The Spiritual Life: A Column By Jacques Fleury: The Haitian Firefly
Once upon a sunny day, I was strolling along my merry way… With autumn colors lighting up my path, the gentle breeze breathing kisses into my ears as I strolled along smiling through my fears. And then I came upon this gate, adorned with words encouraging me to accept my fate, giving me something to celebrate. It said “Your secret is that this powerless overwhelmed feeling is just a dream…Today is the day you awake… When you cross into the Abyss, with no path in sight, fearing one small change in your life may exhaust you entirely. When you believe and dare to proceed, your feet will find ground, new strength, more change and calm shores on the other side.” And so I entered and then my journey began.
The following interview is with Johnny Monsarraton, the creator and founder of this awesome place he refers to as “a little shrine that’s looks a little like a Tibetan prayer wheel. It’s all at 123 Elm Street, Somerville MA, near the Porter Square subway stop.”
The Alewife: Tell me a bit more about who you are and what you do and how you do it. Elaborate on your life journey of self-discovery.
Johnny: I grew up in Massachusetts and was raised to believe in Big Projects. So in school I was always running student clubs – even playing the college mascot, the MIT Beaver -- and followed that up by starting a videogames company, Turbine, that’s now the largest in New England. Along the way I learned a lot about life through my own problems. Most people follow their heart in love and their gut instinct for everything else. But I know my heart has led me astray and the head is much better at complex problems. So I recommend using your head, make a list, make a plan, work it out and don’t give in to wishful thinking like “Maybe if I do nothing, it will get better”.
TA: Why, when and how did you create and construct the concept for The Abyss? And where did you get the quote by the entrance?
Johnny: When I decided to turn my garden into a Big Project, I thought why not make it interactive? Why not include some of my life philosophy? I wrote the opening quote to inspire people to take action. The biggest obstacle to happiness is our fear of the future and this causes us to procrastinate on making the changes in our life we so desperately want. Basically, it’s a garden. People enter and leave a card with a question in a submission box. I write an answer on the back of the card, and all the cards get posted in the garden in a little shrine that’s looks a little like a Tibetan prayer wheel. It’s all at 123 Elm Street, Somerville MA, near the Porter Square subway stop.
Johnny: It took 2 months to make it, and funded it myself. I was the only volunteer, although I paid some people to assist. Since the project opened in July, I’ve received $7 in donations. That’s a pretty small amount, but each time I see that someone cares, it makes my day.
TA: What type of responses have you received on behalf of this project? How has it helped the community at large? Are you satisfied with the results or is there more that you'd like to see happen with this project?
Johnny: Everyone seems to love the concept, and people tell me that it’s helped them to move past their fear of the future and actually take action. I’d like to think that my answers make sense, but even if they didn’t – if it inspires people to get going, great. It’s too much work to keep up forever, but if I can turn it into a regular newspaper column or a book I would like to keep going! I love adventures.
TA: How do you come up with the answers to the questions?
Johnny: I make the answers by empathizing with the question asker. That’s why I take photographs for the website by putting each card on my refrigerator, like it’s a second grader’s art project. I care. Then I draw on my background and secular Big Project philosophy, and think, “How can I wake this person up and inspire him or her to action?” I spend over an hour a day on the Abyss, which is inspiring but also draining at times when I’m busy.
TA: Given the current state of the United States (i.e. the ground breaking election, war, economic distress etc...), how do you think something like The Abyss can affect the life of the people in your community and essentially the country at large?
Johnny: We like to think that only we alone have problems. But it’s obvious coming to the garden, with the large shrine filled with questions, that we are not alone. Everyone has an issue on their mind, and being able to ask a question and see that somebody cares – even a stranger – seems to be uplifting to people.
TA: You may know of the movie with Kevin Spacey called "Pay If Forward", where one good deed triggers another good deed and so forth, do you think that there's any similarity between your philosophy and that of the movie and if yes how do you think you and/or the community can emulate the "pay it forward" ideology?
Johnny: I’m a big fan of the film, although I am wary of overinvestment. If you’re so selfless that you’re not taking care of yourself, it becomes unsustainable. This is why some people start to resent their obligations, even their jobs or children. So I think we should all be doing good deeds, but also finding a way to let these good deeds bring real joy into our lives, so we are benefiting as well. That’s sustainable.
TA: In Haiti, I took it for granted that there was always a strong stable sense of "community". Our door was always open to visitors, neighbors etc... People would talk and visit with one another sporadically and no one ever passes you without greeting you and eye contact and an acknowledging smile or gesture was something that was intended and celebrated and not avoided and discouraged. I find that the exact opposite is true in most communities in Massachusetts. How do you think The Abyss can affect the community for the better and reduce the isolation felt by most in their respective communities?
Johnny: I hope the Abyss can give people a sense that somebody cares, they are not alone in having problems, and when someone writes a question about isolation, I encourage them to find a group. Cities have a different feel from rural areas, and I don’t think Boston is especially different in that I can’t greet each of the thousands of people I may pass on the street every day. People here have a huge drive to change the world, and the energy we don’t give to strangers on the sidewalk we pour into our friendship community, our college community, our workplace community. So this idea of isolation is an illusion. You just have to find the right community and they’re far more likely to have something in common with you than a stranger on the subway.
TA: Where do you go from here? Do you have any other philanthropic plans in the works?
Johnny: The person who organized the Boston Zombie March has moved to New York, and I would like to organize one for 2009. In this event, hundreds of people dressed in costume walk down the street – just for fun! – and I would like to revise the concept so that it’s a charity walk and we are raising money for some benefit, possibly children’s education. I’m also running a new startup company, Hard Data Factory. We supply event listings like concerts and theatre shows to newspapers and community Web sites.
TA: Having reviewed all the questions since The Abyss began, what has been your most favorite and poignant question and what was your response to it? And thank you for this interview.
Johnny: My very first question card, in jittery handwriting, said “I am afraid of life in it’s ful essence, the future”. I wrote back, “You are not alone… Make a plan to change your life. And the future won’t be so unknown any more.”
For more information, visit: www.crossintotheabyss.org.
Jacques Fleury is a writer and author in Cambridge, MA.: firstname.lastname@example.org