Friday, December 9, 2011

No One Said This Would Be Easy

Hello readers! It’s been a while and I thought I’d update this blog even though I do not plan to make up for months gone by without entries.

My experience as part of the L’Arche community in St. Louis has been full. I think I could write a book about each of the 5 people with whom I live. Kim, Pauline, Damon, Janet, and Agnes. Amy has come on as a live out assistant as well.

L’Arche is a magical place, with a lot of mystery. It’s hard to articulate how exactly God weaves in and out of all our relationships, but none of us has the bigger picture of what’s growing in our connections.

I sit here with Pauline at the Turner Center for the Arts, an art studio very close to our home. She says we’re having fun. She’s using watercolors to surround her double rainbow with a dark orange sunset. I’m reminded of why orange is my favorite color. We both really like this place as we hear others scribble and see them staring down. The music backgrounds our focus on our works.

Earlier this morning, I fell to my knees and I said to Kim, “I have a fever, and the only prescription is a Kim hug.” She immediately threw her arms around me and said, “I love you Justin.” Though this positive interaction may not have lasted long, I found myself more nourished and relaxed.

Here at L’Arche I am stretched beyond what I am used to. I am forced to recognize everyday that I will never be perfect. I will never have control over everything. In this lifetime, I will never be able to see the big picture. It’s too much, and so I remain in the mystery of it all, hoping that I contribute to the light and love of the world.

Some other things have changed since June. As I mentioned, Agnes, Pauline, and Amy have joined us. Heather, Sr. Maria, and Marie departed for the next stages of their lives. People have come from the Dept. of Mental Health to help us track and document what needs tracking and documenting. We are starting to welcome volunteers here and there for meals and time with core members. We have divied up various responsibilities. I am proud to play the role of house fire marshal, schedule-maker, and volunteer coordinator. Or at least, I try to fulfill the responsibilities of these positions.

There are many struggles and poverties for our home, as I expect there to be. I love that I have been able to accept more and more the reality that community strives towards certain ideals, and is sometimes able to temporarily realize them, but ultimately that perfection is never within our reach. Sometimes I feel pressure to say things are “going well” at the house, when frankly, they aren’t always. And why should they be? If you asked a woman in labor how she was doing, what kinds of answers would you expect? In the home, we are committed to giving birth to a new community. St. Louis has been pregnant for several years with a L’Arche community and the way I see it, the birthing process is still underway. I don’t mean to suggest that I am a mother or doula. I am a student. I am a participant. I am along for the ride. All of us are journeying together, through serious times and playful ones, through tough times and relaxed ones. Please pray for L’Arche St. Louis as we strive towards shining as a sign of hope in this world.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Welcome Aboard!: We Live, We Grow, We Gather Together

L’Arche St. Louis is underway! We have welcome our first core member, Kim, and her entry is a prize for us all. It’s been a bit over a week, and her presence in the community adds to our life-giving energy. I’ve had the opportunity to spend lots of time with Kim, and I’m so excited by her humor and interests, like her singing. When she carries a tune, my body melts a little. I notice I sit a little more peacefully in my chair as she sings from her repertoire of songs. I adire her willingness to share that joy of singing and to express emotions. She listens to her body and goes to bed even though the fun is still going on. I find myself ignoring wha tmy body tells me, so maybe being around Kim will help me make healthy changes for myself. We’ll see.

Sam Wilson, former board member and current regent in the Jesuits, has been visiting for a few days and that’s been a benefit for the house, and especially for me as Sam has been a reliable mentor/friend for me in the past several years. He also adds a positive energy to the house, due partially for his sweet blues guitar playing. I find myself liking Johnny Cash more and more.

We have a core member lined up to move in to L’Arche here in just a few weeks, if all goes to plan. Welcoming more core members is something I look forward to more now than ever. We plan to have a few opening type events, but a primary one will be in mid August (the 14th?) put on by us and the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce. The ribbon cutting and all. Ideas are becoming realities everyday.

Oh my Gosh! I Almost forgot to mention the Memphis Regional Gathering! St. Louis arrived without core members, but still realy for fun with the rest of the Central Region communities (Mobile, Chicago, Clinton, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Atlanta). There was lots of dancing, talent, singing, field trips (Graceland, Sun Studio, Wellness Center, Dixon Gallery and Gardens) and good meals. I really lose it around chocolate milk on tap. I tried to meet people from all the communities and I was really satisfied with the quality of people I encountered. And seeing my Jacksonville friends was a scrumptious treat.

Thanks for your support, everyone.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Building Foundations, Calling This Home.

So, the story continues. I have inhabited the L’Arche home for a few weeks now, along with Damon, Janet, Marie, and Maria. Damon is another founding assistant. Janet is the community leader. Marie is a summer intern/student from France, here to help with administrative tasks. Maria is the house grandmother for a couple months, having helped start and lead a number of L’Arche communities. All of us and often Heather, a live out assistant for now, share several dinners and prayer times a week.

We have been preparing to welcome Kim and Wayne into this L’Arche community and dates are becoming solidified. I am so happy to say that I have been able to meet on several occasions with our founding core members and am feeling more comfortable around them. It’s nice for me to get to know who it is I am going to be living with! I imagine it’s nice for most people.

Part of the preparation has also included trainings, connecting with nearby churches, cleaning, moving things around, and a diversity of household to-dos. So much of the work needed to be done is in fact done by friends in the greater St. Louis L’Arche community. I feel called now to make it clear that the St. Louis L’Arche community extends far beyond the 5 people currently living in the house, and even beyond the incoming core members. It’s kind of like we’re a big pomegranate, and the household members are seeds near the middle of the fruit. We all make different contributions, we all satisfy different roles. We are all tasty. And the web of white skin inside is the collection of bonds between all of us “separate” entities. Yessss.

At the house, we try to stay conscious (thanks to Maria) of the reality that we are building a foundation every day. The genetic makeup of the seeds we sow here will show up as phenotypes as the future becomes the present. I feel responsible with the others for bringing loving traditions into this home. It’s a relief to remind myself that we will never become a perfect community. And conflict is an opportunity for growth if we have openness.

In other news, Maplewood is growing and thriving and being developed. Our location near the downtown makes it easier for us to integrate into the town here. I am very excited about the prospects of this! Personally, I’m loving the library, 2 cool coffee shops, one of which has an open mic night, restaurants, bars, and connecting with the churches.

For several days, an exploratory retreat occurred in St. Louis for newer L’Arche assistants around the country. This was a time of making relationships, reflecting, creating, reading, getting inspired by the lives of the saints, and allowing myself to be vulnerable. I thank everyone who was involved in making it as excellent a time as it was for me.

In just a few days, we embark for the L’Arche Central Region Gathering in Memphis which will include almost everyone (core members, assistants, admin, friends) from the Chicago, KC, Jacksonville, Mobile, Clinton IA, and STL and ATL communities. It seems to me like it will be a big vacation/party. A gathering with all our communities together has not happened for years.

Of course, this is a limited update, and I’ll be reflecting soon on how I want to continue with this blog in terms of what I will include in it (personal events and musings? Only STL L’Arche updates? Share more or less?). If you have any feedback or advice on the issue, I’m open to it. I often feel guilty for not including the names of all the people who have contributed to my welfare in recent times. So “Thanks.” Know I am nothing without the gifts/love of you/others. Whether you gave me a hug yesterday or did anything with love at all to anyone or anything, I want to say thanks.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Departing from the Harbor, Sailing with the Claver, Approaching the Home

Hello there, and welcome back.

So I have spent many hours compiling bullets for a mondo huge entry. And I’m afraid it’s no longer going to be posted. I’m going to condense like crazy to ensure that I include some of the journey in the last few months.

I finished my time in Jacksonville with some constructive one-on-ones and further heartfelt goodbyes. Journeying to each house with some of the Nouwen house crew to close out my time was a night I ponder followed by a rich feeling of significance.

To name a few elements of the end of the JAX L’Arche journey: Regularly attending St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church with a couple friends from Nouwen, the final dance where I was treated to “I Swear” by loving friends, overcoming grudges (my own and others’), going through a meaningful evaluation meeting, planning morning prayers that focus on the abilities of the core members like touch and the other senses, the deaths of loved ones in the L’Arche community, song mashup duets with Mollie, being treated to another scavenger hunt and moving letters. At the Anniversary celebration, I was affected by the loving words and hugs shared. It’s hard for me to feel worthy of the love I received. It’s funny, because I worry about mentioning names on here for fear of excluding unmentioned people that have impacted me. There are so many names that I would have to devote hours to recognize them all. I am overjoyed at the realization that that is such a blessing of a concern. No number of thanks is enough to all those who surround me and continue surrounding me, securing me in what I can comfortably call the love of God.

For the last 2 months, I have been living in an intentional community called Claver House in North St. Louis. The people here are students, volunteers, nonprofit workers who eat meals together, check in with each other, play together, and host alternative Spring Break college groups (at least while I was there). They really welcomed me despite my extended stay and I find that a certain closure is needed as I end my blast of a time here and start waking up to L’Arche house mornings. Because tonight is the last night I’ll be sleeping here at Claver House. And I’m going to miss living here after sharing a room with my great friend Jim. It’s going to mean lonelier nights and I hope to get through that.

What do I say about L’Arche St. Louis that I can fit in an entry that doesn’t lead to the bottom of this page? We had a bomb group of Holy Cross kids help paint during spring break, Janet’s been working non stop to keep everything rolling. Heather came back and she’s contributing her skills to our efforts. Damon is an all star as he continues helping with the house and moving into his room. In Nick I gained something of an apprenticeship in painting. In John, I gained some knowledge on phone and internet connection for the house. We had a L’Arche Day of Reflection where I really discovered the love waiting for me in the hearts of the various board members, volunteers lending their hands and expertise, and everyone else that the grasp of this L’Arche community has reached. I’ve really come to see that L’Arche is not so much a house with core members and assistants, but a way of living out community in a way that supports, loves, and forgives one another. I am but a small piece of this St. Louis L’Arche puzzle. We all seem to need the gifts and balance brought by others. Can you imagine if I were responsible for the contract work on the house, for managing the email list, or for all the interactions with people involved in granting us licenses, permissions, and what have you? I don’t even like to use the phone. There are so many volunteers helping out in so many ways so that this L’Arche house can become a reality in less than 30 years. It’s been about 7 years since meetings about L’Arche in this city got started, and I’m glad we’ve had this time to prepare and grow a community before the home has even opened to core members.

I want to speak on more, but I’m already wishing this entry was smaller. So from now on, I’ll make it a goal to post up more frequently and with less content. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks to everyone for reading this. I do it in an attempt to explain a little of what’s going on in L’Arche and how I relate to it. I don’t include too many details, but I hope it’s enough for you to understand me better.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Improving Grades: X-Mas Break and Turning Tides

It is now February and there is three weeks worth of time remaining here in Jacksonville. The plan is to move to St. Louis somewhere during the middle of March into the L’Arche settlement. It seems like a year has passed since October. This soul must have planted special seeds into Florida’s warm soil. Hesitation in consideration of claiming such growth. Some things are too tough to learn until one is in the right circumstance. Community presents lots of situations from which to grow. Practice doesn’t make perfect when it comes to awareness. But it helps.
Understanding has come to me in layers. If my mind decides that something is pressing, I wasn’t looking hard enough. Or I was looking too hard. I start off with a box that I fit ‘em in. If the box is closed, oh how pressing it is that we alter the box! The box is open now. It’s going to be ok. And even if it’s not okay, it’s going to be okay. I’m breaking out of my self-made box sometimes. These identities are walls and maybe they’re important but putting in air holes will do the job.

Abstraction is code. Studying the language is a requisite for taking this course. Don’t worry; I intend to get better about putting my analogies in the vernacular.

I spent a lot of days in Cincinnati in late December. It became a space for reflection, discussion, and fun. I tinkered with the guitar more than usual and was excited to start putting chords and notes together. I saw great friends and spent many nights playing Clue with family. I love the infinite strategy involved in that game. I didn’t play video games. I won a lot of dollars playing poker with family at the Christmas Eve gathering. I had a conversation with my aunt about art (Does art imitate life or vice versa? What is art?), L’Arche, some things I’ve been learning. I snow skated with my sister on an old skate deck. I journaled less. I read a lot of Atlas Shrugged. I consumed. I walked around in new slippers that thanked me for crushing them between my feet and floor.
I have been considering the consequences of dualistic thinking. I just read the “In Eastern
Mysticism” section of the dualism Wikipedia page and I realize an interest in learning and living more Taoism. Everything seems to conclude in the important of relationship. Relationship with people, objects, places, feelings, thoughts, fears, joys, sorrows, land, everything. Awareness. These are just words I’m writing. It’s all symbols. I can’t name that which is nameless. I like the mystery in that.

Meet Them Where They’re At. I’m seeing the effectiveness in meeting people where they are at rather than making them meet me anywhere. I’m responsible for my feelings and my thoughts. Gotta do what you gotta do to make relationship and improve them with others whom you care to connect.

Here in Jacksonville, I’ve been losing my self-imposed status as a newb. I think I’m more integrated into the community and I feel like a part of the web. One of my goals coming back to Jacksonville after Christmas was that I wanted to kick ass at my assistant responsibilities. I decided that I accomplished this goal (of course, always room for improvement).

The way I’m writing makes me wish I had more skill in weaving the thanks I have for non-me elements that contributed to this entry I’m outputting, as well as everything else I create, act.

Each Core Member - I wish I’d spend more time on the details of my relationships with the core members in my house. This is where the life is. These abstract ideas I write about can get me excited, but the one-on-one time at the house produces lots of material for a dynamic verbal release of positive emotions. One reason I avoid updating about relationships is because I don’t want to risk breaking confidentiality rules. I don’t want to bother being so watchful about what I write. I do want to announce the gifts of people with intellectual disabilities though. I want to show people the gifts, but I think reading about it is not as effective as I would like. I’m not much for writing out stories, which would be a very effective way to portray the relationships I’m building. If you get the chance, ask me about the relationships: the joys and the challenges.


· Adya Ashanti and Eckhart: I read a couple articles that Eric gave to me, both of which related to what is involved in enlightenment. These are lines I highlighted: “All appearances simply arise as temporary manifestations of a unified whole. In the relative world these appearances are in relationship, but not as separate entities. Rather, they are the play of the one Self projecting itself as apparent entities in relationship to one another. As long as you identify yourself with the projection of separateness, you will continue to deny that you are the Source of all projections…To realize that the personal me is an illusion born of false identification with the body, thoughts, and emotions brings a profound sense of freedom…It is in reality the birth of true love, a love which is free of all boundaries and fear. When there are no clear separating boundaries and nothing to gain the ego becomes disinterested, angry, or frightened. ” So this perspective has been helpful and liberating, though I only think I’m touching the surface in my internalizing of it.
Eckhart’s article explores the idea described by Ashanti. One idea I like is his critique of the use of the word God. That use of the word causes a mental image which immediately takes away from the significance of the word in its infinite invisibility. He then goes on talking about how identification with your mind and thoughts keeps us from feeling the oneness with all that is. This got me debating about how much my mind uses me verses me using it. I realize I let my mind use me all the time, especially when I don’t want it too! I worry far more than I deem healthy for myself. Becoming present eases the thinking, but what a road I have to traverse to disidentify with my mind.
· Books: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Everything Belongs by Richard Rohr, The Assertive Option by Arthur Lange, In Good Company by Fr. James Martin SJ, Path to Awareness by David Keel
· Joan Mahler: The National L’Arche Coordinator visited Harbor House and I had the chance to talk to her for a while. I was inspired by her warm and open spirit. She answered my questions about L’Arche and herself. The reasons L’Arche USA buys into the International Federation are less about resources and mostly psychological, which I’m happy to comprehend. I learned about McKinsey & Co. Consulting which sounds like a group I’d want to be a part of later in my life.
· I went to Golden Corral twice for a couple birthdays in Nouwen House. Golden Corral has plenty of veggie friendly options. Another birthday brought me to Dave and Busters which was a blast. It’s nice to get out into public night-life once in a while…
· After trying the straight vegetarian thing for a few months, I decided to start eating fish products. I ate at a great seafood place with Mollie and Sarah called Singleton’s. We then took a ferry and adventured around this river.
· Change rooms: I changed rooms midway through my time here. I like to switch rooms or the interior of my bedroom to match what I consider bigger transitions going on. The room is bigger and warmer at night.
· Being in L’Arche, I am something of a minority as an introverted thinker (INTJ). Everyone here tested as a feeling type on the Myers Briggs. I find refuge in an INTJ forum online, where people talk about their behaviors and I relate.
· Mewithoutyou, the band, continues to reverberate in the pool of songs I’ve been listening to.
· Lotfi: Lotfi and Leah started at L’Arche here. As a result, I discontinued the thought that I was the newbie here. I feel like part of the gang here, and this in turn caused me to sense attachment to the relationships I’ve formed here.
· Joe Besl: My friend Joe has been riding around the country in the Oscar Meyer Weiner mobile and I connected him with friends in Portland and Eugene. I was happy to reconnect with Joe and give him some entertainment options out in Oregon.
· SOTU: Watched the State of the Union and continue to read about politics. My yearning for dialogue about politics is never-ending and enjoyable.
· Jewish Temple: I went to a synagogue (Reform) for the first time. Mollie, Sarah, and I attended a chapel session on a Saturday morning. I really enjoyed it. I liked trying to read Hebrew aloud with everyone else. I was surprised by how similar to any Christian church service it was.
· First Thursday (first one): On the First Thursday of every month (well, not the past few months…) there is community gathering for everyone connected to L’Arche here. It was a nice service and we focused on solidarity with the troubled L’Arche communities in Egypt, Ivory Coast, and Haiti.
· Pine Castle: I visited the Seniors program at Pine Castle and it was nice to see another workshop. There was a computer, couches, tables, lots of art materials, and a television. I liked the easygoingness of the place. It was awesome to hear that one of our Nouwen House members likes to go outside and connect with everyone else on the campus. He knows everyone and gives lots of hugs. What a charmer.
· This bullet is reserved for all those people and events I didn’t write about but truly affected me and changed me for the better or for the worse.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fall Semester's Closing Out: Progress is Measured in Transformation

Aw, the excitement of writing the first sentence of a blog entry. I meant to update so many weeks ago that I started to recently find myself lost as to what to choose to document. Since my last post, I hit the 3 month eating vegetarian mark as well as my 2 month anniversary in L’Arche. I think people like bulletpoint blogs, so let’s do it.

  • A few weeks ago I joined in a Quaker meeting along with a couple friends. It included a 50 minute meditation and some sharing. Though I became very physically uncomfortable in a recent meditation, this time my body enjoyed it. In my meditation, rather than empty my head of thoughts, I try to more slowly identify my feelings and think through where they come from. At this meeting, I came in with a lot of nervousness about keeping my eyes closed in front of some 10 people I had never met, so I worked through that and felt happy upon the relaxation that came of it. I then came to learn that I share a lot in common with Quaker philosophy. It reminded me a lot of Catholic Social Teaching. A line from the literature I remember most comes out as “The survival of a religious institution is not to be a concern, but rather the ability to fulfill spiritual needs and strive towards God/Truth/Whatever you want to call it. The Catholic Church could learn from this, I imagine.
  • Thanksgiving was a blessing. I ate about 4000 calories that day total. I started recently after that to attempt a 3000 calorie diet. It has been difficult to follow since I have yet to routinize exercise and I also find it hard to estimate how many calories I’m putting in me. That night, a group of us was out on a dock going into the St. John’s River. I felt inspired by the presence of stars, black night, and water all around.
  • Some fellow assistant friends anonymously planned a nightly 3 step scavenger hunt for me to navigate. The rhyming riddles, Reese’s Fast Breaks, and realization I was being watched and laughed at while digging under swinging benches made for a yummy, feelin’ loved good time.
  • Plans are afoot to travel to a Spanish-Speaking country with my brother next September. Yes please.
  • I started letting my brain work on Sudoku’s again. A couple yers ago I tried them and became frustrated by an inability to solve the more difficult ones. After spending a good 45 minutes at least on a 5 star one, I have the techniques to complete hard ones sooner. Practice, practice, practice. I probably won’t touch them for a while now.
  • My journaling method has been in flux for what seems like a half year. I now soak up the presleep sponge with a daily log of important happenings in the day (new addition: I title each day based on what I guess to be the most influential event), and then I pick a couple deep questions to answer before sleeping. Questions I pick most often are, “Where did my eyes linger today? What did I learn today? What new thoughts visited me? What did I begind today that might endure? Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different? Who saw me today? What did I avoid today? Why was I given this day?” Sometimes the journaling is like an addiction, but I like to believe that it helps me grow from day to day. I consider it prayer, a part of my spirituality.
  • Harry Potter 7. I’m talking dressing up as characters 2 weeks after it opened in theaters. JP was Snape withan awesome black wig, Danielle was a Hogwarts student, Sarah was a Quidditch player, and Molly was Tonks. I was a Death eater. We all sported wands and the wizard and witch spirits. We watched in the early afternoon and there were about 5 others in the theater. I was gifted with excited energy as part of a sweet team. My favorite part was sliding down the side rail and kicking Snape in the back right at the bottom. No way it was a coincident that the timing worked like it does in the movies!
  • I have started taking walks more frequently. I find these are times when I conjure up most of the lyrics I log in my poetry journal.
  • We went to see the Nutcracker. I liked the first half which had a plot to it, but I became very skeptical of ballet because I did not understand how it is art, what it communicates. I can see it as sport and a show of physical intelligence, but I wouldn’t mind knowing more behind its purpose.
  • Movies and music recently watched or heard: The Karate Kid, Elf, The Day the Earth Stood Still (I dig sci-fi), Elton Johns Greatest Hits, Radiohead.
  • Books: Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. This book has contained social skill gold for me. I have been most influenced by the observation/evaluation distinction he makes. He argues that people make judgments, or evaluations, that are inaccurate and cause violent communication and unreal barriers to be put up. For example, say I see someone leave their dishes on a table. To one person, this is interpreted as commonplace and there is no evaluation of bad, sloppy, serious, inconsiderate. Another person may observe this and evaluate that the person who left the dishes is sloppy and leaving work for others to do. These are assumptions. I would argue that a more effective approach to this observation is to focus on what one has observed and then ask questions rather than make assumptions about what it means that the person left their dirty dishes out. Perhaps that person has a task to complete right away and plans to come back to them. Perhaps leaving dishes in the sink until they stack up is their preference (as is often mine, if I were to live in my own place. I prefer letting dishes stack up and then making it into an event that I organize and do all the dishes). If one finds themself attaching judgments to peoples actions, then it often puts up a barrier between the other(s). Surely it would be impossible to elimiante all of our judgments, but I find it worthwhile to put effort into catching my own judgments. When bringing up a conflict with someone, I think it will be more effective to tell people the observations supporting the judgment, rather than the judgment itself (“I find you sloppy and inconsiderate” vs “I have noticed several occasions where you left your dishes in the sink and someone else ended up doing them.” The former will likely turn off the receiver of the message, whereas the latter leaves room for dialogue and understanding). Wow, this is just one point in the book and I would love to go into detail about the others. I highly recommend you check it out if you want to learn compassionate assertiveness that promote understanding and equality.
  • Sarah and I heard many stories from Eric about witchcraft in the Phillipines. There was one story about a black stone passed down in a poor family that would allow them to fly at night on winged creatures. Other people were able to heal pains by placing hands on the person. I was so intrigued and wanting to visit some of the islands there to observe this for myself. Here in the United States, there is little superstition and belief in magic, but I have come to learn that “primitive” cultures in the world have strong witchcraft elements. I feel unable to make a judgment on it, because who has the authority to say it’s all a hoax or it’s all supernatural? (It’s probably neither of those two..)
  • I received a nice cold that kept me avoiding contact with people. I wondered what it would be like to not have physical touch due to a chronic contagious condition. As I kept from hugging others, I was relieved at the expectation that I would be sick for a very limited time and go back to hugging. But hmm.

I’ve shot enough bullets onto the page now. I have recognized that I reserve writings on relationship experience with people in L’Arche for paragraph form. I don’t want to go on and on, but I will explain about “Benny” and I.
Benny and I get along really well, and I think it is because we both like to express companionship with physical touch. Bennie took initiative in poking, tickling, and rubbing my shoulder. I now enjoy doing the same with him. I just received a distaste for writing about the relationship. It’s difficult for me to communicate the growing bond. I think it’s best if I simply make observations. A couple days ago, Bennie and I walked around outside, tossing football and sitting next to each other on a swinging bench. Bennie is unable to hear all but yells, and he is more or less unable to speak. He communicates with hand motions, noises, and physical touch. Is Bennie unable to love or be loved due to these disabilities? I would argue that the opposite is closer to the case. My mind doesn’t get clogged with ideas of what to say to Bennie. We spend time with each other, share eye connections, give hugs, stretch, dance, and walk together. One night, I watched Bennie lead me to his room, point to a picture of him with his parents, and start to pout. He gets out his packing bag, signaling he wants to visit them (they are both very old and living in a nursing home). Though he didn’t tell me he was suffering and felt sad about not being with his parents for a long time, I think I understood him clearly. He willingly shared this hurt in his heart. It was special. When I look at Bennie, sometimes I give him the way I really feel rather than the mask I hide. If I’m tired, I’ll let out a sigh for him to see, letting him know I’m not all together and happy all the time. At first, Bennie seemed happy all the time, and that was until I noticed his sighs and the sad face when pointing at dad. Bennie teaches me how to communicate emotions honestly, without words. I feel excited that I’ve only begun schooling with him in this.
It’s the 1-on-1 connections that really cause the growth and community here in L’Arche. Really engaging another human being, whether it’s dialogue, nonverbal like eye contact, sitting together, showing old family photos. It’s attention, personal attention. That’s all it really takes. Somehow it’s so hard.

That’s a major lesson here.



Monday, November 22, 2010

Drinking from the Fountain of L'Arche: New Schedule, New classes, New Lessons

Things have changed.

In the past few weeks, I have experienced a trampoline jump into employment, a conclusion in one living situation, quasi-homelessness amidst a celebration, and the birth of times sharing life in the Nouwen house.

The St. Louis L’Arche community will be opening a bit later than expected in my first post. Now, late March or April is a more probable open date. As a result, the 2 founding assistants of the upcoming community, Heather and I, were hired on as live-in assistants here in Jacksonville until we return to St. Louis. I would have preferred to start in St. Louis in January, but the idea that I will be here for much longer does not cause me unhappiness. In fact, I can easily conjure up more of what I will learn from staying, such as how to make sure I take care of my needs. Looking back, it felt like the whole year in Portland was an effort at adapting to living in a new place without much of a beginning network. I hope that the process comes more naturally here in Jacksonville. So far, it feels like it has, principally because I live within a well established community!

Peace House, it was a pleasure living with you for the few weeks I roomed in you. I appreciated that you really welcomed me and opened up to me. I enjoyed the tickling, singing, cleaning, kindness, and conversation that the core members contributed, as well as the friendships formed with the assistants. Just when I was really starting to get attached, I had to swing to the next platform: Nouwen House. Of course, it was a rough start paired with the 25th Anniversary celebration of Harbor House. My bedroom in Great Full house (for sleeping in Great Full, but sharing life in Nouwen) was hijacked by a woman named Lisa, an assistant in Chicago L’Arche who had come down along with “Jeremy.” I really enjoyed learning about how it looks to go to school for spiritual direction from Lisa. The plan was to sleep one night on the couch and two nights in the apartment, but my two days away (no responsibility days) were changed, initiating the aforementioned quasi-homelessness sequence. I greatly exaggerate, because I had a comfortable place to sleep within the same house that contained my bedroom, but the instability of it caused uneasiness in me. I had just moved from Peace house to Nouwen house, so I already felt like something of a stranger. I learned something about myself from this bout of extreme destitution: I become very attached to rooms that are “mine.” As someone who identifies as an introvert, I really take comfort in the refuge offered by personal bedrooms. I become safe from emotional labor and spontaneous encounters. I like that when I am in my room, I better control the passage of time because I find I am responsible to myself and not the needs or desires that others have of me.

Nouwen house. It was easier for me this time to identify the value in each core member, outside of their intrinsic value. Many great teachers in this community : )

I have been in Nouwen for a little over a week at this point. My perception of “Ricky,” an older member, has really gone through a turnaround since I started living her. At first, I was slightly irritated by the constant questions he asked, many of which seemed to hide a motive to earn more unhealthy food options. He did not remember my name and I did not see him smile. I’m not sure what exactly caused the change, but I remember hearing Hank say to me, “It’s Ricky’s world,” and that was when my irritation seemed to melt away. That’s about when I became one of Ricky’s top fans. It might have been the smiles. Much like one member at Peace house who I became a fan of once I heard her laugh, I became a fan of Ricky when I saw him happy. Hearing him proudly state his name (first and last) and smile that big grin of his in front of a mirror just makes me crack up. It took me a few days to start accepting him for the person he happens to be at this point in his life.

I have noticed that Ricky has challenged me in another way that very much pleases me. When he is in a social mood, many of the questions he puts forth are ones that I normally respond to with how there is more than one answer. It may be from picking up on how Ricky would prefer shorter answers, or maybe I am becoming impatient, but I have started to find it easier to let go of the infinite complexities of what answers could be. I am becoming more comfortable with answering simply, “yes” or “no” to questions he poses, like “Are vegetables good for you?” “Yes” is a better answer in most cases than “as long as they are consumed in moderation and part of a balanced diet.”

I am largely satisfied with the idea that I answer questions firmly, with more decision, commitment, and strength. This is positive assuming I don’t disregard the deeper reality of the elusiveness of truth that Socrates endorsed.

Also from Nouwen house, I could take a lesson from “Sam” in terms of showing someone special attention. The way he holds your hand, smiles at you, offers a gentle shoulder pat and hug is more than enough to put me happily at ease at least for while. Sam’s reaching out to me in this way so immediately after meeting him was one of the amazing aspects of joining this community. Sam is very hard of hearing and close to mute, but maybe he pulls the power lost in those disabilities into the power of his toothless beam. Sam cared about me for being human before I had a chance to live in Nouwen and spend quality time with him.
I will be residing in Nouwen House until March or so of next year, so there is time to share more of the personalities and behaviors there in coming posts.

Some lessons from homework…

• SOA Georgia: I road tripped with JP and Danielle to Fort Benning Georgia to rally for the closing of WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation). I had the chance to see St. Louis friends and acquaintances, feel again like part of a good love-based tradition, and learn amazing facts about Tiftin Georgia (over 71 lakes and ponds…Reading Capital of the World!)
• Ronald McDonald House: I went with a couple Nouwen housers to this place and learned what they are about, which is providing temporary housing for parents of children with illnesses that must be treated away from home in Jacksonville hospitals.
• Civil War Reenactors: At a state park here, there were some Union troops living there for the weekend. Apparently, Cincinnati was a “mustering” point for Union soldiers and were part of the efforts to overtake and maintain control of Jacksonville. I meet so many people from Cincinnati here and find lots of connections between the cities.
• Mime skit 25th anniversary, AJ moment: A primary part of the 25 anniversary celebration was a mime skit, where daily life members mimed a typical day at L’Arche. AJ, who I went to school with at SLU, was here visiting since he is working with L’Arche over in Mobile Alabama. We had a chance to discuss JVC and it was a sweet surprise.
• "Booz cruise": L’Arche Harbor House received a late afternoon boat cruise from the Blanchart’s, which was a great time. There was dancing, good food, and great sights along the St. John’s River.
• Keeping up with Daily Show: The Daily Show has seemed to be more important now than never in learning about the ridiculous 24hour news stations and politicians putting their stink out into the world.
• Curb Your Enthusiasm: The thought of Larry David in this show cracks me up. The social conventions he constantly challenges and defends make for many chuckles. I recommend it for a laugh. You can start watching at any point it seems.
• Backstreet Boys: I borrowed the 3 recent CDs of the Backstreet boys and listened to them quite a bit. I didn’t realize their recent CD tried to imitate some style of current mainstream hip hop hits. Listen to “This is Us” and “Inconsolable.”
• Matrix night: I ended up initiating a Matrix watching night. I love all three Matrix movies. I want to write a trilogy story much like it. One of my goals.
• Dennys: I went to Denny’s for the first time. Better than I imagined it could be.
• L’Arche assistant culture: There is competition among some assistants to cover expenses of the others, whether it’s restaurant bills, groceries, or random stuff. It’s awesome, but it can get out of hand. There is also a betting culture. I lost for guessing the wrong number of South Park seasons and had to offer up a bottle of wine to Sarah.
• Love Languages: There is model out there of the 5 love languages we like to express or receive: physical touch, quality time, gift giving, verbal affirmations, and acts of service. I have started trying to keep a record of what everyone prefers to receive. I personally prefer receiving physical touch (hard to ask for me and others because don’t want it to come across as sexual need), but I enjoy the others, like gifts of information and being challenged.
• Rubber band battle: Dina’s son and I enjoyed a rubber band battle in Great Full house. It was a blast flicking rubber bands at a moving target.

Before departing this entry, I want to remark on recent spirituality discussions I’ve shared with friends. It relates less directly to L’Arche, but if you are interested please read on! Mjid, a fellow assistant and I, grasped for truth together on a late Sunday night. I like to use the finger point analogy. Stay with me as I explain. Basically, I support the idea that God/Truth/Great Mystery/Awareness/Ultimate Wisdom (whatever you want to call it) exists and can be discovered in bits and pieces. Understanding of it all is impossible. There is simply no way for me to wrap my brain around the utter mystery of life. Truth is beyond my brain’s capabilities. This is an idea that I have only recently begun to truly accept. It is OKAY if I cannot logically make sense of all the mysteries of life. My brain is not God. There will always be a Great Mystery that one mind cannot fathom and completely understand. Science will reach ever and ever closer to scientific truths, but the reality (and I’m pulling from Integral Spirituality here) is that we can never fully get at all the variables for life. The individual by itself, especially, is so very limited. As a collective, humans and the universe can become ever closer to God. I believe that awareness of interdependence will help one see this.

Anyway, the finger pointing! So there are fingers, all of which point towards God/Truth/Great Mystery/Awareness/Ultimate Wisdom. My philosophy diagnoses the finger as both the problem and key to the solution. I have as of yet explored the finger representing various religions. The image is perhaps most clear when using the Bible or Qur'an. The Bible, I would argue, contains many insights that point towards God. The Bible is not God, because God is God, and God is unattainable and perfect. Yet, the problem with the finger is that so many people look at the finger and say, “that is God.” The Bible is not God! It is a finger pointing at God! Because people claim the finger is God, we get what most people refer to as fundamentalists. I’m excited at the prospect that this analogy functions outside of religion though. Staying on track, the Bible offers a lot of insight that makes us closer to God, which is my goal and I think the goal of anyone who takes all their innate identities seriously (as a spiritual being, physical being, sexual being, thinking being, emotional being, social being, etc.).

Going further, whereas the problem with so many people in so many instances is claiming the finger is God, the solution lies in taking what we can get from the finger, for what it is, a way to get at God. Now, so many (of my generation especially) write off religions due to their tendency to worshiping the finger rather than God.

Let’s look at an example that will help elucidate some of this jargon. Mjid and I are discussing Islam, specifically the call to prayer 5 times a day that is required of Muslims. Now, to someone like me, 5 is a fairly arbitrary number for Mohammad to have picked, even with consideration of it being picked for different positions of the sun. I assume (perhaps wrongly) it could have just as easily been 3, 5 or 8 prayer times in the day. Now, to many Muslims, the most important part here is to pray 5 times a day at the right times. That is the tradition, the institution. The error comes when one believes man was made for the rule, and not rule for the man. The finger is the 5 daily prayers. What I perceive to be pointing at is the benefit or need of prayer. Whether I do it 3 or 7 times a day is not as important as that I pray at all, and consistently if possible. The consistency part is what causes me to take seriously the importance of institution and tradition. It creates a structure that we can follow in order to meet our spiritual needs, like prayer. When religious institutions first begin, they are probably effective because the need for the institution is obvious. It’s an outlet for out spiritualities. We can commit to our spiritualities by committing to religious institutions. The error comes then when the need for the institution is forgotten. In my parents generation and older especially, there is tradition and institution, but the spirituality has somehow run away from why the institution was created to begin with! Error comes when there is no critique of the institution has a human made thing. Spirituality may come from God, but we need to analyze and adapt our institutions to keep up with how our spiritualities grow. My conclusion from these thoughts is that spirituality is most important, but religious commitment (the aspect of community I can get at another time) is a potentially awesome vehicle for developing and adapting one’s spirituality (I can easily relate to this. Though I ended my claim on Catholicism, I more or less remained active in campus ministry because I recognized that I grew from what came of my involvement).

In order to adapt to the lack of adaptation from institutions like the Catholic Church, there are new religions and spiritualities that are sprouting up, and have been for years (look at the thousands of denominational and non denominational Christian churches, yoga, Buddhist influence). Institutions must adapt to new realities or people defect. So many young people now are defecting from the Church into often absent or nebulous spiritualities. Many safely find good churches to join though.

Anyway, this has really gone on long enough and maybe I’ll continue writing on this stuff in a more structured way here soon...

Thanks to everyone who chooses to read this blog here. I appreciate any interest you have and I love hearing people say they enjoy it. I proclaim thanks for the skills I have that allow me to write, think, share, offer what I am blessed with to the world.