Yesterday was Dress Like Friend Day at my kids’ school, part of a week-long ‘Spirit Week’ effort to erode the parent’s will to live. Maybe I’m the only downer in the group; everyone else seems to have fun with it. The playground was full of nothing but smiling faces and I will say, I don’t mind evaluating my parenting based on how well my kids can independently put together a ‘decades’ outfit without my involvement. They can work their way around a hot glue gun, so, essentially, my work here is done.
However. When I saw the notice, I immediately thought about a boy my son had conflict with the year before. In an effort to place the boy, I had asked who this kid’s friends were. My son said, “Oh, no one wants to be friends with him. He makes weird noises and gets mad a lot. Plus, he uses bad words.” Already, in third grade, this child was classified. He is weird. He is other. My neck tingles at the thought of this child, this same time last year, alone on the vast open black top at recess, in a non-matching shirt, his aloneness amplified and exposed.
At the time, I asked my son who the child’s mother was in an effort to place his invisible face in my mental Rolodex. I silently wondered if I should invite her for coffee or for a play date. But because it is the nemesis of kindness, apathy interrupts me. The reality of engagement reminds me that I am busy and sleep deprived. I just want to relax for the few and precious minutes of down time between changing diapers and cleaning up messes with friends, not strangers. I don’t really want to take the chance of my kid being poorly influenced, or picking up bad language. I don’t want to step outside my comfort zone. I’m usually so overwhelmed at the needs of my own family, what makes me think I can I take on the needs of others?
I find myself often at this crossroad: my goal to raise a child who shuns apathy, who goes forth kind and brave and bold into this world yet I myself clutch kindness to my chest like it is hard to come by. This death to self, other’s first, God’s kind of kindness is costly and I am frugal. In the end, the decision was made for me. Once I worked up the courage to get her details for that coffee date, I found the family had left our school.
My daughter announced that this year she was dressing up with a friend she had never mentioned before. Without my prompting or bribing, she had picked a girl who had no one to dress up with. I felt undone; ashamed at my amnesia. This is the same child who came home last week genuinely stressed out because too many kids wanted to play with her at recess. “I’m trying to make time for all of them” she lamented, without a hint of arrogance. I find notes from first graders in my son’s backpack, love notes from his groupies for landing a lead role in the school play. My children do not struggle to make friends, and that is precisely why, as their mother, I’m beginning to see this as my problem. Maybe this is what thoughtful people have been trying to say about race relations in America. It is the person with privilege, the person with power, the person with too many friends to play with that is responsible for the people without friends, without power, and without privilege. It is their voices, withheld from the conversation, that cause it to stall.
I’m beginning to see this is my problem and my work and I cannot outsource it. And this is not my side hustle. This is the job. It is unfortunate, since I am perhaps the least equipped person to deal with our cultures problems: brokenness, alienation, loneliness, anger, anger so explosive it takes on the form of a gun to express it. But the children yanking on my pants while I chop peppers, and sit around my table, the people whose toes I scrub in-between are the very people who, tomorrow, will take their place in boardrooms, in classrooms, and behind guns. Our home, which more often resembles a Chuck E. Cheese than a sanctuary is still, unfortunately, the first and best place to form a soul. Like it or not today’s cranky, coffee-stained and sleep deprived parents are on the frontlines of tomorrow’s, most likely worsening, problems. It is unfortunate, but here we are.
In high school, my two best friends came from Evangelical Christian families. I remember riding in their cars, their mothers took us everywhere: voice lessons, musical rehearsals, The Mall. Sometimes they would take us to their own homes where we would raid the pantry, breaking and passing and giggling in warm, sunny kitchens. Jamey used to pick us up in her brown, beat up AstroVan, Amy Grant playing softly through the speakers. We would all cram into the seats in the far back, making her our chauffeur. Teenagers are the absolute worst. Another mom, Susan, would sometimes pick us up for voice lessons with fast food French fries in bags. After a rough day of navigating 10th grade dramatics I remember feeling like I’d entered a shelter from a storm climbing into that familiar, warm, van that smelled of salt and grease.
I don’t know why these little moments stand out in my mind, now, like buoys in an ocean, as if my own wonderful parents didn’t buy me French fries hundreds of times. Maybe it was precisely that I was not her child. It was something in the way she would casually toss her waxy paper bag offering to the back seat, like I deserved it, like I belonged there. In hindsight, I see this was my first Communion, my first pieces of Jesus incarnate. I think I was beginning to see God for who He was in vans with faded fabric seats with 90’s worship music playing, and a French fry Eucharist. I want to ask these women now, Were you tired? Were you annoyed at the inconvenience of carting me around, another place to go, another mouth to feed? Were you scared of me, unchurched ragamuffin that I was? Did you know how important you were? Did you know that I loved you?
I think they would say no. I think they would say they were just doing the next right thing God put in front of them to do. I think they simply said yes to taking me from point A to point B with their kids. I think they made coffee dates I was too scared to make. I think they were just themselves, puttering around their kitchens, listening with one ear to boy drama while we emptied their refrigerators. I think they did the small, needed, seemingly-insignificant, sometimes-inconvenient thing, not knowing at the time that it looked a lot like God to me. It looked a lot like God waiting for me, every day by the curb at school in a big, brown van, smelling like French fries.