playtime communion

I wrote this for a WMF update letter a few months ago:

His eyes bear the weight of a lifetime: a lifetime of neglect and of abuse and of a million unmet longings to be noticed.  My eyes are fixed on his bony, 11-year-old body as he bounds toward me, his crooked smile bringing the slightest relief to those tired eyes.  He holds out his hand, long and skinny, in greeting, and we rehearse the handshake he’s taught me so many times—the one I can’t ever seem to get right.  At least today he laughs at me.

It is late May, and the children are restless.  The climbing temperatures and promises of summer vacation make homework time impossible, and so we go outside to play.  Alex*, the one whose eyes call out to me, grabs a tennis ball and tosses it in the air.  We play catch for a few minutes until we see another group of kids forming a circle for volleyball.  I ask him if he wants to play with the others, and he nods, but in a strangely reluctant way.  We hit the ball around for a minute until it is sent in Alex’s direction for the first time.  He looks up, sees it coming and then hesitates—long enough for the ball to nail him right in the face.  The other kids, like the normal kids they are, immediately start laughing and throwing arrows with their words right into his chest.  He turns and runs.  I follow.  I call his name, and he momentarily looks over his shoulder, tears streaming out of those sad eyes.  I pause, and he dashes behind the school building, fleeing from all of the things that hurt inside of him: the words of the other children, yes, but also all of those years of neglect.  Those years of never knowing that he is loved.

In a few minutes Alex reappears on the other side of the school and takes a seat on the steps.  His eyes are dry and sagging and stuck to the asphalt.  I try in vain to start a conversation with him, realizing quickly that he needs space.  There are several pieces of chalk on the steps, and he takes one, slowly rubbing it between those long fingers.

And I remember that he loves to draw.  I remember the way, just a few days ago, he excitedly showed me the notebook where he keeps all his sketches: his dreams and feelings and hopes for what could be.  I remember the way he gave me one of those drawings, the way he wanted me to have something created just by him.  And now he grasps the chalk more firmly and leans that bony frame of his toward the ground.  I am silent.

He begins slowly, a line here and there as his feelings begin to take shape.  I am not sure what he is drawing at first, and when I finally ask, his first words since being hit with the ball, formed quite matter-of-factly, are “a home.”

I am struck by the simplicity of his longing and suddenly find myself in Alex’s pain.  Isn’t that what we all hope for?  A home.  A place of security, of love, of stability.  A place where we know we won’t be abandoned, where we know that we are accepted as we are.  Home is a place where we can completely miss a volleyball pass and then turn cartwheels because it doesn’t matter.

Since that day in May I have grown closer to Alex.  Sometimes we play and enjoy each other and are free.  Other times we are angry and violent and completely out of control.  These wounds are not easily healed.  But I continue to choose to be present to him, to see him as he is and to pray.  And maybe he can see me as I am, too.  I realize that we are on this journey toward home together, two people whose dignity got a little bruised along the way.  And as we slowly learn to make our bruises visible to each other, whether they’re from the smack of a playground ball or the hell of abandonment, we find ourselves in this playtime communion becoming more and more human.

*Alex’s name has been changed for his protection.

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