The birth of a song

It was legitimately cold on Monday when I met Sarah at the refugee center. We posted papers on the wall and invited people to join us. That morning, I had texted Sarah a few lines from a Robert Frost poem, “Fences make good neighbors.” She suggested that we write them at the top of the first page and that we shift the language to make it a bit simpler.


So I wrote the following:


Before I build a wall, I want to ask

Who I was keeping in

And who I was holding back


We chatted for a while about the idea of building a wall, and I wrote different lines inspired by our dialogue.


What if we build a bridge instead? Sarah asked.


Eventually, a couple from Syria who also spoke Spanish walked by, and w invited them to join us. I spoke with the woman for a while, and she wrote several phrases in Arabic at the bottom of the first page.


She wrote several Spanish phrases above to translate the Arabic. Using my meager memory from studying Spanish in high school and Google translate, I did my best to try to figure out the meaning of her words and to write it in a rhythm, lyrical way.


I first tried to find a very literal translation to make sure I was on the right track.


War passes like water, taking everything it touches

Then, like water that washes away, it is gone.


The woman made gesticulations, her fingers raining down like water from the sky and then her arms sweeping from one side to the other to show everything washing away. She clapped her hands and separated them to show the final emptiness that is left behind when the flood has past.

Then, Sarah and I talked about different possible phrasing and shifted the words.


War passes like a raging river

Swallowing everything in its path


Sarah and the husband posted the second blank page on the wall while the woman shared several more sentences. I tried my best to write them all on the empty page.


Nosotros todos viajar en este mundo.


We are all traveling in this world.


Sarah and I shared ideas as the came, and the woman nodded, seeming to understand the English.


Some people leave

Some people stay

Let people love now


All that will be left in the end is a memory

Recuerdo recuerdo recuerdo

Dekra (Arabic for remember)


Souvenir, the woman repeated. Souvenir.


They thanked us, waved goodbye, and left us with one last piece of paper.


Other friends joined as we posted the third empty page.


Sarah suggested we write:


What is mine and what is yours?


I scanned the two pages, full of words and phrases, and wrote:


When the whole world is gone.


Our friend who had joined us motioned me over and began singing a song to me in English and then Arabic. I asked if I could record him singing so I would be able to remember the words and the melody for next time.


We did not sing at all on this visit, Sarah remarked as we walked toward the metro stop together.


It was so cold, and there was so much going on. I think there were many possible songs on those sheets of paper. We can continue next time!


We should always start by singing.


Good idea!


It was a slow birth today.


Yes. Sometimes songs reveal themselves very quickly, and others need more coaxing. Sometimes, we write a whole song on one visit, and sometimes we spend weeks on a song. It took a while to write the song, I am a word.


That’s true.


This birthing metaphor is one I have thought about many times over the course of the years I have been working with people to write songs. I find that some songs and some people need different kinds of guidance for the song to come into being. Some people are more hesitant to sing. Others are hesitant to share a story. I think of myself at times as a kind of creative, musical midwife of sorts. My role is to support, encourage, love, and try to be ready to notice and draw each beautiful element of a song as it makes its journey into this world.

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