Monday, April 28, 2014

Making a Place and Holding It

I am finishing a book titled In My Home There Is No More Sorrow, by Rick Bass.

In it, he chronicles ten days he spent in Rwanda, along with writer Terry Tempest Williams.
The two writers are there for many reasons, among them to teach a two-day writing class to Rwandan students.

At the end of the first day of the writing class, Terry Tempest Williams states, for a second time, that no women have shared their writing.  The class has forty-one men and four women.  She states that she wants one of the women in the class to read.  This is Bass's account:

She just stands there, waiting.  Arms crossed.  Letting the pressure build. 
Standing next to Terry in that increasingly awkward silence, I'm reminded of how much I dislike confrontation, how much I crave the serene.  It seems to me that it's not the forty-one young men who are shouldering the pressure filling up the room, but rather, the four women, and my overwhelming instinct is to back off---hasn't it already required enough of their courage just to sign up for the club, and to show up?  Why make it even harder and more unpleasant for them?  Why not trust them to come forward only when they are ready, and not before? 
The women---two in the front, one in the middle, one in the back---look deer-in-headlights petrified.  I cut a glance to Elizabeth---durable, beautiful Elizabeth with her practice in social situations, speaking all day, every day, to passing-through strangers at the memorials---but she looks no more ready or willing than the other three.  I'm almost about to make a request of her, to get me out of my discomfort; I'm just about to give her that look, that silent ask.  Instead, I lean over to Terry and whisper, How about if we just say that we want a woman to read before class is over?
Terry's so pissed at my suggestion that she won't even look at me.  No, she says, we're not going to do anything until a woman reads.  We have the time.  Her penetrating gaze moves from one woman to the next, to the next, to the next: summoning them all, and, I have to say it, communicating something to which I am not privy.  I don't understand why, if she wants to advocate for these women, and they don't yet want to speak---she is trying to force them to.  I am not seeing it clearly.  I can see that there is something between her gaze and theirs---it's a real thing, you can feel it; they are watching her, even as they are steadfastly refusing to say yes---but I have no idea as to the nature of it. 
As a result, no one is more surprised than me when the tiny woman seated at the very back stands up as if levitated, announces that her name is Anne-Marie, and begins to read.
You know that feeling when, while encountering a great story---when you are first in the thrall of what you are hearing or reading---you begin to make the transition from hope for its promise to full faith?  That magical lift you get when you first understand that the excellence you are experiencing is going to be sustained and even enhanced, all the way through?  A beautiful stillness enters the room, in such readings, and this is what Anne-Marie's is like; and though her voice is quiet in the beginning, it gathers strength as she realizes the spell she is casting.  When she finishes, she looks up at Terry, altered, no longer shy or hesitant.  If she ever was.    
Later on, I will confess my moment of weakness to Terry---how I couldn't believe what a hardass she was being, how uncomfortable it seemed like she was willing to make the four women in order to elicit a reading---but Terry will shake her head and say that it wasn't about that at all, that she was only letting them know that she was making a safe place for them, and that she would hold it there; that they were waiting to see if she would be able to hold it. 


  1. Yes---me too!
    Love how he captured the building tension before it blossomed into a wonderful and unexpected surprise.