“We all live in a Yellow Submarine . . . a Yellow Submarine . . . a Yellow Submarine!” my daughter sings off-key, while marching through the house.
I grin. This was my favorite Beatles’ song when I was a child. I remember singing along in my baby way as my teenage sister carried me around the living room on her hip, music blaring from the stereo speakers on my parents’ mid-century TV/Hi-Fi console. (I was also partial to “Up, Up and Away” by The 5th Dimension and “Good Morning, Starshine” from Hair – “Bob” sang it on “Sesame Street” in 1969, and our family had the .45.) I was two years old when “A Yellow Submarine” released.
My daughter is now eight. It has been four years since my husband and I brought her home from an orphanage in a remote region of Russia. She plays Make Believe, pretending to be a baby kitty at the pet store — crying out to me, “Do you want to be my owner?” and clawing at the bars of her imaginary cage. She eats raw onions like apples and resists wearing a winter coat. “I’m not cold; I’m from Siberia,” she says, when other parents at the bus stop urge her to bundle up. I shrug and meet their glance.
So we sailed up to the sun
Till we found a sea of green
and we lived beneath the waves
In our yellow submarine
When I was in high school, our choir director taught a section about Beatles history. John Lennon had been murdered a few years before. Our teacher taught us about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and about “Paul is dead” and we laughed at the absurdity of the mass hysteria, as if we teenagers were so much wiser than an earlier generation had been. As if it all had happened in a completely different era, and not during our childhoods.
This was about ten years after John Lennon had written “Imagine.” Evangelicals (including me) were horrified by the prospect of there being no heaven, and heaven forbid that this might be considered a good thing. But more than two decades later, I think of these lyrics often; sometimes I cling to them. In our world in which religious divisions have led to widespread persecution and war, thoughts of an afterlife no loner offer the same comfort.
“Surround yourself with lovers of God,” my spiritual director and friend tells me. This makes me squirm. I think of the highly visible, doctrine-oriented religious leaders I’ve known who called themselves “lovers of God,” but whose words and actions rarely matched up.
“I don’t think of myself as a ‘lover of God,'” I say, thinking of them. “I think of myself more as a lover of Good.”
My spiritual director looks at me, and before she has a chance to open her mouth, I get it: the two are one and the same.
Here is what I miss about the more structured religious life of my childhood: giving everything up to Jesus. In my youth, I would simply pray, with earnest desperation: “Jesus, please help me to be a good person,” or “Please send me a good man to love me,” or “God, help me find a way to go back to school – in Jesus’ name, Amen.” It was such a relief, letting go both of control and responsibility.
Today, I am more responsible. I get that you make friends by being a good friend, that having a strong marriage requires being willing to do the hard work. I think about children in orphanages around the world, about fighting in Kenya, and about genocide in Darfur, and praying seems a paltry effort. I want more; I want to do something. But what I can do doesn’t feel like enough.
I raise my Russian-born daughter, as well as my other two children. I send occasional care packages to the Russian orphan we hosted two summers ago — and try to figure out a way to help when she has to leave the orphanage. And, yes, I pray, too, in heartbroken little bursts. After all, Jesus is the one who called us to care for the “orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27), who said that caring for “the least of these” was the same thing as caring for him.
But still there’s Kenya and Darfur and Iraq. Mountains of tragedy that dwarf my mustard-seed faith. I fantasize daily about adopting another child (or two . . . or three) from Russia. But my husband and I have just signed a contract to remodel our house. Without the remodel, it would be impossible to squeeze another child in our five-member, two-bedroom home. Because of the remodel, we can’t afford to adopt again.
A few days ago, I got an update from an adoption agency with which I’ve corresponded in the past. I had inquired last summer about a particular girl described on their website: a smiley, dark-haired, dark-eyed girl named Sasha, who loves school, memorizes poetry, and “has a heart for children.” My heart tumbles when I see her photo. I want desperately to bring her home, but it isn’t even an option. Time is running out for her. In seven months, she will be 16, and no longer legally adoptable. If someone doesn’t move very quickly, she will face the fate of every orphan who leaves the orphanage: life on the street, where drug use, prostitution, and suicide are the norm.
The fact that I know about Sasha, that I feel drawn to her, weighs heavily on me. I want to pull strings, to find some miraculous way to make an adoption happen. In the meantime, what to pray? “God, help her to find a family?” “Send us $25,000 so we can adopt her?” Perhaps, in Anne Lamott fashion, I should simply pray: “Help”? Or maybe even: “This hurts”?
It is difficult to have faith — in God, in the power of goodness, in myself, in the world — when Sasha, and hundreds of thousands of orphans like her, live abandoned in orphanages. When millions of others suffer in refugee camps, war zones, impoverished villages, and slums while those of us in better conditions scratch our heads and lose ourselves in selecting bathroom tiles and paint colors, or in watching the new season of “Lost.”
I suppose the relentless ache in my heart is a good thing: it reminds me about what matters, keeps me looking for elusive, perhaps nonexistent answers that will satisfy on both a spiritual and physical level. It keeps me praying for Sasha, the girl who could have been my girl, even in times when I hesitate to pray for myself. And it keeps me dreaming of, longing and hoping and working for, a day when things will be different. When we all will, as the prophet John Lennon predicted, “live a life of ease” and “everyone of us has all we need.” In a yellow submarine, or in our homes. In this country, and in every other. Sky of blue and sea of green. Lovers of God and lovers of good. Imagine.