There are many days I think life is hard. I look up from the bottom of the perceived mountain I must climb with utter dread. I consider the battles I fancy myself entrenched in, and worry. And then someone comes along who knows something about real war. Someone whose life circumstances can shock me back to reality with grounding perspective.
Several weekends ago, I met two warriors, who taught me a lot about walking through the battles of life. What I learned: When life gets hard, sing. And don’t sing alone; sing together.
I met Gary and Zarita at an event sponsored by Challenge America, an organization that connects military veterans to various resources in their communities. I was invited to be one of several songwriters who partnered with veterans experiencing PTSD. Each of us spent two days helping vets tell their stories and share their hearts through a song we crafted with them. Mack, the music therapist who created this wonderful initiative, paired each songwriter with a music therapy intern, who helped us throughout the retreat. Jilina, an amazing young lady from Belmont University, helped make the weekend a rich experience with her open heart and gentle presence.
First, I met Gary, a Vietnam War veteran. I was incredibly moved by his stories of sheer terror and loss. He explained the comradeship and connectedness that comes from standing on a battlefield with fellow soldiers, and how no domestic relationship feels the same. I could not imagine his circumstances, but I do know loss, fear, and the challenge of trying to express one’s heart in a way that others can relate to. I knew our common ground would be the song. Sure enough, a “hook” emerged when Gary said he wanted to explain to his mama how war changes people: “There’s a road that I’m on, and I can’t come home.”
After a morning of songwriting therapy, we took a break to watch some fun YouTube videos, and cracked jokes over lunch. Gary went off to guitar lessons, and I met my second writing partner, Zarita. Dressed up in her high heels and sparkly personality, she shared stories of Afghanistan. I’ve never thought about those who interacted with the locals, helping calm their fears, but a large part of Zarita’s job was being the friendly face in a patrol. She told us that during her tour, women began to visit the markets again for the first time in seven years, and explained that her team responded to perceived threats not with their weapons, but with words. It sounds like an ideal, gracious way to navigate war, but as powerful as her job was, she explained through tears the powerlessness she often felt trying to navigate with words as a female in a man’s world. In addition, Zarita still deals with injuries that are a daily battle. So we wrote an anthem: “I won’t give up this fight, I’m taking back my life.”
Tears turned to laughter and excitement as the song came together. After the addition of some drum loops, harmony parts, and an impressive rap penned by Zarita, our anthem was complete. Zarita even dubbed our trio “Delectable Divinity.”
At the end of the weekend, all the veterans and songwriters piled in to hear each other’s stories set to music. The sighs, nods, and murmurs of agreement during each song spoke, “I know what you’ve been through.”
I learned lots during those two days. I learned once again the true gift of being a messenger and helping someone sing what they can’t say. I learned that, though we face insurmountable circumstances we can’t explain to each other, we can use music to convey our hearts and, somehow, gain a collective understanding. And perhaps there is healing, too. My heart certainly healed a little that day.
More than anything, this beautiful experience reminded me of the powerful gift of story each of us has. Whether we choose to tell our stories through music or conversation, we must tell them, knowing that, in doing so, the “teller” and the “hearer” will both be changed.
If you’ve never written a song about your day, I encourage you to try – it’s easier than you think. Simply change the words to the chorus of your favorite song to personal lyrics about your life. Let me know how you do. Share if you dare!