I was jumping on the couch with scissors. The reason I remember is because I didn’t do things like that. I was the oldest kid, the responsible one.
Abundance had made me sturdy, with thick, auburn hair and wit enough. I did chores, made A+’s on school papers, and watched the “little kids.” I was the one who could be trusted.
We had foster kids in the house that year, a sweet little white-blonde boy and his sister. They always looked faded to me, fragile, like their skin was too thin. Their only real color stared out somber from storm blue eyes.
They would come to us from their parents covered in bruises, hanks of hair torn out, bloody from diaper rash. Mom and Dad offered to move overseas if the state would just let us adopt them out of the hell they were living. Permission was denied.
So they came to us over and again, flinching into the sanctuary of our home. The transition wasn’t easy. These were children from war, and sometimes we had to train them gently. I say “we,” because maternity is what oldest daughters feel a lot of the time, even when they shouldn’t.
This is why what happened doesn’t make sense. I was jumping on the couch with scissors. It just wasn’t like me.
We lived in the edge of a woods near an Ohio soybean field. I could look outside the front window behind the sofa and watch the wind blow through a square half-mile of fluttering greens.
The sheers Mom kept over the windows were that light, white synthetic that billows into a slow curl in a summer breeze. Ever since I can remember, I have found wind in sheers intoxicating, and that day there was a sheen to them that would dazzle and swell into a glaze then tuck and cool into blue shadows. It felt like a wall of the ocean, tickling my arms as I jumped.
I was a pirate. A pirate! And the sheers were the sails of a ship! Attack!
I opened my scissors and felt thrill run through my veins. Snap, snap! I was fearless. Argh! Avast! Snap! Snap!
To be a little bit bad was delicious. Unless you have been the good girl, you might not understand that, but in those moments the constant internal pressure was gone. I was wild and free as a boy.
Snap snap! The wind tossed the sheer into my scissors. I couldn’t stop them from closing fast enough, and the fabric split like a wound.
My throat tightened. I didn’t know what to do with a mistake; especially a flagrant, terrible, knew-better, expensive mistake. (Sheers could cost as much as a car, for all I knew. There were only two categories of purchases when I was eight: things that parents could afford, and things that could be purchased with quarters.)
So, I did nothing. Silently, I crawled down from the couch and slipped the scissors in the drawer. I hoped nobody would notice, knowing they would.
Mom did notice, but she didn’t suspect what no one would have. Me. The good one.
When the time came to blame someone, I don’t remember her even asking. She started with my birth brother. Then she asked the war children who sometimes lied about things.
They denied it like they denied everything.
I said nothing and let the deepest darkest shame I had ever felt settle inside me like an iron wall. There were consequences. I let those children pay them. I watched my lie cost the innocent sadness. It seemed to happen in slow speed and fast forward all at once, and I couldn’t figure out how to undo any of it.
A new identity sank into my bones, cold as dread. I was the sort of person who lets abused children take blame on her behalf. The slit in the sheers opened and shut in the wind like lips, shouting a silent accusation.
Have you known shame yet, Child? Have you ever done something so black you hid? Have you walked around the new name shame has given you – Cheater, Coward, Thief, Liar, Adulterer, Murderer, Blasphemer – felt it sink into your bones ice and iron?
I can see why the humanists brace against such things. They accuse the church of putting impossible demands upon people who can’t help but do what people do. They urge us to relax into the animals we are. Morality is a myth, an invention of the church, a strategy designed to control the masses.
There is some truth to this. What men have often called the church (whether it was connected to Jesus or not) has been – at times – little more than a system of rules. It has tweaked and critiqued like a mortician picking hairs off the nose of a corpse.
And yet, I have watched the ends of the argument of projected morality for decades now, and I have seen how it resolves very little. It is an empty promise of a different sort. I have watched the strength of man sticking out its chin, declaring that it is just fine flying solo, thanks. I have seen how it is not fine at all. It treads water.
Here is the way I have come to understand it. Shame hurts because it is based upon a deep human understanding that good exists and that we have failed to live it out. It exists also because we have an accuser who wants to make the most of our lack. He hates us. He hunts us, whispering two options over us. We must either mock the concept of sin (free at last!) or misbelieve that the fairy goodness of grace could apply to us. Harden or rot. Either will suffice.
(to be continued…)