Last Thursday Daniel and I had dinner in one of the homes at our local L'Arche. It's a place where people with intellectual and physical disabilites live in community with the help of assistants. We shared vegetarian chili and cornbread with a group of about 12 in the Peace House. As a child of the sixties, everything about this scene appeals to me.
L'Arche is a revolutionary way of thinking and living. Jean Vanier started the movement in France when he opened his home to two men with disabilities in 1964. They were institutionalized at an early age, and when Vanier saw the conditions they were living in, he decided to do something. It's grown steadily over the years throughout Europe and North America. There are 17 L'Arche communites in the U.S. right now, with 3 more in the process of being up and running.
As a young man, Vanier did his doctoral thesis on Aristotle with a focus on happiness. His research boiled down to a very simple conclusion. The secret to happiness? Loving and being loved. That's the mindset that L'Arche grew from. From the International Charter:
"L'Arche exists to strengthen our local communities, welcome more people into our life and work, engage in advocacy on behalf of those often on the margins of society, and to raise awareness of the gifts of persons with intellectual disabilities."
"You may have a spiritual resonance with L'Arche's vision of mutuality and solidarity with persons who are marginalized, a desire to immerse youself in community, or a sense that there must be something more to life."
|One of the gardens|
|The backyard between houses|
L'Arche is radical. It's radical in insisting that money, prestige, career, intelligence and all of the other things that we usually associate with success are not what make us happy. There's a different mindset in the L'Arche world. The prevailing philosophy doesn't glamourize disability, but accepts it as part of life, part of being human. Our IQ score isn't what counts. What brings us happiness is loving relationships.
It's been over a year since Daniel and I were there, and I was surprised that people remembered us. By name, no less! Sister Rita held his hand during songs and prayer at a service before dinner. She spoke to him, not about him. The same thing happened again and again. No pity, just welcoming and appreciation.
I came home from work very tired that Thursday, and I had to talk myself into going. I am not naturally social, and it took effort to go and not slip out before dinner. I kept up a steady internal pep talk that went, "Stop thinking about yourself. Relax into this. Just observe and be open." I'm glad that I did.
It's important for me to be close to people who view life this way. I need to cultivate friendships with those who believe that everyone has something to share and a purpose in being alive. I have a group of close female friends scattered across the country who choose to view their kid's disability as a part of life and not a tragedy. We started as a Yahoo group, and eventually moved to Facebook. We keep journals that circle the states so each of us can contribute. We've consciously decided to share a perspective that takes things in stride, including seizures and surgeries. We met online in the late nineties when our kids were babies. One of my closest friends in the group moved to my city in 2004.
We need people who nurture us on this path. I've written before in this blog about my deep desire to have a community where families can live in houses close to one another and share the life of raising children and caring for adult kids with disabilities. Since that's not possible right now, I need to approximate the emotional and physical support to the degree that I am able.
I love waking up to my son everyday. I don't ever want him to live elsewhere. I realize that I'm getting older, my back is getting weaker, and the natural order of things is for children to outlive their parents. If that day comes, I pray that the L'Arche model is more common. That it is the rule, not the exception.
For now I just need to do my part.