Sunday, November 20, 2005

Recognizing Grace

Lately, I’ve been reintroducing myself to my faith. For many years, I had been like the owner of a locked up store with a “gone fishing” sign on the door. I had situated myself by the shoreline, away from any paths to formal religion. I knew it was a temporary departure and that I would return to re-open for business. Well, that day arrived when all of a sudden the strong tug and pull of curiosity on the end of my fishing line forced me out of my reverie. I started asking questions again. And the more I asked, the stronger my desire to become aware of what I believe in grew.

It’s amazing what happens when you put the open for business sign up again. Fresh ideas breeze in. Individuals arrive that offer new conversations and perspectives, which allow for new thinking. A shift happens. Possibilities are considered. That’s what is happening. All of a sudden, I have found myself listening to the lyrics of music differently, and reading a whole new set of books and articles that I once would never have considered looking at before. My writing has also begun to flow again. And, as I recognize the shift, I step into a new realm of understanding where I want to be spiritually. I want to be on the path of discovery, taking control of the pace and choosing the volume, taking one small step at a time, delving into the concepts, exploring the stories, and most importantly asking the questions.

One of the questions that kept popping up is: What is grace? I had heard the word used in clichés and figures of speech, but I had never questioned it before. What does it really mean when someone says: “The grace of God?” What is God’s Grace? For some reason, I had allowed the word to quietly slip by me unnoticed and had never considered it’s powerful meaning and relationship to God. What does grace look like? How do you know when you feel it? I have started reading and talking to others, soaking all of what I am learning, trying to connect it to tangible examples in my life where I may have felt it and not labeled it that. And through my reflecting, I believe I have a better grasp on what grace means, which I feel would best be illustrated through describing an event that I experienced over 20 years ago. I have chosen this story because it honestly was the first thought I had when I realized what Grace meant.

It was nearing the end of my tenure as an undergrad student, and I found myself in a mass of transitional confusion. Everything seemed like it was imploding all at once. I was dog-tired from studying and yet it was time to find the energy to make the transition to the world of work. I was also facing the first summer in the city, away from the children’s camp where I had spent the previous glorious twelve. While making the last ditch attempt to study for finals, my longtime relationship ended in tatters. Right when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, I received a phone call from a close friend who had taken a year off and moved to Victoria, British Columbia. She was homesick and yet she wanted to remain there. Would I consider spending the summer with her?

Serendipity was calling, and I leapt towards it.

Within a week of burning my binders, I was on a plane heading west hoping that the impulsive turn of events would regenerate my hope and belief in myself. There was no doubt that my confidence was bruised. I had never felt so sad, exhausted and worn out. I firmly believed in fate at the time and felt a strong conviction in my decision. But, I never felt alone in my decision. I had familial support, and a sense that someone or something was guiding me. I also knew that I had a dear friend waiting on the tarmac with a picnic basket full of nourishment and open arms to welcome me. It was to be a summer wrestling with transitions, and understanding where I could fit in the world.

I embarked on my job search right away, focused and determined to find something that would allow me to use my skills working with and counseling children. For two weeks, I was a daily visitor to the Student Employment Centre, checking the job boards when one day I spotted an opportunity to work at an extended care facility for children and youth. Armed with years of experience running camp programs and some knowledge of working with children with disabilities, I felt it was a perfect fit for me.

Turns out, I was hired immediately to start a new day camp program for the young residents of Queen Alexandra Hospital. It had never been tried before. The whole field of “Child Life” programs was brand new and experimental with the goal of providing sensory stimulation through various means of intervention. Along with 2 others, we created a day camp on the grounds of the hospital, which integrated children with multiple disabilities and the neighbourhood able-bodied kids.

What a wonderful challenge it was. Each week, we had a new group of residents to attend to. There were a lot of firsts for these campers. Shockingly, some of them had never left the grounds of the hospital before, so a trip to the park to experience movement, people activities, colour, sounds, smells was monumental. Swimming, campfires, Bar BQ’s, crafts, wheelchair relay races, lying on a beach blanket by the shore, listening to music were all new activities. It was our role to introduce and bring the world to them, and we did with energy, enthusiasm and a feeling of personal fulfillment as well. It was a learning experience for all involved.

The highlight of each week was definitely the Thursday night sleep out, on the beautiful grounds of the hospital, in big army tents that the Armed Forces had donated to us. It was a lot of work, especially arranging the necessary “MASH” unit needed in order to make it happen. One Thursday night early in the summer, a magical grace moment occurred. It had been a very long day already, both physically and emotionally. I had spent the entire day arranging the sleep quarters, carrying and moving kids, in and out of their wheelchairs from one activity to another, changing them into their bathing suits, holding them in the water to help them float, helping them in a craft program. I had fed some who weren’t able to feed themselves, cooked dinner for the ones who could. Like most days at Queen Alexandra, it had been a fulfilling and remarkable one, but it wasn’t over yet and I was running out of steam. By the time bedtime rolled around, I had been working 12 straight hours without a break. My enthusiasm was waning and I was beginning to wonder if I had any stamina left for the night ahead of me.

As I continued to carry on with my job, I had an 11 year little boy named Matthew tagging along. Ambulatory, though he had a mild case of cerebral palsy on his left side, Matthew’s needs were not physical. His needs were all involved in connecting with him. He was a good looking kid, with pencil straight sandy brown hair, a face full of freckles and far away eyes. He was born with a severe form of autism and cognitive delay.

Matthew was completely non-verbal. No attempts at connecting with him had been effective. It was like he was linked to another galaxy, or that an invisible bubble encased him with no ability to interact. If you were involved in relay races, you would have to hold his hand and go through the motions. If you wanted him to take part in a doing a craft, you had to sit behind him and literally manipulate his hands to complete the task. Everyday, we involved Matthew in all activities while talking, singing and encouraging him. Yet, there had never been a moment of connection or recognition. He seemed to be a physical shell, void of emotion.

As I helped the other campers get settled into their makeshift beds, Matthew was with me. There was lots of excitement, giggling and talking while everyone enjoyed the new experience. I was at a point, however, where I wasn’t taking in their enthusiasm. I was exhausted, and had become fixated on the next morning when I would be able to hop in my car and head home to my comfy bed to catch up on my sleep. Going through the motions, I helped Matthew put on his pyjamas, brush his teeth, clean him up and walk him over to his tent and bed. By the glow of the flashlight, I tucked him in as I continued to make small talk, though not expecting a response.

But, there was a response. Wide-eyed and full of facial expression for the first time that I had seen, Matthew was looking around at his new environment, soaking it all in. He connected. I stopped in my tracks, fully transported back to the present moment, cognizant of the enormity of what was happening. As I watched him, Matthew turned his head, looked me straight in the eyes and grinned from ear to ear. It was a moment of grace and it resonated through me like a magical shooting star. The intensity of the feelings it generated remain to this day.

I love the cyclical connectivity of learning. Here I am, twenty plus years later revisiting an extraordinary moment when a gift was handed to me from a little boy lost to the cosmos. It is only now that I grasp the full understanding of what happened. I saw and felt grace through Matthew. In fact, the whole summer at Queen Alexandra Hospital was filled with compassionate moments that touched my soul.

Now I know. Grace is the emotional power of goodwill, love and generosity. It is how we live our lives and how we are touched by the love of God. In hindsight, it is the feeling that continues to guide and motivate me in my career as a counselor because every now and then, grace walks through my door and gently lands on my desk. It is often shown through the gifts of compassion and honesty from a client or a colleague. I feel it most intensely when I am able to fully connect with another individual and feel a strong sense of kinship. And it is in those times when you are given the opportunity to experience a glimmer of transcendence; a sense that you have a guide in this world that will always be just a moment away.

1 comment:

Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

Dear Dana,

I too have experienced the grace of God, the amazing beauty of the soul in moments of clarity, transcendence and purity.

I love your definition: Grace is the emotional power of goodwill, love and generosity. I will carry this with me, along with your inspiring story.

Beautiful. Just like you.
Much peace and love, JP