In a writing workshop at Pinney Library this summer, we spent one evening talking about “going small.” I set my writers an in-class challenge: seven minutes to write about something, starting with an object as the focal point. “Give us the object, then the setting it is in, and then the action around it,” I asked.
Starting with an image gets us away from the memoir-writers’ bane–too much “I” in the story. We need to be an “eye” more than an “I” if we want our readers to enjoy their time with us.
While they wrote, while I kept one eye on the sweeping minute hand of my watch, counting off the seven, I too wrote. And here’s what came…
The object: My brass bowl. It is a Tibetan meditation bowl, a gong, and it is supposed to sing, but I don’t know how to make it do that. I just knock the side with its wooden mallet and get a nice “school bell” sound.
I chose it with care for my writing workshops, because I’d seen a master facilitator use one. The situation was New Orleans, seven months after Hurricane Katrina, and his job was to convene the citizens of the ruined Gentilly and Ponchartrain Park neighborhoods, known as Pontilly, to plan for their future. We met in a Greek Orthodox church, barely far enough along in its flood restoration to host us.
We–his entourage–were an unlikely fit for the job. We were white. We were from Wisconsin. We had homes and clothes and friend and family that had not been washed away.
But he was an inspired facilitator, son of an evangelical preacher, and he had a knack for this. He knew he needed to begin by recognizing the past before attempting to lead toward the future. He wanted to do a “mads, sads, glads” exercise where he would invite individuals to the microphone to share their emotions about their losses, and he knew he needed a timer. He didn’t want a buzzer or a beeper, one more irritation to so many who had been so disrupted already. He chose instead a Tibetan bell with a beautiful, deep voice.
He gave it to the eldest “church lady” who had offered to help. He asked her to ring that room to order, and then with her help, conducted an orchestra of grief. “I’m glad my friends are alright.” Gong. “I’m mad that I can’t get answers.” Gong. “I’m sad that I lost my beautiful clothes. I came into this world naked. I’m naked again.” Gong… Gong… Gone.
The ritual worked; the healing in that room as we bore witness to each others’ mads, sads, and glads was palpable. I watched, and learned.
When I took on facilitating, I got a meditation bowl like his. A holy bell. Because bearing witness to each others’ experience is holy work.