Tuesday, August 28, 2012

life in community

When I expressed interest in coming to live at L'Arche Heartland, in the e-mail that I sent I wrote this lengthy paragraph or two about how I had become interested in Henri Nouwen's writing, and my good friend suggested I read Nouwen's book "Adam: God's Beloved." So I did, and I immediately fell in love with the idea of L'Arche. After that I looked for just about every book I could find that was written about L'Arche. I read more of Nouwen's work, and I read books by Jean Vanier, the man who founded L'Arche. I read a book by Sue Mosteller, who was the community leader at L'Arche Daybreak when Henri Nouwen was there and she was also the International Coordinator of L'Arche after Jean Vanier.

When the community coordinator of L'Arche Heartland got back to me, he said that often times people who learn about L'Arche through the writings of Nouwen and Vanier can sometimes be disappointed in the reality of community life once they arrive. Both of these authors have had a lot of experience living in community, and their writing is often full of wonder and deep spirituality. But when someone moves into a L'Arche community and is faced with the day to day life with the people in their homes, they quickly learn that it can often differ from what they've read in the books.

I've noticed that many of my blog entries share some of the more uplifting or holy moments, or as a friend would say the "kumbayah moments." And sure, they are there. I wouldn't be able to write about them if they weren't. But the reality is, those moments are only a portion of what happens in my house. There are meals to make, dishes to clean, floors to sweep, toilets to plunge, messes to clean up, people to drive to work, people to pick up from work, medication to be administered, documentation to be filled out, groceries to be bought, cars to be filled with gas, laundry to be washed, garbage to be emptied, ledgers to be balanced... And then sometimes, in the midst of that, I manage to catch a glimpse of something, or to hear someone say a word or phrase that strikes me in a different way. Sometimes I'm lucky to be aware enough to catch those fleeting moments. But I think, all too often, I'm much too focused on the mundane tasks at hand, and I often miss the opportunity.

Or there are the times that I lose my patience, where I handle a situation in a less than helpful way. Where I get frustrated with someone, or they get frustrated with me, or we get frustrated with each other. Times like these all of that wonder and holiness seem to leave the room, or at least go hide behind the couch. Then I'm left feeling all flustered or upset, most of the time with myself because I didn't handle the situation with the patience or compassion or gentleness or humor that I would have hoped.

Then I look at my life in L'Arche as it is right at that moment and I can't help but think that it would never make it into one of those books by Nouwen or Vanier.  I can't recall ever reading anything they wrote about a snippy, short-tempered assistant. I don't remember seeing anything about an assistant who practically had a wrestling match to retrieve an object from a core member that they shouldn't have had. There's nothing about the assistant who slammed their car door and shouted at a core member in the front yard of their house, or the assistant who had a spectacular meltdown and practically threw a plate of muffins at their community coordinator.

But that's life in community. Or atleast my life in community. And I'm guessing that it's not really all that abnormal or different. I'm sure the specifics might vary, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone who has spent much time living in intentional community in general, and L'Arche in particular, can share plenty of their own less than stellar moments. It's all a part of the deal when you sign up for a life in community.

Another part of life in community, though, is the need to forgive as well as to ask for forgiveness. So, when those moments happen, I have to stuff my pride away and muster up the humility to admit that I was wrong, or that I could have handled the situation differently, and ask for forgiveness. I also have to be willing to extend that same forgiveness to others, even in the midst of hurt feelings or a bruised ego.

And I suppose that's where the wonder and holiness comes into the situation. In the fact that, no matter how many times I've screwed up, or said something wrong, or made a fool of myself, every time when I have asked for forgiveness, I've received it. I've been given a hug, or a smile, or a kind word to let me know that it was forgiven and forgotten. We were able to mend our relationship and move on, to wipe the slate clean... at least until the next time I can find a way to mess up!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

this house

(Note: I wrote this about a week ago but didn't post it at the time because I didn't have internet access in the house. Today, our internet was hooked up and two of the core members who I will be living with moved their stuff into the house. Already our life together is starting to take shape.)

As I write this I am sitting in a house that is virtually empty. The only furniture is a twin sized bed, an end table and a dresser. There is nothing in the dining room or the living room. The three other bedrooms sit wide open and empty. Right now, I’m the only person living in this house. I’ve been here for a little more than a week. I’ve spent my time cleaning, sweeping up mounds of dog hair that was left behind by the previous owners. I’ve been mopping and dusting and putting up shower curtains and installing smoke detectors. I’ve been assembling vacuums and putting together shelves for storage. We’ve been shopping and buying furniture which is set to be delivered in the middle of this week. We are getting ready to open another house here at L’Arche, a house that will become a home for me, and at least three other people, all of whom are living with some kind of developmental disabilities. So, yes, this house is currently pretty empty. But while it might be empty of furniture, it is full of possibility.

I can’t help but stand in the dining room, and envision where the table will be. When I see the table, I see it surrounded by the core members and assistants who will share meals there. I know there will be much laughter and conversation shared over good food. I know there will be times spent together in prayer, with a candle lit to signify the holiness of the occasion. I know there will be house meetings where each one is encouraged to share what is important to them in their life together in this house.

When I turn to the living room, I think of the couch and chairs that will go there, encouraging people to sit and relax and spend time together. It will also be the area where we will host our weekly community prayer nights when it’s our turn. We’ll move the chairs and couch out of the way and put up a few extra tables and more chairs. The other houses will come and join us and we’ll share a meal all together and then some singing and an activity afterward, followed by prayer. I imagine the joy and laughter and communion that will fill the house then, when we are all gathered in this room. 

Then I move to the kitchen, and think of all the meals that will be prepared there. I think of all the bowls of cereal that will be poured, all the pancakes that will be made, the lunches that will be packed, the spaghetti that will be boiled, the cakes that will be baked to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. I think of the coffee that will be brewed in the mornings, the dishes that will need to be washed after every meal, the pots and pans and dishes and cups that will fill the cupboards. I look at the fridge and can’t wait to cover it with pictures of people who are important to us, our friends and family, both in and out of L’Arche.

Down the hall are the bedrooms, and as I walk by each one I think of the members of our community who will be in these rooms. I think of the two core members who will be moving here from one of our other houses. I think of our relationships as they are now, and wonder how they will change as we share a home together. I imagine how their energy and wisdom and spirit will shape this house. And then I look at the bedroom that will belong to a new core member that we will be welcoming. I think of the times he’s visited us, and the little bit I’ve gotten to know him, and wonder what it will be like to live with him, to learn how best to help him lead a full and happy life, and to learn American Sign Language so that I can more fully communicate with him. Then I look at the last bedroom on the right-hand side of the hallway, which is mine, the only furnished room in the house at the moment, and I think about what my life will look like in this house. I wonder how I will change and grow, what I will learn, what the core members will teach me, while I call this place my home.

So right now this house might be empty in the material sense. It might not have all of the things that people think of when they envision what a house looks like. But it is brimming with possibility and hope and ideas and promise. And very soon the people will be here to fill that promise with flesh and bones and laughter and noise and joy and love, and that will be what makes it our home.