Anna Corwin writes,
“The nuns in the infirmary spent much of their time serving others and each other. During my first summer in the convent, I watched two sisters who lived in the infirmary take a walk together, arm in arm, each evening after supper around the beautiful grounds of the convent. One of the nuns was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and the other had painful arthritis that restricted her mobility. Sister Noella, who lived with Alzheimer’s disease, was concerned that Sister Agatha, whose arthritis usually confined her to the infirmary, would not get any fresh air without her help, so she helped her physically navigate the hallway, the elevator, and the paths around the convent grounds. But Sister Agatha did not see the interaction in quite the same way; each evening she mustered the energy to overcome the limitations of her body to guide and orient Sister Noella so that she would not get lost on her walk around the convent grounds. Each sister made sure the other made it outside for a nightly stroll; the convent ethos of community and service allowed them each to see the walk as a way to serve the other. They did not speak about ‘dependence.’ Rather, each saw herself not as the one being helped, but as a friend putting herself second in order to serve another sister. Care was mutually enriching.”
* * *
Some books linger in the heart for a lifetime. The good ones scatter seeds in our consciousness. Encounters with [some –a few] people and non-people have that effect too. They leave you with a spark. I call that awe. Seeds always grow, they just need fertile ground to host them. That’s wonder: a curiosity that infuses one with purpose and joy.
Fertile ground is hard to come by these days. Afterall, cancel culture also cancels soil, an inconvenient natural intelligence that insists on challenging human control. What is not swallowed up is left secluded and barren to run off with the floods of human greed. Joni Mitchell agrees: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” –Big Yellow Taxi. Awe and wonder are suffocated under the weight of concrete.
My heart (the site of consciousness for me) has too many such seeds. Unfortunately, storage is full, much like my ICloud account that insists I should upgrade the storage –for a fee. My free upgrade has made its way onto my hips. I suspect that’s what they call the middle years weight gain. It is not looking encouraging, but I am embracing it. (Undisclosed amounts of vegan ice-cream fertilize this soil.)
I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic a few years ago. I remember being awed by the thought of ideas floating in the air. They continue to float until they find the fertile ground ready to receive them. Sometimes [all the time], they start to take form when we are walking in nature. That is when armors are forgotten in our concrete homes. For me, running does this. The pounding (did I mention the growing hips?) pushes them out. It clears the gunk, and they begin to take form. Very rarely, I put them into words. Most of the time, they remain unpublished on my hips, contently feasting on the ice-cream.
* * *
My first job after finishing undergraduate studies in Jordan was at the Canadian Embassy. I forget what my official title was, but it was a low-level position. I did a lot of translation for visa and immigration interviews. I covered the visa reception area when needed. I know today, ¼ of a century later, that I was terrible [ideal, honestly] for this job. Time has a way of forcing one to get a better understanding of who they are. I may not know much, but I do know I am a highly empathetic person. I feel suffering around me, deeply. Obviously, empathy does not serve the system I speak of. It needs us to be unfeeling. If we feel, we open ourselves up to awe and wonder. [We cannot have that, can we?]
It was the early 90s. Iraq was essentially destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were forced to scatter around the world, arriving in droves in neighboring countries –mostly Jordan. Many were looking for lifelines to reunite with family around the world. An Iraqi elder would come to the embassy every day to ask about his immigration application status. He was waiting for a visa to join his only daughter resettled in Canada. He walked with difficulty, his back barely supporting the weight of injustice, war and time burrowing valleys in his face. He would sit in the waiting room –waiting. I would go back inside to check with the Canadian visa officer about his application. Our armor was bullet proof glass to keep us “safe” from feeling the humanmade suffering that sat patiently in the waiting room. The Canadian diplomat would dismiss me with a wave, mumbling something to the effect of “No update.” Every day. For months. I would go back to reception, lower my eyes in shame, and relay the (no) news. He would leave and return the following day.
Hope burrows too, like ideas and seeds floating in air. It is stubborn.
One morning, he made his way to the window. I went in to ask the Canadian. She must have been having a bad day. Maybe her care package from the “First World” was late. Maybe her coffee was not hot enough. I think she didn’t have time to go out for a smoke before the war-weary throngs made their way to the embassy that morning. Smoking required her to come out from behind the wall. [We cannot have that, can we?]
She looked up from her desk and told me in exasperation, “He will never get a visa. He is sick and will never pass the medical. He will not be allowed to enter Canada. Tell him it will not happen.” The “First World” may have destroyed his country, but it would not pay for his healthcare.
How could I go out there and tell this old man he would never see his daughter again?
I could not. I did not. I told him there was no update. I said the process was long and there was no chance of hearing back any time in the near future. I tried to gently encourage him to consider making plans for a longer stay in Jordan. I could see his shoulders drop. His hands shook. And then he cried. Hope dripped one tear at a time on the shiny top of the reception desk. With total desperation he asked, “What can I do now? Where can I go? My residency in Jordan expires in days. I have no place to go.”
A storm raged in my gut. I wanted to put my arms around him after I kissed his hand, take him home, make him tea, and feed him dinner. Then I wanted to sit down on the floor by his chair and listen to him tell me about his life and this skewed world that manufactures weapons then builds bullet proof walls.
Instead, I did another unimaginable and totally inappropriate thing for an embassy second tier “local” employee: I asked him to give me his Jordanian residency to see if I could help.
I knew someone who knew someone. (Interconnectedness is as stubborn as hope.) I was sworn to secrecy, but 25 years automatically declassifies information. The elder had a permanent residency in Jordan, but Canada’s doors would remain shut in his face.
I think about him often as I make a new home here in Canada. I hope he had companions like the nuns who walked with him around his neighborhood, bought him Iraqi bread from the Iraqi bakery that opened in Amman after the war. I wonder about his daughter and her family, Canadians by now forging a new life, maybe working on healing the trauma of displacement and loss, the pain of betrayal and abandonment.
Mostly, I am in awe of this life that insists on living. And hoping.
* * *
It doesn’t surprise me that my loved ones keep asking me to remind them what I am studying. For a long time, I had a hard time remembering myself, clearly a selective amnesia brought on by an unexplained embarrassment. Spirituality is complicated –and confusing. It is fuzzy and woo-woo, best approached by avoidance and a calculated deflection.
I am studying mutual enrichment. I am breaking those bloody bullet proof barriers that want me to not feel, those walls that insist on keeping me from kissing the old man’s hands as I make him tea. It is compassion, connection, and the acknowledgement of the undeniable intelligence that holds all those seeds and ideas that float in the air. It is service to all life. It is a sobering admission that there is no individuality. It is finally admitting that we cannot thrive when another is suffering.
Care is mutually enriching. Our humanity is interdependent, and that is problematic for a system that works tirelessly to keep us isolated, siloed, and divided.
The Iraqi elder is long gone today, but the lesson he has left me remains and grows, in heart, hips, and earth. The intelligence that is beyond my simple human capacity to understand conspired to bring me to him –but more importantly bring him to me. He has left me seeds on age, wisdom, and respect.
When hope is lost, I think of him. I think of the nun with Alzheimer’s who forgets her loved ones but remembers to get up to walk her arthritic sister every evening. When the suffering around me is too much to bear, the nun with debilitating pain who musters the will to walk her sister lest she get lost comes to mind. The sparkle I imagine in their eyes from the hope of service and purpose lights up the darkness.
Corwin concludes her study with this: “More profound to me than the medical achievements is this: being old, being in pain, and still sparkling with joy and driven to service.”
That is the roadmap. This is spirituality. It is another word for sparkle. It’s awe and wonder, spark and curiosity. It is stubborn seeds that somehow, against all the manmade odds, find fertile grounds.
May you host them and flaunt them unapologetically.
 Anna I. Corwin, Embracing Age. How Catholic Nuns Became Models of Aging Well (New Brunswick, Camden, and Newark, New Jersey, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2021), 50-1
  Corwin, 156