AG: Aaron, how did you come to L’Arche Portland?
AF: I had recently moved to Portland doing seasonal jobs and looking for more permanent work. My friend and former assistant Alison Hilkiah told me L’Arche Portland was hiring substitute caregivers, so I applied. I was currently living at Springwater Community (an intentional community) and had only spent one year as an adult living by myself and, so I knew that I needed to be around other people. I spent three years as a substitute caregiver before transitioning into a live-in role for another three years. My last workday in community will be January 9, 2016.
AG: What expectations did you have entering L’Arche Portland?
AF: I think I expected chaos and to have to walk on eggshells around core members. I was afraid that I would do or say the wrong thing. I also had a preconceived notion that a “caregiver” role wasn’t a successful career path and I worried about explaining my decision and how I would handle the manual labor part of the role. I was nervous and embarrassed about providing self-care assistance. What I found was quite different, and I realized quickly that everyone comes with assumptions and that every assumption will be proven incorrect at some point.
AG: What do you find most rewarding and most difficult about living in community?
AF: The people, by far, are what I like most, and the unpredictability of life. We have a framework of self-care and routine, but the reality of working with people is unpredictable. In any given task, things can derail or take an unexpected turn. Some of my best memories are the times when something spontaneous happened. Like how napkin throwing with Rodney has developed into an almost daily game when the first napkin toss happened just as a joke. One of my greatest difficulties has been to manage boundaries. Time out of community when I was a substitute was built-in because I got to leave the house every day. But as a live-in, it can be tempting to go down on your day off and help someone when you see them struggling or see the pile of dishes in the sink. I’m a homebody at heart and I have to remind myself to find the space and separation I need to be my best.
AG: What has surprised you most?
AF: That I would like it. I didn’t think I’d hate it, but I didn’t expect to like it, or love it. Also the discomfort I had about providing self-care assistance disappeared very quickly. Once I realized that my own embarrassment was matched by a core member’s wish for privacy and their own frustration, I discovered that the intimacy of helping someone builds a trust level that is strangely life-giving. “Welcome your own vulnerability, and please welcome mine.”
AG: What have you learned about yourself and others during your time with L'Arche Portland?
AF: I get passionate about hanging out with people in community and being in L’Arche has shown me that relationships are not formulaic, and we should just accept people as they are. I had to learn that we are not here to teach core members to “be normal” make them more like us. It is to accept them as they are and open ourselves to them.
People having different ways of doing things, and this is both a challenge and a strength. New assistants may inadvertently do something that triggers a negative response from a core member. For example, I can get away with teasing Rodney because of the longevity of our relationship, but if a new assistant tries it, it falls flat. It can be tempting to try to do something in exactly the same was as a more senior assistant or to jump in as a senior assistant and “take over” because it’ll be easier, but that’s not always right or natural and doesn’t let people create truthful relationships. Core members have very accurate “bullshit detectors” and they can tell when someone is faking it. They want us to be honest instead of pretending that everything is ok all the time. Assistants have to learn to be just as open and vulnerable in their relationships as core members are with them.
AG: What are your plans after transition and your fears leaving?
AF: I don’t know yet what transition holds. I want to remain in Portland and be close enough to the community to be able to visit often. One thing I’m resolved on is to have a job that I can “put away” for now. A fear I have is that our core members will feel a difference in support. With 6 years in community, I’ve built a comfort level with Rodney that new assistants simply don’t have yet. I am worried that our newer assistants will get frustrated and I try to remind myself to step back and communicate to them about my processes and hand things off that I’ve just done in the past. For example Robyn loves to dig. I made it my job to fill in the holes in the backyard when she is visiting with her family. This gives her a fresh slate to work upon and also helps make sure that fence and garden boundaries are shored up. I’ve tried to let the other assistants know about this so it can continue when I leave the house.
AG: Do you have any last thoughts to share with us, things you'd like people to know about L'Arche?
AF: Often, our focus in the L’Arche story is on developing mutual relationships with people with intellectual disabilities, and that’s awesome, but it’s not the whole story. Core members are used to being vulnerable and open with us, so it’s impossible not to grow close to them and respond in kind. But assistants also grow into accepting their own vulnerability and showing it to each other, and that’s part of the story too.
I think that a lot of young people come into L’Arche thinking about and expecting to live the “ideal” of Living L’Arche. Reality is different from any ideal. But each L’Arche community is different and unique and none of us fits into a box easily, so does the ideal exist? I think yes and no. What happens in each community is amazing and hard and completely unique.