When sis-in-law Carla Ten Eyck first told me about the Survivor Stories project, it was clear that it was right in my wheelhouse and it wasn’t long before we agreed to collaborate. Her inspiration stemmed from several of our family members who had recently been stricken with cancer, and she wanted to use her photographic vision (which, if you haven’t checked it out, is stunning) to depict them not as victims, but as heroes. By the time I heard about it, the concept had evolved well beyond cancer. At this point her scope had expanded to a more comprehensive celebration of the will and perseverance required to survive the sorts of adversity that so many people face, whether illness, violence, sexual trauma, bereavement or any number of other things. As a composer, I tend to thrive when writing about something I find meaningful, and this hit close to home on so many levels.
One of the ongoing challenges with a project like this is emphasizing the heroic and uplifting without sugar-coating the truth. The intention, after all, is genuine inspiration and not “feel good for a minute and then go back to cat videos.” Slicked-up feel-goodery (if that isn’t a real term, it is now) only trivializes real adversity, and it does not provide those who genuinely need a boost with a meaningful sense of solidarity with those who could be shining a light. I certainly know that when I have sought hope in overcoming my own trauma and adversity, “tra la la, I was once down but now I’m better” has only increased the feeling of isolation (e.g. “you must not have really been that far down, eh?”).
As such, when I took on the first piece for the project, it went in a different direction than planned, always a possibility when obeying the muse, as it were. In studying the interview with cancer survivor Karen Walson (founder of the “Cancer Victory” online community), I was struck by her description of those who did and didn’t step up to the plate on the highest order when she was undergoing treatment. She had glowing praise for those who rolled up their sleeves and stepped in to help in courageous and proactive ways, and it was my intention to depict the “inner circle” of whom she spoke with such appreciation. I had a performance coming up with an opportunity to write for a jazz trio plus chamber quintet (two violins, cello, alto flute, clarinet – the same instrumentation as on the version recorded for the Ripples album) and chose to use that as the impetus to tell a part of Karen’s story in sound.
As the piece evolved, though, I found it was taking on a darker hue. On some level I couldn’t let go of thinking about the “outer circle.” These were the people who disappeared. These were the people who became squeamish. These were the people who said “let me know if I can help” and then stepped aside and did nothing as they awaited further instruction. Karen did not speak ill of these folks – after all, we need all sorts of concentric circles to get through normal life, much less something as life-shaking as cancer. The sad parts, though, are when there aren’t enough people to populate the inner circle and get needs met and when someone intends to populate that inner circle but can’t.
If you tell me “anything you need, just call” that sounds great in a song lyric, but what does it really mean? Would you empty my bedpan? Clean up my blood? Or puke? Call a well-meaning but not-helpful person in my life and tell them, on my behalf, to piss off? Probably not.
And that’s okay. Save for nurses and social workers and the like, we can’t all do that for everybody, nor is it necessarily appropriate. What we can do when we really care is be honest with ourselves and others about what we can offer, and then proactively offer it insofar as we make the sober assessment (and get the appropriate feedback) that it is genuinely helpful. Someone going through extreme adversity does not need the additional stress of empty promises, no matter how sincere or well-intentioned they may be in the moment.
All of us who truly love others will at some point find ourselves with the sad yet sacred duty of being in that “inner circle” for somebody, while at other times doing what we can from afar. There is no manual for this, but with some honesty, clarity and courage, needs can be met and relationships deepened each in their own way.