“Coastlines” is a word that encompasses more of the world than many people realize. About 2.4 billion people (around 40% of the world’s population) live within 100 km (60 miles) of a coast. And more than 600 million people (about 10% of the global population) live in coastal areas—places that are less than 10 meters above sea level… places that for millennia have served as important crossroads and cradles of life… places which are now experiencing sea level rise, a threat that links us, as it threatens the fabric of our lives.
“Our” lives… hm… I write this blogpost as somebody who was born by the sea, and cannot imagine life without a coastline to turn to. My affection for coastlines– as a reality and also as a metaphor for dialogue and a certain bravery—is fierce. Just as Walt Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world,” I often find myself hoping to stretch my voice from one shoreline to the next, letting my love for this particular ecology be carried by many tides.
Sometimes, when I am in Washington, DC, away from the ocean, I feel a certain restlessness… as if there is something about being close to the sea that is peaceful and reassuring, even when it isn’t. I cannot help but think that this feeling isn’t only personal, but also a reflection of the fact that the stories that tend to take place on coastlines have much to offer the rest of the world.
For this reason, I’ve long harbored a desire to have a conversation about coastlines in DC, and see what people in this different “geography” would make of it. At Shores of Exchange, this conversation at last began to take place!
Shores of Exchange was an afternoon of conversation, laughter and music, co-created by the half a dozen or so people who attended. Some of us had lived on one coastline or another; others grew up in land-locked places with diasporic lineages that took them back to the sea; still others had been brought to shorelines not by family but by their musical curiosity or their interests in social and environmental justice. We were a multi-faith ensemble (so to speak), and our lives had, at one point or another, brought us into close connection with geographies in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Colombia, Peru, Italy, Puerto Rico, and the United States. Musically speaking, we brought to the space a guitar, an oud, and several voices.
With a subject as expansive as the world’s coastlines, and with such a diversity of experiences present, how does a conversation begin? And an even more intimidating question—how does it proceed?
The theme of coastlines resonated very differently for each of us. Some of us were interested in the lived experience of being closely tied to a coastline. Others were interested in history, or in music, or in spirituality, or in sub-themes of encounter and coexistence along the world’s shores. Ultimately and unsurprisingly, the afternoon took us in each of these directions. Over cups of tea and sangria and fruit and chaat (a popular South Asian street food), we exchanged thoughts on a number of topics: the connections between geography and violence; the way that music can serve as a window into the details of how people interact in a given place; the striking similarities between musical cultures in disparate coastal regions, and the possible reasons for this; and, inevitably and of course, the difference between the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants.
Throughout, we listened to a playlist that included music from all of the world’s major coastal regions. Speaking and singing, speaking and playing, we multitasked our way through a jam that included musical elements from the Sahel, the Indian Ocean– and (for my part), the placelessness that I think will always be a part of how I regard and make use of my human voice. Singing songs I knew and humming songs I didn’t, I felt the ineffable universality that is sometimes present when cultures meet. It was a positive feeling, and it is affirmed now as I listen to my favorite soundtrack of all time, which I encountered far, far away from any coast ;).
Was Shores of Exchange a one-time afternoon? Probably not—the question of how to bring the realities facing coastlines into the political and social discourses of Washington does not feel resolved. If anything, it is a challenge that feels bigger now than it did twelve hours ago. At the same time, I look forward to seeing how the conversation we just had seeps into me, and into the others who were a part of it.
Perhaps in the music, and the chats, and the speculations about Miss World and Miss Universe, there is a certain humor, or creativity, or spirit that can help us in the challenging times that we live in. Can this city, DC, be touched by these sorts of conversations? Can such dialogues effect a change in the political climate, and lead people in power to make the right decisions for our planet’s coasts? People who have known me a long time will laugh at the “broken record” nature of this last musing, the way any discussion with me about Washington eventually comes back to this. But so it is.
This is part of my barbaric yawp for the world’s coasts. I look forward to hearing yours.