Today in my little apartment just outside of Chicago, one of the lights burnt out in the kitchen and the smoke detector in the stairwell began to whine on the last legs of its bulky battery. I replace the bulb in the low sconce easily enough, but our stepstool isn’t quite tall enough to reach the beeping alarm with my hands. I bat at it from the top step with a pair of tongs until the 9V clatters to the floor. Despite hanging by its wires and gutted of its battery, it continues to mark each minute with a squeal. Just about this time last year, these same appliances gave up on me in these same ways— same light, different lightbulb, so to speak.
In the same apartment where some things stay the same, other things change. Perhaps, for instance, myself. A year ago I was just a few months into my time at L’Arche. As an assistant, still trying to remember how to properly file receipts, still a nervous shuffle of papers in the corner at doctor appointments. And as a creator, unwillingly tangled in the stereotype of the lonely artist. Someone who was anxious to share life, share gifts.
Even then, new to my role and swimming in my uncertainty, I had quickly become aware of the beautiful community I had found myself in. Being an assistant is a deeply fulfilling role that provides clarity and a deeper appreciation for what it means to be human. I’m lucky to share my time with people who vary wildly from myself in their journeys and experiences, allowing me to learn from various disciplines, vocations, and personal interests.
In October I was fortunate enough to meet an even wider sample of community by participating in an assistants’ retreat to Pilgrim Firs, Washington. The time I spent tucked in the woods there provided me a peaceful setting to tap into what care for myself looks like, and, I hoped, something to inspire me, break me free from a profound case of artist’s block. I had an amazing opportunity to contemplate, create, and connect with other assistants from across the nation. And of course, this restorative and generative process was wildly accelerated by our facilitators and programming guides; people who had spent time in L’Arche and were vulnerable and generous with their stories, wisdom, and time.
I was particularly delighted to connect with Mac Buff, the spiritual life director from L’Arche Tahoma Hope. I had been in a community of practice with them for about four months and was ecstatic to be able to meet them in person at Pilgrim Firs. They provided a gentle tapping prompt: step into the forest and write a poem inspired by “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon. It was here— spending time at Pilgrim Firs, sharing stories with other assistants, being guided by leaders like Mac, sitting on a log I canoed across the lake to reach, thinking about who I am, where I’m from— when the artist’s block cracked open like a geode. Diligently, attentively chiseling away at that dull block had finally revealed a glittering internal world; poetry— music— art that could no longer be contained. Now free to do what it was meant to: shimmer in the light.
I’m delighted to say that this is a trend that I have been able to carry all the way back with me from Washington— mostly with thanks to my house coordinator. With her sharp and attentive eye, Molly sees my need to create, floats the idea of spending time on Wednesdays sitting with community and crafting. Each week becomes something new and exciting. Creating floral cards for celebration night with David. Finding turpentine for oil painting with Mi-Sa. Bringing in my tablet to do art on the computer… Yes, a glitch meant I lost ninety minutes of work on that particular day, but oh, can’t that be part of the creative process too?
Time continues to pass. And with each day, a new chance to change, to share. I ask for help and, like a miracle, my landlord arrives with a ladder tall enough to reach the smoke detector without even stretching. I tuck Christianne into bed, turn out the lights, find my way to her door guided by muscle memory and the glow-in-the-dark butterfly stickers on her wall. On another night, I may have stubbed my toe, stumbling to and out the door. Tonight, from the darkness, glasses and hearing aids sitting in their cases on her dresser, she tells me, “I love you.” Not listening for my response, simply trusting that I will hear. I’m lucky. I do.