Sunday, February 1, 2009

From Sorrow to Song

I have been writing songs for much of my life, since I was a teenager. This was a natural outgrowth of my need to tell my story and talk about my feelings. One of the ways we work through grief is to talk about what we are going through. Some families are able to help each other through a loss by sharing sorrow, support, and encouragement, but I didn't live in one of those families. I knew no one else my age who had lost a parent, and there were no grief support groups for children and teens at that time.

Before I talk about songwriting, it's necessary to share some family history.

My parents had a traditional marriage, where my mother stayed home, handled most of the household chores, and took care of the children. She had some outside interests, and was quite involved in our church, but most of her life revolved around our family. My father supported the family through his work, was involved in the church and community organizations, and was a caring father. When my mother died, there was a profound absence in our home of someone to take on the roles of a mother. At first, my mother's mother stayed with us for a while. At some time in that first year after my mother's death, my dad decided he needed to find a new wife.

Ten months after my mother died, my dad remarried. My stepmother was expected to take over the tasks my mother had done, running a household and raising three children, ages 7, 10, and 11. She had never been married and had little experience with children. My own three children are now in their twenties, and from having experienced the challenges of parenting, I've developed a lot more empathy for my stepmother than I had as a child. Mothering children I'd known and loved from birth had its difficulties, but we had years to build a relationship, and my children were added one at a time. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my stepmother to take on three bereaved children, a husband, and an infant son, born ten months after her wedding day. She had little support. Her own mother had died before she started dating my father, and she had no sisters or nearby female relatives.

I imagine my stepmother felt overwhelmed. She told my sister that sometimes she felt like she was going crazy. It was not unusual for her to have meltdowns, shutting herself in her room for a while, where we could hear the sounds of her crying. Other times she exploded, letting everyone know how unhappy she was, and found ways to bring others to tears. I never knew what to expect, and decided the safest thing was to avoid her. I spent a lot of time in my room.

During this time I began to write as a way to release emotion, probably at the suggestion of my therapist. I'd been referred to a counselor for depression in the first few years after my dad remarried.

The best part of each year was in the summer, where I was able to spend time away from home at summer camp. Among the activities were the times we would gather together and sing, led by teens and young adults who played guitar. I decided that I really wanted a guitar, and finally got one on my fifteenth birthday. I started to teach myself how to play.

I had already been doing a lot of writing, pouring out my thoughts in spiral notebooks. I was in a dark and troubled frame of mind much of the time, and wrote prose and poetry that reflected my mood. I think I was reading Edgar Allen Poe in school when I first set poetry to music. I still remember the choruses of the first two songs I wrote:

The Land of Nevermore

A wind is howling in my mind
And now I leave this world behind.
I know I've seen this place before
It is the land of Nevermore.

Oh, Lord, I've Tried

Oh Lord, I've tried
My hope has died
Gone out the door.

Some time in my first few years of college, I looked back at those early journals, saw the darkness and despair in them, and decided to destroy them. My dormitory had a chute that we were told led to an incinerator. One day, I opened the door to the chute and dropped those writings in, knowing that they would be burned. When I was working on my social work degree, I began to wish I could read them again, curious about what I wrote. Those journals were long gone. Now I only have snippets of melody and words for the first songs I wrote, long ago.

When I was withdrawn and depressed, I may not have been much trouble, but when I started to come out of my shell, apparently I became someone my stepmother couldn't stand to be around. I spoke to her very little, because I was afraid I would set her off, and her words could cut like knives. I tried to avoid criticism by excelling in school and being on my best behavior outside the home. Boys did not pursue me, I never skipped class or tried drink or drugs. I don't remember being angry, but could be almost brutally honest. I also grew to an adult size that was taller and heavier than my stepmother, and became less afraid. Pictures of my mother had been put away, and talking about her was taboo, but I might have been a constant reminder of her, since I had a striking resemblance to her. I really don't understand all the reasons for my stepmother's dislike of me, but it was real. When I was fifteen, she gave my father an ultimatum. She would take their young son and leave him if he did not find me another place to live. I was sent three thousand miles away, to live with my mother's sister and my grandmother in California.

Why would a father send his daughter away? In my father's defense, his parents had divorced when he was very young. I think he wanted to avoid a family breakup at all costs. He also said to my sister, some time later, that we girls were almost grown, and would leave home before long. He expected to be with my stepmother the rest of his life, They were still together when she died, more than 30 years later. I did wrestle with feeling rejected for a long time afterwards.

My time living in California was the true beginning of my songwriting. I started that journey in January of 1970, saying goodbye to my father at the airport, flying alone to live with someone I barely knew. I sensed that this was both an ending and a beginning. This was a low point in my life, and yet, I had hope it could only get better. I got on the plane in the late afternoon, and I still remember watching a sunset that lasted much of the evening as we traveled west.

One of the first people I met in California was my next door neighbor, Therese Wallin. She gave me a friendly welcome to the neighborhood. She was in my class at San Clemente High School, and was my first friend there. It was wonderful to have someone my age to talk to. Therese also played guitar, and taught me techniques and songs I hadn't learned yet. My playing improved. Therese was a quiet believer in God, and wasn't threatened by my agnosticism. She told me about some of our acquaintances, and how their lives had been changed by finding faith. Among them was a girl named Portia Winterbourne, who had a family history of mental health issues and drug abuse. That surprised me, because Portia was one of those people who radiated life and joy.

One day, I went to church with Portia, and decided I needed to get to know the God who was powerful enough to change her life. On that day, I became a Christian. There is much about my faith journey I could write, but I will do that at another time.

Portia also played guitar and wrote songs. She taught me some of her songs, one called “Poor Little Billy Boy”, and “Make a Joyful Noise,” a setting she had done of Psalm 100. From her, I learned that songwriting could be a way of expressing both my emotions and my newfound faith. For a long time, my songs were about spiritual things.

After six months in California, my aunt drove me back to Ohio. She realized that I had lost my mother, and I shouldn't have lost my father too. Things at home went well enough that I was allowed to stay until I graduated from high school. I never forgot Therese and Portia, and another girl named Gwen, who also befriended me. A few years ago I wrote a song about them:

A long time ago, a long way from home
A young girl was looking for peace.
You touched my despair by deciding to care.
You helped me to find sweet release.
Your stories and songs brought me healing,
Mending the breaks in my soul.
I don't know if you still remember
You helped in making me whole.

You were an angel of mercy,
You were a giver of grace.
I still remember the words that you said
I still remember your face.
You were an angel of mercy.
You touched me with your tender care.
When I was lost, you helped me to hope.
My life changed because you were there.

From Angel of Mercy © 2006

I began to heal in California. It wasn't a journey that took me instantly from despair to wholeness, but I did grow, little by little, into a place where I experienced peace. Many times, when I struggled, I started to journal, and then would write another song. Songs lifted me from darker moods into better ones. Early songs were like this one:

You came to me when all I knew inside
Was loneliness, fear, and the pain.
You calmed my fears, and wiped away my tears
You gave me the sun, not the rain.

You gave me hope when I thought I would die.
You gave me peace in my soul.
You gave me wings, and you taught me to fly.
You mended my heart, made me whole.

Since I have known the love you have to give
My whole life has turned a new way.
And from that time, you taught me how to live
Since I first learned how to pray.

Song written early 1970s

In my last few years of high school, musical activities took much of my time. I played clarinet, sang in church and school choirs, played guitar, and wrote songs. I decided I wanted to study music, to learn how to write better. Instead of a music composition degree, I chose to earn a music education degree. I didn't really want to teach, but I did learn enough to write more interesting music.

In college, I started attending a fellowship group that met on campus. In small group meetings, I began to share almost every new song I wrote, as soon as it was finished. I found that my music was able to encourage others.

In the years since college, I have sometimes gone long years without writing music. When my children were small, I never managed to find the kind of concentrated time I needed to write well. I was also happier, content with being home with my kids.

I started writing songs again when I went to graduate school about 10 years ago. A few years after I earned my degree, I was able to work with the music director of my church, who had a degree in compostion. He helped me learn to play the piano with more skill and to write better music. He also used a music program, Finale, to write notation for his music, and I started to learn the progam and write out my songs. I found I liked piano better for accompaniments than guitar, but I still don't play very well. There is much to learn.

The songs I've written in the past several years have focused on life and loss. Some have been written to be used in hospice memorial services. I'm not writing as many spiritual songs now, although my faith is a recurrent theme. I still use songwriting to release emotion and work through challenges in my life. My songs are part of who I am, and who I am supposed to be. One of these days, I'll find out how it all fits together.

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