artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Dick was released from jail, and things briefly went back to normal. Our music thrived once more, and my songwriting skills continued to grow as I joined songwriting groups, took classes, went to workshops and did as much networking with other songwriters as I could. I even started teaching songwriting classes. I was still hosting the Open Mic at The Eighth Step Coffeehouse once a month. The weekly music jams had gotten to be too cumbersome to do every week, so I cut them back to once a month as well. New people continued to show up, and we had an ever-growing group of musician friends. My daughter was still living in Michigan with her new family, and both of my sons seemed to be settling in a bit. Then, my older son fell in love with a beautiful and vivacious young woman he’d met at work.
When I met her, she was full of energy, almost too much energy. She laughed loudly and did everything with gusto. I was impressed with how much spirit she had. She was funny and fun. No wonder she had captured Justin’s heart. But at that time, I only saw one side of her dual personality. She also had a dark side that tormented her. She had been through more trauma than anyone should have to deal with in a lifetime and was still quite young. It was hard for me to listen to her life story. Our lives were quite different, but there were also many similarities.
As a child, I inadvertently broke the rules often because my mom’s rules were ever-changing without any notice. She was never diagnosed, but I’m pretty sure she must have been bi-polar. Her moods changed in a second with no warning. She would go from a laughing engaged playmate to a mean and spiteful ogre, screaming at me and my brother for something we didn’t even know we had done. She also invented infractions of the rules out of the blue. I grew up thinking that I was crazy because it was too hard to believe that my mother was the crazy one. I was often sent to my room to wait for my dad to come home and mete out the punishment, which was always a beating with his belt. I remember sitting up there wondering what I’d done. When he asked, I would usually reply that I didn’t know which would cause a more severe beating for being insolent. Dad also had a mean streak that he had inherited from his family. He ridiculed me and my brother relentlessly. He was fond of hitting us and saying, “That was for nothing, now go do something.” I quickly found out that it wasn’t actually a free pass to misbehave. I spent my childhood feeling fearful of everything and constantly looking over my shoulder waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Then, just before entering high school, I was diagnosed with scoliosis and fitted for a steel and leather brace that stretched from just under my chin, lifting my head slightly and resting on my hips in a girdle like enclosure. At the same time, my parents decided it was in my best interest to send me to a brand-new school, a Catholic high school after having spent all of my time in public school up to that point. I entered that new school not knowing anyone and was bullied relentlessly. It wasn’t uncommon for my books to be knocked out of my hands, with a crowd standing around laughing as I tried to pick them all back up. Sometimes, someone would grab one of the metal bars on the back and fling me around to crash into the wall or the row of lockers. There were often mean-spirited notes stuck to the back of my clothes where I couldn’t feel them being attached. I often went home with bruises. The school counselor and my parents insisted that I was exaggerating because they were all “good Catholic kids” and would never behave that way. During those years, I became anorexic and began cutting designs in my forearms with straight pins. My mother, who was an RN, never seemed to notice. When I graduated from high school, I crashed and burned turning to drugs and barely making it out alive.
Now, I was watching my son’s lover starve herself, make herself vomit after a meal and exercise with a manic drive. I watched her dig long deep gashes in her skin with her fingernails when in an extreme state. She was always either high or low, and her lows were more than I could handle. It brought me back to my earlier days, the days I wanted to forget. When I tried to be understanding, she told me was condescending. When I tried to keep my distance and give her space, she told me I was abandoning her. When she was admitted to the local psychiatric hospital, I was the only one she allowed to visit her. But when I went to visit, she screamed at me, accusing me of being her enemy and trying to turn everyone against her. She spat such vitriol and called me such disgusting names that I eventually had to leave. I understood that she was not well, but it was more than I could take. One night, while they were living with us briefly, she grabbed a pair of large scissors and was threatening herself with them. Dick left the room immediately and tried to drag me with him, but I stood my ground and eventually took them from her. Another time, we went on vacation, and came home to find that she’d crashed through our plate glass window in the music room in a fit of anger because the door was locked, she’d forgotten her keys, and the door wasn’t answered quickly enough. We all hoped she could get the help she so desperately needed, but I wasn’t feeling confident.
Then, one day, she and my son came to tell us that she was pregnant. I tried to be happy for them. I was happy but also worried. She insisted that she wanted start eating well and taking vitamins. She had been starving herself for so long that the doctors had told her she had severely damaged her heart and would probably not live to be very old. If she wanted a healthy baby, and wanted to live through this pregnancy, she would have to be very diligent. We got books on pregnancy, and she did start eating. I was impressed with how hard she worked at making a healthy baby. She had a purpose and was determined. As her moods improved and seemed to stabilize, I became hopeful. Maybe this was what she needed. She kept telling me that all she ever wanted was a real family. Now she was being given a second chance. I’d gotten a second chance, why couldn’t she? Meanwhile, Dick kept telling me to prepare myself to take over my newest grandchild. I was now almost fifty and had been raising children since I was twenty-two with my youngest only eleven now. I wasn’t interested in another child. I just wanted to be a grandma again. And things were looking up.
That summer, I attended Summersongs, a week-long songwriting camp in the Catskills, for the first time. It was more than I could afford, but a friend had paid for it saying that he wanted to support my music in whatever way he could. I felt like I was in heaven during that week. I was in a place where I was learning and growing surrounded by others who were doing the same. No one interrupted if I was sitting somewhere writing or playing an instrument. There was no one demanding my attention or my time. I stayed up late nights sharing songs with other songwriters and hearing their amazing songs. I made connections and made friends. While there, I never even thought about home. I immersed myself in my music in a way I had never been able to do before, and it was wonderful.
When I came home, I tried to keep up this creative process and even joined a song circle with other campers in the area, including the woman who had started the camp. Penny Nichols had been in the San Francisco scene in the sixties, working as the opening act at The Fillmore and Avalon. She toured Vietnam with her folk duo in 1966 and sang back-up on many of the great albums from the sixties and seventies. In 1968, she toured Europe and recorded at Apple Records. She joined Jimmy Buffet’s band in 1977 and sang on his album “Son of a Son of a Sailor.” She believed that everyone has a voice and should be heard so she started the camp. I learned so much from her and the teachers she brought to camp. Now she was part of the song circle I joined, and I continued to learn from her and others. My songs kept getting better and better. I was looking at them as the result of a crafting rather than random gifts. I came to value the feedback I got from other writers and learned, not only how to edit my own work, but how to give valuable feedback to others. There is a huge difference between criticizing and critiquing. I was taught to always start off with something that I love about a song. It can be something simple, but there is always something. Maybe it’s the use of a word or a specific chord. Maybe it’s the topic or the way the lyrics fit the music. After giving the positive feedback, the critique is given not as advice but as an opinion using specifics and examples. For instance, I could say, “if this were my song, I would …” or, “I wonder if … would be an improvement.” Writers are sensitive creatures, and the way we phrase our comments makes a difference in the way they’re heard. I also found out that in every group, there will always be a few songwriters whose feedback may not resonate with me but others whom I would come to depend on. I guess that’s true in friendships, too.
It was difficult to assimilate back into my real life, however. After a week of musical nirvana, I was back to having to answer to the demands of my family. Now, if I was playing an instrument, Dick would come in and grab his instruments to jam with me. He resented it and even got quite angry when I asked him to respect my space and check with me before just joining in. If I was writing, no one hesitated to interrupt for any reason. I announced that I would be closing the door to the music room if I was writing and didn’t want to be disturbed. If it was an emergency, they could knock. Now, Dick insisted that I couldn’t take up the communal music room for my own purposes, so I started writing in my bedroom. I wasn’t good at standing up for myself with a partner and just wanted peace, so I went along with all of his ridiculous and selfish demands. But I didn’t give up. I continued to write daily, giving myself assignments and accepting that not everything I wrote would be worth holding on to. I had an insatiable hunger to compose. When I wasn’t caring for my son, working or maintaining our household, I was writing - songs, journal pieces, poetry, promotional copy and more. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. But this was the lull before the storm.
Just when things looked as though they were starting to settle down a bit, my partner, the other Kavanaugh, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was fairly far along by the time they discovered it, and his father had died from it. We were in shock but quickly investigated all of the options. He decided not to have traditional intervention but to treat it with naturopathic medicines. He consulted with an herbalist who prescribed a tea that he brewed every morning, as well as other herbs, dietary considerations and certain exercise. He seemed healthier than ever when a past discretion reared its ugly head. He had divorced many years earlier and had four children. Unfortunately, it was a nasty divorce with many issues regarding his visitations with his children. Although he was granted unlimited visits, his children were often not there when he went to pick them up. After getting nowhere in the courts, he foolishly stopped paying his child support. It’s so sad when couples can’t look beyond their personal issues with each other and keep their children’s best interest in mind. In this case, his children suffered needlessly.
He had battled this issue for many years. At one point, the court made a ruling that each payment missed would be doubled. It turned out that this was an illegal ruling, but he didn’t find this out until after the statute of limitations had run out. He kept every piece of paper and showed me where each payment doubled. The bookkeeping was unbelievable. A few times, the entire balance owed doubled rather than just the missed payment. Two other times, a zero was accidentally added then that total was doubled. He had a series of inept lawyers who did nothing. He also kept all of the returned letters and birthday cards he had tried to send to his kids. Meanwhile, they believed that he had abandoned them. Luckily, as they became adults, they reunited with him. His one saving grace was that he always managed to track them down somewhere in their neighborhood with a cake at each birthday.
Now, just as he received his diagnosis, his ex-wife sued once more for back support. This time his lawyer understood the extent of the corruption and was shocked that the mistakes had been allowed for so long. However, he had waited too long to pursue it, and the judge disallowed the evidence. He was sentenced to six months in the county jail. His lawyer explained the cancer diagnosis and argued all of the missteps and the fact that the kids were all adults by now. Even his ex-wife insisted that she didn’t want him to go to jail, she just wanted money, but it made no difference. It broke my heart to see him enter the courtroom time after time in shackles. Each time we expected a reprieve, and each time I left in tears.
He spent that six months reading the books that we regularly sent him. He said later that, except for the food, he didn’t mind his time there. Because of his medical condition, they didn’t require him to work, and he got along well with the other inmates. For him, it was a mandatory vacation. For me however, it was a different story. I had to keep the home fires burning, caring for my young son, worrying about my other son, trying to stay connected to Dick’s kids, running the communal household and paying all of the bills. Because I was an activist, I also organized rallies to free him and did TV interviews. I worked hard to get him a vegetarian diet and provided him with the vitamins that were crucial for his naturopathic treatment for the cancer. It was a never-ending sage. The prison decided that a vegetarian diet consisted of veal, which is young calf and definitely not vegetarian. But he soon figured out that he could trade his meat to the other inmates for the vegetables he craved.
He was allowed two visits twice a week on specified days. I visited him twice a week for those six months unless I needed to give up a day for someone else. I think everyone should have to visit someone in jail at least once to see how degrading and inhuman it is. You have to get there early and wait in line usually for an hour or more. There are specific days and times for visitation for each prisoner. If you don’t have the right day and time, forgot to bring in your ID or forgot that you had something in your pocket that wasn’t allowed, you have to leave and start again at the back of the line which usually means that the time will run out and you will miss your visit. Sometimes, I would get to the desk after waiting so long only to find out that he wasn’t available. Maybe he was seeing his lawyer or out for a doctor’s appointment. Once, as I was going back home, I passed the van on the road, waving at him as he drove by.
It was a horrible experience all around, but I especially I felt for the women with children. The kids were understandably uncomfortable waiting for so long in that line with no food or drink allowed. And, the moms were impatient and often angry. Many of them had to depend on public transportation to get there and were there religiously every week. Standing in that line week after week was the hardest part of the ordeal for me. Then, when I got inside, Dick would tell me how much he was enjoying this time off but complained about the food and wanted me to deposit more money into his account for toiletries and other items that he was allowed to buy. It was making me crazy.
When we moved into the Mariner’s House, Dick took the back rooms on the first floor that had once been a doctor’s office. He used one of them for a work room to do his instrument repair and also had his own bedroom. At the time, we had a man living in the house who decided to take over those back rooms when Dick was away. He was a bit of a bully and refused to vacate them when asked. Then he started talking to me about how lonely I must be, trying to give me unwanted hugs. Before long, I noticed that he was going into the upstairs bathroom when I went into my bedroom. There were windows facing into each room and, although I made sure to close my curtains, it made me uncomfortable. When I tried to talk to Dick about it, he insisted that I was overreacting. Eventually, I had to ask him to move out, knowing that it would affect my finances with the loss of his rent, but it was worth my peace of mind. I’ve often found that men don’t always understand what it feels like to be constantly on guard because you are feeling stalked. And I know the difference between being appreciated and flirted with and going overboard. Because of past experiences, my instincts are finely honed.
During that in between time, before Dick returned home, I started having auditory hallucinations fairly frequently. This was not uncommon for me. I often have visual and auditory hallucinations, probably because of my early overuse of psychedelics. They are usually based on some form of reality. My kids used to tease me about stopping to pick up a hitchhiker that was actually some bushes on the side of the road, or the shadows from a street sign. Once, when Dick and I were going down a dark country road in Massachusetts, I suddenly said, “Whoa!” and ducked down. He chuckled and asked what I thought I had seen. I was reluctant to tell him that it was a huge flying Pegasus that narrowly missed our car. However, I was relieved when he assured me that it was a large cloud of moths and other insects. At least my mind hadn’t made it up out of nowhere.
The Mariner’s House seemed to be haunted. We had many odd occurrences there, and I had lived in haunted houses before. This haunt was not ominous, just quirky. Our cat would often back herself into a corner hissing at nothing that we could see. Things would sometimes fly out of the kitchen cabinets, and I often heard voices calling me. One night, after midnight, I heard a voice calling, “Mom!” I ignored it. It called again … and again. Finally, out of desperation, I spoke to it saying, “Look, I’m home alone and not in the mood. Please leave me alone.” It didn’t stop. I started to go into my son’s room to wake him and leave the house when I happened to look out the window and saw my daughter outside calling out to me. Whew! I can’t describe the relief I felt at that moment.
After a long six months, Dick was released and quickly acclimated to the real world. We found new roommates and things went back to normal. He renewed his vegetarian diet and vitamin and herbal regimen, and things looked like they were back on track. I was so relieved to have him home. He had renewed vigor for life and for his music which he had missed terribly. But he soon dove back down into his usual depression and inactivity. He spent hours sitting in his recliner, reading and “meditating,” which was actually napping. He hated working more than ever and avoided it like the plague. He started harassing me about bills, insisting that I wasn’t pulling my own weight. We had decided early on in our relationship to keep our money totally separate and had an elaborate formula for figuring out our communal expenses. I would spend hours doing the bookkeeping only to have him question every line item. Then I would spend hours more going over it with him, usually finding that he owed me money rather than the other way around. Luckily for him, he only had to work a couple of days to make plenty of money to cover rent and utilities, unlike me who worked full time and still lived just below the poverty level. I was getting tired of the accusations, out downs and turmoil, so I started to look at my options. Then, my older son fell in love.
As time went on, I became better on guitar and began taking my songwriting more seriously. I took a few songwriting classes and workshops, deciding to treat it as a job rather than a hobby. I can’t say that it’s brought me much financial stability, but I’m definitely more fulfilled. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to share those songs, so I started going to the Eighth Step Open Mic regularly and eventually shared the hosting job with a few other musicians. We each had our own style. It was an interesting mix. Some of us, me included, set up the PA to give folks the experience of performing with amplification and learning how to sing into a mic effectively. Others preferred to set up chairs in a circle and facilitate a round robin session, similar to the way I ran my house jams. When I hosted, I made sure to talk to everyone before they went on, finding out a little about them so I could give them a proper introduction. I also set up and ran the sound. All of this went even further toward getting me out of my shell. I met a lot of talented musicians and songwriters including many who took their music even further.
I also started meeting other songwriters in the classes and workshops I took and learned about the craft of songwriting. Until this point, I always waited for inspiration to strike, writing randomly and erratically. Then, I took a workshop taught by Janis Ian. She kept repeating the importance of writing consistently. She recommended that we give ourselves assignments rather than waiting for that inspirational bolt of lightning. She explained that most of those songs would get tossed out, but we would get better and better. In addition to assigning topics to write about, she suggested that we also purposefully write in different styles. I have really taken that to heart as a songwriter and as a performer. I was doing that anyway with the covers I chose, so it was an easy jump to start doing it as a writer. I have to admit that I get bored listening to the same types of songs. I love variety. But I do also realize that because I don’t stick to one style, it’s held me back in some ways. It’s a whole lot easier to get gigs if you fit into one or even two categories.
The other thing I learned from the songwriting classes was how to edit my work. I learned about the preciseness of rhyming, unless it’s purposely more freeform, prosity which is the lyrics matching the vibe of the music, and I learned to count my syllables. It may sound rigid, and it is, but it hones my songs and makes them more accessible. I also began to value input from other songwriters that I trusted. We all look at our works of art from our own skewed perspective, often not at all the way others see them. Having an outside perspective is so valuable. You do have to set aside your ego, though which is not always easy to do. And, there are always some songwriters with whom I don’t connect. I don’t particularly like their style and they don’t like mine, but they still often have things of value to offer me from their unique view. Then, there are others who I have come to depend on. I learned the art of critiquing from a summer camp I attended for a few years. There were strict rules about how to go about giving your opinion about someone’s work. For example, always start with what you loved about it. Even if you really don’t like a song, there is at least one thing you can love about it. Maybe it’s the tone, or the use of certain chords. The other important thing I learned was to not say, “I don’t like …” Instead, I learned to say, “If it were my song, I would …” All of this made perfect sense to me and resonated with my independence and my alternative school teaching methods. I began giving myself regular assignments and found like-minded people to share songs with.
But once again, I found myself in a musical partnership where I had to fight for my songs. They were “too complex,” or “too poetic.” I soon realized that I needed to pursue my songwriting and my musical journey on my own. I was happy to continue to do gigs as Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, but it wasn’t going to be my only thing. I even stopped asking for input on my songs from my musical partner because they never made the grade. He hadn’t taken any of the classes, never loved anything and was brutal with his criticism. Meanwhile, I was determined to continue on this path. I had put my own music on a back burner for too long. I took a course in Schenectady about working as an artist/educator and created a songwriting workshop for children. I taught that in a few schools and libraries, starting to work the library circuit during the summers. I also kept reaching out to more and more venues. One of my favorite Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gigs was in an old railway station in Connecticut. It had been turned into an art gallery and performance space. The space was beautiful, the turnout was amazing, the crowd attentive and appreciative, and we made more money at that one gig than ever before or since.
But, while my music career was going well, my personal life was in turmoil again. That same partner was starting to have a wandering eye. Every other woman seemed to be more attractive, smarter about everything and more capable than me in his eyes. He also started worrying more and more about money. He didn’t like to work and was miserable when he did. He often told me that all he really wanted to do was lay around on a beach all day. I wished him luck with that. Then one day, he got offered a job in the Bahamas. It was his dream come true. The job was only a few hours a day with room and board paid for in addition to his salary. I was shocked when he turned it down. He only wanted to go if I went along. I wasn’t willing to give up what I had worked so hard for to live in the Bahamas for six months. I would have to start over again. Also, I had a child in school. I encouraged him to go without me. I didn’t know if he would come back or if he would even want to be with me when he did return, but I hated seeing him so miserable. He didn’t end up taking that job and spent that winter so depressed, he struggled to get out of bed.
Now my eldest son was getting himself in trouble again. I worried about the company he was keeping. He was stealing from us and started stealing from our roommate. Finally, he got arrested for stealing money out of a car. My heart broke when I went to visit him in jail. We had to talk on telephones through plexiglass the first few visits. Each time I visited him, he told me that jail wasn’t so bad. He was even making friends. I quickly started calling up my friends connected in the legal system to help me figure out what to do. The last thing I wanted was for him to be learning new skills and making new friends in jail. We arranged a restorative justice meeting in which the victims and the criminal face each other and work out an arrangement. Unfortunately, not all of the victims were willing to participate but it was powerful anyway. In the end, he did time in a drug rehab facility, even though he wasn’t an addict. He was supposed to spend a year there with no visitation from family or friends for the first six months. This was also heartbreaking but at least he wasn’t learning from the criminal element. He realized later that he could have spent six months in the county jail instead of more than a year in this other place. He felt duped, but I was relieved to have him out of trouble during that time. Though he did get into plenty of trouble there while they tried unsuccessfully to break his spirit.
Then one day, he got a message to me that he was going to be volunteering, with a group of other residents, at the Holiday Lights in the Park. He was going to be dressed up as Elmo at the boathouse, greeting the younger kids. I packed my youngest in the car and off we went. He enjoyed the lights and was looking forward to getting cocoa at the boathouse. When got out of the car, I told him to go over and say hello to Elmo. He refused. I hadn’t told him that it was his brother, because I didn’t want to disappoint him if plans had changed. It had been months since we’d last seen his brother. He did finally reluctantly go over. He was shocked when Elmo gave him a big hug. When he realized who it was, he was elated. I had to caution him not to give it away because we were being watched by the house managers. We wandered off then came back again for another brief visit. It was a bizarre experience running this covert operation to connect with my son, but it warmed my heart. We were then allowed a brief visit just before Christmas to bring him gifts. Gradually, he was allowed more visits and time out, but we had to fight to get him released. After the year was over, they kept finding reasons to keep him longer. He just wasn’t compliant enough. I knew that no one was going to tame this son of mine who was as rebellious as his parents. Eventually, with the help of our lawyer and other connected friends, he was released. I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped for a respite, but there was more turmoil to come. Thankfully, throughout my entire life, it’s always been music that has seen me through the toughest times. My music was thriving.
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