when you’re dying to live radical: Fight the Middle Ground
Thirty one days I have been home now.
It’s walking through Walmart that I know I haven’t forgot. That I am petrified I might.
It’s walking past the aisle of towels and dishcloths and tablecloths, looking for those girls of ours who had gone looking for leotards, for those scratchy things you need when the weather turns colder and the flip flops are flung in exchange for a proper pair of mary janes. I had told them two pairs, navy.
I had already picked up the family photo we’d needed printed for a family gathering, printing out the only group photograph we’ve taken in the last year, all four boys dreading pasty smiles and standing still and I’m a sorry offense to their barrage of begging off pleas. After I had prized photo in hand, I’d thought I’d take a short cut across the homewares department, through the bath mats and oven mitts, to the girl’s department.
It was the yellow and white plaid dishcloths, stacked and folded, like sheaves of thick papers.
I had stopped. The last time I had been here…
How long had it been? Could it really be that long? Why does time keep drifting us further away from the singular bobbing buoys, life markers, and there is nothing to hold on to, nothing to wrench ourselves back?
We had bought 4 of those yellow dishtowels for Xiomara’s mother. The Farmer had bought four for me. Over three thousand kilometers apart, we both wash plates with the same dishcloth. I reach out and touch the dishcloths. Run my hand across the weave.
It’s the girls who come find me. Find me standing in the towel aisle at Walmart, hand on a stack of dishcloths like I’m making a vow on a King James Bible. One tear slips, carves something out of me.
“Mom?” Hope had whispered it. Shalom had patted my leg. “Mom? Why are you sad?”
I could only choke it out, a barely murmur, each word coming hard. “I… miss … Xiomara.”
I miss the fresh bruising of my heart and I miss the witnessing, the ways the eyes feel when they are seeing for real, and I miss children and volunteers and love and I miss the way her smile curved and opened the lid right off the world. Like we were changing the world.
I miss being so close to help I could hold out my hand.
Shalom quietly strokes mine. Hope fingers the edge of a dishcloth.
How can your heart fuse with a child’s in the course of only thirty minutes? Her eyes. How can you walk around your house feeling like you are missing someone you don’t even know?
How can you keep scratching down words about leaves and thanksgiving meals and pretty plates when there are kids who are starving in a dump today, when there are kids who don’t have plates, never mind candles or flowers or potatoes? How do you keep peeling the scales off your eyes? What aisle stocks that answer?
I’m half-hearted brave through the check-out. We buy two pair of leotards. I have no idea if we should. The girls do need them. It’s October. This is Canada. But thirty one days ago I saw kids who had no shoes, living in a dump in Guatemala. Do we really need leotards? Do I really need a new dress, a sweater for travelling to Relevant next week? Do I really need a haircut? Mascara? Every time I open my wallet, I twist, conflicted.
I remember turning at the door, as I left Xiomara’s home, how the light fell on the the letters, the little I was leaving behind.
I can still see her. How I didn’t want to turn my back, walk away.
My last night in Guatemala, Shaun who had guided us through Guatemala with Compassion, had said it across the table to us, and this is what I remember, the Gordian Knot I can’t quite figure out how to slice: “The world, your community.. even your family — they are going to try to push you back to the middle. North America feels pretty comfortable in the middle. Balance, everyone says. I don’t know what Jesus is going to say to you.. How He might direct your life now… just don’t assume He wants you to live in the middle. Be open to the possibility …. Of something radically different.”
He’d looked around the table at us. I had kept looking up, a futile attempt to keep everything from spilling. “Don’t do anything drastic in the first month. Just pray and keep praying. And then after the first month… “
And my first month… it’s up.
I’m at day thirty one… thirty two… thirty three.
Am I just balancing quite nicely in the middle of my North American teeter totter? I feel a bit sick.
I said it was life-changing. What about my life has changed?
Yes. We did sponsor another 5, and one LDP student, opening our lives to 10 Compassion children in all. I am giddy! Happier than opening birthday presents! But it nags at me, just this one vision. It’s the widow in the temple. Didn’t she give of the only mite she had? Not just what she could somehow do without?
Yes. In the last thirty one days, we decline all 8 of us attending events, the ticket prices too high for a family our size. I stay home and read books to littles. I print out the poster Beth sent of my “This is the Way, Walk in It” socks. I wear the socks. I pray. Beg to hear some direction. I mount photos of the Compassion children in the kitchen. But how is any of this really keeping solidarity with the poor?
Yes. After banging away on the ivories exasperated on a Monday morning, Malakai figures out how much we pay each month for piano lessons. He comes to me while I am chopping vegetables. “Do you think it’s fair, Mom, that we spend all that just to learn how to play the piano? Xiomara and kids in Guatemala don’t even have shoes… So I was thinking, Mom…”
I look up from my onion. I think I know where he’s going with this…
“Don’t you think I should give up my piano lessons? To help?” He’s grinning far too wide. I may appreciate his philanthropy, but what can I really say to that? Why our kids? Why us, with piano and time and resources? Are music lessons really a right? Do I really want to give up anything? My mite?
Kai does go to piano lessons next week. His question keeps playing in my mind.
Playing in my mind when someone takes me out for dinner on a riverboat at dusk. I look up at stars. And think of stars over Xiomara, the dump. I’ve lost my appetite. What am I doing here? When one day I’ll stand before Jesus…
Keeps playing in my mind every time I sit down to this keyboard. Never before have I struggled so to pluck out words in this place. What songs can you compose when there is weeping in the world?
This inner turmoil, questioning, wrestling — how do I process all that here, publicly? How do I pretend I’m not? And what if I struggle — and still settle for the status quo? What if your heart sadly heals? How do you keep your heart wounded, alive and bleeding?
I have fumbled mightily in this places through these thirty one days. I don’t know what to do, what to write. Who I am.
And yes. I did give testimony before the congregation on Compassion Sunday. I ask you to pray and you, with overwhelming generosity do. I wear my shirt. I bring photos of Guatemala. I bring 15 child packs, dreams in need of sponsors. I bring 3 boxes of cookies. I say I have enough for the whole congregation. I give three boys in the front row the 3 boxes. They are now three smiling boys.
I ask the congregation if they are happy? They stare blankly. But, I say, there ARE enough cookies for everyone. The boys at the front just have to share. They just have to distribute the cookies. And if they don’t share? Well… I guess the rest of us go hungry? Two of the three smiling boys in the front row squirm a bit awkward.
One, the one with both arms wrapped tight around his box of cookies, he just keeps giggling. To his defense, I’m not at all certain that he knows what the word “distribute” means.
I look around the sanctuary, make eye contact with Bill Menkveld and Cindy Hayden and Dave Duccomon, and I tell slow them on Compassion Sunday what someone told me after I returned from Guatemala and I had felt it’s sharp edge along the skin, “God gives the world enough of what it needs. He just doesn’t distribute it.”
We will have to share.
We’re the ones who will have to do the distributing.
The boys come to me after the service with their still sealed boxes of cookies. They’ve come a bit sheepish, hands shoved out with their sweet wealth, returning the objects of the object lesson. I think one has come under only slight duress. I look into each one of their faces. I smile and say only this: “Just go share.”
Yes, this over the last 31, the first month, — but is any of this anything more than the Pharisee’s excess? I am terrified that now I have seen — I am responsible, and my response is pitiful. What in the world does it take to be radical? Give me that aisle!
I had written in my thank you card to Shaun on the way back to the airport, on our way back to our plush lives, “I pray I fight the middle to my last breath.”
I am breathing too easy at Day 32. Fighting too little.
The Farmer and the boys meet us girls at the van. Hope has the bag with the leotards. I am holding a copy of the photo. Same shot we left with Xiomara. Shalom explains to the Farmer, “Mom’s sad because she’s missing Xiomara.”
And I nod and the Farmer nods and I am sad for all of us in the middle of the teeter totter, not willing to jump, sad for how frogs die in water that seems just middling to warm and how they never notice that the heat’s slowly killing them.
We drive home. That evening, in the dark, all the children sleeping under stars, I wash the dishes. The water is lukewarm.
I wash off plates with my yellow and white plaid dishcloth.