What are you going to do next?
I had dill on my hands when the Boatman (my boyfriend) told me to write this down. When I lived and worked at L’Arche, a house for five adults with intellectual disabilities, me and the other people who worked there were always planning for the future. How long are you staying here? Where are you going to go? What are your dreams, your goals?
Each of us was looking for our life’s purpose.
Meanwhile, we were doing this pretty cool thing. Our days were full of washing floors, changing diapers, cooking for ten mouths or more and getting the people with disabilities ready for their days at work. We went to community events, church, music festivals.
Sometimes after bedtime we’d take Isabelle to a bar for margaritas. Isabelle uses a wheelchair, and can’t walk, talk, or eat by herself, but she loves music and she loves people, so we took her out as much as we could.
The first few months at L’Arche were like a honeymoon. I fell in love with the core members, the L’Arche term for people with disabilities. I felt so useful, filling Isabelle’s plastic feeding bag with Peptamen, her meal replacement formula, giving baths, going for walks by the river.
Isabelle, and all the other folks I lived with at L’Arche became my family. Every day, I continued to love them, but my sense of usefulness and life purpose wore off rapidly. After about six months, at least once a week, I desperately wanted to leave.
I hated the cooking, the cleaning, the going to church. The team meetings were long and tedious. All the other assistants were also tired and stressed out, so inevitably, there were nauseating conflicts. I never had any time to myself.
I forgot how to read. It seemed like I’d regressed intellectually and that all I cared about was food, sleep, eating and sex. Though I exercised consistently, my yoga practice was erratic, like my moods and my energy levels.
My eating disorder was tamed to a functional level, but most days after every meal and snack, I still puked in my mouth and swallowed, over and over again, until whatever I was eating became so acidic that the rumination session would have to end.
I stayed because I loved the people.
I stayed because I felt guilty abandoning them.
So many assistants came and went and these core members would have to welcome them into their home and adapt to yet another person’s personality, idiosyncrasies and cooking. Then the assistant would leave and they’d begin this process once again.
Many assistants came to L’Arche and stayed because of their faith. They saw Jesus in the people with disabilities, whose hearts were so open, so healing. I had already worked a great deal with people with disabilities, and I had also seen their beauty.
That said, it was never clear to me that what I was seeing in them was Jesus.
I came to L’Arche two years into my university career at McGill. I was studying English Literature and Religion, in the hopes of becoming a writer and finding God. Neither endeavor was going very well. Every essay and assignment seemed like an enormous catastrophe and tribulation.
I spent night after caffeinated night pacing around my tiny Plateau apartment, taking breaks to stare a computer screen that was either completely blank or else full of unacceptably in-eloquent paragraphs. My average was something tragically mediocre like a B+.
God was not being very helpful.
One night in the midst of an uninspired literary essay about William Blake’s poem, The Chimney Sweep, I sat on my warped balcony and watched men walk in and out of the Coloniale Bath House next store.
“Weep, weep, weep, weep,” said the Chimney Sweep in the poem.
I was crying too. This was not my life purpose. I was going to quit. I needed to do something else. Anything else. So I left one life purpose to try out another.
I’m not sure what was harder, the Blake essay, or L’Arche.
At least at L’Arche, I wasn’t alone, and I got to go to lots of parties. Every June, at Isabelle’s school for blind children, there was a party. The students got up on stage to read poetry, or sing or dance. If they were in wheelchairs, teachers helped them sing and dance on the floor at the front of the stage.
I remember the first year I went to the party, the principal made a speech. He said, “In life, it’s easy to do things. What’s really hard, is to be a person.”
So quickly and so often doing things becomes another competition, another performance, another burden. Finding your life’s purpose becomes another achievement. Life is nothing but a checklist.
It’s really hard to be a person.
Hearing what Isabelle’s principal said, I decided to stay at L’Arche a second year. There were thousands of other things that I could do, but nothing would help to be fully human more than living day to day with people like Isabelle, whose greatest gifts are to know how to truly be themselves.
Sometimes I say that I hit my humanitarian peak was at age 20. I couldn’t stay at L’Arche forever.
For the last five months I was there, at the end of every day I would draw a big X on my calendar. The day was finished. There were 149 more.
149, 148, 147…
I was bored. I was tired of cooking. I hated church. There was puke in my mouth. I was horny.
I am making it sound much more miserable than it was. It wasn’t all miserable. I just wanted it to be over.
66, 65, 64…
Weep, weep, weep, weep.
For my last fourteen days at L’Arche I went on a trip with Isabelle, 8 hours north of Montreal to Amos Quebec. There was nothing to do there but push Isabelle up and down the cracked sidewalks and take Isabelle to the beach. We left her wheelchair at the edge of the beach and I carried her over the sand to the water.
I never felt so strong in my whole life.
In the water Isabelle would smile and laugh and look up with her eyes. That meant yes.
When we got back from Amos, I filled in all the X’s from when we were away. There were only two days left on the calendar. Then none.
Now it is 7:30 A.M five years later on a Wednesday morning. I woke up without an alarm, after cuddling with the Boatman for the better part of an hour. I have nowhere pressing to go, nothing pressing to do. No one else’s teeth to brush, no diaper to change.
There is time to ruminate over the best way to conclude this blog post. After that there will be more time, to bend and twist my various spines for two hours, then walk the dog leisurely, with no deadline.
These days I have been thinking a lot about service and whether or not my life has a great purpose. So often I feel desperate to fill up my life so I won’t have to think about it anymore.
People ask me what I’m doing in Halifax, how it’s going. To try and justify my existence, I give them a frantic list: this and this and this and this. All this. Please tell me it’s enough.
Perhaps it isn’t enough. Maybe God wants me to be more useful and productive, to accomplish a hundred million things before 7:30 A.M. Maybe God wants me to become an enormous success, with an astounding and memorable life purpose.
I’m not ruling these things out, but for now, my path is uncertain and I must wait, unimpressed by my to-do list, unconvinced of my day’s contributions.
I want to give to the world, people say. I say this too. We want to make grandiose gestures and immeasurable differences, but sometimes it’s more about us than the world.
I know I’ll give to the world again. My life’s purpose will be clear and concrete. I’ll be so busy and inspired that the whole world will disappear.
In the meantime, it might be a good day to call Isabelle. She never asks me what I’m doing. No matter what I say, she laughs and squeals. I’ll hear her smiling and I’ll know she’s looking up with her eyes. Yes, she’s saying, to everything I’m doing, to everything I am.
Eight years ago, Erica Schmidt moved from Perth, Ontario to Montréal, Quebec in search of Jesus, her bandhas and her tailbone. Parts of her quest worked out, while other parts didn’t. Last summer, Erica relocated from Halifax, Nova Scoti, where she lives with boatman, a man she met on a boat. For more details and amusement, check out Erica’s blog at: exuberantbodhisattva.blogspot.com, follow her on Twitter or check out her e-book on Amazon!
Editor: Carolyn Gilligan