When Jessie was three years old, she asked me if there was a god because Eddie, our neighbor's seven-year-old, had told her that God was everywhere, watching her, and would punish her if he saw her doing anything wrong. At three years old, Jessie was a precocious young girl, and I could see that this information troubled her. I would have to consider my answer carefully.
"Yes," I told her. "Eddie is right."
Her eyes widened, and she looked around nervously.
"Why can't I see him?" she asked in a tiny voice.
"But you can," I said. "Look around you. There are signs of God everywhere."
She looked around again, curious this time.
"I still don't see him," she said, disappointed.
"What are you looking for?"
"God, silly daddy." She placed her hands on her hips and thrust them forward, a mannerism she inherited from her great-grandfather on her mother's side.
"What does God look like?" I prodded, trying to remember she was only three years old.
"Eddie said he was a big man with long white hair, a long white beard, and eyes blue like the sky." She paused. "That's what he said."
"See anybody like that around here?"
"No, silly daddy."
"He would stand out, wouldn't he?"
"Stand out where?"
"Never mind," I said, regretting my small attempt at levity. This was a serious matter for her, and I needed to handle it with all the dignity and compassion I could muster.
"Honey, if Eddie believes that God is big, white-haired, and blue-eyed, that's his prerogative."
"His right. His choice. Eddie probably believes that because he is a boy with blond hair and blue eyes. People tend to picture God as someone who has the same features as them. Some people believe God is a woman."
"Uh, huh, and like you're going to be."
She was silent for a moment. Her face reflected the struggle her young mind was going through trying to deal with the information I had just given her—arched eyebrows; furrowed forehead.
"How can God be both a woman and a man?"
"Some people believe God is nothing more than an idea."
"That God is not man or woman or black or white or whatever—that God is all of these."
This was too much for her. She rolled her eyes heavenward and collapsed on the soft grass at our feet. I hunkered down next to her.
"I don't understand, Daddy."
"Put your hand on your chest. What do you feel?"
"Nothing," she said.
"Concentrate. What's going on inside your body?"
"I can feel my heart beating. Ka thump. Ka thump. Ka thump."
"Good. What else?"
"Concentrate. Look down at your hand. What's happening?"
She stared at her hand.
"It's moving up and down."
"Cause I'm breathing."
"Exactly. Your heart is beating and you are breathing. What does that mean?"
She thought for a while.
"I don't know, Daddy."
I watched her struggle for a few moments.
"I really don't know, Daddy."
"That's all right. It means you are alive. Some people believe that God is the essence of life."
"God is the beat of your heart; the rush of air in your lungs; the blood coursing through your veins. So when you look at yourself, or me, or Momma, or your baby brother, you are seeing signs of God."
She looked at me, her sky-blue eyes searching mine carefully.
"That's not all, though." She rolled her eyes again. I smiled. "You see signs of God everywhere you see life: in the air that moves that old oak tree by the barn there; in the oak tree itself; in my chickens, in Eddie's goat; in the very grass at your feet."
"In Eddie, too?"
"Now you're getting the idea. Yes, in Eddie's blue eyes and blond hair."
"So Eddie was right? God is everywhere?"
"Yes. God is everywhere."
"Can God punish, too, like Eddie said?"
"Yes, God can punish, too." Her eyes widened. "If you don't take care of your body, it won't work right. That's punishment of sorts. If you do not take care of the trees, the animals, the air, the water, and the life that courses over and through the earth, you won't have those things, and that's the worst punishment of all. So Eddie was right, Honey. God can punish."
My daughter sat and thought for a long while after that. I imagined that she was assimilating the information I had given her and trying to make sense of it all. Some questions I hoped she would not ask because I don't think I could have answered them. She would have to grow up and find her own answers. All I could do at this stage was show her that any question about God elicited many more questions, and that like all questions and answers, everything depended on who was asking and who was answering.
After a while, she looked up at me, her blue eyes reflecting the life around us.
"Daddy, is God Cajun?"
"Certainment, ma petite," I said and hugged her tightly. "It could never be any other way."
She laughed and struggled playfully against my grasp.
The world was right again.
Today is Jessie's birthday, and I thought I would revisit an essay I wrote when she was three years old. She's a woman now, an intelligent and caring woman, and I'm sure that her god is as proud of her as I am. A version of this essay appeared in The Eclectic Journal, November 1997.