I am up early with the sunrise. The baby has been pushing her night-time wakeup further and further into the A.M. hours until this morning her cries are heard at the first blush before dawn. It is good. Sometimes the rest I hunger for on this last and sabbath day of the week is not sleep, but stillness.
I slept fitfully last night, always pensive with the full moon. Up on the hour mistaking highway noise for a toddler’s cries, tossing through the anxiety visually closing upon my mind. Awake, my mind was calm. But at the edges of consciousness a black closeness began to descend, round and steady, a clipping eclipse like the flipping of a disc in a refraction box. “This one, or this one? This, or this?”
“Okay, Lord,” I murmured sometime around 4 A.M. “I’m listening. What is this fear? What do I need to hear?”
I am crouched on the hot cement of our garage, looking intently into the red eyes of a young neighbor. Her nostrils, swollen and crimson, pulse beneath wire rims. Her blond hair sticks to her tears; a crowd of girls has gathered. I shoo. They flock back; I shoo. Like geese. Loud, too many voices.
This partially deserted military street hits at me like an itch. It’s in the current. It’s in the atmosphere. No house is empty, but nearly every home claims absence. “This is a street of army widows,” I say to my husband, “nearly all the fathers are deployed. Nearly all the daddies are gone.”
It’s true. This is a street filled with women raising children alone for intense durations of time, and filled with children left to the strengths and weaknesses of their remaining parents. Everyone is strong when a parent or spouse deploys. Everyone is weak, too.
The sun arrives like a flaming blood orange, dipped in ink and still dripping blazing colors of light. It is partially obscured by the one last hurrah — a late-to-to-bed cloud — triumphant but still in battle with the night. I watch the fighting; the cloud, a remnant of the cool darkness flaring now into the shape of a dragon, scales and points and tail and fire from nose — all glowing pink, all anger and hate and wrath before the light of the sun. “And Michael fought against the dragon,” I murmur.
And Michael won.
Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
A scissor-tail swoops, swoops and calls and lands. “A child is born a person…” I hear Charlotte Mason say. I turn it over and over again.
We are in the garage still. The night is coming and Arienh, my five year old, dangles upside down from a tricycle seat. “I can tell you who is nice,” she offers to the red-eyed, red-nosed girl. The girl, nine years old and always cautious, has been sobbing for a while now, she whispers that should she go home red-eyed, she might well be slapped on the cheek. Arienh comforts with pertinent information.
“Jesus is nice and my mom and dad and my grandmas and grandpas. That’s who’s nice.”
The girl buries her face. “My parents won’t be nice. They will hit me.”
The moment hangs in the air between us. I see the words, paused in space, waiting to be caught and I swing my net toward them, gather them to my heart. Shooing away the geese, I kneel back on the cooling cement before the child. A child is a person, I think.
“What did you mean when you said that your parents will hit you?”
“I mean that whenever they see that I’m crying they yell at me to stop and if I can’t tell them what is wrong they hit my face, like this. And I don’t want to go home because my face always turns red and they’ll know I’ve been crying.”
A returning friend concurs. “Mm-hmmm. I get whoopings if I’m bad, like, I’ll get spanked.” Her ebony skin has a brilliant purple just at the cheeks and her grin is practically twitching with mischief. Lovely. My smile is uncontained. “But they aren’t so bad,” she assures, patting her friend. “It’s only if I’m really naughty and I know it, and they don’t hurt so much. I think my parents do it ‘cause they love me.”
“Do they leave marks?” asks the nine year old.
“Like, can I see where I got the whooping afterwards? Nah. They aren’t that hard.” She grins. One front tooth is partway in.
“Mine leave marks,” says the older child. “Sometimes they hit us with their hands. But usually with a belt. It’s like they beat us with a belt if we make noise, I mean…not always. But sometimes. When they drink. Chase us up the stairs and we run to get away.”
“What does it mean to drink?” asks Davita, my seven year old, in bed. “Do people drink drugs?” asks her sister.
The kids on my street won’t say the word drugs. Instead they wrinkle their faces and code with the sound ‘bleh.’ “My real mom is in jail because–” (and the tone drops to near-silence) “–she does bleh.”
“Oh yeah. My dad, too. He does bleh and I haven’t seen him since I was 3.”
Many of them haven’t seen a parent since they were 3, or since they were 6, or since they were born. Many of them have siblings, half siblings, step siblings, scattered across states, dispersed among many homes.
“I’ve never seen my real dad. He didn’t want me.”
“I used to live with my mom but she kept doing bleh so now I live here. I have brothers and sisters, you know. But I don’t know where they live.”
I tuck my girls under covers and waver in the moonlight. The parent on the street who maybe beats her child, can we — maybe — become friends? The girl who cried as the sun set, did I say the right things? Will I do the right thing? And — this girl — was she telling the truth? Some of these children who gather in our garage can lie like deceit is the new innocence. Discernment feels gray. I’m uncertain.
Arienh’s head is sandwiched between a stuffed green Yoda and wool-haired Waldorf doll. I can barely see her mouth. “Do drugs come to get people?” she asks quietly, eyes round like pennies. “Can they climb the house and come in my window?”
Davita wants to giggle — I can feel it — but doesn’t, because she also can’t quite understand. “What I don’t get,” she says, “is why people even drink and do drugs when alcohol and drugs make them do bad things like hit their kids.”
“They do it,” I say softly, selecting my words, praying as I go, unsure where this road will lead except that it leads towards truth, “because their hearts are hurting. Nobody drinks or uses drugs because they want to hurt other people. They do it because their own hearts hurt so badly. When the alcohol or the drugs get into a body, the person can’t feel the pain in their hearts anymore. The sadness and anger dull.”
There are layers here. The night grows later, the moon brighter, we gently unpack.
Jesus. God. Rescue. Sin. Pain. Shame. Hurting people hurting people. Parents loving children but being overcome by…stress. Fear. Sadness. But…the Cross. Love. Compassion.
“Can Satan come into our front door at night when I sleep?” Arienh. Erroneous theology. We follow tangents, loop in circles. “I am afraid that when I die I will see Lucifer the fallen angel before I see Jesus and he will lie to me and tell me he’s Jesus and I will go with him because I’ll believe him because I’ve never actually seen Jesus or ever heard his voice for real.” Davita.
There’s a parable of a lost sheep, may I tell you? A ninety-nine and a one.
Sheep know his voice, the Shepherd won’t let us go. She hears.
“But I hear voices all the time in my head. How do I know which one is Jesus?”
Most of those voices in your head are your own mind, love, talking to you, different ideas talking to each other, all you. But Jesus’ voice is different. We don’t know it because we hear it with our ears. We know it because it’s true. It’s the truth. We know his voice because we read the Bible and learn what his voice says; when we read God’s words in the Scriptures we meet the true Word who is Jesus. And all the while the Spirit of God is in our hearts whispering, yes, yes, yes, to everything that is true. So as we grow older we keep recognizing truth, we recognize the pressings of the Spirit, and we come to understand the Voice of Jesus. It’s like there’s a deep road pressed into our hearts and when we are still we keep recalling the road; we walk in it, and we know he is God. You know the true Voice deep in your heart, and you will learn to listen for it above all the other voices.
“Knowledge is not a sensation, nor is it to be derived through sensation; we feed upon the thoughts of other minds; and thought applied to thought generates thought and we become more thoughtful. No one need invite us to reason, compare, imagine; the mind, like the body, digests its proper food, and it must have the labor of digestion or it ceases to function…But the children ask for bread and we give them a stone; we give them information…which the mind does not attempt to digest but casts out bodily (upon an examination paper?). But let information hang upon a principle, be inspired by an idea, and it is taken with avidity and used in making whatsoever in the spiritual nature stands for tissue in the physical. ‘Education…is a matter of the spirit.’ …I am jealous for the children.”
I am jealous for the children.
I am jealous for the children.
“But Mama, what ARE drugs?” Davita asks.
“Medicine,” I say. “Bad medicine. Medicine used the wrong way.”
“But what I don’t get is why God would even make bad things like drugs.”
“Things aren’t bad, love. But choices can be. We can make choices that are good or bad. Here, I’ll show you. Have you ever seen a poppy flower? It’s so wonderful, vibrant orange, its petals open like this to the sun every morning as if they are saying, ‘good morning, God!’ Imagine, a field full of poppies, all orange as far as you can see, all petals opening to the morning and closing to the night. The insects drink from their nectar, the bees gather their pollen. Who do you think made these beautiful flowers?”
“And do you know what we get from poppies? Seeds, delicious poppy seeds that we use in muffins and granola, seeds full of good nutrients that nourish our bodies and make us healthy and strong. Who do you think designed the seeds, created them for us to eat?”
“So the poppy flower and its seeds are something God made and they are a blessing to our bodies and make beautiful our world. But people can make something else from the flower, do you know what?”
“Yes. Remember, what we call ‘drugs’ are just medicine turned bad. People have discovered that if they take the poppy seed pod and cut it open, a liquid oozes out, and this liquid can be turned into drugs called opium and heroin–these are types of drugs so addictive that once a person begins using them, it is very, very hard to stop. Now, there is another medicine we can get from the ooze of the poppy seed pod called morphine which can be used for good, but the medicines opium and heroin on their own are extremely dangerous and destructive to our bodies. So what do you think, if we can choose to make dangerous drugs from the poppy flower, did God make the poppy flower bad?”
“No. No. It was a person’s choice to use it that way. But what I don’t get is why people do that?”
“Because. Because people’s hearts hurt. Because in this world so full of sin our hearts can hurt very, very much, and we very much need Jesus, and sometimes, if we don’t know him and the peace he gives, we will try almost anything to make the hurting heart go away.”
“Mama, I wanted to tell her that my mom and dad have never hit me and have never been mean to me. I wanted her to know you were like that.”
I am halfway out the door when her words touch me. As if I’ve been struck, I stagger and my breath is knocked out for a moment. Me? I turn back to this gangly, image-of-me daughter.
“Kinda like we want to people to know what Jesus is like. I wanted her to know that about you, Mama.”
A parent knows the hypocrisies of her own heart. She knows them. Intimately. She remembers each sin, each voice raised in anger, if not in literal date and time and place, then as an ache in the soft tissue of memory. A parent knows she has spanked when she shouldn’t have, that she has reacted too rashly, that she fails, falls so incredibly short.
“But I have been unkind,” I say, a lame protest against this reverent faith of my child. Her heart frightens me in its hopeful belief. Something in me is undone and she’s both right and wrong and I don’t know why I go after the wrong, why the right makes me squirm like a pupil in the limelight. I am incredibly small and desperate to shrink myself in her eyes lest the perceived largeness hurt her. I speak truth, but I speak it falsely.
“I know what it is to be angry, Davita, and lose control. I mean, you know. Mama yells when I shouldn’t yell. I feel very sad because I understand what your friend’s parent feels, what it’s like to have the other parent deployed and feel such big feelings you can’t control yourself anymore. I know what it is to have one’s heart hurt.”
“There was that time you threw the pot in the sink and screamed like a wild animal, Mama.” She’s cheerfully honest. Not that there haven’t been other times, but this will always be The Time in my kids’ minds. It was the time my sister-in-law chided me laughingly and said, You just screamed? Next time, at least bury your face in a pillow so the kids don’t hear it! And a friend said, Oh man. I learned long ago to shove my head in the laundry basket when I have to scream like that. Try it next time, totally muffles the sound! I smile vaguely at the horrible human memory.
“And you cried, a lot after you screamed,” she continues, “And then you called Grandpa and asked him to come get us and you held me, remember, and you told me you called Grandpa because your heart was so sad and overwhelmed and you thought you would be a better Mama if we lived with Grandma and Grandpa while Papa was deployed.”
The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s reach.
“What were you talking about?” asks my husband. It is truly dark now and I am so tired that my memory is converging on the banks of dreams.
“Everything. Everything, Babe. It feels like we were talking about everything.” I stumble to bed, wanting to weep and sing, mourn and laugh. Sleep.
Ordo Amoris, it read. The ordering of affections.
“First, I had to have a teachable spirit,” Jennifer Dow penned, “and be willing to repent. Second, I had to have faith in the work of the Holy Spirit in my life and in my children’s lives…
“I used to be afraid to ask questions. I thought by asking questions I was opening the door to sin and bondage…
“The Scriptures assure us that if we seek Him we will find Him. Repentance, faith and a teachable spirit are antidote to any fear that my enter here. In order to love what we ought to love (we must start) with seeking, repenting, remembering. We must give ourselves and our students the freedom to go through the process…”
I used to be afraid of asking the questions, too. Then I learned that the fear is the bondage. Once I ceased being afraid of the questions I met Him on His own terms and found that truth existed without prop. I discovered that I didn’t have to hold it up to believe.
This is the dazzling, mind-expanding reality I want my children to know. This is the wide arm of grace.
Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her children—those who keep God’s commandments and hold fast the testimony of Jesus.
I am standing now, watching the sunrise. Dragons rousing to hold back the light. The Morning Star rising at the dawn.
I am jealous for the children.