The God of my childhood embodied justice. Cohesion. A God deeply troubled by iterations of human-wrought injustice. The ground of being riven by spilled blood. My early years rang with the sonorous cadences and exhortations of Martin Luther King Jr., and I in turn, stood on the hillside in front of our house and preached, intoning Dr. King, imploring the maple trees and the skunk cabbage and my imaginary congregation, to hew justice from the stone face of segregation. And then, I would traipse inside, settling into the caress of my family: my parents who called me their soul child and my older brother whom I adored. When that embrace unraveled, so did my connection to God.
At thirteen, my parents had divorced; my mother had informed me during a Florida vacation that she, my four-year-old sister and I would not be going back home to Tennessee. Rather, we would go directly to a new apartment in Tallahassee. A couple of months later, my brother died in a fiery car accident. Suddenly, I lived in an unfamiliar place, far from my father, frantically stuffing my grief where the reality of my childhood was rendered invisible. Long before I heard the language of reassembling divine fragments, God shattered into a million shards. I railed against the splintering, simultaneously eschewing the incipient femaleness of body that did not abate. I sought to erase myself: hiding my face behind the hank of hair that fell across my forehead, donning my brother’s shirts, skulking about, a would-be miscreant, blowing smoke rings, refusing to wash my hair.
That year in Florida when my grades plummeted at the tiny private day school where I had skipped eighth grade, going straight into ninth, no one asked why. My mother, caught in the cord of her own severing, wrote on my report card that I knew I had to apply myself and raise my grades if I expected to remain enrolled. Nice girls in my class graciously resisted commenting on my unkempt greasy hair, my desperate attempt at androgyny, and my complete lack of athletic prowess. My mother implored me to invite them over and then asked why I worked so hard to make myself so ugly. So my outsides will match my insides I wanted to say.
In a body that felt more like a betrayal than a vessel of divine light, I could not yet mourn my brother so instead I reckoned with the inevitability of femaleness. Sadly, all that meant at thirteen was that I had become someone expected to be sexual with boys and thus, I betrayed myself.
The next summer, my mother decided we should return to Tennessee. Relieved though I was to be back, I moved through tenth grade thinking of myself as a failed heterosexual. At fifteen, I had not been on a date and when my father dragged me to a Planned Parenthood conference on teen sexuality (the year he served as president of the local chapter), I made a vow of celibacy, horrified by the contraceptive displays. The thought of pregnancy terrified me even more than the fear a classmate would slip a tab of acid into a drink. I had resumed showering by then but if the spray of water hit my upper arm in a way that afforded a pleasurable sensation of warmth, I moved. There could be no embodiment of tenderness in the temple of desolation.
When the school yearbook arrived at the close of tenth grade, I flipped to my class picture and literally erased it. Yearning for solace in the shape of normalcy, I chose to spend the summer with my aunt, uncle, and cousins. My father lived with a younger lover who repeatedly asked me to let her know if I wanted to “go on the Pill,” and my mother opted to stay with her much younger lover at his house in the boonies. All I wanted was to be around apparently chaste people who prayed on Friday night and never mentioned sex.
Thankfully, adolescence ends. If we are lucky, we age out of it. And I have found, the thirteen-year-old who didn’t get to grieve any of the losses and the fifteen-year-old who harbored such self-disdain accompanied me into adulthood. A year and a half ago, at a five-day retreat designed to reconnect participants with joy by identifying what blocks it, my thirteen-year-old emerged, asking me to engage in whatever process could help her heal. She wanted the truth of her experience expressed. She wanted a witness, some acknowledgement, and finally enough tenderness to reach back through almost five decades to reassemble the divine fragments that lay scattered everywhere. The fifteen-year-old lurked out of view: observing, reckoning with the toll of disembodiment.
At the time of the retreat, I worked in a juvenile court diversion program where I had the privilege of bearing witness, offering some acknowledgement, and hopefully enough tenderness for the adolescents I met with to glimpse their divine fragments awaiting re-assembly. The youths I encountered each instructed me. Two in particular. Sisters, young teens, they each house their own grief; they feel the shards that press into their flesh, the serrations that tear spirit and psyche. They are brave, resilient. Wise. One said to me, “Everyone tells me I am strong. What I want is space to be weak.”
When the position ended, I kept in touch. The older sister moved out of state to live with another family member. She quit talking to me before she left. Perhaps my vulnerable candor abraded her armor. Her sister decided she would spend time with me. She reminded me of thirteen-year-old Leaf. Dark brown hair falling across her forehead. Androgynous sportswear preferable to girly outfits or binary pronouns. We met for several weeks, often sitting in my car. Each time I said, “This is optional. You don’t have to talk to me. I am not here because it’s my job. I do it because I like you and I learn from you.” Mostly though, I showed up because I finally got to be the kind of adult I needed when I was thirteen.
Gradually, conversation has flowered. I have earned her trust. My inner-thirteen-year-old sits in the back of the Mini Cooper, listening, inhaling warm accompaniment, exhaling the relief of gentle witness. Sometimes, adolescent Leaf nudges me. Tell her that’s how I felt, too. So I do. And in that moment when a kid trapped in the circumstances of her life looks at me and bears witness to the thirteen-year-old in me, a gracious healing happens.
The older sister returned a couple of months ago. I saw her briefly when I came to get her sister. Shyly, she waved. I grinned and waved back. Six weeks later, she texted me, apologizing for the way she had treated me. She wanted me to know her rudeness had nothing to do with me. She expressed regret for her behavior, gratitude for my friendship, and hoped I could forgive her.
I texted back: “Of course I forgive you. While I was sad you were upset and didn’t want anything to do with me, I had a feeling it wasn’t really about me. I didn’t quit caring or loving you. I just kept holding you in my good thoughts.”
A week and a half later, we sit outside on a raw, windy April afternoon, six feet apart (as coronavirus precautions would have it). “I’ve missed talking to you,” she says, her long dark hair shimmering, her face filled with light. When she goes inside for a phone call, her younger sister comes out. I ask how they’ve been getting along.
“We had a moment in the treehouse.”
What kind of moment?”
“We agreed not to tell on each other for little things or big ones.”
A few minutes later the older sister returns.
“I hear you two are getting along.”
“Yeah, it occurred to me, instead of hating each other, why not be friends?”
Thirteen-year-old Leaf nods, knowing the pain of a sibling lost too early, an absence that grows as I age. “You are sisters for life so if you can be allies, all the better.”
The older sister says she doesn’t want interrupt if we aren’t done. I ask the younger one if she wants more time alone to talk and she nods. I tell the older sister, “I love you” tapping my fist on my heart.
“I love you, too.”
A few nights later, I text her to check in. She tells me she’s had a rough time with the persistence of thoughts that threaten to unhinge her. I stare at the text unsure how to respond. My inner-fifteen-year old dictates the reply that while I can’t change her thoughts or feelings, I can keep her company. Witness, acknowledgment, warm accompaniment.
What we offer, we receive ourselves.