Singing in the new year

I have not written about Monday songwriting in a few weeks. It is ongoing, though there have been a few times I have not been able to join. The center itself has been in a state of transition since this past December, when the rules regarding the asylum process for Belgium were drastically changed and have since been in the process of being revised. Most of the residents at the center were moved to social housing. While there are still some friends we see in passing or who share a word or phrase or melody with us on Monday afternoons, the majority of familiar faces have disappeared without a trace. The shift has been for the center to become a place where refugees first register for asylum and then spend a handful of days before transitioning to another place.


Sarah and I have often talked about whether or not to continue volunteering our time at the center. Would anyone notice if we were not there? Will this transition make it less likely that people will join us for poetry and songwriting?


In the end, we have decided to continue spending Monday afternoons helping to guide the creative process for whoever might wish to join us. The change to the center does not necessarily affect us all that much, as we are also a transitory presence. We come for a couple of hours every Monday afternoon and help to capture a moment in time. For us, the regular visit feels familiar, but for the people passing through everything is new. It is for these individuals that we wish to offer a positive memory in a time that is likely quite difficult for them.


The last time I wrote about our Monday afternoons was the start of the New Year, when we set a poem to music, which Sarah had written as a thank you to refugees for choosing to come to Belgium.


There has been an ongoing theme this year of borders and walls. This does not come as a surprise, particularly considering how many obstacles these individuals have met just to get to Brussels, not to mention the fear that seems to be permeating so many psyches around the world, particularly those of politicians with the power to act upon their fear in ways that have a far-reaching and devastating affect for people trying to cross borders in search of a better life.


A friend recently introduced us to an organization called Singa, which works to bring together people in Brussels who have come from around the world. Singa organizes an event called a Bla Bla on Monday evenings in Ixelles near Place Flagey. This is a two-hour get together where people can volunteer to “host a table.” People facilitate the playing of games in the spirit of community and connection.


In the spirit of connection and creativity, Sarah and I hosted a two-hour poetry and songwriting session. It was a pretty chaotic but rewarding evening. We found a spot in a corner with a couple of couches and chairs around a coffee table. Sarah posted a piece of paper on a whiteboard beside one of the couches. It was so loud in the room that we had to shout to be heard. By the end of the evening I had lost my voice.


We began with just a few people. I asked if anyone would like to share words or phrases about any subject. It could be about something happening in Brussels or around the world or in their own lives.


One person shared the words Diversity and Coming Together, and Sarah wrote them across the top of the page. From there, the theme was set, and other people began sharing ideas inspired by these words.


We are all made of flesh and blood

We all drink water

We all have beating hearts, and we can love


We wound up creating a poem and song that communicated first the ways we are similar and then asked questions about why, if we are so similar and equal, so many people around the world behave in ways that are counter to this idea.


So why [do we] build walls?

Why do we hate?


I put brackets around the words do we as a way to separate the them from the overall phrase without disappearing them altogether. I wasn’t ready to give up on them, but I also knew we might not have time with the melodic structure to sing them


The desire was expressed for love to transcend fear and hate, and our chorus echoed this hope:


May love prevail and never fail


I scribbled on the back of a piece of paper, trying to fit different phrases together into stanzas. I shared these ideas as we began to shape the words of the poem into something we could sing (this generally means simplifying and shortening phrases).


We are all equal

But not treated equal

Different ways of speaking

And thinking capacity


We all drink water

We’re all made of flesh and blood

We all have beating hearts and we can love


So why do we build walls?

And why do we hate?

Fear is not a reason to push someone away


We had a longer version, but in the end we ran out of time to find a melodic structure that would work for the entire song. So, I suggested we shorten it to have something we could sing that was at least somewhat complete, explaining that if we had more time we could work on shaping the structure of the verses and chorus, as well as the melody.


By the time we were putting the finishing touches on the song, there was a crowd of people gathered around, singing with us. Several of the people who had joined us began making suggestions for changes to the song and melody. I could sense the bristling of the folks who had been there, creating the song from the beginning. I know from experience that there is a strong sense of ownership that comes with creating a song in this method, and so I carefully tried to navigate the situation, embracing and celebrating the enthusiasm of the newcomers while also gently letting them know that we did not have time to make big changes to the song.


As we were approaching 8 o’clock (the time I would turn into a pumpkin if I didn’t dash out to try to run and find my bus home), the songwriters asked if we could sing the song on stage. I could sense my own stress level rising, as it often does when there is transit to navigate in my near (or distant, for that matter) future. But I also sensed that it was important to honor those who had participated. If I missed the bus, I would find another (albeit longer) way home.


We got on stage, and one of the participants held the sheet of paper aloft. It was really difficult to see the words at all, but we did our best, singing loud and with love in our hearts. It wasn’t a perfect performance, and we kind of fizzled out as we got to the chorus, which we hadn’t had time to fully shape as well as I would have liked.


Still, the experience was pretty amazing. The enthusiasm of the singers and the audience was palpable, and I always experience a sense of wonder when a song comes into being that did not exist only moments before. It makes me feel like positive change is possible in this unpredictable, chaotic world.


Let’s sing it again!


But I was now shifting my attention homeward. I apologized and explained that I needed to run to catch the bus. We thanked everyone, and Sarah folded up the sheets up paper while I gathered the rhythm instruments I had passed out.


Then we were off into the outside world of Ixelles. I made the bus with a couple of minutes to spare and was relieved to see it finally round the corner. There is always a moment when I am trying a new form of transit and an unfamiliar route home when I wonder if it will all come together.


Just as there is uncertainty in songwriting but a song that wants to be born finds it way into the world, I made it safely home (in a record 15 minutes!), my heart full and my body and mind exhausted.



The night we hosted the table, there were reporters there, and you can see us in photos and read about our poetry and songwriting in this article.

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