My hands were scrubbing a sink-full of plates and plastic bowls. My eyes were filling with a water of their own. Both a challenging situation in class, and a short night of sleep, were brimming over into the dishpan.
I wanted to be told that everything would be okay. And to get a hug.
Setting the dishes on the drying rack, I thought of others whose stories of challenge had come my way recently. Omar takes a class at our community center. He works long days but seems to smile unceasingly, despite his concern for his mother and siblings, still in a neighboring country at war. One day I asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, part of a class project on learning how to give directions. “Draw a map?” he said, that smile of his ever-present. “If I draw a map of my neighborhood, I will have to draw dead bodies.”
I had exchanged texts with my friend Zaina earlier in the week, asking her about life in her new home. Conflict displaced Zaina’s family more than a year ago; she and her husband, and their two children, have moved at least six times in the six months since I met them. “What you mean? I have one home, in Syria. Anything outside of Syria is a house.”
A quiet voice woke me early in the morning, after a gentle knock on the door of my current second-story bedroom. I am helping to care for my four youngest housemates while their parents are away, seeing them off to school in the morning– or, in this case, keeping them home. The voice whispered, “My tummy really hurts.”
She sat next to me on the couch later that morning, drawing, and I graded Poetry class homework. “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul,” we had read. One student defined perches as: an edible freshwater fish, providing me with a moment’s laughter, before I entrusted my sick young charge to another friend and left for class.
The week of late nights and early mornings was starting to take its toll, and for some reason I felt irritability stretching icy fingers around my soul as I got in the car. Shook it off temporarily by listening to some good music. But when I arrived to the predictable welcome outside the university– dozens of young guys who hang on the university steps between classes, and gape at me as I enter– the irritability flooded back. Don’t pay attention, I said to myself. This happens all the time to women here. Don’t let it bother you.
During class a few other young men lingered outside the door of my classroom, gawking through the window and talking loudly with each other. When, finally, even my students told me they were distracted by them, I had my (one) male student go out and tell them to leave. Then it was back to the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord Byron. Don’t let it bother you, I repeated, forcing focus from myself, for the students.
But my frustrations spilled over in the kitchen, when my hands were full and my soul had time and space for questions. “Lord, I know you see, but will you act?” To defend me. To heal sickness in a young one. To soothe the sorrows of my Syrian friend. Disconnected situations, fused by the element of brokenness.
When darkness means death in our neighborhoods, distance from our homes, disease in our bodies, and discrimination in our hallways– we need salvation.
A soft song was playing in the background, as I struggled with God and the sink:
I will lock eyes with the One who’s ransomed me
The One who gave me joy for mourning
I will lock eyes with the One who’s chosen me
The One who set my feet to dancing
—We Dance, from Bethel Music
When I lose perspective in the shadows, He’s still there. He is calling me to lock eyes with Him, even when I can’t see what will happen… Because there is that thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.
For a second story.