Naomi, memorizing the particular music of this chime, nodded. I nodded too, though in truth the cascading sound made me miserable. Naomi’s family was the last on our block to add bells to her house—besides my family. Now she would be like everyone else when the afternoons arced into dinnertime and the parents called their kids home for the day. Everyone in our neighborhood knew her own sound. My parents had held out for silence.
I realized that, after hours of typical play, my questions about God seemed to come out of the blue. But I also knew that sometimes people prayed for things they wanted, and since I too wanted my parents to secure a cymbal or sleigh bells or even a gong, and allow me to feel like everyone else, I was wondering if I should learn to pray. Please God, make them go to Woolworth’s tonight. Besides, I felt certain that Naomi understood the material reason motivating my questions. With our birthdays only two days apart, and our houses only twenty yards, my golden-haired, sunny-spirited, all-day-every-day companion had come to feel like my third sister. We could ask each other anything at any time, and we often did.
Now we snaked along the hidden path, the caboose of a line of girls, making our way between the huge, summer-green trees. We rarely ventured this far, deep into the uninhabited parcel of land wedged between the farthest houses in our development and the back of the synagogue that hugged the main road. But I always loved going here, exploring this mysterious territory. Not only was it off the maps and away from adults, it backed up to a building that my family never entered. God was an important word in our house, and Hanukkah a routine. But rituals, prayers, and sacred buildings were unknown to us. And no one had ever discussed what the concept of God might mean.
“Well, okay,” I said. “But then, where is God?”
Naomi pursed her lips in thought. I didn’t know if her family was observant, though they were Jewish, too, as was the whole neighborhood. “I think God is everywhere.”
“How can he be everywhere?”
“He just is.”
I looked around. Brushes of sunlight gilded our skin, the shrubbery, the roots poking up from the earth. Above us stretched enormous trees, their leaves like small hands pressing toward the sky. In front of us, I now saw, rose a gateway of light, indicating that our path was about to reach the end of the woods and enter the field of tall grass. The meadow, as we called it, the far corner of our world. Bounded by the woods on all sides, it was numinous and private and made us think of different things than Barbie and Parcheesi and the other group of kids in the neighborhood, the boys. They called themselves The Cools. We, The Girls, saw The Cools as our adversaries, not that we’d had any battles. We just knew that they saw themselves as superior to us, and so in retaliation we looked down our noses at them. We’d even made up a song that we would sing when they gathered at Jimmy’s house, right behind mine:
All the girls in France do the hula hula dance
And the way they shake they could really kill a Cool
When the Cool is dead they put rats in his head
When the rats die they put spiders in his eyes
When the spiders die, it is nineteen forty-five.
Of course, the final line of the song seemed nonsensical to us, a fact that often made Naomi smile and shrug at me, but no one seemed to mind. We would jump rope to this song in the tool shed in my backyard, where The Girls convened. Our parents never furnished the shed, and it stored no tools; it had been purchased solely to become our giant playhouse. Other parents in our two-block kingdom possessed no such sanctuary in their yards, so ours was the only game in town. However, my brother and sisters and I were not smug about this distinction; other parents had come to favor that more melodic kind of purchase, the one we ached to own but my parents waved off. “That’s ridiculous,” they’d say. “These bells are just a neighborhood fad. We don’t need help calling you in for dinner. We’ll just yell out your name.”
Only when Naomi and I left the playhouse, and were no longer able to see the familiar glint of brass bells or glass chimes hanging beside the back doors, and only after the grass-bordered sidewalks of our world were far behind us, did God ever come up. I had some notion of him on my own, but also a great vagueness. On the one hand, the thought of God provided me with much comfort, especially in light of the unprovoked Nyah-nyahs of The Cools, or the senility that had stolen my grandfather’s personality, or our family’s cheerful pet parakeet who’d died suddenly in her cage, or the eerie suspicion that kept appearing in my dreams that my father was unhappy in his life. The thought of God gave me the idea that there was something greater, a sense of justice, a goodness watching over us. On the other hand, when I closed my eyes and tried to envision God, I came up blank. And if you weren’t able to see God, how could you ever hear what he’d say, if he wanted to answer your prayers?
Naomi said, “He’s all around us now.” She gestured, as we passed out of the shade and into the full press of light in the meadow.
“In the trees. In the clouds. Everywhere.”
I turned around, wondering.
My parents spoke little of God. Adults seldom did. I loved looking through the picture books we owned with Bible stories, but, I would eventually learn, when my father was only six himself, he had become skeptical of the existence of God. My mother went to temple on and off until she was almost thirteen, when, suspecting her family was too poor to cover her bat mitzvah, she stopped attending. She was in mourning for a God she had yet to meet. My father had concluded that God was an invention.
How I wanted to feel certain about God. How I longed to see him, hear him, understand what God really was.
“Is God the same as the air?” I asked.
“I think so,” Naomi said, her tone growing more doubtful.
“So are we always breathing him in and out?”
“I don’t know.”
I wanted to put my hand out to touch him. But there was nothing to touch, aside from the grass and the soil and the sunlight and all the other children with me, fanning out now across the meadow.
“Well, he feels real to me,” I said. “Except you can’t touch him.”
“Maybe you have to make that up,” Naomi said.
For the next half hour we just made up games. There was much to entertain us in the meadow, from the iridescent bugs on the blades of grass to the vast variety of textures on the surface of the weeds to the ease with which we could appropriate petals for mustaches and seed pods for eyeglasses. I forgot God then, as I always did when the pleasures of life loomed larger than my questions. I forgot time too, as the afternoon aged. Soon, though, the sun was stooping lower, and shadows were wrinkling the veins in all the leaves.
Then it came. They came. The sounds.
Ting, ting, ting.
One by one, as each set of bells began to clap and the chimes began to tinkle, our friends raised their heads from their amusements.
“That’s my mother,” Ruthie said first.
“There’s my house,” Linda said, hearing hers.
“Dinner’s ready,” Deborah added.
They stood up from our games. “I have to go now,” Ruthie said.
“See you later,” Linda said.
Naomi and I were used to this. Many times she and I had remained behind in the meadow as the others ran off, alerted by the distinct harmonics of their family’s bells. Now, I braced myself, already angry once again at the injustice of my parents’ stubbornness, and already feeling so alone.
Crouched on the ground, watching ants march through the grass, Naomi turned to me. Her eyes shone with the thrill of listening for the sounds of her home, calling out from far beyond the meadow. Until now, neither of us had had any reason to pay the slightest attention to the many bells that rang out at dusk every day, and so distinctions had blurred for both of us. Often we never even heard them at all. But now, she turned her head, listening for the chimes she knew were meant for her. I fixed my focus back on the ants, hoping they would never come.
But then a voice joined the fray: Pinckle-jinkle-ping.
She jumped to her feet. “That’s for me!” she said, bursting into a smile.
I stood too. Already Ruthie and Linda and Deborah were running off down the path. Naomi took a step toward them, and I wondered what I would do here, all alone in the meadow. I wasn’t much for ants on my own.
Then she paused. “Come on,” she said. “Come back with me.”
I didn’t want to. My mouth tightened with resentment. My parents were being too mean.
Naomi looked at me. She didn’t say anything. She just waited a second. When I didn’t move, when I didn’t even return her smile, she looked away. This is it, I thought, imagining that now I too would be like my poor parakeet, alone for good in her cage.
But then Naomi looked back. And with a sudden movement that I didn’t even notice, she seized my hand, and yanked me toward the woods. Had she been any other child, I would have resisted. But she was Naomi, so I laughed.
Off we ran, together, toward our houses. Her chimes kept ringing, as did the entire choir of neighborhood clangs and jangles and peels, and as the air rushed into our lungs, and the scents of the woods filled our heads, and our sneakered feet sprang down the wooded path and then out onto the sidewalks, I listened to the sounds for the first time. Each bell, I now truly heard, sounded completely different, yet inevitably sweet and soothing. Sort of like the way the sunlight felt sifting through the trees. Sort of like the way I felt, when Naomi went exploring with me, or my parents swept me up in their arms. Maybe, I thought, this is the way God speaks to you. Each person hears her own special sound. You just have to be listening.
We rounded the corner and saw our two houses, side by side, and giggled with the fun of it all as we tumbled into our yards. Although her house still sang its Naomi tune and mine persisted in its silence, I decided, as we barreled toward our respective doors, that tomorrow and the next day and every day after, I’d have to listen to everyone and everything. I’d listen hard until I recognized his voice, so when God called me to dinner, I’d know.
[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of the poem “Deuteronomy” by Sue Swartz “]
Rachel Simon is the award-winning author of six books and a nationally-recognized public speaker on issues related to diversity and disability. Her titles include the bestsellers The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus with My Sister. Both books are frequent selections of book clubs and school reading programs around the country. Simon’s work has been adapted for theater, NPR, the Lifetime Channel, and Hallmark Hall of Fame, whose adaptation of Riding The Bus With My Sister starred Rosie O’ Donnell and Andie McDowell, and was directed by Anjelica Huston. “The Bells of God” will appear in 2015 in the updated edition of Simon’s first book, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams (at Barnes & Noble, and Amazon). Her website is www.rachelsimon.com.
Image by Paul J. Everett