There’s a zigzagged crack in the plastic that bears witness to a night five months ago. One of the teenage boys I work with cursed and yelled, spilling the drawers of his plastic desk organizer onto the floor, throwing its skeleton at the walls. He was new here. So was I. In the conversation that followed, he and I sat heaped beside each other on his bedroom floor. My life is a mess, he whispered, debating whether or not to trust me. What am I going to do? Lifting plastic shards from the carpet, I began to snap them into place, rebuilding the broken structure. We’ll put the pieces back together, I told him, even if they fall apart again.
It was my first metaphor at work.
Since then, I’ve seen the metaphors littered everywhere, little images and analogies peering out of the chaos with predictable charm.
There’s the dirt caked on my hands from fetching rebounds on a warm January morning. One of the teenage boys stomps on the ground, berating himself for missed shots, symbols of mistakes his parents won’t let him forget. In the gray parking-lot slush, I chase down every ball he can’t make, dance with him on the pavement when he finally hits one. There are always more chances, I promise.
And there’s the Saturday morning ritual of cookie baking with a teenage boy who can’t go home. At least this place can smell like home. Every week, I wash the dishes, laugh at the flour on our clothes, and test each buttery treat, complimenting the chef. But almost as often, there’s no patience for the recipe, no comfort in the taste. Sometimes, the temptation of the streets seems just a little bit sweeter. Still, my job is to meet him at the kitchen table whenever he returns. To sit beside the boy who just wants to make something good and needs a person to be proud of it.
I believed in metaphors before I moved to Chicago. Believed in the beauty of broken plastic, muddied hands, and kitchen-table healing. And I’ve learned, admittedly, that this is a language all its own. A language of obvious cliché that only hopes to make sense of blatant disorder. I still believe in the metaphors, but I’ve learned that pretty words are more limited than I thought. They won’t ever sum up these richly complicated lives, despite their tendency to try.
“We are called to walk alongside each other and everyone else we encounter, from salsa-eating twenty-somethings to Jenga-playing teenage boys.”
Sometimes, on long nights at work—good and bad—when I race to find wooden blocks for one more game of Jenga or when a chair is upended and launched across the room, I catch a glimpse of the carpet. The striped and checkered patterns that match those in my own apartment. The same carpet that my community and I tread on in our bare feet. Stand on during tearful hugs and joyful embraces. Kneel down on in fits of laughter. Clean salsa off of after late night snacking. Rest helplessly on, lamenting that we have no idea what we’re going to do with our lives. The same carpet we sometimes even fall asleep on.
Of course, this too is a metaphor. In July, when the sixteen of us moved our belongings onto the basic carpet floor, we all hoped to carry one thing: the belief of a common ground. We might not know what we’re going to do with our lives and we can’t trust words to say what we’re already doing, but our fundamental vocation is as simple as a stupid metaphor about a boring old carpet. We are called to walk alongside each other and everyone else we encounter, from salsa-eating twenty-somethings to Jenga-playing teenage boys. Because the best therapy we can actually claim to know is presence—sitting amidst the mess, catching every rebound, tasting both sugar and surrender. At the very least, we can believe in that.