My five-year-old, Brontë, has her first bad cold of the season. She kind of reminds me of a grumpy gnome when she’s sick. But this particular sickness kept her from twirling outside in the first snow of the season. So she’s been in a mood that feels a lot more like an irate troll. 

She spent most of yesterday morning in her little cardboard playhouse.1 She’d open the door just long enough to make indignant observations like, “I bet these pancakes would taste good if my nose wasn’t so stuffy.”

Related Reading
This isn't Brontë's first cardboard sanctuary.
Oracles and Angry Girls
The cardboard box wasn’t like a playhouse because it was a temple. The leavened cake and sweet sap I placed on the porch were an offering. And my little five-year-old was an oracle. Read it here.

The snow stopped sometime after breakfast. Brontë was as angry about the snow stopping without her as she was about it starting without her. I could hear her grumbling through the cardboard.

And then the wind picked up, lifting the snow off leaves and branches. It looked like it was snowing sideways. Brontë had been watching from inside her little house. She opened up the door and hoarsely proclaimed, “It’s snowing again!”

I knew it wasn’t. But she seemed momentarily happy. The wind was still blowing. There was snow in the air. What was the difference? I walked over and gave her a high five, “Yay for snow!”

I think she sensed the deception. She got out of her house and walked past me, over to our front window. She watched the snow, her eyes squinted like that guy in that meme, until the wind went still. Then she turned to me, “Mom, it wasn’t snowing. It was the wind. Stop pretending.”

She stalked back to her cardboard house. She went inside and tried to slam the door. When she realized that cardboard does not slam, she shouted, “Don’t come in!”

I take her point that pretending it’s snowing when it is not snowing is morally dubious. I did think - briefly! - about pointing out that people in playhouses should not be too smug about the ethics of pretending. But I didn’t. Mostly because I am supposed to be a loving parent who doesn’t try to score rhetorical points over her sick five year old child.

But also.

I am not convinced that the house we call home is any more “real” than her cardboard playhouse. And I guess if you told me that there is a Bigger Something watching me become more and less trollish as I grappled with living, I wouldn’t be so surprised.

I know much of what I perceive isn’t really what is happening. There have been plenty of times when I thought it was snowing but the wind was just really blowing very hard. Metaphorically speaking. 

And I guess I’d be as angry as my daughter if I found out that Bigger Something needed a break from my grumpiness. And so affirmed those misperceptions because it was too tired to explain what was really happening. 

I’d like to think I’d have some mercy for that Bigger Something. That I’d be able to say, “I see that there can be as much wisdom in pretending as knowing and that one can’t really be split from the other.” But I might just slam my front door in the face of that Bigger Something.

My door and door frame seem solid enough to facilitate that slam. But that solidity depends on my perception of it. 

Matter is made of atoms. Each atom has a nucleus surrounded by electrons. There is a lot of empty space2 between the nucleus and the electrons. It’s hard to overstate how empty my door really is. Let’s pretend my front door was a billion times larger than it is right now. Well then,

…its atoms would be the size of melons.3 But even so, the nucleus at the centre would still be far too small to see and so would the electrons as they dance around it. So why don’t our fingers just pass through atoms…

To explain why we must look at the electrons. Unfortunately, much of what we are taught at school is simplified – electrons do not orbit the centre of an atom like planets around the sun, like you may have been taught. 

Instead, think of electrons like a swarm of bees or birds, where the individual motions are too fast to track, but you still see the shape of the overall swarm. 

- Roger BarlowResearch Professor and Director of the International Institute for Accelerator Applications, University of Huddersfield, The Conversation

The swarms of electrons in the door can’t exist in the same atomic space as the swarms of electrons that make up the door frame. They aren’t really repulsed by each other, they just can’t pass through one another. 

When the door meets the door frame, what’s happening is a little like a murmuration of starlings changing direction. That change requires energy that creates a sense of solidness. 

And I guess here, I know many people would say,

“There is Nothing Bigger, so you don’t have to worry about whether you’d slam the door or not. And sure, the door isn’t really solid. But it feels solid now, and will always feel solid in the future. So what is the difference?"

I take their point. But I guess I am like my five year old. I think there is a difference. Even when a door is shut, it is open. And, I don’t know, that seems like something big.4

  1. Recently purchased this recyclable playhouse from Make it Cute. No affiliate links or sponsorships from the company. Just know that some people will ask where it’s from. So there you go! (And yes, the Milky Way is cut into the top of the roof. I know. Adorable.)
  2. what we perceive to be empty space, at least
  3. In this piece, Barlow is referencing a table, not a door. But a single front door and a kitchen table aren’t so different in size. So I think it’s a fine comparison.
  4. And here, I guess, I must acknowledge that even that seemingness might just be a function of my limited perception, after all, I am so small.