It’s been almost a year since my husband and I moved from France back to the small town in central Arizona where we had been living before moving to Belgium five years earlier. Sound confusing? Welcome to my life.
I have been moving every two months to two years since I left my parents’ house for university. The four years we spent in Brussels was the longest stretch I have lived anywhere in my adult life.
I am a nomad, a perpetual migratory movement machine in human form. Even when I have just arrived in a place, I often have one foot already tentatively stretched out, seeking the next place. A possible escape route, if need be. There have been times when I thought I would stay forever in a place. I even bought a house in a small town in Alaska and learned several lessons from the experience:
- wait at least a year in a new job to make sure you really like it (and your managers) before buying a home
- make sure when you buy a home that you will actually live in it because renting, especially from several thousand miles away, is hellish
- if you are going to buy a house, make sure it’s in a place where you will be able to sell it for at least what you paid, if not more (aka, think twice before buying a house in bush Alaska where there are very few jobs that pay enough to buy a house)
Our time in Belgium was limited from the start. Since we were part of my husband’s student visa so he could study for his doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (Nederlands for “Free university in Brussels), we knew we had roughly four years, at which time he would graduate and we would likely have to return to the United States. When you are not a citizen of a country, the only way to stay is if you procure a paying job. An unfunded doctoral student, even one who graduates with a PhD that wins an award, does not count for staying.
The pandemic gave us one more year in Europe, albeit in the next country over in northern France in less than ideal conditions. We lived in a tiny half of a farmhouse that was technically a vacation rental because my husband’s one year position was not sufficient for being able to rent a “normal” place. The house was hard to heat and the internet was slower than the internet cafes I frequented while studying in Africa in 2002. This all while going through two separate, very extreme lockdowns that kept us housebound, made life feel isolated and challenging.
We were lucky to meet several wonderful people along the way, but it was with some relief that we decided to return to the United States. The life of the nomad can be challenging, and we had many loose ends to tie up before we could think about putting down more permanent roots in the EU. My husband’s parents had been experiencing health problems. We had a house we had been renting for the past five years and a garage full of stuff to go through. Tethers that make it hard to be fully present in another part of the world.
I don’t often return to a place I once lived. Like a relationship ending, there is usually something about that place that did not meet some of my non-negotiable needs. I had only spent a year and a half, officially living in Prescott, Arizona before we left for Belgium. I had studied for my doctorate at Prescott College, so I had spent many years visiting, but visiting a place and living there are two very different experiences.
Visiting Prescott, especially to meet with members of my cohort and faculty at Prescott College, was a magical experience. It was where I met husband. Doubly magical.
Living in Prescott was an entirely different story. The sunshine and the landscape were inviting, especially after spending years in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, the coast of Southeast Alaska, and urban Massachusetts. However, I quickly became overwhelmed by the intensity of the energy of the many different populations of people living in this small, western town. For a town so close to very liberal places like Sedona and Flagstaff, Prescott is quite conversative. Around the town square hang signs that read, Prescott: Everybody’s Hometown. But this is far from true for anyone who is not White, straight, conservative, religious, willing to hide who they are to fit into suburban America status quo.
When I lived in Prescott before, I performed music around town at local bars and restaurants. I created a set list to please. These were songs I enjoyed singing and also that I thought would be comfortable for people to listen to. In other words, my set list was not controversial. I would sneak in a few of the songs I had written here and there, but those songs were also not particularly controversial. They were safe. Plus, when I performed at bars and restaurants, people are drinking and talking and not necessarily paying very close attention to the musician in the corner.
I made some wonderful connections with people in Prescott before we moved to Belgium, including an artist whose husband was nearing the end of his life and who hired me to write a song about his life as pilot. This was one of the first songs I wrote after parting ways with my research partner, and it was challenging, emotional, and moving to be invited to share in their world through story and song.
I was happy to reconnect with this person when we moved back, and she even put in a good word for me for events where musicians were called for, including the First Friday Art Walk (a volunteer gig) and the Prescott Library Coffeehouse, which actually paid musicians to perform.
I reached out to the coordinator for the library coffeehouse series and followed up when I did not receive a response. She finally responded that I was an accomplished musician and performer: I don’t think, however, that the Coffeehouse is quite the right venue to showcase your style of music-making.
Even a library, where all ideas should be welcome, was not safe for real stories, real songs, and “my style of music-making.”
It is usual for me to not feel like I really fit in anywhere I live in the world. This began in my childhood, and it has continued. I don’t make deep connections easily, and I often feel like I am on the periphery of most social groups. I am used to this, but it can get lonely. When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who told me that I intimidated the other girls. I found this to be preposterous. However, as I have grown older and begun to embark upon a path where I try to show up as my authentic self, the more I realize that being in the world this way is not comfortable for many (if not most) people.
Authenticity is counter cultural, particularly in the United States, where you are expected to put on a good face even in the midst of personal suffering. When people ask how you are doing, they don’t want a real answer. Our European friends could not understand this. Why would you ask if you don’t want to know? a friend from Germany asked me once.
Going through a divorce? When I went through a divorce during my first winter in Alaska, I received encouragement from many people and support. Initially. It was dark. I was miserable and depressed. Most people, including my supervisor and other managers on staff, expected that after a few months I would “lift myself up by my bootstraps” (in Alaska, this would be xtratuf boots, which have no straps) and be able to focus on the very unchallenging tasks they had set aside for me.
As a PhD student studying sustainability, I had asked in the interview if I would be able to create new, innovative programs. Of course, I was told. But when I began to do that and to request the trainings that had been promised, I was met with no small amount of pushback.
At one point, when I had not managed to organize the junior ranger backpacks of banal activities a previous ranger had created (initially because I had spent much of each day, weeping at my desk and then because I had started working with local teachers to develop new programs for their students), I was labeled a problem employee. My boss, who had assured me that he would support me through the hard times and had reassured me several times that everything was fine, sat me down in a separate office with a stack of paper. At the top of each page in the stack were the words, MOVING MARIEKE FORWARD. Yes, they were all caps and all in bold.
Among the pages were noted all of my faults as a park ranger. I can’t list them all ecause I burned them years ago, but they included such ridiculous claims as,
Marieke cannot give a proper junior ranger graduation speech
Marieke asks too many questions at staff trainings, monopolizing the attention of the presenter
In other words, Marieke has an attitude problem.
This was the determination from my second grade teacher, who told my parents that I had an attitude when I gave her trouble because I didn’t feel she respected me because she never bothered to figure out how to pronounce my name correctly. This was also the assertion from my fifth grade teacher, who told my parents the same thing after she invited me to stand up in front of the class to read my book report on Jacob have I loved and then asked me (in front of the entire class) if my parents had written the paper for me.
None of these people were able to see the impact of their actions.
As I grew older, I began to believe this reflection from people in positions of authority or power. I began to believe that standing up for myself in any way shape or form made me a problem. I began to think that there was something wrong with me if I didn’t fit into the tidy, conventional mold of a government employee, among other “little boxes.”
The thing was, the more I began to move along the path toward sustainability, the less I was interested in being just like everybody else. I didn’t want to spend my career in a job where I couldn’t be myself. It’s ironic that I lasted 10 years in a position where you are not allowed to share personal opinions and you have to dress exactly like everybody else. While the national parks are celebrated for their uniqueness, the government agency machine that runs them is very much like the Borg on Star Trek. If you resist, you are a problem.
Another lesson learned: Showing up as you are, authentically and without apology, is dangerous.
The thing is, I do apologize. All the time. I take credit for abuses inflicted upon me, as if I did something to invite the abuse. I must have deserved it. I have apologized to people, hoping they will hear this apology and realize, Wait a minute. I am the one who should be apologizing. I’m so sorry!
This last bit is a fantasy. It very rarely happens. And it has taken me years—and the help of several therapists—to first begin to recognize these patterns and then to try to unlearn them and replace them with healthier ones.
Back to Prescott, Arizona. I have performed twice at a local bakery in town, also thanks to my friend, Mary Kaye. The bakery pays in baked goods, and I put out a little basket or glass for tips. The first two times I performed, I played my usual set of safe songs, mixing in a few of the songs I wrote with refugees in Brussels and some older songs I wrote with people from their stories here in the United States.
Since I was not going to be paid for my third gig, I decided that I wanted to spend the two hours talking about my experience writing music with asylum seekers in Brussels. I spent many Monday afternoons for over three years, volunteering my time with poet and writer Sarah Reader Harris, offering poetry and songwriting from story workshops for the residents at the Fedasil Arrival Centre in Molenbeek in central Brussels. During this time, we met many people from all over the world who had left their home countries in search of a place where they could live a safer, better life.
The people we met had often overcome enormous odds to reach Belgium, and the odds were still stacked against their being able to stay and establish residency for themselves and their families. Not all refugees are welcome. Not all refugees are treated as human beings. People have to prove their lives were so traumatic and dangerous that they are worthy of being granted asylum. Never mind that our species has always been nomadic, now there are borders to cross. There is paperwork to fill out. There is a priority list of reasons for being granted asylum more readily, as well as countries that are considered more dangerous than others.
Something I loved about Brussels was that diversity was the rule, not the exception. Not only this, but I didn’t witness a movement to try to return Belgium to an earlier state that was “better.” There were certainly people who did not want refugees living in the city center, but there was no “Make Belgium Great Again” campaign. Arabic was spoken more than the three regional languages of Belgium, Nederlands, French, and German. As the capital of the EU, Brussels had people from all over the world living there. There were hundreds of embassies, and English was the most universal language spoken.
Music is the universal language I use in my work. Sarah and I worked to create a space of welcome, where people would feel safe and supported to share their stories and to move through the creative process of shaping their words into song.
I believe that this creative space brought us together. It helped us transcend borders and cultural, religious, and political differences. In this same way, I believe that listening to the songs from these stories can help people living across the world to make a personal connection with someone they may have been taught to fear.
Music speaks to the heart. The chorus of each songs communicates an emotion or desire that is a universal element of the human experience. When you hear the chorus, you can imagine yourself experiencing the story that unfolds in the verses. You can imagine yourself in the life of another person.
It’s harder to hate someone when you can see yourself in their story. It’s harder to vilify, other, or scapegoat because you realize you are not so different.
It’s for this reason that I want to sing these songs far and wide for everyone to hear. I am a bard. I write and share the stories of real people. I sang these songs all over Belgium and in our community in northern France, and I was met with a great deal of support. Here in Prescott, I found myself very nervous to spend two hours, singing these songs.
While I didn’t make as much in tips I did for the two previous performances, I did sell three of the books of migration songs we published at the start of the pandemic. And whatever narrative I created in my mind about the reduced tips could simply be because people were not in a tipping mood. The cost of life is increasing with supply chain issues, inflation, and rising gas prices from the war in Ukraine.
I made up plenty of stories about what people were thinking as I sang these songs. I was sure that one couple was not enjoying themselves, even though they stayed inside while they ate instead of going to the outdoor terrace as many others did (because of my songs or because they preferred sitting outdoors I will likely never know). As the couple was leaving, the woman put a $20 bill in my tip basket and took one of my books. She didn’t ask for change and thanked me for my music.
My husband has shared a teaching from a person he studied with years ago, who told him, There are two emotions that fuel the world—love and fear—and fear is not real.
I was experiencing what felt like very real fear, performing migration songs at the bakery on Saturday. I was worried that people might complain about the songs I was playing to the owners of the bakery. I thought they might come up and ask me if I could play different music. I thought they might not invite me back. But they did invite me back. And their staff thanked me for the songs I played. The fear felt real, but it did not overpower love.
These songs are needed in the world right now. I believe we need to begin to see ourselves in other people and other people in ourselves if we are going to be able to move forward as a species without destroying one another and the world we call home.
For me, music is the way forward.