These songs celebrate perseverance through challenges and ordeals. They look closely at people who have found courage to transform adversity.
For me songwriting is spiritual inquiry and political action. Bob Franke, one of the songwriters I greatly admire and learn from, says that songwriters have the potential to act as shamans. In this collection I wanted to voyage into depths, illuminate, uncover, and bring back the news.
I have been a peace educator for over thirty years. Often I’ve found that the best way to get to the essence of conflict resolution or anti-bias skills was through creating a song. The biggest impetus for this most recent collection of songs, however, was to share things I learned while recovering from an operation where a weak kidney had to be removed. To heal, I had to occupy a wider heart space. As I rested at home, I began exploding with songs that asked to be written. I began to see songwriting as even more central to heart transformation work than I had realized before.
John Paul Lederach in his newest book, The Moral Imagination, asks: “How do we transcend the cycles of violence that bewitch our human community while still living in them?” My intention in creating these songs is to foster a dialogue about what we do to make this transformation. The songs say—we want to change the spell of violence. As we live our lives with dignity and integrity, we affect the people around us whether or not we are aware of our influence. We are each teachers of bravery.
I found that the medium of songwriting could take snapshots of states of consciousness. How did Cindy Sheehan feel when she was alone in her kitchen after her son Casey’s death? What did she do to not implode from grief?
How does prisoner of conscience Richard Sitcha survive the helplessness of being trapped in prison, having his quest for asylum thwarted? How does he live day to day?
How can I let him know that I’m aware of his struggle? Can a song send him a message like a telegram to say he’s not alone? How can I come up to him, shoulder to shoulder, and say: I want to understand. My heart beats with you.
In essence, this is what I want these songs to do—transform suffering by traveling with people. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about a person’s situation and want them to know I’m accompanying them. Other times during conversation I hear an inward still small voice whisper — there’s a song forming here. Often I awaken with a line of music or a whole song given in dream and then I catch hold of it.
“Ibrahim” was inspired when Mohammed Sawalha, founder of an NGO called the Palestinian House of Friendship, visited Traprock Peace Center in Deerfield, MA. After his public talk, he told a small circle a very personal story and afterward I promised to create a song about it. Sawalha said a group of children in Nablis honored the memory of a schoolmate killed by random soldiers’ gunfire in a crowd without fostering revenge. They used what he had been teaching them and made a nonviolent response. As I watched tears run down Mohammed Sawalha’s face as he was speaking about Ibrahim’s death, I thought to myself—I have to find new strength in my heart and reach out. I thought—Give me the heart to hold your story.
Something shifts as we hold each other’s stories with our hearts.
Intentionally you’ll find references to a variety of spiritual traditions and experiences of source. “Wise Women Taught” speaks about Jewish women, “A Million Flowers” includes Hindu prayer, and “House of Hope” shares Richard Sitcha’s Christian beliefs. Other songs reflect Muslim, Quaker, and ancient Goddess traditions. I want to honor the spark of universal light inside each of us in the different ways we experience this spark.
In these times of the world out of balance, what I experience is that the light inside us calls us to be part of restoring the balance through the deeds in our own lives. It is a time of interfaith dialogues. We are finding how to communicate about our spiritual beliefs while respecting differences. This is why this is a multi-faith collection.
“Music has a redemptive power,” says Gene Glickman who helped create the War Resister’s League’s 2006 Calendar of Peace Songs called “Peace-Loving Nations.” Creating and sharing songs is communing; it’s a way to be directly with a person, to try to walk intimately in their shoes and receive an expanded orientation by experiencing how they live.
These songs hope to enter another person’s way of being and make it available to others. My goal is to look at a person’s actions, from there intuit what their centerpost looks like, and then give language to it. When Juanita Nelson knew in her bones at sixteen that she could not stay put in a segregated train car, the last car way in the back with ripped up seats, what was her ground of being? What was her fundamental belief system? As I lived into these questions for several months, the chorus finally formed itself:
Whatever age I be, I will follow what’s true for me.
The world can’t change me. The truth inside has claimed me.
I must do what I feel is true.
These are times of tremendous spiritual challenge. How do we acknowledge the level of turmoil in the world and in our lives and at the same time chart a course toward a life of integrity?
As I looked into Richard Sitcha’s actions, I came up with the notion that what he had to do in order to survive was create a house of hope. More than living in jail, he was primarily living in a house of hope. He was in effect saying, “First and foremost I live here in this inward house of my own making.” I offered the phrase to him to help sustain him. I wanted the song to say—I see you doing this, and I want to make this so vivid that you have a witness of your own dignity.
I aim at illuminating through songs what is involved beneath the surface of an action. When Ibrahim’s friends commemorated him by placing his picture and his schoolbag on his desk and leaving them untouched for a year, they were keeping the lark of his soul flying aloft with them.
When I was a teenager I discovered the power of words at a new level. I found that if I resonated with an insight, this could shift my perceptions and change my actions. I kept inspiring quotes on my wall, including Emerson’s phrase—Resonance to the all. Such words were a lifeline of possibility. I could lean on them, and they would give me leverage.
When I first heard about Julian of Norwich in the 1300’s giving hope in the midst of plague times, I knew I wanted to be like her. “All shall be well again, I know,” is what she declared. How can a person know such a thing? What is false hope and what is grounded hope?
In the song “Take Another Step” the protagonist says:
Don’t hand me hope like it’s something up high,
Stuck on a string, lost in the sky.
I want hope that’s there on the ground.
It says, pull up a chair, come on, sit down.
That’s how I see Julian of Norwich. I envision her saying, I offer hope that comes from my core. We’re all engaged in offering core hope. As we share our means of courage, we give each other a bridge to walk from despair to possibility.
These are words I have kept on my wall for a decade. It is a prediction made by
Gandhi. He said:
Undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries
will be made in the field of nonviolence.
I believe that when we look at the lives of people who inspire us, we find peace discoveries. I believe that we all make peace discoveries and build bridges to courage. The more we speak of this, the more we can learn from each other.
In this time of an epidemic of violence, Richard Sitcha, Cindy Sheehan, Juanita Nelson and the unsung friends around us show that we can forge tools of transformation to turn around betrayal, shock and loss. A House of Hope is a vessel that we can travel inside of once we know that it’s available for the making.
When we call up courage within ourselves, we are drawing upon a universal force that Gandhi called Satyagraha, truthful love. He said this is the strongest force in the Universe.
As you meet these individuals through the music, may you also feel celebrated personally.
How do you shelter the flame inside you?
When we tell each other our courage stories,
we tap Satyagraha and strengthen our world.
I invite people to send stories and insights about courage so that we can pass around our own discoveries and strengthen each other.
What sustains you?