Sam is about to turn 14.
I am not sure how this happened. Maybe I fed him too much. Maybe I got distracted by trying to resist the cruelest administration in history, by a joyful love affair now 18 months old, and did not notice time passing so quickly. Thirteen is different: It's training-wheels adolescence. Fourteen is hardcore, biker adolescence. And yet, I can often see the boy he has always been -- inventive, sweet, playful, gangly, magic -- even as I can glimpse the man he is becoming. He's handsome, stylish, thin as a rail. He still has a deep goodness: Once on a bad day, when he was 2, I realized I hated children and was going to have to let him go, but my friend Pammy said, "Sam has a deep sweetness." So I kept him. Now there's the sweet boy, the man he's becoming, but also, as I have previously mentioned, there's an evil presence I call "Phil" who has chosen Sam as a host body.
Phil is hairy and scary and awful. He was here yesterday. When I asked him to take his dishes to the sink, he looked disbelieving, as if he'd heard wrong, as if I had just asked if he'd carry his dishes to the sink. Why didn't he just go ahead and carry rocks up from the quarry for me?
But he did it, and a little later, Sam came back, and we played with the dog and sat on the couch together for a while -- I read, he drew. That night we went our separate ways -- he to "The Hulk" with friends, I to the marvelous Maori movie, "Whale Rider." He was home by 11, his curfew, with two moosey pals. They think I'm semi-OK because I have dreads, and because they are not stuck with me.
We all got up at 10 for church. Sam has to go to church with me every two weeks, and his friends often tag along. They don't hate church, because no one is making them go. They are actually all believers, too, cool guys, who sometimes pray. One of them prayed with us when we were caught in a snowstorm on a ski trip. I know Sam believes that Jesus is true -- why wouldn't he be? Still, he mocks me for being a Jesus freak, even though in the middle of the night when he can't sleep, he wakes me up for prayer and a backrub.
But he hates church.
So why do I make him go? Because I want him to. These are bewildering, drastic times we live in, and a little spiritual guidance never killed anyone. And I think it's a fair compromise, that it's only every other week. Also, I make him go because I can -- I wrote a piece about this years ago, about why I made him go to church, and this was the main reason. And I still can. He has no job, no car, no income. He's basically a freeloader. He needs to stay in my good graces.
I love him more than life itself, but while he lives at my house, he has to do things my way. Also, I think there are worse things for kids than to have to spend time with people who love God; teenagers who do not go to church are also adored by God, but they don't get to meet some of the people who love God back. Learning to love back is the hardest part of being alive.
Many good people think you should let kids find an authentic spiritual connection in the world, by letting them experiment with different traditions and worship services. That's very nice. Many good people also think Bush is our duly elected president, and that the war is over in Iraq. I can't go by what other people think. Besides, since Sam is the only teenager he knows who has to go to church, I can't send him to other churches, or temples, or mosques, or Zen practice, with his friends' families, because they don't go.
I try to help it go down as easily as possible. We stop at McDonald's on the way, we hang out at Best Buy on the way home. He doesn't complain all that much. Maybe I've broken his spirit; my wild pony of Chincoteague.
When we got to church last Sunday, he and his friends went to sit with the other teenagers, in the back. This is one of the main reasons I still make him go, because there is a youth group now, that meets every two weeks, in a room away from the grown-ups and the little kids. The leaders give them special snacks, cocoa packets and pastry. Some might call this a "bribe." I certainly would. I'm all for bribery when it's for a good cause. I think God does a lot of bait-and-switch. Peter gets a boatload of fish, then gets to become a disciple. We're herd animals, donkey-people, and sometimes a bright orange carrot is the only thing that will get us to move.
I make him go because the youth-group leaders know things that I don't. They know what teenagers are looking for, and need -- they need adults who have stayed alive and vital, adults they wouldn't mind growing up to be. They are terrified that growing up means you become the anxious, overworked adults who surround them. And they need radical acceptance of who they are, to receive welcome in whatever condition life has left them -- needy, walled-off, glowering. They want guides, a certain kind of adult who knows how to act like an adult but with a kid's heart. They want people who will sit with them and talk about the big questions, without answers, adults who won't correct their feelings, or pretend not to be afraid. They are looking for adventure, for experience, pilgrimages and thrills. And then they want a home they can return to, where things are stable, and welcoming. I mean, how crazy can you get?
Sam told one youth leader that he knows instinctively that God wants him to have life. That God would want him to surf and be alive and out having fun on a Sunday morning. That it's physically painful to sit indoors on a Sunday.
"Then why are you here?" the man asked.
"Because my mother wants me here to share it with her," Sam said.
"I think that's a really good reason," Mark said.
This morning I watched Sam sneak glances at Mark. I know he wants what Mark has -- not the faith part, necessarily, but the humor, the great vibe. ("Vibe is everything," Sam confided in me after a recent youth group with Mark.)
Most of the kids in the youth group came over to give me a hug during the Passing of the Peace. I was their Sunday school teacher before they were teenagers, and they trust me: I helped it go down more easily for them. I loved them, gave them good snacks, drawing paper. I let them go outside for the Sacrament of the Lawn, to blow bubbles and play catch. Terrible things have happened to some of them. They have lost years and siblings to foster care and institutionalization. They have lost parents to violence and addiction, and according to this administration, their parents are the undeserving poor. There's no help with healthcare or education and tutoring. We've got a war to run! Many of them have fallen through the cracks their whole lives -- but not here, not on Sundays.
When Sam came over to hug me this morning during the Peace, it was like being hugged by the Frankenstein monster, but he let me smell his neck for a moment: heaven. Then he hugged Mark, and the old black women who reach for him during the Peace: This is another reason I make him come.
I half listened to the children's sermon, but mostly thought about the whales in "Whale Rider." They're covered with clusters of barnacles the size of platters, all that stuff that attaches itself to the whales because of its need, not the whale's. It's obviously good for the barnacles -- it's a better ride, and they're bathed in nourishment, but I can't see how it would improve life for the whales too. I started thinking of my mother, as both mother whale, and barnacle. In her last 10 years, she lived on me, literally. She couldn't help it; she wanted to stay alive, and I was her ride. Looking around at the frayed and beautiful faces of the people in church, I can see their barnacles, too -- jailed and dead children, faithless spouses, lost jobs, all our old failures and sorrows, all the loss and ruckus of life that they have survived, excreted through the skin. When I run my hand over the skin of my psyche, that's what my hand catches on. Yet in "Whale Rider," the barnacles are what the girl held onto like a saddle horn as she rode the whale. Without them, she couldn't have climbed on.
I watched Sam listen to the choir this morning, fidgety, glowering, but he listened off and on. The choir is a major reason I make him attend. I listen to his horrible music all the time, he can listen to the music I love most every two weeks. The music is raw and exquisite and subversive -- you can tell that the singers will not be moved, except by the Spirit; they will not be nipped and tugged at by stupid details and lies. They know who they are -- who we all are, one family on this earth, and they sing with their heels dug in, like kids who trust enough to fall backward into someone's arms.
After the song, the teens trudged off together, avoiding eye contact with the rest of us. They're so distrustful and spikey -- life is weird and doesn't deliver, and adults try to lead them like horses in the direction they think will make them happy, but mostly, they won't go. But the teenagers can't make the congregation stop smiling at them; they can't make them stop singing. The church feels blessed by them, and we pray for them, at church and at home. I have always called the oldest members when Sam and I are in trouble. When Evelyn, our second oldest member, prays with you or the congregation, she looks like a marionette hanging there waiting for the strings to be cut so she could drop her body and go all the way over.
I was glad for Sam when he got to leave and go off alone with his peers and teacher. The youth group is so much less embarrassing. Of course he doesn't want to come to regular worship -- it's so naked, built on the rubble of need and ruin, and our joy is so deeply uncool -- but by the same token, he doesn't want to floss, or do homework, or weed. He does not want to have any hard work, ever, but I can't give him that without injuring him. It's good to do uncomfortable things. It's weight training for life.
He and his friends were in good moods when church ended, but then we had to drop the friends off at their houses. They had things they had to do with their families, things they really did not want to do. Sam was bored and complaining, so I made him lunch, and went to bed with the cat and the Church of the New York Times. When I woke up from a nap, there was a great commotion in the living room. It turned out he had gathered a dozen of his old stuffed animals, and divided them up into two warring camps -- the bunnies vs. the bears. The bunnies were inside a fortress of books, but a bear had been sent over the walls with an exercise-band catapult. There were great growling, roars -- very angry bunnies -- bashing, wipeouts, beloved old animals gone bad. It was a ferociously hilarious installation. He let me watch. Somehow he called on his reserves of silliness to break through, and connect again, with his embarrassment of a mother. Something made him willing to step off the storm-tossed rocks, glowering and sinking, and hold onto me, our home, his childhood, like the Maori girl held on. The ride is so thrilling and important, but all that we've lived through is what gets us there.