If I could be a word

I headed to the refugee asylum center yesterday afternoon sans chien (without dog). I had left our new wolfie dog in his plastic crate for the first time, and I was nervous at the state my husband might find him in. we texted back and forth, me from bus 17 on my way out of Boitsfort and he on his way back in. we even managed a wave from bus 17 to the 95 along the wooded thoroughfare that passes through the center of Boitsfort.

I am home. He seems fine to me. Happy to see me, though.

Phew!!!! No scary howling?

Not that I heard.

Ok. Exhale.


A few minutes later from my end (of course): You’re sure he is ok?

Yes, he is sleeping next to me. I just emailed Ann at the consulate.

Ok. I believe you. Photo please. Good job emailing Ann.

Voila, came the reply, and a photo appeared.


It seems appropriate to include the note about the Belgian consulate from our interchange, as I was headed to a place where refugees from all over the world must wait to learn whether or not they can legally remain in Belgium. Many of the individuals I have met in my time volunteering at the center have been living there for well over a year, waiting. Even in the midst of the frustration my husband and I have experienced, first in securing our visas and now as we attempt to renew them, I recognize the relative ease with which we have moved through the process. I also recognize our relative freedom. We can move around Belgium as we please. First apartment was too noisy? No problem (relatively speaking). We could move to a quieter house beside a big forest.

There is privilege in of bringing my two cats to Belgium and in my decision to adopt a dog. Upon meeting my new dog, Atticus, a boy told me that his own husky was still at home, living with his family. Other immigrants I have met told me they wanted to bring their dog or cat but it was too expensive. I am privileged, and I try to remember this any time I feel vexed by bureaucracy. The limbo I experience is very different than that which I find in the stories and songs that I create in the company of the many people living at the center.

Incredibly, while the words and phrases that appear on each new blank sheet of paper could focus on these struggles, most often I see words of hope and love.

Last week, an older gentleman who spoke French wrote the words:

Je suis immigrant; Je suis optimiste.

Translation: I am an immigrant; I am an optimist.

This same person shared words of hope this afternoon as well. He spoke Arabic with a regular poetry and songwriting participant who has become a friend. Together, they worked to translate his ideas from Arabic to French. Though I know very little about the Arabic language, I have come to appreciate that the true poetic meaning of the words can be quite difficult to translate.

The following was my attempt from this week’s session:

I want to be a word

A word of love

A word of hope


If I could be a word

I would be a good word, a word of joy

I would stay in all houses

And push the evil away


I would bring honor to the world

And always, I would bring joy

The songwriting process comes after people have shared words and phrases on the sheet of paper Sarah posts on one of the walls that lines in the large outdoor courtyard of the center. Some songs reveal themselves with relative ease (for me as the guide) while others take more reflection and effort. This afternoon’s song was somewhat of an enigma to me. As with many of the poems, there were many ideas expressed on the page and thus several possible musical paths we could follow.

How to choose?

We had begun the creative writing session with the line This time will pass, shared by one of the participants who joins us on a regular basis.

The sensitive healer in me wants to find a way to incorporate at least a few of every person’s words to communicate that each person’s story has value. In the years I have spent guiding people through this songwriting process, I have discovered that there are at least two specious notions that have taken deep root in people’s hearts and minds:

  • Many people believe that they have a terrible voice and are thus reticent to try singing even a few of their words (this is how I begin to derive a melody and key for the song)
  • Many people believe they do not have a story from their life that is interesting enough to become a song.

Countless people have confided these notions to me, and I have struggled with these doubts in my own process of becoming a songwriting and performing musician. I found it both empowering and life changing to have a person guide me through this process of drawing out my own voice and helping the song within me reveal itself. I also can state in all honesty that there has been beauty the voice of every person who has been brave enough to sing for me, and that even a story as seemingly bland as one’s morning routine has the potential to become a beautiful and meaningful song.

I find that in the telling of any story a deeper emotion is often revealed. The subject matter that is first chosen is of less consequence than the power the action of speaking holds to give a person permission to release a memory they have held onto, sometimes for many decades. Once released, a powerful wave of emotion may follow. People are often surprised to notice they have begun to cry at some point in the process. Many songwriting participants have told me they experience a catharsis and felt a clarity and freedom to move forward with their lives.

Of course, the sessions I lead with my volunteer partner at the refugee center are not very long. Two hours total for the creation of the poem and the song. I often feel my own self-doubt bubbling up in the voice of my inner critic, informing me in no uncertain terms that there is no way I can create a song from the words on the canvas before me and with such a limited window of time. Most of the time, I respond by ignoring the voice and giving myself permission to just create something, anything: a simple chorus; a complicated chorus. It doesn’t matter. What matters if we create something, that we do it as a community, and that we complete the process by lifting our voices together in song.

In a world with people being literally eaten alive by false fear, what could be more important than singing words of truth that convey love and hope?

Yesterday’s poem held meaning and emotion from the hearts of many people. Each person contributed ideas and helped me as I began the process of weaving phrases into possible verses and a chorus. What began as a single line written by one person became a song sung by many. I passed around my sack of handheld percussion instruments, and we sang. A writer who came to observe the process shared his own words and offered ideas the rhythm and tempo.

There is closure in completing the process from start to finish. It feels good. It’s tangible, like the feeling of cleaning up the mess of crayons, paper, glitter, and glue that has been haphazardly strewn across the floor. Nice and tidy.

I tried to explain this to the visiting writer, worried that he might think that perhaps I did not possess the talent or skill to create a beautiful, perfect song.

As I listened the voice of my inner critic expressing my own deep-seated fear of failure, I realized that I was not modeling the message I regularly shared with songwriting participants. So, I tried to change my explanation to communicate the idea that what was most important was creating a safe, creative space where anything was possible.

Perhaps, perfection lived in the space that had been created for people to come together to move through the creative process. I have come to believe that if all we create is a mess of crayons on the floor, it doesn’t matter. It’s more important to fully engage in the process, regardless of the finished product.

Could I practice more and be a better musician and songwriter? Yes.

Do I feel like I failure because I don’t? More often than not.

Do I sometimes think my music partner was right when he suggested that I would do better running an animal rescue out of my home than trying to be a songwriter? Sure.

As one of my first yoga teachers shared many years ago, the greatest gift you can give the world is to tell your truth. I know that in this iteration of my life, my truth involves honoring my heart, which seems to find joy in reaching out in all directions. I recognize that this likely means that I may not become an expert at any one task I set my heart and mind to, but maybe that is ok. I try my best to live my truth, however imperfect and to reflect this truth in everything I do.

For me, the creative process echoes the imperfect, winding path of life. Life is messy and often does not go according to a neat and tidy plan. I believe my role is to guide people to find beauty and meaning along the way by adding words and notes to the journey.

As I headed home, my husband and I texted back and forth.

Your dog awaits you, he wrote, and a photo appeared.


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