Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops–at all.
“Life sucks.” This from a friend whom I love more than my luggage. And yep: stuff happens. Read my blogs about ankylosing spondylitis and domestic violence. But the implication that we’re stuck in our muck gnaws at my grace-girl instincts.
“My daddy is my worst place in my life,” Eli says. A four-year-old struggles to wrap his one heart around shards of family glass scattered at feet once rooted in perceived safety. Even in its fragility, the glass castle his shadow-father made was still familiar. “Because my dad is always angry with me,” Eli explains. “He keeps messing me up.”
“Monster feet time,” I tell Eli as we prepare for shadow-father’s post-Christmas arrival. (My child resists hard. He dons furry, green slippers with soft, orange claws.)
Eli’s eyes, two dark-chocolate wells hugged by doll lashes, fill. His thin shoulders slump. He laments one home and two parents with the courage to repair. Whenever Eli revisits shadowland, he begs to remain home “for every sleep.” My boy lives between mother and father–between brought up and broken down–and when familiar fades, he clings to blue walls, fairy lights, a brown corduroy duvet, and a plastic wand that whooshes with the touch of a button.
His SPD in full bloom, Eli holds the wand’s base like a baseball bat–one hand above the other–and grips magic hard. The wand’s tip casts purple into his dark.
“Kill them,” Eli says about shadow-father and grandmother with whom father lives. He slides his fingers across the slick fabric of his black Batman cape as we discuss endings, beginnings, and angels who guard children in between. My heart cracks open wider as I hold my son’s raw in arthritic hands.
I cradle Eli’s new hurt in sacred silence before promising to leave his pillow kingdom as it is until he returns home: thirty-two pillows placed carefully atop a king-sized bed with room for three.
Eli ponders beige bedroom tile. He struggles to sustain eye contact with most everyone but me. “I’ll always forgive ya, Mommy,” he says softly before I ask. “We’re attached.”
Eli gingerly places the last throw pillow–red and green plaid with spots rubbed sheer–atop a throne he built just for me. Then he removes plaid and rubs its soft against broad forehead and delicate nose for one beat before tears kiss flushed cheeks, and we walk hand in hand to a blue hatchback parked at the curb because shadow-father can’t step onto my personal property after arrest warrant, smoke detectors dismantled in secret, and shattered glass.
My son suffers from hope hunger. Hope was the thing with feathers that perched in his soul and mine. Hope sang dreams in spite of, and it sang still together into sheets of glass. Hope didn’t stop until we did. Our hope flew into gray when our family broke. Its song stopped when we couldn’t reach forward–when our in spite of and still together faltered.
In the community college classes I teach, I quote Booker T. Washington ad nauseam:
The circumstances that surround a man’s life are unimportant. How that man responds to those circumstances is the ultimate determining factor between success and failure.
Character, not circumstances, makes the man. (Or woman, as the case may be.)
Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
I curl up inside what feel like solidly American notions about upward mobility and interior landscapes, about possibility and honest effort. Washington’s optimism washes me with a certainty that we can overcome. Integrity trumps hardship. Hard begets worthwhile. Washington’s focus isn’t our inevitable human struggle; it’s what we do about it and why.
My inner John Keating longs to whisper encouragement into fractured fairytales: Go on. Lean in. Listen. You hear it? Carpe… Hear it? Carpe… Carpe diem. I want to sing to son, to students, to you, to my own broken heart, Seize the day. Make your life extraordinary. We have ample time and plenty of chances. I promise: there’s a way out of every broken. You needn’t thirst for truth nor hunger for hope. Hold hope’s magic hard. An abundant life is within your grasp.
But what to say to a child living in between? Are big dreams worthwhile? Is anything possible?
Eli’s frame is slight; he’s all saucer eyes, gangly limbs, and bird bones like me at age four. We share ginger hair and dimpled chins. We’re contemplative, imaginative, creative, goofy. We laugh at ourselves. Fair skin and unfenced empathy mean we burn easily. We fret. Eli’s eyes aren’t green like mine. His sweet little nose is uniquely his own, but physically, from bowed legs to knobby knees, Eli is his mama’s child. He owns a darker hue of shadow-father’s brown eyes, but Eli will not become shadow-father; he’s not a narcissist or a bully. He’s not mean. I worry about the softer traits Eli inherited from me.
I’m a liar. This reality–framed kindly–pierced me when Eli’s play therapist, a bubbly brunette with a gift for patching child wounds, suggested that I rethink my responses to Eli’s broken. I didn’t know to hold his hurt in silence until Ruth taught me. Oh, but your father loves you, Eli. Your father makes bad choices like everyone else. The truth: your feelings are valid, son. Your father’s actions are not love. I’m sorry. You matter.
“Don’t try so hard to shelter Eli from hard truths,” Ruth said. Don’t gloss over his fear or sadness or righteous anger. Don’t suggest that any kind of abuse is any kind of love. Do hold son’s hand. Hear. Acknowledge.
So there are cakes and pillows and colors galore, but underneath this more obvious patchwork quilt are places like a quiet room where you can go and hold someone’s hand and not have to say anything. Give no story. Make no claim. Where you can live at the edge of your skin for as long as you wish. ” ~Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
As I navigate the ashes of divorce and domestic violence, I’m learning that there is a time to hold and a time to tell. Eli needs me to hold his truths so I don’t diminish them. He also needs safe spaces wherein his heart story can replenish his hope.
Stories are meaning-makers; stories have the capacity to heal because we use them to make sense of our otherwise nonsensical lives. Our shared histories mature until they become tangible truths.
Each time I told my story, I lost a bit, the smallest drop of pain. It was that day that I knew I wanted to tell the story of my family. ~Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
In meaning-making moments, I teach Eli the Story with the power to restore broken. Jesus can clean our dirty, busted up family even if we live under two roofs. He’s in the hope business and does what this fallible mama can’t: fill life holes with hope eternal.
Problems persist: what to do about hope and dreams and possibility right now? On a practical level, how do I give a four-year-old hope when my own hope falters? There’s the challenge of what to do about our busted circumstances today. I know why: a ginger, Batman-loving old soul with a dimpled chin, a gentle heart, and a pillow kingdom that represents his familiar and a flickering trace of hope.
“My pillow kingdom is my home,” Eli says. “Every pillow is attached.” A pillow “fence” surrounds his kingdom, and he melts into madness if a single pillow falls, “breaks,” or “ruins.” His pillow kingdom breaks me.
Life blood drains “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (I Cor. 15:52). We’re here for a blink, then vapor. At the moment, Eli views his life as a series of partings. For a season, his shadow-father pulled him from the only city, home, school, and church he’d known. As our legal journey ends, I’m left with the bone-hard task of piecing together what’s left. Awful things happened to Eli. His circumstances sucked, and they’re already shaping the man he’s becoming.
At age four, Eli resents father and clings to mother. One day, when he’s an adult who speaks for himself, he may, like me, walk away from family shadows that torment. The thought of a son growing up and away from a man who shares his DNA saddens me, but parents have only so long to solidify healthy, lasting relationships with their children. Kids are intuitive. They know what’s what.
I remind myself that none of us were knitted together in our mothers’ wombs with the purpose of being tethered to another human being. We’re spiritually hard-wired to leave earth’s nest and return to the Father who stays. He’s our Hope, and his hope is the grand, big-picture variety, but God’s hope well is also everyday inspiration.
Hope is a pillow kingdom that affords mother and son opportunities to talk about our broken and to learn to solve problems as a team of two. Hope is a healthy attachment to a healthy mother whom Eli is learning to depend on when shadow-father clutches pride.
I can’t know for sure what damage occurs in Eli’s heart when he’s beyond my protection. I have an idea because he comes back from shadowland with new scars, and he leaves home anguished. I fret about my inability to protect my son from the strange dark. Then I remind Eli that God protects all of his children. Nothing can separate lost lamb from faithful Shepherd. We’re never beyond his protection. God does his best work in the dark.
God is the hope in Eli’s pillow kingdom. He’s the hope in Eli’s leaving and in his coming back. Grace words of fixed hope flow from book and pulpit into Eli’s hunger and mine. God’s hope is his word, and it’s Steel Magnolias, Booker T. Washington, Dead Poets Society, and The Lovely Bones. Hope resides wherever possibility births holy inspiration. Like love, hope thrives in the everyday details of our busted lives. Hope needs replenishing, but He waits for us in our broken places.
God uses our ordinary experiences to pour Hope into lives made extraordinary and abundant because they’re filled by Grace. God doesn’t promise earthly abundance; in fact, he guarantees the opposite: lives necessarily infused by shadow more than light. That’s because God’s presence is most easily evident in the unholy spaces that undo our peace. Perhaps it’s just easier to see hope when we need it so desperately. I don’t know, but I trust that Hope is within my grasp and yours. Always. Even when we fail to look.
Our days are fleeting. I may never get around to becoming an olympic figure skater. I might not publish my crazytown memoir or purchase a black-bottomed pool that is equal parts tranquil and terrifying. To seize the day–to really and truly grip time’s magic hard with two blessed hands–is to see Hope in our muck. The best days are the ones we sink into with intention; they’re a cup of joe with a friend, a game of tag with a giggly child.
To hope is not to overcome. To hope is to live and breathe with a divine purpose when we can’t overcome unholy, human circumstances beyond our control. Hope is carrying on in faith.
To the friend whom I love more than Clairee loved Ouiser: circumstances suck. Life doesn’t. Life is a gift. Like Grace, our lives flow freely in spite of because of still together; because of purple, little-boy magic in the muck; and because of big, unstoppable dreams winged Hope affords every grace-seeker with a song to sing.
Yesterday Eli’s shadow-father delighted in the knowledge that he was taking our son out of state without my awareness. In this moment, I don’t know where my brave dreamer rests his weary head, but Hope still nestles right into my broken soul and Eli’s. I believe for two.
Love and light,