Maggie Sutherland, a resident of L’Arche Cape Breton, with the community’s co-founder, Tom Gunn.
One of the qualities I love most about life here at L’Arche is how dancing breaks out all over the place. Take my morning yesterday, for example. As our biscuits baked in the oven, Janet and I did the twist. A short time later, Michael and I took a break from our tea to slow dance to Rita MacNeil. Then, within the next hour, Maggie had us all jumping for joy after she set the table. And this dancing, biased though I may be, is of an extremely high quality; this is not the half-hearted, self-conscious stuff of junior-high dances. No this is the kind of full-out dancing that requires a certain depth of soul and a freedom in one’s skin.
But these are just words on a page. You have seen in the flesh what I am talking about if you have ever watched Cathy dance. Now, let us be clear: she will not be featured in an MTV video any time soon, nor will she be tapping her way across a Broadway stage. But when her hands are in the air, and she does that Twirl (it fully deserves to be capitalized) – usually with eyes closed – the sight of it makes my heart dance right along with her.
I would really like to know what Cathy is thinking and feeling while she dances – and I have asked, but being a woman of few words, I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer from her. But here is my theory: based on the way her body moves and that joyful look on her face, she must be feeling grateful about something. I see in Cathy’s face and in her body a celebration of life, an expression of a deeply felt gratitude.
This is, I admit, pure speculation. But it seems to me that the best dancing arises spontaneously in moments of thanksgiving. I have no statistical evidence, but I would wager that hospital delivery rooms see as much dancing as the most happening clubs. How can the messy miracle of birth not bring you to your feet with a wild sort of joy?
So, to get to the point, I think that all the dancing that happens around here arises from a spirit of gratitude. People with disabilities are so wonderful in the ways that many of them delight in the simplest, most mundane pleasure – and because of this they have the capacity to be thankful for nearly everything. I have been passionately thanked for burning (charring!) grilled cheese sandwiches and for knowing where the “play” button was on the stereo. Indeed, around here baths and car rides are cause for extreme excitement. I would have thought that by now the novelty of such things would have worn off, but the delight abides. What I see as the regularities of life to be endured, others see as precious gifts to be celebrated.
But I am not just impressed by the number of things that our core members are grateful for, but also the depths of their gratitude – these depths that spring forth into dancing. Many of them experience life in such a complete, uninhibited way that every moment is experienced to the fullest. This means that in times of joy there is no end to the celebration; and likewise, in times of sadness the pain is profound. Many of us without disabilities have learned, for better or worse, to restrain our emotions, to try and remain calm and “civilized” in all but unique circumstances. While this may protect us from the extreme throes of life, I also think it stunts our ability to fully feel gratitude. We have set up boundaries around what and when we can celebrate.
So my first months here have been an education in, among other things, gratitude. I am trying to free myself up to celebrate more often. I am trying to see the world with new eyes intent on finding the gifts in each moment; and when I discover these gifts, I do my best to revel in them, to experience them in their fullness, to plumb their depths. And then I cannot help but join in the dancing.
Ron Haflidson recently began a master’s program in religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Currently he is working at L’Arche in Cape Breton, N.S., a group home for disabled adults.
ABOUT L’Arche: L’Arche is an ecumenical Christian community where people with developmental disability and those who are committed to share life with them live together. L’Arche Cape Breton was founded by Tom and Anne Gunn in 1983 when they invited Janet Moore to live with their family. Today, the community has grown to 50 people; it has six houses, an apartment, a chapel, a hermitage, a house of welcome and retreat and a garden. It runs a program called L’Arche Works, which runs a used clothing store, a workshop, and an integrated work placement project.
For more information, visit the Web site www.larchecapebreton.com