I see my life in terms of music.
I first started writing music it on my dad’s acoustic guitar before I bought my own (1969 Gibson Hummingbird) when I was 16. I listened to Radiohead, Wilco, Mazzy Star, Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young. My music was decidedly folky and guitar driven, even when it leaned toward more of a folk-rock vibe.
I understood that particular musical landscape, largely inherited from my mother’s 1970’s musical taste: the rounded rhythm of the acoustic guitar, the rich fullness of the drums, the crunchy Crazy Horse electric guitar tone.
That kind of music came naturally to me and in my early 20’s I did what all 20 year olds do: I cloaked myself in its identity with its stylistic preferences, evidenced in my production choices and even the way I dressed or carried myself on stage.
Of course, the years went on and even though I had shed the “singer songwriter” persona, I still hung on to my musical preferences both in how I sang as vocalist for work and with the kind of music I listened to. I didn’t realize it at a time, but I had set internal categories for what type of music I considered more “evolved/conscious” than others, undoubtedly placing anything that fell within my preferred category as elite or superior to other musical genres.
Last year, however, everything changed.
While overseas last summer I experienced a traumatic assault and, like an earthquake on a fault line, my world shifted beneath my feet, re-ordering my reality completely. Like most who undergo this type of violence, I couldn’t make sense of it cognitively. I was confused, ashamed, I downplayed it…I cut it off from me and tried to separate myself from it.
Walking the streets of Amsterdam, however, my body seemed to have a life of its own and knew what it needed: rhythm.
The body knows what most of us have forgotten: when we undergo trauma the first step to healing is through vibration. Vibration and movement intrinsically connect us back with our bodies, unlocking and relaxing the “fight or flight” trigger that has established itself in our brain during traumatic events. *
I walked, and as I walked I instinctively searched through my phone for music that felt right and landed on “Little Dragon”, an alternative R&B electronic band that my band-mate (Dan) had recommended. As the low end bass thundered in my ears and Yukimi Nagano’s voice maneuvered around the syncopated beats like an agile hummingbird, something clicked into place. Suddenly, a genre that I had never connected with, that had always appeared as artificial or shallow, became as real and natural to me as the breaths that were keeping rhythm with my heart…the blood pumping in my veins…my feet hitting the pavement.
R&B as a genre was born in the 1940’s, and while at first the genre was essentially the “blues,” it later evolved to also include rock and roll, gospel and soul. The R&B we know today is an even greater amalgam that also includes hip-hop, pop, and funk. Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Mariah Carey are among the most famous R&B artists that most people have heard of and enjoyed.
It has evolved quite a bit since its origins but R&B remains distinctly syncopated, naturally evokes movement, and traditionally orients itself around the soulful themes of the experience of pain and the quest for freedom and joy.
Sometimes I wonder about how these new genres are born: driven by an evolutionary instinct and the right conditions of a particular time, human beings erupt with a brand new combination. Can you image if they had heard: “nah…man. Just stick to blues, ditch the funk and soul stuff you’re adding into it….you’re really ruiningit by combining it with all that other stuff.” Maybe they did hear negative feedback. But my sense is that the genre thrived because we human beings are meant to combine and give birth to new possibilities.
Teilhard de Chardin faced this combination-phobia from others in his life: deeply in love with science and theology, Teilhard insisted that matter and spirit were not to be split into the Aristotelian boxes, but were rather “two faces of the same substance.” Teilhard also insisted that evolution was converging, in the process of becoming more unified and more complex. He was an evolutionary revolutionary: able to see the relationship between two frameworks that appeared separate.
It’s so easy, isn’t it? We try to stuff ourselves into neat little separated ideas about what we should do with our lives or who we are, and unknowingly give into another insidious aspect of identification. The truth of our true identity is far more fluid, flexible and evolving:
We are all of us in the process of becoming, and that process of becoming is always toward MORE life, more CONNECTION, and NEW combinations of creative possibility.
As I child I confronted this reality right away when I realized that I was neither Spanish nor American, but somehow both. Born in the states, my family moved to Spain when I was 8months old. My first 12 years were spent in Spanish public schools, more at home in Spanish than in English, and having to prove my American birth to my friends by showing them my passport. My world-view was immediately informed by my not “belonging” into one box of nationality, and this no doubt set the stage for what has been a life long quest to see things as “both/and” instead of “either/or.”
Lately, I’ve been aware that my “threads” are in the midst of being knotted together into a new configuration. These days I’m often told that I need to decide if I want to be a theologian (and get my appropriate degrees) or an artist. I’m told to pick between being an academic or a folksy, autobiographical writer. Be a mystical contemplative or be in the music industry. Be the full-time mother who is able to create meaningful experiences for her kids or the mad-scientist creative who often forgets to take food out of the oven in time.
It’s not just others who try to separate us into boxes: we tend to do that to ourselves too, don’t we? We identify with a particular job or interest and make that our entire identity, cutting it apart from the fluidity of belonging and relationship with the rest of our lives.
But what if we could see all of our passions/interests/activities/relationships as related to each other? As threads that are asking to be woven together in the expression of our very lives?
What if the paths we travel are in the service of unification and complexification (as Teilhard described) and therefore we’re being invited to hold our lives in concert as a whole, allowing new things to be combined in us every day?
When I came home from that fated trip last year, I wrote 15 electronic/pop/R&B songs. They are the basis for a new album I’m working on with my band Avila. I’ve never sung so many “baby’s/babes/or bae’s” in my life, but I’ve also never felt such a rush at moving my voice around in a range I’ve never sung in before, and phrasings that maneuvered around the beats with such playfulness. I’ve never enjoyed reaching into such depths lyrically, that also were utterly free from being obsessed with trying to be poignant. I’ve never written music that can be understood from so many different perspectives, and therefore is utterly inclusive. It has been one of the most joyful ventures I’ve ever participated in, and one of the best collaborations with my band-mate Dan I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in.
What has occurred in my life ushered in by a traumatic experience is a new fusion, a new creation, a new possibility brought about by a particular combination.
No one piece is my identity—as we’ve been exploring with this concept of identification—rather, my true identity can hold the wholeness of all of these pieces of my life concert. As a result, I don’t have to take any one piece with so much weighted pressure or seriousness but can fluidly move between threads as they continue to weave their way together. R&B, theology, art, contemplation, motherhood, cosmology, love, anguish, longing…each particular having a conversation with each other, forming the larger dialogue of my outpouring life.
What boxes have you been told to choose between? What if you could see each part of your life as belonging in the mystery of your becoming and the larger evolutionary thread running through our lives?
Carry on, evolutionaries. Make. Combine. Explore.
You never know. You might be creating a brand new genre that’s never been created before.
* If you want to dig deeper on the relationship between vibration and trauma, I highly recommend Bessel Van Der Kolk's book, "The Body Keeps the Score"