Everyone who’s decided to apply for the minimum 21-year, 24/7 shift of circus work known as Parenting knows that the main job is to keep the little human you’ve been gifted with physically intact. If you can steer them toward being a positive force in the world rather than the next serial killer, bonus. What I did not anticipate when I entered this arena was the amount of angst I would also have over my little human’s spiritual development.

Raised Catholic, I never felt a glimmer of connection to God in the many hours of catechism and mumbling along with the crowd at church, no matter how hard I tried. The only two happy memories I have of my foray into religion, in fact, are snickering as our sweet-but-naive bible camp leader sang Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is a Place on Earth, and shaking with guilty laughter as my friend revealed her overwhelming urge to steal the baby Jesus right out of his manger at the Christmas mass. An urge which, as a grown adult, she still harbors to this day.

Despite my failure at Catholicism, I have since realized that I AM a spiritual person and simply did not recognize it while there was a middle man involved. I’d been going to “church” for years – it just didn’t look like everyone else’s. Always drawn toward solitary walks under the stars, I felt more connected there than I ever did in a building. I settled on the opinion that all roads and names for God lead to the same place, and what’s right for me may not be right for you. There’s room for everyone.

Because of this experience, I’ve been reluctant to take Jonah to church. I don’t want him to lose years of faith or feel like a failure if a specific format doesn’t resonate. I’d prefer that we talk about the broad themes of love and connection, and that he finds the way that’s right for him when he’s ready. It’s been a patchy experiment so far, ranging from successful moments of joy (“Mom! The trees are dancing!”) to declaring Dairy Queen and Sweetwater Donuts as his “sacred places.”  And then, this, in a little meadow next to a creek:

Jonah: Mom, this is beautiful. Let’s have it be our place.
Me: Yes, definitely. I love quiet places like this where you feel connected to everything. I feel God in places like this. Do you?
Jonah (thinking hard): I don’t feel God. I do feel Gas.

I had to laugh. I deserved it for trying to force magic.

I’ve been wondering lately if there’s another level to religion. One that is completely personal and unique to each of us. A few weeks ago, I found myself rushing around the kitchen. I was frantic to get out the door, making Jonah’s lunch, and had just opened a brand new jar of peanut butter. As I peeled off the seal and went to dive in with the knife, I found myself thinking “No. I am NEVER too busy to carve a smiley face in a new jar of peanut butter.” I have always performed this ritual, because my Dad always did it, and it had never entered my consciousness until this moment that I consider it an unbreakable, sacred, personal rule.

My dad, who died one year before his grandson and soul-buddy Jonah was born, was also without official religion. He had become Catholic in order to marry my mom, but he never went to church beyond the major holidays that would keep him out of trouble. As my friend Debra said while officiating at his funeral, his religion was Plain Old Love. He had a huge heart, an infectious laugh, and a deep and abiding love for peanut butter toast. Every night, he performed his private toast ceremony, spreading the peanut butter at some carefully calibrated depth invisible to the rest of us. Most nights, my sister would take a bite out of the corner of the toast when he turned his back, because too much perfection is not good for people. Every night, he would pretend to be surprised and furious. And he never, ever failed to carve that smiley face into each new jar of peanut butter.

Since that moment in the kitchen, I’ve become conscious of a few more unbreakable rules I picked up from my dad. 1. No matter how old you are, always have a pair of All-Stars in your closet, because they’ll cheer you up. 2. Always pick up the rocks that feel good to you on the beach, because it’s their time and you never know who will need a good worry stone. Thinking about these rituals makes me curious about the little things other people do and why.

A few nights after I started considering the idea of personal religion, I walked into the kitchen and had my breath taken away when I came upon Jonah, very carefully spreading peanut butter on some toast, again to some unseeable perfect depth like his grandpa before him. I’ve decided I’m going to let go of my worries about his spiritual development. He’s clearly finding his way just fine.