Slow Food and Home Cooking

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I wrote this post three years ago as a guest writer for a Food and Faith series at The Local Cook. It was fun to write and a great way to apply some of the things I was learning in my seminary classes to real life. When my child was a newborn, I assumed I would never cook again. The thought was just too overwhelming. And I was pretty sad about it. I love cooking, I value the slow food movement and the thought that I would have to consume freezer casseroles for the rest of my (young adult) life made me depressed. But I’ve been surprised and delighted to find that I’m cooking more than ever, thanks in part to a baby that goes to bed early. We got a grill in the Spring and I grilled my heart out. Husband’s birthday was over the summer and I made an awesome ice cream cake. We celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house and I contributed quite a number of dishes. And  I make dinner nearly every single night…with joy! So, though this post is nearly 3 years old, it still feels really relevant in my life.You can find the original post here and the full series here

It’s About Time

As Americans, we have a strange relationship with time. Most of us understand time as rigid, segmented, limited and linear, where as many other cultures, particularly agrarian cultures, recognize time as flexible, elastic, relaxed, unlimited and circular. For us, time is tangible and extremely valuable, like a commodity (“Time is money.”) We can save it and spend it and (heaven forbid) waste it. And we dedicate time to those things we care about. We take time to be with our friends and family. We carve out time to spend with friends. We make time to complete a project. We give time to causes we care about.

In the words of Syed and Joyce Zafar, intercultural experts from the Compass Diversity Group, “Americans have internalized the clock to a degree which is beyond the comprehension of many cultures around the globe.” Our lives are literally run by the clock. Frankly, we can’t imagine life without it. Because eating is such a necessary part of our everyday life, we shouldn’t be surprised that our relationship to food has been affected by our time obsession, as well.

Good food takes time. It takes time to grow, time to cook, and time to eat. But really, who has the time? As a full time graduate student who is going through the ringer of finals week, taking the time to cook can easily become a tiresome, mundane chore. I would rather spend my time doing things that I care about. But more often than not, the time I “save” by eating something prepared by other people (either in a factory, a restaurant or a grocery store), is spent sitting on the couch with my laptop surfing Facebook or reading food blogs.

My sister recently attended a parent support group meeting in which the topic of once-a-month cooking came up. The idea involves dedicating one day to cooking and freezing all your dinners for the month in order to save time and money. For many families with very busy schedules and hectic lives, once-a-month cooking is a welcome relief. As a full-time student with suppers waiting in the freezer, I can speak from personal experience! But I do worry that our seemingly insatiable desire to save time is contributing to our ever-growing separation from the process that brings food to our tables. Poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, laments the way our fast paced culture has privileged the convenience and efficiency of food over its quality and care. And this has radically changed the way we think about food. Where it comes from and how it was made doesn’t even cross our mind. We no longer grow our own vegetables or slaughter our own animals. Instead, we rely on a vast network of farmers, laborers and workers to pick, process, package and prepare our food.

Cooking is the one part of the process of the food cycle that demands our time and attention. And in our extremely busy lives, cooking can become a sort of Sabbath from our weekday habits of hurried, careless eating or pre-prepared, processed food.  In many ways, cooking can and should be considered a spiritual discipline. The slow and careful process of washing, peeling, dicing, stir-frying and seasoning are all ways of thanking God for the wonderful gift of food. And as anyone who has ever eaten the seeds directly from the rough hide of the pomegranate knows, food tastes sweeter when you work for it.

This past Lent, I gave up prepared foods (i.e., eating out). Or, to put it another way, I took on the disciplines of slow food and home cooking. The experience opened my eyes to how much I depend upon other people to prepare my meals. Before Lent, it was easy to leave the house without a packed lunch, knowing I could buy something at school. It was convenient to swing by my favorite taco joint on the way home from class or grab a burger from the grill truck parked on the side of the road. I saved a lot of time eating food prepared by some anonymous person with unknown ingredients from distant places. But should ease, convenience and efficiency really dictate our eating habits?

Committing to home cooking involves patience, care, commitment and planning. During Lent, I ate breakfast at the crack of dawn before heading to class. I would pack my lunch, even if I was running late. I would spend some time in the afternoon making my dinner instead of catching up on the latest episode of Lost. My entire life had to change. But, in my opinion, it changed for the better.  Here’s how.

1) I waste less: Unless you are fine-dining, many (affordable) places give you food in throw-away containers. There’s no way around it. Add it all up and you are throwing away tons of plastic and paper every week. But as I started cooking more at home, I was consistently using reusable, washable containers (i.e., plates for dinner, tubberware for a packed lunch, etc.). Furthermore, the food I would buy at the grocery store would go bad before I could use it. Cream would curdle, apples would go grainy, lettuce would rot. Now, I eat everything I buy. Grocery shopping is actually a meaningful, useful activity again!

2) I know where my food comes from: Along with this discipline, I’ve made a commitment to buy much of my produce locally and in season. So, most Saturday mornings, I head to the farmers market where I buy sweet potatoes from the woman who dug them out of the ground and raisins from the man who grew the grapes! I buy bread from the baker, chard from the farmer, and ground pork from the butcher. I know their faces and they know mine. I can ask them about their ingredients and how their crops are holding up. There’s something deeply right about that.

3) I’ve become more self-sustaining: I usually hate mundane tasks (cleaning, organizing), so I was surprised to find that cooking is, in fact, a pleasurable experience! Being fully dependent on my own cooking has taught me a) that preparing food is a gift, not a burden and b) that cooking is a joy. In a small way, baking your own crackers or cooking your own stew is empowering. I don’t need to rely on massive food corporations like Kraft to feed me. I don’t need to eat Nabisco crackers made in a plant a thousand miles away. Cooking embeds me in the holy, everyday work of the household. And that’s worth my time.

4) I’ve learned not to eat alone: In my own cooking, I find it difficult to prepare food for just one person, which is the way it’s supposed to be. When I made my own granola and crackers a few weeks ago, I had a ton left over to share so I sent some off to friends. Eating is most satisfying when done with others. This is what companion means – a friend with whom you break bread. Starting a few months ago, some friends and I began meeting together every other week for a locally-sourced potluck. At our meals, friends gather to share their gifts of time and attention. We feast upon freshly baked bread, sweet potato fries, arugula salad and white bean chili, all made with attentive, caring hands.

The truth is, if we want to embrace slow food and good eating, we need a radical realtering of our concept of time. We must embrace every moment as a gift, rather than a commodity to be saved or spent.  This means developing a heightened sense of gratitude for God’s gifts, including the gift of food.  And I cannot think of a better way of thanking God than the common act of cooking, which brings us into closer connection with God, our neighbors and creation. The practice of cooking as a discipline helps us embrace the miracle, mystery and sanctity of food in our everyday lives.  As Wendell Berry writes, “The miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 103.

Questions for Reflection (share your response below for any one of these for an entry in this week’s drawing)

  • Do you or your family have eating rituals that are linked to the seasons (not just to particular holidays?) How about weekly rituals?
  • If we embrace the idea of “slow food,” how can we make sure that preparing it doesn’t become a burden?

Challenge to Action (post one of these on your blog and add a link below to the specific post about this challenge or email me before Friday for an additional entry into this week’s drawing).

  • Make a slow meal; soak beans, simmer soup, knead bread. Invite friends to share it–or make the meal a potluck.
  • Make a list to share of creative ways you can cut down on time cooking without using processed / convenience foods.
  • Get local: Are there resources in your area for those who want to learn how to preserve food? Extension offices, community-supported agriculture farms, food co-ops and others often offer seminars in canning, drying, freezing, etc.

Packing!

As the title may suggest, I’ve been spending the last few days packing, interspersed with various tasks – finishing up my sewing projects (I’m the proud seamstress of two dresses and a skirt!), cooking dinner for the ‘rents (adobe salmon tacos, anyone?), and watching the Olympics (the US womens’ gymnastics team broke my heart).

I’m trying to avoid taking the entirety of my belongings with me to Duke. I did this in undergrad and, believe me, Gordon dorm rooms don’t provide enough space for American teenage materialism. I like to think I am older, wiser, and less materialistic now at the age of 24, but we all know this is crap. Whether we are 14 or 44, the modern industrial capitalist machine will continue to pump us with lies regarding “stuff” that we so desperately “need” and “can’t live without.” And the advertising industry will continue to make us feel ugly and worthless without the help of certain products, however related to our insecurities (Botox) or unrelated (turbo-speed blenders).

I went into Kohls the other day with the expectation of buying only a comforter and came out with an armload of items that, supposedly, I didn’t need before I walked in. I really do believe that places like the New Monastic communities, l’Arche, the Catholic Workermovement, etc, are carving out spaces in the Empire that is the United States where people can support one another in living simply, intentionally, mindful of others’ needs, hopes, and anguish. As solo individuals, we will be crushed by the status quo (“Get rich! Be successful! Consume!”). But it is in communities that we find our power, our stability, and our support to be the Church, so to speak. I like to think that if I were living with and amongst folks who deplore conspicuous consumption, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt as comfortable walking out of Kohl’s with all that stuff. I have high hopes (idealism?) for the Church in this regard – that local parishes would be a haven for those willing to go against the grain of consumption, that my expenditures would be subjected to the church’s judgement. More often than not, churches have anything to say about the way we spend our money or how much we consume. We’ve given into the lie that is private property as the American Church. No surprise. We’ve been synchrastictic in this regard from the advent. But, it doesn’t make me any less hopeful that local parishes can begin to play a larger, more central role in people’s lives, particularly their spending habits. Because, if we really want to embody discipleship of Christ, the way we spend our money is indeed a spiritual discipline, if not an act of worship.

On that note, I’m off to pack! Lord, where is Shane Claiborne when I need him??

Things I’m going to miss…

-Fritz starting every conversation with “Kevin had a seizure” and answering every question with “My mom.”

-Eating dinner with a crowd of people each night.

-$1.00 movie nights at the Arlington Cinema Draft House

-Linda’s impersonation of me impersonating her (“Geoooorge….).

-The opportunity to share memories and blessings with people during their celebrations.

-“Beer Accompaniment” with Terrence.

-Hazel laughing at my jokes and competing in staring contests in the van.

-Visiting the statue of Mary with Fritz after prayer night ends.

-Linda rubbing her hands together in delight when she accomplishes a task.

-Long, interesting conversations with Mandy on our many road trips or walks around the block.

-Drinking wine with Dottie in the living room after routine is done.


-Finding the most clandestine way to scoop ice cream in the kitchen.

-Lois – her calming presence, her care, her consistency and commitment to our community.

-Dancing like crazy at our l’Arche holiday parties.

-The spontaneous moments where I find Fritz in the kitchen cleaning, putting away the dishes, and laughing to himself.

-Having ample time to read and rest in my room.

-Happy hour with l’Arche DC folks.

-Helping Linda with her exercises and always being impressed with her perseverance.

-Hearing Alan’s movie reviews and sports news.

-Going grocery shopping with Fritz.

-Hazel always seeming to know where exactly I left my keys or my shoes or my purse.
-Having Fritz go through the calendar and tell me about the holidays and happenings of each month, complete with sound effects and hand motions.

-Spending ample amount of time at Murky Coffee with Elaine and Mandy.

-Talking politics with my housemates.
-Fritz’s long after-dinner prayer, and the fact that I have it memorized.

16 days and counting…

My time in l’Arche is coming to a close. Two communities (Portland & DC), three roles (respite, assistant, and home life coordinator), and 23 months later, I am finishing up my time — at least for now. Since graduating from college in 2006, this has been my way of life: preparing massive nightly meals, flossing teeth, playing silly games, administering meds, watching Oprah on the couch, filling out droves of paper work, baking cookies, attending multiple weekly meetings, singing songs, shoveling snow off the driveway, dropping people off at work, praying after dinner, sweeping the floor, buying a ton of groceries, leading prayer nights, going on retreats. The day-to-day changes, the various challenges and opportunities, the multiple avenues of growth have proven to be really good fit for my personality. I thrive on change, on each day being different. Monotony tends to deaden my soul.

This life has been a strange mixture of stay-at-home parent, social worker, pastor, and event coordinator. Good, practical life skills earned, for sure, not to mention learning how to posture myself towards the vulnerable and how to identify/come to terms me with my own vulnerabilities. There was a time where this sort of work was frightening and foreign. Though I felt I embodied certain abstract notions of kindness and positivity before coming to l’Arche, I never understood myself as the type of person who could love others in practical, physical ways. Nor could I have ever described myself as a patient person, a listener, a selfless caregiver, a gentle presence. In fact, I think most people who come into l’Arche wouldn’t immediately characterize themselves in these ways. And those that do will find that they’ve never had opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, generosity. We just don’t live in a society where these virtues can naturally be practiced. They have to be conjured up, dusted off, put to good use, else they will atrophy and dissolve.

L’Arche is a place where we can be more fully human. It is a place where we can practice the long-forgotten disciples of simplicity, peace-making, and presence. And it is a place where we can express our hopes, fears, joys, and pains in real, tangible ways. L’Arche provides us, core members and assistants alike, with the opportunity to live righteously in a way that our larger society cannot. We cannot expect the woman in front of us at the post office to treat us with dignity and respect, because this is not the culture of bureaucracy. There, efficiency is paramount, as well as detachment, isolation, and autonomy. We cannot expect the driver behind us on the Beltway to practice selflessness, because this is not the culture of the Beltway. In these places, we have no common culture that informs our behavior or tells us how to love one another. We may have basic common courtesy, but it’s a politeness rooted in Kant’s Social Contract, not in the theological narrative of the Church.

In a more broader sense, we need the Church to be our common culture, the Body that informs our way of being and doing, of buying and voting. Just as l’Arche has established a way of life for its community members (based on the Beattitudes), the Church must provide a place for us to act out the tenants of our faith. This is why disputes within parishes or dioceses that are settled in a secular court provide no witness for the Church as an alternative culture. This is why parishes that are more comfortable modeling themselves off of the social and fiscal policies of the Republican or Democratic parties have lost their prophetic voice.

L’Arche’s uniqueness to the surrounding culture, as well as to any other organization that cares for the developmentally disabled, is so telling. People come to l’Arche and are changed because they’ve never experienced anything like it before – not in their places of work, their families, or even their churches. Guests who come to dinner talk of their experiences as “brief encounters with Jesus.” Core members enter l’Arche after years of living at home or in institutions, and finally, finally they become fully alive. Assistants come to serve and find that they, too, are experiencing healing and growth as they never have before. L’Arche is a different place, an alternative way of being. And it’s appeal is wide-spread.

Yes, yes, my time in l’Arche has taught me about myself, about relationships, and community, and loving in tangible ways. But most profoundly, l’Arche has provided me with a vision of what the Church Universal ought to be. It’s said that l’Arche is not a solution but a sign to the world, pointing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. More often than not, the Church believes that She Herself is the solution, when in fact She is called to be the vessel of God’s Good News, pointing others towards that which is greater than Herself. If the Church was less concerned about solving problems and more concerned about faithful witness, orthodox theology, and communal identity as a people bound up in the narrative of the Christian faith, perhaps our experience of church would be more transforming, life-changing, challenging, and disciplining, just as l’Arche is. Perhaps the Church would finally start acting like the Church.

Things that are easier, things that are hard…

I can’t figure it out. I have been living in l’Arche for a total of 20 months (and in the Greater DC community for 17), and life has truly never been easier. I’m trying to discover the root of my feelings of contentment, but its a difficult task. I have long since passed the idealistic, everything-about-l’Arche-is-wonderful stage….that probably ended the second month I was here. And I’ve also passed the stage of “finally feeling settled” at least a year back. And this isn’t much of a milestone because I adjust pretty easily to new situations. But truly I say to you, l’Arche is easier now than it’s ever been. There could be multiple reasons for this, both internal and external.

First, life in this home was tumultuous, to say the least, when I first arrived. There were some major turn-over in assistants and leadership and some huge governmental hurtles to overcome before this house even opened. Plus, all of us were new — core members and assistants. There were no routines, no traditions, no foundation upon which we could base our life together. We had to figure out how to do everything anew while also abiding by the simultaneously strict and ambiguous regulations of the county and state government (we were the first group home to open in Northern VA in more than a decade).

Also, because we were stressed, relationships in the house were stressed. You couldn’t gather together people so different from one another even if you tried. And we were living under the same roof, buying groceries together, working together, essentially spending our entire lives together. And yet, there was some serious interpersonal tension hanging over our heads for a while there. As we were attempting to facilitate positive, healthy relationships among the core members, we were having our own issues that were either ignored or denied. Though I wasn’t a member of one of the “opposing” parties, I was affected greatly by the simmering conflict.

Along with this, one of our core members began to mentally and emotionally disintegrate. These downward spiral started off subtly but generally grew, ranging from depression to full-blown outbursts to a week or two of hypomanic elation. Yikes. No week was like the next. And we had few, if any, supports in regards to good psychiatric care and counseling. We had to juggle this core members volatile moods with the basic needs and cares of the house and other core members, and this was no easy task. Our team meetings would stretch so long sometimes, up to 3 hours, because we had so much to talk about. And we were exhausted.

Then, come May 1st of 2007, I became the Home Life Coordinator, essentially taking on responsibility for the tensions and anxieties already present in the house. Along with adjusting to my new role as head of house, this core member took a turn for the worst and went into the pysch hospital twice. An assistant left rather unexpectedly and we struggled to find a replacement in the midst of the crisis we were experiencing in the house. And I was biting off more than I could reasonably chew — performing all the duties of leadership while still working 40 hours a week of routines and accompanying a core member. I became so stressed that I started losing weight and developed acid reflux. I had difficulty sleeping and essentially avoided being in the house when I wasn’t on call.

After toiling through several months of chaotic life in the home (primarily centered around this one core member), we made the tough decision of discharging this core member from the home. We couldn’t meet his needs. We couldn’t support him in his mental illness. We were in way over our head. And yet we loved him and cared for him and dreaded seeing him go. But, as we suspected, life afterwards was just…easier. Relationships in the house were gelling, other core members were happy, new assistants were being oriented and taking on more responsibility, I was building strong friendships with other members in leadership. And, on top of all this, I was learning to let go of some of the unrealistic expectations I had for myself as Home Life Coordinator. I learned to follow through with the important tasks, to not take myself too seriously, to say no to things I knew I couldn’t do, to lead by example, to have fun and laugh when mistakes happen. In a sense, my newly found comfort with my newly acquired role may be the internal factor that has made life easier now.

When I look back at the first 8 months of our life as a l’Arche home, I am amazed we came out on the other side! This is not to say, of course, that we never experienced times of joy and grace within our community. There were plenty of those…countless good memories, funny stories, interesting experiences. But life was, in fact, hard. And I think I realize that now that I’m on the other side, breathing a sigh of relief, sleeping in late, spending my weekends at l’Arche rather than fleeing to my parents’ house. Humans are highly adaptable, and we adapted….we made do. But we weren’t necessarily thriving.

I have much to say to other l’Arche communities who, more often than not, “make do.” They hire assistants who are clearly inept or carry weight baggage into the community. They bring in core members who cannot be fully supported in a l’Arche setting, core members who ultimately toxify community life. They become so stuck in tradition and ritual that they are no longer open to new ideas, new ways of doing things. They keep the same individuals in leadership positions for years on end, individuals who may not be doing their job to the best of their ability. Blah blah. There are ways to be a healthy community, and there are ways to pollute a healthy community.
Life is easier now, and I like to think that it’s not just the external environment that has prompted this change, but my own internal environment. I like to think that I could face any number of hardships, knowing that I have faced tremendous hardship in the past. I like to think that the challenges of l’Arche have changed me, made me a better human being – more patient, less fearful, more realistic, less anxious.

All this being said, my official “end time” is the end of May — that leaves me with 3 more months. Hard to believe! Feels like I just got here, and now I’m the “old and experienced one” admits the new assistants. I am feeling good about tying up my time here in l’Arche, but I obviously have some ambivalent feelings about leaving. I’ve been “living l’Arche” since I graduated from college, so it’s pretty remarkable to think about doing something else. But isn’t that what my life has been for the last few years? Transition here, transition there. Packing up, moving along, meeting new people, saying good bye.

Anthropology, l’Arche and consumer culture…

The intersection of religion and economy has interested me for quite some time, from my days as a devoted patron of the Family Christian Bookstores, to Mrs. Suddeth’s 9th grade English class when we learned the manipulative methods of media advertising, to my love affair with Max Weber my junior year of college, to my final Sociology thesis, titled, “Religion as Commodity: Capitalism and the Transformation of the Religious Life.” [If given the chance, I would rename it, “Consumer Culture and the Transformation of the Religious Life”; my War Against Capitalism that I waged my later years of college stalemated when I went to post-Communist Romania and saw the desperate need for small-business enterprises in the severally depressed Jui Valley. That’s another conversation.]

Another interesting intersection is that of anthropology (the study of the human person) and religion. What does the Judeo-Christian story say about being human? What does Jesus’ humanity say about our own humanity? What about the disabled, the “feeble-minded”, those broken in body? Last year, the North American Zone of l’Arche held a big anthropology conference where assistants, leaders, core members, and scholars (sociologists, theologians, anthropologists) gathered together to discuss the “Anthropology of Becoming Human.” The overall question at this conference was, “What am I discovering and learning from my experience in community in l’Arche about what it means to be human and about what it means to grow towards becoming human?” This is what they came up with:

*Human beings have a profound desire and drive not just to survive but to thrive, to have life in abundance.
*We thrive, not by accumulating more or by creating complexity, but by learning to enter into life’s simple moments.
*You cannot thrive as a human being without finding a way to accept human weakness, your own and others.
*We cannot expect people to accept weakness outside the context of a community capable of embracing them in their weakness.

In a nutshell, becoming fully human involves mutuality of relationships, acceptance of our fragility and the fragility of others, and recognition of each human being as uniquely gifted and uniquely limited. This happens in community. L’Arche is one of these. So are family, marriage, friendship, the Church, our churches. In these places, we can experience the life fully human, as God intends.

Now, when we think about the intersection of anthropology and the Market, all hell breaks lose, for the anthropology of l’Arche (and I would argue the Judeo-Christian narrative as a whole) is so at odds with the anthropology dictated by our consumer culture. More importantly, this consumer culture in which we are imbedded does not discriminate between the sacred and secular. All sectors of our lives are subject to mass market consumerism. It is the iron cage. It is the pandemic disease. The quicker we accept this to be true the quicker we can address how and to what degree we are affected.

What is the anthropology of consumer culture? How has the economy shaped our understanding of human beings? Along with religious and philosophical expression, the human person becomes herself a commodity, an object to be bought and sold, as a means to an end rather than end in and of herself. She is valued solely for her appearance and status, he for his ability to produce or compete, they for their ability to consume and be consumed. The market, rather than the person, becomes the mechanism for dictating and transmitting beliefs and behaviors. What is most profitable and cost-effective becomes paramount, rather than what is most desirable for the human person. The anthropology of consumer culture overemphasizes autonomy and individualism (to the point of utilitarianism, life boat ethics, etc) and deemphasizes the common good. Within consumer culture, to be human is to be fundamentally inadequate. Wholeness can only be achieved through the consumption of goods (this car, this cell phone, this perfume, this beer, this plane ticket). Media advertising is saturated with this message. In fact, we’re all pretty much drowning in it.

The anthropology of our market culture is diametrically opposed to the anthropology of l’Arche, as lived and taught by Jesus. Where one values humans beings solely and entirely for their humanity, the other values only those persons who can consume (those with capital) or produce (those young enough, smart enough, and healthy enough to hold down jobs). It is no wonder why the poorest of the poor in our nation are below the age of 18 and above the age of 65, disabled, whether socially (as with non-English speaking immigrants, widows, etc) or physically (as with genetic maladies, substance addictions, or wounded veterans) and intellectually (as with the mentally retarded, those deprived of education resources or access, etc), and those who’ve been historically marginalized (as with people of color, women, those with alternative sexual orientations, etc).

Consumer culture tells us that we aren’t good enough, strong enough, safe enough, happy enough, sexy enough, holy enough lest we consume. In fact, the term used for the developmentally disabled in most MRDDA sectors (day programs, residential homes, etc) is ‘consumers.’ Their consumption of the services provided by the State or County merits their worth – they are consumers of care and assistance. How many of us consider ourselves “consumers” of our parents’ care, our spouses’ love, our friends’ companionship? My relationship with my friends and family is not one based on economic reciprocity or service provision but of mutual love and respect. The developmentally disabled (along with other vulnerable populations) often do not have the luxury of these relationships. They will live most of their lives with no choice but to consume their relationships; “professionals” such as counselors in group homes, case managers, staff members at work, respite workers are all paid to be present – generally, these professionals make up 99% of the DD person’s social world.

To value the lives and stories of the developmentally disabled, to accept each individual as they uniquely are, to provide a place for people regardless of race, sex, creed, and ability to enter into relationship with one another is indeed prophetic in the society in which we live. Through its mere humble existence in this self and stuff-obsessed culture, l’Arche (like any other prophetic sign) is waging war against the mendacity that is consumer-dependent human worth. When society tells us to buy more, l’Arche tells us to live more simply. When society tells us we are worthless, l’Arche tells us we are created and loved by God. When society tells us we must be strong, l’Arche tells us we are fragile and in need of friendship. When society tells us we are only as special as the things we consume, l’Arche tells us we are each uniquely gifted. L’Arche here is, essentially, doing the work of the Church, the work of Jesus. L’Arche is no solution, but it is a sign, a way to live out the Kingdom which is here on Earth.

There are countless other acts of Christian resistance to the Empire of Consumer Culture occurring all around us – a family adopting a special needs child, the parish advocating for the rights of rural farm workers, the college students teaching ESL to recent immigrants, the woman caring for her elderly neighbor, the doctor providing free services to low-income families, the businesswoman who builds homes for Habitat Humanity on her weekends, the pastor who visits inmates in the local correctional facility, the youth group members who befriend some homeless men downtown. These acts are counter-cultural in that they illuminate the value of human life beyond what that human life can consume or produce. These acts signify our interrelatedness, the connectedness that we share with one another because of our common humanity. Through our relationships with one another, we are made whole – more fully human. This is the anthropology of the Church.

I wrote a paper last year entitled, “You in Me and I in You: The Role of Community in the Formation of the Authentic Self.” The last few paragraphs tend to sum up well what I think a good anthropology looks like for us as Christians and as human beings. —

“When I speak of the Self in “relationship” or “community” with others, I do so theoretically: one human being interacting with another, and as a result, both being made whole, giving and receiving mutually. But in actuality, as most of us can attest, being in relationship is rarely this simple. In fact, to extend one’s self to another can be terribly painful. The child must leave home. The student must graduate. The grandparent must pass away. Those whom we love will wound us, and we will wound them in return, however intentionally or unintentionally. Our hearts bear the scars of failed friendships, broken marriages, and wrecked families.

“The Genesis creation myth — a story of shattered relationships– has shaped our understanding of each other and the world for thousands of years. The story begins with God bringing forth all of Creation, Earth and Sky, Land and Water, Flora and Fauna. In the Garden of Eden, He creates Adam from the mud of the earth, and seeing that it was not good for man to be alone, He creates Eve from Adam’s rib. In this way, Adam, Eve, and the Earth are made from the same substance and, therefore, share a common unity. This knowledge of interrelatedness allows for Adam and Eve to live in harmony with Creation and their Creator. But through an act of disobedience, this harmony is broken. Humanity becomes estranged from the earth, from each other, and from God the Creator. Adam, Eve, and all of their descendents, are destined to live out the rest of their days attempting to recover the unity they had once experienced in the Garden, when God, Man, and Earth were joined together, interdependent and intimately related.

“Our post-Edenic world is no longer characterized by common unity but by division. Ethnic genocide, misogyny, classism, terrorism, racism, jihad, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, are all signs of Creation warring against itself. We have lost the ability to recognize our essential oneness and, instead, have become fixated on that which makes us different from one another. We are strangers, seduced by sectarianism and individualism. And yet, we carry with us the sneaking suspicion that we are somehow not strangers. Some distant, hazy memory we share tells us that, perhaps, we may have been friends in some other time or place.

“As human beings, we are creatures of memory. We carry with us the stories of our past victories and failures, of our union and divorce. Like the Genesis myth, our memory informs us of that which once was, but no longer is. It provides us with a sense of loss, of dissatisfaction with the present reality. But we as human beings are also creatures of hope, capable of envisioning a world far greater than our own. Even as we hurt one another, we seek one another’s company. Even with the anguish of miscarriage still fresh, we risk pregnancy again. Even as countless marriages fail around us, we recite our solemn vows. We enter into relationship with one another both tentatively, our memories guiding us, and willingly, our hope enabling us to write a different story.

“What is this story but one both ancient and new – the story of interrelatedness. Consider the words of Hildegarde of Bingen: “God has arranged all things in the world in consideration of everything else” (Fox 279). God, the Creator of all, has crafted the universe as interdependent, where one creation sustains another, where the actions of one affect the well-being of another. When Jesus says, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me,” he is acknowledging this interrelatedness — to extend yourself to the Other is to extend yourself to God. In fact, according to the teachings of Jesus, there is no Other; every person is neighbor, friend, sister and brother. The lines between Self and group are blurred. We are members of a common Humanity, fit together as pieces of a puzzle, each “members of mankind” (Merton, No Man… xxii).

“Evolutionary science no longer allows us the option to deny our relatedness to other human beings. As humans, we originate from a single common ancestor — the evidence is stamped upon the DNA of each person on earth. Not only that, we as earthly creations — animals, plants, and minerals — carry within our atoms the same substances that make up the stars in heaven. This earth which we call home was one of billions of planets brought forth into being during the Big Bang, entire universes forming out of one tiny, dense particle. To talk of Human against Nature, Man against Woman, Self against Other, is to create false dichotomies between intimately related entities. We need only remember our origin to become aware of our common unity with Creation.

“To acknowledge our interdependence is to remember life in the Garden, before the lie of “separateness” seeped into our consciousness. We are, in a sense, recovering our wholeness, our authentic Selfhood, when we recognize the interdependent aspects of our existences. As Thomas Merton states, “to live in communion, in genuine dialogue with others is absolutely necessary if man is to remain human” (Merton, New Seeds…, 55). When we discover who we truly are, in all authenticity, the distinctions between “you” and “I” begin to fade. As we remember our origins, we realize that we were birthed from the same womb of humanity, and that you are actually my sister and my companion, uniquely created but intimately related to my very being. With this knowledge, you and I can authentically coexist in community as separate beings made whole through relationship. Frederick Buechner eloquently articulates this understanding of Self and community when he states:

“You begin to understand that in some way your deepest self is the self of all men — that you are in them and they are in you. You begin to understand not as an ideal but as a reality, an experience, that their pain is your pain, their need your need; that there can really be no getting ahead at their expense, there can be no joy for you until there is joy for them.” (23)

Community and brokeness…

On the assistants’ retreat back in February, John handed around this quote which I find very profound. It’s hanging at the head of my bed. I guess I’m hoping it will seep into my brain while I sleep (osmosis-like).

“What is it that keeps me from being open enough to learn the lessons of community? For most of us, it is the unwillingness to appear flawed and broken in the eyes of others. We are present only in the ways that allow no one into our real self, and we remain content to present to the world only a public persona, a mask that hides the contradictions and brokenness we experience in our centers. We think we’re the only ones experiencing such things. But as we learn to share our brokenness, and give up the desire to appear flawless, we find others empowered by our sharing to do the same, and suddenly there is power unleashed out of brokenness and weakness of which there is nothing like in all the world. The power of community is, paradoxically, absolutely dependent on the sharing of weakness. There is no other way.” ~Dick Westley, A Theology of Presence

This is so remarkable. I have lived in community situations before where we never mentioned our weaknesses, revealed our flaws. In fact, to do so was embarrassing and altogether undesirable. Many of the communities I’ve lived in have worked to fortify the ego, not dissolve it. In l’Arche, we build our communities around the weakest members, the “core” members. How unlikely! How strange!

I learned a lot about my own brokenness on that retreat. Here are two journal entries I wrote during those last few days….

February 8, 2007
“This retreat, if it has done anything, has revealed to me my brokenness – the ways in which I am fallen and in need of major repair. I can’t keep my mouth shut for more than day. My mind has been consumed with frivolous thoughts. I lack self-control. Maybe spending all this time with yourself will reveal that. We go about our daily life in mainstream society trying to convince ourselves that we are okay. And we do so many things to hide from our true selves — We compulsively eat, drink, sleep around. We work around the clock, we keep the television on perpetually. We have cell phones and IPods glued to our ears. We do everything in our power to avoid ourselves. But in silence, when it’s just you and your thoughts, your true self is revealed. And perhaps this is the first step — recognizing our very brokenness — to truly communing with God and our neighbor. Perhaps it’s recognizing that, “Hey, I don’t have it all together and I refuse to listen to the lies that tell me I do.”

“The point here is that, yes, God loves us as we are, but we can be more fully human. The core members do a great job of revealing this to me. They do a great job of revealing my inadequacies – and loving me all the same. When I’m rough with Hazel’s wheel chair or try to hurry her along without thinking of her needs, Hazel still turns to me and says, “I like you.” It’s like she knows I need reassurance! And Fritz, when I’ve annoyed him about going to bed for the 10th time, still wants to be in relationship with me. When I forget ED’s appointments or forget to buy him more toothpaste, he continues to trust me. And when I forget to give Linda her money or forget her plans for the next day, she’s able to gently remind me, rather than condemn me.

“We are all, in a sense, core members and we are all, in a sense, assistants. Only when I can come to grips with my disabilities (the core member inside of me) can the core members I live with be of assistance. L’Arche is truly l’Arche when a visitor to the house can’t quite tell who’s the core member and who’s the assistant. We “assistants” live with the intellectually disabled because we need them. We need to be taught how to rest, how to just “be” without any pretense, how to love unconditionally and be patient and understanding when dealing with difference, how to be welcoming and open to all people, how to trust and surrender, how to love viscerally, rather than intellectually.

“If this retreat has taught me anything, it’s that I am a core member in need of assistance with tasks of the heart and spirit. Yes, I can dress myself and brush my teeth properly. But do I know how to love? Can I come to terms with my brokenness? Can I entrust myself to the care of another? Am I willing to give up control?”

February 9, 2007
“Perhaps it’s the blessing and the curse of being young – feeling like you have it all together, like you have the world at your fingertips. In our society, we have come to value only the young and the restless, the beautiful and the fertile in our population, and we have ceased any appreciation for the infirm, those who may not be the most beautiful or useful in the military industrial complex, but who carry with them a wealth of knowledge and experience and humility that we could all benefit from.”

“I have come from a place where I was more than adequate – as a leader, a student, a writer, an academic. And I’ve found myself in a place where I am more than inadequate – as a disciple, an assistant, a lover, a community member. All of those things I was pushed to grow in in college (my writing skills, my intellect, my unique way of living and being) have little bearing in l’Arche. I feel like a child all over again, learning my numbers and colors — except, it’s tenderness and kindness and patience that are my curriculum now. This is what Jesus meant by rebirth, I think. We must be born anew into an understanding of the world that is upside-down from our previous life. We must open our eyes, our ears, our mouth like a newborn child does: awkwardly, vulnerably, slowly, with faith and trust but without knowledge. My eyes must be trained to see God’s good work in the world, to see beauty where, previously, I saw ugliness. My ears must be trained to hear God’s whispers, to hear the beautiful song underneath the screams. My hands must be trained to touch gently, to bring healing to the wounded. My feet must be trained to move me to the darkest, most feared places of the world, the abandoned places of the Empire.

“There is so much uncertainty in the first few years of life. We spend most of the time wobbling on chubby legs and putting random objects in our mouths. We get things wrong. We fall. We spit up. We wet our pants. But we are still loved, still cared for. We are still our parents’ pride and joy. Aren’t we all still wobbly children, struggling to keep our balance, putting random things in our mouths? Aren’t we all in need of care, of comfort and forgiveness?

“Nothing is more disturbing than a child forced to act beyond her years. I think of toddler beauty pageants; or child soldiers toting guns twice their size; or babies abandoned in cars or hotel rooms, left to fend for themselves; or kids raped by adults so fixated on youth. Why are we so disturbed by these images? Because children have a unique place in society — they are allowed to be in adequate. In fact, they are expected to be. They are expected to mess up, make mistakes, fall on their faces — they’re children!

“Can we come to love the child in all of us who will inevitably get things wrong? Can we come to grips with our inadequacies? We need and we must embrace our inner brokenness, our inner child, our inner frailties. We need to learn to love the parts of ourselves that “don’t get it,” that fail at life. It is in these deep, hidden places, the places where we can no longer say, “I am in control. I have it figured out”, where God meets us, delights in us, encourages our growth and bandages our wounds. It is here that we become better listeners, better learners, better followers of Jesus, better assistants, better friends, better wives and husbands, better parents, better human beings.

“Jesus asked us to become like the little children, not because children are somehow more innocent or pure (we are all cut from the same fabric of broken humanity)…but because children can freely admit their weaknesses, their brokenness. They can freely fail and freely receive love and redemption. They can freely trust. Jean Vanier talks about “descending the ladder” in that we are to move from the most powerful to the least powerful on our journey towards Jesus. Maybe, too, we are to descend from adulthood to childhood, to revert back to those times in our lives when we were impressionable and wide-eyed.”

Self-reflection of sorts…

Neal sent me a letter last week and asked me what I’ve learned about myself since coming to l’Arche and the ways I’ve changed. Considering my infatuation with personality tests, I LOVE opportunities to self-reflect. And like most experiences that I have had, however good or bad or mundane, I always learn something else about myself, my place in the world, my faith. L’Arche is characterized as a place of growth, not just for the core members, but more often for the assistants, the non-disabled. Very few assistants pass through this place without being profoundly affected, changed by their experience. In fact, I would argue that those who can come away from “living l’Arche” without any sort of self-revelation really haven’t lived l’Arche at all. Or, they were incredibly self-knowledeable to begin with – which is rarely the case.

Anyway, here are something of the things I’ve learned (about myself, the world, community, etc) via my experience in l’Arche over the last 9 months.

1) Living in community is work. That is to say…any idealized notions regarding community one may have before entering into l’Arche are eventually replaced by the day-to-dayness of life. What we are doing is counter-cultural, so to think that living in community would be cake is rediculous. It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to make a community function, to meet people’s needs, to feed, clothe, and house human beings, let alone make life both interesting and stable. Honestly, if you find community living easy and natural, then you probably aren’t living in community. There’s a difference between living under the same roof and living in community. It takes effort. And it’s worth it.

2) I have a much larger capacity to be patient than I ever thought possible. When I think back on things that would intially make me ancy or annoyed, such as waiting in line at the DMV, I have to laugh. I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly patient person before, but I realize now that this attribute can be acquired with much practice. All of our core members’ conversational styles are centered on pattern and repetition. Several times a day you will hear Fritz refer to someone’s medical crisis, his mother’s heart attack or Kevin’s seizures, despite that fact that these episodes happened years ago. And Linda has a long series of questions that she will ask you upon leaving or returning from some event, or if you are eating an apple after dinner or if you change your clothes or any other seemingly “new and different” activity taking place. And Eduardo inquires inumerous times about where people are even if he knows the answer. And Hazel, who can only articulate a few things at a time, has a tenendcy to repeat those things again and again until she feels she has gotten her point across. As one who finds it annoying to repeat herself or to here repetition of others, my patience in this area has increased (necessarily) 10 fold.

3) The stark distinction we’ve made between abled and disabled persons is a myth. I may be “normal” developmentally according to societal standards, but I have my fair share of disabilities as the next person, and the “disabled” folks whom I live with have a abilities far beyond my own. I need just as much care and support and assistance as the core members do, but not necessarily in the same areas. When I am upset, Linda is calm. When I am forgetful, Eduardo remembers. When I am lonely, Fritz is my friend. When I am tired, Hazel is full of energy. This is mutuality, the give and take that occurs in community. Where I am lacking, another is strong. This is interdependence.

4) I am more gentle and calm than I imagined. Much like my acquired patience, I seem to have acquired the ability to be calm and gentle (is there any other way to be around the core members?). In reality, our only response to the core members can be calmness and gentleness. When Eduardo’s bio-chemical state is causing his anxiety and aggression, I must react with gentleness, even when I feel like being anxious or aggressive in return. This flows into the larger understanding of peace-making as a way of life. Jesus tells us that there is no other way through conflict and hardship but with patient, persistent gentleness, turning the other cheek, responding without violence. I can talk pacifism up and down and all around, but I’ve only really begun to live it. And in the end, living peaceably is a choice, not some gift we are bestowed or something we are born with or without. We must choose to be gentle and calm in crisis, to control our anger, to love the enemy within us, to love those who hurt us. I would never have characterized myself as a peaceable person, but I can at least live it. Really, it takes practice.

5) I need friends. Not just warm bodies in a room (like most extroverts) but people who care for me and support me and people I can care for and support in return, whether they are present or scattered across the globe. I recognize that there are those individuals are perfectly content to live the rest of their lives alone, who do not prioritize their friends or family above other things, or are satisfied with limited or sporadic communication with loved-ones. But I can’t wrap my head around how or why that would be enjoyable. And because I really do value my relationships above all else, I am much more vulnerable to being hurt (which I’ve most definitely experienced this year). Devon and I were talking about how when relationships fail for us, it is the ultimate devestation. Nothing else compares to it. So letting go of friendships and relationships is very difficult for me, even if it’s for the best, even if I’m poured myself out and have received little in return. It’s like I walk around with my heart exposed, vulnerable to arrows and other assaults. It’s especially hard when others don’t realize that about myself. I’m such a sap. But in l’Arche, it really is about relationships.

I think that’s it for today.

an article for the L’Arche newsletter….

I was asked to write an article for the DC L’Arche newsletter. It’s somewhat unpolished…but here it is nonetheless. I value feedback….

Before coming to L’Arche, I had no idea how to reconcile my proclivity towards the “big picture” with my desire to be in relationship with the poor. They seemed opposites, or at least the two ends of a spectrum. At one end were the flossers of teeth, the washers of dishes. At the other, the writers and pontificators. But as I have learned, these seeming opposites are actually two sides of the same coin. L’Arche is a lifestyle, filled with moments joyful and mundane. But l’Arche is also an idea, an alternative way of understanding one another and the world, manifested through small, daily acts of care and generosity.

The idea of l’Arche in mind-blowing – a place where people diverse in a myriad of ways join together in mutual relationship to give and receive love. There are few places in the Empire where such mutuality is enacted, if even encouraged. We are constantly pushed to get ahead, climb higher, leave the weakest behind. We fear our neighbors and bomb the Other. We are taught to live by our own rules, no matter the impact our actions have on other things or people. For all intents and purposes, living in caring relationships with one another is downright counter-cultural.

L’Arche is indeed a strange place. But it is this strangeness from the larger culture that makes l’Arche refreshing. I remember one experience I had with a core member, Linda Garcia, that revealed the unique relationships we as core members and assistants share with one another. One afternoon, when inquiring about various members of our household, Linda said to me, “Where is Diane? She’s mine.” I didn’t quite understand at first, and she repeated, “Diane’s mine. She’s mine.” Then it came to me. Diane is Linda’s accompanier, the one who assists her with doctors visits and budget expenses, etc. It is a common occurrence to hear fellow assistants say, “Linda’s mine,” but I had never heard it from the mouth of a core member. Linda was displaying here the mutuality of relationship that is at the heart of l’Arche, where both assistant and core member are responsible for one another’s well being. In a sense, Linda and Diane are each other’s.

Fritz Schloss, another housemate, displays his care of and responsibility for other community members on a daily basis. At least once a day, Fritz will ask you, “Tired?” and he gets much pleasure out of responding to someone’s sneeze with a hardy “BLESS you.” Fritz has an amazing capacity to forgive and forget, as many in our house have witnessed. Just today, after prompting Fritz with some difficulty to brush his teeth and other dreaded tasks, I sat down feel rather defeated, only to have Fritz came and join me on the couch, placing a hand on my shoulder and saying, “You’re a nice girl.” Just the assurance I needed!

Fritz and Linda, along with other core members in our house, are born counter-cultural. Their bodies and minds don’t fit neatly into the mainstream understanding of what it means to be a person of worth. As a member of mainstream culture, I am mired in the seductions and falsehoods the world has to offer. But through their daily acts of love and acceptance, my housemates have become my guides, pointing my towards the joys and promises of the Kingdom.

I have convinced myself for so long that the Kingdom of God is revealed in mighty ways. And yet, Jesus compared the Kingdom to a mustard seed, a lost coin, a buried treasure. This seems counterintuitive — What sort of Kingdom rules from the bottom up? But, as I and many others can attest, L’Arche is an upside-down place, where the simple details of daily life narrate the bigger story of God’s love for the world. As we continue to negotiate the complexities of this life, may our relationships with one another reflect God’s powerful, subversive work in the world. May we treat one another as holy beings. And may our smallest acts convey the greatest love.

More wisdom from JV:

Many of [the handicapped] have not developed their capacities of reason; so they live in a situation of trust…Religious faith comes easily to someone who lives on trust…For somebody who lives on reason, though, faith is not very interesting or easy.
The Other Side, March ’86

Community is the place of forgiveness. In spite of all the trust we may have in each other there are always words that wound, self-promoting attitudes, situations where susceptibilities clash. That is why living together implies a certain cross, a constant effort and an acceptance which is daily and mutual forgiveness.
Community and Growth

One of the things that we discover when we live with the poor, is that they awaken our hearts as we tell each other’s stories; they open us up to people; but they also reveal our own poverty.
Address to Lambeth Conference, July ’98

We shouldn’t seek the ideal community. It is a question of loving those whom God has set beside us today. They are signs of God.
Community and Growth

My hope is that more and more people will discover that the peace we all yearn for is not just the work of governments but the task of each one of us. We can all become makers of peace.
Finding Peace

God is not to be found in the ideal but is hidden in the poverty of the present moment, in all that is broken and inadequate in our communities and in our own hearts.
Letter from Trosly, August ’03