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For Renee Picard

 Teachers lose patience with kindergarten atheists

Who badger their believing friends, 

“But why? Why?” 


My feet could not quite touch the floor

From my perch before the principal’s desk 

His disapproving look and my baffled father,

what do you mean she’s starting trouble?


Even then my comfort was in things 

Observable, repeatable, 

And even then my world contained no gods or angels;

I’d never seen the evidence.


Faith was a language as foreign to me 

As grief, or Cantonese. 


Six years later at my mother’s casket 

Too numb to weep, 

Glassy eyed, 

I left a little spaceship in her hand;

The child who dreamt of flying 

Far enough to find her.


A drunken uncle punched my father,

All the women wept–

Wine and cigarettes and then soon after, tears and fists

Are the language of my family’s grief. 

Cousin Maurice took me to play chess–

Fifteen years my senior and I whipped him

In a room behind the parlor where the casket lay.

Rook to B2, an unexpected sacrifice that fooled him

Because I spoke chess better than I spoke grief.


Everything is language. 


Cancer is a language,

Spoken in hushed tones, in hospital rooms,

In chemical smells and vomit and 

Smiles propped on sunken cheeks,

In hollow eyes. 

A language that degenerates,

Turns incomprehensible

To a child who only wants to see the stars

a little closer,

And then tell her mother

All about it. 


I stopped, then, asking others “why?”

The emptiness I would not name as


Insisted on the presence of my 

Mother in the stars,

Infinite, benevolent,

And though I could not find the evidence,

I felt the ache of wanting to believe.


Pictograms are language, comprehensible and elegant,

Expressive and limber

They mean what they say. 

I’d learned enough Chinese by twelve to write

A letter to my future self.

And it used the selfsame character 

For opportunity and crisis. 


I spoke calculus fluently,

And the parlance of the airfield 

Where I tested planes and myself to 

See how they were wanting. 


I would always, always find something wanting. 

Flaws, like all good science, are observable, repeatable,

Whether you want them to be so or not.


Faith is a refuge built of air, 

And atoms are 99% empty space. 

No matter the telescope, you will not find

Its evidence in the stars. 

Kindergarten atheists grow up to be 

Adult skeptics who clamber up to frozen 

Interstellar highways 

To escape the mutterings 

Of a language they will not call grief.


Flight does not feel gentle when you 

Break the speed of sound. 

And your body, ever conscious of the volatile, the strange,

The power you control within your very human hands 

Feels every little shudder as a threat. 


But I speak avionics. 

I know the margins of my danger 

The unlikeliness of evolution 

Leading me to skim the clouds 

In a tube, powered by fire. 


The soundest science still produces 

Levels of uncertainty and even 

The tightest ship will sometimes spring a leak.

The observable, repeatable truth is

That no system is perfect

No language is without its flaws

And a pilot can do everything correctly

And still meet a fiery end. 


I may not speak the languages of gods and angels

But faith is not so much a stranger as I thought. 

I speak aerodynamics and algebra,

All the languages that conjure flight,

But it’s faith that puts me in the cockpit:

Faith in my fluency of overlapping dialects 

Of every system ever used to

Birth this point in evolution.

In the fluency of every person down the line 

Who touched this plane to make it soar. 


So when Jupiter calls, I answer:

Yes, to the breathless press of gravity 

The violence of breaking orbit

Yes to the vertigo and the distance and the cold


I offer myself proof that I belong to the stars,

No matter if my mother’s not beyond them.

I accept that I deserve to take the chance

To flame across the sky, and pray

(Yes, pray)

That my rocket will not fail,

That my craft may shudder but will not break.


Kindergarten atheist grows up

Half in love with the fragility of life

Speaking faith in ways that sound like disbelief. 


I find it strange that now I can look back

Upon the low, persistent sadness

The pills, the sleepless nights, to understand

That I have always spoken grief.

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