Article written by: Nem Tomlinson, Community Leader in L’Arche Manchester (UK)
I’ve been going through old things in the evenings; clothes, paperwork, letters and diaries. Trying to sort things out into piles of keep, recycle or give away. There’s nothing like a global pandemic and a lock down to spark some kind of Mary Kundo clear out. This, as people who know me well will attest, is not like me. A sign of unusual times.
About 6 weeks ago I returned from a meeting. A significant portion of our time was spent considering and making plans for Covid-19. I came home from those 3 days away to find myself telling my Community that we would be closing our café and day activities; that we would need to engage in social distancing and ask our team of assistants to drastically reduce their lives to focus on the people they live with. This was quite ask but because they are a wonderful bunch they wholeheartedly agreed and began rearranging their lives.
A week later I packed up my office and did the same. Since then I’ve been working from my living room. It’s been a real shift. Normally there’s a stream of people bobbing into St Paul’s, where our offices are; saying hello, offering tea, sharing a story. It is very rarely quiet and whilst I am not always efficient, I do love it that way. The noise, that chaos, the interruptions, my people. And yet, suddenly my life in Community was reduced to contact over a screen. Little squares full of people waving at each other.
We’ve rallied around and made the best of this new normal. Brewteaful, our weekly cup of tea and catch up, happens over Zoom. As do meetings, supervisions, prayers, dance parties and weekly yoga. The people with learning disabilities in our Community have embraced zoom so much so that I often get a text from one asking me when the next meeting is. And just last week I got to have a 40-minute catch up with a good friend of mine over screens where we signed about shoes and holidays; aeroplanes and sun cream, and, of course, hats. All the important things in life, hers and mine and it filled me right up.
As part of my clean up, I pulled out a pile of old notebooks, scraggly and battered, that have accompanied me on different retreats and holidays. Times away when there’s been space to process and to think and to wonder. As I did so I found one that I took on a ten days’ silent retreat to Trosly. I initially flicked through it and then, having filled a teapot, sat down to read my way through.
We had gathered from L’Arche Communities across the world and our time in L’Arche spanned from 2 to 50 years of commitment. The retreat had been significant; a marking point in a transient period in my life. My notebook was full of scribbling and drawings and a few tear-stained pages. Amidst it all I found a line scribbled down from something a woman in one of my sharing groups had said. She had remarked in an offhand way that; “the core members are teaching me my life.” At the time this phrase had resonated in my chest; a sign that it was one to keep. One of those treasures you pick up along the way and roll over in the palm of your hand from time to time to make sense off the truth within. Because the truth is my Community is teaching me my life.
It is the space and the context where I learn who I am; the good and the bruised, the bits I’m ashamed of and the places where I’ve grown. It is the place where I practice open heartedness and where I find just how far my heart still needs to grow. It is the magic of sorrys and “I love you” and “I’m glad you’re here anyway”. And this month it is the place where people turn up each day and don scratchy masks and sweaty gloves to be with the ones they love; the people who need them. It is a place of Birthdays still celebrated and over screens we gather to say; “it is good to live in community with you”, “you make my heart happy” and “what would I do without you?” It is a place where people are scared some days and it’s all too much and they turn up anyway. And someone else will notice and offer them a cup of steaming tea and push them out to the garden for a 5-minute breather. It is downward dog and baby pose and singing ‘Under the sea’ in a myriad of different chords. It will be exuberant discos when quarantine ends where people twirl and twist in delight.
It is all of these things and so much more. And whilst I am far away from them; from the hustle and bustle, in my little flat down the road, I feel such pride that my heart could burst. My Community is teaching me my life again and again, each day. A life filled to the brim with joy and intention and trying each day on anew. It is silliness and belonging and making home. Even when it’s hard. Even when it feels like the world is ending. Because these people are enough. It is love in the time of Covid.