Have You Been Imagining Those Prison Bars? (Or, Don’t Re-Enroll In High School)

I had this dream one night.

In the dream, I was in my twenties. I was living with my parents in New Jersey, in the house where I grew up. Since my career had apparently stalled, a faceless, intimidating authority figure strongly recommended that I re-enroll in high school, to ‘get back to basics’ or something like that.

Good news: you’ve already graduated!

The thought of re-enrolling filled me with dread, but I did it anyway. I didn’t think I had a choice. For weeks, I struggled to re-learn my old routines, fumbling through locker combinations, math tests, and the like. I felt my spirit deadening with each passing day.

And then, right as I felt I couldn’t stand it any longer, I had a glorious, eye-opening moment. It was suddenly obvious: I didn’t belong in high school. In fact, I’d already graduated from another, better school. (Vassar!)

I had my whole life ahead of me, so why was I going backward?

It was so absurd, I started laughing … the kind of loose, wild laugh that comes out when you realize that you’ve been imagining those prison bars around you, that they were never really there at all.

I had choices. I had options. And I didn’t have to stay at that school one minute more. I woke up with my hand on the double doors.

***

I awoke the next morning with a sense of liberation singing in my veins. It was the kind of dream that’s more than a dream; that is, the kind that is trying to tell you something powerful about your waking life.

So many of us walk around believing that we’re trapped in our own lives. We make a soul-deadening decision because some dictatorial figure — real or imagined — told us that that it was ‘necessary.’ We don’t think we deserve to be free, so we bind ourselves. We don’t give ourselves permission to get out of a bad situation, to take care of our hearts, to do anything but re-enroll in high school.

***

But then, if we’re lucky, we find another way. We have a moment of illumination, or we meet people who give us the permission we can’t seem to give ourselves.

I think of how a long-term member of the L’Arche DC community came to work with the community full-time. Once upon a time, he’d been a lawyer, wearing nice suits, meeting with powerful people and enjoying a great deal of prestige.

He wasn’t entirely fulfilled by his law work — in fact, he longed to do something else — but the validation he received from just about everyone in his life kept him bound to that career. That is, until he started hanging out at L’Arche … and specifically, spending time with Theresa** and her housemates (who, years later, later became my housemates).

After a while, he realized that Theresa was perhaps the one person in his life who didn’t care one bit about all the ‘important’ things he did all day. Sure, she understood that he had a job; she just didn’t conflate who he was with what he did for a living. She didn’t treat him differently because he was an ‘important’ lawyer.

Permission granted.

Instead, what mattered to her was that he showed up. What mattered to her was that he was a friend. And what mattered to her, as it turns out, was what mattered to him as well.

Just by being herself, she gave him permission to change his life. And so he took a leap of faith and went to work for L’Arche full-time. And who knows? Perhaps the ripple effects of that choice are part of how I ended up at L’Arche years later.

As Madeleine L’Engle writes, The pattern is closely woven.

***

And so today, I challenge you to look — really look — at an area of your life in which you feel trapped or helpless. Then, identify a step you could take that would move you toward a place of freedom and spaciousness.

If you need someone’s permission to take that step, you have mine. (And I’m pretty sure you have Theresa’s too.)

And now, I’m off to take my own advice. There’s an email I’ve been putting off for some time, probably because I need to apologize. Today, that email’s getting sent. That’s what will bring me closer to the double doors.

I’ll see you on the other side.

***

What’s your story of being set free? Join the conversation in the comments!

***

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*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

**Names have been changed.

To See Beauty First: A Video

Hello and Happy Monday!

Since I’m traveling this week, I’d like to share a video with you in lieu of the usual post. It’s a 10 minute talk I gave as part of the Faith Inclusion Network’s March 2013 “That All May Worship” conference. (I thank Karen Jackson for her wonderful work in organizing the event, and for sending me the recording as well.)

A Wish Come Clear readers who receive posts via email may recall the story I sent out about my experience speaking at the conference two months ago; it’s reprinted below.

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Please pardon the at-times-loud background noise in the recording (but if you’ve read the story, you’ll have a good idea why that’s happening). Enjoy!

This past weekend, I traveled to Norfolk, Virginia for the Faith Inclusion Network’s biannual, “That All May Worship” conference. I was honored to be a guest speaker at the opening banquet, and to lead a breakout session on L’Arche* as well.

At the Thursday night banquet, I was the first speaker to take the stage. The usual shivers ran through my stomach; the usual adrenaline pumped through my veins. But once I started speaking, everything else fell away, and I was able to lose myself in the stories.

That is, until I heard a masculine voice coming from the foyer. It was loud, yelling something I couldn’t distinguish. I thought it sounded angry, but I couldn’t be sure.

I kept on speaking without pause, but inside, I wondered, Who could it be? Are they supposed to be here? What’s going on? I couldn’t see the person, but for a moment, I was afraid. Visions of violence moved through my mind; was it some kind of radical protester, intent on harm? I didn’t dare turn my head to look.

***

But then, as the man and his companions moved toward the center of the room, I realized: here was a man with special needs, coming in late, just making some noise. No big deal. I felt my shoulders relax, and a smile spread across my face. Thank God! It wasn’t any of the terrible things I’d feared. It was going to be all right.

In fact, I actually felt more comfortable giving my talk after that young man came in. Why? He reminded me of my friends at L’Arche (some of whom are wont to purr and shout phrases in Spanish during Catholic Mass). With his arrival, I felt as though I was among family.

Oftentimes I think we get so afraid of what might happen that we are blind to what is happening. We get all worked up about something we perceive as terrible, when in reality, we’re just frightened by our own thoughts, our own imaginings.

***

I wish I’d had the chance to meet that man after I spoke; if I had, I would have thanked him. I wish I could have told him how he helped me, how glad I was that he had come to the event.

As Amy Julia Becker wrote in her recent post, Missing Out on Beautiful, “I feel as though I have been let in on a cosmic secret because when I look at Penny, I see her beauty before I see anything else.” (Amy Julia’s daughter, Penny, has Down syndrome.)

When I read those lines today, I couldn’t help but think of the stranger, the man from the conference last weekend. It’s clear to me now: he was beautiful because he reminded me of those I love.

And love is what gives us the ability to see beauty first.

***

How do you ‘see beauty first’? Join the conversation in the comments!

***

Enjoy this post? Receive posts via email, along with your FREE copy of Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive).

*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

Completing the Party: Thoughts on Grace

This is the (edited) text of a talk I gave at Living Spirit Church on Sunday, April 28th. Enjoy! 

Once upon a time in 2008, I was on routine at L’Arche*, feeling downcast. Most of the assistants on our house team were leaving that summer. Yet even as I dreaded saying goodbye, I saw a silver lining: I’d build stronger relationships with those who remained.

You can’t always get what you want …

 

I wanted to mark this place and time when I decided against despair. So I asked Theresa** and Cassandra** if they’d like to do Sidewalk Chalk.

Neither was remotely interested. (It’s one of the beautiful things about L’Arche: if someone isn’t interested, they’ll likely tell you.) But they were happy to go outside.

So I brought out chalk and thought about what to draw. I am not a visual artist; I can barely draw a stick figure. But I love words, so I decided to write.

One of the assistants who was leaving had introduced me to the writings of Frederick Buechner, so I wrote these words of Buechner’s on the pavement:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.”

I added swirls and big letters. Strangers paused to read, smiling at me. When I was done, I stood, brushed my hands, and felt as though I’d crossed a threshold between my life as it was and my life as it would be.

I was going to have to say goodbye to people I thought I couldn’t live without, but I would carry on. I’d accepted my part in the great cosmic party.

***

But when I started writing this talk, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I’ve had some very exciting things happen with my writing and speaking in the last few months, but this past week I found out that I hadn’t been selected for a prestigious creative arts fellowship.

If I’d received the fellowship, I would have had a full year and $40,000 to devote to my next book. So I put a lot of love and effort into the application. But it wasn’t to be.

Even though I know that rejection is part of the writing game, it still hurt. I felt like more talented artists were on the dance floor, while I was a wallflower, unwelcome.

I’ve been there before, so I know how tempting it is to dive into more work and deny, deny, deny. It’s hard to have a hope, a dream, a sense that you have a shot, and then see it fade away.

***

… But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.
~The Rolling Stones

What I didn’t tell you before was that my best friend, a beautiful person and a talented writer, also applied for this fellowship. We cheered each other on, read each other’s drafts, offered suggestions, and promised that we’d both celebrate if one of us received the award.

As it turns out, she didn’t receive it either. We exchanged bummed-out texts, and she helped me by admitting that she, too, was sad. And she wrote, What nice wallow-y thing will you do for yourself?

It was the perfect message, because it put me on the spot. This is what real friends do:  teach us how to be kind to ourselves.

So I had some chocolate and watched the Gilmore Girls. I acknowledged the loss before pushing myself to achieve again. And I wrote this talk, as an act of affirmation.

I have a choice. I can beat myself up and engage in negative self-talk. Or I can choose to believe that I’m part of a party, an honored guest, just like you. I can choose to believe in a God of grace and second (and third and fourth) chances.

***

And after the Boston Marathon bombings last month, people started posting the lines that follow the ones I wrote on the sidewalk:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”

Today, I give thanks for people like you, those who help me to believe these words. Because I don’t think we can fully believe or understand them outside the context of relationship.

What’s going to help me get through the disappointment and rejections is the fact that I’m not alone in them. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I do know that real friendship is a gift.

Friends on the journey of LIFE.

***

Even if we lose, we don’t lose alone. And if we win, we win together. That’s the promise of true friendship, and it’s what God promises us from before we were born and long after we die.

To be with us always. To go as far as it takes, as long as it takes, to reach us.

To give us gifts beyond our wildest imaginings.

And to help our very hands open up to receive them at last.

***

What’s your experience of true friendship? Join the conversation in the comments!

***

More from Yours Truly:

Upcoming speaking engagements:

Enjoy this post? Receive posts via email, along with your FREE copy of Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive).

*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

**Names have been changed.

For You, If You Don’t Want to Get Out of Bed in the Morning

It’s a bright, beautiful day, but I’m not really seeing it.

The world looks bleak. A bombing at the Boston Marathon, a city-wide manhunt, ongoing violence and terrorism the world over … the hate seems very heavy, and the love feather-light.

Part of me wishes I could be a small child again, blessedly unaware of all this. And what is the deepest wish of a child but to be safe, held, home?

***

Photo Credit: Brian A. Taylor Photography

And that calls a story to mind.

To begin, I should tell you that I co-led the opening of a new L’Arche home in 2010. As such, I met myriad inspectors, and worked together with others to write routines, purchase household items, meet with families, train assistants, and more. I worked long hours, pushing myself to get everything perfect.

So you can imagine my shock when I realized that, on the evening of our first official day, I’d received (and filed) an incorrect prescription for Alvin**, one of the new members. I’d checked and double-checked the medication lists; how could I have missed it?

To be sure, the individual had received the correct dosage, which was a relief … but procedure dictated that I’d have to go through a labyrinthine series of corrective measures to fix the paperwork as soon as possible. To my weary mind, the task seemed insurmountable as Everest.

***

I sat at the new, polished-wood table, my head in my hands. I forgot the many small victories of the day, the delight on people’s faces, the feeling of a job well done.

Just then, a group of new assistants entered. At the time, they were (relative) strangers. And I felt horribly guilty that they were seeing me discouraged. But when they asked what was wrong, I didn’t have the strength to pretend. I told them the truth.

The group was caring and affirming, yet I saw concern in their eyes. Only Damien** seemed unruffled. He pulled up a chair, and it was such a relief for stressed, worried me to sit next to someone that peaceful. He told me, “It’s going to be all right. I promise.”

He said more than that, but what I remember is not so much his words as the conviction behind them. He believed that it would all work out. He had faith, and he offered it to me.

***

L’Arche members, all smiles.

It was a turning point. After that, I was able to relax and enjoy the new house, crises and all. But whenever I tried to thank Damien, he would always play it down. He was a little mystified as to what, exactly, he had done for me. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Everyone has something to offer, but do we ever fully understand the power of the gifts we give one another? We never know what it’s like to be in another person’s place. Moreover, what we have to offer and receive changes moment-by-moment.

One minute, I was the teacher, sharing my knowledge on routine. The next, I was the student, learning from a new assistant how to keep the faith.

***

It’s been almost three years now, and the ‘new’ home is thriving. More homes are in the works. Last week, I called the house I helped open to wish my friend Alvin a happy birthday. In a week of darkness and destruction, talking to him was a bright spot.

And in his voice I heard a promise fulfilled.

***

Do you have a ‘keep the faith’ story? Tell me more in the comments!

***

Fed up with an ‘impossible’ sibling? Tired of a situation that may never change?

Pick up I Was a Stranger to Beauty (ThinkPiece Publishing).

*If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry! You can use Amazon’s (free) Kindle Cloud Reader.

More New Posts from Yours Truly:

Upcoming speaking engagements – if you’re in the area(s), I’d love to see you there!

Enjoy this post? Receive posts via email, along with your FREE copy of Your Creed of Care: How To Dig For Treasure In People (Without Getting Buried Alive).

*L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

**Names have been changed.