By Laura Simms (response to September 11).
Early morning of September 11th before the planes hit the World Trade Center, I was awakened by a dream. I saw the door of my loft, which in reality is a dark blue painted metal Manhattan door, now turned into a window with frilly white curtains looking out onto a garden. Days of mail, as if I had been away for a long time, was pushed under the threshold and lay scattered on the floor. I heard a moan and pushed open the curtain to see my mother, now dead over twenty years, standing outside. She began to sob. I woke up unable to comprehend why she had come. The last time she had appeared outside my door in a dream was to inform me that my father was dying, which turned out to be true. Two hours later Joan Sutton called from California. She told me the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane. I went to my window to see the sky darkened with smoke. Then I turned on the television and didn’t leave the television until later that afternoon when my nephew with a group of strangers, covered in dust, came to my house after walking uptown from a building beside the WTC. My mother had again warned me. This time of my greater family’s death and of the end of my dreamlike sense of security, which was shattered, perhaps the most positive effect of the events.
In response, I began to list stories I might tell in this situation. I was stymied. I put out an alert to Storytell, the HSA list, and friends around the world. So many people responded kindly with marvelous tales. I began to sort through them all. What would I be able to tell? What did I feel was healing, not only in content but in the experience that someone would undergo through the reading or hearing of the tale. My actions were sudden, direct, confused, groundless, and grounded as I changed my mind every day trying to find the form, the means, and the funds. I left a note for a foundation that had hired me on several occasions to tell stories. They loved the idea. They had just finished a booklet of tales told by teenagers about Holocaust survivors. Together they and I began to sort through the stories, many already generously posted on the HSA website. We created a booklet. They asked for more stories. It was focused on children of all ages whose parents or teachers could read the tales, giving voice to emotional and meaningful narratives. It was not direct therapy, nor was it a big resource packet. It was simply those tales I would tell. That was my offering most honestly.
We came up with 18 stories. The letter Chai means 18 in Hebrew, for long life and also my mother’s Hebrew name Chaya (Clara). I began giving away the booklet. Downtown offices asked for them and began to print them in the hundreds for their workers. The South Bronx Resource Center copied hundreds and gave them to families and workers in foster homes. Holland-Knight Charitable Foundation grew more and more involved in the project, dedicating the booklet to a lawyer that worked for them who was a part-time firefighter and was killed in the attack while saving lives. Val Sanford, the designer for Silverwave Records, offered to design the cover which was the only four-color page; and illustrator Tatiana Krizmanic from Croatia donated original art.
A vice president of a company downtown after reading the tales called me to his temporary office. A proposal was designed for me to raise funds to hire an assistant so we could create an office able to carry out the many dreams I had about storytelling in schools in the US, about work I wanted to do abroad, and the creation of a storytelling task force. We have worked seven to ten hours a day since. Much of the fundraising and project design is under a small nonprofit organization I formed in 1997 to raise funds for kids in crisis around the world called GAINDEH, which is a Mende word from West Africa meaning “the first rays of sun in the morning.” The mission of Gaindeh is that all human beings have inherent goodness and regardless of circumstance that goodness is not extinguished, and that storytelling uncovers and nurtures that inner goodness and activates it.
Some parts of the booklet are on the HSA website. The HSA Board made a decision, not necessarily in keeping with the guidelines but in keeping with the urgency of the times, to have an individual’s page on a membership organization’s website. I am really happy that it happened like that since so many new people were drawn to see our website and activities as a result. Now, with the booklet almost published and about to be distributed and used in schools around the country, the website is changing. It will once again become an HSA site to be designed and expanded. It will still maintain some of the Nourishing the Heart Stories, particularly those sent by authors other than myself. The new introduction and related essays, and other stories will be placed on my website, www.laurasimms.com.
As for the booklet, it is about to be birthed and will have a long life of its own in the world thanks to innumerable people whose support in so many ways made it a possibility. When I think about the aspiration and the process I realize that it in itself was a healing process. I had no idea of what would result. I just began–and did one thing after another–listened, made choices, made mistakes and auspicious decisions, never quite knowing what would arise, but knowing in my heart that this was to be done and was important and useful. I want to once again thank the HSA board and particularly Mark Bassett, who designs and maintains the HSA website. Mark spent a lot of time putting it together and reworking it as the process unfolded. My invisible inner dedication is to my mother–to her memory, and her presence, even now. It gives me another kind of faith and acceptance of the reality of impermanence as something normal and inspiring.
Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001