Photo Credit: Sandy Normand
On the longest day of the year, I was working out of the office – under the sun on the top of a hill, with my feet in prairie grass, melting in the heat and the light. It felt like a holiday, “spare” time at work to rest and to share. Just days before, a colleague and a friend were participants in a survivor-style homelessness challenge, to raise funds for Sanctum, an HIV hospice in Saskatoon. While following the participants on Twitter, one comment really got me: “Tired and sunburnt.”
My red hair and Irish complexion has always required a tentative relationship with the sun. I was born before sunscreen was something everyone used, and I have several childhood memories of peeling skin and burning sleepless nights. My family has long joked that Leah is allergic to nature: pollens and grain dusts, mosquito bites and heat. In more recent years, skin left unprotected now itches long before it burns, in a way that makes me think I might have an actually allergy to sunlight. Hats and sunscreen, light-weight long sleeves. I need a lot of equipment to enjoy summer in Saskatchewan.
Of all the ways that I am privileged, sunscreen never occurred to me. The intensity of the light and heat is too much for me, most of the time. I go outside when I want to, when it is enjoyable for me, armed with my protective shields, letting only enough light and nature in to stay comfortable. All this while so many people in our world go without safe places of refuge from any dangers. I will be praying and donating every time I pull out my sunscreen this summer.
Even more than changing my heart when I head into the sun in the coming weeks, this lesson is working its way through the rest of my life. Not only do I have trouble with letting the sun touch me, I have already told you I have to work at being held, at letting other people into my life to love me and take care of me. I am privileged to have the support of family and friends that extends to every area of my life: physical and mental health, childcare, finances, spirituality and pretty much anything else I would need.
Despite all this support, I feel like I (accidentally) apply spiritual sunscreen too. Even having been loved deeply my whole life, I am still afraid of the ways that loving hurts. The intensity of sunlight is a lot like the intensity of love, both with the capacity to fill me up and burn me. I am afraid of being burned, afraid that loving too much will hurt more.
Just like I avoid excursions outside when they will cause me discomfort, I avoid the invitations to love when it is uncomfortable. When the kids want breakfast at 6:45 on Saturday morning, when someone asks me for change I want to spend on treating myself, when I can avoid admitting my mistakes and save the embarrassment, I am armed with excuses, self-righteousness, and indignation. I can love generously easily in my “spare” time, when it suits me, and makes me feel good.
My spiritual self protection hinges on a ridiculous fear that responding to others’ needs when I do not feel like it will make me break out in hives. But every time I walk away from my potential discomfort, I block more of the light love offers. And this is where the metaphor breaks down. Unlike UV rays, getting uncomfortable in loving others will not give me cancer.
Right in the middle of arguing kids, an awkward but real conversation with a stranger in need, an apology, there is growth, and possibility, and even beauty. Right there, in my twitter feed, I can feel simultaneously blinded and blessed. Like buds opening under the sunlight, the seed long-since broken open in hope of a flower, the little light I let in is absorbed and transformed into something new, something I could not have seen or imagined in my fear.
The only reason I have the privilege of sunscreen is because I won the birth lottery, which, it turns out is also how I got the red hair. Homeless and housed, addicted and sober, healthy and allergic to nature, we all have ways of protecting ourselves from the places where loving hurts, where the intensity of seeing one other deeply scares us, where we hide behind the false premise that we just do not have the time.
Slowly, one mistake after another, I am trying to choose the discomfort of loving with my whole heart, wrapping my arms around a kid having a fit instead of getting angry, or whispering I forgive you when I really want to scream that I will not. Rather than an ocean of perfection and ease, love is a garden that requires seeding and weeding, water and sun. The garden needs my attention all the time, not just in the minutes I have left over, though it will wait for me, growing ever more wild until I head out into the sun to learn its lessons.