I was out for a run on a trail near my home in San Diego. It was very hot, which, combined with my lack of fitness, meant that my run had actually been reduced to a walk. The change of speed helped me to notice things more closely. Crossing over the smooth rocks in the dry bed of an arroyo my eye was caught by the lightening-blackened scar on a dead, twisted manzanita branch on the ground. Manzanita is a beautiful, small tree that grows in southern California. It has a rich, dark red bark that is striking against the dry rock, scrub, and sand. On the piece I stumbled upon, that rich red had been replaced by weathered grey. Its former beauty disguised by the onslaught of trauma and death. It was exactly what I was looking for.
I’ve always enjoyed working with wood and this most recent enthusiasm came from an ongoing source of inspiration, John Paul Lederach. While working with John Paul at his Alpenglow Retreat Center in Colorado a couple of years ago he’d walked our small group through the process of making a talking stick. Talking sticks are common to many indigenous cultures. They help create spaces in which all voices are heard. While holding the talking stick, your voice is the sole focus of attention.
We were working with aspen, ‘the healer of the forest’ as it’s often referred to. John Paul talked us through the ways in which a road traffic accident 15 years ago had forced him to take time away from the intensity of his peacebuilding work and how the process of healing his body brought him to a space of moving more slowly and with more care. On his walks in the woods around his Colorado mountain home he began to pay attention and to be present to all that surrounded him. As verdant expressions of life fought for the focus of his gaze, he found himself instead drawn to the contrast of the dead wood at his feet or to the sides of the path. While enjoying the beauty of life growing around and above him, he felt drawn more to the imperfection of that which had been discarded, its life force ended and its beauty hidden. Seeing parallels from his vocation as someone trying to make the world a more peaceful place and accompanying people on the margins of society, he began to look more closely at what he calls “the below and beyond” and to notice what he had not seen before. Taking these pieces home, his own healing was enhanced through working with them, scraping away the dry bark, then cutting and sanding them to reveal an inner beauty that had been unseen or ignored. What may have been perceived as ugly, ignored and useless was given new life and appreciation through the patience, love, and presence of an artist.
John Paul gifts the pieces he makes to people whose work he wishes to support and acknowledge. As he works on the wood, he thinks about that person and all that they do. This focused attention is how Irish writer and poet John O’Donohue describes prayer. He talks about “holding someone’s presence like an icon on the altar of your heart”. I spent many hours working on that piece of manzanita, sanding away and restoring its beauty. A year ago I gave it to John Paul as a 60th birthday gift, my meditation and gratitude for his work and presence in the world infused along each grain of the wood.
Yesterday evening I presented the most recent pieces I’d been working on to peacebuilders living thousands of miles apart, but committed to learn from each other and sharing a passion to transform conflicts in their communities. Milad Vosgueritchian and Manar Wahhab Vosgueritchian, founders of Vision Association for Culture and Arts in Bethany, Palestine, were visiting San Diego. Their great friend Jon Huckins, co-founder of The Global Immersion Project, was hosting them. I became familiar with Milad and Manar’s tireless and deeply challenging work through Jon who is a neighbour, colleague, and friend. I wanted to acknowledge all that they do through a gift that would support them in their work and remind them each time that they felt the weight of despair and lack of hope, that they were not alone. I gave Manar and Milad a piece of aspen from Colorado that John Paul had cut. As I worked with it I thought about their passion for the arts and creativity as a tool to transform conflict, the children and youth they work with, the intense pressures they live under, and the light they bring to people’s lives. I imagined this piece of wood being looked upon with eyes that had seen too much suffering and held by hands that had carried too much pain. I gave thanks for the stories that this small piece of wood might unlock.
My gift for Jon, whose work focuses on encouraging people to build peace in their own community, was a candle-holder made from a small but beautifully intricate piece of wood my daughter Eloise had found in the park just a stone’s throw from his house. I knew that this local connection would carry great meaning, significance and value for him. While we were together in Colorado a month ago, John Paul had helped me in the process of creating it. What was once merely an insignificant, broken piece of wood has now been transformed into something precious through the gift of attention, focus, and love.
Scattered around the world are people like myself, who’ve been similarly inspired by John Paul to look for the potential beauty of a talking stick in something someone else would walk straight past, throw for a dog, or burn. We see a pile of wood and wonder how many conversations they could facilitate. We walk past a fallen branch and dream about how many voices it could call from silence. We want you to join us in this process. A short while ago I had the idea of creating a kind of ‘Guild of Talking Stick Makers’ who would make talking sticks for people doing peace work around the world. For us, this reflective practice is essential in enabling us to continue with the work we do. It also offers us an opportunity to create new “webs of relationships” as John Paul talks about in his book ‘The Moral Imagination’, while supporting and affirming the often unheralded efforts of people whose work we will gladly encourage.
So, we’re inviting you to join us on this adventure. If you have a friend or colleague whose work you’d like to acknowledge and show appreciation for, please nominate them to receive a talking stick here. John Paul does not charge money for the talking sticks he creates and neither will we. This is a labour of love. The many hours it takes to make each piece would make the cost unaffordable anyway. Depending on circumstances we may ask for a contribution towards shipping costs. The most important thing is for you tell us as much as you can about the person you are nominating. Why do you want them to receive this gift? How might they be able to use the talking stick? With whom do they work? Whoever makes the talking stick will be thinking about this person as they do so. For us it will be a wonderful invitation to reflect, meditate, express gratitude, and connect.
We can’t guarantee that everyone who is nominated will receive a talking stick or that a particular person will make it. We wish we could. We do promise though that we will do our very best to keep up with demand and if that means that more people join us in this process of making talking sticks, we’d be thrilled to have you on board!
(Written by Michael Fryer & originally posted on the Space Blog at www.space-bangkok.com.)