This summer I look a leap of faith and decided to travel from Orlando, Florida to Princeton, New Jersey where I would be living for eleven weeks with thirteen complete strangers. After the first three day retreat, we found out what the rest of our summer would consist of: a vague “project”, eight weeks of a “faithjustice” camp for high school students, another three-day retreat, trips to non-profit organizations, weekly spiritual development and “living in community with each other”. The first thing on our agenda was to create the schedule for the camp. We decided on themes for each day, and then split into groups to plan prayer services for each morning and each evening. My group had Monday, the theme of “Community”. Maureen, Stefan and I stumbled upon a quote while planning the morning prayer service,
Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.—Starhawk
As the summer wore on, I learned more than I ever bargained for about love, compassion and what “living in community with each other” actually meant.
About halfway through those long eleven weeks, I reached a certain point at which I was constantly on the verge of tears, and apparently, I was not the only one. I felt judged, rejected, lonely, and Closter phobic all at once. We had a “forum” to “discuss” any problems that had arisen due to our high amount of stress and small amount of sleep. This was my breaking point. I cried uncontrollably for a while until I realized that all I needed was yoga. Each morning a got up before anyone else went upstairs and did a half an hour of yoga and meditation. I would meditate on whoever was irritating me the most that day. I thought about what they were doing that was bothering me and why they might be doing it. I thought back to the stories we had shared with one another, their comments in spiritual development, their prayers and I wondered how I would best react to them. In this practice I learned how to deeply love each and every one of those in my little community as they were. I felt deeper compassion than I had ever felt in my whole life, and I was joyfully at peace again. At each annoyance, I would merely ask myself, how do I best love them as they are? and then act upon my reflection.
At the final retreat the fourteen of us sat in the dark in a circle at the beach and talked. Yoon, someone who I had become closer to near the end of the summer during our talks while weeding in the garden, turned to me and apologized. He said he had harshly judged me for being as I was during the first two or three weeks of camp. He said he was so different from me in the way that we dealt with the high school students that he assumed my way must be wrong. In one of our more intense garden talks I had shared with him about my family and that because of our familial circumstances I had grown up to be what I am now, for better or for worse. He said at that moment he understood exactly why I am the way that I am and was able to look at me in a completely different light. Community changed our ways of loving, our ways of judging and accepting; it changed our perspectives on ourselves and on the world around us. I finally understood the quote we read to those 350 students we lead at camp throughout the summer. I learned that real love and friendship are described in Starhawk’s brilliant words, but more importantly I learned how to implement those words.
As I was reading about Toko’s relationship with Granny I thought back to my conversation with Yoon. Grace writes, “I can look back to that time and know that it was then, listening to Granny and watching her move about the wharekai, that I really understood her stories.” (139-140) Toko goes on to describe events, emotions, and experiences that Granny had throughout her life and concludes,
I really understood for the first time that to Granny, loss and grief were ordinary and expected. I saw that pain was so ordinary, and sorrow so ordinary, that they were close, so close, to being almost joy—a kind of silent, shouting, grueling ecstasy, as opposites turn near to each other on the many-stranded circle. (140)
Toko describes that way in which pain is necessary to compassion, that without looking into another human’s eyes and being able to know what it feels like to feel what they are currently feeling empathy does not exist. He also learns that through hearing another person’s stories, which are so important to the Maori people, and through feeling compassion for another’s feelings can lead to a deeper understanding and even love.