Instructions for Opening a Window

– vincent hiscock

[This piece was written for a GoTH presentation at Christ Church Millwood in Millwood, VA, where parishioners are enjoying their Lenten Series: “Living a Meaningful Life.”]

We’ve been invited here to reflect on our experience at GoTH. Of course, for us, with two months yet to go, this experience is still very open. At this point, the contours of the year can perhaps be glimpsed. But the shape of the year is not yet certain. Life for me, during the four years prior to my time at GoTH, took the shape of readings, poems, essays; it took the shape of courses; then, looking backwards, there was the shape of the semester, of the year. And yet, those experiences are still taking new shapes for me, are being kept open and active when I continue to reflect upon them, when I begin again to think them. Thought works this way. It works by delay.

In ten years, perhaps, I’ll have a different, clearer sense of the shape of this year at GoTH. In any case, I hope that it continues, that it stays open. If my experience at GoTH remains discrete, remains an interval of service that fails to affect my future ways of interacting with places that I live, than it becomes nought. Indeed, there are really no divisions. This year is becoming the shape of my life. It asks of me, as does every year: What is life and how to live it?

Meditating upon this question is, I think, the heart of the season of Lent. Here’s what I am learning this year. Take walks with open eyes. Across the street from my deck, I spent my first few weeks at GoTH staring at the painted white brick of Pine St Baptist. One day I walked across the street. Soon my housemates and I were volunteering with the church’s homeless ministries, filling up and then handing out snack bags, pantry bags, massive bowls of cereal and huge trays of pancakes, sitting in the dining room talking with homeless folk, sitting in the locker room and clothes closet as people picked out a scarf or a coat, picked up mail, put a backpack of documents in a safe place. A couple months and a conversation later, we started a laundry ministry for the people that we met across the street. I try to stay open to what’s happening.

I think you’ll find something similar in the place where you live. I work at St Andrew’s School, a tuition-free elementary school for low-income families. Oregon Hill’s ex-mailman comes over to the school every Monday, and he is far and away our most treasured volunteer. Of course, he walked the neighborhood for years for a living. If there’s nothing that needs your aid in your community, than there is probably an obvious lack of community-based services for the poor and you are in possession of true freedom in creating something genuinely meaningful in your neighborhood and in your life. If not, I’d recommend looking into some new real estate options–or at least taking your car out for longer rides. 

We are trying to see how to live a meaningful life. I’m grateful to GoTH in that it gives each of us residents a bit of time set aside intentionally for the purpose of trying to see how to do good work for the rest of our lives. People of our age are affronted by a scarcity economy wherein work in general is of little meaning and suspect ethical value. Capitalism says that “Work is work.” Of course, each of us know that this is not the case, that we each long for an escape into work that directly does good every day. Of course, all the guarantees are off and we, like each of you, will be wrestling with this question of how to do good work, of how to live, for the rest of our lives.

In doing so, I do not have the confidence to tell anyone how to live a meaningful life. I am continually challenged by meaningful lives. This is why, I think, Episcopalians keep the book Holy Men, Holy Women around. I am challenged by Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, CF Andrews, Lucy Parsons, people that answered the question “How to Live?” clearly with their own lives. None of the answers are transferable. The questions are always open. That way you can always be changed in the twinkling of an eye by the view from an open window.

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