Almost Goodbye–A Mixture of Fear and Optimism

I’m laying on the  box-spring mattress that has been mine for the past month, eating chocolate as I contemplate what my life has been these past four weeks. First, I can say confidently (between bites of Reese’s peanut butter cups–a staple of Artsbridge life) that no other job I’ve had has been as fulfilling as this one. My spirits are high, and despite a little lack of sleep, I’ve never felt better. Tomorrow is the final showcase, the time when the students finally get to exhibit their completed art projects and films to friends, family, and locals (and hopefully a few reporters). Since this is my first year here, I’m not quite sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be an incredibly fulfilling moment for all of them. This presentation is the culmination of their three weeks and their hard work, frustration, tears, and triumphs. They’ve struggled not only with the physical execution of professional creativity, but they’ve had to learn to work in teams with people from very different backgrounds and of largely different opinions. Many of them struggled to have their voices heard and to listen to others, and I’m sure at times they felt like nothing would or could change.

Fast forward three weeks, and they’re now preparing to exhibit professionally crafted pieces to the larger public. But they’re just not displaying their art. They are demonstrating to this community that change is absolutely possible and collaboration can triumph over division. Add to that the fact that some are Israeli Jews and others are Arab, Palestinian, and American, and you have a whole lot of awesome in one place.

This has not been an easy time for the students. There’s a war going on in Gaza. It’s hit us all in
different ways, and they are all struggling to keep their heads in the program. But they’ve done beautifully and come out the stronger for it. I had a small experience with rocket warfare when I was in Israel two years ago, yet I know it’s nothing compared to life growing up in the region. I struggled to place my feelings into the pool when I came here, but I know that this time has helped me grow up and see war in a very different light.  Now more than ever,  the implications of the work here are  immediate and so crucial.

There have been several interviews and articles written about this summer at Artsbridge. Last week we took the students to the Catuit Arts Center in Cape Cod to talk about the program to potential donors. One question that came up and has come up in many of the interviews is, “but does it work?” And, like the brilliant thinkers they are, our students answer with poise and eloquence something that really boils down to “OF COURSE.”

To me the answer is so simple, but I understand why the question is asked so much. “Does it work? Does Artsbridge actually make a difference?” Uh, if you’re expecting us to send the students to the debate tables to arrange a cease fire, the answer is no. Will Artsbridge stop the rockets from firing on both sides? No. Not right now it won’t. But one of the most important ideas we’ve discussed in these past few weeks is the crucial notion that every human being deserves the same respect and opportunities and that individuals have an enormous responsibility to retain their own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others. This means putting love, compassion and empathy before violence, anger and hate. Hate is always an easy way out because it takes humanity out of the equation. To hate something, you have to to trivialize it, make it seem small and insignificant. But in learning to recognize the humanity in each other, our students have chosen to love others rather than hate them. If you love someone, you instinctively want to protect them, to care for them, to support them. I’ve seen an incredible support system develop between these students, who never knew the others existed up until a few months ago. And in the cultural narratives of Israel and Palestine (and in most countries if we’re being honest), it is so easy to forget that human beings exist on both sides of the wall.

So, yeah, duh, Artsbridge makes a huge difference. It gives young people the tools to go back into their communities having understood what the view looks like from the other side, having spoken and laughed and cried and danced and swam and played and created with human beings from the “other” side, humans whom they didn’t know existed. Abstract concepts about “groups” and “identities” have hopefully been replaced with concrete faces, voices, and unique personalities that have bonded and  will never be forgotten. And I think they’ve all found that they’re not so different after all.

An Update: Change is Work and Work Takes Time

Change is work, and work takes time. I’ve been in Williamstown, Massachusetts for a week and a few days now. I came to be a counselor at a program called Artsbridge, Inc., which was set up about eight years ago. Every summer, a group of talented and compassionate artists and educators take a group of approximately thirty students from Israel, Palestine, and the United States to an area of Massachusetts, away from the fires of home for three weeks of intensive dialogue sessions and art projects. The kids arrived here at the Buxton School in Williamstown four days ago, yet it already feels like three years since they’ve arrived. Energetic doesn’t begin to describe this group. They came like hurricanes, bearing the force of their personalities and experiences with exuberance and spirit. I’m honored to be a part of this project.

What I’ve experienced so far has been a whirlwind. Things are beginning to “slow down” in the sense that now, finally, after the staff and students are all adjusted and (marginally) well-rested, we can begin the work: the intensive dialogue and group art projects that will challenge the students to their very core–and the staff as well–to think about the “other’s” point of view. Opinions change, and things are fluid when it comes to self and relationships. It is here in this setting where art can thrive and truly work its wonder.

One of the reasons I was drawn to the program was that it embodied everything I knew art to be but never experienced for myself. In this program, art is not only a means of expression, but a vehicle for discussion, for opening up channels of one’s self and self awareness that can lead to new discoveries, relationships, and revelations. Arts tell stories, and we all have our own story to tell. I can’t wait to see what the students produce.

I broke down after the first twenty-four hours of being here (thankfully before the students arrived). I felt like a part of myself–a very big part–had been shut down for years as I bulldozed my way through school, eking out papers and bullshit thoughts about taverns in Potosi and communism in Eastern Europe. Okay, maybe it wasn’t all bullshit. I love history, and I love thought, so in a way I suppose I found college stimulating and enriching. But on the flip side, I became so disconnected from myself that I forgot what joy was. I shut that part of me down–the part of me that loves to sing and dance and smile and laugh and soak up sunshine. I put that part of myself on a shelf and told myself that I was here to work. So I did.

I cried a lot in college, which isn’t really saying much, because I cry all the time. But I became very sad in a way that I hadn’t been in years. Why? I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t rationalize it. I had been given everything that I thought was important to me–a top notch education, a means to a career and a life of “success” in any profession I chose, a loving family who supported me, an on-campus apartment…even my meals were prepared for me. I had nothing to do. I had no reason to engage with the world.

So I didn’t. I spent days–days–in the library, in the horribly dark and depressing basement, watching movies (for school, really), reading (sometimes very dry) articles about any sort of “ism” you can think of. I chewed on words and spat them back out in paragraphs and pages. And at the end of almost every day, I walked back to my apartment, exhausted, depressed, and alone.

Maybe I’m being a bit extreme. It wasn’t all horrible. But even fun felt forced, because I had this constant weight on my chest that I was missing a deadline or missing a connection and wouldn’t be approved of. This is why I can’t do grad school right now. I need to remove the cinderblock from my chest and breathe.
Still, Artsbridge is definitely not a walk in the park. It is challenging me in so many ways that school never did. I can’t ever escape if things get tough, and escape has always been my go-to mechanism. But I wonder if, during my escapes, I was ever processing anything. No, I don’t think so. I think I just shut down.

This is what teenagers (and some adults) do; if something is difficult, you go to sleep, go on facebook, go to the library…shut down. Overload. Done. And sometimes we need to shut ourselves off so that we don’t implode. But we never deal with what is in front of us if we don’t, well, stay and deal.

My impulse has always been to run away. Now I feel like I want to run to something. I ran to Artsbridge, and once I arrived, I couldn’t believe I was here. I felt confused, consumed, and alien. I suppose this is natural. I think it is. But I’ve always wondered about people who stay–why is it that they can bear the brunt of things that make me cringe and cry? For many people, it’s not a choice. For the students of Artsbridge, they don’t have the opportunity to run away. Home is a battlefield. In my own experience, I can’t begin to understand this.

I’m struggling to conclude this posting, probably because Artsbridge is only beginning, and I know my experiences will change how I feel. I’m so excited for what is to come, and I feel more prepared than I’ve ever been. This is not to say that any of this will be easy, but life isn’t easy. It’s messy and horribly broken. There’s a Jewish concept called “tikkun olam,” which means “repairing the world.” There’s a similar concept in Christianity: “go and make disciples of all nations”–not by force, and not by might, but by building relationships with others, as did Christ, for whom “their is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free.” I’m learning that discipleship doesn’t mean force or change. It means meeting people where they are, and staying with them to talk about their lives. It doesn’t mean “correct” or “incorrect.” It means understanding. This is the discipleship I want to live, and in a scary way, I feel that I’ve come to the right place–not to talk about religion, but to break down barriers and realize we are all exactly the same in this world.

I realize this is a self-centered blog today. I’m hoping that eventually I can stop posting about myself and write about my observations from an unbiased perspective. But that’s why I’m not a journalist…not yet, anyway. I love you all, dear family and my friends who I hope are reading this and thinking about me, because I’m thinking about you, and I love you all very, very much.

With love,
Mel

PS–If you want to learn more about this amazing program, please visit www.artsbridgeinstitute.org. You will be amazed.