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  • Aarik Danielsen

Unburden Yourself

Sit with me behind the studio boards as the bass strolls in. 

You and I share ambitious plans: remake an old soul classic for a brand-new day. We stay faithful to the Stax Records blueprint—the first measures glitter, groove. Electric piano builds what brick and mortar dare not try; a stellar choir sings background na-nas as if reading straight from the hymnbook of Revelation. 

Fresh chorus lyrics emerge somewhere around their syllables: Unburden yourself ... If you don’t unburden yourself, ain’t nobody gonna give a good cahoot ... unburden yourself.

The song ends, heaves a sigh. We have work left to do. In notebook margins, I scribble New lyrics bend meter out of shape. Second-to-last line not necessarily true. 

Each of us owns strength enough, shoulders enough, to stand beneath someone else’s burden.

In an age of albatross jewelry, we need soul music—a-message-from-our-fleshy-hearts-music— crying in our ears, vibrating the spaces behind our lips. Indeed, this first take on the Staple Singers ignores a good word: lightness of being isn’t up to you alone. Each of us owns strength enough, shoulders enough, to stand beneath someone else’s burden. Simple gifts of language and touch and presence ease heavy loads, knead life and feeling back into sore shoulders. 

Call it self-care, call it wisdom, call it what you will. But sometimes we need to gaze into mirrored glass, notice the soul we possess and, as the song goes, begin to unburden ourselves. 

The remedy might bear little resemblance to the burden. 

Stare into a light-filled painting or at a mysterious photograph moments before sleep—picture yourself inside the frame until the composition folds in all your coming dreams.

Tangle your voice with a Ruston Kelly song in the cathedral of your own room, and together repeat the phrase “I will sing hallelujah and burst into flames” until you sense the crawling heat of a refining fire. 

Step into your neighborhood at night—stay on the porch, if you wish—and breathe deep till you lose track of where air fluttering forth from your lungs ends and the indigo film beyond your body begins. 

Or tread city sidewalks in the a.m., spending precious attention on structural mysteries hidden in plain sight. The plentiful cornucopia revealed in a downtown building’s facade. An odd and prayerful array of tiles stretched across another entryway. A deep blue pigment underappreciated in a restaurant’s mural. Let these surprises take over your seeing. 

Maybe puzzle over a poet’s capacity for creating weather with words until you lose their language inside you. Stuck for a start? Try Michael Ondaatje and his “medieval firmament of bruised clouds, thunder, old chaos” where “a spoke of light hovers to articulate each noble star.” 

Do whatever it takes to feel human again; feel less of the burden, know you are less of a burden—and more beloved—than you imagine. 

Allow me one more moment’s counsel, a word less like a blanket and more like an arrow. Another burden bends and bows so many of us. Our grasping, human touches chisel stones away from the boulder, but we need to name this burden, to approach the trouble deliberately and daily.

Please unburden yourself from your obligation—your preoccupation—to have something to say about all things, in all times. 

We make strange jokes for strange days. News breaks and, we tease, every person we encounter on social media becomes a legal scholar, an economist, an expert in right angles and schools of architecture. Yet we fancy ourselves celebrity scandal specialists, ethicists, 21st-century priests. 

Sometimes when we feel most expressive, we don’t notice how much of ourselves we’re losing inside the noise. 

We speak in the name of virtue and of vice. We reach into the void for another human at the end of our sentence, or to read faint signs of life. We talk to hear ourselves talk. We want our voices to count now, if not for posterity. We want to be included in something, anything really

Right, or at least natural, motives meet wrong ends. Sometimes when we feel most expressive, we don’t notice how much of ourselves we’re losing inside the noise. 

Yes, misinformation multiplies. Fine details and necessary voices recede into the clatter of talking and typing. We collectively deny the art inside the art of listening. But I worry most—for you and for me—how all our talking kills the soft, quiet places within. I worry over the ways our words weigh their bodies down. 

Like a person at the neverending party of the year, I exhaust myself looking for openings, waiting for chances at an edgewise word. Some of you feel exhausted too. This stress makes material and spiritual sense.

I don’t want to inhabit a world that depends on me saying something about everything. Just typing out the prospect steals a breath I’ll never retrieve. 

In all this breathlessness, I sense two objections rising like steam. Danger follows quiet in a world where truth must speak to power. This rings true, rings clear; I hold no interest in silencing or suppressing any voice. Your stories and protest songs make the world what it is, make me who I am. 

But we must reserve some measure of breath, if only for our own sake. Learning when to lift our voices, and when to nurture our thoughts in the secret places, does the work of unburdening us. Speech and silence, both count as holy. We have too many words, and not enough—please understand. 

Speech and silence, both count as holy. We have too many words, and not enough—please understand. 

And you might accuse a writer, who seems to pen what he wants, of some hypocrisy when encouraging the quiet. Oh friends, the more I write, the more I wince at my own words. A chief among sinners, I pray to the saints of perpetual learning: may I only ever say what I mean and mean what I say. Writers need to live quiet lives too, perhaps writers most of all. 

Please read these words as bread crumbs, not curses or commands. Don’t disappear from social spaces or second-guess every word: we know and love each other in unfiltered moments, in what we wear off-the-cuff. Rather test and weigh the spirits inside yourself to take pressure off every situation and your two shoulders. 

The great Thomas Merton once wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

I read Merton two ways. Certainly we cannot know existence in an airtight way before lifting our voices, before acting in the world; real and complicated truth will not allow this. 

But another spirit upholds that first sentence. It is not ours to know exactly where the world is going, exactly what every situation contains—at least not at first. To wait when waiting calls, to take one extra breath, gives our words proper weight. Not an ounce more or less. This too is an act of courage, faith and hope; an act of independence for you, from you. 

Be here with me, engaged, in the quiet and the noise. And in this being, we arrange a hymn, new and classic. Unburden yourself. 


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