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Know the West

Tough sledding


A few weeks ago, after a party, my son Truman, who is 7, asked me, "You know when I was outside yesterday with Danny?" "Did you have fun?" I asked.

"Yeah," Truman said. "Except Danny said he was going to kick me in the head because I don't believe in God."

This is the kind of gut-dropping information Truman delivers with perfect nonchalance. I would feel less confused if he asked me to explain the inner workings of DNA.

"What's wrong?" Truman asked.

I stood across the kitchen counter from where he was eating a chocolate doughnut. He chewed with his mouth open, truly gratified to be having dessert for breakfast. It's like a display to remind my husband and me that we are nothing like perfect parents. We hurry too much and too often and let the kids stay up too late. Sometimes we scold them for the bad habits they have learned by our example. We indulge them with doughnuts.

I considered our shortcomings and, worried, searched my son's face for hints of spiritual vacancy. Out the window behind him, light began its morning creep past the willows, up the draw. It's a big winter. Even for those of us who love snow, the wind and white are relentless. Snowbanks stand well over six feet, and the landscape seems to resonate with our familial moods - now untainted and bright, now heavy and oppressive.

One of the reasons we moved the kids out to these hills is so they can ski and sled just a few steps out the door in winter. I guess I never believed rusticating would save them from social pressures. I just wanted them to have space for their minds to grow.

While Truman finished his doughnut and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, I wondered why he announced to the other boy that he didn't believe in God. I admit to happy agnosticism, but not without reverence for place, culture, living things, love and science. We count ourselves among the respectful and the awed. As far as we can choose what we pass on to our youngsters, my husband and I hope for thoughtfulness. And we'd like the kids to be joyful.

Standing there at the counter, I thought it through. We've never kidded ourselves that a bucolic life presupposes cultural harmony. We've worked together building community with our mostly ranching neighbors, who are not themselves a cohesive group either ethnically, religiously or politically.

"What, Mama?" Truman pressed.

"I'm trying to think of a right thing to say to you," I admitted. Tossing Danny's statement around in my head was making me dizzy.

Probably not a good idea to say how impressed I am that Danny constructed an allegory for great chunks of history in a single sentence. Probably not OK to explain indoctrination and how easily it has found us hiding here in the sagebrush. Probably shouldn't tell Truman how sad I am that he got saddled with the weight of holy war while he was out sledding. And, for sure, I can't go into stories of child warriors the same age as Truman and Danny - commandeered from their innocence, incited to violence in the name of religion, and made to witness and participate in the worst of our animal behavior all over the world.

I got terrified and out of breath just thinking about it. But I didn't have to say anything.

"Don't worry, Mama," Truman said. "I can think whatever I want."

This really made me worry. Outside, snow started falling again.

"Well, do you still want to play with Danny sometimes?" I asked.

Truman shrugged, slid off his stool, and grinned so I could see the chocolate in his teeth. "Why wouldn't I?" he said.

Kate Krautkramer has written for National Geographic, The Denver Post, and NPR. She lives near Yampa, Colo., with her husband and children.