The days that I write start like this: I drop my girls off at school, and as I drive away I turn on the song, “Time” by the Abstract Giants. I know a few of the guys in band. I grew up with them. I know Andy Lempera, the drummer, from junior high band where our director promised that if we worked hard, Andy could free style while we cleaned up our clarinets and oboes, trumpets and trombones during the last five minutes of the period. I never had so much fun cleaning the spit out of my flute than when Andy played.
Matt Conway and Cary Kano are some of my brother’s childhood buddies. I think I’ve known them since before their voices changed. And Andres Roldan, one of the vocalists in the band is the sibling of my best friend from junior high and high school. There were very few days when I was over and Andres and most of these guys weren’t: playing basketball in the alley, or video games in the basement, or running after the ice-cream truck—Celena and I running with them.
I play the song because I’ve watched the years of revision these guys put into getting their songs together. I’ve listened to them riff in smoky bars in Chicago (when smoking in bars was legal), when the words were there, but the melody wasn’t. When the beat was catchy, but the words needed to be figured out. When everything fit together and the crowd let them know their music was perfect. Watching and listening to them was a lesson in writing: the more I practice laying down words, the more triumphant the story becomes, the more I believe in it. So I play their song for courage: if these guys can do it, so can I.
I crank the song because I love loud music and also because I love the looks I get when people hear the bass booming down the street. They expect someone else, and what they see is an almost 40-year-old woman driving a Mazda 5 with two car seats in the backseat. “Surprise!” or “Gotcha!” is what I want to yell out the window, and this is the sentiment I carry to my writing: What will I surprise myself with when I write today? What will I be brave enough to tell? What will I find out? I love the moments when my story grabs me by the ears and pulls me towards its words and yells, “Gotcha!”
While I’m writing, I listen to music that’ll keep me in my seat: Miles Davis, Sujfan Stevens, David Gray. I can’t call these guys my friends, but their music speaks to things I try to figure out in my writing. They’ve created a setting for me to sit with the things that make me wonder and what makes me uncomfortable, and I aspire to do the same thing with my stories.
That is, until a group of boys come walking down my street. Truth be told, they strut. There are usually five or six of them, and if it’s warm, they’re wearing undershirts with flannels or sweatshirts slung over their shoulders. In the cooler weather they’re wearing sweatshirts and knitted caps. Never jackets, though it hasn’t been terribly cold in DC yet. Their pants are always low. I can usually see their underwear. I’m old enough now to see the baby in everyone 21-years-old and younger, so I can’t tell if they are school age or not. They hold no book bags if they are going to school. They hold nothing. They saunter down the sidewalk, taking up all of it, the grass, and enough of the street that cars would need to slow and swerve around them.
They are always rapping. Usually it’s one of the boys in the group, and the rest are silent while the one articulates precisely each word, as though it’s liturgy. I always stop writing and listen. I wince when they drop “f” bombs. I get afraid when the tone suggests violence. If these boys were walking down the street when I was in my car, I’d probably wait in it, pretending to check my phone, until they passed. But from my desk on our second floor, I listen intently with my head bowed and my hands folded.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if one can pray without knowing that is what one is doing. Is God at work when we hear a song that makes us bop our heads and swivel our hips before we know we are doing it? Is He there when a song names something we don't understand? Is God the spark that ignites an urge for us to create something beautiful in a world that baffles us?
And what about the times when we are so angry, or so scared that all we can do is walk down the street shouting words we’ve clutched onto because there is nowhere else to go and nothing else to do? Are we heard when we are calling and reaching towards a God we don’t know?