I attended a three-day anti-racism seminar last week. Our Eighth Day faith community is discovering that to truly invite people of color into our community we must do more than put out a welcome sign and be well-intentioned and friendly. There are also institutional structures within our community that are barriers to true fellowship. Furthermore, within those of us who exercise power in the community (almost all white), there are unconscious attitudes and beliefs that maintain racism within the church. The path to changing these structures and attitudes goes through minefields of history, anger, privilege and blindness, but a group of us (half black, half white; half male, half female; half from Eighth Day, half from other communities) met with a trainer to explore the issues more deeply and make plans together about how we could facilitate change in our communities.
Five of us had a significant three-hour conversation one evening about some specific issues within the community. It was intense, emotional, complex and difficult. I felt I needed to be at the top of my game to contribute helpfully to the conversation; to avoid the most dangerous of those mines scattered throughout our discussions; to help clarify some of the subtle, complex issues; and to be open to the pain, anger, and feelings of betrayal while emphasizing the good will, the possibilities for hope, and the importance of our task. And it did happen! I was not only extraordinarily grateful that the five of us could trust and care for one another, but I was also aware that despite my cognitive impairment I was just as sensitive, just as creative, and just as helpful as I have been at any time in my life. And the expressions of gratitude I received afterward confirm that the others felt my presence helpful, too. At the end of the conversation, in fact, one of the African Americans among us chuckled and shook his head, saying to me something like, “I thought you had Alzheimer’s!” He meant it as a compliment and gratitude for my participation.
I don’t want to exaggerate my role or suggest that the courage, the sensitivity and the dedication to our community that each the others brought to that conversation were not equally essential to what we accomplished. I mean only to say there are significant parts of me that Alzheimer's has not yet hobbled.
The two previous posts here have been about significant cognitive impairments that will inevitably worsen. Much of the time—even in conversations like those last weekend—I forget important details within a few minutes after they are described. Yes, that impairs to some degree my participation any conversation, but what has remained, and possibly even sharpened, is my capacity to listen deeply, to hear another person’s pain, to understand the larger picture out of which that pain comes, and to clarify the issues and possibilities.
Am I impaired? Most definitely! But certain gifts remain. They too, of course, will eventually be gobbled up. But for now, I and those who love me can be grateful.
I keep hearing from caregivers who write me that the capacity to relate to another person may be one of the last to go in Alzheimer's or any dementia. That, it seems to me, is a great blessing.
A lighter moment: Our community was on a separate retreat this past weekend. I mentioned to a friend that I’ve been greatly enjoying Discovering of Witches, a delightful novel about witches and vampires. My friend recognized that witches and vampires were not exactly the usual subjects of my previous reading habits; he was so amused that he went around telling others in the community. After hearing about it, one of those told said seriously: “It’s such a tragedy, isn’t it?” He meant, I suppose, that reading about vampires and witches represented a major decline in my capacities. Me? I’m grateful I can now explore new worlds.