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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

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Day 20 - Muna Jondy: “After Faith, It’s Character”

Revealing Ramadan: 30 Days, 30 Voices [mp3, 4:14]

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Muna JondyMuna Jondy is the 20th voice in this series. She’s an immigration attorney who runs her own private practice in Michigan. Muna, who was born in the U.S., is one of nine children of immigrant parents. She says the simplicity of her faith streamlines her life, but that the society around her can make it difficult to raise her children in an Islamic manner — instilling values of kindness, consideration, and community.

Check back on this blog each day or on our Facebook page to hear a new voice in our “Revealing Ramadan” series. If you’re the on demand type or simply need a more automated form of listening, we’ve produced a special podcast feed that’s available now. Oh, and a special show too!

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Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”

Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.

Pure JoyAs parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.

As we prepared to create our show titled "The Spirituality of Parenting," we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.

I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.

Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.

I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.

(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)

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Sweden’s “Daddy Leave”

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

"Now men can have it all — a successful career and being a responsible daddy.”
—Birgitta Ohlsson, Sweden’s Minister of EU-Affairs and a mother-to-be

1970s Swedish Paternity Leave ad featuring weightlifter Hoa-Hoa DahlgrenIn Sweden, state financial incentives are changing the face of modern fatherhood. According to the International Herald Tribune, Swedish families receive 13 months of government-subsidized parental leave. Dads get two months and so do moms. Parents can divide up the remainder however they choose. But here’s the kicker: if fathers don’t avail themselves of their “daddy leave,” then the family loses out on a month of paid subsidy.

Apparently in Sweden, daddy day care is the new normal. It’s an interesting example of social policy influencing human behavior and perceptions of masculinity. According to data from the Swedish Social Security office, Swedish fathers whose children were born in 2002 used an average of 84 days of paid paternity leave. That’s an increase from 57 days taken in 1999.

How does Sweden’s policies compare to other countries around the globe? For one perspective, check out these global parental leave maps created with Wikipedia data by an American dad/blogger living in Sweden (while on his daddy leave no less).

As I observe so many of my friends and colleagues grappling with work-life balance, it’s interesting to learn how other countries and cultures are approaching these parenting challenges, and how notions of what it means to be a man are shifting in the process. I’m also reminded of a story about what gets lost when fathers stay at the sidelines of child rearing from our show with Rabbi Sandy Sasso:

I remember a father telling me that he doesn’t usually read to his children at night, that his wife did, the mother did. But one night, he read, and he decided to read this book. And he decided to leave out the questions, because he felt that would take too long and it would be too long a bedtime ritual…And the child stopped him in the middle and said, ‘No, Dad, ask the questions. Ask the questions. I want to talk.’ What she wanted to do is have a conversation in this quiet time when nothing else was intruding on their lives.”

In the image above, Swedish weightlifter Hoa-Hoa Dahlgren featured in a 1970s ad produced by Försäkringskassan — the Swedish Social Insurance Agency — to encourage fathers to participate in paid paternity leave. (photo: Reio Rüster)

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Don’t let the people who gave you a bad opinion of your tradition be the only ones who help you define it.
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—Rabbi Sandy Sasso, from "The Spirituality of Parenting"

Auditioning this week’s show prior to release, Sandy Sasso’s words again struck me with their deep wisdom.

Kate Moos, managing producer

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Asperger’s, Autism, and Parenting

by Andy Dayton, guest contributor

Here’s a four-minute animation from StoryCorps with a touching conversation between 12-year-old Joshua Littman and his mother, Sarah. Joshua has Asperger’s syndrome, which is related to autism. His mother describes it as “born without social genes.” We get a sense of Joshua’s unique perspective and perceptiveness by the questions he asks his mother, including this weighty one:

Joshua: Did I turn out to be the son you wanted when I was born? Did I meet your expectactations, and …

Sarah: You’ve exceeded my expectations, sweetie. Because — sure you have these fantasies about what your child’s gonna be like — but you have made me grow so much as a parent, because you made me think …

Joshua: Well I was the one who made you a parent.

Sarah: You were the one who made me a parent. That’s a good point. But also, because you think differently than, y’know, what they tell you in the “parenting books.” I really had to learn to think out of the box with you, and it’s made me much more creative as a parent and as a person. And I’ll always thank you for that.

It made me think of SOF's program "Being Autistic, Being Human" — a conversation with Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder, whose son Morgan is autistic. The show forever changed my understanding of the words “autism” and “Asperger’s’” — a conception that, for me, is now more of a sliding scale and includes many talented people that, if they lived today, may have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism. Here’s Collins on some of what he’s learned from his son:

Krista: Yes. I mean, how does living with Morgan and the way you’ve had to think about autism — how does that change the way you think about some of these great existential questions or, you know, what it means to be human? How does it change the way you live — think about yourself?

Paul Collins: I think I’ve become — I would hope, at least, much more patient and empathetic with other people when they’re acting in ways that I don’t understand. I think that in the past when someone seemed to be acting oddly or seemed to be sort of very socially awkward or just doing things that seems kind of unnerving or didn’t make sense to me, I would think, ‘Well, what’s that guy’s problem?’ and, you know, maybe avoid them. That’s, I think, a natural reaction for anyone to have.

Krista: Yes.

Paul Collins: But at the same time, when I see that now, I actually find myself asking that as a genuine question. ‘What is that person contending with, you know? Or what is it like for that person?’


Andy DaytonAndy Dayton formerly served as associate web producer for On Being. You can follow him on Twitter or read his blog.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page or simply share a photo of your garden.

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StoryCorps Moms: Lourdes and Roger Villanueva
Shubha Bala, associate producer

"I knew that we didn’t have wealth to leave you guys. So I always thought that my responsibility was to leave you a legacy of honesty, integrity, and education."

This story reminded me of my own grandmothers who, having been forced to drop out of grade school to get married, both taught themselves how to read so that they could help motivate their own children to obtain the education they did not get themselves. This is a story that is echoed by so many mothers — working hard to be something, solely to help their children achieve a life they did not have.

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Someone in Eight Million Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
The New York Times recently concluded its "One in Eight Million" series. It’s a lyrical compendium of 54 audio-visual stories that shine a light on ordinary (and not so ordinary) New Yorkers — from an urban taxidermist to a "Type-A" teenager. These sound-rich features are all told in the first person and provide a window into the intimacies of people’s lived experiences across the five boroughs of New York City’s eight-million-thick metropolis.

The series’ concluding segment featuring a 57-year-old grandfather of four named Joseph Cotton took my breath away. He cares for his “grandbabies” with such love, attention, devotion, and patience in a way that’s tender but not possessive. He knows the time will come when he’ll need to let them go. He says:

"Eventually I’m gonna lose them. Eventually they’re going to get to be 15, 16 years old. They’re going to be: ‘I ain’t hanging with pop-pop. Because they’re going to have other interests, they’re going to be doing other things. I’m looking for greatness from them. So they can’t hang around me and find greatness."


I recently attended an improv workshop with a professional actor who commented that he’s known artists who are masterful at their craft but aren’t so masterful at being loving partners or caregivers. People who love well don’t necessarily get noticed or celebrated for their particular artistry; I immediately thought of Mr. Cotton when I heard this. I’m grateful to the series for noticing him.
(photos: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Someone in Eight Million
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

The New York Times recently concluded its "One in Eight Million" series. It’s a lyrical compendium of 54 audio-visual stories that shine a light on ordinary (and not so ordinary) New Yorkers — from an urban taxidermist to a "Type-A" teenager. These sound-rich features are all told in the first person and provide a window into the intimacies of people’s lived experiences across the five boroughs of New York City’s eight-million-thick metropolis.

Joseph Cotton: One in Eight Million

The series’ concluding segment featuring a 57-year-old grandfather of four named Joseph Cotton took my breath away. He cares for his “grandbabies” with such love, attention, devotion, and patience in a way that’s tender but not possessive. He knows the time will come when he’ll need to let them go. He says:

"Eventually I’m gonna lose them. Eventually they’re going to get to be 15, 16 years old. They’re going to be: ‘I ain’t hanging with pop-pop. Because they’re going to have other interests, they’re going to be doing other things. I’m looking for greatness from them. So they can’t hang around me and find greatness."

Joseph Cotton: One in Eight Million

I recently attended an improv workshop with a professional actor who commented that he’s known artists who are masterful at their craft but aren’t so masterful at being loving partners or caregivers. People who love well don’t necessarily get noticed or celebrated for their particular artistry; I immediately thought of Mr. Cotton when I heard this. I’m grateful to the series for noticing him.

(photos: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

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A First Rite of Passage

Colleen Scheck, producer

Anointing with Oil during Baptism Ceremony

This is a personal entry, in the spirit of the "Your Voices, Your Stories" door we open to you each week. I hope my experience will prompt you to share your own stories and reflections.

I’m a melting pot of religious identity: a lapsed Catholic, sometimes agnostic theist, envious of Buddhists, awed naturalist, live-by-the-golden-rule spiritual seeker. I worry that this may be off-putting, but maybe that’s my guilt as a “lapsed” Catholic.

So, this is the identity I brought to the baptism preparation class my husband and I attended a couple months ago at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. I also brought with me the wisdom of Rabbi Sandy Sasso from our spirituality of parenting show:

"Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendant, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance."

We were one of five couples who listened to the priest talk about the evolving theology of limbo, the intended role of godparents, and the significance of baptism. One “couple” was actually a Hispanic mother and her five-year-old daughter, whose baptism was required for her to enter St. Rose’s school.

“What is a sacrament?” the priest asked our class. ”A direct touchpoint with God,” I offered, and then unexpectedly choked up. At that moment, I intensely felt how important it was to me to have my son baptized, to give him a spiritual rite of passage in the tradition I was raised in, to allow him to be touched by God. My emotion surprised me, given the frequently confused spiritual state of mind of my own life. I’m still pondering what it means.

That deep emotion surfaced again a few Sundays ago during Owen’s baptism ceremony. It was held after Mass, and was an intimate gathering of the family and friends of the four souls being baptized: two young babies, my squirmy 10-month old, and the wide-eyed Hispanic girl. We formed a circle around the baptismal font and witnessed each pouring of consecrated water, anointing with oil, lighting of candle, and donning of white bib — all the while offering prayers and blessing to children, parents, and godparents. Owen was curious and innocent. I felt the beauty, gravity, comfort, and joy that comes with ritual.

I wrote a card to Owen that day, trying to articulate why I wanted him to have this experience. I mentioned hoping he’ll embrace a spiritual life, whatever it may be or however he defines it, alongside an intellectual, physical, and emotional life. Knowing he would not read it for many years, I wrote that for me spirituality is about recognizing that there is something greater than ourselves, that life is precious and interconnected — things I want him to recognize in his own way one day.

What I focus on as a result of this ritual, a ritual I was a bit conflicted about, is the place of religious traditions in helping us learn how to care for ourselves and others, and in instructing us how to reflect and how to act. In the card, I told my just-baptized son that I hoped this would be the first of many rites of passage for him that will shape his identity and commemorate his growth.

I asked Trent if I could write about this partly so I can keep evaluating the meaning of this experience and not lose it in the busyness of motherhood and work. But I also wanted to write in order to hear about your experiences of approaching and undergoing rites of passage, religious or otherwise, and how you navigated them for yourself or others?

(photo: Brian Brown)

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My Oxytocin Moment

Colleen Scheck, Producer

Our immersion into the world of neuroscience for this week’s program with Paul Zak has given me a label for one of the uplifting parts of my weekdays — my “oxytocin moment.” It’s the moment I exit work to pick up my 7-month-old son. Walking to the car, a rush of energy, excitement, and warmth comes over me as I eagerly anticipate how his smile widens when he recognizes me, and the giggle that bubbles up when I hug him and tickle him under the chin. I can’t get to him fast enough, and I’m certain one day a fender-bender will be the result of my mad dash to exit work and pick him up.

So now I interpret that rush to be a surge of oxytocin in my brain. The hormone has long been known for its role in childbirth and the mother/child bonding process that I acutely experience these days. But as Zak’s research is showing, it has other profound influences on broader social behavior, including our ability to trust. Since my brain fails to fire the neurons needed to comprehend neuroscience, I went looking for easily digestible descriptions of his work, and found a few helpful things.

His article, "The Neurobiology of Trust," in the June 2008 issue of Scientific American is a helpful overview, with simple visuals, of how he became interested in oxytocin’s relation to trust, how his experiment — the “Trust Game” — was conducted and its findings, and some of the implications of his research. Besides its impact on the field of economics, I’ll be curious to see if future insights emerge about oxytocin’s relationship to neurological disorders like schizophrenia or maladies such as social anxiety.

Also helpful, and fun, was a 2005 television segment from the Australian Broadcasting Company science program Catalyst. The reporter participates in Zak’s trust game as well as a related experiment using MRI imaging of his brain. He talks to Zak and other scientists about the biology of trust, from primates to humans.

And, given my current life status as a new mom, I enjoyed stumbling upon Hug the Monkey, a blog about the latest research and issues around oxytocin’s best-known function by science and technical writer Susan Kuchinskas.

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Dr. Feynman’s Father
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

Right now I’m reading (or listening to, rather — in audio book form) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a collection of physicist Richard P. Feynman's short works. Feynman was a unique and fascinating figure — not only was he a genius (he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965), but he was also a skilled explainer, storyteller, prankster, and bongo player (among other things).

The video above is from a 1981 BBC interview with Feynman, and includes some of his thoughts on religion, doubt, and uncertainty. Watching this, I couldn’t help thinking of our program “A History of Doubt.” His enthusiasm lies in the act of questioning rather than in belief: “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”

This same interview is also excerpted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and one thing that stood out to me was how much Feynman referenced his father’s teaching. I’m excited by Feynman’s ideas, but in some ways I’m even more fascinated to hear him trace those ideas back to his father. With “The Spirituality of Parenting" broadcasting this week, it seemed fitting to share a few of these stories — to catch a glimpse of how Feynman acquired his faith in doubting, as he tells it in the following video:

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A Toddler’s Capacity to Forgive

Rob McGinley Myers, Associate Producer

This past weekend, I kept mulling over the content of our recent show, "Getting Revenge and Forgiveness" — especially what Michael McCullough said about how easily parents forgive their children.

I forgive my seven-year-old son every day. … Because he’s an active, inquisitive seven-year-old who sometimes accidentally elbows me in the mouth when we’re cuddling and sometimes puts Crayons on the walls. And yet it seems demeaning to call it forgiveness. … It’s just what you do with your children. You know, you accept their limitations and you move on.

As a father of two toddlers, the thing that amazes me is not how easily parents forgive their children, but how easily children forgive their parents. Every parent I know has had moments of utter exasperation and impatience with their kids that they later regretted. But when our children are little, they have an extraordinary capacity to forgive our mistakes. Krista once wrote about a Hebrew proverb that says “just before a child is born, the angel Gabriel tells her everything — all the secrets of God and the universe. Then he kisses her on the forehead, and she begins to forget it all.” So it seems that, though our children will forget it by adolescence, they are apparently born knowing the secret of forgiveness.

The poet Robyn Sarah sums it up perfectly for me in her poem Nursery, 11:00 p.m. The speaker of the poem describes coming to the end of a day when she’s been a terrible parent, wishing she could apologize for how she behaved, standing over her children as they sleep in their cribs.  She likens the forgiving sound of their breathing to a shawl being knitted in the darkness.

How warm it is, I think,
how much softer
than my deserving.

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One Man Standing
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

On the social matrix of the Web, one meets all types of interesting people and finds interesting stories through these happenstance relationships. Take, for instance, Sinan İpek. In a random checkup on the status of SOF videos, I found this Turkish filmmaker had commented on two SOF videos with themes of women’s rights: one about Kenyan women striving for a more verdant future and another about Diana Matar’s exploration of women and the veil in Egypt.

This documentary is too long for me to consider it a video snack, but it’s a compelling 25 minutes of narrative that grips you from a tender, darkly lit opening scene. İpek could have told the story of a paralyzed son and his mother’s love in an exotic land and made it feel foreign to this Midwestern American’s eyes. Instead I felt united in their fight for decency — as a journalist, as a father, as a compassionate bystander, as a citizen of the world, as a kid who used to throw snowballs at my neighbors never noticing the person behind the glass watching with eagerness.

Watch it over your lunch break, in the wee hours of the morning or in the still of night. You won’t regret it.

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Touching Soles

Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

A newborn's foot. (photo: Shelley Gilliss)One of the most difficult aspects of working at Minnesota Public Radio is that I often don’t get a chance to listen to public radio on the weekdays, especially during working hours. Thanks to a new baby boy, I was actually able to listen to a documentary on Alzheimer’s disease by a colleague and former producer at SOF, Brian Newhouse.

It’s a wonderfully crafted piece that’s full of facts and figures and scientific experts discussing the problems and approaches to treating and curing the disease. But, the part that sang to me, is a follow-up interview with a man in his 40s who describes the way he communicates with his wife now that he is home-bound:

"In essence, she’s sort of lost that engaging partner that she used to have. But what we do do is we will, you know, I’ll have her lay on the couch, and I’ll rub her feet and so we communicate a lot through touch now. So there, there are moments of grace, and there are, there are gifts in, within Alzheimer’s that, that you have to, you don’t want to leave those behind as you’re struggling with some of the darker realities of the disease."

His sentiment transported me down the whooshing tunnel to a story Parker Palmer told to Krista in our show on depression:

"There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.

What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”

In an upcoming show for December 20th, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, echoes the idea that physicality is more than just a manner of expressing emotion. It’s a way of connecting with other humans and fostering compassion and kindness within ourselves.

Now, as a father of two boys under the age of two, these stories help me recognize what I know is vital in my relationship with them, especially a 2-year-old. When Lucian is frustrated and all my other methods of diversion (i.e., talking about Curious George, showing him the moon, kissing his belly…) have failed, a simple gesture of kissing his feet or gobbling his toes makes him laugh or even coo. We begin again.

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