Hazel Pulliam shot me a look from the passenger seat as I maneuvered the van around in the dead-end road. It was the second wrong turn of the three-mile trip between our home and church, a ride Hazel has taken countless times. Clearly I was fumbling my way through the morning, and I feared that Hazel’s patience with me would soon wear thin.
“Oops,” I sighed, the same word escaping from my mouth that had punctuated the marathon of Tumbling Towers (a Jenga-like game with wooden blocks we stacked and rearranged until the tower toppled over) Hazel and I had played together the day before. Every time I tugged on a piece that sent the other blocks crashing down, my “oops” was followed by Hazel’s shoulder-shaking laughter. There was a strange sort of liberation in playing the game—an activity that was in turns intensely strategic and extravagantly destructive.
Most importantly, in playing Tumbling Towers I felt truly close to Hazel for the first time. I loved watching the concentration with which Hazel tested each block before moving it, adored laughing together as each carefully constructed tower fell apart. Tumbling Towers is an exercise in patience for anyone who craves achievement, because at the end of the afternoon we had nothing tangible to show for our efforts. Yet I suspected something more than just piles of wooden blocks had shifted as the hours passed—as Hazel and I learned to gaze upon each other with greater affection and deeper understanding.
Back in the van, “oops” triggered something in Hazel. Her skepticism faded, and she laughed at my wrong turn, more gently than she had laughed at the falling blocks. With that sound, I could feel the tension between my shoulders melt. Yes, it would take time to learn to navigate the streets of Arlington, and it would take time to learn to navigate my relationships with Hazel and the rest of my housemates. But Hazel was granting me the grace to make mistakes, and teaching me how to offer myself the same forgiveness.
When I arrived at L’Arche, I imagined that my relationships with core members would spring forth from competency in my work. I watched other assistants joke with our housemates as they cooked together, and witnessed moments of deep tenderness in bedtime routines. I poured my effort into memorizing details. If I can just learn how to support Fritz in putting away his laundry, maybe I’ll be respected, I thought. If I can just figure out the right way to prepare Linda’s cottage cheese at breakfast, maybe I’ll be loved.
I had forgotten that love is never earned—it is always wholly gratuitous. I can earn my housemates’ trust by managing my responsibilities well, and in terms of providing the support that ensures their safety and comfort I will always strive for excellence. But instead of love growing out of competence, I have discovered that the gratuitous kindness, generosity, gentleness, and essentially the love of my housemates have allowed me to move forward despite my incompetence. Their love has filled in the gaps in my experience and between my gifts, supporting me as I learn and grow into our life together.
As I lean on this love, I am ultimately reminded that God’s grace is never contingent on my perfection. I don’t have to get all of the details right or have everything figured out in order for God to love me. God’s love precedes any of the details and all of my plans. Magnifying infinitely the liberation I felt in the silliness of playing Tumbling Towers, there is freedom in this realization. I have space to change, to stretch, to live in love. With the example of my housemates, I am beginning to shift my focus from the rote memorization of routines to a practice of truly paying attention to the gifts and lessons of my community members, and to the calls to forgiveness and to vulnerability that occur a hundred times a day in my home.
Buoyed by the sound of Hazel’s laughter, I am learning to rest in the imperfections.
Photo: Whether playing Tumbling Towers or getting lost together, Hazel Pulliam and Yuko Gruber give each other grace. Photo by Steve Keener
Yuko Gruber is an assistant at Highland House. She grew up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with loving parents and an awesome younger brother. Yuko studied Biology and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and during her time in college was blessed with the opportunity to spend eight weeks at L’Arche GWDC through Notre Dame’s Summer Service Learning Program in 2012. After graduating from Notre Dame, she joyfully returned to community in July 2014.
Meet Hazel by coming to dinner at Highland House or attending one of our Heart of L’Arche tours this fall.