I have recently had the pleasure to begin a correspondence with the founding-editor of Coalesce, a new online journal, one that I think would be of interest to The BeZine’s readers and contributors. So I invited that editor, Erich Keyser, to share with us about Coalesce and his journey that led to it.
Connecting Through Our Stories
COALESCE is a community where people can come together by sharing their personal human story through creative nonfiction, poetry, and photo essays. We all have a personal story to tell. The way we were raised, the hardship we’ve faced, the people we’ve met, and the lessons we’ve learned. The experiences that have shaped us, good and bad, painful and joyful, challenging and rewarding. But how often do we get to share part of our story openly, feeling truly heard and understood? COALESCE is a place to be unequivocally listened to and heard, and hopefully to activate our empathy and initiate a spark of compassion and greater understanding. We never know what someone has been through. Sometimes, we aren’t even fully aware of how our own traumas and experiences have impacted us and then influence the way we see and treat others.
With our current fast-paced culture of immediacy and business, when time is money, and political perspectives equate to perceived threat, it’s hard to slow down and listen. Misinformation, misjudgments, and misunderstanding lead to fear, which prevent us from connecting with others. A global pandemic forced us to stop and listen for a brief moment in time: we could hear the birds in the city, dolphins returned to canals of Venice, people went for walks outside, had to sit with their own feelings and thoughts in their heads (scary!). Yet, there seemed to be a rush to get back to “normal” – to traffic-jammed commutes, to quick greetings of “how’s it going?” without stopping to listen for the reply. While in ways this pandemic brought us together, it also sharpened the divides and exacerbated the anxieties in our society. I think that now, even more than before, it is important for us to listen to each other.
COALESCE began about a year and a half ago when I was in the depths of a state of significant loneliness, fear, and depression. I was in self isolated quarantine in Guelph, Ontario after recently visiting my family in Pennsylvania for a short holiday trip. I was in the middle of contemplating leaving an objectively great job with steady pay and meaningful enough work. But the long hours at a desk and fast-paced business style were damaging my body and draining my soul. I was wrestling with my dad’s recent cognitive decline, which he was brushing off to old age, and that we later found out to be a tumor, which was, thankfully, successfully removed. Certain cognitive functions however won’t return – most likely due to early stages of dementia. I was missing my family and friends. And I was trying to hold together a relationship at the time, which was inevitably not going to work. I was missing and craving community and creativity, and began dreaming up all kinds of ideas, which were the beginnings of what COALESCE Community eventually became.
I grew up in a very small, very white, very conservative town. It wasn’t until I started meeting people with different lived experiences and diverse perspectives, that I genuinely started questioning my own assumptions about others and the world. I got my B.S. in Biology and Religious Studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, and essential to the Ursinus experience is a course called CIE (the Common Intellectual Experience). This required first-year seminar introduces students to much more than college level reading and writing. It broadens their academic, intellectual, and emotional horizons, engaging with books, poems, music, and plays across disciplines, worldviews, cultures, and time, and poses some of the most fundamental questions of the undergraduate experience (and arguably, our experience as human beings): What does it mean to be human? How should we live together? How do we come to know the world? What should matter to me? What will I do? I was lucky to have the late Rev. Charles Rice as my CIE professor, who was the epitome of compassion and love. He was a no-bullshit kind of man, who deeply cared for his students and their growth, and sought to know them on a deeper level. In short, he took time to listen to them and their personal human stories, cultivating greater understanding, compassion, and love which contributed to him being a champion for students and a pillar of the college and surrounding community.
This course, these questions, and Rev. Rice forever shaped me and how I oriented to the world. They guided my subsequent experiences at Ursinus, studying abroad in Tanzania, and at graduate school in Canada. They continue to inform much of how I approach my life decisions. During graduate school, and afterwards in a professional capacity, I had the privilege to work with several First Nations and Native American Tribes across Canada and the United States on a variety of environmental and conservation initiatives. Being able to bear witness to the powerful and beautiful songs, language, stories, ceremonies, and relationships that many of these people and Elders shared with each other and the land – culture and relationships which were almost destroyed through settler colonialism and residential schools – created a deeper understanding inside myself of the ways in which we are all connected. The ways in which we exist in relationship to one another and the world around us. The ways in which we all have spirit and can only thrive when we care for and nurture that spirit.
It’s easy to avoid an angry co-worker, to ignore someone experiencing homelessness on the street, to get upset with a friend or partner for something they said or did that was hurtful. It’s easy to dismiss someone with a different political or social perspective as a waste of time or unable to understand. But all these reactions lead to and perpetuate misunderstanding, fear, hostility, anger, cynicism, or apathy and indifference. When we take the time to sit with someone, get to know them on a deeper more intimate level, hear their story, what they’ve been through that has shaped them, it’s impossible to not develop a greater understanding of who they are, where they came from, and what they’re going through. Listening to understand is an intentional practice. The late Thich Nhat Hanh summed it up with profound simplicity: “Understanding and Love are not two separate things, but just one. To develop understanding, you have to practice looking at all living beings with the eyes of compassion. When you understand, you cannot help but love. And when you love, you naturally act in a way that can relieve the suffering of people.”
At COALESCE we want to empower people to share their story. Stories are at the center of our human experience which bring us together. Authentic and honest sharing and deep listening can help us connect with one another, cultivate greater empathy, understanding, and compassion. We currently publish a collection of human stories seasonally, one for every solstice and equinox. We try to stay connected to our contributors, follow what they’re doing, celebrate their successes and share them with the world. We are starting virtually, and in ways this is a beautiful gift as our community can reach and connect with a larger audience. The long-term vision is for COALESCE to grow into a collaborative creative community space: to hold story-telling and creative workshops, serve as a co-working space, host retreats centered on creative inquiry and expression, partner with educational institutions and other community organizations and businesses to hold space for student galleries, community talks, and so much more. Realistically, the door for ideas and people is wide open. At the center of it all is sharing our stories. For all of us. To speak our truth. To be vulnerable. To be heard. To connect. To understand. To grow closer. To heal. To love better. To see each other and the world with eyes of compassion.
©2022 Erich Keyser
All rights reserved
…lives outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the Traditional Territory of the Lenape Nation). His studies in Geography, Biology, and Religion have taken him across the United States to Tanzania and Canada. Erich has several years of experience working alongside Indigenous Nations in Canada and the United States on a variety of environmental and conservation projects. He is curious about human relationships with each other and the natural world, and believes in the power of deep listening and connecting through personal stories. He is currently an Adjunct Instructor at his alma mater, Ursinus College, and finds joy in playing and composing music, writing, rock climbing, hiking, mushroom coffee, and quality time with his partner and loved ones. Erich is the founder of COALESCE.