Jewish Journal

Potato Chips, Conveyor Belts and Wounded Warriors

by Peter Himmelman

April 10, 2013 | 10:28 am

You plan and you dream and you wait. It’s as though you’re on a conveyor belt that’s slowly bringing you nearer, imperceptibly nearer, to the time you must eventually deliver. I feel like I’m in a factory with a batch of Lay’s potato chips that’s ready to roll off the belt and into the bag.

Tomorrow my Big Muse team and I leave for Breckenridge, Colorado to work with wounded veterans from some of the nastiest conflicts in Iraq, to help them heal, to help them become more expressive – I just found out this morning that some of them haven’t left their bedrooms in years. These are guys with serious emotional and physical challenges. They’re coming with their wives and kids too. Whole families who’ve found themselves adrift on a sea of challenges that are unknowable to most of us.

There’s an organization called Wounded Warriors Family Adventures that hosts different kinds of events for the vets and their families. In this case, the WWFA have planned a ski week in the mountains. After four days of winter sports and counseling sessions I’m going to come in and get the families to write songs about their experiences. Am I ready? Confident? I wish I were.

The thing about writing songs is that it acts like a duck blind, behind which you can hide and feel safer to express yourself. I was watching Mike Tyson on TV last night, he’s got a one man theatrical show about his life. When asked how he was able to talk about himself in such depth and detail without breaking down emotionally – in particular, about the incident when his four year old daughter was tragically killed in a freak accident he said, “it’s not really me up there, it’s a guy playing me.”

I can relate to that. Expressing ourselves through music or poetry is safe. Because there’s a barrier to shield us when we sing a song or recite a poem – like Mike Tyson’s cloaking-device of “playing himself,” it makes the often-unbearable task of telling our stories easier. When we have this sense of being concealed from our listeners (and we always need a listener) our feelings of vulnerability are lessened and we feel safe to reveal what needs expression. The idea that our revelations are poetic or imagistic, that they’re not necessarily journalistically accurate, makes no difference at all. It doesn’t lessen the catharsis. Some feelings are so deep that they can only be expressed through abstractions and metaphors.

I’ve wanted to do this work with returning veterans for years. Maybe it’s because my Dad was a Marine and I’ve always idealized that aspect of him. It’s taken me about eight months of phone conversations, meetings and emails to garner the trust of the WWFA. It doesn’t really matter to them that I’ve made this or that recording or received this or that award. What they want to know is whether I’ve got the ability to become empathic enough to gain the trust of the soldiers and their families.

I wish I could say that I’m leaving for Colorado with full confidence, that I knew exactly what I was going to do or say. Even though you always hear that you need it, in some situations – perhaps like this one, confidence isn’t always the most important asset. Maybe a desire to help is what’s most needed. I think I’ve got that at least.

Sure, I have a vague sense that I’ll be successful in some way, but the “way,” the manner of just how this will get done, is completely unknown to me. That’s scary as hell and I’ve been losing sleep over it. But here’s one thing I do know and I’ve learned this from experience: we humans do our best work when we come well prepared for something that’s beyond all preparation.

Letting go of overly-rehearsed ways of communicating, a willingness to improvise, and a true (to the extent that we can be true) desire to bring joy to others are the best tools we can bring to any problem.

The conveyor belt is humming, the Lay’s are salted, the bag is waiting.

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In addition to being a Grammy and Emmy nominated songwriter and composer, Peter Himmelman is a visual artist, writer and founder of Big Muse—an organization dedicated to...

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