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The following article was written by Annelie Ekelin from Ronneby in Sweden. With Pirjo Elovaara, Annelie launched the "Women Writing on the Net" group in the framework of the Dialogue project. In addition to Ronneby, the towns of Bologna and Lewisham took part in the one-year Dialogue project which was part funded by ISPO, the Information Society Project Office. The project was led by Pamela Lama from Bologna.

The following text is part of the "Storybook" written about Dialogue by its participants entitled "An Online Dialogue for Democracy. Using information and communication technologies to empower citizens in Europe's towns and cities". You can also read two other texts by Annelie about women online taken from the Dialogue StoryBook in Connected Magazine. One is about the citizens' involvement and the other writing and empowerment.

The paradox of time

In the beginning there was a lot of time. A white sheet, an empty space lay ahead of them, waiting to be claimed. There was plenty of room for planning and reflection. When the project leaders, Pirjo and Annelie, first met the participants in the Women writing on the net-group they felt as if time were on their side. The two project leaders and participating women discussed what should happen during their meetings and related their personal experiences and expectations. They all felt comfortable together, laughed a lot, looking forward to getting on with work. There was a lot of space for digressions, in some way it felt as if they were exploring unknown paths, listening to each others dreams and thoughts about the future. The website had to be filled with content and their thoughts were the material they had to transform into readable text. They all looked upon time as a permanently present friend and did not know by then, that the perception of time was going to alter during the process of the project.

One day Lisa asked: "Why are we doing this writing-exercise? What is it good for?" Annelie and Pirjo explained that this particular writing-exercise was meant to visualise the use of the software and was also a method to open up writer's cramp and stimulate creativity. "Good, Lisa answered, now I know how you are thinking and in what way writing could be useful!". This interruption inspired them to talk about how they felt about doing the writing exercises. Some liked it very much. The others, who thought it was difficult, had to figure out a way to handle their fear and their resistance against writing. Annelie and Pirjo had to stop for a minute and reconsider their aims with the writing exercises. As a result of this incident, the joy of writing came back and they all learned how important it is to constantly reflect on how and why you are doing things. At this time they still felt safe and trusted their common strength and capability to achieve something that would not be swallowed by the floating quicksand of time.

Nobody remembers the exact moment, but suddenly the experience of time changed. Time still ran ahead of them, but they felt uncertain about what to do and how they should manage to do it in the scheduled time. Time was in fact not endless. The women did what they had to do, but the small talk, laughs and rare moments when someone told a story or a poem that had a strong impact on their minds, these moments were gone. There was no time to let words echo in silence. In some way they lost faith in their common strength and their thoughts were already far ahead of the on-going process.

Maybe the first warning signal came when Susan, who in the first meeting had declared that she was a solitary person who really did not like to co-operate with people, one day commented that she missed meetings when they all sat down together and talked about their writing and their reactions on the various texts. "Now we all sit in front of computers busy making our webpages", she said.

The second warning came when two immigrant women, Nadja and Nermina, suddenly announced they were going to leave the project. "We are slowing it down", they said. "Sometimes we can't understand your explanations because of the language and we need to constantly repeat the software demonstrations".

They also felt they needed a lot of time to talk about their experiences as refugees in the former Yugoslavia. A memorable incident with the group was when Nadja related the moment when she realised the war had begun : "I knew something was going on when the street was suddenly flooded by people, who were wandering about aimlessly and I wondered why they could not stop". When she was forced to leave her own house and become a refugee herself, she understood why the people were gathering in the street: "It was the only way to get information about what was going on", she explained. "We had problems finding eggs and fresh milk so I had to invent a recipe for doughnuts without eggs", she continued.

These pictures of how ordinary life falls apart in a war-ravaged country told a lot about the conditions for women in wartime. In a few sentences Nadja described the circumstances for a refugee and made the participants in the writing group understand something that is very hard to imagine when you are used to living in peace and harmony. They all felt very sad about Nermina's and Nadja's decision and wanted them to stay. At last the project leaders and the participants together managed to convince them to continue with the group.

For Annelie and Pirjo it also was a painful experience to realize that Nadja and Nermina in some way were right in their reflections. They soon had to finish this part of the project even if they felt as if the course had just begun and there was still a lot more to discover and learn together with the women. They had to follow the time schedule, a new group of women was eager to start.

Let us now step out of this story for a minute and reflect about the comprehension of time. In our modern western community, the cultural construction of time tells us that it is linear. Everything has a fixed beginning and a marked out end like a time-limited local project, whose aim is to create activity within a group of women building a website together. If instead of this linear thinking we imagine time as circular, we might have another perspective that will bring back trust into the present situation. We also have to understand what really has been said. Susan's comment would leave no trace, if we do not try to analyze what she really was saying. Within her comment lies an interesting shift in attitude that shows a development that is not tangible, but real for Susan. The project meetings might have been a new beginning for her, but also a step backwards in time. You could say that she was circling back to the moment when she decided not to co-operate with other people. Returning to that point in another context she then was ready to grow and make another decision. It is also a fact that if there only had been more time, they all could have assisted Nadja through the process of transforming her experiences into literature. And if there had been even more time they could have made a great effort together to erase Nadja and Nerminas terrible memories from the war. It certainly would take a long time to heal such experiences but writing and talking about it could help them to recover their strength.

When they all had realized and accepted the fact that they could not get enough of time, there was a change in the understanding of time. Once again they let everything take time, but they had to lower their ambitions and choose one or two ideas to fulfil. Doing that, things calmed down and they were able to stop worrying about the time constraint and the final results and get on with their work. Nadja made a very beautiful webpage with the recipe on wartime doughnuts and Susan's contribution to the website with a poem about her mixed-up feelings about food, based on her experiences as a diabetic. Pirjo and Annelie had been reminded about their big responsibility for the process as project leaders and realised that empowerment is a big part of a learning process. They had to think about how to stimulate participants' potential growth beside the ordinary activities, and they started to support the group identity and the individual self-confidence in a more active way and repeatedly encouraged the women to help each other. They also gave prominence to the fact that "by teaching others you learn a lot yourself". Annelie thought: "It is a strange thing, but when you think you have lost time for good, you will not even notice it's return, you are just aware of the ongoing minute..."

In the end there were two project leaders who felt very sad about the time constraints they had felt during the whole process of the project. In a very short time they had to do their utmost and yet so much more could have been done. They also knew for certain that the circle of time now was closing, the project had come to an end. Like Susan, they too were ready for a new beginning.

What could we possibly learn from this story? Let us once again think about the paradox of time. Do you think it is possible to do things faster in order to save time? The answer has to be no, because we can not rule over time. It is the other way round, time rules us. Or let us put it differently: It is impossible to get a good wine by trying to hurry the cultivation. That goes for writing and creating a project too. Some processes need to take time, otherwise you lose out in quality. You also could say, what really matters, is the perception of time...

Annelie Ekelin, February 1999

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Created: February 12th, 1999 - Last up-dated: February 12th, 1999