Radical frailty: reflections on belonging

By: Avalon Housing

Part of Avalon’s mission is to provide care and support to people for as long as they need our help, sometimes until the very end of their lives.  During this past year, Avalon experienced an unprecedented number of deaths among our residents.  These losses have hit us hard. When residents die, we attempt to arrange memorial gatherings at our properties for our communities. This year, however, we thought we’d also create a space for staff to grieve together. On January 31, 2018, we gathered.  Staff, including myself, were asked to share personal reflections. We ended the memorial with a wish paper ceremony: we wrote reflections and hopes on pieces of paper. We then burned these papers, as a way to connect to those who could no longer be with us.

What follows is the opening reflection that I shared at this memorial.

I have never been to a gathering like this. Avalon has never had one (like this). The invitation for us to come together as coworkers and honor those with whom we have worked, and whom we are now missing, struck me, when I first heard about it, as both unusual and touching. I worked in senior housing for many years, and we experienced a lot of loss, but we never gathered as a staff to grieve together.

At Avalon’s Home for Good celebration this past year, Aubrey Patiño talked about Avalon’s resonance with the word “radical”. Radical Acceptance. Radical forgiveness. These “radical” notions are part of the culture of Avalon, and I believe that those we lost this past year in some way encountered these values through all of us; and I truly think we all experienced radical acceptance through them. But I want to add to the list of radicalisms that we cherish, another one: radical frailty. Including our own. My own.

It is the most natural thing in the world for an organization like Avalon to share its impact and accomplishments. What is not natural is for a place like this to expose its own brokenness, its own breathlessness. I read recently that wholeness, if it is “to be whole, must include and connect all [the] parts of ourselves. Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means no part left out.” In this space today, I feel welcomed to expose the ruins of my heart, and to be open to Avalon’s embrace of my wholeness. I hope you do as well.

In his Anthem, Leonard Cohen exhorts us to “forget [our] perfect offering,” and remember that it is the crack in everything that lets the light in. Today isn’t about getting this remembrance right. It is about letting the light in. And letting it be imperfect. And therefore whole.

Everyone we are lifting up this afternoon was embraced in their wholeness, which included their radical frailty, their imperfection, their resilience, and their dignity. And one of the things I am learning, from those we serve, and as much from you, with whom I serve, is that these same parts of me are also welcome, so welcome, here.

Jean Vanier says that “…each person, with his or her history of being accepted or rejected… and… history of inner pain and difficulties… is different. But in each one there is a yearning for communion and belonging, but at the same time a fear of it.” It is rare to work in the company of people who assert their wholeness — radical frailty and all — as fearsome as that can be. But that is my experience of Avalon: a place of authentic, unadorned belonging. And this gathering is a testament to that.

The moments we are part of in our work are often poignant. But they are quite often also painful. Sometimes we don’t know if what we’re doing is right. Often, the pathway forward in our walk with folks is occluded by worry and uncertainty. Did I do enough? Did we make the best judgment call?

There are days when we are not sure that our determination to do the right thing means that we are doing the right thing. And there are nights, in the silence before sleep, when the most well-chosen words of support left with us by a coworker are not enough to relieve our anxious hearts. I have had those restless nights. You have, too.

But then we show up, like we do today. Like we do morning-after-morning; or, for those on the late shift, evening-after-evening. We all have lives beyond our work, but we also know that there is something no less real in our connections here, through this Avalon family that we are grafted onto. In the face of our radical frailty, we show up and we stand up, and assert our humanness before one another. This is our imperfect offering. And in this offering, all of those we sorely miss, everyone we are remembering, is included.

I want to let Walt Whitman take us into our remembrance. The words that I am going to read are adapted from his ode to humaneness, Song of Myself. And they speak to me of the immortality of those we’re honoring today. They live on in their children, friends, and family. They live on in their properties, communities, and neighborhoods. They live on in the elements, and in the streets. They live on though Avalon, in our tears and in our stories.

As you listen, I encourage you to imagine that Whitman’s words are coming through in the heart-voices of those whose lives we celebrate today. Listen as their wholeness sings:

I am not a bit tamed,
I am untranslatable,

I depart as air, I shake my body at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in rivers,
and drift it in lacy mud.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre to your blood.

Failing to find me at first, keep encouraged!
Missing me one place, search another.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again,
look for me everywhere.

By Joel Barson, Property Manager

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