So far as I can tell from my 37 years on this planet, the purpose of my life seems to revolve around creating empathy and understanding. Since I was a child, I wanted to care for beings who needed love and shelter. My parents allowed me to adopt animals whose owners had abandoned them. I tried to hide a kitten I found in a box in my room when I was in high school (which didn’t last long because my mom was super allergic to cats and because I hadn’t really thought through everything that caring for a baby animal entails). As an adult, I tried to rescue a baby mouse who parent had been killed by a mouse trap, and I brought home a racing pigeon with a broken wing who I named Komo after the environmental ed program I was teaching, which was named for the Lushootseed Native American name for the volcano Mount Baker, Komo Kulshan, great white watcher. Komo seemed to have an propensity to complain more than silently watching, but I adored him in all of his surly grandeur. He loves to wander around the yard with my chickens and would likely still be with my today if not for his life being cut tragically short by a friend’s malamute.
I think it is this desire to care for other beings that has led me to songwriting. I spent years studying and performing classical piano. Even then, the greatest joy I experienced in playing piano was being able to share it with my dad because my heart felt so full knowing how happy it made him to sit and listen to me play.
For me, the joy of music comes in sharing the experience. I think part of that joy stems from witnessing the incredible power of music to open the heart. Weaving in the sharing of stories to the creative process of songwriting adds yet another dimension to the experience, and that is the opportunity for empathy. I can feel my own heart fill with love when I listen to music.
There is a kind of symbiosis and synchronicity that happens with this kind of songwriting, a back and forth of creativity, energy, and emotion. When I am writing a song with a person, I send love to them as I guide them through the songwriting process. One participant described the feeling of being embraced in a musical hug when she volunteered to share a story and create a song with my songwriting partner and I years ago. In a similar vein, a person listening to a finished song might feel their heart open to send love, empathy, and understanding to the stranger whose story became the song.
As with so many creative pursuits, there is the element of the unknown in songwriting as well. I try to embrace the unknown each week when I visit the refugee asylum center to offer two hours of poetry and songwriting for the residents. This past Monday, I visited the center sans Sarah, my co-volunteer, who was out of town. I experienced some trepidation as I walked over to our usual spot and placed my accouterments on the bench.
Would this be a day of singing and songwriting for the pigeons in the courtyard? Would any person be interested in joining me?
It wound up becoming a very dynamic day for songwriting. The weather was cold, grey, and windy with “gouts” of rain. I was joined by several men from Palestine in the beginning of the afternoon. I posted a piece of paper and explained that they could write anything they wanted on the paper in any language. Several wrote phrases in Arabic, which we worked together to translate.
Your place is empty.
I asked if he could tell me more about the meaning of these words.
When I come I need a place
Where are you from? I asked.
Palestina. Gaza. I was in Austria. Now here.
When you say you need a place, is Belgium that place?
Yes, here. Here I am free.
All the world is free, he continued. Politics make borders.
One person wrote a phrase in English:
The sun travels behind the horizon without crossing any borders
He thanked me and continued on his way. The man I had been working with looked at the phrase and nodded agreement and understanding.
The sun is free, he said. Not people.
At this point, one of the staff came by to talk with me, and the fellows from Palestine began talking together and eventually carried on their way. After they left, a resident from Eritrea came up and asked me what I was working on. I explained and asked if he might like to write something.
He took a marker and wrote a line in his native tongue, which he translated below in English.
The meaning of life is to be happy and give love to everyone
No matter who are you and where you come from
Just be happy
I started strumming a few chords and asked if he might like to sing the words. Often, people are very shy to sing, but he gave it a try. And his voice was beautiful. It was delicate and tentative, and the melody was lovely. He almost was speaking rather than singing…a kind of spoken word melody. Try as I might I just could not quite replicate the notes and cadence. I wanted to sing with him to offer support, but I tried to keep my voice low so as not to overpower his.
Your voice is better, he said. No, yours is just beautiful, I tried to assure him.
I had set my iPhone on the side body of my ukulele to make a recording of us singing so I would be able to remember the melody later. Unfortunately, this meant that the mic caught the ukulele strumming over both of our voices. I am hoping I will find a way to reduce the volume.
I thanked him for sharing his words and beautiful voice before I left the center, and I listened to the recordings on the bus ride home. There are so many beings out there with so many stories. I wish I could write songs from them all.