Don’t wait, Create!

A cold snap has fallen over Brussels once again. After experiencing a mere 10.5 hours of sunlight in the month of December, I was quite ready for spring, but it seems that spring may be a ways away yet.


Every Monday afternoon, Sarah and I set up for poetry and songwriting along the outdoor, covered corridor that runs the length of the asylum center. We set up outside so that people will know that we are there. While it would be warmer and possibly more comfortable in a classroom, it would be much more difficult to find people to participate.


One of our new friends came by and insisted that we go inside.


Let’s start outside, Sarah said.


We can go inside if it is really cold, I suggested.


So we stayed outside. Sarah posted a piece of paper with a song we had created the week before. In the past few months, we have begun spending more time developing songs over the course of several visits. There are so many beginnings of songs, and there is something satisfying about bringing those nascent melodies into a more “finished” song. I write finished with quotes because even after years of songwriting, I am still not entirely sure when a song is finished. A folk song takes on a life of its own, after all, so a song we write may continue to be shaped for years to come by each person who makes it their own.


I have taken to bringing tea in a small travel thermos. It only holds enough for a few small cups, but it is enough to warm us up when it is frigid outside. The staff and interns used to bring us tea, but with recent turnover we have begun to feel like a bit of a nuisance to the new folks. We are pretty self-sufficient as it is. We may not get paid, but we can do what we want, creatively speaking at least.

Something that I love about being outside is that I have the opportunity to become a familiar presence for the people living at the center. I may not know the residents very well on a personal level, but people stop and say hello or wave as they pass by.


Yesterday, we received a gift of sunshine for the entire two hours we spent writing poetry and music. Not only did the sun shine, but it also provided warmth, which was much needed, very well received, and made the outdoor time much more bearable. Additionally, the open area at the center comes alive when the sun comes out. Residents come out to sit on the benches, play soccer (futbol), and enjoy the sun.


Over the course of the afternoon, several folks came and went, a few staying to move through the process of writing a poem, shaping that poem into a song, and singing the song all together. We began with two small pieces of paper and wound up with a couple more. Sometimes, people are interested in working on a song that is already in the works, and sometimes a new song is born. On this cold Monday, we created something new.


The inspiration for the new song was derived from the previous week’s song, which was written in Eritrean, French, and English. The English verses were as follows:


All will pass

But love will stay

Only we hope

If only we hope


In the dream of life

Everything will come true

Only we hope

If only we hope


We drank Moroccan mint tea with the first resident who joined, and he told us that he may not be able to stay in Belgium because he had two rejections. A third would mean that he would have to leave.


Where will you go? Sarah asked him.


Germany, he replied.


I looked at this person and wondered how Belgium could refuse to let him stay. I wonder how this can be the fate for so many of the refugees at the center. I have been told that it is particularly difficult for individual men to be granted asylum because they are supposedly a greater “threat” for terrorism. I can tell you that if the people who make these decisions witnessed these individuals writing poetry and singing with all of their heart, they might decide differently. I feel so powerless to help, so I offer what I can, a musical respite from the harsh realities of the world on Monday afternoons from 14-16h (2-4pm).


I don’t understand how in such a global community people cannot just decide to live somewhere and stay there, I mused. Why does someone else get to decide if they can stay?


The resident took a marker and wrote several lines in Arabic on the blank page Sarah had posted on the white, wooden door (we have found that the tape holds the pages on the wood much better than on brick).


Sarah took a red marker and wrote two lines:


Hope can I hope?

I responded by writing the line:

I create hope!


Another resident joined us, translating the Arabic into Spanish on the page. I know a little Spanish, but I was challenged trying to translate the Spanish into English without completely losing the meaning. Eventually, the Arabic/Spanish speaker explained that the Arabic meaning was very different than what I came up with. The speed of internet connection for my cell phone leaves much to be desired. What felt like ages passed until I was finally able to use Google translate from Spanish to English. The translation left much to be desired as well, so I went through a kind of translation dance mix of hand gestures, theater, Spanish, and English words to try to create a more apt interpretation.


This happens quite frequently when we translate. There is something lost in the translation of words from a language like Arabic, which is so profoundly poetic and deeply beautiful. English seems so limited in expression in comparison. I liken it to trying to translate the words mystical, magical words Gabriel Garcia Marquez.


Arabic = Magic


English = Bland


But we do our best.


I wrote my attempted translation on the fresh page that Sarah had just posted.


How hard it is to like something

After you’ve been left behind.

I have lived beautiful days

And learned many things

I love good people, and I love you very much


Sarah suggested the word rejected, and I explained that I thought it might be easier to sing the words “left behind.” I have found that when singing, you can draw out sounds like “hind,” “oh,” “uh” (as in “lo-ve”) more readily than the harsher consonants “c,” “t,” and “d.” I also felt a stronger visual image from the words “left behind,” and my former songwriting partner always recommended incorporating wording that created imagery. I think this helps to create a context for the listener, drawing them into the story.


Meanwhile, another resident had gone up to the page and was writing words in English from a language translation app.


Don’t wait for opportunity

Create it


These afternoons are a mix of the creative process and language lessons (for all of us). I am very slowly learning words in Dari, Farsi, and Arabic.


I opened the voice-recording app on my phone (I record every step of the melody writing process because otherwise I forget the very tenuous beginnings), knelt down to set my phone on the ground, and clicked the red start button.


I often encourage residents to sing their words, but since this afternoon’s participants did not know very much English I decided to try coming up with a melody myself that I could then teach every one.


As I sang, the resident who wrote the words about creating opportunity came to the new page and added these lines below my attempt at translation:


It is your life

Don’t let others tell you how to live it


He even signed his name below, which I loved and have noticed that participants do from time to time, whether they are writing a line of prose or have drawn an image on the page. I have personally found the process of creating a song from my own stories to be incredibly empowering. I have witnessed people who participate in this process take ownership of the song. It is a kind of performance art that has deep meaning for those who participate. We become a creative community, laughing and singing together as we go.


After tentative singing, I walked up to the new page and copied two lines from the previous page to create a more complete second verse below the first.


Now the song read as follows:


Verse I

How hard it is to like something

After you’ve been left behind.

I have lived beautiful days

And learned many things

I love good people, and I love you very much


Verse II

It is your life

Don’t let others tell you how to live it

Don’t wait for opportunity

Create it


It can take some working and reworking to combine all of these phrases because they don’t always come together in a cadence that can be repeated. To try to better explain the process, once a rhythm, cadence, and syllabic structure have been created for a verse, I try to recreate that structure for the following verses.


More often than not, the written words change when I sing them. For example, when I sang the first two lines of the first verse, I changed the words “like something” to “love someone” and “after” to “when.” As I sang, Sarah changed the words on the page. This has become a regular occurrence. These songs are a truly collaborative effort, weaving together the ideas, hearts, and minds of everyone involved such that each piece is a literal and figurative labor of love.


It is your life became “this is,” and “don’t let others tell you how to live it” became “don’t let others live it for you.” I did my best to explain this change and make sure it was ok with the author. I try to keep the phrasing as close to the original text as possible, but it is difficult to sing long phrases (physically, one has only so much breath for each line of song). Additionally, ending a line with the sound “ou” feels better on the tongue than “it.” I debated how much I might be changing the meaning of the line and decided that the change still maintained an intention that was close enough. When writing a song in a limited timeframe, I try to keep things moving along. I always feel a bit of pressure to produce something that we can sing. Even if it isn’t perfect and polished, it is important just to sing together.


Sarah crossed things out and made changes, so the verses now read:


Verse I

How hard it is to like something

After you’ve been left behind.

I have lived beautiful days

And learned many things

I love good people, and I love you very much


Verse II

It is your life

Don’t let others tell you how to live it

Don’t wait for opportunity

Create it


Is the word beautiful too long to sing? She asked.


It kind of is, I responded, but I still like it. Let’s try it for now.




So we all began singing together.


Wait, I said. I forgot the percussion instruments. I went over to get my black sack of handheld percussion instruments to pass around. Not everyone wants to sing, but I can usually convince them to take a shaker. I also think that there is something important in every person feeling like they are a musician and a real part of the creative process; not just a witness.


With instruments in hand, we all sang together.


After singing through the two verses, I continued to strum while we discussed possibilities for the refrain.


As we were composing verses, I added a line of Spanish from the previous week’s song to see if I could weave it into this week’s song.


Yo quiero vivo como en el mundo, which means, I want to live a life in this world.


Meanwhile, people were tossing out ideas for the refrain, which turned into the idea of living in the moment. I have found that the simpler the words and melody of the refrain, the more people will join in singing, even those who don’t speak English.


We wound up chanting the words, don’t wait, and then following with a chant of the word create.


The Spanish speaking resident proclaimed,


Toda la vida en la momenta (all of life in the moment), and Sarah exclaimed, It’s like the idea of seizing the day. Carpe diem!


While people chanted the refrain, I wrote a couple other possible stanzas that could be sung alongside the chanting.


Some wait for hope

Some wait for life

Some wait for opportunity

They don’t live in the now


Don’t wait for hope

Don’t wait for life

Don’t wait for opportunity

Live it now


Many of these stanzas and phrases don’t’ make it into the “finished” song, but they are all part of the creative process. They help to move us from a blank page to something we can all sing together. Sometimes (like with the line of Spanish from the previous week), I am able to bring lines that didn’t make it into one song to weave them into another.


We have begun to save the pieces of paper from each week’s song. They are each a piece of art, capturing a creative moment in time.


Sarah put one yet another piece of paper to write out the song once more. With all of the changes we make as we create the song, we wind up with words and lines crossed out, arrows, and numbers to help us navigate the changing order.


I wrote out a third verse in Spanish, and the resident who wrote the lines “Don’t wait” came up to the page and began to write phonetic words in his native language above the Spanish to help guide him in pronouncing the foreign language. This is exactly what Sarah and I do when we are trying to sing words in Dari, Farsi, and Arabic. Since we can’t read the lettering of these languages, we ask residents to sound out each word slowly enough that we can write something phonetic in English.


Then, we sang together and listened to the recording of our song.


These visits can be very bittersweet. As we took the pages down from the door and rolled them together, the resident who had joined us for tea at the very beginning of the session told us he might not see us the next week. Would he be in Germany already? He helped us carry the scrolls of paper bearing our poetry and songs, and then I hugged him goodbye, not knowing if it would be for the last time.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Marieke,
    For some reason I’m not able to post a comment to your story site on WordPress, probably because I really don’t use WordPress anymore. I love your recent story. I love them all but this one really spoke to me. Keep up the good work. I read everything you post.
    ♥️ Melissa

    Get Outlook for iOS

    1. marieke says:

      Hi Melissa!! Your words of love and support made my month. I always wonder who (if anyone) reads these posts. I write them because I feel strongly about doing my best to capture these experiences as they happen. I also a little less alone when I publish a piece. Thank you for reading and commenting! ❤ ❤

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