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Here is the question:

“If you really knew your own worth, if you knew you would not fail or be judged, what risks would you take?”

The following is my response:

Be bold. Speak life and light into our personal and collective brokenness.

Admit. Own and apologize for when I’ve been mean, hurtful, racist or selfish. For when I’ve judged another person, and assumed less about them than who they truly are.

Reconcile. Seek and offer forgiveness. Seek and offer grace. Seek and offer peace.

Race

Last weekend I was at a retreat. A spoken-word poet named Jenna Tenn-Yuk shared a piece entitled “Everyone loves a Jamasian girl” about her experience having Jamaican cultural roots but a predominately asian appearance. Later, the leader of the retreat was introducing a keynote speaker, who was also Jamaican, and said “Jenna may be a Jamasian girl but he’s the real mccoy.”

The next day, Wendy stood before the 100+ attendees and acknowledged the root of racism in her remark. By attempting to make a clever segue into the keynote presentation, she had diminished Jenna’s experience, mere moments after Jenna shared about the way these different aspects of her identity have made her a minority in both Jamaican and asian circles.

With humility and regret Wendy acknowledged her mistake and sought reconciliation with Jenna. As Jenna shared how she experiences these subtle forms of racism all the time, I realized just how blind I am to all the ways our words and our systems oppress people of colour. I left understanding the deep need for us to listen closely to the ways we talk to and about one another.

Mental Illness

At this same retreat, I was a participant in a group workshop on shame. The facilitator, Steven, shared some stories from his own experience. Among many others, one of the things he mentioned was not knowing how to respond when he meets someone who has had a suicide in their family.

I felt myself cringe as I heard this phrase. When we refer to someone as ‘a suicide,’ we are boiling that person’s entire life story down to their death, as if nothing else about them ever existed. I knew this was not Steven’s intention in the comment he made, and yet it represented a lack of awareness in our society about how to talk about mental illness.

Overcoming my own hesitation, I approached Steven after the workshop and shared my thoughts. I told him I was not being judgmental or critical of his presentation, only that I sought to share some of my own understanding around mental illness and how we speak about those who have died because of it. Steven was receptive and even grateful that I initiated the conversation, and I left feeling empowered for speaking up.

Sexuality

One of my family members is in the hospital and I’ve been spending as much time as I can visiting. She has very limited movement currently, and when I offered to adjust her gown for her, my mom jokingly said “be careful, she’s gay,” implying that I might try to somehow take advantage of her vulnerable state.

My heart sank. Personal care for other people is something I do everyday in my job. While it’s true that I am attracted to females, my heart belongs solely to my wife, and I make every effort to avert my eyes in places where other women are temporarily exposed (hockey changing rooms, for example).

My mom knows this about me, and when I expressed my feelings about her joke, she quickly recognized my pain and apologized. She could have been defensive, offered an excuse, or told me to “lighten up,” but instead she took my concern seriously and made a commitment to consider the impact of these types of jokes in the future.

Gender

My dear friend Maxx, who is trans, recently posted about wanting to be able to grow facial hair. In response, I jokingly commented, “I could draw it on with a marker for you, if that helps.” I thought I was being funny.

He messaged me shortly after to say that he had been hurt by my comment. He knew I meant it as a joke, but it only reminded him that unlike so many cisgender people he knows, he is not yet able to fully express his masculinity in his body the way he desires. I instantly felt deep regret. Hurting my friend with my ignorance was furthest from my mind in that moment.

I offered an apology, immediately removed my comment, and wished I could do more to show Maxx that I want to be a fierce ally for the trans community. He told me he had hoped I would be receptive to his feelings, and that he is learning to stand up for himself when someone diminishes him for his gender identity.

Ubuntu

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” In other words, “if I diminish you, I diminish myself.” To all the people mentioned in these stories, thank you for showing me that we can acknowledge our mistakes, hope for reconciliation and forgive one another with love. You have reminded me to consider the weight of my words carefully, and to listen before I speak, especially when the conversation involves those whose experiences of minority differ from my own. We are better for having had these moments together.

Kathryn and I recently returned from a whirlwind trip out East. We had an incredible week visiting friends, experiencing New Brunswick’s raw beauty and revelling in some days of relaxation. I came home feel refreshed and renewed.

But very quickly that joy turned to pain. One afternoon after we returned, I found myself feeling hopeless and even angry. The sense of loss from not being able to see our East coast friends more regularly was ripping me apart inside.

Part of my struggle that day was knowing that the individuals that I care so deeply about out East have newer, closer relationships with new students at the university and other friends who have stayed in town. We simply can’t be as close as we used to be because of the distance and because of the way our lives have changed and grown.

And I recognize that there are new closer relationships in my life too, but as I puzzled through why I felt so angry, I realized I am jealous. I felt jealous listening to a podcast one of my friends did with a newer student whom I don’t know. I felt jealous hearing my friend’s son referring to other people as “uncle” and “aunt” but seeing me as a complete stranger. And this jealousy initially made me want to pull away from these relationships even further.

I’ve always thought of jealousy as a negative thing, a sin as the church taught me. But I feel okay now recognizing and even honouring that jealousy. It serves a purpose, it reminds me that I grieve that I can’t be closer with my East coast friends, and helps me remember the significance of their roles in my life when I was.

And I can breathe life into our new relationships (both mine here, and for them out there) and be glad that both them and I have others to celebrate, grieve, struggle and share our lives with now.

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Over the past few years, I’ve been a part of many little groups that have focused on “building community” from my Bronte Creek Project days and Katimavik, to the communal living focus at SSU and then living and working with L’arche communities in Cape Breton and Hamilton.

I’ve had a lot of experience building community with others, but I still get nervous in new groups.  Especially in times of stress, I naturally resort to isolation rather than community. When I was first admitted to the Acute Mental Health ward two weeks ago, I spent nearly all my time avoiding others by sleeping and trying to shut out the world.  It’s easy to isolate oneself on a psych ward, because everyone knows to just leave you alone if you don’t want to talk.

I learned something about community recently from an unexpected source, a man named Frank.  From Monday night to Tuesday morning, my family gathered in a visitors’ lounge at another hospital to wait with my brother for the surgery that would bring him new life: his double lung transplant.  Frank came and went throughout the night.  He would have a nurse roll his wheelchair into the room, ask what we were watching on television, and then sit with us as we waited.  Eventually he would start dozing off and I would ask if he wanted to go back to bed.  He would call me “miss” and ask that I roll him over to the nurses’ station.  My family laughed at the camaraderie Frank and I shared that seemed to come from nowhere.  We didn’t talk much and I didn’t learn much about him except his first name, but we both made the long night a little easier for each other.

It turns out Frank was being discharged from the hospital on Tuesday morning.  I didn’t know this at the time, but maybe that’s why he was having such a hard time sleeping, maybe that’s why he kept asking the nurses to be rolled back to the visitors’ lounge to spend time with my family.

When I came back to the Acute Mental Health ward on Tuesday afternoon, I decided to follow Frank’s example and try to be a little more social.  I ate in the dining room for the first time on Tuesday evening, instead of taking my dinner back to my room.  I started playing the piano in the common room, and other patients would stop by to listen or comment.  One gentleman, Paul, pulled a chair right up beside me and sat down.  He asked if I knew any good songs.  I told him I could play pretty basic versions of Across the Universe and Let it Be by the Beatles.  He said good and started singing the first verse of Let it Be before my fingers even touched the keys.  When I finished playing he said, “It’s therapeutic, eh? Maybe they should give us a salary, eh?”

Paul was right, music is therapeutic.  I started playing just to pass the time while trying to be patient, but I ended up playing because I enjoyed it.  I could feel the weight of the last two weeks in the music I played, without feeling crushed by it.  By coming out of my shell, by expressing myself in this social atmosphere, I invited others to do the same.

Life on the ward changed once I began looking past the illnesses all around me and connecting to the faces, the individuals.  It took vulnerability and the chance of rejection, it took a step towards involvement, but it was worth it.  My own mental health benefitted as I spent less time in my room.  Once I started getting involved, I even spent more time smiling.

Now, having been moved to a different unit, I find myself back at square one.  I see the other patients on the ninth floor as just that, patients with illnesses.  Nothing more.  Their humanness doesn’t immediately present itself to me.

Before being moved, I never would have imagined missing those familiar faces on the tenth floor.   I don’t even know most of their names, but I know their faces, and I know what to expect from them.  Now on the ninth floor I wonder about others’ motives.  I feel suspicious and insecure when someone tries to start a conversation with me.  And this time, there’s no piano.

I am back to square one, and the only way to force myself though this stage is by looking past illness to see people for their humanity.

My heart aches. My mind circles around simple words. Perceptions of people. And what they do to our spirits.

My girlfriend and I were called “fucking lesbians” as we walked down the street last week. That was a first.

We were on our way home from a candlelight memorial. A woman was murdered in downtown Hamilton. Her body was discovered under a pile of rubble and garbage. She was regularly degraded and insulted by those around her because of her addiction and mental health issues. Treated in life and death like a piece of trash.

On my way home, I watched as others watched a person in a wheelchair get on the bus. Watched them judge her appearance, her scent, her speech. Saw fear, disgust, shame in their eyes. Felt it rise in my own. I thought, if I could just look past her disability, her appearance, maybe I would see something more. Maybe I would notice her smile towards the infant in a stroller across from her, the child enraptured by this stranger’s beautiful face.

These moments pile up in my mind like dirty laundry. Distinct instances that all seem to be made of the same thread.

We all do these things, in different ways. Maybe we refer to the ‘crazies’ downtown. Or we meet someone with an intellectual disability on the bus and later joke about how uncomfortable it made us feel.  Or we pity the woman in the wheel chair. Or we say “that’s so retarded.” I have done all of these things.

I know how seemingly harmless and innocent words perpetuate negative stereotypes. I know how we isolate those who are different from us. Perhaps because of our ignorance, perhaps because of our fear.

Jean Vanier describes this fear as an unwillingness to accept our own humanity – our vulnerability, our eventual death. We fear people who have severe disabilities because they challenge us to face our own brokenness, our need for one another.

I also know how words can free us. Authenticity in another is contagious. Being with someone who accepts themselves in gift and weakness empowers me. I know that being around people who sing unabashedly, embracing their own imperfect voices for the sheer joy of melody and celebration, frees me to do the same.

On Friday I listened as Robert Pio Hajjar, founder of Ideal Way – an organization that advocates for people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, shared his journey. “Yes, I have a disability. But I ask you to see my ability.”

We are not very good at treating people like people. I disable you when I judge you. I am discrediting your capacity to be human when all I can see is your limitations.  And in doing so, I am discrediting my own.

I want to move away from fear or pity for those who are different than me, to a place of celebration. I want to embrace your humanity. I want to, like the infant in the stroller, look past your vulnerability and find the beauty in your smile. Past limitations to see possibilities. I refuse to disable people with my words and actions.

By embracing your weakness, I accept my own. I find my humanity reflected in yours.

I came back from vacation yesterday and got smacked in the face.  Apparently Christmas is less than two days away.  No, I have not done my Christmas shopping.  No, I have not paid nearly as much attention to Advent as I wanted to (yet again).  No, I do not feel the jolly, warmth of Christmas Spirit bubbling up within me.  Not because I am particularly against warm bubbly feelings, I just haven’t had time to get them simmering yet.

So on this Christmas Eve’s eve, I reflect.

I am cooking the Bird for L’arche Hamilton’s Christmas Day Feast.  A large portion of our community will be spending the holidays with family members or close friends, but the sixteen of us who will be here in the various L’arche homes will be gathering for a special meal on Christmas Day, and I am responsible for what one core member has informed me is the most important part of his Christmas.  I have not prepared a turkey on my own before.  (Though I do believe there was an instance in Katimavik involving a turkey and an oven set to 500 degrees.  But I don’t think we ate that one.)  My back-up plan this year is to show up with a large roasting pan full of bacon and scrambled eggs if something catastrophic happens in the kitchen.

By far, one of the best things leading up to the 25th has been singing Christmas carols with Bev and Charlie while Brian orchestrates from the couch.  Laurence is always the captive audience member, applauding graciously and with a huge grin at the close of our performance.  Silent Night and Away In a Manger are our strengths.  We get almost all the words right, though not necessarily in the same order, and certainly not in the same key.  Charlie, who has an incredibly high falsetto singing voice, comes in strong on the “I love thee Lord Jesus” verse in Away In A Manger, and Bev can hit some rather high notes herself in Silent Night.  She also performs a powerful solo on The First Noel.

There are days that feel like we are everything but silent and holy.  We lack stillness and calm, especially in the hectic Christmas preparations and the emotions the holiday stirs in some of us.  Our house is not always one of peace.  But we have our moments.  Gracious, loud and off-key moments, that pull me in and renew my spirit.  When I think I have found a new level of depth in my relationship with each core member, they find a way to pull me deeper.  I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else this Christmas than here with folks who have no where else to be, but here with me.  I am the one receiving the gift.

In all things, Immanuel.

I realize I haven’t actually written very much this month.  The truth is I feel like I’ve hardly been in the house at all, barely begun to know the core members and assistants with whom I now live.  A week into my new role at Cornerstone House, I developed what might be an allergy to something, or might be a skin infection… no one is really sure.  Needless to say, for a while sleep did not come easy.  So I was off sick and then back for a bit and then off again and back for three days, and then suddenly it was time for my vacation to begin.

This past Wednesday, the L’arche Hamilton community gathered for our weekly prayer time with a special focus.  Earlier we had been given sheets of paper with questions about what it means to belong to community.  Core members and assistants alike were asked to come prepared to share stories, thoughts, art or music that reflected times of struggle in community, our hopes for our future in L’arche and what specific things help us to grow and participate more fully.

As I sat with Charlie, Beverley, David, Casey, Laurence and Brian (my Cornerstone family) reflecting on these questions, I realized that being off sick was not the only thing that has kept me from writing since I moved.  When I began at Sherman House in May I expected to be there for a while and spent a considerable amount of time intentionally rooting myself in my relationships with Alice, David, Richard, Doris and Attila.  The move unsettled me.  I still see the members of Sherman House on a regular basis but nothing can replace the depth of relationship that is shared when people live in the same house.  I miss those moments – resting on the couch with Alice, grocery shopping with Attila, the moment Richard came downstairs each morning smiling, Doris’ voice when she was excited, or David’s wit.  (I have a habit of drumming on the steering wheel while driving and David frequently scolded me for the behaviour.  Once when I claimed I couldn’t help it because I had ants in my pants, he quickly responded “I think you have ants in your brain!”)

I’m still finding these moments of grace with my new housemates too, when Charlie tells a joke, or Brian holds my hand, when I greet Laurence in the mornings and Bev tells me secrets and smiles mischievously.  But in general, I have felt so much less present.  As we talked on Wednesday afternoon about what we would share at prayer, I realized what has held me back – I am afraid that I will be asked to move again.  The uprooting from Sherman has left me a little more hesitant to nurture deep relationships, to risk love.  I desire stability for my future with L’arche.  Rootedness.  To be settled and home for a significant period of time.  I know nothing is permanent and my path will likely wind down different roads at some point, but to be at Cornerstone for now, present to those I live with, I have to be able to risk love.

Last night, I went leafing through an old journal, one that I kept while I travelled across Canada with ten other young people.  While we were in New Brunswick (in the town that would eventually become my home for four years), we made up a treasure hunting game that involved a van, a blindfold and a lot of sugar-induced hyperactivity.  The blindfolded person would make decisions about which direction to turn at intersections, taking us in circles and down sidestreets until they shouted STOP! – at which point the driver would park, we would all jump out and begin running desperately around trying to find treasure – any treasure.  An incredible leaf.  A swingset.  An ice cream shop.  It didn’t matter what the treasure was, so long as it was considered treasure by the beholder.  It was all inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes books and Calvin’s claim that there is treasure everywhere.  And really, there is, if you go looking for it.

As I drove home through downtown Hamilton today, this idea of treasure everywhere wandered through my mind.  I looked at the people walking along the sidewalks, waiting for buses, coming out of stores.   I looked at the drivers who were passing me.  I looked at the shops and thought about who their owners might be, who might work in them.  I thought about the people I’ve met downtown.  Agnus, who came to Canada from Vienna fifty years ago; Dave, who runs an art/book shop; Jenny, the artist I wrote about a few months ago.  And so many others.  Downtown Hamilton is a busy place.  There are people everywhere.  Treasured people.

But these people are so fragile.  Some of them have been very obviously broken by poverty or addictions, abuse or mental health issues or unemployment.  Some have very obviously fallen through gaps in the system – be it the mental health system, or the education system, or the justice system.  And there are others who you would never know are broken.  Who walk around in nice clothes, with jobs and kids and smiles on their face, while society hands them every kind of mask they could possible need to hide what exists on the inside.  Because people are so fragile.  So easily broken.

And yet, these same people are so resilient.  Some of the most caring people I have met have stories of abuse and cruelty in their past.  People who have been treated like garbage by family or society who choose still to love and trust and reach across the space between us.  To try again and again and again to get on their feet, despite others knocking them back down.  To believe for something better.  Or even to just keep going in the absence of that belief.

I am astounded by this paradox.  The fragility and resiliency of humankind.  I see it everywhere.  On their faces.  In my own reflection.  I see it in you.

I’ve never been good at saying sorry.  I don’t like conflict (does anyone?) and yet I can be very confrontational.  I guess I started thinking that when tension begins to build, it is better to accuse the other of something before I am accused myself.

Is it inevitable that conflict will arise in such shared space, when people who are different from each other come together to try to build community?  When those people have different ideas about what community can and should look like?

And yet, without good conflict resolution skills, such communities will always eventually crumble.

Two weeks ago I said I would commit to taking the first step towards repairing bruised relationships when I find myself sitting in a messy house, saying to myself “I shouldn’t have done all that.”

Turns out this is no easy task.  My pride, my self-entitlement, my craving for power – they all get in the way.  When conflict arises, I find myself getting my back up, defending my stance, and drawing away.  Instead of opening communication and seeking to love the other.

How do I learn to live differently?

With practice.

I got a chance to practice this today.  Like a rookie on skates, I stumbled and found myself clinging to old patterns.  But slowly, something better is beginning to emerge.

It is 31 degrees in my bedroom right now.  I kid you not.  My little iPod speakers/thermometer told me so.  In my opinion, ideal room temperatures are between fifteen and seventeen degrees celsius.  So, thirty-one degrees is decidedly too hot.  And worst of all, according to the Weather Network it’s only going to get worse before it gets better.

We had an orientation meeting today (training for new assistants) where we talked about the importance of celebration in community.  Our discussion began with this quote:

“Celebration expresses the true meaning of community in a concrete and tangible way.  So it is an essential element in community life.  Celebration sweeps away the irritations of daily life; we forget our little quarrels.  The aspect of ecstasy in a celebration unites our hearts; a current of life goes through us all.  Celebration is a moment of wonder when the joy of the body and the senses are linked to the joy of the spirit. It unites everything that is most human and most divine in community life.  The liturgy of the celebration – which brings together music, dance, song, light and the fruit and flowers of the earth – brings us into communion with God and each  other, through prayer, thanksgiving and good food.  The harder and more irksome our daily life, the more our hearts need these moments of celebration and wonder. We need times when we all come together to give thanks, sing, dance, and enjoy special meals. Each community, like each people, needs its festival liturgy.” – Jean Vanier. Community and Growth, p314-315.

The last week or so has felt like the official beginning of summer – complete with bike rides, walks in the park, barbeques, sticky hot weather and evenings cooling off on the porch.  There’s a lot I like about summer, but I’m going to be honest, I am biased towards the cooler seasons.  Still, this season brings with it fresh opportunities for celebration.  There’s nothing better than sunset bike rides at 9pm or dinner on the back porch, especially when you consider that just a few months ago it was routinely dark by supper time.  A lot has changed since those colder, darker days of the winter months – the ones that felt so endless, so dreary.  I have a lot to celebrate.

So I am actively searching for ways to celebrate in small moments – hugs shared, laughter at the dinner table, creating music.  Celebrations that ease the irksome quarrels from my mind, leaving behind contentedness and gratitude.  I hope you too are finding ways to celebrate in the day to day, to feel the current of life pulsing through you and your community.  Peace.

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