I’m kind of high right now because the response to the first two workshops I gave was so enthusiastic. I’m so excited right now, that I did a bunch of research and correspondence in the last few hours. I really, really don’t like passive engagement, just interacting with a screen and my imaginary ideas about the people I’m writing to. I’ve done too much of that in my life and it leads me far away from the kind of human connection I really want.
Leaving these workshops, I’m feeling so open, I can talk to anyone. After each one, I had a pretty intense conversation with people on the street! Yesterday, right after I crossed the street from a support center on Germantown Ave, I looked into the eyes of a man, something I would ordinarily never do. He looked so interesting, though, that I felt like I knew him, and weirdly, he thought he knew me, as well. Maybe it’s that we were both feeling open to the world at the time.
He was about my height. Skin the color of light chocolate. A big, almost Muslim beard, but a bit bushier. His brown eyes were intense, and he engaged my gaze directly, but without threat, nor urgency. He was present. He had that aura of a street person, but his clothes were clean, and he didn’t ask for money — not right away, anyway.
“Don’t I know you?” He asked.
“I don’t think so.” It was a strange feeling, feeling like you know someone, but not recalling ever having seen them before.
“Do you drive a red Cadillac,” he asked?
“No. That must be someone else. You’re the second person today who thought he knew me. I just gave a music workshop across the street,” I pointed down the street to the entrance to The Wedge.
“I did an improvisational music workshop,” I said. Then, volunteering, “It’s for people with…” I jabbed my finger towards my head. “I have bipolar disorder.”
“I have bipolar disorder, too. I’ve got a lot of problems. I need some help — finding some place to live. Could you help me out?”
Oh the struggle in my head. I dearly wanted this to be one of those cool encounters where you just meet a kind of kindred spirit. Giving him money would make me feel like I was paying him to talk to me. I fished out my wallet, anyway, and gave him a dollar.
“The music helps with the depression and the self-hatred. It’s like a mini-vacation from all the crap that goes on in my head.”
“I play the guitar.”
“Do you know about the center across the street?”
They have a lot of services there. They help you get a place to live. They get you medical care. They’ve got a bunch of things for people to do. Like the music thing I’m doing.”
We talked a little bit more, and then said goodbye with a handshake and a little “bro” hug.
Today, the workshop at another location of the support center was a lot more energetic. I tell my story about how this workshop came to be, and then I enter into the first exercise, which is a short meditation designed to ease people’s fear of what others might think of the sounds they make. Even before I asked people to start making sounds, some of the people were. It made me relax, because I knew I wouldn’t have to do much coaxing.
A lot of people were making a low, guttural sound, like an idling motor boat. It felt like it was coming from deep inside, without any filters. There were a few self-conscious laughs here and there, but there were just as many people who were already lost in the sound.
The next exercise generated most of the high. It’s the name game, where we each take a turn singing our names together with a movement. Later on, I recall the movement and I can recall people’s names. Normally, I would forget their names right away — maybe even before they said them.
The person on my right was a staff person. Maybe a ringer, but she was so genuinely enthusiastic about this exercise that she was free in making up her song and movement, as well as improvising later on when we repeated her name. The group developed a rhythm and even the reluctant people were encouraged to step up and after that, everyone was on board. I got back so much energy from their enthusiasm that I’m still buzzing hours later.
Out on the sidewalk after the workshop, I struck up a conversation with one of the people from the workshop. He ended up telling me about how tough his life had been. How dangerous it was; how many people had died; how he’d spent time in jail; in the shoe, and so on.
It was like the music totally opened him up. He started telling me about his brother.
“He was in the hospital with a stroke. When I went to pick him up, I had to carry him to the car. His legs were paralyzed.” He was choking up as he remembered this scene, and as he struggled to hold back his tears, he turned away from me a little. I stood there, letting him be. Remembering my therapist telling me to feel my feelings. You feel them, and they start to dissipate. They’re no longer something you run away from and do all kinds of stuff to keep from feeling them.
“Will you be coming back?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Those people,” he said, pointing back inside, “They don’t get it. They hear what I’m telling you and they’ll use it against me.”
I think he was expecting me to judge him for the things he’d done. I just wanted him to be able to tell his story, and I’m a little bit amazed at how powerful music can be to help people have fun and open up the things they’ve kept hidden, if they feel safe enough to do so. I respect that as a sacred trust. I’m not going to name names or share too many details about what happens. Just enough to give an idea of how powerful this work can be.
I am gaining confidence about it. I’m a bit in awe. I know that people are lonely and isolated and desperately want to be their true selves and share the real stuff with others. I know that because I know how isolated I’ve been. I know where that has led me.
By sharing that with others, and by teaching them a way to create the safety they need, perhaps this can help them heal. At the least, it can help them cope, as it has helped me. I can’t guarantee that anyone will be safe. But I hope that I can teach folks methods to create that safety for themselves. Perhaps they will learn how to build trust with each other.