On being a fish in the School of Love

All the churchgoing I’ve done in my adult life has been in urban settings. When I compare this to the churchgoing of my childhood, the biggest differences seem to be that, as an adult, I’ve attended churches with a lot more people who are either visibly mentally ill, or homeless, or both.

Listening to the radical teachings of a homeless rabbi to the marginalized people of a land occupied by a hostile foreign army is a lot more intense when some of my pewmates are marginalized people who stink to high heaven because they don’t have a regular place to bathe or wash their clothes, and/or who are clearly struggling to keep any sort of grip on their minds. Some have been given to what I think of as Liturgical Wandering, where they get up and mill about at inappropriate moments. Some have come storming down the center aisle, hollering incoherently and angrily. Some have panhandled during communion. You get the idea.

We have a few regulars at my church who are in the category that PW refers to as “the least, the last and the lost.” Like all the rest of us who more easily pass as “normal” (even though in our own ways we are also “least, last, and lost”), some are higher functioning than others. Recently, one of our “least, last, and lost” responded to an announcement in the worship folder that offered pastoral care services to anyone who needs them.

I will call this person Z.

Z’s pastoral care needs include help with laundry, grocery shopping, and getting rides to and from church. I don’t know if there’s any diagnosable condition involved, but Z is consumed with fear and suspicion. This results in incredibly tense situations at church, especially around personal contact (touching) and food. I’ve seen more than a few well-meaning people tenderly touch Z on the shoulder while trying to find out what it is that Z needs, only to find themselves on the other end of Z’s outraged, “Get your HANDS OFF OF ME! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??”

Yesterday, I volunteered to give Z a ride home from church. Well, I didn’t exactly volunteer. PW asked if I would do it. I didn’t want to do it, but when my inner Bartleby the Scrivener muttered “I would prefer not to,” I took a deep breath and said “too bad” to it. Then I responded to PW with, “Okay.” There were at least a thousand other things I would rather have done, but it’s a shallow, flimsy, and ultimately worthless commitment to a difficult and demanding faith tradition if I only show up for the people I enjoy. There’s at least one thing I’ve learned in all these years of church-going: if we’re really following the example of our homeless rabbi, being a Christian is less like a garden party, and more like mud wrestling.

At the exchange of the peace during church yesterday, the co-chair of the pastoral care committee, B, hugged me and wished me “many blessings” on my afternoon adventure with Z. B knows how important those blessings are. She recently spent something like 5 hours sitting in a laundromat while Z did laundry and refused all help. I didn’t realize that such a simple exchange with someone I love would end up becoming a life preserver that I would cling to desperately in order to get through the afternoon.

Giving Z a ride home was excruciating – it took way too long, it overwhelmed every one of my senses in bad ways, and it tapped the bottom of qualities I think of myself as having in abundance: patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, and good humor. I completely underestimated the effect that an hour’s worth of Z’s paranoia would have on me. I knew that I was only experiencing a sliver of what it is like for Z to navigate the world on a daily basis. This simultaneously comforted me, made me feel ill, and shattered my heart. I squeezed the life preserver of B’s blessings and hung on tight.

As you may have gathered from the description of the scene at the laundromat, Z moves at a glacially slow pace. After a complicated and time-consuming trip to the grocery store, where I thought Z might collapse from stress, we arrived at Z’s apartment. I carried the groceries up and stacked them precariously on one of the few available flat surfaces. Z thanked me awkwardly, and looked smaller than ever as I closed the door behind me. When I left the tiny, chaotic room that Z calls home, I got in my car and took a deep breath. I didn’t know if I would throw up or start sobbing, or both.

I sat there for a few minutes, bobbing in the sea of a wider world that was both roiling with the shock, horror, and grief of Norway – where my grandfather was born – and buoyant with the glee, relief, and wonder of the many same-sex couples across the State of New York, who spoke their vows to each other and got to hear the thrilling words, “By the power vested in me by the laws of the state of New York, I now pronounce you legally married.” I let the tears come.

That's me, out of formation in the lower left corner

More and more, I think the practice of going to church is, basically, swimming in the School of Love. It’s about learning that sometimes love is as simple, and as difficult, as escorting a nausea-inducing person to your car, opening the door, and helping the person sit down on the once pristine passenger seat. It is about remembering to hold your breath while you reach across to help that person, who does not want to be touched, with the seat belt. It is about wielding a grocery cart and 20 bucks to buy diet soda, blueberry muffins, pita bread, hummus, and taboule. It is about choosing to be compassionate, even when everything about it makes you feel ill.

One of my swim coaches once told me, “You won’t get any better if you back off from the pain. So if you want to be better, when you get to the pain, just swim through it.” He made it sound so easy. Oh sure, la dee dah! Just swim through it! La la! Even when I knew there was an endorphin rush on the other side, I always found it terrifying to swim through the pain. That was several decades and two shoulders ago, before I found that most of life’s swimming doesn’t happen anywhere near a pool.

What do I want to be when I grow up? Better. Better at compassion today than yesterday. Better at love this year than last. Better at doing the next right thing than I was just a moment ago. And so I keep swimming in the School of Love, clinging to the lifeline of my many blessings.

16 responses to “On being a fish in the School of Love

  1. Kathy McCleary

    Loved this, Joy. Thanks. Words I needed today. ;-)

  2. You ARE better — far better than others of us would be in this situation. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be better now, too, having read this amazing piece. I hate that loving isn’t always a breezy, sweet thing — that it all too often gets us in uncomfortable, smelly places trying to love unloveable things. Loving through the pain to the endorphin rush on the other side is not fun, but you begin to convince me that it’s worth doing. We just need faith that the rush will come. Thanks — as always.

  3. I read and weep and am grateful. Thanks, dear Joy

  4. This is a wonderful post. To acknowledge out loud how hard it often is to do the loving thing when we don’t feel very loving is something I need to learn to do over and over again. It’s so easy to beat ourselves up about the inner (and sometimes outer) struggle we undergo to show compassion and patience with those who are even more least, last and lost than we ourselves seem to be. Thanks, Joy, for reminding us of the cost of swimming in the school of love and how hard it is to stay even a little bit in formation, but how the currents of love we experience can help carry us along with the rest of the bunch.

    I love the song also, but nothing beats the original Kate & Anna McGarrigle version.

  5. Susie Martin-Wilson

    Thanks Joy. You did the right thing! Hope you are having a good week. P.S. It is so important to have a church family!! Love Ya, Susie

  6. Well, you’ve done it again. I’ve decided that I want to be you when I grow up. IF I grow up. Many thanks for this, dear friend.

  7. My mom has always hammered home the message that by helping others, we are helping ourselves. I often have trouble remembering the truth of that statement. Thank you for illustrating it in such a beautiful way.

  8. My stints with the Red Cross have put me in the path of people I never would have met or even looked in the eye before. I’ve come across people like Z and others from various walks of life that remind me how fortunate I am to be who I am even when its the last person I want to be. I’m never sorry to have met anyone though there are some who’s presence I’d prefer in very small doses. Miniscule even.

  9. I’m so glad I stopped by to read this – really words I needed to hear!

  10. Joy, I never cease to marvel how beautifully you tie together different themes in your posts. This one, in particular, resonates with me. There are a couple of needy people that I have been dodging lately, and I’m somewhat ashamed of myself. But their intense, in-your-face style scares me. I struggle to find some sort of balance between caring and distancing. Thanks for sharing!

  11. A better mud-wrestler for Jesus, that’s what I hope I’ll want to be on my way to growing up. Thank you, Joy.

  12. Heather Kohout

    So here I was, about to write you a snarky email for not having posted anything recently. Get a new full-time job and you stop posting? What kind of a writer are you? Well, now I remember just what kind of writer you are: clear, sharp, deep, and dear. I’ve been on summer vacation: time for me to go back to school. Can I be in your class?

  13. barbara howard

    Joybells, You are my teacher in the art of loving, and I have so much learning to do with a limited number of years in which to practice what you are already doing. As Mary Oliver writes, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” I want to end up having loved, truly loved. When I read your post today I realized how limited my loving is and how blessed I am to have you as my coach.

  14. Richard Howard

    Joy, your every word in this post evokes images of beauty. The late John O’Donohue affirmed that a root meaning of beauty is “the call.” You call me to a life of beauty, and beauty calls me to a renewal of a caring spirit within that learns to embody the art of not counting the cost when blessing others. Thanks, Joy!

  15. Joy,
    What a a impelling post — rich with life lessons. While the story would resonate well with less eloquent writing, your wording and clever metaphors make it all the more accessible.

    Keep writing.

    PS: I’ll be quoting you on “most of life’s swimming doesn’t happen anywhere near a pool” … probably soon an often.

  16. Pingback: Fools for Love | The Crooked Line

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