If a tree falls

Note: The identities of participants in a songwriting workshop I describe in this piece have been made anonymous.

It’s been a long time since Sarah and I have been able to work together in person to offer poetry and songwriting from stories. The other day, I realized that it has now been more than two years since the pandemic caused Belgium to close its borders and the refugee center where we had been volunteering to close its doors to people seeking asylum and to its volunteer program.

My heart felt heavy with this revelation. This is not to say that we have not kept ourselves busy, creating music on the theme of migration. Far from it. We spent the first lockdown, meeting outdoors when it was safe to do so in order to share the stories behind the migration songs we wrote with refugees from January 2017 to March 2020. We would meet in places around Brussels and share the story of the place and the story that became the song we would then sing. We called this first endeavor “Mondays on the Move,” and we extended our movement to Mondays where we met in different places along the Belgium-France border when my husband and I found ourselves moving to northern France instead of returning to the United States as we had planned. My husband was in the process of finishing his dissertation, and it had been his doctoral studies that brought us to Belgium. Without a permanent job, we had no option but to return to our home country. We had, not so secretly, hoped that something might come up to allow us to stay in Europe. We never dreamed it would be a global pandemic. We canceled our airline reservations when airlines began canceling all international travel with animals (we have three cats and a dog). My husband had just been offered a postdoc, which he had turned down, and he was thankfully able to accept.

From France, Sarah and I met in border towns to continue our Mondays on the Move until the lockdown in France became so extreme that I was not allowed to travel more than a kilometer from my home.

It was also at the start of the pandemic that we published a book of our migration songs with lyrics in 11 different languages shared by asylum seekers from 18 different countries. We had hopes of hosting a party to start off a book tour where we would offer presentations on our project, sharing the book and performing the songs. The tour is still on hold until further notice, but we have managed to share the book with many friends around the world.

During the second and third lockdown, Sarah suggested we write children’s songs about animals that migrate. We ended up writing 11 songs for an album called Creatures On the Move. We have been working ever since to create a children’s book with the songs. The project has taken on different iterations, and we are currently finishing the story and looking into creating a children’s musical from the script, as well as a tangible book.

This is all to say that where there is a desire, there can be art. As the migration songs Soyons Unis (be united) reminds us, “We must carry on.”

My husband and I did eventually return to the United States in the summer of 2021. Now Sarah and I continue our creative work, meeting Monday mornings my time/evenings for her via Skype.

It was with great excitement that we recently discovered a new way to continue writing music with other people through a bookshop in Phoenix, Arizona. I had reached out to the events coordinator several months ago because I noticed on their website that they hosted live music performances. I was met with enthusiasm and an invitation to perform at their store and also to host an online songwriting workshop.

We coordinated with Allison, the events coordinator and all around fantastic staff person at Bookmans, to find a date and time that could work across time zones and an ocean for both Sarah and me to co-host the event. Having volunteered our time for so long, it was also very exciting to be offer monetary remuneration. A Facebook event was created and a Zoom link was shared. A couple people officially RSVP’d, and others expressed interest. We were hoping to have even one or two people join, and we were thrilled when five people asked to be admitted into the Zoom meeting well ahead of the official start time.

We three had already been chatting for a few minutes, and Sarah and I had our program outline and accoutrements all ready to go. Namely, I had my Word doc at the ready on my computer for inputting written and spoken words ton be shaped into a song. Sarah had her rhythm instruments for singing toward the end of the hour long workshop. We were just beginning to chat and introduce ourselves and the program overview when I noticed that I was kicked out of the meeting.

I called out to my husband that the internet seemed to be down. No response. I called again, and then I got up and went to find him, already panicking that the meeting had also been shut off.

A tree fell, my husband told me.

What!? I responded.

Didn’t you hear it?

I hadn’t heard anything, which is a true testament to the power of Bose noise-canceling headphones, which I had been wearing.

I grabbed my things from my work station in my office space. This included my computer, the headphones, my program script, and the computer charger. I rushed to the front door, where I also grabbed a canvas tote bag from the basket by the door where we keep reusable grocery bags and the keys to my car. I hastily stepped into a pair of sandals and rushed out the door to my car, calling back to my husband to ask if he could grab my purse with my wallet.

I had planned to drive to a neighbor’s house or further into town in order to find a place with working WIFI. I didn’t get further than a few hundred feet before an enormous cottonwood across the road put an end to my escape plan.

I got out of the car, grabbed everything, and asked my husband if he could drive the car back. I was on a mission to get back to the workshop, and time was of the essence.

There were two neighbors close by, taking stock of the situation. They were both older, and when I inquired into using their WIFI one had no idea how his WIFI worked and the other wasn’t sure of her password. I ran to another neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. No answer. One of the two older neighbors called me to her house, where she picked up her router to try to figure out the network name and password.

I usually just try every code on the back until one works, she told me.

When none of the codes worked, I gathered up my belongings and hustled to another neighbor’s house. Luckily, this neighbor was outside. I called out to ask if his WIFI was working and quickly explained the situation.

He told me the network and password as we walked around to his back patio, where he set up a lawn chair for me.

I opened my computer, logged in, and was overjoyed to find that everyone was still engaged and present in the meeting. I had forgotten that Allison had made both me and Sarah co-hosts for the event, so when I was kicked out everyone else was able to stay.

Everyone had introduced themselves and were just beginning to share ideas inspired by a poem Sarah had shared by Kate Tempest. In our planning for the workshop, we thought this would be a good way to draw people in. In our time offering these workshops at the asylum center, Sarah would often write a line from a poem at the top of the blank page we taped to the wall.

A blank page can be exciting. It can also be daunting.

I quickly jumped in and officially introduced myself and an overview of the Story-to-Song method and our ideas for the one hour workshop.

I noted with a thrill that we had Sarah and one participant both from Brussels. My parents had joined from Massachusetts, and there were two participants from Phoenix, one who I had met six or seven years earlier when I offered a Story-to-Song workshop at the Limmud Conference in Phoenix.

Sarah read through the words and phrases people had already shared, and I typed them into the Word document. I shared my screen so everyone could see the words appearing on the page, the beginnings of our song.

Connections are vital

Nature plants, death and life

The body


Birth death rebirth



Just you know, people, I guess

Generation to generation

The love between a mother and child

Connections to me are also about grief and healing

Hate and forgiveness

At this point, I asked if anyone would like to share something they experienced along these themes. I explained a bit more about how the story becomes the verses and that the chorus is a universal element of the human experience that we can all relate to.

This is a general outline of a song:


This happened

And this happened

And this happened

And that’s why…


I want a peaceful life


We should never give up


We should open the borders

So all people can live where they can be free

Note: These universal concepts were all from songs Sarah and I wrote with asylum seekers in Brussels. I often explain the possibility of a bridge when we are further along in the songwriting process or if there are words and phrases being shared that I think might fit better in a bridge than a verse or chorus.

There was silence from the participants. I have learned that silence is safe. It feels uncomfortable, but it is important to allow people space to be with their thoughts, to contemplate what they might want to share, and also to work up the courage to it takes to share something very personal. Sharing our stories is scary and very vulnerable. Silence can be space for people to be with what they are feeling.

Sarah chimed in to share what came up for her as she looked at the list of themes around the central idea of “everything’s connected.”

The body is connected

All the parts of the body are connected

So we are connected ourselves through the paths of our own body

But yet there are all these bodies out there we are connected to

The individual and the group

I see connection there

Connections are vital

The participant from Brussels waved her hand to speak. She had told us she was originally from Yemen, and she went on to share her story of thinking of her body as a kind of home. Long before she left her home country, she had been disconnected and disassociated from her body due to trauma. Now recently she had been reconnecting with her body, which felt like a way of returning home. This was the way to heal.

I’m feeling a bit emotional because I was just this morning thinking

I want to write something about how I reconnected with my body

I had a very difficult relationship with my body for many, many years

Because of trauma and many people go through that

And it took me, my journey was very long

And it took me a very long time to come back to myself, to my body

To be one with my body

I realized that my body is my first home

For me home has been

It’s a very difficult topic because I am away from my home

I have come to realize that home is my body

So I was an exile long before I was actually physically removed from my country of birth

I sort of disconnected from my body because of trauma and I had these disassociations

And I wasn’t present in my body

So I think I wasn’t home

even before I had to leave my country

I was in exile even though I was home

Now I feel like I am facing double exile and the way to heal that is to return home

To this, to my body

It’s about connecting

Connecting with this body as a way of healing

Of returning

At this point, I knew we could have easily worked on a song only from this woman’s story. I also knew that we had begun the process collaboratively, and I felt that it was important to see it through collaboratively so that every person would feel heard and that their words were important.

I shared another invitation for people to share, and when there was another silence, Sarah chimed in once more. She spoke about how the world was made of bodies, and that we can feel like alone, like we are nobody, or we can think of us all around the world as one of many.

Nobody somebody every body

To be somebody

Not to feel like nobody

There’s one

There’s many

People shared more ideas in the group chat, and Sarah read them aloud.

Connections to me are also about grief and healing

Hate and forgiveness

Is forgiveness even a word

Finding commonalities among us

At this point, I think we were past the midway point in the program. I suggested we look back at all of the different ideas people had shared. My initial thought when planning the session was that we would all share and then develop a chorus, but this list seemed more like a list of many possible themes we could work from to write a song.

I wrote the word Themes, and people shared this list:



The body as a home

All of our bodies connect us

Another participant from Phoenix unmuted his microphone to share what he was thinking about:

How fleeting and temporary our structures are

but how there is so much more permanence in the connections that we make with people

there’s this thing that’s happening here and it’s a process of otherization

we cannot see ourselves in someone else

that’s the source of the disconnect

so when you think about the connection

we have to see our own selves in other people’s struggles and other people’s struggles

when we are listening to someone’s story

it’s such a personal thing

but it’s so universal

when you hear someone’s story

it’s that connection you make

that’s not just about you

it’s about us

it’s important to be able to make that connection

if you can’t it’s a kind of disconnect

when you don’t see the person in the story

Note: I highlighted the line “it’s about us” a bit later when we were trolling through the text to look for possible phrases to begin a chorus.

Another participant from Phoenix unmuted her mic and asked a question:

is forgiveness even a word?

Hearing this, I wasn’t sure how I could bring this idea into the song. I thought about how there was so much pain and anger in the world. Russia invading Ukraine, Black people being targeted and killed in the United States. Perhaps a way to move forward together would be to openly talk about this, to offer an apology and forgiveness.

Someone typed in the chat:

how can we forgive people who have wronged us?

forgiveness is part of connection

More ideas shared in the chat by my mom:

the same connection can be perceived or remembered differently

people’s memories and events and what shapes them

Sarah asked my mom to say more about what she shared. She talked about how two people can have the same memory but remember it in a different way.

I wrote the words,

Can we forgive? Can we heal? Can we find a way to be connected?

We are all human

We are all in these bodies for a little while

Sarah shared,

there is so much pain and fear in the world

we don’t always see every person in ourselves

we are not always able to offer solidarity

what about the others?

Who maybe don’t look like us or act like us

My body

Your body

Every body

The participant who shared the line about forgiveness spoke, saying she thought this was a very important element to include in the song

I shared my idea at this point of how we might incorporate the idea of forgiveness. Was it a word we could collectively remember? Was it a word we still used?

I wrote,

do we even remember?

She responded, going on to talk about our senses and how she had watched a science program that connected our senses with the act of forgiveness.

our senses

smell hearing feeling

One participant from Phoenix who had spoken about the need to be able to see one another to transcend the tendency toward othering, shared two lines

You think you can see me

But senses can deceive

Another participant shared,

Each sense may shape a memory

I chimed it at this point, explaining that I thought the idea of forgiveness could be written into the bridge. The verses seemed to be pointing to a shared past and present, which was not allowing us to see one another. The chorus shared the positive future we want, and the bridge might communicate how we can get from the past/present to a better future. Perhaps, forgiveness was part of the path forward?

I was also watching the clock creep ever closer to the top of the hour, and I continued to explain that while sometimes a song was written in an hour more often we ended up with the chorus and the beginnings of a song. I guided us toward creating a chorus we could all sing together.

One participant shared,

Can I see myself in you?

Everything that you’ve been through

Can you see yourself in me?

Another participant suggested a fourth line,

Everything you used to be

I read through the words. I asked the question do we want to look back in the chorus or look forward? What if the line “you used to be” was shifted into a positive forward thinking idea that included all of us: Everything that we could be?

I wasn’t sure if I should have made this suggestion or if I had made this person feel like I didn’t think their words were “right.” This is part of the challenge of guiding the songwriting process. I do my best to try to include each person and their words in the process, but I sometimes wonder if I could have done a better job.

The person who had shared the idea for the first three lines of the song added more ideas.

Some body

Some body


Either Sarah or I (I don’t remember who) suggested that we might chant those words after singing the first four lines of the chorus. We could even go back to the earlier phrases about our different bodies and chant those as well.

Every body

Your body

My body

No body

Every body

I also made the suggestion that we could pose the questions for the first round of the chorus and then response with a statement.

I can see myself in you

Everything that you’ve been through

Can you see yourself in me?

Everything that we could be

That suggestion didn’t really catch on, but it was no matter. It’s all about sharing ideas and then seeing what fits and what people want to sing.

At this point, we were nearing the end, and I explained that this was the moment to see if anyone would feel brave enough to try singing through the words. I did my best to quickly explain that this was a very vulnerable part of the process and that it was a way to begin to look for a melody and key we could expand upon.

In my time writing music with people, I have found that people often sing a similar arc of notes over and over again. Then for some reason, perhaps some akashic connection between body, mind, and experience, they sing a completely different arc of notes for one particular line in the story. Perhaps, that one part of the story held particularly poignant significance or emotion, and the emotion was tied to or translated into the notes they sang. Emotion interpreted into musical language, this was the musical phrase for their feelings.

I am imagining a Google Translate App for writing music from our emotional connections to our memories and life experiences. Perhaps this songwriting method is the non-tech version.

One of the Phoenix participants unmuted his mic and sang the chorus. I figured out that he was singing in G and sang it back to him. Sarah then got her egg shaker, and we all sang through it together, moving through the words to chant as well.

At this point we were past the hour, and I suggested that we take a few minutes for questions and anything people might like to share. I also asked people to share their email in the group chat or just to me or Sarah if they wanted me to send the Word doc and recording I had made of us singing the chorus together.

A couple of participants spoke about the experience:

Participant A

It’s neat how you can get total strangers together and have the bones of a piece of art D

It’s so hard to draw a story out of somebody, especially when there’s trauma

The very process of telling your story is the way we are seen in the world and it’s hard for people to do that

Participant B

We just created something in less than an hour

When you create something beautiful, there’s no harm in it. There’s only good.

Not everyone can say that they in their lives they create something beautiful

We said goodbye, and Sarah and I stayed on for a few minutes to debrief. The events coordinator joined us before we ended the meeting. Overall, it seemed the session had gone really well. I felt very uplifted that we had managed to pull it off despite natural events that were beyond our control. It was a wonderful, positive way to start the day, and I felt my heart open and full of love because I was doing what I wanted to be doing with my life. This being successful also showed me that there was a way for Sarah and I carry on our work even from a distance. There is no replacement for creative collaboration in person, but in these difficult times I think this virtual option opens us a really unique opportunity to get people together from around the world to connect through creative expression.

I had been so angry with the universe when the tree fell and it looked like I might not be able to do this songwriting session because I had been so excited to finally be able to see a way forward for me and Sarah to work together. Now, I felt elated. I also felt like that song wanted to come out into the world as much as I wanted to guide the process.

I kept thinking about how to incorporate more of the words that Avery shared. I felt bad that we hadn’t been able to the bridge or verses so she could see her ideas become part of the song, and I worried that I had unintentionally alienated her from the creative process. She had shared that she played many instruments and had wanted to try to write a song but had never been able to. I didn’t think she had shared her email address for me to send the text and recording of us singing the chorus, and I felt badly about it.

I wondered if there was a way to include the idea of forgiveness in the chorus somehow. Maybe in the part we chanted?

I went through the words in my head, over and over again, with different possible phrases. I finally came up with this:

Some body

No body

Remember every body and forgive

My body

Your body

Every body has the right to live

It rhymed, which was in keeping with the first stanza and that the participants seemed to like. And it included the idea of forgiveness.

So here now is the chorus:

Can I see myself in you?

Everything that you’ve been through

Can you see yourself in me?

Everything that we could be

Some body

No body

Remember every body and forgive

My body

Your body

Every body has the right to live

I spoke with Sarah when our internet was finally restored, and she filled me in on the 10 minutes I was absent at the start of the session. She said she asked everyone to share a word or two by way of introduction and then she read the poem by Kate Tempest and people seemed keen to share word and phrases. We spoke about the importance of music, especially as a way to invite people to participate in a different way.

One reason I love working with Sarah is that we each bring a unique personality and expressive art for people to try out. Some people respond to visual art, others to poetry or music. I think it’s an invaluable creative outlet for expression that can speak to people on many levels. It’s especially vital for people who may feel that their voice is not invited or welcome.

Now more than ever I feel very strongly that it is vital to our survival as a species that we create safe spaces for people to come together to share what they are feeling. This method of using poetry and story to write a song can help us to really see/imagine ourselves in a stranger’s shoes. It’s from this foundation that hearts can be opened to people we have been taught to fear or other and empathy and solidarity can grow.

Recording of Marieke singing the chorus

Gallery captions

left to right top row: my tidy workspace, a tree fell and made a sound, my neighbor’s house/WIFI mecca

left to right bottom row: my view from my new workspace, me and my workspace

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