“Silence will never console your secrets.”
What is a story you never tell? Is it a secret? Does it disappear or dissolve? Or does it climb into your thoughts and whisper, speak me? We are limned by the stories we tell. They make us visible. But stories need a community of listeners as well as tellers. For the mothers who live at the Clinton Family Inn (Homes for the Homeless) that community can be found at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan where I have volunteered as a writer for the past five years.
Each week we welcome up to twelve mothers and their children. Despite the pressures on the lives of these families, the desire to attend week after week, from October to June is strong. Every session, approximately 30-32 each season, we have a balance of returning mothers and new participants, many of whom will themselves become regulars.
The complete format of this two hour program includes an hour of mommy-and-me type activities including free play, singing, reading, etc. We also use the time for informal conversation with the mothers while the children are engaged with the museum’s early childhood educators. Seated around the art table for the project of the day, the child-size furniture creates an immediate intimacy. “When I’m at the shelter, I stay in my room and don’t talk to anybody.” The mothers recite this refrain often, but their chatter shows a magical alchemy has already begun to occur—isolation is being transformed into connection. During this time, I, or the program’s other writer (poet Catherine Barnett), might also work with the mothers one-on-one on the pieces they wrote the week before.
After a communal lunch, the women begin the second hour with a rap session led by a social worker. “How has motherhood changed you,” she might ask. Or, “Does anyone want to share what brought them to the shelter?” The women open themselves slowly to their own feelings and to the group. One woman cries, a tissue is passed, a hug is given, heads nod—“Yes,” “I know,” “Me too.” The women are then guided in writing exercises that help lead them down pathways of deeper exploration to find the story that must be told. Sometimes they work together to collaborate on a poem or dialogue. Sometimes their work is solitary; they go on a voyage in which they think they are alone. But when they share their words with each other, they realize they were never alone. You are like the mirror looking back at me, one mother writes. The women are each other’s mirror, prism, magnifying glass. What one sees, they all see. The alchemy from isolation to community is complete.
What happens when there is no place to tell stories, when the words pile up behind the heart?
“Shame my soul for everything I hold inside.”
“Darkness hurts your soul.”
These nuggets of wisdom fill the pages of the anthology of the women’s writing that Catherine and I create at the end of each year and in the voices heard at the standing room only public reading with which each season culminates.