Monday, November 26, 2007

The little girl's tattoo.

The little girl’s tattoo.

My wife and I spent Thanksgiving in Pensacola, Florida. Since our kids go to bed awesomely early, 6:30 eastern, we were stuck in the hotel by ourselves at 5:30 central time every night. There are few things as depressing as sitting on a bed for five straight hours in a Sleep Inn hotel room.

The room had kind of this potpourri of bad smells. It was part smoke, part cat, part old Hardee’s hamburger. It was admittedly a good time to catch up with my wife, but after a few straight days of staring at the super tiny television, we were both a little stir crazy.

One night I walked down to the BP gas station that was beside the hotel. There is something about walking places that makes everything feel cooler. Even if you’re just getting an energy drink and beef jerky. I mean I knew I wasn’t in the city, but it’s the closest thing I’ve had since we moved from Boston.

Behind the counter at the gas station was a sad woman in her mid thirties. She looked tired, like maybe life was hard for her a decade too soon. Like maybe she didn’t get to be a kid long enough and all that adulthood was starting to catch up on her.

On the outside of her hand was a small greenish gray tattoo of an X. It was simple really, about the size of a quarter, but it was impossible to miss. I was curious about what it meant, so I asked her the significance. Here is her response:

“Oh that? That doesn’t mean anything. My mom gave me that one night when she was drunk.”

That was a kind of weird answer, so I asked her how old she was when it happened. She scrunched up her face for a second in concentration and then said, “I think I was 13.”

When I was 13, I was really concerned about my clothes. I think Champion sweatshirts were popular then and I was worried that mine wouldn’t be the right color. Or maybe that my mom would buy me a Knights of the Round Table shirt instead of Polo. Or that I would have Reeboks instead of Nikes. These were the kinds of things I focused on because at that age, kids would tease you for the smallest thing.

But what about showing up one Monday with a jagged green x tattooed on your hand? What was that experience like? How would kids react to that? Didn’t it hurt when her mom gave her that? I thought about that the rest of the trip and was considering writing about the marks that our parents give us. They’re not all as obvious as that and many are actually positive, but I realized that was a narrow way to look at it, because it’s not just parents that give us marks. It’s coworkers and spouses and friends and strangers. And when we don’t know they’re there, sometimes they actually stick.

I got fired once from a job because I wasn’t a good writer. My boss actually said, “You should think about becoming a salesman.” I was crushed, really, for years I carried around the mark of “failed writer.” I gave so much value and validity to that experience that for a long time I believed in my heart that I wasn’t a good writer. I was a hack. I should quit and become a salesman.

I wish there was one single event when I shook off that mark, but there isn’t. More than anything it’s been a long series of believing that I am not a bad writer, I am a son of God. I am not a fired employee, I am God’s work of art. And the more I have been open to believing that, the more he’s shown me it’s true.

The thing I realized, is that no experience can change that. My relation to God is not a mark. It is not a big tattoo or a little sticker, it is who I am. I can not completely cover that up or blot it out with failure. The prodigal son tries, he completely messes up his life. But more importantly, he shows how sometimes, the worst marks are the ones we give ourselves. “I’m a bad husband. I’m a terrible employee. I’m ugly.”

These are the words we sometimes hear from ourselves and they are the kind of words the prodigal son tries to say to his father. When he rehearses his coming home speech, he decides to conclude it with, “make me like one of your hired men.” That was the last thing he was going to say. But when he speaks to his father, that is the one thing he is not allowed to speak. The rest of his speech comes off without a hitch. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

These words are delivered without incident, but he doesn’t ever get to say “make me like one of your hired men.” Why is that?

Why are those eight words left out? You can certainly read that as just accidental, that regardless of the words, the father was going to cut him off before he finished speaking. And maybe that’s right. Maybe I am way over reading into that story and Christ meant us not to look that hard at the words. But when I read that, I read a father stopping a son from saying something the father would never do. The father would never make him like one of his hired men. He would never give the son a new mark of slavery. He would never call him employee, instead of son. So he doesn’t even let those words out. He stops him because no new mark would be given that day. The old mark, the one at the core of the prodigal son, still holds true.

And pigpen and prostitutes or not, that is the one the father will always choose to see.

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