Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Legend of Old Befana

So since the purchase of our home, I have been reflecting on what it means to create a hospitable and inviting space. On Christmas day, we decided to have some guests over, a few people who otherwise didn't have any place to go. We invited Stan and Mona over, with their daughter Stephanie and Mona's son Romero. I first met them in the Salvation Army shelter last February; now they are in an apartment, but still in a pretty precarious situation. Romero is not quite 13 years old, basically a good kid in a horrible situation. I see so much gentleness in him, watching the way he takes care of his two-year-old baby sister. He's still a child, but just old enough to have started to become intimidating, at that age when we stop adoring children and start fearing them, especially if they have dark skin. He wears his baseball cap cocked to the side and punctuates his speech with wide, gangly, hip-hop gestures, talking about Tupac Shakur and "the street" and "keeping it real." But he's still enough of a kid to look up from time to time to see if you notice him, to make sure you're still listening.

Romero was suspended a couple of weeks ago for bringing a knife to school. When I heard this, I couldn't help but think of the knife his stepfather Stan brandished when he had a nervous breakdown a couple of months ago, the day Romero had to help tackle him to protect his mom and sister, and then watched the paramedics take him away in an ambulance to the mental ward. When I came over a few hours later, there was still blood on the wall, Stan's own blood from where he slashed himself when he was struggling with Mona and Romero.

Now Stan is back with the family; he's taking his medication regularly and appears to be doing much better. But Romero has started carrying a knife, perhaps because it makes him feel strong and tough and "real," perhaps just in case he needs to protect his mom and sister again. And the guidence counselor at the school is saying he may not be readmitted to school in January because of the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy.

In the Italian Catholic tradition, the season between Christmas and Epiphany is a time for telling the story of Old Befana. According to the legend, Befana was a grouchy old woman who kept a neat house and did not like children. One day, she sees a wonderful sight: a magnificent train of camels, wise men bedecked regally, and a little child who tells her that they are following the star, seeking the Child who has been born a king. When Old Befena hears this, she says "humph" and goes back to her sweeping. But the story has captured her imagination, and so before long she lights a fire in the oven and prepares her very best sweets for the new king, then hurries after the wise men, now long gone.

She is still searching to this day.

It is said that on Epiphany eve, Old Befana creeps into the room of all children and peers into their sleeping faces, seeking the Child born king. And she leaves sweets for every child, saying to herself, "Who knows? Perhaps this is the one."

For some reason, I imagine Old Befana coming to Romero's room. I see her looking deeply into his still boyish, not-quite adolescent face, relaxed in sleep. And then silently leaving sweets.

Perhaps Epiphany is calling all of us to this: to learn to see through the eyes of Old Befana. To see in each face, even those we are tempted to fear, the face of the Child. To keep saying to ourselves, "Perhaps this is the one."

What makes a boy like you go bad?
What makes a man so lonely and sad
That he'd poison all he knows
And in one year, just let it go?

And all that time you were telling me
You were fine
Aw, silly man, silly boy.

"Dirt and Dead Ends," from Despite our Differences
Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls

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