Last Saturday, Tana and I went to the funeral of Penny Parkes. We had gotten to know Penny through our work with Santropol Roulant. She was a client, volunteer, and board member there and reflected the spirit of the place in a beautiful and charming way all her own.
Penny struggled with a degenerative disease, and as long as we he had known her, she had gone about her days largely with a walker or in a wheel chair. Because she had become part of Santropol Roulant first as a client, Penny was keenly aware of the way that the organization managed to transcend the usual divide between clients and service providers.
“I heard about Santropol Roulant a number of years ago before I really needed the service. At the time, the idea of receiving meals-on-wheels felt sad to me. It felt like charity, where people would feel pity for me. I became a member a few years ago because I broke my leg and needed more support. I was afraid of being the beneficiary of a service that reinforced the idea that there are givers and takers. But after becoming a member, I quickly realized that the Roulant was a different kind of place. I could just tell- by the tone of the people who answered the phone when I called to discuss my meal orders and by the interactions I had with the volunteers who came to my door. I began to realize that becoming a part of the Roulant meant becoming part of a community and that everyone who comes here is both giving and receiving something. It’s not just the client who is receiving. Everyone is receiving in a sense. Which kind of makes everyone equal. And I think that is something really special about the Roulant.”
For me personally, Penny offered a particularly graceful window into understanding how to make the giving field come alive. I remember once when I was chatting with her at a Roulant event, she asked if I could switch my position so I was on the other side of her wheelchair. Without thinking about it, I had been standing on the side that Penny had difficulty turning to. She couldn’t really face me and had to glance awkwardly upward and backward to see me while we talked. I moved, and we continued our conversation. Even then, though, I was struck by how gently Penny had rearranged our geometry. She was neither apologetic nor complaining. I didn’t feel embarrassed or guilty. She had simply revealed what she needed – or I should say what we needed – for our conversation to flourish.
In an earlier post, we talked about how important vulnerability is to growth and engagement. But Penny reminded me that the reason we share our needs/desires/challenges with each other isn’t simply so that we can be attended to individually. Penny didn’t ask me to move so that she would feel better. She asked me to move so that our relationship in that moment would be fuller and more authentic. On the surface, Penny made a statement of need. We tend to think that such statements reinforce the idea that the person who is asking is the recipient. But until I moved to the other side of the wheelchair, I could not receive anything from Penny either. Shifting my position helped us both be able to give and receive more fully. Penny taught me that when when we deprive each other of simple requests or authentic statements of need, we interfere with the conditions under which our relationships can thrive. And we lock ourselves into limited, linear patterns like staff-client or giver-receiver.
At Penny’s funeral, Roulant staffer Tim Murphy talked about the organization’s wonderful definition of ‘autonomy’. He said, “From the Santropol Roulant point of view, autonomy is to be able to ask for help when and where you need it.” I love this idea – that autonomy is not about doing things on your own but about having a creative voice in your relationships. My interactions with Penny – who had just such a voice – made me wonder if there were areas of my life where I was holding back, afraid to reveal the things that would help me relate to other people more fully. Did I have my own “loss of autonomy” to confront? And how could I learn to tell the difference between asking for things that would only indulge my appetites and things that would actually nourish my relationships. For me these questions reveal the intimate link between the willingness to speak authentically and our ultimate ability to develop expressive organizations in which we are co-creating a shared space that gives to each of us equally, whatever our nominal roles.
So thank you Penny for everything you gave and will continue to give. We’ll miss you.
Penny’s family has created a website in her memory.