On Monday a letter arrived bearing all the tell-tale signs: Jail Mail. My favorite. There was the nondescript legal-sized envelope, the blue lettering, the stamp across the front which always reads like a warning. This time, it wasn't addressed to Cory or I. It was addressed to Calvin.
Inside, a thin sheet of white, unlined paper folded into thirds with a full-color sketch of the solar system and a greeting written with a flimsy, nearly unusable jailhouse pen. Calvin beamed when he read it. I tear up just thinking about it.
Back when we first knew we would be selling our cozy farm house and moving to a disadvantaged neighborhood in a nearby city, we were pummeled with doubts, criticisms, and wary looks of skepticism. By far, the most common question was, "What about your kids?"
We swatted at the words as if they were flies, as if we could shoo them away without menace or attack. But they always circled back, buzzing in our ear, blending into a new soundtrack of worry and mystery. A few times, we were bit, but the pain was never enough to keep us down, and here we are. The skeptics have long given up. I'm guessing they see that we're all okay. It's clear that the threat of danger was only imagined and besides, we never listened anyway. Some have become more supportive over time. Others have realized it's more fun to chalk it up to foolishness and smirk from a distance.
Me? I wonder with increasing frequency how all of this will play out in the future lives of my kids, and even in me. That's what time will do for you. It'll strip away the sheen of adventure, that hard glint of adventure. The unfamiliar road map in your hands will eventually be ground into your heart as your feet hit the same earth, again and again.
Before long, you'll have trouble remembering the long gravel lane and the rusty mailbox at its end. Months will pass before you stop to consider the upstairs bedroom with the train wallpaper, the one you hadn't had time to fill. Back then, in that old life, there were entire rooms that sat stuffy and needless. There was always plenty, then. Always excess. There were vacations every year, trips to Old Navy for the heck of it, new lamps and lavish, futile gardens. There were rows of strawberries so thick you stopped trying to keep up. You wiped juice from your chin with your shirt sleeve with no concern for the stain. Why did we so rarely walked back to the row of pines? What did the kitchen smell like? How exactly did we spend our lives? The answers are long gone. You'll never know.
I used to imagine my kids growing up with calloused feet and tender hearts. I guess I was half right, but not for the reasons I assumed. I thought tenderness was the result of careful vigilance. Keeping my little buddies as protected from the world as possible was my goal. I day-dreamed in fences. I willed their brown eyes to stay pure, shining light to the darkness without absorbing the remnants. I was nervous about the start of Kindergarten in our highly ranked school, nervous about the big, bad school bus, nervous that if they ever saw someone sneaking a cigarette out behind the garage they'd take up the habit and never look back. (In the scheme of all I'd seen of life, which wasn't much, cigarettes remained one of my primal fears - a sure sign pointing to a life lived in the wrong direction.)
What I didn't realize is that enduring tenderness of heart, the kind kids can carry with them as they grow, the sort of tenderness that yields empathy, solidarity, and kinship comes from marinating in places where God's presence is vital and his power is sure.
This doesn't require a move to the city, a new job, a new school, or new neighbors fresh from jail. It demands attentiveness. Humility. Grit. We have a say in what our kids are exposed to, and how. We can choose to toughen-up our faith (and theirs) while the stakes are still low, giving them glimpses of God's kingdom here on earth, in all its busted-up beauty. The question is, do we want it badly enough? Do we believe the cross is worth it?
Two days ago, I ran a quick errand with my sick little Silas. We drove past the row of houses that were leveled earlier in the week, past the empty store-fronts and the sad looking homes that remained, sucked dry of color and life. "Why did God invent drugs" he asked.
I'm still surprisingly unprepared for these questions, but I drew in a breath and we did our best to hash it out. I offered the necessary back-story, about Adam and Eve and what God intended for the world. We talked about the sin we're all steeped in, and how Jesus is our only escape.
Those answers have always been easily within reach. They're true and necessary, the foundation of the thing. But the longer we're knotted up with broken, beating hearts around us, the more familiar we become with the rest of the story.
So we talked about that, too.
"Sin opened the door to sadness and loneliness. When we don't know the love of God and when we don't feel loved by the people nearest us, it makes our hearts and even our bodies hurt. And when we feel that kind of pain, when we believe we are not lovable, we reach for the wrong things to try to feel better."
He nodded along slowly.
"This is why it's so important to invite people over to our house for lunch. We want our friends to feel our love, because that's also how they can start to feel God's love. Then they won't feel so lonely..."
He finished my thought, "And then we won't be lonely, too."
As our kids get older and more aware, I'm struck by the different kind of normal their childhood is providing them. What will they embrace? What will they reject? When they look back on all of this, will it feel like a massive rip-off? Would they cash it in for clothes that weren't bought second-hand or fancier vacations? More privacy? Less commotion? Will they grow weary of hearing about our squeaky budget and race to high-paying jobs and gated communities? Will they join the dominant culture in despising the poor? Will they climb the ladder, puffing up in superiority over those buckling under heavy loads? Will they forget their inborn smallness and believe what they have is theirs to keep? Will they take up smoking, or worse?
I hope not, but I don't know. If I'm learning anything here, it's that I wasn't charged with guaranteeing anyone's future or scrubbing clean their sins.
All I can offer is the best I know of life, the celebration of suffering along with the abiding hope of joy. We need not fear brokenness. We can choose to gravitate toward the unfamiliar, then stick around until it feels like home. We can leave our front door easy on its hinges and choose the comfort of a family forged of misfits. We can identify ourselves as the misfittiest among them.
Calvin is twelve now, in all of its glory. He's not in my space quite like he used to be. He isn't as cuddly. He asks harder questions. His brown eyes still shine, but with complexity. It's uncomfortable to watch him navigate friendship, status, belief, privilege, and responsibility. I didn't know how much I would strain to steer his ship. I didn't know how wobbly my faith would be.
He showed Cory his birthday card as soon as he arrived home from work later that evening. Here's what I had forgotten: just as there is no natural light inside the jail, just as there is no fresh air (ever,) there is very little color. Beige uniforms, gray walls, gray floors, gray dinners on gray trays.
Crayons, markers, and colored pencils and inks are banned. So in order to make a full-color greeting card, an inmate has to launch an expensive and complicated process involving candy wrappers, overpriced jail deodorant, and hours of meticulous scraping and depositing. There is no room for error. And it will cost them.
Have I ever cared that much?
I grabbed the card again, held it closer, studied it with blurred vision. "Thank you for being our friend," it read.
Sometimes, life plays to my basest worries. Aren't we all doing the best we can, sweeping all the pieces of life into one pile and calling it good? I cannot pretend to read the future, but I have been handed the gift of living very near the poor and overlooked, and I'm passing it onto my kids. The box is obviously recycled, the corners softened and worn. The bow is wonky. The paper is torn.
But open it up, sweet boy.
What you find inside will change you.
"We're often asked if our unconventional life puts our kids at risk. Do they suffer for it? Are they safe? At times, we settle for the easy answers. Yes, of course they're safe. They don't suffer. They're never at risk.
The longer truth is, risk swirls around us, sinister and unseen. Suffering tails us daily, not because we live in a particular neighborhood or welcome hard lives to our table, but because we are broken humans in a fallen world." - Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted (still just $1.99 on Kindle)
My friend Emily P. Freeman wrote a beautiful piece on what it feels like when our kids grow up. "It feels like torn lace, like smoke, like wedding mints melting on your tongue." Read it here.