In my life in Brussels, I try to keep things as simple as possible. This is a tall order for a short person, as my husband reminds me time and again that I always wind up creating situations that are more complicated than need be. Well, I’m only human.
With regard to simplicity and my daily life, this effort involves keeping excursions that require navigating public transit to one per day. More than that, and I can feel my entire system shift to high alert. Panic and anxiety set in as I worry about getting to places on time. Will I make the bus or metro? It is not unusual to follow a route that requires changing from bus to metro to tram several times to go a mere few miles. When I plug my destinations into Google Maps online, the default is the choice of driving a personal vehicle. It’s almost always about 20 minutes to get anywhere in and around Brussels. Once I change it to transit, however, the time jumps to a minimum 45 minutes. It usually takes me about an hour, all told, to get anywhere in Brussels.
Is this a big deal in the grand scheme of things? Am I struggling from the trauma of life in a worn-torn country?
I am simply explaining because I believe, as one of my meditation teachers once told a room full of people, “suffering is suffering.”
From my own experiences in my childhood and life, I have a very sensitive nervous system that is easily triggered to go to lights flashing, sirens blaring, and high alert.
I know from writing an autoethnography on self-sustainability, that a healthy way to ground my system back to a state of relative balance is through the creative process. I wouldn’t say that I am ever completely calm because my reptilian brain, the primal part that is always looking out for danger to keep me alive, is in a perpetual state of readiness to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. I am working on shifting this trend, convincing this part of my brain that I am no longer in danger, but it’s a long trudge up a steep and muddy hill.
Why am I writing about all of this on a blog about songwriting? I think because it’s so important to me to try to capture the whole picture, or as much of it is as is possible given the hundreds upon thousands of layers that makes up any one individual over the course of a lifetime. In my experience, the best way to overcome stress, fear, anxiety, etc. is to try to sift through those layers, one by one, to get to the individual truths that lie in the deepest part of person.
A relatively direct route I have found for sifting through these layers is writing a song from a person’s story.
In my experience, when something hits a person in a very deep way, they tend to hold on to it. When they are invited to share a story from their life, the emotions from the experience are expressed. I have written songs with women who told me they had no interesting stories to tell. Tell me about your day, I invited one woman. She proceeded to tell me about her morning routine and then the many hours she spent as a resident in a medical program in New York City. By the end of the story, she was communicating the emotion that she had been holding on to so tightly.
She was lonely. She was seeking connection and community. She felt like a failure because she didn’t have friends to spend time with.
What I found was that it didn’t necessarily matter what story she chose to tell. These emotions were so powerful and meaningful for her experience in that moment of her life that they were going to make themselves known no matter what. They just needed an audience.
Another woman told me about her practice of running through the wilderness of Alaska to get to the summit of a mountain. Eventually, she communicated that the experience had such deep meaning because each time she reached that summit she felt happy and free, in awe of what she had accomplished all by herself.
The real crux of making a connection to any person, I think, is empathy. And empathy can be created if we can relate to an emotion that we, too, have experienced. Most people I know do not run up mountains, bushwhacking through devil’s club and sword fern. However, I think many people can relate to achieving something that was difficult and the feeling of joy they experienced upon reaching that goal. Certainly, I have felt this way at different times in my life. In fact, I feel a kind of disbelief every time I write a song, as if I doubted that I could do. Sure, I was able to write a song last time, but maybe that was my last one? But enough from my inner critic; it does not need any encouragement. Trust me.
When I was a park ranger in Lowell, Massachusetts, I spent hours watching oral histories of interviews with the last generation of factory workers in the Lowell mills. I remember vividly the story shared by a woman named Cecilia about coming to work on a hot day and going to stand near the fan to cool off, only to find the fan had been removed and taken to the manager’s farm for the livestock. Clearly, this experience resonated with her, so much so that she was sharing it decades later in this video series. Her story not only had meaning for her alone. All of my coworkers could quote snippets from the oral history, replicating her accent and everything. When I first asked my supervisor and a coworker about where I might find material for a song, they instantly quoted her. No fans! They said, laughing. They laughed. We all did. But the laughter was a cover for a deeper understanding and connection (dare I say admiration and love) for this woman who had spent her entire life working in a very difficult job for little pay and little recompense.
Here was a daughter of Italian immigrants who had lived a life very different from most (not all) of my coworkers, and I think if we had met her in person we would have been over the moon. She was not a stranger to us anymore. We knew her story. And thanks to my songwriting, many visitors listened to her story in song and even joined along for the refrain.
Music has a unique ability to connect two very different people who may live in other parts of the world or in different times altogether. A moving piece of music can completely shift a person’s perspective and judgment about another person, allowing them to open their heart and mind to believe something different than they had previously been taught in their culture, religion, family, etc.
I was reminded of this yesterday afternoon when my co-volunteer, Sarah, at the refugee center told that her daughter had described our songs as so relevant. They had been at a solidarity march in Brussels and begun singing one of the songs we had written at the refugee center.
These songs are so relevant, her daughter had said. They resonate.
Sarah then told me about going to listen to a writer in the UK speak about a transformative experience with music. The writer was Malorie Blackman, who shared a story of going to find the CD for a song that spoke to her in a deeply meaningful way. She remarked that upon finding the album at a music store she had been surprised to find that the artist was white, as she had imagined he was black.
As an aside, I am sharing this story in my own words, and I am not a primary source. So please don’t quote me on this.
As Sarah described the story, she said that Blackman had shared that she had been taught to dislike white people. With this musical discovery, she found herself at a crossroads. She realized that she had a choice of how to proceed. She could either decide she didn’t like the song that much after all or she could shift her perspective. She decided to continue to enjoy the song. The music resonated with her so powerfully that she was able to transcend issues of race and stigma in order to practice empathy and connection in their place.
This power is not limited to music. There are myriad art forms with incredibly power to transform.
Sarah continued by sharing an experience she had years before when she had organized a poetry event that would bring together Syrian refugees and a US American poet.
She told me that the Syrians had communicated that they were not comfortable working with someone from the United States. When they had met the poet, a very tall, athletic black man, they had been surprised. Their assumptions of what the poet would be like, including their race, were completely different. In the end, the poet led the workshop, and everyone had a wonderful time together.
Life offers opportunities for transformation every day. Art provides the tools and the setting. Forms of art like poetry, storytelling, and musical composition create an accessible means for transformation take place.
We carried on with the afternoon, writing two more verses to the song we had been working on for the past several Mondays (and which I have been writing about in this blog).
We were so cold by the end that we decided to treat ourselves to a hot chai and cookie at the cozy coffee shop across the canal from the refugee center.
As we warmed up over hot chai, we debriefed the afternoon and our experience at the center in general. We give ourselves regular pep talks about the work we do and the value, cheering each other on when we begin to wonder if anyone would notice if we stopped showing up every Monday afternoon.
I started thinking more about the story Sarah had shared about the poetry workshop. What was it about meeting a person in order to make a connection? Was it necessary to meet someone face to face to change a pre-conceived story about them? I know from my time as a park ranger that my colleagues would talk about the importance of people having meaningful experiences in a national park in order to make a personal connection that would then inspire them to want to steward the place from a distance to ensure its continued protection for future generations. I have articles rationalizing the need for zoos in order for people to witness wild animals “up close and personal.”
We are a species that is very present. When we feel pain or joy, it’s very immediate. Once the intensity of that feeling passes, however, our memory of it fades rather quickly. It for this reason that I think it takes meeting someone in person to really see that they are not a threat. They are just like you or me. I think that music can kind of replicate this experience. Music can tell a person’s story in such a moving way that the listener can create an empathy bond with them; they can begin to make a personal connection with someone they have learned to fear for whatever reason and transcend that fear in exchange for solidarity and understanding.
Even in the increasingly virtual environment we inhabit, I believe there is an importance for creating opportunities for compassion and connection. People can be guided in a context where barriers to connection are taken down, piece by piece, layer by layer, until they can really see one another.
I believe that songwriting in this way can unite between people who will likely never meet and who have been taught to fear one another. It is through the real stories from a human life that I believe we can help to build bridges of empathy and connection. This is why I spend hours and hours in my life, moving through discomfort, fear, self-doubt, and the gamut of emotions in order to bring songs from real stories into the world. I believe that it can be life changing for those who I help to guide in writing a song. I also believe that the songs themselves have the power to bring people together.