My friend Paul pointed me to an article in the New York Times that has stuck with me for several days now titled “Bringing a Daughter Back From the Brink With Poetry.” The author told a simple story of how she worked to reach out to her teenage daughter as she was going through a particularly difficult time. She had me from the opening lines:
When George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, my 13-year-old daughter, Marisa, was so angry that she stopped wearing shoes.
She chose the most ineffective rebellion imaginable: two little bare feet against the world. She declared that she wouldn’t wear shoes again until we had a new president.
I had learned early in motherhood that it’s not worth fighting with your children about clothes, so I watched silently as she strode off barefoot each morning, walking down the long gravel driveway in the cold, rainy darkness to wait for the bus.
The principal called me a few times, declaring that Marisa had to start wearing shoes or she would be suspended. I passed the messages on, but my daughter continued her barefoot march.
I spent a fair amount of time tonight looking for the word that matches best with what pulls me in the mother’s story. I was moved by the mother’s kindness towards her daughter, her trust, and her support, but the word that resonated most was patience.
Patience: the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.
I’ve tried to picture what it must have felt like as a parent to watch your child walk barefoot down the driveway on a cold morning and being able to give her space to figure it out on her own. Because the mother was able to accept the suffering of both her daughter and herself, she was also able to create space for her daughter work through it and to foster trust between them.
When I lose patience it often has to do with my choosing to force my schedule or my agenda on whatever is happening around me. When I taught high school in Massachusetts, one of the boys in tenth grade English was this big Labrador of a kid who came bounding in everyday full of energy that was no particularly focused. He would often ask, “Mr. B-C, may I stand on my head?” Our classes were full and passing periods were short. I had a lot of material to cover. His request was not particularly convenient, yet somewhere in the midst of it I had the wherewithal to answer, “OK—just till the tardy bell rings.” He put his books on his desk and then stood on his head with his back up against the wall. When the bell rang, he sat down and we went on with class.
He sat next to another boy who was depressed and angry. More than once, he refused to do assignments and was bitter or even rude in response to attempts I made to reach out to him. My headstander would say, “That’s okay, Mr. B-C, I’ll help him.” His patience with his friend was hopeful and healing. I saw them one day at lunch their senior year. Both had grown beyond what I had known of them in class. I said to the depressed one, “When you were in my class I really worried about you. I think if it were not for your friend and the way he cared about you, I’m not sure you’d be here.”
“I think you’re right,” he said and smiled. We all smiled.
Patience knows there are no shortcuts. If we are to accept the delay or trouble or suffering, then we must choose to take the long way home: to walk through the valley of the shadow and not take the shortcut of safety; we must wait for the moment of awareness or discovery rather than forcing the shortcut of explanation or instruction.
The mother in the article took to leaving poems in her daughter’s shoes once she started wearing them again as a statement of solidarity. One of the poems was Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” part of which says,
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Patience is connected to other words that matter: wait, listen, trust, hope, relax, rest, love. It is less of a concept or an idea and more of a visceral and incarnational truth. We live it out the same way the mother let her daughter carry on her barefoot protest rather than siding with the principal. Patience is looking for a way to say, “I am on your side and I will take as long as it takes to make sure you know that.” It is, as Ginger often says, learning to look for the emotion behind the behavior. It is assuming positive intent rather than jumping to conclusions. And it is our calling in everything from family relationships to church committee meetings to board rooms and classrooms to job sites to grocery store check out lines—any place we can offer compassion rather than demand compliance or conformity.
Patience, like poetry, can bring us back from the brink.