And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
From: The Divine Image
I am a glorified janitor, really. I mop the floors when everyone else has gone to bed. I disinfect the bathrooms, restock the toilet paper, do the dishes, straighten the shoes and empty the trash. I stay awake and work alone, and the keys jingle in my back pocket. In the morning when the cleaning is done, I stand on the deck of the house and drink my coffee, watching as the steam pulls off my mug and the sun pulls out of the dark. There are frogs singing in the slough in the backyard when the snow melts, and deer crackling through the trees that edge the property. I sip and bless those sleeping boys, and they sleep on unaware.
I work at a group home for behaviour rehabilitation. There are five boys who live in this house between thirteen to sixteen years old, ranging from short-ish to very tall, from very round to growing muscles. They are sweet and dangerous and they would just as soon hug me as hit me. They live here because they are hard to live with. They are hard to live with because their lives have been hard to survive. They have been bumped from home to home, growing wounds along with scars along with violent tendencies along with anger and tempers and distrust, and ended up here with the hope that we, the staff, could teach them how to make it through school, keep a job, and imagine some sort of future worth working toward. And we all struggle with hope.
Most of the time I work the weekend overnights. I get to the house and the boys are hyped up on chips and pop and Friday night. I ask about their week and they grunt, or show me their new stereos and clothes and remote control cars and, if I play my cards right, about the girls they like. Then I work to get them into their rooms close to on time. I tuck them in to their beds with wheels, alongside walls without pictures and over porn shoved under mattresses. Sometimes I get a, “good night” and sometimes I get a, “fuck you.” Wait for it.
Once, when I first start working at the home and because I don’t know what else to do, I tuck a suspicious-eyed twelve-year old into bed and tell him the story like my mom used to do with the blankets when I was a kid.
Me: It was a warm, sunny day. The birds were singing, the sun was hot. It was beautiful. But then, one white cloud puffed by gently and paused, covering the sun. [Pulling the top sheet over his face.]
Me: Soon, there was another cloud, and then another. They collected and filled the sky, blocking the sun until no blue remained. [Pulling the blanket up and over his face.]
Me: [Loudly and frantically] But then the clouds kept coming, pouring into the sky like water into a glass until the birds flew quietly for cover and the sky was as black as night. [Puling the quilts over his face.]
Me: [Shake bed, bounce mattress, roar and swish like a storm.] And the wind wailed, breaking branches, bending trunks, ripping tress from the ground. And the rain fell hard and fast drenching the entire land, filling rivers, drowning all green things growing.
Me: It blew and stormed and raged until it tired itself out, until, eventually, the rain slowed to a drizzle, a drip and then stopped completely. The harsh wind died down into a gentle breeze, and slowly, bit by bit, blew the storm clouds away until pieces of blue showed through, and then finally, one last puff and the sun burnt through the last white cloud and shone bright and hot on the wet world below. [Folding back all the blankets from his face.]
He looks up at me uncertain. Maybe a little bit thrilled. But I can’t tell exactly, his face is so hard to read. I want to laugh. It was laughable, this tucking in of a strange teenager with this gentle parental intimacy that I was paid to perform. I want him to love it.
Later, when I read his case history in the office, I cry quietly under the harsh hum of the fluorescent lighting, hoping the sound won’t carry down the heating vents into his room and his dreaming.
Every night I close their doors when I am done tucking them in and they are all in bed. I walk up the stairs and shout out that I am turning on the alarms. No one can leave their rooms without my knowing it.
“As snug as a bug in a rug,” as my mom would say.
When I was a kid, my dad used to bring home all kinds of strays to us. It started with a cat shoved inside his winter coat one cold afternoon. She had a violent temper from a broken tail and so we kept her in the garage until it had healed and then brought her inside and named her Muffin. She showed us her gratitude by leaving dead mice in our shoes, a bloody rabbit on our stairs and by sleeping on our necks at night. My dad said she was as ugly as sin, but really, she was just a calico. We all loved her.
After Muffin there was a dog, a mouse, and more cats, but most of the strays my dad brought home were men: alcoholics, drug addicts and thieves: broken faces, broken souls, broken lives. If love is taking pity on people, or in being able to see yourself reflected in them, if love is the desire to help, then my dad loved these men. They were friends of friends, men from support groups he attended and brothers of men he worked with. He heard their stories, held their hands in his rough mechanic ones, cried with them, prayed with them and hugged them like he hugged his children. And then he brought them home to us.
My teen years were filled with strangers sleeping in the spare room we called the office but which was really just a space to store junk until we needed to clear it for the men. The smell of their despairing unwashed bodies slipped under the door, down the hallway and into the rest of the house. At suppertime they sat beside me at the end of the table. I ate and breathed through my mouth, trying to be discreet about not inhaling their moist mushroom smell. I passed them the potatoes without touching their fingers. Avoided smiling. Smiling encouraged talking, and when they talked they told such strange stories of loss and shame and salvation and pride that I never knew what to say even while knowing that they only wanted to be heard – that need for repetition, for telling the truth until the anchor holds, until it becomes true.
They also knew God. Once we sat all together on the brown flowered couch, on the almost matching brown carpet and watched: this video on rock music and the devil – because they knew God, but they were familiar with hell. There was the beating moth flutter of thrill in my chest, that quick hot sweat on my neck, and then there was the glory of Sin Uncovered! Sin Made Shameful! Sin Destroyed! like the glory of the gore of the guts of a car crash. Like the thrill of gossip. There was in this video, as in their lives, as in their stories that simple slicing and dividing of good from evil, Christian from secular, sheep from goats, heaven from hell, and I was sucked up like pop through a straw. The devil wanted me. It was cosmic. Until the movie ended and I went to bed. The sweat cooled, the flutter tired. A few days later I took my chances and shook the devil off my back and sent him back to hell. I kept my music.
I was almost hit this morning. I stood a foot away from one of the boys at the group home and he lowered his six-foot tall self into my face and yelled, “Shut-up!” two inches from my eyes. We stood there. Then I escorted him to his room, and he slammed the bedroom door as hard as he could.
I taught him how to bake a pie this past summer. It was a hot night with the sun not yet set. I stood in the backyard with a pair of scissors in my hand, intending to cut some fresh flowers for the house when I saw a patch of wild Saskatoon trees hanging thick and heavy with purple berries. The four other boys had gone to a movie for the evening, and this one tall kid was left home for bad behaviour. So I asked if he wanted to help pick, and he surprised me by saying yes.
We sprayed each other’s arms and backs with mosquito spray and the first few berries tasted like the chemicals on our hands and made my lips numb, and then we filled a large plastic bucket full. It was easy. He held the branches for me and I brushed the berries off of them and into the box with my purple fingers. We talked, mostly about his family, about how he wished he could go camping with his mom again, about the father he had never met, and about how proud he was of his baby sister.
I am my father’s daughter. I wanted to bring that berry picking, homesick kid home, take him camping and give him a family that knew how to love him without the hurting. So I listened, and then we went inside and I taught him how to make a pie. We made one each, and when I showed him how to roll out the top crust onto wax paper and then flip it on top of the berries he laughed at the trick and then spent half an hour pinching the crusts shut just so, pricking it with the tines of the fork and sprinkling sugar to make it crunch. We baked them, and his looked so pretty and he did such a good job that I took a picture. "Smile," I said, but of course, he wanted to look tough. In oven mitts.
I am not supposed to sleep at work. I am supposed to clean, bake, file, cook, count knives, make notes, prepare the next night’s dinner. But I don’t like the smell of pork roast cooking at three in the morning, and I am not so good at the staying awake part of my job description. I am a mediocre maid.
But there is another kid, a very large, thirteen-year old boy with green hair and a round soft stomach that lives here, too. This boy has, on occasion, wrapped his massive arms around me, kissed me on the cheek and said that he loves me. I wipe my face off when he isn’t looking and tell him the truth, which is that I love him, too. Sometimes, he comes up out of his room early in the morning and I sit with my coffee on the couch and we talk about whatever he wants to talk about, which is usually video games, but is sometimes God and love and, “Angela, what is the purpose of life besides being happy and increasing other people’s happiness?” I tell him what I think, and I am continually amazed at how articulate he is, and how generous his beliefs are. He has taken the hits, massive hits, bigger than adult-sized hits, adapted to pain and is still willing to swim around in joy when he can find it. He makes my heart hurt, and I am very glad to know him.
Tonight, he has walked up into the living room and flopped himself onto the couch across from me. He should have been asleep hours earlier. He knows this full well and that he is pushing the rules with all this plopping down willy-nilly as if it were the middle of the day instead of the middle of the night.
There should be a patron saint of the overnight shift. I would hang his image from my neck, buy his icon and carry it with me in my bag, make bookmarks of his pleading face to keep me true to the cause. His eyes in all of these would be round and dry, his greasy hair standing on end, there would be a raised mug of coffee in one hand and a bottle of pills in the other. All three of his obligatory miracles would include not falling asleep under devastatingly comfortable and tiring situations. His virtue would be patience. A miracle in itself.
So the green haired boy is not sleeping, not in his room where he should be, wide awake and requiring love. But I am dead tired. So tired I almost miss it. I almost hurry him downstairs and back to his room, not because he is breaking the rules like I say, but because I don’t really care why he can’t sleep, and I want him out of my face so that I can. Except that he is terrified. He is not pretending in order to stay up longer. I can see that now. He is afraid. And his fear wakes me up.
I let him sleep on the other couch across from me. I tell him I will sit and watch, that I will stay with him until he feels safe again, because really, there is no reason for him to not be afraid. There have been monsters and they have all been real.
So I sit across from him and read my book as his breathing slows and his body relaxes. I fill the role of, Woman On Couch; Another Human Being; A Touchstone to Reality. And I play gate keeper to his demons for a night, not even a night, a moment, and it is the best thing I have ever done for him. I am faceless, could be faceless, he will not remember this sitting together or even me, one amongst the many paid parents who have passed through his life, but it doesn’t matter right now. I get to do this, give him this one thing I have, and I am all gratitude.
We stay like this, me reading, him half watchful, until the shift into the calm and he sits up slowly, heavily, and looks at me.
“I think I can go back to my bed now. Thank you.” And he does.
Sometimes, Love is the ugliest one in the room. It’s face is set like stone, it walks blindly, mostly backwards with hands full of the mundane and is clothed in indistinguishable days; it has a cankered tongue from all the biting and mumbles ridiculous things like, “Blessed are the poor.”
I was a kid living with men who were living with addictions. What I knew about love and what I knew about addictions could be written and rolled on a cigarette paper: it was a disease; love could save them from the illness. Yes. Of course. It was a questionable thing for my dad to do – tossing these men into our home. Yes. But that’s not the point now. What I’m trying to say is that I knew nothing of love.
I was a kid then. Really. How much can you expect? To love another person, they say, is to see the face of God, but seeing God’s face is also just as likely to kill you. Love has a lot to do with dying, with the sacred suicide of selfishness, and it’s hard going. Sometimes even the experts throw in the towel, throw up their hands, walk away, return, walk away again.
Passion is a cheap commodity and the easiest response to injustice. Any passion will do in the moment, and it doesn’t really matter what form if finds because it takes very little energy or thought to see a starving child or a battered woman and then feel that hot flush of anger rise and radiate. The problem being that the straw burns bright and the straw burns fast and leaves a cold ash in its going.
It became a strange, institutionalized version of a home; I got dressed before coming down to breakfast, waited my turn for the T.V., labelled my leftovers and wandered around the house not knowing where to sit. Displaced. My love, propped up by pity, grew thin and cold, confused, until I began to resent them. They were moody, dirty, awkward and demanding. This was not love, I thought, not what I had expected - my curt responses, my irritation, their ingratitude, this sharing a table, a T.V., a bathroom. Good God, the bathroom!
I felt guilty as all hell, swam in it, guilty to the ends of my toes and tip of my head that I wanted these down and lost, forgotten and abused, lonely and needy men out of my life. Wanted my home back. My supper table. My stranger-less house. Guilty that I did not, could not, would not feel love for them as I thought I should. And the guilt was a balm for the failure as much as it was a wounding from it.
I have wondered since, still wonder, why love in the everyday puts on such disguises, why it fools us all with its lack of fanfare and sturdy shoe sensibilities, why it looks so much more like punching the time clock than anything close to beautiful. I was a kid, but I got to see love move, love flounder, love try, reach for transformation.
They didn’t make it. All the men that stayed with us eventually crashed and burned. They left our house, our lives - one of them with thousands of my parents dollars - and continued their descent. Except that that is not the entire truth. They crashed and rose. Crashed and rose. Crashed and rose. Like some sort of phoenix forever dying and being reborn. Like the rest of us but magnified, brighter flames, a hotter burning.
I can mark the moment when I turned, at least turned if not moved toward a deepening. The morning I watched the sun rise and prayed at the group home while the boys slept, and asked God to teach me how to love better. He said, “Wash the floors.” I laughed, “No, God, teach me how to love better,” and He said, “Do the dishes.” Hurt, I asked a third time, “God, teach me how to love,” and He said, “Feed my sheep.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh.”
There are nights still when I am a sorry lover. When I don’t give a damn. When I skip washing the floors, sweep the crumbs under the rug, fall asleep and forget to listen. And those nights I resent the boys for the piss on the linoleum, the snot smeared on the tub and the shit on the floor that I have to scrape off with a knife. I forget, or ignore, or push aside the history of abuse that has brought these boys here, to these behaviours, and I swear a blue streak when even the knife won’t take it off. Sometimes, it’s the same old shit every week. Literally. Sometimes, these boys shrink to the size of a paycheque and not a very big one at that. And then my hot guilt rises again, I dig down for the easy passion and burn bright for a moment. But there is only cold ash in the end of these nights. That there is love, that it moves like an impossible shadow sewed to the smooth soles of my feet and that it cannot be lost despite my straying is miracle enough to bring me back to trying again.
Now, I am at my own home and the sun is beginning to set. The trees are bare against a yellow-grey sky and the brown grass is glowing electric. The day is dying. Later tonight I will get in my car and drive in the dark to the group home. The boys will be hyped up on pop and chips, and maybe the one that almost hit me this morning will like me again tonight, or maybe not, but if not tonight then next weekend for sure, because we are none of us easy to love here and we know it, stake our lives on second chances. Love is doing time. Love is a magical punch clock.
Tomorrow morning I will stand on the deck, drink my coffee and pray for deer. I will place my palms against the rail and pray goodness into the lives of these boys. And I will pinch myself to stay awake.
“Love is here.” I will remember.
“God is here.”
“Love is a boy asleep in this house.”
And Love will say to me then, “Go inside, dear Stray, and eat up the good morning with your toast.”