Thursday, January 17, 2013

Telling an amazing story

More and more, I'm realizing that I really am a writer. I mean, anyone can sit down and write, but a lot of people have a hard time with syntax or grammar or misplaced modifiers. I used to be that way, too, but after over ten years of writing an actual manuscript that I hope will be published and sell many copies (see last Tuesday's moodling), I finally understand how words work, how necessary good spelling is, and the importance of varying sentence structure. Not that I'm perfect, and not that my prose is at all poetic. It is readable, and after having a few people say, "you're a good writer," I'm finally starting to believe it.

So now that I've finished one major writing project, I've gotten myself into a pickle. My boss and the Board Members of L'Arche Edmonton asked if I would consider writing the history of the Edmonton community over the last 40 years. Because I love the community, and I believe in the importance of knowing from where we have come, I didn't even think twice before I said yes! What could be more interesting than getting into the how and why of a community made up of people with and without disabilities who live together, family style, and who offer society a completely different understanding of the value of those who have long been denigrated and misunderstood -- labelled "retarded" and other, even harsher names -- but who have the most to teach us about loving unconditionally? (And am I really a writer, after that ridiculously long sentence??)

Our story starts with one of my heroes, a man named Jean Vanier, a man who had been a naval officer, philosopher and university professor, a man who met some people with disabilities. Their lives were confined to hospitals and other institutions in those days, and Jean heard their anguished cries and felt deeply that they should have the opportunity to live a normal life in community. So he bought a house in Trosly, France, and invited three men to come and live with him in the first Ark, or, in French, L'Arche. It was that simple.

The first night didn't go so well, as one of the men had unexpected needs and was unable to find comfort in the home setting. He returned to the institution, but the other two remained with Jean for many years. Jean's vision, that people with disabilities shouldn't have to live in institutions on the fringes of society, but should be at the heart of our existence as human beings who care for one another, inspired many people.

Eight years after L'Arche was founded in France, a couple in the Edmonton area met Jean Vanier during a retreat. With his promise to send assistants to help, Doris and George Myers bought a duplex in Sherwood Park and welcomed one man with disabilities and four assistants to what eventually came to be known as the Shalom Community, or L'Arche Edmonton. It was that simple.

Within a year, the community numbered 35! You see, it's an amazing story that I have been asked to tell. In reading previous versions of the history written by others, and through interviewing people who have been involved over the last 40 years, I am getting a picture of something very challenging, and extremely beautiful. L'Arche Edmonton has had no shortage of visionaries who have helped the community along, giving their time, energy, and many talents toward creating "home" for people who, in the not-so-distant past, were left in psychiatric wards even though their only issues were intellectual disabilities. If you don't know what I'm referring to, just reread the story of Thomas.

The community has also had its share of struggles. As with any family, personalities sometimes clash, and the fall out can be messy. Different people have different ideas about what needs to be done, and how to do it. There were several times that things almost fell apart entirely, but for different people coming along with fresh perspectives, willing to compromise or try things a little differently. Like any ideal, L'Arche has yet to be fully lived in some respects, but members continue to try to reach the ideal -- a life where people with disabilities are valued and understood to have just as much to offer the world as those who don't. I suspect the challenge and the beauty of living that ideal are similar in every L'Arche community, from El Arca Buenos Aires in Argentina all the way to L'Arche Zimbabwe and every other corner where L'Arche can be found.

In L'Arche communities around the world, there are probably hundreds of thousands of life-changing and mutually life-giving encounters between people with and without disabilities that are nothing short of inspirational. It's my task to capture a few of the local ones. Interviewing past members of the community and sorting out the details is turning out to be a mammoth challenge for someone whose writing abilities were forged in fiction, but it is a challenge I am enjoying nonetheless -- I find myself in a very positive pickle. I only wish that everyone in L'Arche Edmonton could be with me as I talk with people about our history, as I'm seeing that there is no way I'll be able to do justice to all of the amazing events and people from the past 40 years! And I'm only writing the first chapter! The hope is that the history will be ready in time for L'Arche's 50th Anniversary in 2014, but we'll have to see how things go.

Stay tuned, as I suspect a few stories from this positive pickle I've gotten myself into -- or, rather, this labour of love -- will appear here, simply because they're too good not to share!


  1. Birdie Birdie
    In a tree
    I won't look up
    Cuz you might pee

    That was the very first thing I ever wrote when I was a kid and decided I like writing,ha.
    Why am I not FAMOUS? I'll never know.

    It's going to be exciting to see how this next adventure of yours goes!

    1. Haha, Lael! Oh dear! Being famous can't be as much fun as writing birdie poems!


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