Sunday, May 1, 2016
To have a normal life
Last month kids all over the country celebrated Dr. Seuss Week, dressing up in red and white striped hats, gathering around the librarian to read Green Eggs and Ham, laughing still at all those clever, surprising turns. I helped out with the festivities at my sons' school, and one of the activities we had kids do, aside from vote for their favorite Seuss book and dress silly all week, was to decorate a paper star and write on it what they want to be when they grow up, in the spirit of Oh, the Places You'll Go!
After I gathered these stars from the teachers, a gaggle of PTA moms met to help hang up them up, and we laughed reading what the kids had written. Astronaut, ballet dancer, fashion designer, Navy Seal were typical answers. Some tear-jerkers said things like "be a teacher and change lives," and it made me think what heroes these teachers are to the kids they encourage every day. A handful of truly brilliant children wrote "candy maker," an occupation I surely would have pursued if I'd ever been bright enough to think about it.
In the midst of our talking and laughing and reaching for the scotch tape, someone found a star, uncolored, undecorated, that said simply, "To have a normal life." It was written in kid print but was steadier, more fine, so was clearly someone from the older grades, and since there was no name written on it, the anonymity made it all the more haunting.
Someone laughed about how it was probably a kid just comparing their little dramas to everyone else's, like we all do, imagining they're always left out of the fun stuff. A little pity party kids often throw. But I couldn't help but wonder if it was something more.
The first chapter of The Gospel According to Mark opens with John the Baptist dressed in what sounds like really uncomfortable clothes and surviving on a diet that, in the best of terms, could be called spartan and unvaried. Which is generous, of course. Locusts have never been what I call appetizing. Thank heavens for the wild honey. It's as if he's camping, but permanently, living a kind of exile in the wilderness, away from the comforts and company most people crave. He spends all his time telling people to repent, that God's coming and they need to shape up. This doesn't seem entirely normal.
Then there's Simon and Andrew. They're out in their boats fishing, doing their jobs, and Jesus walks up, and in one instant, talks them into walking away from everything they know and following him, a total stranger. Then the same thing happens with James and John, who not only leave their nets but their own father. There's nothing normal about that either.
And the rest of this chapter describes the situations of two more people: a man with "an unclean spirit" and a leper. These two men had long-term troubles, something that crippled them for life and made them outcasts to some degree. In fact, no one in this chapter appears to be hanging with the usual crowd. For better or for worse, they're weirdos.
Years ago I worked in a bookstore during graduate school, and I read a lot of book titles that came to the shelves. One title still makes me laugh. It was a book called All Families Are Psychotic, and even though it was fiction, a novel about a made-up family and all its troubles, it still spoke to me a truth that I've personally found comforting.
The family I grew up in I always considered the best (i.e. coolest, funniest, most creative), and there were oddities about us that made me particularly proud: no other girl's dad took them on twenty mile backpacking trips, no one else's mom was as beautiful or as talented, no one else's brothers were "wanted" by police at 5 years old or borrowed watermelons from neighbors or went fairy hunting with them up Logan Canyon. And no one else had pets like us: tarantulas, newts, salamanders we'd caught in the wild, a python, a parrot, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches that really did hiss when you picked them up. The neighbor kids approached our house the way you would an exotic petting zoo.
But we saw our fair share of frustrations, even heartaches. As a teenager, I once confided in my friend some of our troubles and she didn't believe me - she thought I was exaggerating - so I stopped telling anyone and just kept things to myself, which was often lonely and heavier than I could always manage. I knew an adult would've believed me. People talked about us, I was and still am sure of that.
The older I get, the more I realize that our experience was not all that rare. It might not have been the usual, but it wasn't unheard of, and besides, other families had troubles that, it turned out, we didn't.
Couched between these verses in Mark about troubled souls and lepers are verses that reveal they aren't the only ones suffering. When people find out what Jesus can do, they come in throngs until, at one point, "all the city was gathered together at the door." Suddenly everyone's a weirdo, everyone has problems they are begging to get fixed.
I still wonder if that student's star was a chance to express a deep-seated frustration at their own limitations and the unfairness of life that can feel (and be) crippling. Each struggle is real and difficult. At some point, everyone pines for a normality that feels out of reach. For some kids, any kind of normalcy would be miraculous. But it does help to realize, often later in life, that everyone is carrying their own burden and that even our version of abnormal is its own marvel. After all, the miraculous moments in this chapter come when the abnormal happens: men strike out for a new life, either from the fishing boats to the streets or from physical impairments to healing. Those moments, those transitions, are why we know them. They are people who, thousands of years later, give us hope.
I just wish I knew how to find that student - walking the halls, stressing over tests, wondering where they fit in, just like everyone else - to tell them too.