Bearing witness to a weekend of witnessing
by Rachel Monaco-Wilcox
Every year in October I buy a moth orchid. It's the centerpiece I have set in Milwaukee's "The Stories We Tell" workshop space for the past five years. During that time I have held a combination of roles including host, program director, and mentor to others in different cities who want to bring The Voices and Faces Project's innovative program to their community. The orchid is among my "best practices" for creating a space that sets the tone for the entire weekend. The 19-year-old trafficking survivor brings her notebook and a soda in a plastic bag; the army brat brings her skeptical "I'm not talking" face; the banking executive, fifteen minutes late from putting out a corporate fire, brings her tabbed and highlighted writing packet and laptop. I bring the candles, the home cooked meals made by volunteers, the gift bags with small items donated from local shops and the beautiful music.
I have also been a participant in the testimonial writing workshops. As a survivor of child sexual assault, I found it painful to be broken wide open through my writing the first time I took part in the program. A dam had burst on an underground river held within me by thirty years of Type A mask-bearing, by my drive to succeed and by my secrets. Despite the depth of all that emotion, as I wrote through my thoughts and feelings and listened to others do the same, I knew what I was part of was necessary and right.
Instructor R. Clifton Spargo's gift for silence that holds things sacred, just at the right moment, helped all fifteen of us balance out the flood of words, the flow of life's losses and loves that were unlocked in that room. I remember the light falling through the windows, lighting the white moth orchid and its arched neck — it looked like an angel in prayer. Somehow, just feeling the reality of our unique experiences come together in a space to acknowledge them — to say not just what happened to me, but how it felt to me then, how I can or can't talk about it, how it feels to me now — gave me permission to start to knit together the parts I had previously considered imperfect, shameful, ugly, but still undeniably me.
The released current of my spirit was so powerful that it has gradually transformed my career, my health, my relationships, and my destiny. Five years on from that first workshop, I am now executive director of my own nonprofit (LOTUS Legal Clinic) and providing trauma-informed legal services to victims of gender-based violence and human trafficking. That came from being an honest witness to myself, from accepting the power of my own voice instead of fearing it. It came from "The Stories We Tell."
The yearly cycle of hosting the workshop each October has made me reflect on the relationship between my work and my motivations for it. Anne K. Ream, founder of The Voices and Faces Project and the workshop facilitator, often says about the work of testimony and advocacy, "We do not do this work because it is healing. We do it because it is necessary." And she's right. I struggle each day with the strange career kaleidoscope of working with survivors of sexual violence almost 24/7, and balancing my own past with my present vocation. The lesson lies, for me, in remaining vulnerable and open to the irrevocable loss of my childhood due to rape, while at the same time rising up to meet the needs of others in every way I can. The memory of that power within my vulnerability takes me back, every time, to my first workshop in 2012 and my first lines of near-voiceless poetry:
Half a heart,
Wholehearted, always try!
There is no "halfway good."
Half a hole is who I am;
A rim around the sun;
A spot of origin,
Blindspot, dot of wax,
Too close to the melting sun—
In finding those words, I was finding that narrative thread that would help others understand and change, while at the same time helping myself to feel more like one person instead of the Halfway Child of my poems.
In my five years of hosting workshops, Milwaukee writers have had an amazing array of successes post-workshop. Some have made career changes like mine. Ambition can take priority when one is in a leadership role. Success may take a deceiving form — more media interviews, more grants, more awards. There is a deeper kind of success that is more elusive, and more important.
My moth orchids, sitting quietly on the windowsill, the current one in flower radiating light though pale sunrise colored blooms, stand for sixty lives that have been touched through Milwaukee workshops, through the work of Anne Ream and Clifton Spargo and their team at The Voices and Faces Project. They remind me to pause and be humbled by the gift I've been given in this life to take my past experiences and extract the power for good that they hold. They remind me to stay faithful in the day-to-day journey of showing up to do what is asked of me. They remind me of sixty people in this world who deeply understand and love each other because of our shared bond, who believe in the work I'm doing even on days I don't.
In some years my workshop orchids won't rebloom or they'll have just one or two blossoms. One did not survive a cold night outside in late September. Some participants in the workshops don't remain as present in my garden of alumnae — for so many reasons, which I honor. Numbers are fluid. Whether it's sixty people or one person reached by "The Stories We Tell" at any given moment does not matter. The work is worth it. That said, I'll continue to do all I can to help sixty become six thousand.
Rachel is the Founder and CEO of LOTUS Legal Clinic in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which hosts "The Stories We Tell" in partnership with the Untold Stories survivor empowerment program.