Yesterday, Emily – visiting for the Labor Day weekend and home from college for the first time – and I took Becton to buy a new pair of sneakers. He and Emily settled on two pair of Nikes. One had a bright green stripe near the heel and the other featured bright orange. In the end, Becton decided on the green pair. But, knowing that orange is Emily’s favorite color, Becton turned to Emily and said:
“Do you see orange everywhere?”
“What?” responded Emily.
“Do you see orange everywhere the way I see green because green is my favorite color?”
I knew exactly what Becton meant. When I’m focused on a particular concept, I see it played out everywhere.
Last night, I was reading Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. In the chapter, “Why I Make Sam Go To Church,” Lamott talks about her young son’s resistance to attending church. (This sounds familiar.) She makes him go anyway. She tells the story of announcing her pregnancy to members of the congregation when she was unemployed, barely sober, and single. The people rejoiced and began providing for her – bringing casseroles, clothes, and slipping money into her pockets. When Sam was born, the women of the church fought over who would hold “their baby” next.
Lamott mentions one particular woman in her 80s who sits in the back of the church, who raised five children as a single parent, and who – like many other members of the congregation – exists on small Social Security checks. This woman, Mary, brought plastic baggies full of dimes to Lamott when she was pregnant and continues to do so. Every Sunday, Lamott nudges Sam to go to Mary and hug her. I love this part: “She smells him behind his ears, where he most smells like sweet unwashed new potatoes. This is in fact what I think God may smell like, a young child’s slightly dirty neck.” (Page 102)
At the end of the chapter, Lamott remarks that Mary doesn’t know her family no longer needs people to slip her money, and Mary doesn’t ask. The last line of the chapter is: “She [Mary] just knows we need another bag of dimes, and that is why I make Sam go to church.”
I am seeing green. The “green” I am seeing is the philosophy of positive peer culture that Skye is learning at boarding school. I see it working or failing in contexts everywhere now. As I apply it to Lamott’s story, I see that high status is given to Mary’s care for mother and child – whether or not they need the financial help. Caring for others makes us feel valuable and worthwhile. Sometimes we need to let others give to us even if we don’t believe we need the help. But Lamott also makes the point about the receiver. He or she also benefits, perhaps unknowingly. Enveloped in the care of others, Sam learns his place in the world. He learns that he is worth being cared for.
I am reminded of the week-from-hell – the week we prepared to send our oldest daughter off to college AND made the final decision to send Skye to boarding school. I was at our newest worship service on a Sunday afternoon, and I completely came apart, sobbing and feeling like a failure. I got in touch with some memories of a time in my 20s when I was at a very low point. I reached out to another church member with my story and I was brushed aside. I stopped going to church then. I realized my tears now had much to do with worrying over what would become of Skye when she returned to this community. Would she be welcome or would she be marked with a Scarlett Letter that kept her outside the fold?
After worship, I pulled aside two adult friends who I much admire, but who also represent “typical parents” of teenagers in my congregation. I told them my story and Skye’s story, and I waited for a response. Their responses were full of compassion, acceptance, and love for both my daughter and me.
As I reflect on this, I think that, in this hustle-bustle world we live in, sometimes you have to take a chance and seek out the care and help of the community. Lamott did that when she told church members about her pregnancy. She opened the door. And the care kept coming long after her crisis had passed. I was burned once. But because I eventually came back to church, I got a second chance to mobilize the culture of caring.
Emily’s visit home was bittersweet. It began wonderfully, with a ride home provided by her grandparents and warm greetings from family members. She shared meals with friends, ran with me, helped walk the dogs, and spent time relaxing.
She even went to a football game with the mother of her summer boyfriend to watch his twin sister cheerleading. But as the weekend drew to a close, Emily became more tearful. I get it. She has been at college less than a month. She has been there just long enough to realize: “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” Family is hours away. The boyfriend is no more. Friends from home are off on their own adventures. The particular church community that was such a big part of her life no longer surrounds and supports her daily life. The work is hard and the end is so far off it can’t be seen. I can hear her mind asking: What have I gotten myself into?
Mother to daughter and father to daughter, we talked about these things. We shared encouraging words. We reminded her that she is building her future. We pointed to the new relationships already begun at college.
Becton sees green, his favorite color. He wants Emily to see orange – her magic color that brightens the world. But what Becton really wants, what all of us want, is for Emily to open a new door to a community that will care for her, that will bathe her in orange. Then she will be reminded of her place in the world. Then she will know she is worth being cared for. And, someday she will again do the caring, simply because she can.