Bittersweet Endings: Beginnings in Disguise?

Being filmed for a documentary is a peculiar exercise. I say this because, for the last six months, I’ve been working with filmmaker Edwin Mah on a documentary about finding meaning in your most challenging relationships, simple living, and loving someone with special needs. It’s wild to think that an actual filmmaker is making an actual film about the things I love and strive for, but so it is.

As such, Edwin has filmed several interviews with me, my yoga practice, my tiny studio apartment … and last week, he filmed me and my friend Leo* at McDonald’s, Leo’s favorite neighborhood haunt.

Outside the Lincoln Library, 2008

On this balmy afternoon, sunlight filters through the windows. The intensity of the light makes filming somewhat difficult for Edwin, but I love it even so.

Leo and I stand together as he orders his coffee, then walk slowly up the winding stairs to the table where Edwin’s setting up his camera. As we start to talk, I feel self-conscious, but within five minutes we’ve forgotten the camera and the silent filmmaker. Edwin’s unobtrusiveness allows us to simply enjoy each other’s company.

We talk about Leo’s week, my family, historical trivia … anything and everything. The conversation ebbs and flows. Five years ago, I thought that Leo and I had nothing in common. Now, we have a shared history, mutual interests, and adventures enough to carry us through coffee. I can’t help but marvel at our ‘impossible’ friendship, which finds us laughing at McDonald’s while being filmed for a documentary. Who would have thought?

***

At the start of our conversation, while I still have the consciousness that the camera is on us, I notice that the lenses of Leo’s glasses are smudged. As I have many times before, I follow my instinct and ask Leo if I can help by cleaning them. He agrees, and I gently lift the frames, take a napkin and some water and set to work.

Photo Credit: Tucker Walsh

As I am rubbing the lenses, I think, This is the best of what we do for one another: gently clearing away the grime and helping each other to see. Leo has helped me to see where I’d otherwise have been blind. Thanks to Leo, I slow down more often. Thanks to him, I have been invited to see the beauty in purple flowers, ABBA songs, Mini Coopers … many of his favorite things have become my favorites too, because he has taught me to delight in them.

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In addition to our adventures in documentary film, Leo and I also finished reading a biography of Stephen A. Douglas this week. We purchased the book on our 2008 trip to Springfield, Illinois, and three years of weekly reading and 870+ pages later, we have finally turned the last page.

As I read out the last lines to Leo, I feel my throat tightening; we’ve been reading this book for so long that its ending doesn’t feel as triumphant as I’d expected. Instead, it’s bittersweet. Stephen A. Douglas has died, and the final lines are a eulogy. Leo asks a quick question about the burial, and then falls silent. I am quiet too.

Leo and I haven’t talked about the fact that my husband and I will be relocating to our house in small-town Alabama this summer, that we won’t live down the block from him anymore. I hope to continue our weekly reading time over Skype, but I know that it will not be the same. It will be the end of a chapter in our story. Yet even as I turn the page, I can’t help but trust in the Love which scripted the story in the first place.

It’s a humbling thing to realize: none of the best things in my life have been expected. Not my time at L’Arche, not my friendship with Leo, not my deepest friendships, not falling in love with my husband. None of my greatest joys has ever been planned … at least, not by me.

There’s a part of me that can’t imagine living far away from Leo and the others at L’Arche, yet there’s also a part of me that’s tremendously excited about the new adventure. And that’s fitting, because Leo has helped me to see that what appears to be a definite ending may, in fact, be a beginning in disguise.

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Who has helped you to see clearly this week? Tell me in the comments!

I love to hear your insights.

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For more information on my current projects

(which include copywriting projects and speaking engagements),

please visit my brand-new website, CarolineMcGraw.com!

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*Names have been changed.

Little Known Ways To Face Your Fears & Wow The Crowds…Maybe.

This is a story about a time when I fell flat on my face. Metaphorically, I mean. And I don’t know about you, but that’s a big fear of mine. Preparing and trying to do my best, and instead…completely blowing it.

When L’Arche DC celebrated its 25th anniversary birthday, I volunteered to give a speech with Leo at the Saturday evening banquet. I was his accompanier, and L’Arche DC’s 25th anniversary was more Leo’s celebration than anyone’s. As the community’s founding member, it was a milestone for him.

Me and Leo, giving the L'Arche DC 25th anniversary speech!

So Leo and I practiced in an interview format, as though I was Barbara Walters and he was a major political figurehead. We rehearsed a series of questions: “Leo, what do you like about L’Arche? What have you learned about yourself in L’Arche? What have you learned about God at L’Arche?” And Leo would respond at length. Yet as the appointed day drew near, someone mentioned Leo’s fear of public speaking, and I felt a quiver of apprehension. But I thought, “Sure, he’s scared to say what’s wrong with him when we go to the doctor, but since he agreed to this, he actually wants to do it.” Right?

Wrong. Very, very wrong. I’d forgotten that Leo’s a people-pleaser. (Perhaps I’d forgotten because I am similarly afflicted.) The person who asked him to do the speech was his first accompanier, and the 25th anniversary was her pet project. How could he say no to her? He couldn’t. That’s how Leo and I ended up on stage, with me introducing us, and him…not speaking. I held the microphone, repeating, “I’m Caroline, and this is…”

He was supposed to chime in with his name, like we’d practiced. But he just stood there shaking his head. A blush was rising on his cheeks. I looked at him pleadingly, my eyes begging, “Say your name, Leo!” and his eyes, when they met mine for an instant, begging right back, “Please don’t make me!” We were standing in front of about 200 people, and I had no Plan B. I looked out over the crowd of expectant faces. You have to do something, I told myself sternly.

Fortunately, a sense that I had to save the day wasn’t all that rushed over me at that moment. In the span of seconds, I saw Leo and I saw myself, both so scared, both trying so hard to get it right. And it was compassion for both of us that led me to say, “Well, this fine man next to me is Leo, the founding member of the L’Arche DC community, and it’s his anniversary too!”

I waited for the applause and laughter to die down, and then I said, “Leo, how about if I share what we’ve talked about together? Would that be all right with you?” He managed a nod. His face was looking better. He still wanted to bolt, I could tell, but it seemed like he might actually make it through the speech if I made it quick.

So I told the crowd about our conversations, and how Leo is the resident historian of our unique community. I shared how he’s learned to speak up for himself; how before he came to L’Arche he let people push him around; how he’s learned that you can be both assertive and kind. Leo started chiming in here and there, correcting a misremembered phrase with his exact words. I didn’t mind being corrected; I was so relieved that he was actually speaking. And when I came to the last point, there was a lump in my throat.

I said, “When I ask Leo about God, he looks at me like he’s a college professor and I’m a kindergartener asking silly questions. He says, ‘God? God is everywhere.’ And I love how Leo opens my eyes. I love being a part of the community he helped to found. I love how I’m starting to see because I’m starting to love.”

I swallowed and said, “Thank you.” Leo said, “Thank you.” I was so proud of him. We took our seats to loud applause. I wanted to reach over and hug Leo, but instead I put my hand on his shoulder. “We did it!” I said, “Well done.” And he nodded, just once, in acquiescence and affirmation.

***

At my farewell celebration last week, I felt like I felt years ago as I stepped away from that podium with Leo:  embarrassed, amazed, and awestruck by how woefully underqualified we all are for the important tasks life has for us. Being a program director, giving a speech, loving one another…who are we to do any of it?

But still, we have said yes. And that yes, that attempt– even if it precedes fumbling and failure– is a beautiful thing to witness.

That speech with Leo was an outtake of sorts, yet it’s a moment I cherish today. Because truly, life isn’t about being flawless. This is a tough realization for an overachiever, who has too often made the mistake of avoiding failure at all costs. From the perspective of years, though, it doesn’t matter whether or not Leo and I gave a polished speech that day. In the same way, it will not matter years from now whether or not I turned in ‘perfect’ quarterly reports as a program director (though I definitely tried to do so)!

It was never about any of that. Life — real life– is about whether or not we show up for one another. It’s about whether or not we try, in the midst of our own frailty, to offer the best of ourselves to one another. Real, lasting success isn’t about not making mistakes. True success is about love. It’s about touching the life of another human being.

It’s the same epiphany I had when I looked across that stage and thought, “You know what? I bet the only reason Leo hasn’t bolted– the only reason he’s still up here at all– is because we care about each other.” And once I had that thought in mind, I held my head up high.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you this song, which was played during my farewell celebration. It’s called, “We Are Each Other’s Angels”, by Chuck Brodsky. (This would also be a good time to mention Brooke Adams Law, my best friend, who introduced me to this song; she has embodied the lyrics for me many times. If you’re looking for some good reads & gift ideas this holiday season, be sure to visit her at Books Distilled!)

“…we are each other’s angels / And we meet when it is time / We keep each other goin’ / And we show each other signs.”

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Who (or what) has kept you going in this season?

Tell me in the comments!

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*Names have been changed.