Category Archives: Road to Daybreak

the smallest corners

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Nouwen bookends this chapter by relating his disappointment when a friend of his from New York visited France and neglected to stop by and see him. This resonated deeply with me, but since the most relatable parts are in the final entry, I’ll save that discussion for the end of this post.

One entry in this chapter is entirely about iconography. I do not understand this, nor do I honestly wish to. Dr. W introduced our class to this concept and it felt quite as useless then as it does now.

His discussion of how the attendants cared for their charges was of more interest to me. I wondered, specifically, how a home where care was given in near silence was preferable to one with banter and chatter, cheerful voices ringing through the halls. It sounded almost depressing. I suppose that some silence is a good thing, and to be honest I believe that much of the chatter between caregivers can end up in gossip, but I still shirk from the idea of giving care in complete silence. If someone was caring for me, a few gentle and loving words would go a long way towards making me feel comfortable and at home. There is something to be said, however, for caregivers who can draw strength to do their work from silence and not commiseration. I am grateful, though, that some of my residents can talk, as the lady who said, “Howdy. I like you. You’re purdy.” when I came in this morning made my day better.

I would like to visit L’Oratoire. The imagery of prayers saturating the room, sitting silently allowing them to pray for you, is strangely comforting, given my disillusionment and cynicism about spiritual things. For some reason, I feel like being in a place like that would go a long way towards making one feel that faith is indeed real. Nouwen also writes about the apparent uselessness of prayer. I disagree with him that the first purpose is to be faithful. However, I do believe that the discipline and structure of spending time alone in silence at the beginning of the day is a practice worth developing.

Finally, back to Nouwen’s experience of rejection when his friend was too busy to stop in Trosly. He writes about how he gradually started to let go of the resentment, only to realize he was covering it up with busyness when his friend phoned him to ask about coming later. The depression, as he described it, barely subsided until he got the call from his friend–after which, he writes, “I felt new peace entering into my innermost self and sensed that my depression was slowly dissolving.” He laments that he is in so little control of his emotions that news like this has the ability to swing his internal barometer.

This experience is one I can completely relate to. In fact, I’ve lamented this tendency of mine–to go up and down with the events of my day in a seemingly uncontrolled roller coaster ride–time and again. I do not know how to completely control it, although I know part of the key lies in developing an internal sense of control instead of relying on my happiness and affirmation to come from others. It is an especially applicable lesson for me to learn today, as I spend several weeks at home. Living in this environment can mash my soul into the ground within hours, and if I do not rely on my value, worth, and truth to come from inside of me and what I know is valuable, worthy, and true, I will quickly become confused and lost, and depression will follow soon after. Nouwen says that “often [he has] to just let [emotions] pass through [him] and hope that they won’t hang around too long.” This seems to be the epitome of a life that is less ruled by emotions than mine–the ability to acknowledge them, trust that they will pass, and accept them and their departure quietly and peacefully. It’s a skill I need to cultivate, because “the deepest pains are always hidden in the smallest corners,” and I know there will always be small corners and cracks in my soul.

keeping words together

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I felt a strange warm pain that had something to do with the many words I was trying to keep together (Henry Nouwen)

Last night I worked the afternoon shift on the rehab floor. One thing that I like about that floor is that people can generally respond to you, apart from the few who are nonverbal or non-communicative. There are a lot more lights to answer, questions to field, demands–but somehow it is worth it to work with people who are on their way toward going home and not just waiting to die. I still like the Alzheimer’s floor best. I had a patient with paranoid schizophrenia last night. It is hard for me to care for people with severe mental disorders–other than dementia–because I start to fear I might end up the same. I try to take care of my mental health, but the reality is that I have great potential for developing something crazy and I can’t do anything about it. I cared for her the best I could, and I think I did a great job.

This first chapter of Nouwen’s book is titled Parents and Children, though for the life of me I can’t understand why. Regardless of the title, the chapter had several things that I related to. One was when he talked about Pere Thomas Philippe, a man of God who had drawn several people to go so far as to cross the ocean to be closer to him. I know that feeling–finding people who seem so close to something transcendent that to be close to them is to almost to break through the thin spaces and touch it. Even though I don’t know if I believe in God, there is something there and I can sense it around them. I know why someone would move an ocean away to be close to that. I also envy the laid back atmosphere of the village that he moved to. I wish I knew how to take advantage of that. It is my goal when in Costa Rica to experience some of that. In some ways it sounds nice, although I think I would go crazy.

Another part that struck me was the scene about Danny. Danny’s faith was so open, so free, so unencumbered with anything else. I have not worked with many people who express what they believe, at least to me. I have worked with people who have Bible verses and sermon notes in their room all the time, though I haven’t seen that make much of a difference to them. But I have noticed that when I am caring for people, I have the easiest time in believing something outside of myself. Even if my residents don’t verbalize faith or whatnot, I still find it easier to believe in God in their presence.

I still don’t buy into Nouwen’s reasoning for going to L’Arche–wanting to follow Jesus completely every day. I have a great respect, though, for Jean Vanier, and Nouwen, for the work of love they participated in in these homes. Caring for the disabled is not an easy job, and giving up a position of acclaim and power is almost unheard of in this field. Anyone who will give up a job in academia to go change diapers and feed people without duress will get my ear for a bit.

The Road to the Unknown

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Lately I’ve been thinking about reading some of Henri Nouwen’s work. I almost did it as part of a class I took this past semester, but then backed out because I was wary of “having” to do it. I was worried that I would get angry and not want to read, but then feel compelled to because of my grade. And if there is one thing I have learned about myself, it’s that I have to give myself time and space to process religion/spirituality. However, Nouwen has remained on my mind, especially after I saw him featured on the http://www.jesusinlove.org blog. With much hesitation, I decided to check his book “Spiritual Journeys” out from the library over break. It is a compilation of three journals. I am starting with the last one, Road to Daybreak. Partially this is due to the encouragement of Dr. W in the class I might have read this book in.

My job is not easy. Working with dementia patients, rehab patients, and long term care patients is tough any way you cut it. And working at a place with bad management and staffing issues doesn’t help anything. The sexist and degrading comments several of my coworkers seem to think appropriate to make definitely make it more challenging. But this may be my last stint as a CNA. I don’t know for sure, and I think I’d like to keep my license up, but I am going to start a new chapter of life in a little more than a year when I (hopefully) get my teaching license. My CNA work will always, though, be something I’m incredibly proud of. One of my coworkers made the statement that not many people could do what we did–changing dirty diapers, bathing, dressing, feeding, and caring for people at their most vulnerable. People old enough to be our great grandparents and some our own age. People who hit and kick and spit at us and people who cry and just need a hug. People with HIV, AIDS, C-diff, and a million other highly contagious diseases. I have picked up piles of excrement from the floor after a resident had an accident. In that moment, I was both a little disgusted, to be honest, but also realized I had something that a lot of people didn’t. With gloves on my hands, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. That feeling is one that I never will forget, for a plethora of reasons. The point of this monologue, though, is that I am incredibly proud of what I do, and I don’t want to forget it. As I work through what may be the last regular period of CNA work I do, I want to keep record of it. Someday I may need to remind myself I can indeed do anything.

Enter Henri Nouwen, a priest who lived in the latter half of the 19th century (he died when I was a few years old). I don’t know much about him, but from what I do know, I want to learn more. I picked up a book titled “The Spirituality of Caregiving” from the library. Only I would be disappointed that a book by an author I really didn’t want to read in the first place ended up being a compilation of excerpts from Nouwen’s other books. I devoured the book, and I realized something about Nouwen. He does not just write about theology and God and all that crap, he actually gets what it is like to be a CNA. Precious, precious few theologians and people who tell us how we should believe and what experiencing God’s love is like have scooped piles of excrement off the floor with their (gloved) hands after patient’s accident. Few have patiently answered the call lights of patients who constantly need to ask you questions of minutiae every 3 minutes. Few have gently wrestled a particularly stiff patient into the shower chair and bathed them, trying desperately not to get completely drenched in the process but always coming out a little damp and splattered. Few have wiped hundreds of adult bottoms as they changed dozens of diapers every shift. Few have donned gloves and gowns and masks and cared for AIDS patients, risking exposure to blood and bodily fluids because yes, these patients are humans too and need care. Nouwen has certainly not had all these experiences–or perhaps he has–but he worked with the developmentally and mentally disabled and provided similar personal care for a time while living at the L’Arche community in France. His book “Road to Daybreak” is a journal of his time spent in this community caring for the most vulnerable of patients.

For many reasons, although I hate and fear most of the church and my exposure to it, I still cannot completely leave behind my Christian roots. Whether this is a particularly potent form of religious PTSD or a seed of truth, I don’t know. Currently I would call myself a Christian agnostic, seeing value in many Christian teachings but holding theism as optional. One reason I cannot give up on Christianity all together is that it’s narrative is one of the few where good will eventually conquer evil. I face evil in many forms every day at work–evil breaking bodies that were once strong, evil dulling minds that were once sharp, evil in the pasts of some of my patients that makes me want to withdraw from them in repulsion. I cannot live without hope that evil will, eventually, conquer death. And whether or not this will happen by divine breaking through into our world or by the actions of people like me who choose to stand in the face of evil and offer love in our outstretched hands, I do not know. But I want to be a part of it, regardless, because it is defying evil and surrendering to be an agent of love that makes life worth living.

Nouwen writes about his experiences through the lens of Christianity. During my next few months as a CNA, I want to journal about my work so that I won’t forget what I learn from this job. I believe Nouwen has insights that are valuable about this kind of work, so he will be a reflection source of sorts that I will consider as I chronicle my own journey. I don’t know where I’ll end up, which is why this series is titled Road to Nowhere. Here’s to hoping it helps bring an inner peace I’m searching for.