After volunteering at the asylum center now for nearly two years, the repertoire of songs has grown tremendously. Periodically, I spend about a day going through photos and voice recordings. I try to keep everything organized by putting all of the photos and song files for each song in its own folder. This way, I can go back and continue working on each song as time allows. At least, that is my intention. It’s kind of amazing to look back on each songwriting moment at the center. Just looking at the photos and listening to the little recording clips creates a very visceral memory of the creative moment in time that we shared. There are literally dozens of songs that we have started and are now waiting for a bit of love and attention to be finished (as finished as a folk song ever really is). I believe that once a song is born and sent out into the world, there is no telling how it might evolve with each person who feels moved to sing it and make it their own might. That’s part of the beauty of folk music and part of the practice of non-attachment. As a folk musician and composer of songs from people’s stories, I have to give up a lot of control. I guide the process. I do not direct it.
Two Mondays ago, Sarah and I were joined by our friend, Mohammed. Mohammed is an incredible poet. He has shared stories with us that we have shaped into songs we have sung with many audiences around Brussels and with residents at the center. We have found that singing at the beginning of a session will often draw people to venture up to us and find out what we are doing. Music seems to ease some of the tension and confusion that I can feel at the center.
Mohammed told us that he spent a long time struggling through a very dark depression. He had made such an enormous effort to get to Belgium. He had a wife and young children, and it took attempting to cross several different borders to finally get to Brussels and the asylum center. After he got here, he imagined that things would move fairly quickly. He knew there would be a process to go through before being granted asylum, but he never imagined that he would living at the center for several years before finally received a positive that he could stay in Belgium for good.
I was so depressed, he told us. I couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t write. I didn’t want to do anything.
What changed for you? Sarah asked.
Well, he said. I realized that if I didn’t do anything then nothing would change. I couldn’t change things if I was dead. So, I got out of bed, out of my room, and I did a lot of writing.
Mohammed told us that his poetry helped to lift the dark veil that fallen over him after realizing that he was going to be separated from his family for a long time yet.
Since being granted asylum, Mohammed has joined us at the center several times. We write a poem and a song (or the beginnings of one), then we go to the little coffee shop across the way and catch up, a kind of debrief for all of us.
Two Mondays ago, we shared the words and phrases that several residents had written on a sheet of paper the week before.
The meaning of life is to be happy, read one line at the top of the page. It had been written by a man from Eritrea, which whom I wrote a really gentle, touching song about the need to “Just be happy.”
I don’t agree, Mohammed told us. For me, the meaning of life is to be grateful. I come back to this center so I can be grateful for my life.
For Mohammed, happiness is a choice. If we can practice gratitude, then happiness will undoubtedly follow.
Inspired by Mohammed’s reflections, Sarah walked up to the page and wrote several lines with a red marker:
If you are breathing, then you are alive
If you are alive, then there is hope
I don’t think that just breathing makes you alive, Mohammed said.
As he spoke, I wrote his words beneath Sarah’s on the page with a green marker:
There’s physical life, then there’s psychological
When I change my way, when I change the place where I was living
When I make a choice, then I am free
When you can make a choice, then you’re free
Sarah added more text, again with a red marker:
It’s what you see in what there is
Sometimes we lose the value in what we have and what we see
There are times when we feel this is the end, but it’s just the start
After we discover that, it is only the beginning
We went on to have an entire discussion about how we can take those first steps toward actively and intentionally choosing to live with gratitude and to create happiness and freedom in our life. We talked about how it can feel like we are crawling through the dark, uncertain of where we are going and if we will get through to the other side. Mohammed share the idea that the dark is not really dark at all. Darkness isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. It isn’t even as dark as we imagine or completely absent of light.
If you start you can find the way
I left my country
If you do not leave, you cannot arrive
If you do not ask, you cannot learn
Take a step in the dark
Sometimes you think the beginning is dark
But it’s not dark if you step inside it
You can see the light
I told you, Mohammed is a poet. Literally every phrase that he speaks is lyrical, even magical at times. We talk about how difficult it is to translate between Arabic and English. Arabic meanings of words and phrases have a kind of mystical sense to them. Much of this mystique and magic is lost in the English translation.
Dari and Farsi are similar. Take the song, the first that I wrote with Sarah and residents at the center now nearly two years ago.
The song was inspired by a resident, who had shared the Dari phrase,
Zindgi shans dowam dara
In Dari, Zindgi means life.
We translated the phrase together into the line, In life there are second chances. It wasn’t until singing the song at one of the poetry open mic that Sarah hosts once a month that another friend of ours from the center who also spoke Dari said that his idea of the translation was a little different: Life gives second chances.
It seems like a small different, but to me the feeling of it is completely different. It’s not that there are second chances, it’s that life in its effort to support and encourage us, gives us those chances…maybe because it believes in, it wants us to succeed. At least, that is my interpretation, but I do want us to all succeed.
But I digress.
I asked Mohammed to tell me a little more about his personal experience leaving Gaza and coming to Belgium. He has told us many stories of take a boat to Greece, the feeling of freedom that came in stepping off the boat and onto land. The attempts to cross into different countries until finally being granted entry into Belgium. If ever the line, where there is a will, there is a way, were written for someone, it would be Mohammed. He literally embodies the songs we write from his words in in his determination to create the path of freedom for his family and for himself.
What did it feel like to leave Gaza? I asked him.
I left my country and the whole world opened
It wasn’t my country anymore
Where is your country now?
This is my home, my home is where I am now.
There is a method to my questioning. Part of it is intuition. Part of it I have learned from spending years writing songs with people from their stories. The more authenticity there is in the written words, the more likely that a universal concept from the human experience will reveal itself as the song is created.
In one life, a person will experience untold numbers of stories. We are ever-evolving, complex layers of structure (what my husband, the philosopher, might refer to as “sedimentation”). I see my role as the guide to gently draw out the details of these stories. I am kind of a creative reporter. A colleague I worked very closely with when we were doctoral students in the Sustainability Education PhD program at Prescott College refers to the kind of composing we do as documentary songwriting, I think for this very reason.
So, I ask questions until I hit upon something that touches the person in some way, so much so that they open up and share profound elements of their experience with me. It’s an act of tremendous trust, and I recognize the gift people are offering in sharing sometimes painful, sometimes joyful moments of their lives with me.
Mohammed continues his thought process, and I write (ever in green) as he talks:
Some people they cannot say that
You cannot choose where you are born
Your parents your religion
Sarah chimes in (and I keep writing in green because now I sense some magical is happening in the songwriting process):
I could have been you
You could have been me
We are bound together somehow
We spoke on an on about how we can walk together int the dark, how we can work together to create change. Mohammed speaks often about how he wishes people from Gaza, the country of his birth, could set aside their religious fervor to put an end to the unnecessary suffering and enmity it creates.
I create peace from the inside, he says. I can overcome fear. That is real power.
We carry on this way for a while, and we step back to look at all of the words and phrases that are now covering the sheets of paper we have posed on the white, wooden doorways at the center.
I like these lines, I could have been you, you could have been me, I say.
Sarah agrees and suggests adding two additional lines, If only you could choose what you see, we could choose what we see.
There’s something to this. I can feel it. it’s exciting when this shift happens. We are honing in on a universal concept, a strong one, that could lead to the creation of the refrain of the song.
Let me step back here for a moment to say a little about the songwriting process, at least as I know it. In writing a song from a story, the verses provide the unfolding of the events of the story. What happens first, then second, and on and on, until the end.
In between the verses, there is a refrain. The job of the refrain, in my experience, is to put the events of the verses into the context of the human experience. The refrain communicates an emotion or a call to action, something everyone can relate to whether or not they have experienced the same kind of events of the story.
For example, in this process we are playing with the notion that life can feel pretty random. I happened to be born to a middle class Jewish couple in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1981. Had circumstances been different, I could have been born into a very different life, one with less privilege. I could have been born into poverty or a country with an unstable government. Regardless of whether you believe in this or in reincarnation or that we choose the circumstances in each life for a reason, I invite you to see this idea through with us for this song and this person’s way of interacting with and perceiving the world.
There was a blank space on the bottom half of one of the pieces of paper, so I started writing out a possible refrain:
I could have been you
You could have been me
If only you could see
We can change the dark to light
We can choose to be free
It was a good start, we all agreed. As often happens, as soon as we try singing, the phrasing begins to change. It happens almost as a reflex, I start singing the words that are written and instantly change one word for another or change the order of the phrases or feel like I want to add another line or more or fewer syllables. It’s like the body knows that singing words is a very different form of art than writing them.
As I sang and found myself changing the composition of the refrain, Sarah took a black pen and noted the changes.
And we laughed. This happens just about every time we work on a song. Today was just another day.
What if we repeat the first two lines at the end? I suggested.
Yes, Sarah agreed, and maybe we write it as I could be you, you could be me.
Simpler phrasing. More to the point. I liked it.
We could start with I could have been you and end with I could be you.
After reviewing this and singing it, I realized that it was too complicated. The lines should be the same. It’s simpler, which is easier to learn and to sing. This helps people sing-a-long, especially if English is not their first language. Also, why make it is unnecessarily more complicated. The idea is essential the same. I could have been you really means, I could be you. Right now. Had it happened at birth, it would still be the same. We would still be the same. We are the same. That is the universal concept, the fundamental message of this song.
Why be cruel to each other when it was a simple twist of fate that we are who we are?
In singing through the lines of the first draft of the refrain, I also found myself changing the order to fit the rhythm and length of each line that was coming into being while I sang and strummed chords on my ukulele.
I could be you, you could be me
We can change the dark to light
If we want to be free
We are bound together
If only we could see
I could be you, you could be me
Sarah posted a new piece of paper. As often happens (as I have described and as you will see from the images I share with this post), when we work through the process of creating a song from words and phrases that are written, we wind up crossing things out, drawing arrows from one line to another, numbering lines as we create possible verses, etc. it can get pretty messy. As we find ourselves on the verge of creating a refrain, we try to start on a fresh page.
We sang through this refrain several times, laughing with delight as we came to the end each time.
Two hours had passed, and we had come up with a refrain. It might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but I felt a complete transformation of my being. I felt joyful, fulfilled, like I had done something meaningful and important with my day. I wasn’t worried about the life stuff that plagued me all the way to the center. I felt uplifted, lighter.
A new song was making its way into the world, and it felt like one with a lot of promise to touch a lot of people. And even if it didn’t, it had touched us and brought us closer together, closer to understanding one another.
This, for me, is how we will save the world.