Stories and Songs

For my own peace of mind, I need to return to the original intent of this blog: to engage people in meaningful conversations about timeless issues. So please see this post as my personal pivot to possibilities.

Last week, I attended a Unitarian Universalist service in San Diego. The speaker showed slides of two sides of the wall along the Mexico/US border near Tijuana. The US side of the wall was bare and barren. The Mexican side of the wall was filled with colorful murals. The stark contrast illustrated powerfully how the stories of people living so close to each other can be so dramatically different. It struck me how important it is to understand each person’s story and to pay attention to the details of their lives.

In the musical Ragtime, based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, the play tells the story of three groups in the United States in the early 20th century: African Americans, upper-class suburbanites, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. The opening lines in the song, My Story, by Big Daddy Weave, go like this:

If I told you my story,
You would hear hope that wouldn’t let go.
And if I told you my story,
You would hear Love that never gave up.
And if I told you my story,
You would hear life, but it wasn’t mine.
If I should speak then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins.

Photo of Dhaka, Bangladesh | Credit: Pujohn Das
Photo of Dhaka, Bangladesh | Credit: Pujohn Das

The song reminds me how different each of our stories can be depending upon where we live, where we come from, and what culture we live in.

The scope of our hope, the depth of our love, the beauty of our grace, and our experience of justice vary greatly by simple circumstance; for example, being born on one side of a wall or the other.

The distance may only be a few meters in length, but the experience can be miles apart in opportunities.

My story is a lucky one. I have always had abundant hope (maybe too much), I have always felt loved (if not unconditionally cherished or warmly embraced), and, as a white, middle-class American, I have rarely been the victim of injustice. Life has been merciful to me.

My story is not the story of the vast majority of people living on the earth today.

For billions of people, hope is hard to hang on to, love is difficult to find, and there is very little justice and mercy.

Conditions play a major role in how a person lives, grows, and dies. If you are a refugee in Syria, a farmer in Sudan, an African American in Alabama, an autoworker in Mexico, a Doctor in California, or a CEO of a large corporation, your story is going to be different. And each story needs to be heard.

Title: Ysaye Barnwell Community Sing (September 20, 2011) | Author: theclariceumd on Vimeo
Title: Ysaye Barnwell Community Sing (September 20, 2011) | Author: TheClarie | Source: Vimeo | License: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

Stories are important and so are songs. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to participate in a community-building experience led by Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, a prolific composer for the group Sweet Honey in the Rock from 1979 to 2013. Barnwell also has a unique story to tell. She has been commissioned to create music for dance, choral, film, and stage productions. She is known for being a female Bass. Her focus is on building vocal communities through singing in the African American Tradition.

Barnwell earned a master’s degree in speech pathology, a master’s degree in science in Public Health, and a Ph.D in speech. She has also written children’s books. Most importantly for me, however, is her ability to bring people together through song and to create harmony out of discord with untrained audiences of widely disparate skill levels.

Now that’s a gift. I would love to sit down with her and hear her whole story.

In the session she conducted with my group, she opened with these words:

“I see songs as armor when you need it. And I see songs as a blessing – they come to you when you need them.”

In this time of disharmony, discord, dismay, and divisiveness, we need songs to give us strength and stories to bring us to together and to heal our wounds.

We don’t need more conflict; we need more community. We don’t need more meanness; we need more mercy. We don’t need more loathing; we need more love. We don’t need more hate; we need more hope. We don’t need more jails; we need more justice. We don’t need to shut people out, shut people down, or shut people up; we need to step up and hear their stories.

Even if we don’t like what we hear and their stories are different than our stories. Especially so!

At the risk of seeming blatantly biased (which I am when it comes to my two daughters and twin grand-kids) my older daughter is a great example of how we can use stories and songs to heal the pain in the world. In her work as an assistant professor at Columbia University, Rebecca teaches teachers how to bring characters alive in stories by reading aloud in a more engaging fashion. In her early work as an educator, she also conducted musicals with elementary school kids in South Bronx. I share this story because I have seen first hand how powerful and magical stories and songs can be when they are used to light people up and bring them together. I will never forget the joy on her students’ faces when they sang together in front of an audience. They looked powerful – full of hope and love.

Even though I am very proud of the work she is doing, my purpose is not to provide a free infomercial for my daughter. I simply want to share how stories and songs can have such a profound impact on a person’s life.

Research indicates that the best way to raise funds is to share a story about an individual. It turns out that trying to raise money for a group of people is less effective than sharing a story about an individual member of that group.

People like to know personal details and connect emotionally with the soul and spirit of another person. Apparently, our brains and hearts are wired in such a way that we are more willing to help one person in need than we are to donate to a cause that helps millions. When we give to a specific person, we feel we are being directly helpful and it gives us a warm feeling. When we are asked to give to a large population, the problem seems overwhelming and we feel like we are not really making a difference.

In a strange way, the fund-raising research supports the importance of stories and songs. When we read a story to a child, we help the child connect more fully to the characters in the book, and we connect more fully to the child as we tell the story. When we are singing our hearts out in a small or large community, we feel the energy of people coming together.

I think we all need to start looking for some “sweet honey in the rock,” and the way to find it is through stories and songs.

Tell your kids a story. Sing them a song. Help them find the sweetness and softness of life. Experience the magic and power. Listen for the love and the hope in every story and song you hear.


Also published on Medium.

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Artie Egendorf, PhD
Guest

Ah, sing it brother Rick, your most lyrical prose-singing ever, at least to my inner ears. How beautiful. Thanks <3

RonnyDonny
Guest
RonnyDonny

Nicely done Ricky! Keep it up! RonnyDonny

Marty Jansen
Guest
Marty Jansen

… just a wonderful TED Talk by your daughter.

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