Lesson of the Week: Setting–Places of Safety and Belonging

By Zine Instructor Shaun

Usually in the first week of zine, I ask ziners to write about a place—a place they feel or felt safe.

This can be a challenging prompt for some of them who may be staying in shelter one night, at their aunt’s the next night and who knows where after that. One youth might have spent the night—a mid-winter down pour—huddled up in a Honey Bucket. Another might have found an uncomfortable, but dry, respite in a parking garage.

Many of them have to look to the past for places that resembled normalcy—as exemplified by a youth we’ll call Amelia:

House on 18th St.

Collage by "Amelia"

House on 18th street
an excerpt from Amelia’s Confessions of a Broken Heart

No matter how the day went, I could always go to this place and feel warmth. After 7 years of being away, it was still home… and to this day even though no one in my family lives there— it is still my home. A home that has history as you peel back the layers of paint in each room.  Memories in every square inch of the property.

That house built who I am today. The tree in the front yard was planted the day I was born and my first cat is buried beneath it. The little back bedroom was once my mother’s but was later occupied by me.

This house reminds me of a time when my family was happy. I still to this day catch myself sitting across the street, day dreaming about the happy past. This house was a HOME. A place where I remember my mom at her best. The front yard had tall beautiful flowers, soft green grass and kids playing. The tree house was the place Madison, Cody and I would spend long summer days. Warm laughter from within the home.  A safe place I wish was still mine.

In Zine, we value the longing we often find in youth writing. We consider it a healthy way to mourn. And having experienced upheavals in which they may or may not have had a choice, they often haven’t had a space to process what they’ve lost and how that loss affects them.

Ideally, though, we don’t want to leave them with a feeling of loss.

Part two of my lesson on setting comes with an invitation to think of a place in which they find strength.

To get their minds going, we read an excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street in which the narrator finds empowerment through the image of three small trees growing outside her less-than-ideal home:

            “Let one forget his reason for being, they’d all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.
            When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then I look at the trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.”

            This passage serves as a model for a lot of things our writers could emulate—internal rhyme, lyricism. But also how to find an image of power in our often drab surroundings.

            After reading this passage, a youth we’ll call Jamison wrote his own version:

An excerpt from Jamison’s zine Unhinged 

     I sit under them listening to them share secrets in the wind. On some nights you can hear them, and feel the call, and I wish other people could hear it but sweet songs make beasts of men with chainsaw grins.

One tree for body, one tree for mind, and one tree for spirit. Their tendrils my divine intercessor for things I could never know but always feel.  I lust for that knowledge like their roots lust for water. I need the inspiration as much as they need Sol’s kiss. And the trees feel like they are part of me and I can take comfort in laying prostrate, letting my soul root in the ground that’s there but not quite there;  my own little quantum Eden…

            These trees are my teachers and my brothers, and are we not our brothers’ keepers?  In a million different realities in a million different moments I exist in them all, if only for a second. And I swear I can hear them saying,

“Don’t forget us when we’re gone.”

Jamison arrives at a place of belonging where not only his body, but his soul can take root.

This is a very different picture from the listless transience he experienced on the streets—full of hostility, violence and estrangement.

A few short weeks after writing this, this young man got into housing.

Many factors led to him getting there—a strong will and a good case manager. But it could also be said that the writing he did in the Zine Project provided an opportunity for him to envision an alternate sense of place in which he could find peace.

We mourn, we imagine, we move on.


2 thoughts on “Lesson of the Week: Setting–Places of Safety and Belonging

  1. This lesson was inspired in part by a workshop I did with a non-profit called Art with Heart. Check ’em out at http://artwithheart.org/books/. They do an extended training on an art making guide they created called Chill+Spill. It’s a great resource for therapists and teachers interested in designing activities that get youth writing and reflecting on who they are.

  2. What an amazing posting! It was very inspiring on this melancholy morning. Thank you “Amelia,” “Jamison,” and Shaun for sharing your hearts with those of us who support and admire you.

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