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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Ben's Bells

Ben's bells inside the studio.In Tucson, the sprawling urban landscape is glittering quite unexpectedly today with the faint shimmer of metallic bells, a thousand tiny chalices swaying on strings of brightly painted beads that drift from velvet mesquite and desert willow, Arizona ash and palo verde. The bells are laced among chainlink fence and wrought iron bench, looped delicately around door handles and mailbox flags, nearly floating from bike racks and lamp posts.

These are Ben’s Bells—a project Jeannette Maré-Packard and her husband Dean initiated less than a year after the death of their son Ben, just shy of his third birthday, on Good Friday. Ben died that morning of croup, after he turned blue, when his airway swelled shut, even as his mother performed rescue breathing and CPR.

In the devastating aftermath, when “more than anything” his parents wished they too could die, they turned their grief into action by converting their backyard pottery studio into a place where, joined by close friends, they created bells. Strung together by thin straps of brown leather, containing hand-painted ceramic beads of their own crafting—balls and cylinders, hearts and stars, flowers and moons—the bells resemble the colorful tails of kites, flowing from the single copper device with its subtle chime. The purpose? To reciprocate the kindness of strangers after Ben’s death, to “find a way to pass on that kindness and to help others in the process,” says Jeannette.

On the first anniversary of Ben’s death, in March 2003, the Packards and friends and family—including their older son Matthew, who more than anyone else gave them hope in this difficult time—first distributed the bells throughout the Tucson valley, placing them delicately in random locations: along the branches of yellow-flowering acacias at the Rillito River park, for instance, or in the parking lot of mid-town’s Tucson Medical Center. And each included a paper note with a simple message: “Take this bell home, hang it up, pass on the kindness.”

Girls painting beads at the Ben's Bells studio.I first learned about Ben’s Bells three months ago when I escorted my daughters to its studio, now located in an Italianate courtyard of white-barked sycamores just west of the University of Arizona. Here, volunteers gather individually or in groups to help create the bells—by forming clay into acorn-sized beads limited in shape only by their imaginations (and the constraints of the clay itself), or painting the flat and deceptive glaze that gleams after the kiln, or assembling the bells with the laced leather strings.

The studio is nearly as brightly colored inside as the beads are outside, and throughout the converted home are photos of little Ben, his white-blonde hair and toothy grin, the shining blue eyes: the constant reminder that these bells are his work, that in their creation—by the time the bells are assembled, at least ten people have worked on them—a whole community is remembering not only the child, but the kindness of the child, of a child.

On that mild winter day, a row of tables rested outside, and my daughters and their friends took their instructions and set to work on painting beads, the small wooden brushes touching the paint’s tense surface before sweeping lightly onto the hard, off-white clay. For some it was simply a fun arts-and-crafts project, but for others in our group, the older girls who had seen the photos and knew the story and in one case knew Ben before he died, this was an important and uplifting project. Glazing the beads in red and yellow and green, there was a visceral connectedness—not to the individual who would by chance or fate find the bell when distributed three months later, but rather to the spirit of community and as much the spirit of grieving.

It didn’t take long to fill my camera with the radiant images of the hanging bells, the yet-to-be-fired beads, the girls with their golden hair pulled back, the sun on their concentrating faces, the adults whose eyes grew watery because we have children and in our nightmares our children are taken from us, swiftly, maybe painlessly and maybe not. This is a compassion and fear that only parents can truly know, but by sharing in the making of these bells, all can begin to understand.

Paintbrushes against a colorful blanket table top at Ben's Bells studio.Today is the end of March, and the thousand new bells around Tucson—most since discovered—chime in the day’s slight wind. The stories of those who found bells are pouring into the news stations, are being posted on the BensBells.org website. Without exception, the discovery of a bell ordained with colorful beads in an ordinary place like a school parking lot or a community garden is a significant finding for the recipient. “What a moving and unexpected delight to find a Ben’s Bell,” says one person who shared her story. “I am a preschool teacher and brought the bell in to share with my class of four- and five-year-olds. It created an opportunity to talk about loss and sorrow and how to channel one’s feelings creatively; as well as talking about kindness and how often the best gifts are not objects, but rather what we give from our hearts. I will be quietly hanging it in a family’s yard today that knows of Ben’s Bells and has recently had a loss of a young person in their extended family.”

As I listen closely, I can hear the wind’s song echoed in the thousand colorful chimes across our community. It is a song of grief and recovery, of strength and support—ultimately of beauty. I hope its chorus carries through the golden day and far into night, rising softly like the fluttering of silver moths, like the glowing souls of children.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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