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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In a Dark Time, Do You Dare to Welcome the Stranger?

About a year ago, I encountered a few words that changed my life.

When we first met as roommates, we weren’t sure we had a thing in common. Nearly 10 years later, her friendship is a treasure.

You know what I mean — it’s the moment when a lyric from a song or a verse from a poem suddenly shoots right through you. It’s that AHA of recognition that comes when you read something and say, “That’s it exactly.”

This happened to me last year when, after leaving a stunning photography exhibition featuring actors and actresses with developmental disabilities in the Duvteatern troupe, I rode past a building with these words on it:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me … As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

That day, I glimpsed a new truth within those old, familiar words. Before, I’d understood them like this: Do good to others, and in doing so, you’ll serve God, too. While that interpretation is valid, another meaning surfaced.

The words opened themselves differently, saying, “I am the least of these. You’ll find me — the love that sustains the universe — in your brothers and sisters with special needs, the ones the world considers strange, broken, or disabled. And I am within you when you are the one considered strange, outside, alien.”

In other words: I am found within the stranger. Turn away from the stranger, and you turn away from me.

To know me, you must meet the stranger with open arms.

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Having said all this, you’d probably guess that the focus of my forthcoming Kindle Single, I Was a Stranger to Beauty, will be on my time at L’Arche DC, and the people I was privileged to know there.

But in fact, the new book, which launches on Monday, January 14th, is largely about my relationship with my brother, Willie. L’Arche DC plays a significant role (and will receive 5% of the proceeds from the first month’s sales), but the story starts and ends with Willie.

Why? Because Willie — the person I grew up with, my younger brother, my only sibling — was once a stranger to me. About ten years ago, Willie started struggling with aggressive and self-injurious behavior. I’ve written extensively about these difficulties, but I’ve never fully shared the loneliness that that time brought with it.

For years, I thought I had lost my brother. Even though he was alive, I thought that maybe his spirit, his humor, and his kindness were gone forever. (And I am so happy to have been wrong.)

But it wasn’t until I could welcome ‘Willie the stranger’ … that is, Willie of the rages, Willie of the black eyes and screams — that I could begin to rebuild our relationship.

That kind of acceptance is what welcoming the stranger is all about. It’s not about trying to change people (though change may come). It’s not about condoning harmful actions or denying what’s real. Instead, it’s about embracing what is, not needing anyone to be anything other than themselves, and moving forward from there.

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Sometimes, welcoming the stranger may mean inviting them into your home. At other times, it may mean keeping a safe distance while acknowledging another person’s humanity, and dropping your previous judgment.

Willie and Dad

And sometimes welcoming the stranger means staying present to a person you don’t relate to or even recognize. It means being uncomfortable and unprepared, and, in doing so, giving a stranger a chance to become a friend.

To be fair, this is scary. That’s why we avoid it. We don’t know what to expect when we ‘welcome the stranger’ … and that’s the point. Crazy things can happen. Maybe we sense this, deep down; maybe that’s why we shy away.

But in this time of tragedy, in the face of death and destruction, we cannot afford to turn away from the darkness in others, in ourselves. We must not flee, but instead, bring light.

As Anne Lamott wrote last week: “I called [my friend] yesterday as soon as I heard about the shootings. Neither of us said anything interesting, but we hung out together on the phone and listened to each other’s voices, and grieved for the families of Newtown, and that helped.

These tiny bits of connection to the broken are very real, and the kindness and attention people show to one another create a tiny bit of light. That is my plan for today, to love as if my life depended on it; to breathe, and keep it simple, go easy on myself.”

I couldn’t agree more. We cannot afford any choice but compassion, for others and ourselves.

We cannot afford to be anything other than love.

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How have you welcomed a stranger?

Tell your story in the comments below for a chance to win a free, full-color, print copy of Love’s Subversive Stance: Ground Yourself and Grow in Relationship! (Winner will be chosen & notified as of noon CST on Thursday, Dec. 20th.)

Update: This week’s giveaway is now over – thank you to everyone who submitted a comment! Your words were so beautiful and heartfelt, it was so hard to select just one to receive a book!

Yet we’ll have more giveaways in the future, so for now, I’m happy to announce that Harry Brash will receive a complimentary copy of Love’s Subversive Stance.

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Breaking News: Your Birthday is a Big Deal (As Are You).

In my book, a birthday is a Big Deal.

I realize that this may make me sound a bit naive or child-like. After all, isn’t making a fuss over birthdays something you’re supposed to, well, outgrow?

birthdayMany of us claim to have outgrown birthdays, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s more that we’ve metered our expectations. We’ve lived long enough to know that many celebrations don’t turn out as planned, that high expectations are a setup for disappointment. We’ve had friends and family members forget our special day, and, in turn, we’ve forgotten the special days of others. We’ve developed a kind of cynicism; really, isn’t one’s birthday is just another day?

But as children, we don’t think that way. As children, we believe in the magic of birthdays. We count down and wait and plan for our birthdays. We treasure the people who make our birthdays special: the mom who creates a treasure hunt trail of rhyming Post-It notes leading to presents, the dad who buys the kitten-centric card, the friends who share our cake.

To be clear, it’s not all about presents. Presents are great, but at the heart’s center of a birthday is the question: Am I something special? And that question can be answered affirmatively with or without presents.

And when we’re children, who we choose to celebrate our birthday with is a very big deal to us. It’s the earlier equivalent of who we invite to our weddings, who we ask to come over and meet our newborn baby.

birthdaySpeaking of which — I had the privilege of meeting my best friend (and Love’s Subversive Stance designer) Tam’s newborn son last week. If you need some perspective on your life, hold a day-old baby. Consider the fact that you were once that vulnerable, that beloved.

Consider the fact that, for all you’ve grown and changed, you still are. You may not have had the ideal family life or the perfect body, but you were — are— a treasure. And on your birthday, you get to rock that truth.

When done right, birthdays are about radical fun and radical acceptance. Birthdays say, Hey, you, you’re great just as you are. We’re glad you’re here. And that’s why birthdays are a big deal at A Wish Come Clear: because birthdays are what we’re all about. Birthdays are part of our mission, the part that says, Every person has treasure within, and it’s all worth digging for. 

In that spirit, I’d like to announce Pay What You Can Day here at A Wish Come Clear. It’s a way of saying thank you and sharing a little birthday cheer. For today, June 4th only, you’ll be able to name your own price on a (digital) copy of Love’s Subversive Stance. (Suggested price is $10, as usual.) You can get a copy for yourself, or for a friend, coworker, or family member — maybe one who has a birthday around the corner. Pay What You Can Day starts now, and ends at 10a EST on Tuesday, June 5th.

Love’s Subversive Stance: Ground Yourself & Grow In Relationship is a collection of stories centered on this question: how can we honor our passions and our caregiving relationships at the same time? In loving someone with intellectual challenges and disabilities, how can we become more fully ourselves?

This book is NOT a quick-fix. Instead, it’s about telling true stories…the sort of stories that will allow you to become rooted and grow. It’s about examining the seemingly insignificant details of your day, and seeing what they say about you and your relationships. This 90+ page book is for people who want to say YES to standing on the subversive soil of love for (and with) people with disabilities.

Note: Pay What You Can Day is Now Closed; you can purchase a print copy at Love’s Subversive Stance at Createspace.

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“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.”
~Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking

Thank you for your readership.

Recommended Events:

  • I’ll be participating in a live conference call with the Archdiocese of Washington on Tuesday, June 5th, 2012, from 7-8pm! As part of the Archdiocese’s All Things Catechetical Monthly Call-In Program, the call is meant to support family members of individuals with autism and other developmental differences. If you’d like to attend this free event, simply call 1-866-866-2244, and enter access code 6006685#. Listen at home or at work; there will be an opportunity for Q & A at the close of the talk as well.

If this post spoke to you, please share it with those you love.

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