dailybell: Dear Anne and Claire,

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dear Anne and Claire,

This is in response to your comment on 1/8/08 when you ask me about "life with a bell". It's surprises me that I even have a "life with the bell" since I have never been especially attracted to bells. I've always had a few little bells around that I liked- delicate sounds and nice objects. However, it wasn't until that last trip with a very large bell that I became attached to such a large inanimate object. It was very comforting somehow to look into the rearview mirror and always know that the bell would be right there behind the car.

The bell I am driving around at the moment is a different bell than the one I traveled with during the Bell Project. I was really sad to give that one away at the end of 5 weeks, but it was promised to The Exploratorium and destined for a particular job in the museum. This bell I am using now belongs to my husband and I, and it’s nice to finally put it to work after letting it sit in the yard for almost a decade. As a cast iron school bell manufactured during a time when these types bells were so mass produced as to even be sloppily made, it was made to simply do a job.

So my “life with bells” is really something I am discovering as it goes along. On the one hand, I am realizing that each bell is special and has a unique presence (I don’t want to say personality) and of course, it’s own sound. These cast iron bells don’t have a pretty sound- especially up close. They are LOUD and harsh. But they were engineered to transmit the distinctive sound as far as possible so that people could communicate at great distances. The message had to be very simple, but it was effective. I am just beginning to discover the potential of this kind of non-specific, effective alerting and delivery system.

I am attracted to the big bell because it is so loud and can get the attention of people who are not immediately nearby. Because the sound of the large bell carries so well, it can function as an attractor and gather people together. This gathering together can either be in real physical proximity or in terms of communal awareness of a single moment in time. I am very attracted to idea of a community of people united in awareness, even if it’s momentarily. Don’t you think that’s potentially very powerful? And empowering?

This kind of ritualized observation and celebration of nature and of a very basic cycle that is common to all of humanity has been practiced by many cultures and religions since the dawn of time. We here in the United States, don’t have much general awareness of this kind of practice these days. When I drove that other bell around, most people saw it as a symbol of something long before they ever really thought of it as a large sound-making object. They wanted to know why I was driving it around and what it meant. Was this a protest? Something to do with “freedom”? I stood between people and the bell and people wanted me to supply a satisfactory answer or reason in order for them to participate. Often my answer was a prerequisite for their willingness to ring the bell.

The exceptions to this reaction were in the Gulf region and in the border towns in Mexico. Many of the people we encountered in Mississippi and New Orleans didn’t need to ask for a reason to ring the bell. Whether it was symbolic or not, the bell fulfilled some very basic function that people intuitively understood. People grabbed hold of the bell when we were stopped in traffic and rang it.

The same thing happened when we were in Mexico. There were many churches in the towns we drove through. These little towns had Churches with real bells that were rung regularly. And it was very noisy on the streets. Yelling, singing, a loud radio, sparks from welding, car horns - such a cacophony of noises from daily living. You need the sound of big bells to cut through the basic ambience on the street. People needed no invitation to ring the bell there either. We’d be stopped in congested traffic and suddenly feel a powerful tug at the back of the car as someone grabbed the wheel and swung it. Then- the really loud bong that followed. It was such a different and much more joyful experience than what we had experienced all along the East Coast where it was like pulling teeth to get people to even stop long enough to talk about the bell.

Anyway, for this project, I am not wedded to any particular bell. In fact, I usually ring little tiny bells in the mornings because I don’t want to wake up my neighbors. At least not everyday. Now and then, I ring the large bell a few times (very few) because it really does have a more ceremonial quality to it that I also like.

So, that’s my first attempt to describe what “life with a bell” is like so far.

How about you?

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