“Finding Mercy in the Morning”
Beaten by the Peanut Butter
It’s like being beaten by peanut butter.
Ground Hog Day
Mercy in the Morning
It’s like being beaten by peanut butter.
I recently published a book for those wanting to know more of my story and the story behind some of my songs! These stories trace the lifelines of God’s healing and grace in my life.
Here is an excerpt:
I grew up in a house on Horseshoe Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the midst of Amish and Mennonite farms, that drafty rental formed the backdrop of my playing days.
An Amish family, the Kings, lived across the road, and their kids sometimes invited us to run around in the barn or whisper through the house. I’ll never forget the smell of that natural-gas-heated kitchen or the smooth, simple surfaces in that dimly lit Amish home. Or the fact that the cats and kittens lived in the barn and were only there for the mice and rats.
It made me wonder and worry at the practicality of their lives. The horses’ main purpose was pulling their black buggies. The dog that hung around the gravel lane was less a pet and more a second thought. The scraggly cat with the oozing eye would never see a veterinarian for her ills. Even the mules seemed to be just tools for fieldwork.
In my house, the animals were everything. They formed the basis of love in my early years. My cats and dogs were there for touching and hugging. Had I a mule, I’d have coddled him and kept him in my room. What would the Kings have thought if they knew I had a mouse in a cage in my house? I can’t remember her name, but I can still picture her fresh litter of wriggling pink babies.
My hamsters were a staple and scores must have scurried through my childhood. Added to their naturally short lifespan came the playful but deadly tosses from cats and kids alike. I remember coming home one evening to a dark bedroom where Spooky, my Siamese, was batting something around on the bed. I flicked the light to find my Sophie mostly dead beneath his playful paw. I have no idea how the poor thing got out of her cage.
Many damaged birds found their way into my living room infirmary. There was a sparrow with a tumor that would have died peacefully had Spooky not followed his feline instincts when no one was watching.
I even had a pet praying mantis named Herman. Each day I fed him freshly whacked flies. With lovely circumspection, he’d examine the squashed insect I dangled before him, then, swift as a whip, those spiky forearms grabbed that fly from my fingertips. Herman ate with relish and refinement, keeping those black-dotted orbs on his dinner and me simultaneously.
A few weeks later I discovered that he was a she, as I found my lovely green friend dead in the jar with an egg sack snugly glued to her twig. Her babies by the hundreds eventually hatched, and, like Wilbur keeping his piggy promise to Charlotte, I set Herman’s brood free to carry on her legacy.
Spooky was my best cat and had stayed on with me through my high school years. He made the move with us when my parents split up and we left the house on Horseshoe Road. After a few years in a mobile home, we moved again twice, and he came along. Osteoarthritis and old age had hobbled him by the time my turn for college arrived. I had to put my childhood constant to sleep and bury him in the yard a few days before saying good-bye.
I still dream about Spooky and some of my other cats. Something about the way they smelled and felt in my young, unsteady world. I could count on their warmth, their love and acceptance.
They needed me, and I needed them.
Of all the pets we had, the family dogs were beyond compare. My sister Ginny and brother David and I had three dogs across the years that we named “Puppy.”
Puppy #1 actually was a puppy that never lived to see her doggy days. I remember the accident like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning and David and I were playing in mud puddles in a low strip of grass that bordered Horseshoe Road.
Our backs to the macadam, we hadn’t thought to leash our wandering Puppy. Duh-blunk. I heard the thud of what could have been a brown paper grocery bag run over by a car. I straightened and spun to look. There was my puppy on the road and a shock-faced woman coming from the side of her car.
I ran screaming into the house where my dad rushed downstairs from deep sleep. He met the apologetic driver at the door in his underwear, so afraid it was one of his kids who had been hit. Realizing what had happened, Dad left to dress. A minute later, I followed as he went to see what was left of our Puppy. She was alive for a few more moments as we cried there in the middle of Horseshoe Road. My eyes still fill up when I retell the story.
Puppy #2 was the love of my life when I was 9 years old. He sang for joy every time the family returned to the house, always ecstatic that we had come back. His acceptance and availability was exactly what we all needed. I was crushed when we had to give him away because my parents separated and we weren’t allowed to have a big dog in the trailer. Losing him seemed the saddest part of my parents’ leaving each other.
Puppy #3 came from the shelter and was small enough to fit with us in the mobile home. She lived with our family for 14 years. We walked many roads together. She also went boating, swimming, river-rafting and jogging—wherever her people were! She died long after we three kids had grown and gone away to college.
Who can account for the impact of these pets? Their lives seem to be signposts and symbols of a sort.
My first Puppy died early, as did my innocence, marking a time of loss and death that probably prepared me for some losses ahead.
My second Puppy could be a symbol of grief and heartache that eventually healed.
And my last Puppy lived to tell of life’s longevity, normality, and dependability even when it begins in disruption and confusion.
Spooky, like the dogs, showed me unconditional love for all of his years by my side.
Maybe I am reading too much into it. But maybe not.
Whether insects and rodents or cats and dogs, these wonderful creatures mark the cycles of life and death on a small scale, which were, for a little girl like me, exactly what I needed.
I grew up pretending and performing.
As a little girl, I made pretend by trying on my grandmother’s old dresses. These garments from her younger days made me feel older and beautiful. Even though most of the fabric draped disproportionately on my frame and settled in piles on the floor, I would still stand on tiptoe admiring myself in the mirror, hoping to someday grow into her clothes.
In high school, I overcame adolescent insecurity by trying out for all sorts of roles too big for me: cheerleading, plays, talent shows, marching band, and other popularity contests. I got good at exuding confidence 3 sizes bigger than I felt. Making pretend on many stages, I began to grow into the parts I played.
I arrived at music college largely self-assured and full of ambition. My singing and performing talents increased with the training and the experience that came with the classes and the shows we put on.
For my new acquaintances, I also played the good little girl from Small Town, USA, who’d had a great childhood and didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t know I was kidding myself. Thankfully, my act did not fool everyone and some new friends began to tug at the loose threads of my story.
I call it coming out of denial.
The costumes I had grown into began to fray in my twenties. I was bearing false witness against myself, refusing to look deep and admit to the small and broken parts of my character. For sure, the story I lived in high school was the one that kept me tethered in my fragmented family life. My dad’s alcoholism and my parents’ divorce had been a devastating part of my growing up.
New college friends helped me to recognize this as they began questioning my happy narrative. The “me” I wore on my sleeve was actually a plastic jacket everyone could see right through. Other hard truths and feelings about childhood and about myself began emerging. I started to shed some of the dress-up and become more grown-up than I had ever been.
I have been a singer, songwriter and performer for several decades and have learned to put on the person I want to be when I take the stage. There is a lot to be said for keeping up appearances when putting on a show. The audience expects competence and engagement so I make eye-contact even when my self-confidence is flagging and my voice feels weak. Sometimes the best advice is ‘fake it ’til you make it.’
However, the pretense can get out of hand and we can lose our true selves by hiding behind ‘false selves,’ projections of what we want others to believe about us. We also grow out of some of our roles and can confidently let them go. I am now 53 years old and recognize that I must let go at last some of my personae from the past. There’s a thrill and a qualm in moving on.
My story might go something like this:
In the afternoon of my life, I decided to disband my circle of loyal ladies. I was in no rush, wanting to slowly let go of my cadre of steady companions. But go they must.
So I stood to face each one in turn. I thanked Competence for her good service, shook her hand and let her go, surprised by the weakness I felt without her by my side.
Control was the next one to step forward. She’d kept me in a lovely blind spot for many good years. But now her veil was lifted and must list to the wind, leaving me quite vulnerable. Goodbye, my dear friend.
Her closest kin, Self-control, came out of the shadows and reminded me that she was more a phantom than a friend over the years. We waved as she slipped down the road behind me.
I looked ahead, greeting Beauty and Talent, my leading ladies. They’d always preceded me on the road and now they too must say goodbye. I thanked them for their good service and moved past them, grieving the journey ahead without them. Who else is here, I asked, that I must bid farewell?
Miss Good Health and Mrs. Good Mother have been quite faithful friends. Yet even they must take their place in the line behind me. They kissed my hands with tears in their eyes and bowed into the background.
The path ahead looks desolate. A lonely place. Space has been made for a Truer Companion. I stand on tiptoe to see who might be strolling down the road towards me.
I have been making music with my husband Scott since we met at Berklee College of Music in 1985. Known as Out of the Grey, we spent many years in the studio and on the road, making music and raising our 3 children. Read more of my story in my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and Song.
Hear our latest CD, A Little Light Left
Oh, my muggy mid-July state of mind! Can’t seem to focus my thoughts on anything productive. The air is heavy on my shoulders and drapes itself in a shiny layer onto my skin. I feel stuck and can’t find the energy to make a move. My musings take a turn for the worse as my wondering and worrying settle in. To be sure, I do like the moist warmth of summer with my bare feet on a mossy lawn, wearing shorts and t-shirts all day long. But this mid-summer ennui muddles my head. I am not bored exactly. “Bored” is a four-letter word in our house. I am just at a still point in my experience of time and meaning. It reminds me of a another July from years gone by:
In my family, we often blame bodily afflictions and bad moods on the weather patterns. Feeling head-achey today? Could be a low-pressure system coming in. Feeling lethargic or sad? Maybe all of this rain is getting to you, stirring up mildew and mold allergies. Honestly, the seasons affect the way I see the world. I would not be surprised if the sultry atmosphere literally clouds my vision and clogs up my body and soul. Maybe mid-July is a natural time for looking back over my shoulder, wondering where spring has gone and for stretching my neck ahead, worrying about fall coming on:
I wrote this lyric many a mid-summer’s night ago. Like a dream, 27 years have passed since that moment in my life. Before kids and current concerns, I was young and wrestling with my experience of time and meaning. Some things never change. Scott and I were sitting on that tiny slab of patio behind our one-bedroom apartment in Nashville. We were newlyweds and newly-moved, wondering what was to come as we worked on our music together. I remember that particular July night in which Scott was relaxed and playing his guitar while I was anxious and struggling to be in the moment. We were about to record our first CD and make our way in the music world. As usual, my heart was off kilter, tilting backwards in wonder at the time gone by and also leaning forward in worry about what was to come. However, I knew where I wanted my head and heart to be:
In this moment in 2017, another summer swelters and Scott and I sit on the back patio of our home with so much to be grateful for. The kids and the music have come and gone in sweet succession. I can look back and ahead with lots of evidence against speculation and fretting. Some things do change and I realize I am saturated in back-patio peace. In spite of the weather, my head and heart are clear. As I revel in the pleasure of where we are, I can treasure the time–this time– and let the music and the days take my heart where they will. I can’t live the moments all at once. The only moment in which I can live is this one we’re in, this one.
If you’d like to hear the song and the rest of the lyric, it’s on the Out of the Grey CD in iTunes. For more stories behind the songs, check out my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and song.
Whenever I hear the intro to Steely Dan’s song Aja, joy wells up in my chest.
Back when I was a student at Berklee College of Music, Steely Dan became one of my favorite bands with their perfect mix of pop and jazz.
Learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
To the young wanna-be songwriters in that classroom, that ambiguous line about dying behind the wheel was a puzzle and a revelation. Does the singer mean literally dying because he’s drinking and driving?
Or is it metaphorical for being in control all the way to the day he dies? Or both?
Steely Dan’s lyrical and harmonic complexities sparked my desire to write songs with depth. I wanted my audience to discover a new layer with every listen. For those like me who are still students of songwriting, I offer these ideas:
You can’t write a good song without hearing a great one first. Find some inspiring music. I like to set the bar high and get my creativity pumping with some Billy Joel or Joni Mitchell.
Maybe a song from my teenage days that connects on a hidden plane.
Joe Walsh’s “Indian Summer” gets me every time. I find myself back on our family boat, cruising the Susquehanna River near Pequea, Pennsylvania. It’s September and I’m 13 years old. The longing and loss of innocence and freedom wash over me like the wake of a waterskiing fall. I’m ready to write that song now.
Yes, schedule your muse and expect her to show up. She might be groggy. Feed her some coffee and get to work.
Let all of your jewels and your drivel out in the privacy of your writing room. You are practicing a habit. Later, you can pick and choose which ideas get to go outside and play. The rest of them will be your sad and sappy little secrets.
Consider it your job to produce Quantity.
Quality will emerge in spits and spurts. Sometimes pieces of one song actually belong to pieces of another song. Puzzle it together.
Pour your heart out and let emotions lead the way. If your heart and gut are connected to your song subject, you’ll be able to go with the flow for a long time. Stay slippery and don’t let the inspiration dry up before you’ve caught and landed all of your choicest ideas. I have a few exercises for doing just that in my Singer/Songwriter Handbook.
Have you written some pithy lines and ideas in a notebook somewhere?
Do you have a few titles that make you want to sing?
Start with one of these and see where they lead.
“He is Not Silent” is one of my songs inspired by a book titled, He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis Schaeffer. I got all fired up while reading so I headed straight for my piano, pencil in hand. Borrowing ideas like “we are not quiet, we are not listening,” I came up with the chorus first. My creative burst followed closely on the heels of an inspiring title. Catch any thread you can and don’t let go!
Honesty is appealing, like the song with that title by Billy Joel. We’re all human and we love vulnerability in others (even though we hate to reveal it in ourselves). Show some brokenness, a chink in your armor. The Chainsmokers have a cool song called “Honest.” They sing the truth about life on the road and on the radio. Their candor draws me in to their artistry.
Read my short blog here about vulnerability in songwriting and recording new music.
What am I saying? Plagiarism is a dirty word. Don’t do it! But, hey, we are all imitators. None of us comes up with a completely new song idea.
All creativity is derivative except the original Creator’s stuff. Everybody copies His work. So celebrate your influences.
Borrow–don’t steal– a few ideas from a good song you like. Then get to work making it your own and making sure there’s no direct copying.You know what happens when you infringe on a copyright, right? Write!
No one gets a pass in this life. Hard is part of living. If you’re like me and you struggle with faith in God every day, then say so.
If you want to write a song about living with pain, go for it, but I might beat you to it.
If you want to sing about how staying in love is not easy then write that song. I did just that in “To Keep Love Alive.”
Teens love Taylor Swift because her music is relatable and relevant to their lives, like in the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
Take some risks. But only if you’ve got a point.
Controversy for the sake of drawing attention and outrage is not legitimate artistic expression.
However, there will always be blurred lines. From Randy Newman’s “Short People” to Madonna’s “Papa, Don’t Preach,”artists often try to shine a light on an important topic. Certainly, we write at our own risk. Everyone in the crowd won’t be jumping up and down. But some may be getting the message for a change.
Should I use “the” or “and” in this line? It is a solid question when writing a pop song. The nuance of such little words affects the song’s meaning.
Also, pop music doesn’t give you time to spread your ideas out. They’ve got to be short, sweet, and carry a lot of meaning. Like poetry, each word can have a well of eloquence beneath it if you take the time to dig in.
Admit it, you’ve held on for dear life to some crappy lyrics.
You wrote them on the fly and they fit.
But they’re so predictable, so done already. Get more creative!
Much of modern worship music, for example, has lots of cliche´and little imagination. Many mainstream pop songs, too. Boring.
They can be placeholders but eventually erase you must. Hire someone or cover your eyes and take a stab.
Kill those darlings because you know they’re just no good.
Learn to work in a new way, try something you’ve never done in your songwriting.
You are not gazing through the glass anymore.You’ve bought the dream.
Remember, songwriting is the privilege of sharing the things we know and love with those of our kind.
PS If you want more Tips and Tricks and Techniques and lots of exercises to improve your songwriting (and singing), check out my book: The Singer and the Songwriter Handbook and Workbook on Amazon or my store.
PPS If you want other posts like these, sign up for my newsletter on the right side of this page and I’ll let you know when my next blog posts. CHEERS!
I will never forget that ONE concert in college where I sang that ONE song with that ONE unforgettable note!
No, not the thrilling Whitney Houston/Carrie Underwood/Beyoncé kind of note:
as high as the heavens, long as the day and loud as a train.
No, this note–my note–was quite the opposite.
It took me a long time to realize that as a singer, I really am my own instrument. It can be a help or a hindrance to contain in our bodies the means of the music. We singers possess a lot of intimate control and awareness of the subtleties of sound. A good singer knows no separation from the flow of breath, pitch, volume, rhythm and emotion coming through the throat and lifting from the lips. Unlike, say, a cello player, the vocalist has not even a synaptic nano-second between impulse and sound. No fingers on strings or hands on hardwood, the singer glides effortlessly on a melodic whim. From the shape of the voice box, throat, nasal cavities, facial bone structures, tongue, mouth and lips comes the uniqueness that is the voice, my voice, your voice, our instrument.
Many conditions are a hindrance to singing. Fatigue and vocal cord weakness are the worst. Add phlegm and tension and dehydration to the mix and we are in trouble. Also, the hidden flaws of the vocal cords contribute to singing struggles and even failure. These days, voice specialists can see what is happening in the larynx using cameras that reveal cord inflammation and even scar tissue called nodules. Nodules can resolve on their own if the voice can rest and heal from overuse. A disruption in the connective vibration of the vocal folds either from phlegm or inflammation or scarring can cause huge problems for those who regularly rely on their singing.
I didn’t know about any of this that evening as the band began playing my favorite Linda Ronstadt ballad. I sang the first verse and felt the fatigue of the previous hour of singing setting in. My wobbly sound was not the worst of it, though. My biggest mistake was wanting to sound like the soulful belter that Linda was. At the climax of the chorus when the big payoff arrived, I held out that note. That note. It started out strong, but, to my horror, my clear tone suddenly distorted and split into an awful gargling kind of cacophony. My instrument had found a mind of its own. What was it thinking?
To this day, I do not know exactly what happened to make my voice get so out of control that night. It was probably a combination of fatigue, dehydration, nerves and perhaps even nodules. Also, I didn’t know the limits of my instrument. I was trying to sound like Linda Ronstadt instead of finding my own vocal style. I was not, and am not, a belter with the power to pull it off.
My voice students hear me talk about vocal health a lot.
Our instruments need what our bodies need:
Our voices do not need:
Adhering to these helpful lifestyle choices, we can then build vocal strength and other vocal techniques on that solid foundation. Most of all, we need to know our limits and try to find the God-given voice that is ours alone. Then our strengths and singularities can find their way to the song and our very being becomes part of the performance.
If you want to know more about the voice, singing technique and lots of helpful exercises and applications to singing, check out my handbook/workbook, The Singer and the Songwriter, which has an entire section devoted to singing. If you’d like the piano cover, you’ll find it here. See below a sample of what’s inside. ~Christine