It seems to me that things in my life happen in waves.
Recently, I read a book called Etched in Sand, by Regina Calcaterra, about overcoming a childhood of abuse, neglect and the system’s failures. It was a great book, although I cannot tell you the frustration and injustice I felt because of this woman’s story. She told how she and her siblings (even at infancy) would be left alone for months at a time by their mother. She told how she would, long before her teen years, care for her young siblings, finding food and clothing for them all. She explained how that, being alone without food or clothing or money or resources for months on end, and being responsible to provide for herself and her younger siblings, was preferable and an improvement to her mother’s presence.
It’s an incredible story of hope and overcoming and forgiveness and love. Reading it made me want to DO something, to help those in need. It was eye opening. All the while this craziness was going on at home, Regina went to school and excelled. Many never even guessed at just how dire their situation was. Her mother could put on a great show when she needed to, and people assumed things must not be all that bad. They couldn’t be that bad, could they? After all, Regina showed up to school, dressed, with her homework done. Regina was a master at pretending things were fine and hiding the truth. For her, it was a matter of life and death. If anyone came asking questions, her mother would beat her mercilessly, not to mention the system had already failed her and her siblings. The only thing the system did was make things worse for them. So she hid everything, and no one knew.
There were people who suspected there were problems, but they rarely knew how to help. One landlord discovered the kids were living in the house alone, and turned on the hot water for them, and provided some groceries, anonymously. Of course, Regina was alternately overjoyed and freaked out by the kindness. What did he want from them? Why would he do that for them? She had never known kindness without a catch, but it touched her and blessed them all to be able to have hot water—a luxury they had rarely known (even in cold New York winters).
I say all that to say, it was the first part of the oncoming wave. It got me thinking. Wondering. Who are the people around me who are hurting in ways I cannot even imagine? What are people hiding? Why are they hiding these things? How have people been failed—by others, by the system, etc.? How can I help? How can I give love? How can I dial in and become more aware?
Part two of the wave, I got a call from a friend of a friend. She needed a ride. I hardly knew her. We met once years ago, and I knew then she wasn’t in a very good place. She had a lousy boyfriend and a young daughter. Everything about her said she had a low sense of worth (if any). She knew the boyfriend was no good, but couldn’t find the strength or will to leave him.
I went to pick her up from her job and take her home. Between the cheating and the stealing (and endless more offenses), she had finally found the impetus to leave the lousy boyfriend. As bad as things were, she was optimistic. She’d gotten free of that unhealthy relationship. Her car had broken, then been towed. She’d had to borrow money to get it back…fixing it is still but a future hope …but it is a hope. Her front teeth were missing (that’s hard for anyone, but all the more so for a girl in her early 20’s)…Medicaid only pays for extractions if you have dental problems, but she was dreaming of saving enough money to fix them some day. She’s working minimum wage and doesn’t make enough to survive on for herself, not to mention for herself and her daughter, but she’s still optimistic—about college, about a future, a career, about helping others with her life. It’s not just naïve optimism either; she’s working on a plan and working towards her future, little by little.
Just hearing a little about her current circumstances reminded me of Etched in Sand, of how truly desperate so many people are, and how little I am aware of it. But then she shared about her childhood, and I was really thankful for having read Regina Calcaterra’s book, because I had a little more of a grid to even begin to comprehend what she was telling me. I don’t know how I would have heard it otherwise—Would it have really registered? Would I have considered it too far fetched to believe? I really don’t know.
She shared that, when she and her brother were living with their father, one day he just left. She was 6; her brother 12. And for about 6 weeks they lived there, alone, doing their best to survive and take care of themselves. They didn’t know where he went, or if he would come back. I don’t know how they ate. I don’t know if they went to school. I don’t know how it was that no one discovered they were alone. I didn’t get a chance to ask a lot of questions, but the simple fact is that for 6 weeks, she and her brother lived alone, unsupervised—and the world had no idea. It was her mother that found them alone, and took them back to live with her.
People are hurting, but KIDS are being abandoned, raising themselves…right under our noses, and we probably don’t even know. This wasn’t some girl in the inner-city, or the projects, this was a girl right in my suburban back yard.
Part three of the wave, I saw Gimme Shelter (read my review here). It’s based on a similar, true story. Agnes “Apple” Bailey’s mother was abusive and an addict and mostly likely a prostitute (I wasn’t fully clear on that point). At any rate, her mother was horribly dysfunctional, and Apple couldn’t survive with her any longer. She sought help from her biological dad, who was willing, but he and his wife were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to relate to this daughter he’d never known. Their fancy life could little imagine the horrors she had faced. Pregnant, she ended up living in a shelter for teen moms. It’s another hard story, about children suffering unspeakable pain, dysfunction and poverty at the hands of abusive parents. And like the others, it’s a story of hope, redemption, forgiveness and overcoming, and breaking the cycle.
I don’t know why these stories keep coming to me lately. I don’t know I’m getting hit with this wave right now, but I’m sure asking God about it. I’m certain there’s a reason why He is opening my eyes and sharpening my awareness. I can tell you that these stories are changing me, and I want them to.
In Gimme Shelter, the woman who ran the home for the pregnant teens shared that she herself had once been homeless. She struggled to survive, and found it terribly difficult to do so with any dignity and respect. Once she got on her feet and got a home, she wanted to help others who fell upon hard times as she had. She decided to open up her very own home to young pregnant mothers who had nowhere else to go.
I wonder what it is that I can do. I mean, I know I can send money to various charities and such, but that’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking God about how He would like to use me, personally, to reach out to someone in my own back yard. Is there someone who I need to take into my apartment? I have a couch. Is it a troubled youth that I need to support and help and encourage? Is it that God may ask me to pay someone’s electric bill? I’m not sure yet. Maybe it’s this friend of a friend I gave the ride to.
I don’t know yet what I’m supposed to do, exactly, but I do know that, because of that book, and that movie, and that friend, I’m aware and asking questions and talking to God about this more than ever before. I do know that I’m looking now, where I never thought to look before. I know that I’m not just taking it for granted that the students I know are all doing OK anymore. My radar is up, and I have a little better idea about how to help (and how not to) having seen things from their point of view (in that movie and in that book, especially). We’ll see what comes of it. I have a feeling this wave isn’t over yet.
In the meanwhile, I encourage you to watch Gimme Shelter, read Etched in Sand, and/or find other true stories you can immerse yourself into, with the intent of growing your compassion, understanding and awareness of real lives that are nothing like your own. Let it soften your hearts and motivate you to act…and ask God how to be Jesus in response.
Promotional trailers for Etched in Sand and Gimme Shelter: