Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Blanket Exercise in Paterson

(The second and final chapter of last Friday's post.)

Just across the street from PS #21 a single doorway, well-marked, opens into a neighborhood center where a meeting was taking place, a meeting of church people from the area and beyond, from Christian Reformed churches along much of the Eastern seaboard.
The people assembled inside were more of a ethnic and racial and gender mix than I'd anticipated, a circle of men and women maybe forty strong. I was there to facilitate "The Blanket Exercise," a teaching tool its creators call "an interactive learning experience that teaches the Indigenous rights history we’re rarely taught."

Yesterday, I heard a historian from Custer, South Dakota, say that with the possible exception of Pearl Harbor, no American military story has a created larger shelf of books than the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn. That may be true, but few really know the story.

Most Americans know trajectory of the story of Native people because it's written on the land beneath our feet: Native people were here, east coast to west and everywhere in between. European colonizers wanted the land and took it. End of story. The colonizers' grandchildren understanding of how that happened is very lean. But then it's not that's fun to tell because it's not a story to be proud of.

The Blanket Exercise tells that story from a Native perspective. Blankets are spread out on the floor and participants are asked to walk on those blankets and continue to walk on them as the story is told and those blankets removed. It's not a pleasant experience for a white man. It pushes those who walk the floor into reflections as unavoidable as they are profound.

And that's what happened last week in Paterson, NJ, across the street from PS #21. We sat in a circle and spoke, one at a time, trying to explain what we'd just heard and experienced. The responses were as distressing as they were beautiful.

"By engaging on an emotional and intellectual level, the Blanket Exercise effectively educates and increases empathy," its creators say. They're not wrong.

But something else happened that morning, something just as penetrating, because great stories beg us right into them ourselves. Great stories open up our own senses and emotions, so that, oddly enough, we become characters in their drama, even when those stories are about hobbits or the Hundred Years War. Great stories transcend time and place because we create a setting for them in and from our own lives.

Last week in the circle we created after the Exercise, more stories were told, a scrapbook of stories that formed around the one that brought all these people together in Paterson, the story we all share, a story so profound the world has never been the same once a stone was rolled away. 

I don't know how better to explain it other than this: the Blanket Exercise brought us together, created for a moment--and maybe longer--a family album.

And I was blessed to be there.

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