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"Bubbles, Pioneers, and the Girl from Hong Kong": A Volunteer’s Experience

A volunteer tells of the quarter-hourly miracles he witnessed while working on the exhibit on the American experience in Rimini.

Three months ago, I was privileged to attend the 40th annual “Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples” in Italy, affectionately known as “the Meeting of Rimini,” the largest annual cultural festival in the world. The Meeting attracts audiences from all around the globe, and although few Americans usually attend, we went to present an American exhibit on the American experience and experiment. (To read more about what the Meeting is and “an American’s first experience at the Meeting,” click here.)

The exhibit, “Bubbles, Pioneers, and the Girl from Hong Kong,” was the fruit of over a year of work and countless emails and video brainstorming sessions. The entire exhibit started with an honest question: how is it that the country founded on liberty and the pioneering pursuit of happiness--the “land of the free, and the home of the brave”--has become an isolating place of insecurity, polarization, censorship, and the creation of our very own personal “safe spaces”? 

Two of our friends interviewed Greg Lukianoff, author of The Coddling of the American Mind (cf. Traces, October 2018) about these questions, striking up a friendship with him. Among many other topics, the interview covered the new phenomena of societal fragility and insecurity, including trigger warnings, microaggression, and safetyism, especially on university campuses. These questions sparked our own conversations:  what does this huge societal paradigm shift reveal about dynamics at the individual level, in each of us,--our needs, desires, hopes, and wounds and the temptation to reduce or suffocate them all? These fascinating questions multiplied and challenged each one of us, beginning a long and exciting journey of discovery that went from head to heart. 

I watched my friends take this work seriously and throw themselves into it, even though their lives were already extremely busy (among them were a movie producer, musicians, professors, an architect, and a priest, among others). It was a strange thing to see in today’s world--adults spending so much of their little free-time together pursuing the pressing questions of our time and making an exhibition out of it for the world—strange, but perhaps this is exactly what friends need!

I saw the finished exhibit only when I arrived in Rimini. What struck me was that this was not the typical cognitive exhibit with panels and guides, but it was experiential, alive, like a person. The exhibit included a recording of actors reading the words of various American protagonists who threw themselves into what could be called “the American experiment” with all the hope and desire that the heart can muster. In this sense the exhibit was more a dialogue with each audience member than simply content to be received, a dialogue from one heart--perhaps from a century-and-a-half ago—to another heart here in 2019 longing for the same. 

The recording included the letters of pioneer women surviving on the lonely homestead, the stories of the lives of the first men who walked on the moon after they attained that colossal feat, a journalist’s witness of 9/11, the words of slaves and gangsters, gut-wrenching pieces from James Baldwin, the mysterious “girl from Hong Kong”—and much more--and all of it all accompanied by moving original music composed by two of the curators.

The “content” of the exhibit was--I understood this after guiding so many tours—seemingly inexhaustible. It threw everything on the table, sparing nothing. It helped me to rediscover my dear country, the U. S. of A., and the spirit of a people who pioneered the vastness of the New World by following the promise of infinite possibility mirrored in the endless landscape. But I also encountered the solitude of such a venture: the threat of “the other,” the despair that occurs when reality collapses from underneath and on top of you, and the grit that is then required to create the strongest and most impenetrable shelters around oneself. 

America perfectly epitomizes the complexity of all these dynamics, and the kicker was when I understood that these dynamics are simply a macrocosm of the very same intricate dynamics within me and everyone around me.

Our little corner of the Meeting in Hall A quickly became so much more than a volunteer post; it became a place of miracles. After a few days, I realized--and I suppose this happens with every exhibit--that this was a sacred space, a space of encounters and mercy, where intense gazes and tears were repeated every fifteen minutes from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., tour after tour (we estimated that over the seven days more than 12,000 people went through the one-hour-and-fifteen-minute tour). At the end of each tour, several people would stay, staring for long minutes in silence. Others, crying, would simply say "thank you" and have to leave. Still others would introduce themselves and begin intense conversations with us that could last another hour. 

I remember one man telling me, through my translator, almost like a confession, that the exhibit put him in front of his entire life at once. That's all he could say. One woman said it broke her, in a way she needed to be broken, and opened up the possibility of finally being healed in her situation. A group of friends just kept staring at me. They begged me to take the exhibit to Sicily to show their friends and their town. Another man wrote us an email saying it “unhinged” him--the way only “the Americans can”--waking him up from the “torpor” he didn’t know he was in, giving words to desires and fears he never dared utter, and leaving him with a need and questions that were “ringing.” Another man protested vehemently, saying that it was confusing and there were no real answers, instigating a lively debate among others. Someone responded to him: “It’s because of your protest that I now see how personally challenging this exhibit is to me and all of my freedom, if I take it seriously!”  

One journalist told me that in his forty years of attending the Meeting, this was the most beautiful exhibit he had ever experienced and the event of the Meeting. 

What stunned me wasn’t so much the praise the exhibit received, but the surprising way it exposed a person's position and, more often than not, changed it. A great piece of art does exactly this: it invites us in, softens our outer layers, then burns them down to the ground. And in that heap of charred fears and measures, we become flesh--like children--once again. All we really need to do is let it. 

Thus, our little corner became a place of certainty for me: though I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, jet-lagged, and wanting more free-time, I learned after Day 2 (of 7) that I could bet serious cash on the fact that each and every time I came to this place, something beautiful was going to happen and was in fact already happening. I would go there, and it was true, every time. I kept witnessing an extraordinary event:  seeing human beings (among whom I count myself) so moved and silent in front of themselves and life. And this quarter-hourly miracle was simply par for the course. 

Yet, perhaps more than anything, the hearts and faces of the other guides and volunteers doing the tours, organizing my tours, getting me water, texting me to ask where the heck I was since I was running late to my tour which was about to begin, smiling at me and embracing me every shift, the entire time, even during their own long shifts, made me feel like this place was home, even more home than my own house. I even had FOMO, “fear of missing out,” when I had to leave at the end of my shifts--fearing I would miss some beautiful encounter or conversation, knowing I would. 

A remarkable change happened to each of us volunteers from the beginning to the end of the week. In the beginning, we felt that we there to deliver a certain content or a message to “the audience.” One of the Italian guides said that by her third or fourth tour she understood that she really had to do the exhibit for herself in order to be of any help to anyone else. The more she took it seriously, the more uncomfortable and challenging the unfolding content of the exhibit actually became for her, “just like taking yourself seriously in life,” she said. Her needs and wounds burst forth in each exhibit tour, “as if each time someone was telling me who, or what, I was!” The exhibit revealed us to ourselves, and in that sense was divine. “It was obvious,” said another guide, “that something was happening to us there, that truth really has to be experienced.”

The subsequent seriousness with which all the volunteers took the work for the tours and the exhibit was impressive--as if we had a great and rare treasure we were responsible for sharing with the world. Because of this witnessing to each other--the more important personal work to be done in front of something which could have become so banal and boring--we were able to take each tour, no matter how many we had given that day, with the same level of seriousness and dedication. This is not because we were especially virtuous, but because something was indeed happening to us in front of this thing that was “alive,” as many of the guides called it. 

The most helpful presence in my tours was “little” Tommi my translator, a GS student I knew in the U.S. who had moved back to Italy. Because of a mistake with his volunteer schedule, he was sent to us as a translator. Tommi’s faithfulness to his task was evident: he was always right next to me, ready, accompanying me, and translating my words as seriously as if he were working for the CIA. We felt this great responsibility together in front of the whole world giving these tours, and Tommi's excitement and poverty always put me in the correct position before, during, and after giving the tours. 

We would look at each other at the end of each tour with the same awe and wonder every time, simply stunned at the things that were happening. And the beauty and wonder kept happening. 

The entire Meeting is like this--a place in which is seen and experienced the meaning of a new humanity, a new creation. We were privileged to see it happen again and again in our little corner of Hall A.  As one curator said, “Miracles happen when we give our life to build the work of Another.” I am looking forward with great hope and anticipation to the time when the miracles of the exhibit will also be experienced here in the U.S.  

Jonathan, Denver, CO


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