As I've been rummaging through some of my old essays, I have come across a few that I had forgotten. This is one of those. I tend to get long-winded sometimes, so I don't mind if you don't read the whole thing. This is from when I worked at New Haven, a center for troubled teen girls. That has been my favorite job ever. I just enjoyed being with the girls, loving them, and watching them change. I was there just a couple of days ago for the graduation of a girl, and felt again much of what is written in this essay-- how God's hands hold us, heal us, shield us from the storms of life... if we let them. Let me know what you think of this essay--if you have the patience to read the whole thing. ;)
About Giving More
Friday night I sit watching Narnia with a room full of teenage girls. A woman on the screen is saying the last goodbyes to her children before putting them on a train. I have seen the movie plenty of times, but this time I am struck by this particular scene—maybe because lately I have been reading books like MAUS and Fugitive Pieces and The Hiding Place. It has got me paying closer attention to how the Second World War really was for families—and not just Jewish ones. Families all over Europe were ripped apart; like when you tear open a bag of Skittles with too much force, sending the contents bursting and scattering in different directions. Some of those pieces can never be recovered. The woman on the screen suddenly becomes hauntingly real to me, and I long to reach out and touch her tears away from where they have caught in the folds of her down-cast neck.
I guess at some point I begin to vocalize my thoughts; I hear myself murmuring something about how horrible it must be for a mother to send away her children and how I can’t imagine ever having to go through something like that. But one of the girls in the room responds, before my words can have any effect, “My mom didn’t seem to have such a problem doing it,” she says, sarcasm smearing itself across her face, but I know it is only to cover up the taste of sadness baked in there. I am caught off guard by the remark, but not very surprised by it. In fact, I am surprised instead, by the fact that the other girls in the room don’t rush to agree with her. I work at a treatment center, and each girl in this room knows, first-hand, the feeling of being the child who was sent away.
For a brief moment I begin to wonder if this girl is right. I wonder if I was way off in my view of these familial separations. I’ve never been a mother before. Maybe seeing their daughters go is a relief to these parents who have struggled with the girls’ behavioral issues for so many years. But then I quickly recall the image of the crying mother on our movie. She is every loving parent I have met while working at New Haven: the mom who, just before walking out the door, revealed that she didn’t expect to ever see her daughter alive again; the father who held his sweet girl’s hand on the day of graduation and said, “Thank you for finding our baby”; mothers who, with tears in their eyes, bring their fragile daughters to our doorstep, trusting them with strangers, relying on these strangers to heal the wounds they themselves cannot not even access; dads whose defeat shows in the sagging lines of their eyes, still unwilling to admit that they somehow were not strong enough to keep the monsters from making their way into their daughter’s lives. And then I know that the girl who has spoken to me is wrong, that her mother aches with remorse at the fact that this is the road that she must take. Still, I have been reminded that the parents aren’t the only ones broken, confused, and hurt when challenges tear them in different directions.
This moment with the movie keeps haunting me. I can’t stop thinking about why being a mother, actually sharing your body with another human being for a whole nine months, doesn’t instill in you a power to see into the future, grab hold of all the pain that might ensnare your child, and tear it down before it can reach them. It seems unfair that mothers and fathers are not privy to all the information it takes to raise up a perfect, carefree child. Sometimes, in fact, they have none of the answers. Those are the hardest times of all, I imagine: realizing that what this beautiful person—this baby you made—needs is something you can’t give them. As I sit typing this, a slogan keeps coming to mind. It is from an adoption agency which encourages young mothers to come to them for help. A young woman’s voice comes over the speaker, and says, indicating the infant she intends to put into the care of this adoption center, “I’m not giving her up; I’m giving her more.” I can’t help but think that the woman in our movie came to a similar conclusion. She understood that her children needed more than she could give them. The home she had available was a place filled with bombs and guns and hate. And so she sent them away—watched their train chug into the distance, wondering, I’m sure, like that mother who came to New Haven, if she would ever see her babies alive again. She was not giving them up; she was giving them more.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all the parents who have ever had to face such a challenge. This image reminds me of a woman whose name has been lost to history, but whose faith saved the life of her baby boy. Upon the realization that there was no other way to save his life, the mother of Moses sent her baby boy floating down a river. She knew that all her home had to offer this child was death. To give him more, to give him life, she gave him up. The act of placing this precious little child “by the river’s brink” was actually the act of placing him carefully in the hands of God.
I am compelled now, to look at my own hands. They are so small, so weak in comparison to those mighty hands which somehow managed to create this amazing world, this galaxy, this universe. And yet, in a way, my hands imitate His hands. Mothers pack up their daughters, place them gently down in the waves, and with a prayer in their hearts, watch them float into the warm, open hands of those at New Haven. My hands are amidst those hands. When I think of it this way, I am overwhelmed, almost, and feel unable to rise to such a challenge. But then, I am not meant to take it on alone. I have others with whom I can lace fingers, clasp palms, link love. We are each small pieces, but together can stand as a representation of those Almighty hands. We must. Or else we have failed those crying mothers, those broken fathers.
I realize that the whole idea of God’s hands is a little cliché, that there are songs written about it, ratty, old, over-used sayings about it, and even pictures of his hands taking actions both metaphorical and literal. But then I guess it just means that people all understand this idea, but have few ways to describe the feeling. There are lots of things that are hard to describe in words. Like a perfect sunset, painted across the summer sky. You can explain the colors and the way they weave through the clouds and over the mountain tops, but you can never capture the way the light reflects off the eyes of those who watch, or the smell and feel of the wind that brushes simultaneously over. The world is filled with words like sunset and rainbow and ripple and frost crystals whose true meanings are lost without experience. The same thing is true of God, I think. Words that capture how a lot of people feel about Him get dragged around and over-used like a rag-doll because we can’t describe any better what is far more glorious than our words.
I think I’ve been successful a time or two, in helping, in representing a piece of God’s hands. A few weeks ago, I believe I saw a bit of His glory. Really. It was shining from the eyes of a girl on her very last day at New Haven. I knew it was God’s light because of the intensity and the radiance with which it emanated—from eyes once so full of painful, empty blackness. I thought light could never touch it that darkness. But this day, all of the pain, the hurt, the shards of broken anger that this girl’s mother couldn’t even see to remove, they didn’t matter anymore. They were gone. The war was over, the storm died down. Her father could take her home where she could be safe. Her parents cried as they thanked us for our support; I thanked my God.
I’m lost now, and I no longer know if my thoughts are directed at broken families or God’s hands or parents who give up their children in order to save them. Maybe it is none of these. Maybe these thoughts are simply orbiting a deeper, harder to penetrate, issue that fills my heart with hard questions: children. Children without homes, without food, without families who love them and shelter them, without peace, without joy. Children who must suffer through life and learn lessons no matter how painful, how scary, how rotten—and all of them must ultimately do it alone. Parents may provide help sometimes, but other times they cannot. Each of us can try our best to provide safety and peace and joy and love, but sometimes it is not enough. The children themselves must find God’s hands, hold onto them, and let Him lift them up and out of all of the struggles of the world.
Moses’ mother turned her child over to God, but Moses had to make the decision to trust in God himself. When he did this, God not only granted unto him his own life, but made him an instrument to save the lives of an entire nation. His mother did not give him up; she gave him much, much more.
I wonder if my New Haven girls will someday save lives.
PS. This painting is a new one by Liz Lemon-Swindle. I can't get over how beautiful it is, and I thought it fit perfectly with my thoughts here. My friend Seth was with Liz as she worked on this painting, and has written a sweet post about the experience, along with a video that made me cry. Here's the link if you want to check it out: Behind the Scenes of Liz Lemon Swindle's "Lost Sheep"