I have a crayon drawing in my sentimental box that is twenty years old. It was made by a twelve year old girl I’ll call Alice. Alice was a kid at a camp for children with challenges, where I served as a councillor one summer.
I’m not gonna give you details about Alice, because details never should have been given to me. I’m just going to tell you that she was scarred by the spiritual road rash of a series of foster homes, as well as other traumas. These stories were not only seeded inside her, they marched on ahead of her. Her file was always shared with councillors, teachers, and foster parents. It always preceded her, like one of those trumpet guys announcing her broken and tragic arrival in every sports team, classroom, or club.
Alice was a fabulous kid. Maybe even too fabulous. Happy all the time and when she noticed herself being unhappy, she gave herself a little shake and shoved a smile right back on her face. Alice’s new foster mom seemed really lovely, and I had a lot of hope for that kid. Alice had hope for herself, too. She told me some of her dreams, sometimes adding “even though I have ADHD” or “even though I’m a foster kid”. She was always pushing the stories that enclosed her—the edges of her manilla cage—as far back as possible.
“I was a foster kid too, you know.” I answered her once, with a shrug. Her eyes got really wide and she sat in silence for a minute.
“But you’re… you’re so happy. You’re happy all the time.” She said.
“Yes.” I answered emphatically. “You can be a foster kid and then turn out happy.”
That was the whole conversation. We didn’t talk about it again, but I would catch her staring at me when I wasn’t looking. And she made me this drawing, which she handed to me with a kind of ferocious intensity. It’s a drawing of an alien. Just the head, no body. Just a big, huge, expressionless blue alien face.
Alice had learned that her ever present smile made her into one of the good ones, the heroes, those who suffered with inspiring courage and without complaint.
I learned this in foster care, too. When you don’t have enough going for you to be awesome, you try for valiant and noble endurance. I see this in friends with chronic pain, or disability, or a host of other challenges. You know it’s best if you suffer gracefully. Offer something to the world by way of your inspiring example—and with that offering, stay as safe as possible. It’s one of the reasons the caged bird sings.
It’s not the only reason the caged bird sings, of course. Caged birds can also sing for all the reasons that non-Caged birds sing. They’re still birds, after all. I would be the last person to tell Alice that pain disqualifies her from singing or grinning until her face hurts, or from creating beautiful things in the world. I just wish she hadn’t felt, so clearly, that for birds in cages, singing was the price she had to pay to stay alive.
I wish I’d told her that caged birds don’t only sing. They also eat and drink and fight with each other and play games and poop. And in the case of crows and ravens, sometimes fashion tools to use to pick the lock. Caged birds do all the bird things. I wanted to tell that on the days when she couldn’t muster up the singing that was a price of survival for her, she could cut herself a break. She could know that some days, it’s fine to be a caged bird that just sleeps and poops a lot.
I didn’t say any of this stuff to Alice. Because she was twelve. Because I was nineteen. Because I had a sense of professional boundaries. And because I couldn’t find the right words.
Back then, I believed in perfect words—in speeches that would transform hardship into a valiant storyline, just like in the movies. So I waited. Knowing that if there was ever a need for me to offer a song, it was then. For her. The whole last day of camp, I felt a growing panic as I groped for the right thing to say that would make All The Difference.
I pooped it up.
I couldn’t find the words. I said nothing of consequence to her. I just returned her ferocious hug good bye, and let her go. And then I spent twenty years trying to figure out what I should have said. What would have been enough for her to hold on to for years, to make things better.
This year, I stopped trying to pick that lock. I realized that nothing I could have said would have been enough for her to hold on to for years. Nothing would have made things better. Those kinds of magic words don't exist. At best, we offer each other little things. Handholds people can use for their climb, not magic spells that give them the ability to fly.
I wish I'd offered her a handhold, though. I wish I had told her that I am not happy all the time. I wish I'd told her that the caged bird can sing, sure, and can poop, and it does neither of these things because of the cage. Or in spite of it. It does these things because it's a bird, and the cage has nothing to do with it.
“Caged” and “Uncaged” are circumstances we are in. I wish I'd told her that some day she would be out of that cage and then she'd have to start to learn to act independently of it because for as long as you're defined more by "caged" or "uncaged" than by "bird", you are dragging that cage with you wherever you go.
I wish I'd told her she could stop singing if she wanted. And that yes, people would get grumpy at her for that, and that's a fact of the cage, not a fact of she-should-have-kept-singing. And that one of the things she'd need to learn to do was accept that you can't control if others treat you fairly but you can control if you treat yourself fairly.
And I wish I'd told her how gentle she'd need to be with herself, as she was learning this. That all the mistakes you make while figuring it out, all the cruel and horrible things you say to yourself through the process are not unforgivable failures. They're just part of learning. There's supposed to be lots of shed feathers and bird poop splattered everywhere. That's how it works.
Cage is where you are. Bird is who you are. The identity of bird is not something you earn by singing, and it is not something you can un-earn by pausing to breathe.
It's okay to make a mess.
Related post... You can give up hope, if you want