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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Ladies Man
February 16, 2016, 10:30 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , , , ,

I saw an adorable baby toddling through a cafe wearing a t-shirt that said, “Ladies Man.” The baby was cute and his t-shirt was amusing because he’s just a baby. But then I got uncomfortable. With a little consideration, this kid’s t-shirt felt like such a bald reinforcement of patriarchal ideals.

There is something complimentary about being a ladies’ man. It implies a man who seduces a lot of women, which is why it’s funny on a baby. But there is no reverse of this idea. You can’t be a man’s woman – or a gentleman’s lady – you label yourself like that, you start to look like a prostitute. A man who seduces a lot of women is admired – a woman who seduces a lot of men is just a slut. The closest equivalent for a girl that I could think of that MIGHT have a positive sheen if you looked at it in the right light would be Temptress. And can you imagine how horrible a baby t-shirt with “Temptress” on it would be?

It makes me think about something Caitlin Moran talked about in an interview with herself at the Free Library of Philadelphia. One of her motivations for writing her book How to Build a Girl was to find a way to celebrate female sexual exploration and she found that she couldn’t find a way to make “slut” or “slag” sound positive – so she invented two new ideas, “Lady Sex Pirate” and “Swashfuckler.”

But I would not want these on a baby’s t-shirt either.

I guess in the absence of equal opportunities for joke baby t-shirts – it might be best not to reinforce gender norms at all at that age.

I mean, I know that kid can’t read his own t-shirt and to him, it doesn’t matter at all – but I know I looked at him and tried to see behaviors that might explain his t-shirt. Was he a particularly flirtatious baby, for example? Did he toddle more toward women than men?

And there’s a way that, even as a joke, the people around a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt begin to give that kid an idea of himself with just that conception.

One of the ways we learn and decide who we are is by the way people interact with us. Put a kid in a ladies’ man t-shirt, you may end up with a ladies’ man, for better or worse.

Does the training to see men as sexual conquerors and women as objects NEED to start with babies? I guess it does, actually. That’s how we GET gender norms. But, it does make my skin crawl a little bit to watch a cute kid toddle around in a joke that teaches him and teaches the people around him to see him as Don Juan. That’s the kind of joke that can stick.


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