artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Today is my 65th birthday. I’ve had a few very interesting birthdays over the years, like the surprise party that my daughter tried to give me with her dad’s help. It was a huge surprise when I showed up at my house packed with people and no party supplies. There was no food or drink, utensils … nothing except a lot of people. So, I spent the first part of that birthday party grocery shopping. Then there was the birthday that my friends’ daughter was born. They had asked me to come to their home birth to support the other two children. When this third daughter was born on my birthday, with me in attendance, they named her Deborah, after me.
Yesterday, it struck me how bizarre birthdays can seem. I don't feel any older than I was yesterday but much older than 10 years ago. My life undergoes drastic changes every 20 years, so maybe those are the birthdays I should celebrate. Meanwhile, this is the day everyone else recognizes, and that’s okay. I've been wading through my Facebook messages, trying to acknowledge every wish. I think it's important, since everyone took the time to post on my wall, for me to take the time to let people know that I've seen their messages. So far, this has been a good birthday, nothing extraordinary, but lots of thoughtful loving people reaching out to me, cupcakes at the end of class, lunch out and dinner out later. Those are the best gifts of all.
This is one of the few birthdays when I was able to answer the question, when asked, “What do you want for your birthday?” I was raised with the notion that telling people what you wanted was rude. You got what you got, and you'd better be happy and very grateful. As a result, I often got clothes that I never wore, books I wasn't interested in reading, and other useless things because my mom didn't really know me. I remember one birthday when this was a big issue. My dad asked me what I wanted, which was a novel thing, and I replied that I needed to think about it. Later, when I went looking for him with my answer, my mom, who was with him at the time, got very upset that I was rude enough to ask for something instead of waiting to be surprised. It didn’t seem to matter that I had been asked. Apparently, it was still rude. I do like surprises, but I know that I like to gift people what they want or need and often don't really know what that would be, so I ask and am relieved when I get an answer.
The other thing that often gets in the way of my answers to that question is not knowing the parameters of the gifts. How much money or time do they want to spend? Will I be asking for too much? Will they be insulted if I ask for a minor inexpensive thing? Will it be too hard for them to find? Will I seem rude if I answer at all? Will I seem rude if I don’t know? I guess I was trained well. This year however, I know what I want, and will find them for myself eventually, if necessary. I want a pretty cord for my glasses to hang around my neck. I want an office organizer for the dash of my car, and I want a portable pocket. Not a fanny pack, a pocket.
Yesterday, I read an article on Facebook about women’s pockets. Women’s clothing may as well have no pockets at all considering the size of them. You can barely fit your knuckles into one. I am a big pocket person. I’ve been wearing cargo pants to work in and have a work vest with many pockets. However, for the first time since I’ve had a phone, I’ve left it behind twice this summer because the skirts I was wearing didn’t have pockets. There is a whole social and political history of women’s pockets. Long ago, it was thought that women had no need to carry things around with them, so there was no need for pockets in their clothing. During the French revolution years, it was believed that women shouldn’t be concealing things. That could lead to insurrection. The current thought is that women have pocketbooks, so why do they need pockets? Maybe it’s because some of us would rather not have to keep track of a pocketbook. I don’t want to go into a bar to dance and have to worry about my purse. I want to put my phone, keys, money, a few business cards and my ID into a pocket. Years ago, women had portable pockets that they strapped around their waist, like a fanny pack. That’s what I want. I don’t want to deal with a zipper, drawstring or clasp. I want to be able to slip my hand into my pocket that is deep enough to hold everything without falling out.
I am a person that needs organizational things. I am easily distracted and tend to strew things, leaving a mess behind me, unless I have specific places to put them. Hence the organizer for my dash. I spend a lot of time in my car and need to access pens, Bluetooth, charger, hair ties, etc. without rooting around in a morass of random stuff. I need to hang my glasses around my neck when not wearing them, to avoid dropping them when I stand up, or tangling them in my hair because they’re on top of my head. And I need pockets … lots of them. Don’t we all? And, until fashion designers get on board, I'll be searching for portable pockets.
After years of living in an abusive home, I moved into my own apartment in 1973 and started my wild ride into adulthood. I was running from my memories and lack of memories by drinking and drugging. I met the man who would become my husband and we moved in together in 1974. That year, we helped one of his childhood friends, Greg, escape from a halfway house. We were deeply entrenched in the drug culture by that time and hanging out with some very shady characters. Many of our friends were junkies, which had led me to make and enforce two important rules – no needles and no guns in our home. I was very street-wise by this time and thought that nothing could surprise me. Boy, was I wrong. We didn’t know at the time that Greg had been diagnosed as Schizophrenic. He lived in hiding in our apartment, which was the local hangout. We had a place of our own with the best drugs, regular meals and live music. Who wouldn’t want to hang out here? Greg soon contacted an old high school girlfriend, Nancy, and invited her to come over.
Nancy was a bossy know-it-all, two years younger than me. I was also a bossy know-it-all, and it was my apartment. I was still trying to escape the clutches of my mother, who had tried to run every aspect of my life, including every thought, and I resented another woman coming into my home and trying to run things. I tolerated her because Greg was so volatile, and she helped calm him. Eventually she moved in. Ugh! Soon things got out of hand with Greg. He hung towels on all the mirrors and performed exorcisms day and night, convinced we were being possessed by the devil. After two nights of being kept awake because the devil would enter her soul during her sleep, Nancy moved out. A few days later, Greg started throwing lit matches at me because fire was the only way to cleanse me of the evil growing inside of me, so we threw him out and called his parents. He was quickly snatched up.
Once Greg was gone, Nancy started hanging out with us again. She even took her first acid trip with me, which was a memorable and bonding experience for both of us and another story for another time. But, Paul and I knew we needed to get out of our situation. Our friends were dropping like flies, and the drugs were getting more and more out of control. Some of the regular hang out folks became selfish and rude, disrespecting me and my rules, belligerently calling me terrible names to my face and trying to divide Paul and me. I finally laid down the law to Paul, and we decided to move away. I was relieved to get away from that scene but also from my mom and from Nancy, who was around constantly.
We hitchhiked around the country, landed in San Francisco, then moved on to Santa Cruz to have our expected baby. I was finally free. We were living our own lives, making new friends and loving it. Then, who shows up for a surprise visit? That’s right, Nancy. She and another friend, Marie, had decided to drive to California and surprise us. Boy, were we surprised! Marie left to go back home, but Nancy stayed on. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn't seem to get rid of her. She got an apartment in town and dropped by every day to hang out. As my due date got closer, she asked how I planned to get to the hospital. I replied that I planned to hitchhike. I figured I would hold up a sign that said, “Having a baby.” I knew first time labors were supposed to be long anyway, so I’d have plenty of time. And, who wouldn’t pick up a pregnant woman in labor? I’d have Paul with me, so I didn’t worry about safety. Nancy wouldn’t hear of it and insisted on driving us. After being badgered for days by both Nancy and Paul, I finally relented. "Fine," I replied. At least she wouldn’t be with me during labor.
When Jessica was born, Nancy visited every day, washing dishes, cooking meals, cleaning, holding and cooing to Jessie while I napped. It was amazing. She did try to be bossy, but I didn’t mind anymore. I saw what a good heart she had and how much she cared about all of us. I realized that she had become my best friend upon whom I relied and truly loved. She changed her name to Amber during that time in Santa Cruz, and she mellowed a bit after that. When Paul hitched up north to try to find work in the fruit orchards so that we could move up to Oregon or Washington, Jessie and I lived with Amber in the park out of her VW bus, and we got along great. Then, when the move north didn’t pan out, we all traveled across the country to visit family in Connecticut in that same bus. Before the days of carseats, Jessie took her first steps driving down the road on that trip, toddling back and forth, back and forth as we cruised along.
We stayed in Connecticut that time, leaving Amber to drive back alone and start her own life, which she did successfully. We talked on the phone often and, when we’d had enough of the east coast, we moved in with her in Husum, Washington. She had just had her first daughter and was in a dying relationship, so I helped her out as she had helped me. It didn’t last long. We were not meant to live together. We had a huge falling out, and I missed her terribly when my second child was born at home. Eventually, we did settle things, and shared more bonding events over the years. We’ve lived on opposite sides of the country for 36 years, only seeing each other every few years, but she is my sister.
She’s still bossy, stubborn and a know-it-all (as am I), but she is also strong, resilient, good hearted and persistent. She raised her two daughters alone, created a community around her, built her own house and a livable two-story tree house with electric and heat. She won her battle with dyslexia, learned to be a good reader and got her teaching degree. Now she has worked at a job she hasn’t been happy with for quite a while and has ensured her retirement. She finally met a man she could get along with who loves her and her children dearly. We have been there for each other throughout all the trials and rewards. She’s always had access to money that I never had, through her family, and has flown me to Oregon for visits. She paid for my daughter to come home for Thanksgiving when we were all so broke, we couldn’t afford it and helped me buy my current business. She’s done all of this without being asked. She’s known what I’ve needed and has given it freely, and she has been a constant inspiration to me.
I don't think I have done the same for her, but she must be getting something from me. I treated her badly in the beginning, trying to drive her away and getting frustrated and angry when she didn’t leave. Now, I’m so glad she didn’t. I’m sure that struggle is one of the things that solidified our relationship. We still can’t live together and can’t visit for more than a few days at a time because we’re too similar, but we truly love each other and depend on each other to be there. We will always have that until the day we die. I treasure her friendship more than any other.
* I've been posting some of my memoirs lately. Eventually, they may go into book form but for now I'll share them here with you. This one is particularly timely in light of world events and our national debacle. I grew up isolated from the real world and learned about it the hard way. I spent a lot of time, as a young adult, feeling jealous of friends who had liberal or even communist upbringings. And felt jealous of those who grew up in cities that were integrated. I missed out on a lot of richness as a child.
Growing up in the 60s was not an easy thing. My dad was a newspaperman and believed in educating his children about current events, which I am mostly thankful for. I often went out to cover important stories with him and, as a family, we watched the TV news every evening, often during dinner. In 1963, we watched a Buddhist monk set himself on fire and burn to death while we were eating, or trying to eat, a meatloaf TV dinner. We watched shootings of our leaders, Viet Nam war footage, Civil Rights demonstrations, student demonstrations, police brutality and more while having our family dinners. No wonder I ended up with anorexia and weighed 80 pounds all through high school. I still have trouble remembering to eat sometimes.
After the news was over, the TV was shut off, and we would discuss these current topics. I was always on the side of the underdog and even back then, leaned very sharply to the left. Everyone else in the family was staunch conservative. My brother even joined the John Birch Society as a young adult. Despite my different opinions, or maybe because of them, I learned to look at all sides of an issue and try to find a middle ground.
I was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut in Fairfield County. The Bushes and Kennedys lived in Greenwich, our neighboring town. Paul Newman and many other Hollywood icons, lived in Westport, which was also very close by. Greenwich was full of old money, while Stamford and surrounding areas was filled with new money. Thrown into the mix were all the working-class and lower middle-class families trying to survive. Then, there were the Blacks and Hispanics who were relegated to the downtown ghetto. I never even saw a person of color, except on TV and movies, until I was 19 when I worked at a downtown bank. I occasionally went downtown to go shopping, but the stores were far enough away from the “bad” section of town that I never encountered anyone even slightly different from the usual waspy residents. The exception to this were the Jewish shopkeepers.
In 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights protests, I overheard my mom and dad talking about fires and looting happening in Stamford. Curious, I rushed in and asked about it. Dad told me that the negros were burning and looting their own neighborhoods. I didn’t understand why they would do that. Why not go to the rich neighborhoods and burn them down? Dad answered that it was because they were ignorant and hotheaded and, thankfully, never really thought things through. I knew this was not the right answer, but quickly asked if I could go with him to the paper while he put these stories together. I often accompanied him to cover stories and helped at the office, running copy and writing headlines. Dad, who was the City Editor at that time, told me they weren’t going to publish these stories. I was aghast. This was big news, right in our own town. How could the local newspaper ignore this story? He explained, that was just exactly what they were looking for, and he wasn’t going to give it to them. It was all just a publicity stunt. I pleaded in vain, trying to get him to see how important it was for the townspeople to be aware of their conditions and valid complaints. He never gave in, I didn’t get to go with him, and the safe, comfortable white people in Stamford never got to read about this important event. I was dumbfounded.
Dad was also a political reporter and columnist, so I grew up surrounded by politicians and saw corruption first-hand. I watched well-meaning kind people be changed by power. I saw them use their power to get ahead and help their friends get ahead. I saw them use their power to destroy their enemies. I saw them use their power to get away with crimes. And I was disgusted by this misuse of the trust given to them by their neighbors and friends. One of our closest family friends, a lawyer, was involved in a huge corruption scandal. He got off and was given a job as the Public Defender, which paid him less than he had been making, but enabled him to remain a lawyer. Another close family friend was appointed the Publics Works Commissioner. Every Fourth of July, we would go to his home for a picnic, where he would hang out the Confederate Flag, shoot off his cannons, and blast “Dixie” on his stereo in the direction of Jackie Robinson’s house, who lived two doors down.
As a child, I saw power as a tool of oppression and a vile, hurtful thing. I can’t remember a single time when I felt as though it was used for good. I look at the world today and the people in power and still don’t see any difference. Even the so called good people eventually must play the game to get ahead. They’re forced to cut deals and agree to distasteful things to make some of the changes they see as necessary. I’ve seen that power corrupts and is corrupt, absolutely!
The incident I write about in this memoir piece below also inspired a song. The chorus is:
"I was young,
I had stars in my eyes.
I was learning to fly,
and I didn't know why
I was always on the run."
I’ve often wondered why I was born with such a lust for traveling. I’ve had it my whole life. The only thing that stops me from traveling all over the world, seeing the sights and meeting such a wide variety of people, is money. If I had an unlimited supply of money, that’s what I would do. It’s because of my generous friends, a lot of courage and a bit of good luck that I’ve been able to do the traveling I’ve done so far and it’s still not enough. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my home, my family and my community. It’s not that I want to leave those, I just want to see everything and go everywhere. I’ve tried to be satisfied finding new adventures close by, but then my curiosity gets the best of me, or one of the local adventures stimulates that lust again. That happened just recently.
I was doing pretty well, sticking fairly close to home, at least close for me, and feeling no desire to go anywhere else when I saw a young man on the side of the road with a sign on his large backpack that read, “Broke and Traveling.” I slowed down to scope him out, decided he looked pretty harmless, turned around and picked him up. He was pleasant and entertaining but was also too full of himself and determined to show me how cool he was because of this lifestyle he had chosen. He spent the first 10 minutes of the ride regaling me with all of his amazing adventures when I’d finally had enough. I turned and told him that, because he was so busy being cool and trying to impress me with his stories, he was missing out on a big opportunity. I said that the whole point of traveling was to meet people along the way and learn what they have to teach us. I asked his age, which was 23. I explained that I had done what he did when I was around his age but, back then, I mostly shut up and listened. Sheepishly, he said that he’d been told that before. Maybe it’s time to learn that lesson, I replied. He agreed, and now that I had his attention, I told him about my favorite ride.
I was hitchhiking across the country with Paul, my former husband, in the winter of 1975. We had been stuck for over 24 hours at a truck stop in Big Springs, Nebraska during a blizzard that had, unbeknownst to us, closed all the main roads going into Wyoming. We were headed for the West Coast and didn’t want to hitchhike through Colorado because of the unforgiving law enforcement there. No one bothered to tell us about the road closures, and the truck stop café had stopped letting us go inside to get warm unless we bought a meal every time. Going in for coffee wasn’t good enough. Our money dwindling fast, we spent a lot of time huddled under our “space blanket.” It was a lightweight tarp made out of Mylar that kept in our body heat and kept out the cold wind. That might have been the best going away gift we had gotten for our journey, that and the down jacket from my parents. Sometime into the second day of that extreme weather, a young woman finally told us that we couldn’t get through Wyoming until after the storm passed and offered us a ride to the Denver bus station. She made and sold decorated riding crops and was on her way to Denver for a horse show. We gratefully took the ride, and took turns sitting in the back of the car, riding on top of the boxes of crops while the other of us sat in the front seat. We actually ran into her months later in San Francisco, with fewer boxes of crops. We were determined not to hitchhike out of Denver and risk jail time, so after busking in the bus station, to raise a little more cash, where an older couple was convinced that Paul was John Denver and insisted on getting an autograph (which he happily gave), we took a Greyhound through the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City. What a gorgeous ride!
The year before, while I was still holding down a job, I had joined a book club and got a book entitled “The Great Escape.” It was a kind of hippie’s guide to everything, similar to the “Whole Earth Catalog” but funkier, and I still own it, though it's pages are well-worn and threatening to disintegrate. It was in the travel section of this book that I had learned about air hitchhiking. You go to an airport, find the charter planes and start asking for rides. I’d even met someone who had done this successfully, so when we got off the bus in Salt Lake we decided to try it out and starting hitching a ride to the airport. Before long, an older man picked us up and told us that he would take us all the way to Sacramento, feed us and put us up overnight in a motel room. We were pretty suspicious at first and repeatedly asked what our part of the bargain was going to be. Ray told us that he was traveling alone, trying to connect with his kids and had just finished working a few years on the Alaskan pipeline. He was lonely and wanted to tell his stories. He seemed like a very cool guy, so off we went.
I’m so sorry I didn’t keep a journal back then. I would love to read it now. I don’t remember any details of his stories, only vague bits and pieces. I do remember that he was a welder for the Navy and had gone all over the world working on ships. He’d done underwater welding in three different oceans, the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas and had finally ended up in Alaska welding on the pipeline. He wasn’t a drinker or gambler and had saved all of his money over the years. Now he was ready to retire. He’d been estranged from his wife and kept from his children and was now seeking them out hoping to have some kind of relationship with them as adults. He got us our own motel room, bought all of our meals and even gave us money to gamble with in Reno, NV. He was also very generous with his advice, which we listened to eagerly. One of the most important things he told us was to learn what the people we met had to teach us. He explained that every city, every state, every country has its own unique culture that’s only accessible through people. He reminded us that everyone has a story to tell, and that every story is different. He also applauded our initiative and instincts, dropped us off in Sacramento with a little extra cash and wished us well. I often think of him and can still see his face in my mind’s eye. He took us many miles over two days and had a profound effect on me.
I finished my story and glanced over at my passenger. “Wow,” he said, “my wife is never going to believe this. She is going to be so jealous.” I said, “Just try to remember that it’s not your turn to be the guide yet. You’ll have your turn and this adventure will change who you are and how you look at things. It will be your job to pass that on. But for now, it’s your job to listen.” Driving further than I had planned, I took him as far as I could, almost to the Vermont border. He didn’t have far to go to his destination. We both got out. He thanked me for the ride, hugged me and thanked me again, then hugged me again. I remembered doing the same when we left Ray’s company. I waved goodbye and smiled a satisfied smile. And although I know it’s my time to be the guide and tell my stories, I’m not ready to stop collecting them yet.
Every summer, I tell myself that I will have some free time to just relax. Then, the summer races by, and I wonder what happened. This summer, I’ve had more gigs than usual, and they’ve been a wide variety of events. I’ve played for libraries, cafes, a Renaissance Faire, private parties, for children and senior centers and will be playing at Beer Camp next week – a two-day festival at a local brewery. All these shows required a different type of set list, which had me working hard to learn everything. And, I couldn’t have asked for a better summer. I never mind working hard at something I love, and I really enjoy the challenge.
I’m also writing a lot lately. I currently write three blog posts a week, a Family Blog, a Music Together blog and this Deb Cavanaugh blog. In addition, I write songs. I spent last week at SummerSongs, a week-long music camp for songwriters, for their 20th anniversary. I first went in 2003. Still struggling with debilitating shyness, I had a difficult time fitting in but loved it and learned a lot. I even joined a song circle near me that met once a month and included some amazing songwriters including Penny Nichols, the woman who started SummerSongs. Unfortunately, due to family issues, I couldn’t return to camp until 2016 but jumped in with both feet that year and the next two. Now, I can’t fathom not returning every year. It recharges and inspires me. After SummerSongs, I come home for a few days and go to my favorite music festival, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.
This year, for the first time, SummerSongs offered guitar classes, which I took instead of the usual songwriting classes. I decided it was time to improve my playing. I also took a vocal class first thing each morning. I’ve come home with a new practice routine and lots of things swirling around in my head. Although I didn’t do a lot of writing, I got exactly what I wanted out of the camp. I often don’t write much at camp anyway. It usually comes later, once I’m settled at home again and more relaxed. I’m hoping August will bring a spurt of creativity.
Falcon Ridge Folk Festival is celebrating its 30th year. This will be my 27th. I currently run the Activities 4 Kids tent with a crew of wonderful, fun volunteers. In the past, I struggled with that same debilitating shyness that kept me from a lot of the song circles and jams. I sought out friends and occasionally went to an organized song swap, but mostly wandered around feeling lonely and left out. A few years ago, I wandered up to the ridge and found myself at The Front Porch, one of the many organized places for late night music. Not all the late-night places are easy to break into, but they were so warm and welcoming there, it changed my entire festival experience. I was very sad to hear that Maggie, one of the people running it and the one who welcomed me with such loving open arms, died this past year. I’m sure the folks who have been going there will continue in the same spirit, but it won’t be the same, at least not this year. I will always be grateful for the boost I got that keeps me going despite any obstacles, especially when I bump up against my old demons.
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