The Work That’s Never Done

There’s one item in our house that always catches people’s eyes.

The item in question? A photo collage that my husband Jonathan received when we moved away from the L’Arche community where we met.

Farewell collages are a tradition at L’Arche DC; they feature the faces of every person that was a part of L’Arche during the years one lived there. In Jonathan’s case, that means five years of faces, five years of relationships.

When we first moved, I hesitated to display the collage. The goodbye was still raw; there were (are) so many people we love and miss. And some faces triggered feelings of grief or discomfort, in the wake of try-as-we-might-but-alas-still-unresolved conflict.

Even so, I sensed that putting it out in the open was the right thing to do.

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Ever since we moved, that collage has been an excellent emotional ‘gauge’ for me. If I pass it and my heart aches with missing beloved people, I know it’s time to let myself grieve, to send them love and light. If I feel old hurts stirring, I know it’s time to pray in the words of the Wailin’ Jennys in their song Beautiful Dawn:

Teach me how to see when I close my eyes / Teach me to forgive and to apologize

Show me how to love in the darkest dark / There’s only one way to mend a broken heart.

Our work of forgiveness is never done (not in this life, anyway). I will always need to return to this prayer. But more and more, as I look at those faces, all I feel is love.

To be sure, I’ve had to do hard things to get there, like cleaning up messes I made or participated in, and admitting where I was wrong. I’ve had to write:

Dear friend, I have eaten some humble pie since last we met, and it has helped me to see our time together more clearly. I thought I understood everything, but I understood almost nothing at all. I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I gave you the cold shoulder rather than the benefit of the doubt. 

I’m sorry I didn’t fight harder for our friendship.

I’m sorry I was too scared to tell you the truth.

I’m sorry I couldn’t let you go your own way.

Could you forgive me?

When I’ve sent such messages — difficult as they are to compose — I have never felt so free. And don’t even get me started on people’s replies. When I consider how so many people forgave me before I even knew I needed their forgiveness … I just lose it. Things get undignified. Holy tears.

Heaven, I believe, is simply a place without barriers, and I’ve never felt this as strongly as when I see walls between us fall.

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A still from A Wish Come Clear’s new trailer (coming soon)!

So here’s what I think when I look at that collage now: the people who love and forgive you are your family … and so are the people who resent you and hold things against you.

Because we’ve all done both, haven’t we?

In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

And so I pray for every face on that collage. Even if we never meet again, we will always be connected. We are part of one another’s stories, pieces of one another’s hearts. We’re family, and family isn’t simple or easy or get-it-right-the-first-time. We have to keep falling down, and getting back up together.

It’s like what happened when I was trying to take a picture of the collage for this post. At first, all my shots came out blurry, with too much glare. Finally, it hit me: I have to sit on the floor and look up from below. I have to, quite literally, get out of my own way. 

And then – only then – will I be able to see clearly.

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How have you experienced forgiveness? Join the conversation in the comments!

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How to Betray Your True Self (And Then Make Amends)

This is a tale of treachery, but it doesn’t start out that way.

‘Betrayed’ faces, 2011.

Instead, it starts with a group of direct-care assistants hanging out in the kitchen of the L’Arche home where we lived and worked in 2008. I’d just finished a strenuous workweek, and I was exhausted.

Why? I’d recently said yes to becoming a Home Life Coordinator. In addition to doing caregiving routines, I wrote schedules, mentored assistants, and oversaw home life. We had a number of crises that summer, so I served in the new position while training for it and simultaneously carrying out my former responsibilities. It was … not easy.

So why wasn’t I resting during my time away? Because I wanted to help a new assistant feel welcome … but really, I wanted to be in pajamas. In fact, I was about thirty seconds from heading upstairs to don my monkey slippers when another assistant — I’ll call her Lia — asked me if I could drive her to a party across town.

Every fiber of my being was telling me, No, honey, you cannot, not this time. You really need to rest. 

Every fiber, that is, except the ones that were saying, But Caroline! You’re the Home Life Coordinator! You have to show the new assistant how we care for each other in community! And the yes slipped out. I thought I was modeling ‘community,’ but I wasn’t. I was modeling betrayal.

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Betraying your true self always takes a toll. You can get away with it for a while, but eventually, your self rebels. I know this because of what happened that afternoon. At that point in my life, I’d been taking care of everyone else’s needs and chronically neglecting my own.

Saying yes to Lia seemed like a small thing, but deep down, I knew better. It was the tipping point, the final straw. My body, mind and spirit were screaming at me, and I tried to ignore them. Again.

As I started the van, I had a caged, desperate feeling in my stomach, which grew worse when we hit traffic. I was so angry that I could barely speak. (And I didn’t want to explode at Lia; the situation wasn’t her fault.)

The round-trip drive took over an hour. It remains one of the worst hours I have ever spent. After I dropped Lia off, I started crying. Hysterically. I couldn’t stop the whole way home.

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Serenity on the Gulf, 2013

If you’ve seen Brene Brown’s first TED talk, you know that she has this wonderful slide on which is written the word breakdown. But breakdown is crossed out, replaced by spiritual awakening.

That afternoon was a breakdown / spiritual awakening, because I realized: I don’t know how to draw lines. I don’t know how to say a true yes and no to others, or to myself. And that’s a problem. 

It’s a problem of faith, I think. In the short term, lying is easier. It takes faith to look ahead, to see where the covertly dishonest road leads.

It takes faith to be true to the yeses and nos of our hearts. It takes faith to believe that we are worthy of love and care. It takes faith to be honest about our actual capacity to give.

I’m still learning this kind of faith, but what I have figured out is that, if we want to be prepared for those ‘big’ Yeses and Nos, we have to start with small things.

We have to start with the things we hardly even recognize as choices. Going to bed when we’re tired. Getting off the phone when we’re no longer present to the conversation. Choosing the books we want to read, though they may not be the ones our well-meaning friends have lent us.

These things sound so small, so simple, so humble.

But then, when making amends, humble is a good place to start.

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Do you struggle with your ‘yes and no’? Join the conversation in the comments!

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Announcing: A New Documentary (Hula Skirts Ahead)

Dear friends,

It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I’m camped out in the guest room of my dear friends’ home. I’ve been traveling for two weeks, from an Alabama lake house to a Pittsburgh conference center and everywhere in between. There are plenty of stories to be told, but today, I’d like to share a short documentary with you.

Longtime A Wish Come Clear readers may recall a mention or two of this film; it’s been in process for two years. In 2011, Edwin Mah — an American University professor and independent filmmaker — wrote to me and asked if I’d be willing to share stories on screen. Saying yes was a leap of faith. (Isn’t it always?)

Longtime readers may recall my 2012 post about the filming process. In that post, I wrote that being filmed for a documentary is a peculiar exercise … and as I’ve learned, watching a documentary featuring oneself and one’s family is even more surreal. (On that note: I’m so thankful to Edwin for his excellent work, and to my family for their willingness to participate in this project.)

My hope is that you — fellow siblings and families — will see something of yourselves here. My hope is that you will be encouraged to show up for one another, to show up for your life.

The film is entitled My Brother. It’s just over 14 minutes long, and it’s about the process of finding meaning and beauty within challenging relationships. If that’s not sufficient motivation: I sport several completely embarrassing outfits and hairstyles along the way. There really are hula skirts. Enough said.

Enjoy!

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What did you think of the film? Join the conversation in the comments!

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