The days and weeks after a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat can be a difficult time for me. The stories I hear during the writing sessions stick around. They revisit me and alter my step in unseen but unmistakable ways. Sometimes it’s just a mood, a darkness that follows me around as I make my way across the week. Sometimes I wake up exhausted and stare up at the ceiling, trying to make sense of the dream jumble that has tossed me around all night. Sometimes I find myself snapping at my kids, at the simple complications of getting things done in a normal day. I drift away in the middle of a sentence. I cry at a song, at the sight of a kid on a bike.

Why? What is it?

From talking with soldiers, I know that combat can leave a mark upon the soul. They have lost more, given more, than most of the people could ever imagine. Telling that story to a songwriter, then writing a song about it, is a way of honoring that loss. It’s a way to move that story through, possibly to even get past it.

For the songwriter, it’s all about listening. About taking in the story, absorbing almost unspeakable trauma and pain. When you get it right, you can tell. The soldier feels heard. Feels lighter. The song is sung, recorded, shared, released. But the truth is that, depending on the story, oftentimes the burden stays with the writer. And it can mark us in ways that are nothing compared to the soldiers. But it’s a mark all the same.

Over time I’ve become better at not holding on to every little detail, at cleaning out my subconscious. But still, little parts of their trauma stick to me like Velcro. And these are the tricky parts, for they hold tremendous power. It takes a lot of quiet to see what’s following me around. It’s someone else’s tale. I’m carrying stories.

For about ten days following the last retreat (April 26 – 28), I found myself at odds with the world. It seemed that my demons had woken up, and every relationship I had was in conflict. People were driving me crazy. I was making myself crazy! There was something unseen under my skin. Then, in a conversation about the process of the retreat with Mary Judd, the executive director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers, I heard the word anger and something hit me square in the face. The trauma and anger of one of the participants had lodged in my mind, and was slowly eating me up.

I know that I’m not responsible for this person’s anger, and I can’t heal their trauma. But I am responsible for my life, my actions. It is up to me to deal with the stories that I now carry. What do I do then? Meditate. Sleep. Spot the ghosts and invite them to go on their way.
What I’m always stunned by is that, just when I think I’m getting more adept at self protection, I find myself taking in even more from the soldiers’ stories. And the more I carry, the heavier the weight.

I’ve come to accept this as a necessary job toll. And it’s ever more important that once a retreat has ended I clear these stories from my mind. It doesn’t mean forgetting or ignoring, but simply acknowledging and releasing.

If I don’t deal with what I am carrying, it can ruin me for a long time. Then I’m of no use to anyone. A great teacher once told me to “be like sky, to hold onto the story only as long as needed.” And as the sky holds onto clouds, light, rain, and then lets them go, so I have to let go of the tales and emotions from the retreat, whether tomorrow, a week or month from now.

So, as I invite soldiers to open to me, I open up and let the stories move on.

Then I’m strong to serve. Again.

— Darden Smith