A Magpie for the Lord

By

God is a balloon that escaped from a used auto dealership.

Debbie was my mom’s friend. I do not know how we first met her. I remember driving quite a ways to her apartment. It was very clean. She had a large, old stereo system and she liked to listen to Celine Dion. She had a few plants she took care of. She had a teenage son who was always either in his room or out with his friends. She had a blue recliner with a handmade afghan in browns and oranges draped across it. This is the chair she sat in when she didn’t feel very good. This is the chair she sat in often, because Debbie was dying of AIDS.

Debbie sometimes stayed at our house for a night or two. My mom said AIDS wasn’t contagious like other diseases, but still, my two sisters refused to give up their beds for her. I said I would. Later, after the sheets had been cleaned I would lay in my bed and wonder what it meant to be so sick. What it meant that you could make one mistake, that you could go to a party and shoot up drugs right before you went into rehab, and have your entire life change. I was eleven years old. Debbie had a hoarse voice and a terrible haircut and her face made her appear so much older than my mother. She always smelled like cigarettes, but I don’t think she smoked. We took her to food banks and got boxes and cans and put them in paper bags, we unloaded them into her cupboards, I sat on the floor as my mom and Debbie talked and I looked at the Celine Dion CDs. I knew Debbie was poor. I knew we were trying to help her, in our small ways. I knew my mom was trying to help us not be afraid.

*

God is slowly deflating, wafting along the winds created by the traffic from the nearby road, glancing off light poles and taqueria signs.

We spent Thanksgiving at the homeless shelter. I was very young and was tasked with passing out cups of punch. Everyone else was very old and white, perhaps veterans. They smiled at me and I knew I was shy and blonde and young. They ate their turkey and mashed potatoes, and drank cups of punch. I was an assembly line of goodness, I was on the other side of the divide. I did not think that they were poor. I thought they were very, very lonely.

*

God is bright yellow, and full of love for the world.

There was a group home in our small Wyoming town. The teenagers from the home came to our church. My older sister became friends with them. I think my mother was a little worried. My sister was outgrowing her obsession with sunflowers, she was reading romance novels, she was wearing clothes that my mother did not consider appropriate. My sister became friends with one particular girl, Cynthia, who I thought was very beautiful. She would come over and spend a few nights and she would sleep and sleep and sleep. She slept on the trundle bed in my sister’s room. We tiptoed around the door.

“Why is Cynthia sleeping so much?” I would ask my mother.

“I think she is depressed,” my mother told me. Cynthia was trying to sleep away her troubles. She wanted to wake up in a better world, one in which she did not live with a group of troubled teenagers, where she was not forced to attend a tiny church on Sundays in a windswept town. She wanted to be at rest.

I could see that, even as a child. I could see how much we all wanted that for her, but we were powerless to give it. I started to wonder how to become a vessel for the Lord, a phrase my mother was always using. I started to wonder what it would mean to be a container for the grief and sin and sickness and trauma and joy and curiosity and humor all around. I was a magpie for the Lord, my eyes wide looking for shiny spots of hope to pick them up and treasure them. What do we do when we become obsessed with a kingdom made for the poor, when we ourselves are not poor? What do we do when we long to crack, to spill just the tiniest bit of all that we have accumulated and held so tightly?

*

God is slowly making its way down to the asphalt, where it will be crushed.

For a few weeks we took in a girl from foster care. She was my age, a few months younger. Her name was Holly, and she had brown hair cut in a bowl shape around her face. She slept in the same room as me and my younger sister. We slept in the bunkbeds, she slept on a bed on the other side of the room. Holly told me I had to tell everyone that she was older than me. I didn’t want to, because it wasn’t true. I wondered why this was so important to her. A friend from church told me that Holly used to wear her mother’s clothes to school, high heels and lipstick and everything. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, a fourth grader in high heels, sensing a need to be grown already. Holly wet the bed and told my parents it was me. I stood rigid and indignant, quivering to tell the truth. My mother gave me a look that I knew meant I had to be quiet. But I also could see that she knew it was a lie, and this relaxed me a little bit. After a few short weeks, Holly was gone. I do not know if she went back to her home. I don’t remember her ever talking about her parents. I could not imagine her life. I lived in a modular home on the grounds of the church where my dad worked. My mother cried a lot, and took long walks in the fields every morning. My sisters and I did our chores and our school work without much prompting. We played with our stuffed animals and read books in our beds and jumped on our trampoline. What would it be like to not be us? We were trying to figure out so much about the world then, and this is something we could never get to the bottom of.

*

God is a spot of beauty in a dark world.

One Christmas my family went to the community hall. Our dad took us, because our mom was feeling sad. On the stage were mountains and mountains of presents, all nicely displayed on tables. The kids all wrote down their names on a piece of paper, and a man in a funny red hat would spin a large metal cage and pick out a name. That kid got to go up and pick out any present they wanted. We waited and waited for what felt like hours. Finally my name was called. I went up, and the stage lights were on. It was hotter than I was expecting. The man was excited for me, and I shrank into myself. I wanted to look at each toy, I wanted to glory in how beautiful and new they were. But I didn’t have time. I ended up picking out a plastic camera and a book that went along with it, teaching kids how to use photography. Later, we went home. My sisters and I could not believe this place was real. If felt like a dream: a room full of toys, where anyone could get something. My dad seemed very happy for us. We didn’t understand it was charity, because we never knew that we were in need.

*

God is a wonder available to everyone.

When my daughter was four, we went to the community center for a cultural event. We ate the Somali food and listened to the speeches and watched the teenagers recite poetry into the garbled microphone. We hung around because my daughter wanted very much to win a raffle prize. I smiled tightly. I did not want her to win. I knew everyone around us had less money. She started to cry, when at the end of the night she had not won anything. There were only a few kids left, hanging around the event organizer who was calling out the numbers in three different languages. My daughter, the only blonde child, was at the front of the room with the last few stragglers. Finally someone took pity on her and said she could pick a toy out of the small pile up front. She chose a Jasmine doll, while I stood to the side and frowned.

“Are you sure you want that?” I said.

“Yes.”

She was defiant and overwhelmed, tear streaks still on her face. I knew she didn’t need it. I was overcome by the urge to take the doll out of my daughter’s hand and give it to someone more deserving, to take away her joy and force the world to be equitable in this small way. But I didn’t. I buckled her up into her car seat and we went back home. She clutched her doll tightly, and smiled. But after only a few days the doll was discarded in the toy box, just like I knew she would be.

*

God is only noticed by very small children being hustled along to catch the next bus.

My daughter is now in first grade and she tells me that when she grows up she wants to give her money to the poor.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because that is what God wants me to do,” she says.

I ask her if she knows anybody who is poor.

“Nope,” she says, busy coloring in her Strawberry Shortcake book. I feel amused by her quick and assured answer. The vast majority of the kids my daughter knows are, in fact, materially poor. Last week, her teacher gave one of her classmates a dress, so she would have something clean to wear to school. The girl has worn it every single day since. She has friends who don’t eat very much food on the weekends and friends who don’t own a single book. Friends who never leave their apartment on the weekends, friends whose whole world is their small family and the tiny fortresses they have created in order to survive. I know this because sometimes the parents tell me of their troubles, and sometimes my two eyes just see it as plain as day. But to her, they are just her friends. Sometimes, out of the blue, she asks if we can walk to school, even if it is pouring rain. She just wants to be like everyone else, stepping around the puddles, the water seeping into her socks, her too-small coat grimy around the edges. When we walk I have to hurry her along, because she is always stopping, always looking up at her umbrella, always amazed at the patterns that the rain drops make.

***

Rumpus original art by Alison Stine.


D.L. Mayfield is the author of Assimilate Or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith. She has been published in McSweeneys, Christianity Today, Relevant, Geez, Curator, Reject Apathy, and Conspire!. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two small children. Visit her at dlmayfield.com. More from this author →