Stories of Love, Not War, at the Parrish

Uniting through stories at the Parrish Art Museum
East End residents gathered at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill on Friday to participate in Story Circles, a nationwide event organized by the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture in an effort to gather tales and reflect on the current “state of the union.” Parrish Art Museum

Donald Trump delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, marking the end of his first year in office. In anticipation, thousands of people across the United States gathered in libraries, museums, living rooms, and churches to participate in an annual civic ritual called the People’s State of the Union. Initiated in 2015 by the United States Department of Arts and Culture, a non government organization, the weeklong event invites hundreds of communities nationwide to gather and create Story Circles, where individuals share their thoughts and reflections on the state of the nation.

Then, inspired by these stories, which are transcribed, an invited group of poets collaboratively composes the Poetic Address to the Nation performed and broadcast live across the country on March 23.

On Friday, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill was a venue for the collective Story Circles. The gathering was open only to participants, with no audience in attendance. I joined approximately 50 artists, poets, designers, writers, educators, activists, and regular folks on the East End to pause for some introspection and share our insights and reflections.

My circle consisted of a hodgepodge of people: a high school teacher, an artist, a corporate headhunter, a retired fellow-Briton (who was a citizen), and a part-chef, part-musician, part-recovering heroin addict. A facilitator led the group and a note taker transcribed what we shared.

At last year’s event, also held at the Parrish, and which took place a week after the president’s inauguration, participants spoke of feelings of depression and hopelessness and reported that the opportunity to express their sorrow in a closed group was deeply cathartic.  

Twelve months later and Mr. Trump has been in office for a year. Across the country, marches and protests have been organized to denounce allegiance to his politics and beliefs. A group of activists and celebrities even held their own People’s State of the Union on Monday aimed at countering the presidential speech and promising a more accurate reflection of the state of the union.

Naturally then, I was expecting Friday’s Story Circle to be an evening of heady political frisson. Looking around the theater, set up with seven large circles of chairs, I saw many familiar faces — ardent voices in political movements, locally and on a wider scale. 

The circle’s facilitator was a quiet-spoken young man who started by telling his own story of feeling like an outsider after not spending the holidays with a family he visited every year, or something along those lines. I must admit I wasn’t listening carefully. Instead I was frantically searching my cerebral file cabinet for a good story, but came up blank, stymied by the pressure to convey something meaningful. The recovering heroin addict was talking next and he told of his battle with the drug and his attempts at recovery, and even said that the event reminded him of his Narcotics Anonymous group sessions.

And so we all took turns. Everyone had a story to tell, and surprisingly, each one appeared to have little to do with politics. At least, that’s what I thought that night. My fellow circle people shared accounts of coming to America in the 1960s, the pervasiveness of social media, belonging to Debtors Anonymous, and growing up in the South.

Corinne Erni, a senior curator at the Parrish, and one of the organizers of the event, later agreed that there was a shift in mood from last year’s post-election shock. “On the one hand, there were uplifting personal stories, but there was also a sense that politics has entered and poisoned family life, and people are afraid to talk about politics,” said Ms. Erni, before adding, “I much look forward to the Poetry Night on March 23 to connect to these stories at a deeper, emotional level.”

After a weekend of reflection I realized what could lie behind this trepidation to delve into a war of words over one of the most divisive presidents in modern history.

It was in 2016, during President Obama’s final State of the Union address, when he said, “As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. . . . I can promise that, a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen, inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness, that have helped America travel so far. That’s the America I know. That’s the country we love. That’s what makes me so hopeful about our future.”

For Americans, especially the liberal ones, there appears to be no shortage of outlets today for catharsis and advocacy. Contemporary politics is all feeling; what it lacks is empathy. Debates seem to conclude simply by assembling a mountain of known facts, and discussions all too soon turn into a means of pitting the rational against the irrational.

So, instead, my circle quietly chose the value of calm reasoning over the possibility to coagulate a roiling soup of anxiety, fear, sadness, self-loathing, resentment, and anger. What is the point, after all, in merely recycling sentiments of isolation, economic displacement, and animus toward the D.C. swamp?

With our collective idealism bruised and the refrain of “Yes, we can!” seeming increasingly quaint, it appears that tolerance of one another is all we’ve got.  

In our circle, the evening was a triumph of the sublime. In another, it culminated in a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Scott Chaskey, a poet and the director of the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, who sat at yet another circle, called the night “inspired” and said he looked forward to synthesizing the stories into poetry for the March 23 event. “We’re hungry for this conversation,” he said.