On the ride up in the building’s elevator, a sound installation plays. The conference is already insinuating itself into my thoughts and into the everyday. I walk into SALT artspace and am prompted to wash my hands. Erik Fabian, the Goodmeet organizer, pours cool water from a pitcher over my hands. I’m not so much cleansing myself from the swine-flu infested subway poles as I am washing away the stress of a too-busy week. SALT artspace is like a negative exposure of a photograph of New York City: super-clean white walls, shiny wooden floors, peaceful. A bowl of apples and cherries—the yellow kind!—invite well being, and a pot of coffee offers stimulation.
“You are taking part in an experiment,” announces Erik, as we gather around in a circle of folding chairs. “We have a basic theme. And we have a blank schedule.” Erik sets the stage for the day, explaining the concept behind Goodmeet. Everyone is encouraged to create sessions that explore the theme of sanctuary through purposeful dialogue, playful games, and the arts. “You have the opportunity to make this day what you want it to be,” Erik says.
People begin scribbling sessions down in magic marker on blank rectangles of paper and taping them to the wall:
- Tour of SALT: Story and vision for a contemporary community art space
- What is “sanctuary” and why do we seek it?
- The language of repose
- Discuss examples of existing sanctuaries, both permanent and ephemeral
- Relics and rituals: Are they relevant?
- What about home is or is not a sanctuary?
- What is a labyrinth? Let’s design and walk one.
- Portable sanctuary. How to create sanctuary anywhere you go.
- Card games
Products of The System, of changing classes when the bell rings, of routinely shuffling papers in our cubicles from 9 to 5, we don’t know where to begin, how to start. Everything is so freeform. We need a leader to rise up and tell us what to do, to boss us around. A woman speaks up. She is holding a session on session-planning. Everyone circles around her. Am I the only one that thinks this is ironic? Isn’t the idea to disperse and form new clusters? To think beyond the rules? When her session is over, the next woman steps in, suggesting that instead of breaking off into separate groups we all attend her icebreakers session. I hate icebreakers. I hate forced group participation. In fact, when the question arises of who likes thinking outside the box—a question that is supposed to get everyone moving in endorsement—I stand firmly planted. I’m a rule-follower, a cross-your-ts dot-your-is grammarian, who finds comfort in the box … as long as I have the option to leave the box if I so choose. But then we’re told to break into pairs and introduce our partners. Intimacy transpires. We begin knowing each other on a deeper personal level. These aren’t just guys with tattoos and girls with arty earrings; these are multifaceted individuals who have ridden their bikes across the country and who have survived war, these are seekers of love and lovers of words, these are building owners and instructors at MoMA. Each individual has a life story and brings a unique vantage point. Everyone is in this together, encouraging and inspiring one another along the way.
We begin trusting each other—and even trusting ourselves. We open up and start spreading out, breaking off into various sessions. Two people record sounds out on the rooftop. One man facilitates a discussion on the definition of the term “sanctuary.” On a tall mirror he writes in marker the discussion points—words like “boundaries,” “strength,” and “peace”—people throw out. Each individual’s image is reflected back to them, mottled together with these big ideas. The session ends when the session ends, one of the tenets of Goodmeet, but two people hang back, expanding upon the topic of Christianity that had been brought up. Down the steps in another room, some women have, like playful little kids, built a fort. They’ve found sanctuary under some tapestry they’ve strewn over a couple of chairs and are breaking down physical barriers by being in such close proximity to each other and writing on one another. Occasionally, they interact with the group right outside of their tent. That group is sitting quite properly at a table, and its members have taken off their shoes because sanctuary is a holy place. On a large piece of paper taped to the wall, they are listing out the positives and negatives associated with sanctuary. That discussion ended, the women have emerged from their tent and are now answering what the language of repose means through body language as they dance and pose each other. Conversely, the two men in the group have set themselves apart and are deep in thought. One speaks, and poetry comes out. Back upstairs a group of girls are giggling around laptops and ipods. Behind them is a sign: Share your ideas of places to find sanctuary in New York City.
I am sitting on the stairs by myself, listening, writing, invoking Erik’s words that, “It’s okay to be alone … for the whole day if you choose.” Grace Hwang, founder of SALT artspace, had invited me to document Goodmeet@SALT. She’d encouraged me to participate as I felt led. I am finding sanctuary today, though, in being a fly on the wall. It is peaceful listening in on conversations about discovering little safe havens within the hustle-and-bustle of New York City; about the fact that “The marine corps practices sanctuary because it is brutally essential”; and about the ability to find sanctuary even amongst depravity when you know Christ.
The freedom to do whatever one wants, to flow in and out of sessions, creates a sense of peace and purpose. Goodmeet@SALT itself has become a sanctuary. After a challenging week, I am getting just what I need out of this conference, which feels more like a retreat: an opportunity to spend eight hours soaking in creative energies and documenting artists at work through my writing. We leave Goodmeet@SALT exchanging email addresses and promises of future dinners full of more thought-provoking discussion.