Tuning Souls, Sounding Discord

Today the RAs and facilitators met to discuss project logistics and explore key the key themes of slow violence and resilience. Beyond instilling in me a fear of ever having a garden in Ashby, the session got me thinking about the purpose of art and, incidentally, this project. One person pointed out that there are constantly projects designed to “raise awareness,” awareness that never seems to achieve anything concrete in terms of systemic change. Another played a video of M.K. Asante Jr. telling the story of a man choosing to eschew a mattress in prison so that he wouldn’t get comfortable, wouldn’t let that comfort lull him into complaisance. And we agreed, in that room, that we don’t want a project of awareness, we don’t want complaisance. Some things we know up front – we want people who don’t usually get a chance to talk to and hear each other to do that. We especially want to tackle the things that are important, frustrating, infuriating to the young people who will inherit our communities. But what we can do about those things, what we have the power to do… it seems so big and impossible in the large picture. But change happens in small steps, and together, if we can make enough, create enough discomfort over something specific… maybe we can get past awareness and into action.

This evening, Jill Woelfer introduced Music is My Life: An Art Exhibit by Homeless Young People. In this project, she discovered how crucial music was to homeless young people as a means of coping with challenges and celebrating the relationships in their lives. In a sense, the youth used music to “tune their souls” (an idea Jill takes from Aristotle), bringing themselves down from anger, up from despair, into joy and vitality. The exhibit features imaginary music devices that youth drew and the stories they wrote to go with them. These creations reflect vibrant imaginations and engaging story-telling abilities, along with practical insight – devices designed to help homeless youth survive, connect with services, and reduce self-harm.

Driving some of our youth home after the event, I asked what their angry music was. “You don’t want to know,” they said. I did, but I’ll have to earn the right to hear the answer. One mentioned Eminem. And then with the swiftness of a spring shower, a debate broke out : does listening to angry music make you depressed? Maybe if you’re already depressed, does it make it worse? Or does it make it better? A brief jockeying of positions, acknowledgement of difference – that momentary discomfort of recognizing that someone doesn’t think the same way you do and the decision to inhabit that discomfort, let it simply be, accept that sameness isn’t important. And then the conversation moved on to more crucial interpersonal questions about people I don’t yet and may never know.

I wonder, as we prepare for a weekend of ideas and creativity, what discomforts will arise. It occurs to me that young people are adept at discomfort. No one ever really lets them get comfortable. The society we live in isn’t designed for their comfort. No loitering. Absurdly designed school schedules. Furniture and transportation designed for adults. Not to mention bodies and hormones that change constantly. Being young isn’t comfortable. And what I glimpsed tonight was their ability to embrace discomfort as a positive thing. Perhaps they can teach us to remember, acknowledge, and live in our discomfort, to hear the harmony of discord.