Songs for the Struggling Artist

Why I’m Thinking about Lullabies So Much

There was news of a juvenile detention center, where horrific abuses of immigrant children had happened. It’s happening in many places – but this one was in a town twenty minutes from where I grew up. It was in the same town that my play (about a community in the midst of an immigration clamp down) might have been produced had I made it out of the finals. I asked myself: What would I do if I was there in that place? How could I respond if I lived in that small town? And I thought – well, I guess I’d go sit outside and sing lullabies to those kids locked up in there.

Why lullabies? Children who’ve been separated from their parents are traumatized and a lot of the things I’ve read suggest that protestors going and shouting only makes things scarier for them. They have no way of knowing the shouting is in support of them. A lullaby is the most basic expression of support and safety. Those kids mothers’ would want them to at least be able to be soothed or go to sleep.

A few years ago, a friend told me she wished I was nearby so I could sing some lullabies to her son. So I recorded the songs she wished I was there to sing and after meeting her son, I wrote one especially for him. As more babies were born to my friends, I have written more lullabies for those children and each of them was directly connected to that particular child and their parents. A good lullaby can speak directly to the unique bond between parents and children as they go through the rituals of going to sleep.

I thought – maybe I should learn a lullaby or two in Spanish, add it to the repertoire and have it at the ready should I ever need to go sing outside a detention center. I wondered what a separated family would want to hear or would want to sing. And then a song just floated by me and I caught it. I had not intended to write a song for lost children but I imagined what a mother would sing to a child who was lost, if she couldn’t be there herself. And so there was a song.

Simultaneously, I can’t stop thinking about Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, and how all of the kids, born at the moment of India’s Independence, share a common bond, a common thread and are connected telepathically. I thought – these separated children are like that – torn from their families in the same awful time and all the experts say that reuniting them with their families will be next to impossible. But maybe they’ll somehow find each other in ten years – and that is, children will find other likewise traumatized children and there will be a powerful uprising of spirit. Maybe there will be a Central American Saleem who connects them. I don’t know – that’s a YA novel or TV series down the road. But how could they come together, what could unite them? Probably music, I thought.

Anyway – I recorded the song that came to me, set it up to donate proceeds to the Women’s Refugee Commission. I asked my friend in Uruguay to help me translate into Spanish and figured I’d just record that (maybe with her) when we finished. I’d learn a few Spanish songs, record them, maybe sing them somewhere and that would be extend of it.

I swear I thought I was mostly done with this. But then I thought of activists around the country outside of foster centers and camps and god knows where and thought wouldn’t it be great if we had an album of lullabies they could sing or play for the children inside.

And then I thought – even better – we get the parents to record the lullabies they sing to their children and play THOSE outside centers. Because there is no sound in the world more powerful to anyone than the sound of their parents’ voices. They are our first sounds. Their lullabies are our closest link to them. Perhaps it could even help to re-unite a family or two.

I was about to tweet out a request that people record separated parents’ lullabies – even just on the voice apps on their phones and send them to me and then I’d make an album of Lullabies for Lost Children.

But then I realized how enormous such a project could become. There are thousands of missing children (or missing parents, depending on which side you’re sitting on.) And it’s not just this current crisis either. Families are separated around the world and I suddenly wanted a lullaby bank where we stored lullabies worldwide and helped bring together the singer and the sung to.

Anyway – I don’t (yet) have the resources for a lullaby bank and I’m not Alan Lomax so I’m not trained in collecting songs from people. But perhaps the next Lomax is out there and maybe someone with more resources than me and better, more mobile recording equipment than I have, wants to help me make this happen.

But meanwhile, if you know someone who has been separated from their family, maybe ask if you can record them singing a lullaby they sang their child. I’ll happily be the custodian of such a treasure until such time as the treasures grow beyond my scope.

For now…I’ll continue my project of learning Spanish lullabies but I hope one day to get to hear lullabies in indigenous languages and in Syrian Arabic and sub-Saharan African languages as well. And I will continue to hope that the music really could bring people together. Given that so many millions of people around the world listened to “Despacito”, for example, we could probably reach someone. Even one re-united family would be worth it.

You can donate directly to the Women’s Refugee Commission here.



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The Shadow of Optimism

When I was a teenager, I applied and was accepted Early Decision at my First Choice College. I’d only visited once and was a bit starry-eyed about the place before I went. I remembered someone asking me, “But what if it’s not all that you hope for?”
“Well, then, I’ll change it!” I said.
And I believed I could. I firmly believed that I could change anything I put my mind to. I’m not quite sure where this belief came from. Not from my experience: I was wholly incapable of changing the public high school I went to despite all my railing against it. Regardless, I was full of idealism and fire at that time and truly believed I could change anything and everything.
You may not be surprised to learn that I was due for a come-uppance and had that belief thoroughly shaken many times over. I have a great deal of head-shaking affection for the version of myself who believed she could change everything. Bless her heart, she had no idea what she was up against and also a whole mess of sweet hot ego to push her through.
I often encounter the shadow of that person that I was and usually I see it reflected in other people. When I write about the failures of institutions and systems, inevitably someone will give me a kind of pep-talk, a “You go in there and shake things up! You can do it! Just believe in yourself!” The 18-year-old version of myself would have taken that pep talk and run right into the fire with it. (So would the 25-year-old and probably the 32-year-old, by the way.) The 40 year old me shakes her head and bites her fist at the foibles of American support.
I think it is our cultural belief that any individual can change everything. We pick out one hero who made a change and say, “That guy did it! It was him!” We tend to look at the fight for civil rights, for example, and make it seem like Martin Luther King, Jr. did it all by himself with maybe a little help from Rosa Parks. But the truth of that movement is that hundreds of thousands of people worked together in a targeted, organized communal push to create that change.
There is such a strong bias toward the hero in our culture that it filters into almost everything. We have a blindness to systems and institutions and an overemphasis on individual change. So we refuse to see that a corporation is racist in its organization and instead tell the individual to adjust his attitude about the racism. Rather than acknowledge the forces of economic inequality, we encourage every person to get out there and make it! And we blame them if they don’t.
I see this happen in the Arts, too. There is a desire to believe that the system works and that the cream always rises to the top. We think that if you have talent and are nice and work hard, that success will be yours! (See also this article in the New York Times about the comforting myth of poverty:  “Who wants to believe you can work your whole life and end up not being able to afford food? You want to believe those people had to have had something go wrong with them, in order for them to end up in that place. ” – Margarette Purvis, from Food Bank for NYC)

I was listening to this podcast in which two well-known comedians talked about their path to success. They talked about how sometimes they’ll meet a guy who hasn’t made it and they’ll be all confused, because he’s so talented and how could it be? And then poof! They find his tragic flaw and their own successes are justified.
But the fact is that there are structures and systems in place that privileges the success of some over others. It privileges men over women, white people over people of color, rich over poor, the young over the old, the able-bodied over the disabled and so on and so on. Our culture would prefer to look at the flaw in one person that can explain their “failure” rather than the big picture that sets some up to succeed and some to languish in obscurity. (And, as I just learned from the Brooklyn Commune Project’s report, for every artist who is making a living from art, there are 20-30 who are not. And that’s just making A living. I think the numbers probably jump for a DECENT living.)
And, you know, people can get really cranky when you point systematic stuff out. That’s when the real Positive Thinkers will start to accuse you of being bitter (the greatest American sin) and suggest you join the Landmark Forum or do a course with Tony Robbins or a dozen other businesses that exist to puff you up and make you shiny. There are any number of books and articles and motivational speakers who will insist that if you just think Positive, the world will be your oyster. Many will go so far as to insist that if you just believe hard enough, what you want will be yours.
As artists, we’re particularly prone to this sort of thinking. We have to be. The odds for our success aren’t good. Sometimes self-delusion is the only way to keep going. I’ve done it. Did it for years. I totally walked that Positive Thinking Talk. I have walked into more impossible situations armed with nothing more than optimism and conviction than I’d like to count. I’ve been a “Leap and the net will appear” person for most of my life. Problem is, sometimes the net doesn’t appear. Most times, in fact. And when you’ve landed on your face enough times, you start to think maybe it might be a better idea to examine the conditions around the leaping a little bit. Check the wind, as it were. Maybe see if you have a friend with a truck and a feather mattress who might be willing to wait below where you’re leaping, in case that net doesn’t show up after all.
There’s some new scholarship around Optimism and psychology. The Antidote is a book about these ideas and after years of being sure I could change things by myself, I can’t wait to read it. I need some new way of leaping, a way to create change that doesn’t involve falling so firmly on my face all the time.
Additionally, I’ve found a great deal of actual hope in people that are coming together to make change in my community. I joined the League of Independent Theater this year and I’ve already seen them make a difference in all kinds of sectors I’d thought were un-touchable. Similarly, the Brooklyn Commune Project has pulled together a passionate group of people who have worked tirelessly for the good of the whole.
It’s starting to dawn on me that when we’re just Thinking Positive, we’re all on our own. We take on all the risk in exchange for all the (possible) glory. But when we are working together, facing the edges, as it were, we don’t have to work so hard to pretend it is all alright. We tackle the hard stuff. We see it. And some of us hold the net ready while the others are jumping. We don’t have to Believe so hard that way.


P.S. I just watched an RSA video of Barbara Ehrenreich talking about this exact thing, from a different perspective. It made me laugh and feels like EXACTLY what I was trying to say. Watch it. 

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