Thursday, May 5, 2016
How to Give
When I was nine, or maybe ten, a family from our church swooped in on Christmas eve, inviting us to their house where they showered us with second-hand gifts. All I remember thirty years later is the towels, practically new. They ranged from brown to tan to dusty orange, some striped, stacked on our laps as she pulled one more out of the bag at her feet. "It's Christmas at our house!" she crooned in a feverish, sing-song.
I glowed. I was stunned by their kindness, wrapped up in it. I was loved. We were loved.
I wonder now how the day felt to my mom and dad, whether they remember it at all. I wonder why I only remember the towels.
Tuesday, my neighborhood snapped awake. We'd been restless for a while, walking a bit bleary-eyed through the occasional warmer days, grinning sleep-drunk, then slinking back into hibernation. Maybe it was the puffy clouds or the fact that a warm day in May is measured on a weighted scale, but everyone seemed to be out.
Driving back from dropping Calvin off at Tae Kwon Do, I spotted them, my heart surging in that familiar blip of relief. When one of my adult neighbor-friends steps back into the picture after time away, it's often under bleak circumstances. The kids are different.
They chased behind my van, braids whipping, mouths wide. They filled me in on all I'd missed when we were frozen and quiet - moves, trouble at school, a broken arm. "She broke it last week and the next day she got popular!" she gestured toward her friend's blue cast, covered in ink and already dingy-looking.
We talked about summer, whether their moms would let them go to the city pool with us, or if they'd even be around, since there was buzz about exotic months spent in Chicago, maybe a trip to Six Flags or to the beach up in Michigan.
"Yeah, right." They laughed.
They told me they found a "big needle" at the other park earlier in the week. "It was filled with meth," she said, her wide eyes framed by grown-out bangs, a dull, purplish-brown.
"Did you touch it? Never touch it. Promise me." I thought about the hour I spent at the same park a week ago, how it rattled with a quiet despair.
No. They didn't touch it. They know better, these fourth graders of a different kind of life, where breaking your arm without crying means flash popularity and you already know about syringes filled with meth.
After fifteen minutes, maybe twenty, my mind drifted to the pot of stock simmering on my stove-top. It was 5:15 and I had a meeting at 6. I attempted a polite exit, but they just followed me inside, no invitation necessary. (Sometimes I offer hospitality as worship, more often it's wrenched from my hands by a God who wants me near and knows I need help.)
The dinners I cook are a long-standing joke, not just with the two of them, but with almost everyone from my neighborhood who has taken a seat at my island. Honestly, it's giving me a complex and growing me up. It's training me to plan more spaghetti and ground beef taco nights, just in case. It's causing me to buy bags of Takis when they're on sale.
But last night, the soup I stirred was extra-weird. I wasn't even sure how to pronounce it, and they were highly intrigued.
We chattered about this and that, the two of them giggling and light. Without thinking a thing about it, I opened the fridge. And they both lost their minds.
I've seen the show Hoarders before, though not on purpose. It doesn't strike me as dignified, more like using the poor/the lonely/the sick as entertainment. Like so many of the ways we position ourselves as better or more right, this is just another way to normalize our own failures. "I'm not that bad."
It makes my stomach hurt.
Guess what else makes it hurt? Watching two young girls gasp over how much food I have in my fridge.
I found myself making excuses that only made matters worse. "I got groceries two days in a row! We needed everything! People eat a lot of food!"
I got groceries.
Two days in a row.
We needed everything.
People eat a lot of food.
Meanwhile, they were still telling very short stories about what they usually had in their refrigerators, and how they had never even seen a fridge that full. Not once. "Maybe they're that full at a restaurant, but I don't know..." one of them trailed off.
When I was in second grade, my aunt bought all of my school supplies, hand-delivering them with a smile. For a second I was sad that I didn't get to choose my own backpack, but one whiff of that intoxicating cardboard-and-wax aroma and it didn't matter. I had pencils rattling around in a red plastic box. I was loved. The end.
There were bags of hand-me-downs from the "rich" girl at church.
There were DIY haircuts and canned frosting spread thin on Saltines.
There was the time I found my mom hiding on the floor by her bed, Elmer's-gluing lace around the perimeter of a needlepoint hoop for my handmade birthday gift, quietly crying that they couldn't do more that year.
There was the time a few years later when I found a brand new ten-speed bike in my room, light violet and gleaming, and I knew that it had cost them.
And I knew I was loved.
Community is a pinball machine, grace and goodness rocketing up and pinging around. Give and take. Learn to receive or don't bother offering. Feed another quarter into the slot and start again.
There's no science to loving, only art.
Layer on layer, we learn and we lean. But most days, I don't want to paint.
I'd rather not step back and survey the landscape, finding my unique place within it. I want to cram for this invisible test textbook-style and call it a day.
There's so much room for error here, in the land of the living. In so many ways, I wish I could make it different. More for you, less for me. I'd even the playing field if I could, rather than being accountable for my tendencies to believe I'm the one who still needs more.
I want the formula to balance. I want prescribed answers I can memorize and trot out when needed. I want to guarantee I'll never inflict harm. I don't like being reminded of the work I still have to do, or the fact that I bought more food than we can eat before it rots.
That decades-past Christmas still rings in my ears. I haven't seen the woman in a lifetime, but I can hear the precise pitch of her song, and all of the magic. It's proof that maybe it's not so much about what or how much or exactly when, but how. And why.
We all have something someone else needs.
We all need something someone else has.
It will require all of our courage and all of our humility and we will still muddy up the canvas, now and then.
But we'll move toward each other because we want to, wielding our brushes lightly. We'll bleed together and make something new.
With any luck, we'll all walk away under the weight of knowing we're loved.