Unmatched

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Every child is unique,

But this one is especially so.

I know no other who runs like him,

Plays like him,

Imitates sirens with eery accuracy like him.

He is unmatched in energy,

In noise,

And in unpredictability.

And in the way he stole my heart

And wrapped it around his long, dark fingers.

~Natalia

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Surprising Them

No school tomorrow

and I came home early for Easter weekend.

Mother and sisters back from California,

the father went to collect them at the airport.

Four pink balloons strung up in the doorway,

I hid in the dining room when they came home,

listening to 7-year-old feet scamper up the

back stairway.

Why are there balloons– she’s beginning to say,

but then she sees me

and I wish I had filmed the way she screamed,

and how fast she jumped into my arms.

~Natalia

Smart Cookie

You call me smarty pants! He says, looking up at me.

We’re in the hallway between playground and school building. They’ve just come in from outside and they stand there against the bright orange wall, still breathing hard from so much tagging, running, jumping.

I’m patrolling the girls’ bathroom now, standing just outside the threshold, calling instructions to the four 7-year-old girls who probably won’t listen to me, anyway. It’s hard to listen when you’ve just played outside for twenty minutes, and spent the entire day in school before that. So they jump and spin and wash their hands until the sink threatens to overflow and I shake my head and roll my eyes, hiding my smile because I’m the one in charge, and they’re not supposed to be making me chuckle with their antics.

I’m standing there, holding their discarded coats, when I feel a hand on my back. I turn and he’s pointing at me, gazing up with his dark round eyes, crossed a little bit, because his glasses are missing again. He’s smiling, the creases of his face reaching up to his eyes, dipping dimples into his cheeks. I smile back, and reach down to cup his soft face in my hand.

You call me smarty pants. He says.

I smile, nodding, my eye brows raised a little like this name is a secret between us. Behind me, the sounds from the girls’ bathroom grow louder, and I can hear the sink still running as sneakered feet tap back and forth, dancing on the cold red tiles. But I lean down, closer to his level, grinning still.

I do. I say, running my hand over his fuzzy black hair, clipped close to his scalp. I say that because you are smart!

I say that because I fought him for weeks, in September, October, November. Sitting side by side in blue plastic chairs along the homework table, he spread his kindergarten homework- letter tracing, simply addition- in front of us, and the battle began. He hung upside down in his chair. He rolled under the table. He drew circles on his page, tracing the graphite over and over until the pencil tip broke.

Sometimes, he’d finish his work.

Usually, he didn’t. His soft voice, so distinct I can hear it in my head still, repeated over and again: I can’t do it.

I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

I’m learning a lot, there in that afterschool classroom. A lot about classroom management and races in the gym and explaining first grade math and teaching them to love reading.

I’m learning patience, too, and in those weeks, drawn to that little boy, I found a free moment, sat down, and we quietly, patiently, fought through his homework.

Sometimes we were successful. Often we were not, and they called his name on the radio before we had finished two lines. On those nights, I watched him shrug his blue coat on, pull his bookbag over his slumped shoulders. On those nights, he proved himself right: He couldn’t do it.

One afternoon, as he sat at the table and I stood behind him, leaning over the table and watching his little hand grip the pencil, I watched him write the correct answer.

Good job, I said, trying to contain my optimism.

Another right answer. This was good.

A third, a fourth. He was on a roll.

Ecstatic, I laughed, squeezing his arm gently, grinning at him. Hey! That was so good! Suddenly shy, he averted his eyes, but I watched the corners of his mouth curl up in a smile he couldn’t control- a smile of pride in his work, confidence in himself- and I felt my heart flip. I loved that little boy, and the confidence that flicked across his face made me giddy.

Later, when the radio beeped, his name called, I watched him slide his work back into his folder. Hey, I stopped him before he left the table. You did a great job, I said. And then, before he could walk away: You’re smart, I added, stretching the word to emphasize the truth of what I spoke. I watched doubt, hesitance cloud his eyes, and then that smile appeared again, revealing spaces where teeth should be, and hitting my heart with joy once more.

And so it began. Working across the table with another child, I watched out of the corner of my eye as he solved a problem. Leaning down to eye level, I grinned. You’re smart.

Smart cookie. Smarty pants. Smart boy. Smart.

I watch him learn, eager for him to succeed, and when he does, I am there.

You are smart.

I say it because it’s true.

I say it because I want him to believe it.

I say it because if there is one thing I want him to learn in kindergarten, it is that he is important, he is precious, he is unique, and he is smart.

And now we stand in the hallway outside the bathroom and it’s been days since he saw me. But he’s thought of it just now, and he looks up at me with those dark eyes, and his little hand grasps mine, Will you work with me tonight? He asks, and I smile and I nod, yes, I will, because I’ve been saying that he’s smart, and he smiles that shy, eyes down grin, and I think he’s starting to believe it.

~Natalia

Half a Box of Cereal

I might sleep in here, she says. It’s Thursday night, almost the end of a school week heavy with late nights, homework packed in the hours between work, after-school, meetings, class.

I worked earlier in the evening, then it was Lebanese food and laughter around the dining table at home. Last summer, sweet miss B slept in the crib at the end of our big bed, Mark’s bikes, computer, life littered the front basement, and those rare dinners, everyone home- we set the table for eight.

Today, Mark’s in town again, a two-day visit, and Stevy swings by, I’m home, too, and the little ones clamber for space on Mark’s lap. And we sit there with dishes between us, the girls’ toys, plastic plates and pretend food, scattered between water glasses and place mats.

A family dinner.

But now it’s 10pm and I’m back at school, and I’ll probably do more homework- or try to- before I succumb to sleep, and Mary’s in my room, telling me she might sleep there tonight. No roommate means extra bed and I smile, nod towards the pink-quilted bed opposite my own.

Sure, that’s fine.

She disappears through the door then, and moments later I hear the sigh and click of it shutting, followed almost instantly by the heavy squeak of her own door- two down the hallway- whining open. She’ll be back in a bit, I know. Outside, night descends deeper, darker on the city. Inside, I pull sweatpants on, find the old blue sweatshirt from Goodwill- the one with the fish on it- in my closet.

I’m sleepy, but there’s reading, too, and I flip through the pages, fighting sleepiness for the opportunity- the privilege- to engage in learning. Theology reading, captivating and encouraging and so deeply true, I feel my forehead crease with the effort of keeping my eyes open, and frustration that I must fight this battle in the first place. But the pages turn and I read those words and soon, I’m putting the book back on the shelf, done.

I’ve brushed my teeth, washed my face, and am slipping- gratefully, so sleepily- under my blue flower comforter, when there’s a soft knock on my door. Before I answer, the door opens and I look up, twisting from my blanketed seat against the wall, to see Mary’s face appear in the space between door frame and thick wooden door.

Hi, she says, and I smile, return her greeting. I think I’m going to sleep in my own room tonight, she says, stepping all the way into my room, but holding the door open with a hand. Beyond her, the hallway is dim and quiet, the occasional swish and sigh of the bathroom door the only sound punctuating the midnight calm.

I nod, smile. That’s totally fine. You are always welcome. Have a good night. Love you.

She smiles, returns my goodnight wishes, and turns to go. But before she reaches the cold metal doorknob, she unfolds her arms, extending a battered box of off-brand cereal towards me. Here, she says, do you want some cereal? It’s too late, I’m too tired, to come up with a witty response to her rather whimsical midnight food offering, and there is a brief moment of silence as I try to decide if I desire the cereal.

Here, you can have this, she says, crossing the room and setting the orange box on my desk. Uhm, yea, sure, I nod, sleep-haze and uncertainty joining in a loose cloud of mild confusion in my mind.

It’s my love language, she says with a shrug and a gentle smile. Then she’s out the door and I’m left in my room, the light over the sink flickering, illuminating the half-eaten box of fake Cheerios on my desk. But with her parting words, it all makes sense. I understand, and I suddenly want the cereal very much.

Because love, appreciation, gratefulness, can be a funny, amorphous, near unrecognizable thing sometimes. But she eats two bowls of cereal in the downstairs dining room in the morning, and she buys boxes on special occasions at the Walmart Express under the train tracks, and cereal? It’s important to her. It’s a treat.

And she’s come into my room at midnight, long past the time she’d like to be in bed, and now there’s a box of cereal on my desk, and I’m falling asleep smiling because she’s right- I do feel loved.

~Natalia

Love That Can Act

You’ve heard of families caring for children before, children not their own. You’ve heard of foster care, temporary housing, Safe Families, even. That’s not new to you. And all those families, those parents, those stories, they all come back to the same thing. It’s out of your control.

God plans and He brings and you love and you serve and you work and you cry and then that same God, that same plan, He takes.

And then there’s an empty toddler bed with dinosaur sheets, and a drawer half-full of clothes, Lightning McQueen pull-ups that didn’t fit in his backpack, and you’re finding Matchbox cars in every nook and cranny of the house for weeks. But there’s no boy there now. Not in this house, not anymore. Not right now.

You loved him, of course. Love him still. You love them all. But God created families and this system might be broken but the family was made to stay together, and we work to keep them together, build them up, keep them strong, make them strong.

We work for that, of course. But work means hard, usually. Hard to miss him. Hard to know where he is, what he’s doing. Hard not to know. Hard to trust the God who put the child in your home, hurled him into your hearts, to be the same God who cares for him when no one knows, no one sees, and yet you still care.

That’s hard.

So you look back, a lot. At pictures, at memories. You worry, a lot. About the child. About a family. About what happened, what is happening, what will happen. But that’s all out of your, out of our, control.

But there’s an afterschool program in this city. Westside, broken city, broken families, child hearts that have seen too much of a life that’s scary. You’re there every Tuesday afternoon this year, every Thursday last year. In the kindergarten and 1st grade classroom. There are 16 kids this year. More kindergarteners than older, you marveled your first week at those baby children; surely schools have starting accepting younger children now. These tiny students are so very young, and they’re all so very precious.

It’s not a calm afternoon, really. Snack time, one’s already sobbing over a misplaced pack of fruit snacks. Then homework rotations and you and their classroom teacher rotate through groups. Worksheets, math skills, reading, coloring. Around and around, you’re constantly moving, back and forth around that long, low homework table.

It’s sometime during the second rotation of kindergarteners that you realize it. The little one at the end of the table is crying now. Pencil gripped loose, tears streaming down her round cheeks. She’s supposed to be writing the number “6” on a page, but she needs your help, craves your presence, your encouragement, your prodding. She’s frustrated, cries.

Next to you there’s a little boy, five years old. He lost his two front teeth last week, his glasses the week before. His dark eyes cross inward when he looks far away, giving his gummy smile a confused, off-center look. He’s supposed to be writing the numbers 1-10 in the spaces on his page, but he’s upside down in his chair, head on the floor, arm thrown haphazardly over his face. You call him up, drag his tiny body upright again and again, and his soft child voice protests mildly, before he slips down again the next time you turn your back.

And the other four there call your name, need their papers checked, want to color, get out of their seats. Those who are reading on the couch move around, kick each other, slam their books shut loudly, then look around, eyes wide, half startled at the noise.

That’s when you realize that the love you have for that little boy belongs, here, too. You’ll not stop loving that child, but loving a missing thing, a person far away, is all heart, no hands. These little ones? These children with dark eyes and beaded braids and loud voices calling for help, shouting silently for support? Your love for them stretches your heart tight there in the classroom.

And that is love that can act.

So carry that boy in your heart. Pray for him, remember him. He needs it; we all do. But then turn and love those who are in front of you with the same love, because a love that is present can, does, will act. And that is what they need.

~Natalia

To Guard You Heart

The general Christian population is fairly familiar with the phrase “Guard your heart.” I grew up to the soundtrack of this admonition, and mentally stashed it away with other tidbits of information I received that had very little to do with people who were not in romantic relationships and therefore had nothing from which to guard their hearts.

I still remember the day that the idea of guarding hearts made sense.

I was 19, living in Mexico, working, playing, cooking, being, at the Casa Hogar. A friend I’ve written about before, a dear, vibrant, beautiful girl just a year older than myself, was upset about something. Wrong had been done, she had been hurt, broken people- we’re all that way- create broken relationships; that’s just how it goes.

I was standing outside the office, in the shade of the second floor balcony, when Hermana Tere called me into the cool, white-tiled room, to where my friend also sat. I stepped inside, joined the pair at the table. Hermana Tere’s tone, gentle, soft, was serious; I’d heard the same tone before, when she told me of the abuse of children, the breaking of tiny hearts, the reasons many of the children came to the Casa Hogar.

I sat and listened, quiet.

You need to guard each others’ hearts, Hermana Tere said. I am sure that my eyes widened, my head tilted to the side; listening intently. I had never heard the guarding of hearts spoken about this way before- there were no boys involved now.

The things you say, she nodded to both of us, affect each other. They shape how you each thinks about other people, what you say to them, how you see them. Both of you have scars, memories, experiences that hurt you, shape you, too. You are friends, you share things, and that is okay, but you need to guard each others’ hearts in what you say, how you say it, how you push each other to act.

And she was right. There is a part of guarding your heart that is keeping it close- but not closed- in romantic relationships. There’s a part of it that is not letting too much out, nor too much in, when attraction turns serious and it’s not “just friends” anymore.

But it’s also so much more than that.

Guarding my heart is knowing that the music I listen to, the books I read, the word I hear and the conversations I have are shaping the way that I think about myself, others, God, and the way life works. Guarding my heart is letting, asking, begging, Christ to be the one who decides what stays, what takes root, in my heart.

It goes beyond me, too. I guard my heart, and I guard your heart, too. I guard your heart by thinking of what I say, considering how my words, my thoughts, will affect how you think, feel, relate. I guard your heart by keeping to myself that which would hurt you, that which will weigh your heart, that which will mar, taint, color who you see, how you see them.

Because it’s not guarding anyones heart when hurt turns to poison and my scars become your prejudice.

So I guard my heart, and I guard yours, and together, we grow to be whole, to be wise, and to be more like Him, broken and all.

~Natalia

This is Summer: Season Two {#21}

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Father went away,
a business conference, one week.
Left this for his love.

~Natalia

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