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.
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