Close your eyes, and think about your childhood as if it were written into a play, or a movie. What would the tone be? Which themes would repeat themselves, and who would play the central role? From the house you grew up in, to the town where it was located, to the landscape, what gave your childhood definition, a frame, an identity? Would there be music, or would it be silent?
So many things gave my childhood texture, and theme, definition and depth. Some of those elements grew out of a radical essence of joy and laughter, for those I can thank my mom. Others came out of a guttural sense of loss and longing, again, observed in my mom. But as I’ve been contemplating this post over the last few days, I started thinking about how absences shaped me. The negative space…
“Negative space is, quite simply, the space that surrounds an object in a image. Just as important as that object itself, negative space helps to define the boundaries of positive space and brings balance to a composition.”
I found this definition about negative space in art quite compelling and I feel like it defines parts of my life….it was the people who were missing….who shaped me by default.
If my childhood were a movie, there would be a scene of me in my room, late at night. First of all, they’d have to raid a 1970’s vintage wallpaper store to capture what was my yellow and pea green repeating pattern wall paper. But that’s neither here nor there. My room was on the third floor of our 150 year old house, and my windows looked out toward the train tracks. I was a night hawk as my mom would say, always struggled with being alone in my room at night.
In the scene, I would have turned my little body around, so that my head faced the footboard, and I would be gazing out the window. We lived right next to the Blackstone River, and directly next to that, were the train tracks. Every night I heard the train whistle, and the train would go by, and the little handles on my white bureau would jingle….And if the movie was cheesy, they would have me speak what I was thinking…wishing….that my sister would be on the next train home. That my brother would come back from Germany, and most urgently, that my dad would finally come back.
Well all of that sounds really sad and depressing….and there were moments….I was okay. Really. I was.
When you are the youngest in your family, and you are born 12 years after the first born, well….it’s pretty normal for you to be that last straggler left at home. Suzanne sat me on her lap when I was 6 to let me know she was going to YWAM. Of course, I did not understand what this mysterious and horrible place was-and why she would want to go there. And couldn’t I come? No, seriously, bring me.
While I would much rather have had my sister stay home, and keep sharing a room with me, where we often shared a twin bed, even though there were two beds in the room; her leaving taught me so many things.
It formed me by default.
While I stared out the window, hoping she’d arrive on the train, I thought about her. She was so brave, and so certain of her calling. She left, even though it was hard for her to venture out. She ran in the direction she felt God was calling her. She never said these things to me. But I was watching. It ached my heart to the core to have her leave, but I knew deeply that she wouldn’t leave if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. This taught me about conviction, and calling. It’s much harder if someone leaves, and you aren’t sure where you stand with them, but with Suzanne, it was clear. It was Jesus, then me. At least in my little 6 year old perspective. I was officially, her “Pumpkin-pie.”
Soon after my brother John graduated highschool, he decided to join the army. I literally have no memory of understanding that. All I knew was that he was in Germany, and had to work really hard to make his bed just right. He wrote us letters all the time. That was incredible-letters are very exciting to a little kid.
John was an enigma to me. We were 10 years apart, and well, our relationship was the typical big brother-little sister dynamics. He was like this rock star of sorts, but he lived in my house, and he never made his bed at home. Let’s be honest, neither did I. But anyhow-I looked up to him because he taught himself to play drums, guitar, and piano. He was handsome and hilarious-always the gregarious one in the room. John was always pushing the boundaries. He played rock music in a house that forbid it. He grew his hair out long, and stayed out all night. There were many loud “conversations” between he and my parents. I remember. Even as a little one, I think I was aware of the dissonance.
And then, he went into the army. What does a 7 year old know of the army? Very little. All I remember is that my rock star brother was in Germany-a place across the ocean.
When John came home unexpectedly, I really didn’t know why, but I had this sense that it was bad. The uncomfortable silences, the disappointment. I understood that his return meant that the rockstar remained, he could not be tamed. I, myself, was thrilled that he was home. What I realized and learned from his absence was the power of individual tendencies and how they stay with us-no matter where we run. It’s kind of an old story-has been used in many movies-and in even more college students. It’s not the location that makes us change. The army could not tame John. It wasn’t his thing.
Those days, during this time in my little world, my memories are fuzzy. I had the sense that I was only getting an edited version of the stories being whispered around me. Especially the fog swirling, whirling, and twirling around my dad, who was also-not home. The story of his absence did begin to clear-soon as I realized he was living right up the street at our neighbor’s house. Awkward.
So. Writing this part has taken me days. I keep working at it, and then I delete, close down my iPad, and walk away. I wrote in another blog that my relationship with my dad is the single most emotionally complicated and painful relationship in my life. And that is true. The absence of a father is, well, life changing.
I’ve hungrily read the research proving the scientific value of Dads. When a dad is around, this is more likely, or that is less likely. Teenagers are likely to make riskier decisions, seek love from the wrong places…etc… There are plenty of decisions I made in my young years, growing up, that I could point to, to prove that not having a dad around was bad news for me. But instead, I want to focus on the ways that I feel, after all those years, his absence has formed me.
What values, ideas, and thoughts on life did I form because he was gone? In his absence, what remained?
I think of the things it COULD HAVE taught me.
-we prayed for him to come home. He didn’t.
Lesson learned: God doesn’t answer prayers.
-he must not love me, otherwise, how could he leave?
Lesson learned: There’s something wrong with me
-church people told us for sure he was coming home-just wait
Lesson learned: Church people tell emotionally charged untruths based on their hopes and wishes, not on fact. Don’t trust them.
I know this sounds harsh. I really do. And of course, if I’m being honest, I believe that there might be little bits of these “lessons” left inside of me, that I need to work out. But overall-instead of coming out bitter and upset at God and the church, my faith grew. There is a part of me that sort of has a realistic faith when I pray for something specific-(like I’m going to pray, but still get the chemo) kind of realistic. Maybe that’s left over.
But here’s the better thing I learned from the negative space that my dad created. I believe that the deep crater that was left in me because of his absence was filled with a well of empathy and sympathy for those in pain. I believe that this longing to please, which lives inside every little girl was turned into a desire to serve. I have no doubt that it is why I went into food banking, and have a burden for people in poverty and experiencing oppression.
I also think that the experiences I had growing up gave me perspective on the ways that people interact with Jesus. I don’t think my dad had an outright problem with Jesus, but he was emotionally bankrupt-so the moments of true connection freaked him out. We need to be aware of these people in our lives, and churches. The people for whom community and church are really not easy. They might not need another giant hug or aren’t ready for time at the altar. My dad was never going to be the gregarious church guy. He was also not good at faking it. He was, who he was…every time. Surrendering to God can take a literal lifetime and a million mistakes. My dad prayed at the end of his life and asked God to forgive him. It struck me then, though, that Jesus didn’t “come back” to him at that moment that he prayed. It was like Jesus was just waiting quietly by the door, waiting for my dad to open it.
While there are seriously pages and pages of stories I could tell you-my mom alone could fill an entire blog-the ways that she forgave, laughed, loved, and worked so hard to keep our home “normal,” but those will be saved for another time. This story is about the negative space, and the absences. The negative space shines a light on the subject, and brings out it’s true value.