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The Songlines of Chicago.

Ellen says I’m a vagabond. That makes it sound worse than it is.  A vagabond doesn’t really call any place home & I don’t think that’s true for me. I think of the whole world as home.  That’s what makes it easy to pack up & go whenever there’s a cheap airfare. I’m not sure if it’s in my nature, or whether I can blame it all on National Geographic.

You see, I grew up reading National Geographic magazines. I still get a little pang when I’m driving by a garage sale on a Saturday morning & see a pile of those familiar yellow covers. I’ve literally spent years adventuring through those pages. There are worlds in National Geographic, & it was in one of those worlds that I first learned about the Songlines.

For those of you who’ve never heard of them, songlines are a bit difficult to describe. They come from the Aborigines of Australia, They have been called rituals & maps & creation myths, among other things. In the Aboriginal view, before there was an earth, there was the Dreamtime, a time when great spirits roamed about, singing the names of all the animals & the plants & the trees & the rocks. As they sang, those things came into being. The songlines were the actual paths those beings had walked an eternity ago & if you followed the songlines, singing  with each step, you would literally be there in sacred time, along with the original creation. Each tribe in Australia had their own songlines & one of the initiation rites was to learn the songline with an elder & then follow it across the countryside for hundreds of miles, stopping at each thing named to sing it into being again. It was the way the people made the earth whole & it was the way the earth made the people her own. 

That sounded easy enough to me. A great spirit had walked through Australia, singing the names of everything & it had come into being. Chicago was not that different from Australia, except for the deserts & kangaroos, so somebody had created Chicago, too. Somebody had walked through my very neighborhood singing the names of everything & it had come into being. Of course that was a long time ago & some things had changed. I figured I was on my own. I decided I’d make a map of my neighborhood to start. You know. All the plants & trees & rocks & secret entrances to the garages & even the cats & then I’d try out a few of the songs I knew & see if anything happened. I would take exacting notes, so I could pass on what I discovered. At heart, I’m all about pure science.

After school & on Saturdays, I’d do my chores & then I’d disappear, sneaking up & down the alleys & in the breezeways between houses, making the notes in my lined notebook. It took me about 2 weeks & by then I figured I had enough to get started. To balance out the pure science, it’s probably fair to say I’ve got a big streak of instant gratification, too. But I could always add on later if the songline took me down by the White Castle & the hardware store.

I started behind Susie Kucharik’s house. Her family was unusual in that neighborhood of Swedes & Italians. Her father was Polish & her mother Japanese. I never saw her father, but now & then I’d see Mrs. Kucharik in her garden next door. She was a small woman, who never seemed to hurry. I never saw her with the other moms. Susie got her father’s blond hair & her mother’s eyes & she could catch a football better than anybody on the whole block.  The Kuchariks had a lot of stuff piled neatly behind their garage. Most of it was in boxes, tied with intricate & beautiful webs of twine, but I figured I’d have a better chance with a lot of stuff. I had no idea what songs would work & what if I was using the right song, but for the wrong thing. This way, I could try out a song & I could cross out a whole lot of stuff in one fell swoop.

I knew only a few really old songs, so I thought I’d better start with them first.  I started really quietly, just humming.  Nothing. Maybe it was too quiet. So, I sang out loud.  But not too loud. (“A way out west/they’ve got a name/for rain & wind & fire./The rain is Tess, the fire is Jo/ & they call the wind, Mariah”) Nothing.  Everything in the pile still looked liked junk to me. Cross that song off my list.

I sang another one. From this valley, they say you are going. Cross it off. Your red stripe matches your eyes/you close your cover before striking/Your father’s got the shipfitter blues/Loving you has made me bananas.  (I still don’t know how I knew that.) As I went, I got louder.

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, that’s my name too.

Then newer ones. Slow down, you move too fast. Leaving On a Jet Plane. Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.


Songlines are not as easy as they look.

I sat down on a twine wrapped box & suddenly I heard a voice. It was almost too soft to hear, like the wind just touching your hair, or snowflakes falling at night.  Whoa, it’s working, I thought. The voice came again. What are you doing? it said. The words came slowly, drifting down over my shoulder. I looked up. Oh, hi, Mrs. Kucharik, I said.

I heard you singing. You have a beautiful voice. Her voice still sounded like wind. I was trying to sing the world into being, as if that said it all. Oh, she said. That was it. Oh. Her eyes were patient & kind so I just started telling her about the songlines. About singing the secret names of the plants & trees & rocks. About how when you sing the right names, you bring the world alive again.

& when I had finished she said, I know this. I know it with a different name, but I know this. It is how you make home.

Their family had moved in a couple of years before ours. When we moved in, all the other neighbors stopped by to say to give them a call if we needed help. My dad said thanks a lot, but he was sure we could manage. There was a lot of smiling & bad jokes. She did not come over until the end of the next day. She said she’d made sloppy joes & lemonade & she had extra & she said she knew how it was to have everything in boxes, & she wondered if we might be hungry.  The sloppy joes were wrapped delicately in some kind of parchment & tied with colored ribbon, like a special gift you’d give a friend. We had never seen anything like it.

I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it. I bet she knew the songlines of this place all along. She seemed to me like just the person to know.

Can you teach me the songline to this place? I said. She looked at me for a moment & then she smiled.

I don’t know it, she said.  But I do know something almost like that. Would that help? she said. Yes, I said. & then she began to sing, softly in Japanese.  It was sad & beautiful & filled with things I would not have names for for many years. What is it? I asked when she had finished. It is an old song. It is hard to translate, but I think it means that people make the world come alive for each other. You understand?  I nodded & she nodded back.

Later, I got a card in our mailbox. On the outside was a brush painting of a crane, in three simple lines. Inside there was beautiful calligraphy. I kept it on my desk & each time we moved, 6 more times before I went away to college, I carried it with me carefully so I wouldn’t lose it.

It was the words to the song she sang that day:

I am the cloud & the green mountain waiting.
I am the still bamboo without wind.
I am the cricket each night that reminds you,
who are a thousand miles away,
there are always two cups at my table.

At the bottom of the card, she had written, It may not be a real songline, but it’s a start. It’s a start.

We often forget that life is quite simple.  We play, we talk, we sing & dance & make love. We fill the world with our stories & everything we touch with love comes alive. Everything we touch with love becomes a piece of our home.

That’s the power of a songline. It is the memory of how we have touched the world & how the world has touched us back & we have both come alive because of it. It is the memory of how we have made the world home for each other. How even a thousand miles away, you will always know that at my table there are two cups waiting for your return, whenever that may be. It may not be a real songline, but it’s a start.

with love, Brian


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Reader Comments (12)

this is one of the most lovely stories i have ever heard. i read it several times.
i remember reading bruce chatwins "songlines" quite a number of years ago...
and loving it. but that was aboriginal australia, and this is chicago....

beautiful, brian.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermish

I knew there had to be music behind all this around me. I'm grateful to you, and to Mrs Kucharik, for giving me the first few notes. Thank you.

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJim

What a beautiful story. The words of the song are lovely and how nice if we can all know there there is a cup waiting for us somewhere. And this is so Chicago! Thank you.

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHarriet

The beauty of your words has brought tears to my eyes. Thank you from the bottom of my very full heart.

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn

from Lilith, by George MacDonald...

"Could you teach me to know a prayer flower when I see it?" I said.
"I could not. But if I could, what better would you be? you would not know it of yourself and itself! Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know? Whose work is it but your own to open your eyes?"

May 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLucinda

I start each morning with an affirmation....after reading this....I wonder....
perhaps they are my song lines after all....songs from my heart!
Thank you...

May 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterpatricia j mosca

Thanks for all your lovely words. It IS fun (& in a sneaky way, life-altering) to think of our own versions of the songlines, creating a sacred world around us. & it really is as simple as that. Sing your song to the world & make it home...

with love, Brian

May 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterZenBandit

Brian, I've been inspired before by the StoryPeople one liners. But this story stole my heart. I'm a newcomer to Chicago and find myself missing my home down south and the people that made it home. Thank you for reminding me that home is wherever people are. We make it home together.

This especially spoke to me:
"We often forget that life is quite simple. We play, we talk, we sing & dance & make love. We fill the world with our stories & everything we touch with love comes alive. Everything we touch with love becomes a piece of our home."

Thank you again for your words!

p.s. I'm blogging about it because others HAVE to read this story.

May 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmilie

p.s. I love the photo of the day from the National Geographic. It often becomes my wallpaper for the week. Breathtaking.

Here's the link to the photo of the day: National Geographic's Photo of the Day

May 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmilie

Dear Emilie,

My grandmother was from the South & I remember her saying once she would have never understood Northerners if she hadn't had the distinct lack of sense to marry one. But having lived in Iowa & Minnesota, I can tell you that Chicago's not really the North. I suspect you'll do fine there...

& I'm glad this story speaks to you. It is good to be reminded that WE make home. Often we take home for granted, the small touches & whispers of memory that connect us to the world. Having moved over 35 times in our lives together, Ellen & I feel like we've somehow become evangelists for Making Home. Wherever we choose to live today, we think it's a fine game to play - sitting down right where you are & weaving your stories into the world around you. I think it'd surprise you how quickly people sit down next to you & ask, shyly at first, if they can add their story, too. Pretty soon, you've got a pretty rich place to hang out again...

May your time in Chicago be filled with luscious moments of home...:-)

with love, Brian

May 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterZenBandit

Such a beautiful and tender story. Thank you!

May 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTamara

This story brought a flood of memories and perhaps a new understanding. As a child, I lived in many different places and in different countries. I remember "discovering" each new place by walking around my neighborhood and into the surronding wilderness to become familiar with the landmarks and the trails, to go off on an adventure and find my way back home. Then, I thought of it as a new place, a new adventure. In each new place I would find a spot that I considered "mine"--a sanctuary of sorts. Thinking back, those special places were all in someways similar-- the trees, the rocks, the way the sun filtered through... I wonder if finding these special places with their similarities was a big part of making the new place my home-- a safe harbor. In any case, I felt at home everywhere I have lived, though never thought of those places as permanent. To this day I do not have one specific place that is my "hometown" but I can find a familiarity and comfort in places that I have never been before. Thank you for a beatiful story.

February 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergayllyn

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