War is on all our minds, and my son came home from fifth grade art class last week and reported that there was, during one of the “big wars,” an artist who painted his barn to blend in with the surrounding landscape. Then the artist and his family made their house appear abandoned, and lived in the barn among the hay and animals, camouflaged from the violent forces swarming around them. Further details were fuzzy, but that which my son did report has sat solidly in my mind this past week while, across the world, another big war rages.
I tried Google, hoping for more about the artist and his barn and whether it worked, but found only a set of remarkable stories about the early days of camouflage, particularly as it was used to ward off and confuse those engaging in aerial warfare and reconnaissance. Communities of artists became think tanks and primary instructors in using color and texture—art— to disguise and deceive. Secret, detailed military pamphlets were designed to assist in the good and necessary creation of camouflage. When big wars erupt, camouflage is a brilliant tactic.
I’ve grown up in an era in which camouflage was more or less another type of fabric design. It came and went as a fashion statement along with plaid flannel shirts, bell bottom (or boot cut) jeans, and so on. I’ve owned two pairs of camo pants, one, a hand-me-down from my brother, and the other, purchased by my husband. He is notorious for making jokes about camouflage clothing, saying something like, “Hey, what’s up with that guy? He isn’t wearing any pants,” and then when we look over in alarm, we see a camo-clad hunter. Camouflage in my everyday environment is not life-or-death.
Yet I do know what it feels like to be glaringly on display and wishing I knew how to better blend in. While I in no way am attempting to minimize the horrors of what’s happening in Ukraine, I cannot help but think about the little wars that happen in everyday life. I think of being a teenager in the high school cafeteria.
It was the first day back to school in January and my family had just moved from Florida to western New York. A big chunk of our break involved outfitting us kids with proper winter gear. Just weeks beforehand, I had owned one lightweight sweater, one fall jacket, and no mittens, snow pants, winter coat, hats, or the like.
I remember being sent to the women’s coat section of the Burlington Coat Factory, feeling completely out of my league. I did not have a clue what a proper winter coat would be like, let alone anything “cool” enough to wear on my first day at a new high school.
Let’s just say I did not choose well. As soon as I walked into the school building, it was apparent that my coat was made from the wrong material, was about three times too poofy, and four times too colorful. I looked like the Michelin Man dipped in a rainbow. As I walked through the school, I felt as though I— no, my coat— was bumping into every person on both sides of the hall. And, since of course I had not yet been assigned a locker, I had to carry my coat . . . everywhere. If I wasn’t a cold, skinny girl from Florida, I might have tried to ditch it in hopes of never seeing it again. My cheeks flamed everywhere I went.
I had anticipated lunch being the worst part of my day even before I found myself dragging around a nylon pink and turquoise coat the size of a pet dinosaur. I almost didn’t go into the lunchroom, but the school was designed to sleuth out skippers, and there just was nowhere to stash myself that would also fit my coat.
And so, with the dread of all dread, I shuffled into the lunch room, trying to glance around casually for an open, harmless seat. It was very steamy in there, and the jukebox was playing the Smashing Pumpkins very loudly.
I was a target, sticking out, and afraid of what kind of bomb was about to be launched. Things could go any direction at that moment. Oh, how I longed for a normal coat, or a locker, or some camouflage that would allow me to blend in.
I was stunned a moment later when I was invited to sit down in an open spot at a table full of girls.
Years later, I still thank God that I did not blend in with that coat. Had I been wearing something correct, or cool, would anyone have noticed me? Had I blended in, would that act of kindness taken place? That kindness, the simple invitation to sit and eat, was safety. It was the first step in surviving the turmoil of moving to a new school. While I had longed to wear the kind of clothing that might allow me to blend in and be hidden (assuming that would save me), it was kindness that saved me. Kindness matters.
In times of “big wars,” staying hidden is critical. But when it comes to our personal, desperate times— such as living through lunchtime— hiding is not the best option, even when it seems comforting. It is in community, and by kindness that we survive.
In wartime, I’m praying for this kindness to exist in every small and large space.