A few years back I was working on a song in my office and found myself in the familiar place of being totally stuck. Nothing was working. The melody was boring the lyrics vague. The song was hollow, wooden- a doorway into an empty room. I picked around at it in that vain hope that artists have that perhaps if the right word is added or the right color painted- then the work will align itself and the latent genius will emerge. Or not. As in the case of this song, the more I worked on it the worse it got. The once boring melody, now dissonant and minor and somehow more boring yet. The vague lyrics take a strange turn- I find myself singing lines about “pounds of flesh” almost verbatim from “The Merchant of Venice”. What had been a bland, generic love song now an angry diatribe against the socio-political values of communism vs. capitolism. Or something like that. Whatever it was it still wasn’t working. So I did what all great artists do when needing some inspiration- I pulled up YouTube and started watching videos.
Somewhere that afternoon I watched a video of a folk band singing at some festival. I don’t actually remember who they were; in honesty they weren’t that great. I was about to check something else out when the video cut to a close up of the lead singer. She was young, maybe early twenties and wearing a sleeveless t-shirt. Something on her arm caught my eye and I leaned in to see what it was. On the underside, in the soft flesh right at the wrist, began a line of scars. Spaced about a ½ inch apart they marched, unbroken up her forearm. Twisting at the inside crook of her elbow they continued across the flat of her triceps almost to the point of her shoulder. Turning, they ran just below her collarbone to where they disappeared under her t-shirt. My God. It looked like the cross ties of a train track- so evenly spaced, bisecting her flesh at right angles over and over and over and over. I sat stunned. Where had this girl been? What had she seen? What had been done to her? What thoughts and memories and nightmares made a razors edge a place of comfort?
I closed my computer and wrote this down: “If I could I’d take your memories. I’d hide behind your eyes like a kind-hearted thief.” That line’s not genius, but it is honest- in that moment I wanted so badly to do that very thing. I wanted to hold her like a baby girl and with a gentle hand smooth out those scars like smoothing wrinkles out of a bed sheet. I wanted to pluck from her every violent or neglectful splinter of a rough world rasping against a tender soul.
It’s a futile wish. There is very little recourse for the past. We know this. We know that largely we are impotent. We cannot by force or persuasion or magic keep pain away. Bar the door with every stick of furniture and it will leak in through the vents. Beg with bitter tears to be spared and that cold, implacable fellow Pain will twist his evil moustache as he laughs in your face.
Sometimes all we have to offer is empathy. That doesn’t seem like much, but sometimes it’s the only thing we possess that is of value for another human. I wrote “If I Could” as an offering of empathy. I wrote it to remind myself to touch people’s scars. I wrote it as a rejection of how callous and unfeeling I can be. I hope it speaks to you.