My nephew’s arms are softer than a mink, and definitely softer than every baby’s arm you have touched. He is two. His arm skin has stretched out some, but it’s still no rougher than when I first held him, when he was two months old. Last night he yanked his dove soft arm inside his pajama top and screamed, “Take it off!” I’ve dealt with a lot of two-year-olds, and my patience was plentiful at that moment. I patted his belly and assured him, “It’s hard to be two, isn’t it?”
My nephew was one of my sheep. I had just read the little passage in the gospel when Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, and Peter says, progressively, “Yes,” “I just said yes,” and “What the hell, I said yes, didn’t I?!” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” That made sense to me right away. My sheep were starving.
I had spent the week trying to keep tigers away, and my sheep were hungry and tired. I had fought my friends, I had fought my students. I had fought, even harder, my own temper, my internal tiger, who wanted to rip his way out of me, slash out through my throat and never mind the collateral damage.
I love positive advice. Eat more vegetables, not don’t eat junk food. After I eat my vegetables, I don’t want so much junk. Or if I do, I snarf it up like a vaccuum cleaner and assure myself that the good vitamins in all those vegetables will repair any chemical additive damage from movie popcorn or Kraft’s powdered cheeselike mixture. Jesus’ positive advice is: “Feed my sheep.”
Many people want to interpret this as a social justice directive. I’m all for social justice, but just now, my life is plowing the fields of social justice every day, and I am tired. I don’t need to be told to remember social justice. I actually need to be reminded to forget it and not get obsessed or prideful about my work.
What I need is to be instructed in feeding my own gentleness. My tigers need sympathy and fences and long walks and hunts for adventure. My sheep need food. Steady encouraging food so I will stay soft and stupid at my core. I am soft and stupid underneath everything.
My sheep like herding up with others, and trampling the same paths, and eating the same feed all the time, and looking to someone else for a judgment call. My sheep are unfailingly humble and don’t know the stink of themselves. Or care. They are careless. My tigers care very much. So much that they want to, as they say in Where the Wild Things Are, eat you up, they love you so! My sheep don’t eat meat. Or stalk prey. They chew cud. And chew. And chew.
My nephew was my sheep: I gently dressed him. He fed my sheep. Nothing is more calming than settling children for sleep, and being with them while they sleep. Grooming routines. Shearing. And then the boy went all tiger on me. As people will do.
His mother said, “Give Auntie Liz a kiss,” and I said, “It’s okay. I got one earlier.” And I left him, sobbing along to himself, his rage burning lower and lower until he would sleep dumbly in his crib. Sleep long, like a tiger, and sweetly, in his doggie pajamas.