In between

I love going to the refugee center each week. Every single visit is unique, and I always feel better about everything after spending time there. I highly recommend paying close attention to the experiences in your life that completely shift your being in a positive way. It took me a long time to find the elements of life that brought me real joy and to begin to dedicate my time to pursuing them.


I did not always write music. In fact, it’s only been a few years since I began learning to write songs from stories and actively seeking opportunities for songwriting. I spent nearly a decade without playing music. As a child, I sang with abandon. But it was only a few years ago that I began to sing once more.


I am often frazzled when I arrive because I generally am running late leaving the house and get stressed out getting my dog in his crate and rushing to the bus. I always feel anxious, knowing that I am running late and hoping that my volunteer partner will not be disappointed in me.


Yesterday afternoon was no different. It had rained and been cold and grey in the morning. My husband and his son and son’s girlfriend had left very early to drive to Amsterdam. I had woken up early with them to make everyone breakfast and was left with a very messy house, a sink full of dishes, a basket overflowing with laundry, and mega anxiety and overwhelm.


The overwhelm continued when I first arrived at the refugee center to a group of people already gathered. A staff member was inviting us to participate in a group art project. A volunteer we had been trying to find for several months had come to join us. And there were already a couple of center residents, who greeted me enthusiastically.


I am very sensitive to the energy around me, and I felt unsteady. However, I took a deep breath and decided that it was ok. I allowed Sarah to get things rolling, as she often does. She is amazing at drawing people into the process, even those who seem reticent at the start. On this afternoon, she had met two men, one of whom was not able to stay and the other who she asked to translate into Arabic a phrase from a poem by an immigrant student in the UK:


I know what it is to be in between.


There was a dynamic back and forth, and I was not entirely sure if the fellow, who was from Palestine, completely understood what we were intending to do or Sarah’s request or the meaning of the phrase in English. Before he left to go to a doctor’s appointment, he said he would return. Many people say they will return. Some do, others don’t. The phrase, Inshallah (God willing) is common.


When he returned, he quickly became very engaged in the process and we experienced a magical melodic whirlwind of creativity. We learned that his named was Mahmoud and he was from Palestine. He showed me his Facebook photo in which he had a big bushy mustache so I hardly recognized him.


While we were waiting, Sarah had posted the pieces of paper from our previous few sessions. One had the pigeon song verses on it and the next had the beginnings of a song from a fellow who shared a melody and words in Kurdish that I attempted to write phonetically and also tried to translate into English. Translation is a tricky process, especially when the resident does not speak very much English and because I do not speak most of their native languages, but we do our best. It is often quite dynamic, and this afternoon was no exception.


As Mahmoud wrote Arabic for the verses we had begun to create and continued writing, other residents came and they discussed the Arabic translation.


We began with a lively discussion about the meaning of the concept “in between.” We used hand gestures and even positioned people side by side and pointed to the person standing in the middle. Then we explained that it could mean being between cultures or countries. English phrases do not always translate directly to Arabic because the meanings of words are often different, sometimes subtly so.


I made little videos as Sara spelled out the Arabic words phonetically, sound by sound, in English letters.


The meaning changed slightly for some phrases. “In between” became “in between places,” and “I need to see you soon” became “I need to meet you.”


Sara had written the lines:

I am not you

You are not me

I am somewhere in between


And Mahmoud suggested shifting to a positive variation for the Arabic interpretation:

I am you

You are me

Ana ante ante ana


I loved the invitations Mahmoud suggested:

Can you meet me on the moon?

Can you meet me in the sky?


The Arabic translated exactly for these two phrases. I wonder if it is the more abstract ideas that are more difficult to translate from one language to another, particularly because Arabic seems to communicate a more magical, subtle sense?


My heart literally soared with Sara’s additions to the phrases, particularly the one about flying:

I need to see you soon (for moon)

We will have to learn to fly (for sky)


The songwriting process is dynamic. Words we write often change when we sing. Our bodies are natural rhythm instruments, and our mouths seem to have an innate sense of words that are difficult to sing, replacing them instinctively with one that flows more readily from the tongue.


At the center, this means that Sarah or I am crossing off words and writing new ones as the song reveals itself. The page becomes a testament to the process, a work of art in its own rite.


I have many preconceived notions of how a song should be written, the components of verses and chorus with a possible bridge, and the ways the melody should be structured for each part. Being a guide for the creative process means that I have to shed these “shoulds” on a regular basis and ride the creative wave. Even though I often want to create a separate chorus and verses, each with their own unique melodic pattern, many of the songs we write together at the refugee center wind up following a repeat pattern with a repeat melody.


As this is a folk song, it may well change with time, each individual person making it their own. A chorus might reveal itself, but it also may not. My practice is to celebrate, sing, and enjoy the experience while honoring the stories and words of the people I meet (and the desires of the song itself).


My lovely, my lovely

Where is the time we used to meet?

My lovely, my lovely

I am somewhere in between


My lovely, my lovely

Can you meet me on the moon?
My lovely, my lovely

I need to see you soon


My lovely, my lovely

Can you meet me in the sky?
My lovely, my lovely

We will have to learn to fly


Habibi, habibi, “My love, my love”

Naltake fee al kamar “Can you meet me on the moon”

Habibi, habibi

Ahtuja “I need to” leekaaaaaka “meet you”


Habibi, habibi

Ana ante ante ana “I am you, you are me”

Habibi, habibi

Ana baina albad “I am someone in between”


Habibi, habibi

Be hebek intowmri “I love you, the same as my life”


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