There are some rare days where, thanks to good friends or good will or just good luck, or all of the above, you can be thousands of miles from home and yet feel you have arrived at a safe haven, a place where you can be completely yourself, and your best self at that.
Spring Break, for the past couple of years, has been one of those times for me. Living in university communities for basically my entire adult life, this week has always been a bit of an oasis for me, usually a time to travel and break free of whatever lingering effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder. But then the Humanist Graduate Community at Harvard began a now-tradition of traveling to do community service over the vacation– New Orleans to do Katrina relief in 2010 and South Dakota to mentor kids on a reservation in the poorest county in America in 2011. Doing that kind of work, among a community of t-shirt-wearing Humanists, living our values publicly among others and supporting one another, was transformative for all of us. I think one of the reasons Christian missionary work has been so successful is that it feels so good to participate in– you take a journey, you face obstacles, nothing goes quite right, you drive the car into a snowbank (last year!), someone gets rushed to the hospital (the year before!) you try to help everyone you can but it’s never enough, and yet you find yourself– new parts of yourself– in all the stretching. You learn and gain as much as anyone in the “needy” populations you’re there to serve. And it’s more than possible to do all this without any myth that you’ll be eternally rewarded for doing so or that recipients of your generosity should adopt your way of life. Just ask these guys or these guys. It’s an experience I recommend for any Humanist group. And now we’re settled in for a third year, this time at the beautiful home of the atheist activist Bobbie Kirkhart, for a week of working with LGBT homeless and in-crisis youth in Los Angeles– a trip inspired by the brilliant Jackie Caster and planned by the indefatigable Chris Stedman.
And so in honor of the beginning of this year’s trip, here’s a poem about what it feels like to return again to taking the time to make a difference to others, with others. May every Humanist community one day offer such opportunities to experience the love after love.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.–Derek Walcott