L’Arche would not exist without those who come to live with our members with an intellectual disability. Assistants come from a variety of backgrounds, countries, social origins, and religious traditions. Some come for a lifetime, others for a year.
Acrobatics at the Cirque du Soleil of L’Arche
Today I went to see a Cirque du Soleil show. It was as if I had entered another world. The acrobats performed their show without uttering a single word. They pulled off impossible feats, contorted, flew and floated through the air, threw themselves and tumbled. What a spectacle! However, each acrobat did what he or she had to do, and together they did the impossible. It was a treat for the eyes and took the audience to a crazy and beautiful world.
My name is Anja and I live in the L’Arche community of Antwerp, a community where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. I would never attempt to do with the people in my community what the Cirque du Soleil acrobats did. But then again…
Last week, Luc came to eat at our place. Luc is in wheelchair. It was a chaotic evening: There were unexpected guests, Luc had come for dinner, Sandra had been invited to come to dinner a half hour before the meal, each of us still had other projects for the evening and, furthermore, we had to arrange transportation for Luc. We served the meal and Luc sat at the table. But because of his wheelchair, the door would not close. So, we moved the table. What a disaster! I had forgotten to remove the meat balls in tomato sauce casserole, and the casserole fell. There was a puddle of tomato sauce on the ground full of meat balls! Panic! We had nothing to eat and the dining room was dirty; how do we go about cleaning it up? I am not really that practical and I was pulling my hair out. Finally, I burst out laughing and a few minutes later, everyone was bowled over laughing. Mia said: “It looks like something exploded”, “It\\\'s Rita,” said Sofie, “because I can’t find her anywhere in the house.” Mia went to get a rag and a bucket of water. Sandra got a dust pan to pick up the sauce. Klaas went to the kitchen to make a new improvised meal. Sofie moved the tables. And me, I looked on… just like Luc. Although, Luc was encouraging everyone saying: “My goodness! That’s a lot of sauce. You better clean that up, huh. Look Mia, get a rag and, poof, everything is clean. Wow, Sandra is really good at cleaning up the sauce. And Klaas is already making another meal. That’s fantastic.”
After half an hour, we were again sitting around a clean table, in a clean dining room, still with tears in our eyes from the fit of laughter. We ate the improvised meal, which was doubly well deserved and, therefore, even better.
Clearly this was not a Cirque du Soleil act, where everything goes off smoothly. We are somewhat less skilled… But, together we cleaned up the whole mess in half an hour and, just like the acrobats, each person did their part. It was not important who had a disability and who did not nor who among us lived in the home. Everyone did what they could and together we had great fun.
After dinner Luc said that he wanted to speak to me. I was stressing, I said to myself: “Oh oh, he must be deeply distressed after our little accident and that\\\'s what he wants to tell me." But quite the contrary, he said to me: “I\\\'d really like to take a walk with you to Antwerp. I would like to go look at the boats with you, and then go have a coffee. I’d really like to do that.” Then I realized: “This man really likes me. He does not care that I am so clumsy and that I dropped the entire meal on the floor. This man sees me as Anja and wants to do something fun with me.”
One Saturday afternoon, we went for a stroll around the port of Antwerp. It was cold, it was raining, it was windy, the streets were empty and the dead leaves that cluttered the road, and its poor condition, made things difficult for the wheelchair. There were a thousand reasons not to have enjoyed the stroll. And the whole time Luc would exclaim: “Oh look, that’s a big boat! That boat has really beautiful colours. There are people on that boat and the light is on. And there, they are cleaning the boat. There’s a good bit of wind. It’s great to be outdoors. And the colours of the leaves are so lovely.”
We watched the boats and enjoyed the fall weather. I said to myself: “What a man! What is his secret in life? He is in a wheelchair and he needs help to get up, to wash himself, eat, and to move around. He tires quickly and cannot defend himself, and is easily defeated. He is so vulnerable, yet at the same time he has so much strength. He knows how to enjoy life. He knows how to take care of himself. He trusts people; he keeps them close to his heart. He will always ask you how you are doing and will always listen to your stories with great interest. He writes letters to all his friends and calls them regularly. “What a magnificent man! If only I could be just a bit like him.”
I think about Cirque du Soleil. It’s as if, at L’Arche, I was entering the world from another perspective. A world in which we live with people we have not chosen, in which we fight for the most vulnerable in our society, in which we allow ourselves to be touched and transformed by people with disabilities, in which we allow people with disabilities to be the directors of our community and a large part of our lives, in which we learn to live within our own limitations and weaknesses. And in this world, we do the impossible; we bend, we float in the air, fly, throw ourselves and turn upside down. We are also quite the spectacle. But when everyone does what must be done, we can achieve the impossible. And when I look at this from a distance, I often say to myself: “It’s a feast for the eyes.”
Would you like to take part in our crazy and beautiful world?