By Amelia Kanan, CBS Detroit Blogger
Did anyone happen to see this car or these two guys around our city last week? Maybe you ran into them and heard their story or maybe you ignored their “Hi, how are you? I’m doing an art project…” spiel because you didn’t have time for another Detroit art project.
Well, I’m here to tell you a few things about the project that may surprise you: They’re not local, they’re not just artists trying to gain pretentious attention, and what they’re attempting deserves to be heard all around the world. Not only are these two of the most genuine people I have ever met (and I’ve met a lot of genuine people) but they are passionately trying to preserve the memories of, well, everyone and anyone.
The project began years ago, when Matthew Ross Smith was just a boy who loved his grandfather. They took walks together and talked about life, a sort of storybook relationship, and when his grandfather aged, developed Alzheimer’s and passed away, the sadness and coping became a different kind of storybook experience. As fate would have it, Smith grew up to be a writer (he teaches Creative Writing at Temple University) and wrote a children’s book called “The Spaces Between Your Fingers.”
Told in a poignant boy’s voice, Smith describes his relationship with his “Poppy,” experiencing his decline, grieving his death and life after all that. The title is from his grandfather’s own voice, who told him to remember him in the “spaces between your fingers-where my hands used to be.” The book, which you need to read and read to children who might be dealing with this same situation, inspired an idea to connect more than just the spaces between his and his Popp’s hands but the spaces between all of us random strangers with our own stories as well.
Smith’s friends got involved, grassroots began to grow, trials and errors were tested and a plan for a movement was made: The Spaces Between Your Fingers Project. About a month ago, Smith and his friend Phillip Le, also a teacher in Philadelphia, embarked on this journey. The mission is to personally hand out 10,000 blank postcards to all different strangers, from sea to shining sea, in 100 days. On these oversized postcards, there’s space to trace your hand, write your special memory that you want remembered and another space to add a photo of you or drawing of the memory. The cards are already stamped and addressed for their home base in Philadelphia where they will be digitally archived and quite possibly, physically exhibited.
It doesn’t stop at 10,000 postcards either, these guys are simply planting 10,000 seeds. We, the seeds, can create a dialogue, raise awareness and refer others to the place where they can make their own postcard. On the SPYF website, teachers, nurses, family members — anyone — can download a template, print and distribute to help preserve someone’s memory in their own words for generations to come.
I met Smith and Le on day 21 of their journey when they explained the logistics of their operation. In a new city, almost daily, they hit up galleries and public spaces where they approach the local strollers. Since Smith is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Association’s chapter based in Philadelphia, they have a few scheduled stops to lead workshops with senior citizens.
They invited me to sit in on a workshop for a group of seniors at a retirement center in Allen Park where I got to see them in action. Smith shared his grandpa’s story and he and Phillip politely repeated the project premise when information was lost due to faulty hearing aids and smiled while they listened to and helped write stories that were sometime difficult to understand.
The most fascinating part of the experience was how moved Smith and Le were by these stories. I couldn’t help but think of how many times they’ve heard certain stories of a soldier being drafted, someone’s first kiss or the day someone’s baby was born but yet here they were blown away by each story. However, as I sat submerged in simultaneous storytelling, I couldn’t help but feel the emotion in the spaces between the strangers’ voices: “We were married for 67 years,” “It was fun in Tennessee when Elvis was alive,” “My son’s ashes are next to my bed upstairs.” I don’t care if it’s a cliché because it’s true that everyone’s story is unique and all are worthy of getting placed in a space in time for tomorrow’s grandchildren to find.
Smith and Le’s hearts are stimulating a pulse across this country creating this wave of tenderness to flow inside the space between us strangers. To keep the current moving, make your postcard. And maybe, when you find yourself getting upset about this upcoming election or wanting to honk at that person in front of you for not using their turn signal or say something hurtful, think of the postcard. Think of Smith and Le. Think of your grandparent. Think of how you want to be remembered. But, most importantly, think of how much space there is in this world and how much love exists within it.
Thank you Amy DeBrunner for allowing me to experience the wave!
Amelia Kanan is freelance writer/photographer and a returning native of Detroit. A graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, she wrote for an Emmy nominated sketch comedy show and pursued her passion for documentary filmmaking in Los Angeles. An incomplete list of her loves: books, human rights, improv, the smell of new shoes, talking to strangers, libraries, France, yoga, furniture, music, sociology and pushing the limits.