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The Circle Is; About Life in Community

I’ve had the privilege of being included in a First-Nations-guided talking circle. Though a talking circle is led through the presence and example of an Elder, it doesn’t have the feel or structure of hierarchy. Since all have the ability to speak and to be heard, a talking circle feels like democracy in action. There’s a built-in sense of community.

Being Mennonite, the idea of community is familiar to me. Community isn’t a monochromatic experience, though. It’s interesting how sometimes community feels natural and nurturing, and other times feels imposed or even excluding. I believe that the strongest communities are those that have lots of room for diversity and even maverick perspectives. Very homogeneous communities that are based on conformity to a narrow set of norms may seem strong, but can they really be adaptable to new situations, or even truly recognize the all the factors/individuals that affect/enrich their lives?

I wrote The Circle Is as a way of exploring the attitudes and expectations we bring to community, and also to express some views of what community could be at its best. The metaphor of the circle felt like a good way to hold it together thematically.

Here are the lyrics;

The Circle Is

Some enter the circle like a roundabout,
They come in only looking for a way out.
Others have it spinning like a top
They don’t go anywhere, & they never stop.

Some see the circle as a hurricane,
Where our lives get destroyed by the weather.
Some see the circle as a great big blender
Where everyone gets stirred together.

We see the circle as a safe place,
Where each can look into the eyes of another.

God knows, we’re always walking in lines,
Standing in boxes that go up and down.
Everything is organized
so we can be efficient, So we can get around.

We need a circle, we need a safe space,
Judgement suspended,
Where healing can take place.
We need a circle – we can serve each other –
A place where the juices of our souls can be replaced.

The circle is a bowl that holds
Nourishment for our souls…
…a turbine on a hill that makes the most
Of the power of the wind that blows.

Some enter the circle like a roundabout –
they come in only looking for a way out.

We need a circle, we need a safe space,
Judgement suspended, where healing can take place…
Judgement suspended, where healing
can take place.

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(I Want to be) Like Democracy

Sir Winston Churchill is supposed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others”.

What he meant by that, of course, is that while no political system is perfect – each has its advantages and disadvantages – he on balance actually preferred democracy. Chances are that he was responding to criticism of the British Parliamentary system of democracy, and his reply was somewhat sarcastic or sardonic.

I wanted to write a song that would discuss the relative benefits of democracy, but would not be limited to a kind of memorization tool for school. I did write the song so that it could possibly be used in class, maybe introducing some political systems ideas to the class in a different way than through note-taking or the more traditional forms of educational introductions to ideas. The song would ideally also be able to stand on its own. So I thought maybe I could use democracy itself as a kind of metaphor.

Like political systems, people also are not perfect. Sir Winston Churchill wasn’t, and I’m not either. But as it happens, the ideals behind modern liberal democracy are also ideals that I hold dear – openness, accountability, human rights, sharing power, freedom…. And, of course, ideals require some sacrifices. Sharing power means giving up one’s own notions of power; it means not always being able to have your own way. These sacrifices are worthwhile, though, because of the greater importance and priority of the ideals.

I have released my song ‘Like Democracy’ in several versions, and in various ways. There is the latest, commercially available version, which can be heard on Spotify or Napster or Tidal or Deezer or YouTube or various other streaming services, and which is also available for purchase via Amazon or iTunes and other digital music distribution services. There is another version of Like Democracy available for upload right on this site (under the ‘Educational’ tab, choose ‘Curriculum Songs’ from the drop-down menu), and another one on my YouTube channel. The lyrics are available on this website too, just below the website recording of the song.

On this website, also on the ‘Educational Tab’, there’s a Question Sheets Related segment in the dropdown menu that also uses the song Like Democracy for exploring ideas related to human rights, specifically the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

For me, the main significant lines in Like Democracy are

“I wanna be like democracy,
Give my friends a chance to reach the top.
Sometimes things might go wrong,
Sometimes people let you down,
So then I also wanna have a way to stop.”
This brings out the political idea of power being in the hands of the people, rather than in the hands of a leader. Also, on a personal level, it is about both trust and a willingness to change.

2. “I wanna bring out the best in people,
I wanna know about the worst.
I wanna blend love, mercy, and justice,
And the right kinds of hunger and thirst.”
This is about how the idea of sharing power politically, along with providing freedom, gives people the opportunity to come up with new ideas and contribute to society and each other.
On the other hand, it is about how an open society with a free press and political opposition parties provides accountability. True democracy is only viable when people know what their choices are.
On a personal level, it’s about honest relationship and caring. “The right kinds of hunger and thirst” is a spiritual reference to a “hunger and thirst after righteousness” – in other words, for right and equitable living in authentic community.

And finally,
3. “And I would take love over fear,
Even at the risk I might get hurt.
No true affection in the voice
Of one who hasn’t got a choice,
So I’ll give up control or even lose my shirt.”

One of the ways in which dictators maintain control of their societies is through the use of fear and force. The idea of choice is frightening to dictators, because they perceive any action which represents ideas different from their own as a threat to their power. Real democracy encourages choice. It allows for different ideas to emerge, in the hope that a full discussion of possibilities can result in ultimately better decisions being made, even if there are some difficult moments in the meantime.
On a personal level, I too want to be willing to take risks in relationship. Coercion and love are different things, and it’s the real thing that I’m interested in. So since there’s “no true affection in the voice of one who hasn’t got a choice,” I have to be willing to take loss if what I really want is love. It can’t be coerced.

I first wrote ‘Like Democracy’ around 10 years ago. It’s still one of my favourite songs of all those that I have written.

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