Sometimes You Get What You Need: On Moving, Family + Unexpected Grace

My husband Jonathan and I moved this weekend, and though it was a small move by most standards (we moved 0.1 miles uphill from a small studio apartment into an even smaller one), it was still a move.

But there was this strange and beautiful moment amidst the chaos, one that made us laugh and made us think, and that’s the moment I want to tell you about.

That said, moving day did not start off well. There was a tiny misunderstanding involving a sofa that would not fit through a door.

This may or may not have been my fault, as I was the one who was supposed to ensure that a large, garage-style door would be open for our use. Days earlier, my husband had asked, “Are you sure we’ll be able to open the side door on moving day?” and I’d replied in the affirmative.

However, we were referring to two different doors, a fact that would become glaringly obvious. I’d assumed that my husband had meant the small, everyday side door…the one next to the big door. (Full disclosure:  I had never even noticed the bigger door prior to moving day. I was too busy imagining us in the new place, with newly-painted walls.)

After the initial shock and frustration, I realized my error. I apologized, and then promptly smashed my finger trying to jam the sofa through the little door. My husband was mad at me for not ensuring that the big door would be open. I was mad at him for being mad at me, and mad at myself to boot.

I wanted to give up and go home, wherever home was. Like that pre-teen sleepover instant in which you realize that you’re really staying over…and it takes everything you’ve got not to call your mom to come and get you. Fear, shame and anger all mixed together. (And this was before our van was blocked by an anonymous car, before we couldn’t find parking and had to start drive-by moving at 11pm…)

Just as Jonathan and I began to take tentative steps toward reconciliation, we realized:  we were both hungry. (Fact:  most conflicts occur because one or more of the people involved is hungry or sleep deprived.) As we picked up empanadas for lunch, my phone rang. It was Don, a friend, former housemate and L’Arche co-worker who had offered to help with our move.

He made good on his word, hauling boxes and furniture with us for hours. He entered into the mess with us…and somehow, when he showed up, the whole tone of the day changed. We started laughing at ourselves and with each other. We started smiling again.

The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” popped into my head (which was strange, considering that Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” had been on replay)…but then, not strange at all, considering the lyrics:

You can’t always get what you want.

But if you try sometimes, you just might find,

You get what you need.

We moved the rest of the furniture together. Then, just as we were about to pull the van away, it happened. We’d been sharing the loading dock with a woman hauling flooring, and Don had helped her carry a few things. And as we were leaving, she called out to us, “Say thanks to your dad for me!”

“Sure thing!” I called back, without thinking.

Jonathan and I made eye contact and laughed. If I had to put our gaze into words, it would have said:  “Well, that’s funny because it’s not really true, but it’s not entirely not true, either…”

Jonathan’s dad is in Alabama, and mine is in New Jersey, so in a literal sense, our dads (great dads that they are) were elsewhere. Yet Don is part of our L’Arche family.

In considering the nature of family, I thought of William*, who lives at L’Arche Arlington. He took L’Arche and shook it upside-down when he moved in a year ago, and he’s still shaking it up today. He has a gift for dreaming big (“We need 50 more L’Arches, Caroline McGraw, and you’d better get on it!”), but he also focuses on the philosophy at the heart of L’Arche:  the creation of family and community.

Rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t say something like, “We’re all brothers and sisters at L’Arche,” or, “We’re a family here.” And he’s backing up his words with actions. Last week, when I was on morning routine at William’s house, he surprised me by making breakfast for his housemates. Likewise, he’s been known to slip snacks into my purse as I’m heading out on my commute.

Does he make mistakes? Yes. Does he sometimes say too much and hurt people’s feelings? Absolutely. But he’s trying the best he can to be part of the family.

Part of William’s emphasis on L’Arche as family stems from his longing for connection (and his belief that, if he says anything firmly enough, he can make it so.)

However, the deeper level-truth is that living in a community like L’Arche can make you a family. It can give you brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers in spirit. Being vulnerable with others, showing them love through the everyday sacraments of eating, bathing and dressing…this can make you family, if you open your heart to it.

When Don showed up to help, it felt like grace showed up with him. This was partly because of who he is, and partly because of how L’Arche teaches us to live:  with kindness amidst our inevitable shortcomings. With forgiveness, over and over again.

As Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies:  “I tell you, families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually. It’s like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission:  if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything.”

What she’s talking about here is the same thing that makes the latest (last) installment of Harry Potter so moving:  familial love. The love of a mother who would sacrifice herself for her son; the love of friends who become brothers and sisters in adversity. As I walked out of the theater, I kept thinking to myself:

That’s the kind of love that makes its own magic.

Here’s to driving that car with the tricky transmission; here’s to accepting that unpredictable brother, to lovingly confronting that sister who’s always late. Here’s to family, wherever you may find it.

And here’s to anyone who has ever helped you move.

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Where have you found unexpected family? Tell me in the comments!

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*Names have been changed.

17 thoughts on “Sometimes You Get What You Need: On Moving, Family + Unexpected Grace

  1. Caroline,
    Aint it true. I find it in my friends and those that I share a passion with even if I don’t see them often. In the passion, we share and go to each other when we need the support. Family is more than blood. It just not traditional brothers and sisters anymore. As you have pointed out, its people coming together to help each other in their time of need. Its people we love that we want to have in our lives. Family can be found everywhere.

  2. Paul says:

    Caroline,

    Moving is a process, not a destination.

    So much to unpack and not just the items in boxes.

    Thanks for sharing this post. There is much to reflect on here.

  3. Mary says:

    I would like to publicly thank Enrique for helping me move- twice. Love that guy.

    Also, I appreciate this reflection on expanding our definition of family. I think that if we extended that kind of love beyond our nuclear family with more regularity the world would look a lot different.

    • Well said, Mary! Your comment connects beautifully with another Anne Lamott quote I considered adding to this post: “Rule 1: We are all family. Rule 2: You reap exactly what you sow, that is, you cannot grow tulips from zucchini seeds. Rule 3: Try to breathe every few minutes or so. Rule 4: It helps beyond words to plant bulbs in the dark of winter. Rule 5: It is immoral to hit first.”

  4. donna says:

    As usual, you have made a wonderful garden of thought about a tough subject- a sweaty, frustrating, physically demanding move! Thanks for letting me remember to have grace in the everyday; forgiveness that reigns in family first.

  5. Dorothy Copps says:

    Hey Caroline! Thanks for sharing a love-packed story. The honesty in your moments of “almost” defeat was followed by the rise of mood and laughter as the day progressed.

    Don Kelly helped Tom and me move too 11 years ago! What a trooper!

  6. Don says:

    So, I look like I could be your dad. And I don’t even have gray hair.

    Used to be that people would be shocked when I told them my age. Sadly that time is now gone, it seems!

    I am going to go sit in my lazy boy chair – all that hard work has left me unable to move. I bet Jonathan went and lifted weights after you guys were done!

  7. Your post today left a smile on my face. First, because I love The Rolling Stones and the lines you quoted have gotten me through many a rough spot. And second because, in a way, this is the premise for my blog.

    The excerpts I share are words that strike me as being especially relevant to a current situation, usually in way unintended by the author .

    I’ve read that finding this type of meaning tucked inside books and songs is fairly common among trauma and abuse survivors; perhaps it’s Spirit’s way of showing us we’ll get the message we need one way or another, even if it’s slightly unconventional.

    Hoping your new space is feeling like home!

    • Ooh, I love it, Tara! Here’s to digging for treasure in prose + lyrics.
      Your comment also connects to the quote you posted from The Little Prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart.”

  8. And along similar lines to that Rolling Stones song, I have a friend who always tells me, ‘you may not get what you want but you can want what you get’ 🙂

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