In the last day or so, Fred has been asking about God again. Who was the first person? Did God make the trees? The rocks? The road? Do you believe in God? Please, Mummy, please, please believe in God. It amuses me that she is still using the female pronoun for God. I don't think I'll ever quite know where she got the idea that God is a black woman (the prep teacher is quite sure it wasn't her), but I am never going to say anything to disenchant her.
I am trying to field her questions with dignity and respect, without actually betraying my own agnostic-leaning-towards-atheist views (I am not anti-religion, I just simply can't believe that God exists. A shame, because I quite like the idea of church.) She first began asking about God last year when her Papa was in hospital and we passed a room set aside for quiet prayer. She has seen her Papa radically decline (and improve and decline again) in his health, and for a small, deeply empathetic child who has just started to get her head around death and thinks she can fix everything 'all on her lone', this has been a distressing experience. As soon as we began talking about God she latched onto the concept whole-heartedly. For a child who believes easily in fairies and vampires and fairytales, God is no challenge. The basics of God are more plausible and simpler to grasp than science - we evolved from monkeys?! Mummy and Daddy made me how?? - and I guess that's some of the appeal of God for everyone.
We've had the conversation enough times now that I answer fairly automatically, sometimes not even listening to my own answers. Even so, I was not prepared for the way this conversation would go:
'Did God make the trees?'
'Some people believe god made the trees.'
'Did she make the rocks?'
'Did she make the roads.'
'Well, people believe God made people, but people made the roads.'
'No,' she says emphatically. 'God made the roads.' (I guess roads are as concrete and permanent as rocks to a five year old.)
'Oh,' I say. I'm bored of this conversation and always mildly irritated when she asks me a question then contradicts the answer. If you already know, then why ask, smarty pants? I look out the car window. We're curbside, in the suburb of Dandenong, waiting for Martin who is test driving a small blue manual car. A waterpipe has burst, and I am watching clay-coloured water bubbling up from the gutter. It's making me feel sick and uneasy because there are still fires in the state and suddenly this seems like water that should be somewhere else, doing its job, instead of gurgling uselessly onto the road in the middle of industrial estate.
Perhaps reading my mind, Fred asks me: 'Did God make fire?'
My attention snaps. Warily, I answer: 'What do you think?'
'No. God didn't make fire. I think the bad man that is god made the fire.'
For some reason the conversation stopped there. Maybe Una interrupted us, or maybe Martin came back. Maybe Fred or I changed the topic, someone suddenly bleated for a drink or a fizzy-good (the fruit tingles I carry in my handbag as emergency bribery on long car trips). I can't remember.
I have been nutting Fred's response out since. Does she mean the devil? I can't imagine that she would have any concept of the devil, but this bipolar schism intrigues me - the good and wonderful black woman God who made the world, a malevolent male entity who is also God and made fire. Or does she simply mean humans, people, does she have an insight into fire that I wouldn't expect her to have, that sometimes they are deliberately lit? Likely I won't ever know the answer to these questions. It's worth pointing out here (many Australian readers will know already) that there is a high profile religious nutter who claims that the bushfires were God's punishment following our recent laws decriminalising abortion. I'm not going to discuss that here, except to say that I am utterly certain about one thing: Fred's god would never do that. Fred's god loves children, loves the world she has made, and all the dead become angels. Fred's god is the only kind of god I have patience for.
Sometimes I think if the little local church next to the school still operated I would take Fred. The idea of driving into Panton Hill to go to church feels, on a purely selfish level, too intense, too much of a commitment. But I feel I want to give her the chance to develop this interest in spiritual matters even though her views don't match mine, and I would like her to have access to a different world view than my own: for I know there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamed of in my philosophy. For the moment, all I can do is answer her questions as honestly as I can, and know that this is part of how she's working out the nature of existence. Maybe, after all, she can teach me something, if I sit quietly and listen properly.