Finding empathy in a time of division

The Frenchtown Empathy Project team (from left) Lynn Glickman, Christine O’Connor, Beth Kephart, Elana Lim, Louise O’Donnell, Jessica Gilkison, Hannah Yoo, Tracey Yokas, and Starr Kuzak. Bill Sulit is kneeling.

Once a month for the past five years I have written in these pages of the intersections between memory and place, art and community, hope and language.

Of a return visit to my grandmother’s Southwest Philadelphia row home. Of the timeless anticipations of the Devon Horse Show. Of the secrets my uncle told in Cape May, the now and then of Locust Walk, the propulsive power of a violin, a cello, a piano, and a voice inside a neighborhood church.

All writers are seekers — of truth, of proof. All of us are chasing the tail end of a song, an indication of meaning, a sudden surge of recollection, the hard edge of the real. I have turned to these pages to celebrate and suggest, to put pictures beside words, to say, Something happened here.

Megan Metz, a partner in the Frenchtown Empathy Project

Last month, in Frenchtown, something happened — a big thing in a small place, an affirmation of art and community for which I am still seeking words.

My husband and I had called this thing the Frenchtown Empathy Project. We’d made it integral to a five-day memoir experience we’d created as part of a memoir workshop. We’d been motivated by a felt imperative to forge bridges between strangers in this time of divisive politics, deafening echo chambers, seemingly insurmountable walls, too much violence.

Perhaps a memoir workshop seems an unlikely laboratory for a community-building project, but I’ve always believed in the we of memoir, in the memoir writer’s implicit responsibility to make room for others on the page, to explore the questions, fears, and possibilities that finally unite us.

In Frenchtown, then, we paired memoir writers from across the country with longtime residents of this fabulously quirky river town. A sensory writer with a beloved chef. An engaged political writer with the local mayor. A memoirist with music in her DNA with a drummer and espresso artist. A memoirist curating her family history for a Smithsonian-affiliated museum with a co-creator of a community theater program. A wise mother with the creator of Real Girls. A former producer of the Oscars with an actress. A writer who understands forgiveness with the local yoga instructor. A woman with well-honed small-town instincts with the owner of the local hardware store. (I was paired with the creator of a thought-inspiring gift shop.)

The Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge over the Delaware River connects Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

We asked our writers to listen as these perfect strangers told their stories. We asked them to pay such close, compassionate attention that later they might write the partners’ stories as their own. Our memoir writers were to yield. They were to apply that pronoun I to another, to imagine themselves so deeply into their partners’ lives that they could speak convincingly both for and as their chosen other.

There were nerves. There was discomfort. There were questions. How do we speak as another without resorting to easy impersonation? How do we trust ourselves to fully gauge another’s story? How do we empathize and imagine without straying into harmful fictions? How do we walk the line between inquiry and intrusion?

My husband and I had worked with these writers before; we trusted them. We’d made several trips to Frenchtown over the course of several months to locate — with the help of Caroline Scutt, the local bookstore co-owner; Catherine Lent, the creator of Real Girls; and Keith Strunk, the co-creator of that theater program — the perfect perfect strangers. We’d received permission from Mayor Brad Myhre to take over Town Hall on a certain Thursday evening for the presentation.

We’d posted signs. We’d held our breath. But we were anxious, too.

Would anybody come to the unveiling of the Frenchtown Empathy Project? Would anyone care about the bridges we’d hoped to forge? Could strangers really speak for strangers? Could we make a difference?

That Thursday evening, Frenchtown’s Town Hall was filled to capacity. Friends and neighbors, folks from neighboring towns, hotel guests: It was something. Sitting along the edge, my husband and I sat and looked out as our writers stood before the crowd and yielded the profound found beauty of those they had come to know, the passions they had listened for, the transitions, vulnerabilities, and choices.

The listened-to were honored. The listeners were honored, too.

“The emotional impact on the room was surreal,” said Mike Tyksinski, the owner of the local hardware story, told us later. “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,” Catherine Lent wrote, afterward.

I share these words because it matters to me that you believe this story I am telling.

On these Inquirer pages, once each month, I search for inciting connections. In teaching memoir, I do the same — seek out common ground, emphasize the power of the pause, urge writers to think beyond themselves.

Now, back home, missing Frenchtown and our writers, I dream of a nationwide eruption of Empathy Projects. Of strangers sitting with strangers, listening to strangers, summoning the words to speak on behalf of strangers. I dream of less rift and more glue, less animosity and more delight, town halls packed wall to wall with compassion.

I dream of the surreal glories of those real moments when we cherish our human commonalities.

Beth Kephart is the cofounder of Juncture Workshops and the author of the newly released Tell the Truth. Make It Matter., a memoir workbook (www.junctureworkshops.com).

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