A Red Dress and a Coat

The girl, but not the dress

There once was a little girl who had a red dress she loved. It was a long red sundress and, for a farm girl in the 1980s, it was the closest thing to a princess dress she was ever going to get.

That little girl was me. And as an aside… my classmates in primary school pulled me aside and told me Santa wasn’t real, in the tone of: “I’m about to destroy your world.” I knew I had to play it cool, but I wasn’t really upset. I’d seen what the other girls got for Christmas compared to what I got, and it made way more sense to think that my parents, who’d just been through a devastating drought year followed by a devastating flood year, were the ones in charge of my Christmas, rather than thinking some benevolent fairy liked the other girls better. It made me feel better about the whole thing.

I shared that aside because unless you understand what it was like growing up on a farm in the 80s, there’s no way you can understand the importance of this red dress to me.

But at some point, my conscience twinged me. I saw those kids in Africa. I felt I was called to give this dress away to some girl who was much poorer than me. Because after all, we had cattle and hogs and chickens and a big garden I had to work for two hours every day all summer, and we never, EVER went hungry. I wasn’t comparing myself to the girls whose Christmas haul was so much bigger than mine. I was thinking of those who had it harder than I did.

So I wore the dress one last time and asked my mom to give it away. Years later I found it in a pile in the utility room, and I was pretty mad at her. Ha! Don’t you know how much that cost me??? As a mom I totally get it… that is called “I have four kids and too much to do and how do you send a dress to Africa, anyway?”

I tell this story because I’ve been thinking lately that maybe my daughter’s arrival really didn’t change everything for me, after all. Maybe it just forced me to face the misalignment between what I believed about living the faith–as a set of concrete actions taken in a concrete world–and how I was actually applying it.

A year or two after that Red Dress story, I was going to Confession—still pretty young—no older then ten—and I confessed to the priest, “I don’t FEEL anything about God.” I was really, really worried about this, worried about my soul.

The priest said to me, “If you see a guy with no coat and you FEEL bad for him, your FEELING does nothing at all for him. He needs a coat. It doesn’t matter if you FEEL compassion. It matters that you give him a coat.”

I walked out of that confessional feeling free and very empowered, because man, DOING things is within my control!

The question that invites reflection is this: what happened in between those two formative experiences and the arrival of my daughter to cause me to embrace a world view that blamed others for their mistakes and their bad luck alike, and refused to see that the systems under which we live are structurally skewed toward people like me and against others?

That’s a big question, and probably the answer is less important to you reading this than it is to answer similar questions for ourselves individually. But I thought I would share, because I am reading Eric Clayton’s Cannonball Moments, and the first question in that book is an invitation to reflect on the moments when we recognize the conflict between what we think we are, or want to be, and what we are living in our bodies. The first insight I gained was that when I was young, there wasn’t one. The misalignment he highlights, for me, happened later.

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