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January 27, 2021

Golden Sheep

Shopping malls — they saved our bacon over winter break.
8 min read

Shopping malls—they saved our bacon over winter break.

Let me start by saying that while others might look forward to vacations as much needed down time, parents of special needs children face a string of structure-less, service-less days during which their kids often get quite dysregulated because they are removed from their normal routines. Add to that a pandemic that is presenting itself in deadlier forms and the problem of keeping everyone safe, active, and happy, and things get even more complicated.

Even though we knew “hands-on” museums were probably open, my husband and I didn’t feel comfortable taking our autistic eight-year-old into that kind of setting. He would touch everything and everyone and run around like a banshee. He has no “inner bubble” friends with whom we could arrange a play date. The weather didn’t always allow us to visit our neighborhood playground. Movie theatres? Forget it. Our son can’t get through five minutes of narrative, let alone a whole movie.

Ahhh…but shopping malls? They offered a blend of generous indoor walking space, social distancing, and points of interest that could not only occupy our son but give him an opportunity to practice social skills in various contexts—such as riding an elevator, escalator, or walking the aisles of a store. I decided that during these excursions, I would allow my son to investigate anything that piqued his curiosity as long as it was safe and he acted appropriately. Sounds simple enough, right?

Except that it was at a shopping mall that my son had such a bad meltdown some time ago that my husband and I are still pretty PTSD about it. Yes, we’ve learned so much since then that it will probably never happen again. For example, instead of walking freeform, we now use a special medical stroller that allows my son to simply ride along and take in all the stimuli around him from a grounded place. He alternates between passenger mode and walking-with-parent mode, a trend which I hope will shift entirely to the latter as he gets older.

Another example: when my son either springs from the stroller or starts pulling one of our arms in a certain direction, we slow him down and encourage him to “use your words.” This is quite difficult for anyone consumed by an impulse, but slowly we are breaking through. The goal is for him to answer a “yes” or “no” question when he’s just dying to pursue something that is blinking or spinning or making a cool sound. If we can get him to express what he wants, we can navigate our way through the situation instead of getting caught in it like a bear trap.

Back to one day in particular over winter break. The mall du jour that morning was one of our state’s wealthier ones. Long corridors to stroll, polished floors, Christmas garlands overhead, no derelict stores such as we had seen at other COVID-stricken shopping centers. Tasteful holiday music blanketing the environment like new-fallen snow. All these factors were working their magic on me, and, I assume, my husband and son as well. We were in stroller mode at the moment, all three of us absently enjoying the sights and sounds around us without feeling provoked by them.

And then we passed by a clothing store. Or, perhaps more properly, a clothier. The kind of place with wood paneling on the walls, tables full of neatly folded cashmere sweaters, fanned out silk ties, and racks of fine woolen ensembles. Definitely Not-the-Kind-of-Store you would take a kid who bolts, flails, and leaves messes in his wake as surely as a speedboat cleaves water.

My son leapt out of the stroller.

And immediately crossed over.

He was in. Inside the store.

And I sprang into action.

Remembering my ground rule, I took my son by the hand, and watched to see what he wanted. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a smartly dressed man approaching us—probably as perplexed as I was about what had drawn my son into this setting.

Thankfully, there was only so far we could step in, as our way was impeded by a display table showcasing sweaters. But it was not the contents of the table that my son was after. He was looking up—at a beautiful brass chandelier hanging directly above us.

He stared. Took a step or two backwards.  Hopped up and down. Stepped forward again and stared. Stepped backwards again to hop and express excitement. All the while I kept an iron grip on his hand and spoke gently to him.

Turning to the salesmen, I explained, “I think my son is interested in your chandelier.” The salesmen graciously responded that, yes, it was beautiful to behold. I joked about whose job it was to polish it. And so the conversation flowed lightly for a few seconds.

At some point I bent down and slowly repeated, “chan-de-LIER” to my son, in order to label the object of his fascination. But that was it—the only clue that might indicate he was not neurotypical. That and that fact that my son wasn’t speaking. Just jumping. For once, I resisted the impulse to explain him to others and instead just let him be who he was, even though we were in a high-risk environment, clearly out of our normal context.

The salesmen caught on, though. Saw something illuminated by that fancy light fixture. Because he suddenly asked, “Would your son like a Christmas ornament?”

It took my brain a couple of beats to process the words he was speaking. When I answered that, yes, my son probably would enjoy an ornament, he quickly retreated to the back of the room, returning with a golden sheep— the historic insignia of store brand. Thanking both him and the other saleslady who was present for their kindness, we left. As I hung the posh little gift bag over the stroller handle (they had actually given us four ornaments), I let the oddity—a favorable oddity, to be sure—of the episode wash over me.

After all, it’s not every day that a stranger sees right into a raw area of your life and applies a bit of balm. And so, when such rarities happen, we need to stop and ask: might Someone be reaching out to me? And what sore might that Someone be trying to soothe?

Maybe the easiest way for me to answer these questions is to share the feelings that followed the gift of the golden sheep. There were many, but here are two.

First, I felt comforted at the thought that not everyone in the world is bound to judge my son negatively for being different. Some individuals may find themselves looking at the world through his eyes and be moved—even for an instant—by what he sees. They may respond to his deficits with a graciousness and generosity that suddenly, serendipitously, gets called upon that day. If so, I would like to think that they feel grateful to get to share those most precious parts of their humanity. To confer value and worth where it is needed most, to shine a light into a dark place.

The second feeling I noticed: bone-deep weariness. Yes, a feeling quite different from the first, but its natural counterpart, if I really think about it.

And what helps me think about it is a text from the book of Exodus. You might have already guessed it from the title of this blog. Although the developers of the logo showing a golden sheep hanging from a ribbon were not referencing the Bible at all, it reminds me of the story of the golden calf fashioned by Aaron in Exodus 32. Context: Moses has gone up Mount Sinai to receive all the teaching and legislation Israel needs from God to become a strong and healthy nation. He tarries at the top for over a month, as the transfer of information proves quite involved.

Meanwhile, the people at the bottom of the mountain begin to get antsy. Really antsy. One might even say that they started losing hope of having something tangible to hang onto as they wandered the desert, looking for a home. Listen to their complaint:

1Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 And Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he took this from their hand … made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

(Exod. 32:1-4 NASB)

I’ll admit, I’ve always judged the Israelites quite quickly and harshly myself when reading this narrative. What was their problem? Hadn’t God parted the sea and rescued them from Pharaoh? Sent the ten plagues before that? Miraculously provided food and water? Traveled alongside them as fire and cloud?

How could they forget all those interventions?

And how could they actually worship something that had been created before their very eyes? A “god” that came from the gold that they themselves had “donated” (more on that in a second)?

But now, I believe I understand the Israelites’ faithlessness somewhat better. They had been living in slavery in Egypt for a very long time. Conditions had deteriorated from bad to worse at the end (remember having to make bricks without straw? [Ex 5:7-8]). Now things were drastically different. No one was pursuing them. Their needs were being met. They were witnessing repeated demonstrations of power from a deity who had claimed them as His own—and not for His personal gain, but for theirs.

In other words, they might have been feeling the second thing I was feeling at the mall that day. When good comes to you in the precise area where you have been hurting for a long time, you suddenly realize just how tightly you’ve been holding on, how exhausted, scared, and in pain you are. And you also realize with stinging clarity how you have survived your daily ordeal by not allowing yourself to experience any of those emotions to their fullest. You’ve just put your head down, clung to the things you can see and do, and pushed on.

Maybe you’ve made to-do lists instead of sitting quietly in prayer or reflection. Done another load of laundry instead of picking up the phone and asking someone else to listen. Thrown yourself into yet another project (however worthy) instead of engaging in self-care that might require some significant change in how you live your life.

When God lays His finger of mercy on a wound, we may wriggle away rather than submit to His ministrations.

Notably, this wriggling is not without its costs. To create the golden calf, Aaron commands people to literally “tear” (Hebrew: pa-RAQ) gold from their wives’ and children’s bodies. This grim mode of acquisition stands in stark contrast to the way Moses collects supplies for God’s tabernacle: “From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution…” (Ex 25:2; see also Ex 35:50).

I wonder: did everyone who donated to the calf do so willingly? I can’t say for sure, but it seems that something very dark was going on before the abominations actually began. Before the idol was lifted up and the deserters bowed down.

As I stare at my golden sheep, feeling both consolation and exhaustion from this gift, I recognize that the same choice confronts me as did those Israelites at the bottom of the mountain.

I can slow down and “use my words” to express how badly I want to bolt rather than wait for God to do something about that state of my life. In His way. In His time.

Maybe all I will be able to say is, “Yes, I still believe in You, but no, I can’t take much more.”

Maybe all that comes out is: Help.

My other choice is to tear some essential part of myself away and give it to a false god, like busyness, fear, or unbelief. All in the effort not to feel the pain that sometimes breaks through, paradoxically, in the wake of a blessing. Or, more generally, as the result of long and grueling struggle.

Right now, I have decided that no matter how caustic or corrupt, I will pour out the contents of my heart before God. When I’m just so tired, disillusioned, or desperate for some sign of His benevolent presence, I will say so, because my gut tells me He’ll receive that confession the same as if I were sharing joy. Who knows? Like the Israelites, I may be very close to receiving some amazing revelation that’s about to be hand-delivered to me if I hang on a bit longer. If I ask for help with that hanging-on.

My friend, whether you walk or ride, God just wants to journey with you.

Let Him near.

Speak. However much or little you can.

See what happens next.

If what God feels for you resembles anything like what we feel for our boy, then help is on its way. He will by no means leave you to your own devices as you try to navigate your world. And He wants to teach you how to make your path through it, deficits and all.

Alternately, if you have the means to stretch out your hand and bless someone with some small kindness, by all means do so. You have no idea how deep your gesture might go, how much it might be needed.

Together we can let divinity shine through our humanity, giving light to one dark corner—hope to one weary heart—at a time.