The Frenchtown Empathy Project: The Power of Trust in a Broken World

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Over the past many months, as our country has veered toward and sometimes cemented divisions and oppositions, Bill and I have been building the Frenchtown Empathy Project, an event that hoped for, in fact depended on, trust among perfect strangers.

We were bringing our Juncture memoir writers to this New Jersey town for five intense days of reading, writing, and growing. We were adding to their enormous workload (they'll tell you) another layer by asking them to search for connections in the community we'd chosen as our host.

Lynn Glickman, a memoirist expert in delineating the colors and temptations of a kitchen, was paired with Julie Klein, a Frenchtown chef (Lovin' Oven).

Starr Kuzak, a memoirist with music in her DNA and tenderness in her soul, was paired with Carolyn Gadbois, a drummer and espresso artist.

Hannah Yoo, a memoirist seeking (and finding) forgiveness for a wrong committed against her father, was paired with Bonnie Pariser, a yoga instructor.

Christine O'Connor, a deeply engaged political thinker and writer, was paired with Mayor Brad Myhre.

Louise O'Donnell, a memoirist who has retail community in her history and a love of all things people in her heart, was paired with the owner of town central, otherwise known as the hardware store (Mike Tyksinski).

Elana Lim, a memoirist whose family history is now on display in a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, was paired with the co-creator of a community theater program (Keith Strunk), while Tracey Yokas, who is not just writing about seeing her daughter (and herself) through a crushing chapter in both their lives but was also once an above-the-line producer for shows like the Oscars and the Emmys, was paired with the theater's other co-creator (Laura Swanson).

Jessica Gilkison, a memoirist writing about the wisdom we find as we lose a mother and parent a fluid, truth-seeking child, was paired with the creator of Real Girls (Catherine Lent).

I, meanwhile, had the opportunity to talk about gifts and gift giving with Meg Metz, who created and curates one of the finest stores anywhere (Modern Love), where the door really is always open.

Bill and I could not have created this project without enormous help, of course. Caroline Scutt of the Book Garden stepped in and made lists of people and sent emails when we presented our scheme. Catherine Lent and Keith Strunk made suggestions. Those we contacted said yes to a project that, by any standard, was utterly untested. They agreed to be interviewed by people they didn't know and to have their lives retold by voices that, well: Who were these people? All in advance of an outcome no one could predict.

Would our writers get it right? Would anyone come to the reading at Town Hall? Would this empathy mission, this bridge building, fall flat on its face? Would our theory about the power of listening and the integrity of reaching beyond one's own self be confirmed or shattered? Nerves were expressed. Bill and I shook our heads in quiet midnight anticipation. And then, Thursday morning as the writers rehearsed in the lobby of our home base, Pete and Marlon's National Hotel, I knew, as well as I've ever known anything, that something magic was about to go down.

It did. Frenchtown's Town Hall on Thursday night was jammed. Our writers were flawless. Our audience was leaning in. This odd thing we'd called the Frenchtown Empathy Project, this hope we'd had to build bridges in a time of fragments: it worked. It just worked. We all sat there. We listened. We knew.

Here is our Mike, in a note to us yesterday:

... Last night or actually this week has been a transformative experience for me and others here in Frenchtown. I spent time sharing who I am with a complete stranger as did several others, who then took some of my stories, got up and spoke as me in front of a room full of people some I knew and some I didn't. I sat between the Mayor and my neighbor Doug. The emotional impact on the room was surreal. It was as if we all became kindred souls through the sharing of ourselves. Oh by the way Louise my writer chose to include naked curry. The room was in stitches.
We build community one person by one person, one listening stranger by one vulnerable soul.

Truth is this.

 [A PS thank you to Brenda and Officer Titen, who made sure the doors were open for us.]

2 comments:

Catherine Lent said...

Beth, your team of nomadic writers were a perfect fit for our town...we loved having you! Jessica, my author-self, became an instant friend as we were struck nearly dumb by the number of Things We Share in Common...and rather than find that odd and rare, we chose to find it affirming and natural... because we're all on this human journey, and while there are differences galore, the commonalities are everywhere. We are so much more alike than unalike. We need each other. We need only open the door to the "stranger," and a sister walks in. She worked magic under your inspiring tutelage. It was a beautiful treat. Those of us who knew all the subjects learned something, or several somethings, about each of the others...many of whom we've known for Many Years. The gifts kept coming...thank you.

Beth Kephart said...

Catherine, you understood at once what we hoped to achieve. You opened doors. You opened your own door. I'll be forever grateful. And Jessica is so very special.

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