Thursday, September 10, 2009

A moment of (urban) silence: Interview with Molly Beth Emerick of CITYSIT

A few months ago at The Trunk Show for Rene, I met a woman who told me she specialized in "helping people create quiet." Um, like, white noise machines? I asked. No, she said. I invite people to a space in the middle of downtown, where they can be perfectly still, for just 20 minutes. No noise allowed.

I was intrigued.

The woman is Molly Beth Emerick, and she's trying out this idea tomorrow. It's called CITYSIT, and they are taking RSVP's today to reserve spots. It happens in the Monarch on 5th St., and there will be three "sits:" morning, noon, and night. The official names for these are "Urban Silence," and CITYSIT also has plans in the works to do longer, more extended silence programs for stressed-out urbanites: CITYCAMPS.

I thought the whole idea of manufacturing quiet for downtown Austin, one 9-to-5er at a time, was so offbeat and cool that I invited Molly Beth to come talk about it on Austin Eavesdropper. Read on to hear Molly Beth's insights about Austin's silent secret.

First things first, Molly Beth: introduce yourself. What is your background?

My education and profession for many years was architecture. I’ve also been an art educator teaching at risk youth through an outreach program created by Dougherty Arts Center, volunteered with the teen program at Arthouse, created after school architecture programs for the Eanes School District, and founded a non-profit art studio for kids where we did collaborative art projects and musical performances showcasing their work in professional galleries. I’ve also worked in the hospitality, restaurant and retail industries. For the past five years I have brought art, meditation, and life skills courses to incarcerated women as a volunteer at Lockhart prison. I am a wife, a mother to 3+2 boys, and currently a sous carpenter-remodeling our home.

What is CITYSIT?

The idea for CITYSIT came from wanting meditation to be more accessible and approachable. I wanted people to know that they could be a regular (very) busy person like me and still make time for sitting still. It’s added such dimension to my life over the past 6 years but, it’s hard to share exactly what that is with someone. They really have to experience it for themselves. We’re here to help them get started.

CITYSIT is an opportunity to experience everything and nothing. We sit quietly for about 20 minutes and then do a variety of activities that promote an exchange of observations for 40 minutes. Eventually we plan to add longer sits, but this format always gives newcomers an opportunity to get in some practice that’s simple and fun. It also helps them create a network of support.

Does this kind of thing happen anywhere else? Like in other urban metroplexes?

Not yet. We’re launching here in Austin but have plans to go to other cities as well.

I remember meeting you at Rene's Trunk Show a few months back, and you said something that really struck me: "These days, it is hard for people to find quiet in their days." But couldn't someone just go sit in their car for a while? How does CITYSIT provide, for lack of a better phrase, “quality” silence?

We hope that people will just sit in their cars, at home, wherever. That really is the whole point of what we’re doing. But, the reality is that most people won’t. We all know people that have had more success starting an exercise program when they joined a gym then when they tried doing it at home by themselves. (I’m one of them!) We provide a structure for comfortable, quiet space. This place also gives people the opportunity to establish a regular habit around others who have the same commitment to sitting still. We scout cool locations all over town to find businesses that support this as well. It’s the combined intention of all these folks coming together to invest in each other that makes it so powerful.

How much does it cost to for one hour of CITYSIT: Urban Silence?

It ranges anywhere from $3 to $9 depending if you choose a one-time event where you just show up, if you pre-register, buy a session pass or an annual passport. If you become a member you get discounts and support the outreach work we do with non-profit organizations. No matter how you participate you are always one of our silent partners.

For those of us who want a little more CITYSIT, tell us what CITYCAMP is all about.

CITYCAMP is for people that want to explore silent territory in either half or full day weekend programs. We sit in intervals throughout the day that gradually increase in length. In between each sit, we send you out in groups or individually to the urban landscape to use these observing skills and report back. Sometimes this looks like a scavenger hunt, a photo shoot, a street interview, etc. When we come back together we sit some more and then assemble all of the information as a group creative project. The result is a “souvenir” that each person will take with them to remember their experience.

I remember you saying that your CITYSIT team can also be hired out for offices or homes, to help create more peaceful atmospheres. Give us an example of how you might restore peace to a particularly cacophonous space?

First, we do a couple of activities with the person to have them experience the level of “noise” in the current space and create a list of intentions for the new space. Noise can be created by clutter, technology, circulation patterns, functional issues, etc. If there is a lot of clutter we remove it, or repurpose it. Sometimes people are comforted by the things they collect. So, it’s often a challenge for them to let go of it. We bring common sense, clarity, and a sense of humor to this process. We clear the space, prepare it, then thoughtfully select the items, colors, textures, and furnishings that go back into it based on the information we gathered at the beginning. We can create quiet space in a tiny corner or a whole building.

Tomorrow, you'll be following the 20-minute CITYSIT with music and art. Tell us about these folks?

The art installation is really created by the public. We’ve set the scene with eight 300lb blocks of ice that create the circle where the chairs will be placed. The water that will be collected throughout day as the ice thaws is symbolically represented in 182 preserve jars that line the candlelit store front window. These jars were found discarded on a lawn of a house that we tore down in East Austin. They were originally part of another exhibit on the East Austin studio tour a couple of years ago. We’ve also used that recycled lumber from the home to create the bases for the ice blocks. After sitting quietly, each person will be adding something to each of these vessels that will represent their participation in the silence. We don’t want to give away too much. It’s an easy activity that takes a few moments and is a simple gesture that speaks volumes.

Then, we’ll end the day with a completely unplugged performance by Mother Falcon. We chose this group because of their youthful exuberance, amazing collaboration (8-12 talented musicians) and orchestra instruments. We think the strings will sound great in this concrete space! Their brand of baroque pop music is garnering a huge following around town. Here’s a link to a recent review in the Austin Chronicle, and their MySpace page.

Thanks for joining us on Austin Eavesdropper, Molly Beth!

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