Don’t fear reading memoir of life with the mentally challenged

November 7, 2008

Bobz Book Reviews

“Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark,”
by Kathleen C. Berken
Some people can flat out write.


Kathy Berken is one of those people.

You might be the kind of reader who shies away from stories about the mentally challenged, adults with Down’s syndrome, the cognitively disabled, because Berken’s book is a memoir of her time serving God’s children who fit those categories. If you do you’ll be missing a truly remarkable piece of literature.

“Walking on a Rolling Deck” has drama, empathy, irony, humor and insight into the human character of every one of us. Developed from her journal during nine years at The Arch, the L’Arche (rhymes with “marsh”) community in Clinton, Iowa, Berken’s short book — published by Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minn. (http://www.litpress.org/) — opens her life to us, and in doing so touches ours.

And, Lord, can she write.

Page after page she paints word pictures that will have those who love good writing going back to re-read and re-read again. Finding a link with Mother Teresa’s admitted dark night of the soul, Berken writes:
“The serpent of loneliness can and will slither up the tree of despair and hiss in your ear words of doubt that burrow deep into your soul.”

She describes her years there as both growth-filled and as scary. There’s wiping butts and brushing teeth, and heart-warming, sacred moments. A spiritual person, she seeks God in all she does, and sometimes she finds him. If Kathy Berken is anything, she’s honest. She writes not about a sugar-coated experience but about real life with real people.
She puts it this ways:
“Living in a L’Arche community isn’t always like taking a vacation with your lover God to an idyllic Caribbean beach. Some days it’s more like climbing to the top of Mount Everest with God as your Sherpa, with times of feeling that the Sherpa has wandered off.”

Apt maritime metaphor

Berken plays on the translation of L’Arche as an ark, and she uses that sea-going metaphor well to describe the reality of life in a home with four people who need help with many of life’s tasks, who have a variety of pathological issues, and who have the strength of an adult but the mental ability of a four-year-old. But she says it so much better than I:
“When I came her I had this fantastically idealistic notion that God sent me to live for a while on this ark, and I had an image in my head of people like me walking up the gangplank, meeting God at the top, and being given a clipboard with the day’s assignment on it. . . . That’s a wonderful fantasy – to be the cruise director with a loveboat smile pasted on my face – but I can’t live it because the ark I’m on is rolling and heaving and I’m sick to my stomach, not to mention sad and lonely. I feel like the galley slave, the grunt who swabs the deck, the second to last to go down with the ship.”

Berken writes conversationally, like your best friend telling you all about her day but in brief, well-edited chapters that are never more than a few pages.
You’ll love the poignant story about being served Christmas breakfast by one of the people whom she served everyday.
You wonder how she ever stayed nine years – and how she survived, to be frank – when she learned first that she had breast cancer and later when a core member (that’s what L’Arche calls the mentally challenged) turns violent.
Read “Walking on a Rolling Deck” to find out.
And to be inspired by a great story well told. — bz

, , , , , ,

About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski