When I was younger, I found myself in situations that were uncommon for most of the people I knew. One such situation was that of being accused of harboring a runaway, and spending time “on the streets” and “on the run”.
A lot of people find this shocking when they hear about it for the first time. It isn’t much of a secret, really—just one chapter in a storied past. But I am a clear-headed, responsible, problem-solver when I am not suffering the effects of illness, and being on the run with fugitives seems really far from where I am in life now, or from my early years, so anyone who didn’t experience that unconventional middle, exhibits surprise when I candidly offer this as a part of my life no more or less affecting than any other part of the story. In fact, while there were many terrible things happening around me during that period of time, some of my fondest memories also come from that time.
One of those memories is of a household that took me in. I can’t even recall any of their names right now. Maybe it will come to me at some point as I write. But a couple, with a handful of kids of their own, took to “adopting” strays. I was one of those strays.
Life in that household was strange and hard and fantastic. You had to work to earn your keep. As one of only three females in the home, I was tasked with cooking, cleaning, and generally working to keep the men-folk on their way to and from jobs that paid actual cash. I took to calling the lot of young men my brothers and the one younger girl my sister. And when the work was done and the bellies were filled, the fun came. We used to sit around the gigantic dining table that couldn’t fit all of us around it. We would crowd in. Sometimes with me on the lap of the boy whom I had followed to this remote place, to reduce the number of chairs and the amount of elbow smacking that happens when too many bodies are in too small a space. We would spend the evenings or the weekend afternoons playing penny poker.
I had never played poker until then. And I wasn’t very good at it. I’m still not. But that didn’t matter much. I started to pick up the lingo and would eventually be ready to call out the game as I dealt the hands. I remember I had a fascination with one-eyed Jacks, so they would often enter into the picture whenever it was my deal. And while I could tell them what we were going to play, the winning was not a thing I did often.
After I left that home, I don’t think I played poker again. Not because the memories were not fond. They were. But because I really suck at poker. It may have something to do with what my friend Scott once commented on—he said he liked preaching with me in his audience, because you could always tell by my face exactly what I thought of what he was saying. I don’t have a poker face. I have a lot of expressions, and I’m not all that good at hiding one with another.
When I left that home, it was because I left that beautiful bronze-bodied boy whose lap I used to inhabit. And I didn’t feel bad about leaving him behind. I had followed him there because, to my mind, he was a shelter during a time when being alone was dark and dangerous. When I left, it was because I had been reminded of what true shelter should be.
A home filled with love and grace and acceptance was what I entered when I followed that boy to God-knows-where, Hickville, population 15. And it was far from perfect. Sharing bath water and cleaning up after a host of teenagers and sweating in the summer heat were not the moments that I longed for. But being part of this rag-tag “family” helped me know what living without judgements looked like.
And that wasn’t something that my own family or my own community had been, growing up. We were all about keeping up the appearances and judging the flaws and the failures. My dad never really got caught up in that judgment, which is part of why we remained relatively close even in the times when I wanted to be far from and unconcerned with my biological family. But he was the exception to a well-known rule.
When I was later married (to an entirely different body), I moved back to my hometown. That marriage was followed by a prompt divorce. And I felt the weight of that “failure” and the “failure” of being a single parent that followed. But I didn’t let that burden break me.
Instead, I became that home I had left—the one with the table covered in pennies and the laughs and the love. The knowledge that half of us in that household were avoiding the police for one reason or another never seemed to be a weight at all. Failures were not a thing. Choices happened, and the consequences of those choices happened, but that didn’t affect who we were and how we were viewed by the others. Those were just choices and consequences. Not character flaws.
My biological family still hasn’t fully grasped the concept of this love and grace and acceptance, and neither has the small town that we came from. But there are many more attempts at showing that love and offering that acceptance than there have been in the past, and I am proud of and glad for that progress.
But for some time, my home needed to be that home, and my heart needed to be that heart—the one that wouldn’t hold court and make judgments, the one who accepted even the most “broken” of souls. So, it was. And I had more than one runaway girl living in my space, and I sold my wedding dress for pennies on the dollar to a girl whose parents wouldn’t support her marriage, and I fed a host of working men every evening, and I shut the door on a room filled with kids some nights, and I made my home the place where everyone belonged.
Lest you think I am painting myself as a saint, I also bought beer for minors, did a host of drugs, slept with some of those men, and traded off babysitting duty so that I could go out and drink a whole lot on the nights my own child was away.
But that is fine, because this is the home where we accept and love and extend grace. And that is extended to me, as well as to any and all others.
Last week, my daughter started the slow process of moving back home by the end of the month. Today, I extended an invitation for her friend to move in with me as well, crashing with my daughter or on the sofa, or the inflatable mattress if she prefers. So, this household of one dog and one human is expanding once more. We are becoming a full house. Three women, one dog, and one to two cats, depending on the way that the situation unfolds. And we probably won’t play poker. I still suck at poker, and we can’t hoard pennies, because we need to add them together and make them into quarters for the laundry. We will probably have difficult conversations about the end of relationships and the challenges of the world. We will probably drink ourselves silly at one point … hopefully, only one. We will be in tight spaces and won’t get enough sleep and will fight over the bathroom. But my home remains the place where we accept and love and extend grace. So, it doesn’t’ matter why life is messy or how messy it is. And it doesn’t matter how long these girls need to stay or how many times the pets fight or how many mouths there are to feed. What matters is that there is space here. There is a place here.
I don’t take in strays so much as just allow community to happen where it will. I don’t consider the people who come to my door astray. Many of them are less lost than some of the people in my history and life will ever be. As my therapist likes to remind me, the family member who wants the status quo to stop being followed is often the healthiest and most honest member. So, even I am a lot less lost than what you might imagine—especially if you have made a habit of judging me from your small, rural, Iowa town.
While I was conscious of opening my heart and my home, I was also conscious of those around me who would open theirs. These people, along with What’s-his-name and Debbie (I’m now almost certain that her name was Debbie, and his was a one syllable name, possibly starting with an M?), became my shelter and modelled community in the best of ways.
Jessica, Brenda, Andrew, a bunch of willing babysitters, and Julie as I finished college, and Dave, Nic and Adam, Matt, Jen, and John and Misty in the Arizona years. Allan and Carol, at various stages, Steph, Rhonda, Sarah, Elessa, a bunch of Postmas, and a handful of others in the small-town years. My Dad, always, and my Mom, learning over the years and loving me with expressions I could believe and hold onto as she slipped away. Today, it is my beloved Rayven, Luke and Ted, Erin (the bestie with a hundred besties) and Bryan, Rosie, Matt, Josh and Jessica (still and always), Julie (ever-faithful and loving), Adam (and even more Adam, because he never ceases to understand my heart) and Jackie, and a host of others who pay my bills and hear my cries and hold my hands. And who laugh with me around the table at every available opportunity. And I keep building and keep adding and keep experiencing community with more and other.
Once you see it, this space where judgment ends and acceptance is whole and hearty, you can’t stop finding it. You crave that community, in its purest form. And you offer it as often as you are able. The best thing in the world, the best part of humanity, the deepest love and the strongest bonds and the greatest truths happen here—in these full houses.
I’ll miss my privacy a little.
But I am so glad that I can still say, “I have a full house.”
Even while I suck at poker.