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.