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150 Years of Stories
By Paisley Hibou
Plastered in my “respectable” make-up and clothes, I walked up to the iron-wrought fence with a tote bag. I curled my fingers around the tracery to catch myself from falling. It was a typically hot and humid July afternoon in Washington and I had spent the past hour exploring Capitol Hill. Even a big can of sweet tea wasn't enough to revive me. I was in a stupor. But no matter how out of it I was, I could still appreciate the beautiful Civil-War-Hospital-turned-community-art-space before me. This would be my office for the next week. My task—and my joy—would be to mentor two fourth-grade girls in writing short stories.
Old buildings carry the magic of many people and their experiences. Sometimes that magic is good magic; sometimes that magic is black magic. I prefer to think of hospitals as places of healing rather than places of illness and death. Even during the Civil War, when wounds and disease were a sad reality that contributed to a high mortality rate, I try to imagine the anguished nurses sacrificing rest and sanity to save the soldiers. No matter the outcome—positive or negative— the intent to cure was always positive. The nurses loved the soldiers the way they loved their brothers as they fought together for the same cause.
That positivity fueled my young writers and me for the week. It seeped from the old walls and floors and into our heads and hearts. The girls and I never once discussed how the building where our workshop took place was once a hospital. Instead we saw the paintings and photographs on display, and the posters for upcoming receptions. In passing, we saw other children throwing pottery and piecing together mosaics. Everyday before, during, and after workshop, we witnessed the act and celebration of creation. People go to art school and enroll in creative writing programs for that reason: to be immersed in the spirit of creation. But that creative energy was not all that was at work.
On our second-to-last day, the art center's administrative staff had placed us in a small side room that also seemed to be used for storage. While the girls were tapping away at their keyboards, I noticed an unlabeled cardboard box. It stood out because all the other boxes had something scrawled in Sharpie on the side. Curious, I pulled open the flaps and saw two thick stacks of books. It was a new title about D.C.'s Civil War sites. With the federal government being such a prominent industry in D.C., it's easy to overlook everything else the city has to offer: the second biggest theatre scene in the country (after New York and before Chicago), a flurry of competitive and recreational river sports, and even something as seemingly obvious as Civil War history. Washington was, after all, the capital of the Union.
I started flipping through the book for the last five minutes before the girls would read their latest paragraphs to me. And the other explanation for the girls' productivity during the week suddenly clicked: This old building had stimulated their creativity simply by being old. The building had changed more than we could ever know over the past 150 years. My girls' short stories and the story we had lived by workshopping there that week would become a part of the building's ongoing (and hopefully never-ending) history. Thus I will always champion the muse of historic architecture.
#CreativeWriting #Teaching #Education #CivilWar #NavalHospital #Pedagogy