Sometimes I can’t help but feel trapped in my bubble.
Yes, I can see other people and hear their stories. But I cannot always put myself in their shoes, knowing I did not share their upbringing or experiences, and never truly felt what they felt.
I’ve lived near the Park Slope Armory for 17 years. A YMCA branch debuted there back in 2010, with a track, gym, and fitness classes. But the armory is also still home to the Park Slope Women’s Shelter, which for as long as I can remember drew criticism from some neighbors, who loudly worried about living near its potentially mentally ill or vulnerable occupants.
Aside from seeing the ladies hanging out and smoking on the front steps, however, I have largely kept my distance from the shelter. I have tried to be friendly, saying hi to any women I see as I scurry past to move my car or walk my dog, but otherwise my contact has been limited.
Last year, my friend and neighbor, a local songwriter named Terry Radigan, started working to bring songwriting workshops to the shelter. The programming is similar to work Terry has done for a number of organizations, including Songwriting with Soldiers and my non-profit, InspireCorps, which offers musical and other artistic therapy to kids.
Terry described the work she does at the armory through her Shelter Songs initiative during a small fund-raiser I recently held at my home.
“The armory was something I always looked at, but only knew by seeing a cop car or an ambulance out front,” she said, echoing my feelings about the place as she tried to solicit support, and hopefully donations, from the attendees. “But I went in and said, ‘Let me see if I can sit in a room with these ladies for half an hour and get some ideas going. The guitar is a big softener. No one is afraid of music.’ ”
She went on to recount one of her first sessions at the women’s shelter, where she asked if anyone had ever written a song, or played an instrument, or sang.
“One woman, kind of the ringleader, said, ‘I feel like I’ve been smacked by a nail, but the hammer’s not the one that’s smacking,’ ” Terry told us. “The woman looked at me after she said it and asked, ‘What do you think of that?’ And I said, ‘I think that sounds like a song.’ ”
Terry went on to sing that song, named “Anger Raging Snapping Turtle” by the woman whose mind it sprung from. And like most of the songs she’s written with shelter residents, the tune features humor amidst the pain, its light tone meant to soften the heartbreak, fear, and hopelessness that the lyrics portray.
Inspired by Terry — and my other neighbor Alice Braziller, another longtime shelter volunteer who teaches poetry to its occupants — I recently went to the facility to inquire about bringing my percussion workshop called Get in Tune there.
I began to tie my dog Ginger up outside, at the bottom of the steps that I normally pass at a steady clip. A woman smoking nodded her cigarette at me.
“You know this is a women’s shelter, right?” she asked, eyeing Ginger as if the residents, including herself, were not to be trusted.
But I simply smiled as I walked up the steps.
“Yes, you can keep Ginger company,” I suggested. “She’s really nice.”
It broke my heart that she thought I’d be afraid to leave my dog there. I thought about how much time this woman spent being feared and distrusted, about how long her story had been ignored.
That experience only fueled my desire to get to know these ladies, and to try to help them communicate in yet another way. I am excited to help Terry promote her Shelter Songs program at the Park Slope facility, and hopefully recruit more songwriters for the initiative so it can expand to similar residences across the city.
The songs it yields are transformative — as is the time Terry spends listening attentively to the women’s important, but too often ignored stories.
Stephanie Thompson’s “Talking to Strangers” podcast can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.