Halfway through my son’s soccer game, sweet little Ashley climbed up the bleachers and asked if she could sit by me. We talked about the game, cheered for our team and then I asked her what she was going to do the rest of the day.
“Well, I have five dollars I have to spend.”
“Oh?” I asked, “What do you have to spend it on?”
She thought about it a minute and then said, “Probably a Barbie.”
I told her how I had loved Barbies as a little girl and how I had the Barbie convertible and the townhouse. And how Ken and Barbie liked to swim and go on vacation. I left out the part about them making out in the back of the camper. Ashley was quick to lose interest in my nostalgia.
“Do you play soccer?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Weeeeellll, I would, but I really like to dance and I was supposed to dance this year but then we missed a day to turn in my paper and we were going to turn in money but my mom said I couldn’t because she would have lost money so I don’t dance this year which is really too bad because I’ve been dancing a long time… ever since I was five.”
She’s six now.
By the end of the game, I had worked up an appetite. After all, it’s exhausting to sit on the bleachers and watch your son slide across a rain-soaked field, land on his head and get his neck stepped on, all while trying to keep up with a six-year-old’s stories.
I said goodbye to Ashley after returning her to her parents, made sure my son was okay before delivering him to his father’s car and drove to a nearby fast food restaurant. A bleach-blonde girl greeted me enthusiastically by name. It took me a while to register that it was Beth, as I was in a neighboring city. She seemed genuinely happy to see me and we chatted a bit as I ordered my food.
I met Beth when she was a shy, nervous 8th grader. Over the next few years, most of my memories involve her in some sort of trouble – at school, at home, with the law. Most of her photos on social media sites are highly seductive selfies or close-ups of weed.
Beth seemed to me the antithesis of Ashley, who comes from a home with two parents who love and nurture her. Who keep her safe and secure. To talk to Ashley in her young innocence is a delight.
Beth on the other hand, had a rough upbringing. Mom is missing from her life for whatever reason. Dad is in jail. Unlike Ashley’s bright hope and energy, there is a darkness that seems to surround Beth. And the truth is, it is hard for me to love people like Beth. Really love them. I mean, I can love them in my do-good, ethereal, Christian mind. I am friendly and kind; but deep in my heart there is judgment and disapproval.
As I wrestled with this unattractive character flaw, I kept asking myself why I had a distaste for kids like Beth, when in general I am a loving, accepting human being. It took me a few days of soul searching when it finally dawned on me: Looking at the hardened teenager that is Beth against the backdrop of the sweet face of Ashley stirred my personal caldron of confusing childhood memories.
Like Ashley, I had two parents who loved me and provided all the creature comforts I could ask for and more. Like Beth, there was family turmoil which caused me to latch on to anything that provided emotional comfort. As I consider Beth, I am confronted with the reality that in my formative years, I stood on a precipice of self-destruction. When I play the highlight reel of my life, those are not the clips I wish to review.
Yet they exist right alongside the clips of the happy, little girl playing Barbies in the basement. Fortunately, I’ve been to therapy and read self-help books by the dozens. I have joined in Bible studies and prayer groups and have done some honest, hard work toward being healthy.
But the psyche is a fragile place and although I now have categories in which to file the ups and downs of life, certain triggers can push me into a place where my character flaws rise to the surface. My trigger that day was seeing the dichotomy of these two girls, one drawing me into my own childhood innocence, while the other reminded me of some of my ugliest memories.
What I learned that day, and the days to follow, is that we are a conglomeration of stories. Mine was found in both Ashley and Beth. I was quick to embrace Ashley’s and quicker to reject Beth’s. But God wrestled with me until I could embrace both of them, until I fell into grace and peace and thanksgiving – to a God who loves me enough to reveal my flaws and my gifts. To a God who assures me time and again that in each story there is redemption.