In kindergarten one day, I cut my hair. Just a little piece, about 2 inches long, off the back. I don’t know why I did it, and after I’d lopped it off with my brightly-colored scissors, I didn’t know what to do with it. I knew, however, that this was probably bad, and that I should do something to get rid of the evidence.
So I put it in the bookshelf.
I realize that this was an unconventional choice, but it was borne out of necessity, as the teacher was approaching on her rounds about the classroom. I shoved it between a couple of books, put the scissors away, and said to myself “No one will know.”
Moments later, the teacher had discovered the little tuft of white-blond hair–but much to my surprise, she did not look to me. “Shawna!” she gasped at the only other blond-haired girl in our class, “Did you cut your hair?!” Startled, Shawna was unable to produce a convincing argument to the contrary, and she was given the dreaded “time out.”
My spell had worked.
Or, it almost did. The point was to keep me out of trouble, and that part came through. I did feel bad for Shawna, but since my greatest fear as a child was to be in trouble, I was more relieved than anything. And, I was just as convinced as ever that belief was like a magic wand, brandished when something was really important–or at least when I really, really wanted it.
After all, it wasn’t just at church and school that I heard over and over that belief changed things. My favorite TV shows, the Care Bears and Rainbow Brite, also regularly told me that if I only believed, and concentrated, and said the right words in the right frame of mind, magical things would happen. I remember vividly standing in my room at home, positioning Rainbow Brite’s horse just so, turning my back and whispering a fervent incantation designed to turn the plush toy into a real unicorn. When it didn’t work out as well as the hair thing, I was disheartened–but more with myself than anything else. Someday, I thought, my faith will be strong enough.
So it was confusing to me, as a child, to hear the story about Jesus and the children–and not only because of that odd use of the word “suffer,” which made it sound like Jesus was really struggling to put up with my childish faith. “The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these,” He said, as quoted by my parents, my Sunday School teachers, and the blond-haired principal. This was exciting and terrifying all at once. We were supposed to be Kingdom-of-Heaven-perfect, just by being kids…and I was the doofus pinning my hair-cutting scandal on other people and failing to bring my stuffed unicorn to life. I was a child, and my faith was secretly flawed.
When you’re a kid, you think everything will be more awesome when you grow up. You’ll be able to reach things on the counter top, and drive the car, and run faster, and decide when to go to bed, and have faith that can really make mountains move, just for the heck of it. But when you grow up, things never quite turn out the way you think they will.
Twelve or fifteen years later, I was in college. I had gone to another protestant school, where we memorized Bible verses and talked about what they meant, and where all the cool kids were the leaders of their very own worship bands. And I was still waiting for my perfect faith to arrive. I’ve never been much of a shrinking violet, and my outspokenness, I was then learning, was read by some people–at least, the ones I wanted to impress–as abrasiveness, as a lack of humility, as unbecoming of a “Godly woman.” I wanted very much to do/be/love the right thing, and so prayed the same prayer, over and over again: “Lord, make me completely humble and gentle.”
And I waited.
And I prayed, and I cried. And after all my struggling in vain, I was admonished (by someone I will not name here, but whose opinion mattered deeply to me) that my faith was not the faith of a child. My faith was complex and battered and confused yet resilient–but it was not the simple faith of a child.
* * *
When we were in third grade, the class Sharon and I were in did a unit on Little House on the Prairie, which ended with a set of day-long festivities called Prairie Day, when we all dressed in pseudo-period costume and did pseudo-period activities, like churning milk into butter and square dancing. There’s a lot I could say about it here, but for the purposes of this current post, I just want to mention something about the butter churn. I think the point of this activity was some sort of historical consciousness-raising about the miracles of modernity, but all I remember thinking was “Gosh, this must have taken a long time.” In fact, though we all took turns running the churn with our little 9-year-old arms, we could not seem to turn the cream into anything but cream, and because there were square dances to do, Ms. Busystreet let us leave the the churn and have mass-produced butter with our picnic lunches. I was glad to leave it alone, because–let’s face it–it was both boring and exhausting, but felt a vague sense of remorse that we hadn’t seen what might have happened.
This was the way I thought of most things when I was a kid…and, as it turns out, when I was a young adult. If only we’d waited longer, tried harder, really believed, or said just the right words: who knows what might have been? When I finally grew up, when I learned to be a child again, when my faith at last became what it was supposed to be…
And all around: discarded locks, failed incantations.