I’ve got a ticket to ride. 

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Good morning, and Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. I haven’t posted anything personal in a while and would like to bend your eyes and ears for a moment in that regard.

I’ll be spending the day today playing piano at the White Mountain Hotel in North Conway, New Hampshire, for folks who are perhaps smarter than most and leave the cooking and the cleanup to other people – people who are, at least in part, giving up spending Thanksgiving with their own families. The almighty dollar looms large, as it must for many. Music is my living, and I’ll be happy to see my jar fill up today as well.  

To be truthful, Thanksgiving is just another day for me. When I was a kid, I loved it – it was just me and Mom and Dad, eating lots of food, and watching football. Dad would drink his Budweiser, Mom would drink her Boones Farm, and the dogs would beg for scraps. 

Dad died the week before Thanksgiving in ’98, and the holidays, and the rest of life, were never quite the same after that.  

Fast forward to January of ’07, and then Mom died one night in her bed, alone, surrounded by the memories of Dad of which she never let go.

I have to admit I feel a pang of sadness when I see social media filling up with photos of happy families gathering together on this day. But that feeling never lasts long. Life is too good for that. 

The last couple of years have been the best in my entire life. My music is making its way into the world, and I’m lucky enough to make my living entirely from it.  

All of this is a long winded way of saying two things:

1. I am so grateful to you, one and all, for being a part of my life and for cheering me on during this one way wild and crazy ride.  

2. Treasure your own one way ticket and the bumps in the road and enjoy the smooth stretches. And the scenery is great too. 

Oh and stay home tomorrow if you can. Black Friday totally sucks.

A boy and a beetle.

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This past weekend at one of my hotel gigs, I had an interesting interaction with a kid named Alexander, a boy of about 6 or 7 years of age, with thick curly red hair, dazzling green eyes, and an insatiable urge to ham it up. He was seated at the table next to the piano with his parents and what I guessed to be his maternal grandparents. His back was to me, and upon my arrival, his father, seated across from him, remarked, “Oh look, we are going to have some nice relaxing piano music” to which the boy replied, after a quick glance in my direction, “I don’t want relaxing piano music.” He quickly changed his tune, so to speak, and as my first set progressed, I noticed him moving his arms and fingers as if he were the one playing the songs, in hyperbolic gestures that young kids can pull off in such a comedic and endearing way.  

Towards the end of that set, he stepped up beside me, put a tip from his father in my jar, and we struck up a conversation. We introduced ourselves and, after complimenting him on his very fashionable train conductor’s hat and the snazzy toy train he had at his place at the table, I asked him if he had been on the Conway Scenic Railroad that day. He said he had not, but then told me that he had been to the top of what he called “George Washington” and that he could “see this hotel and your piano from up there”. His mother turned around to tell me that they had taken the auto road up to the top of Mount Washington and what a picture perfect day it had been. I joked to Alexander that he must’ve had some pretty powerful binoculars to have been able to see the piano! He blushed with excitement and slight embarrassment that I had seen through his fib. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two friends entering the tavern. They waved and I waved back.  

“Is that your mom and dad?” Alexander asked.  

I smiled and said, “No. Those are my friends Steve and Roberta.”

“Well, where is your mom and dad?”

I paused, not knowing how most people talk to their kids about death, and chose my words of reply carefully: “They’re not around anymore.”

Alexander took this in for a moment and then said, “They died.” It was a statement of fact and not a question. He understood. “Yes,” I said softly.  

“Oh,” he mumbled, shifting his weight and looking at his feet. Then he pointed towards his grandparents behind him and said, “They’re probably going to be dead. Soon.”

I brought my hand up to my mouth to suppress what would have been a howl of laughter and then said, “That could very well be.”   

On a hike that Shawn and I took on Monday afternoon, we found on the ledges a large beetle that was on its back, its many legs flailing in frantic motion. At once I grabbed a nearby twig, held it gently against the beetle’s legs, and it latched on. I placed the twig back on the ground and away we all went. A few paces later, Shawn wondered aloud if the bug felt any gratitude to “the giant who saved him.” I chuckled and said, “Maybe a bird has already swooped down and eaten it.” 

Maybe so.

Maybe Alexander’s grandparents will die soon. Or maybe I will. Maybe my parents died too soon. Maybe that beetle is hiding under a rock on top of that mountain, or maybe it’s already in the belly of some bird that would’ve died otherwise.   

Like Joni Mitchell once sang:

We can’t return

We can only look behind from where we came

And go round and round and round in the circle game

And, as George Carlin once put it: “Oh, by the way, you’re all going to die. I didn’t mean to remind you of it but it is on your schedule.”

So, with all of that in mind, I intend to keep on, for as long as I’m able, playing music and writing songs and hiking mountains and having interesting conversations and waiting for the hummingbirds to visit my petunias. 

Ghosts real and imagined.

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I can’t remember the last time I spoke to anyone I’m related to.

That realization came crashing down on me after talking to a dear friend last night about the vagaries of family.

Then, as I thought about it, I did remember the last such occasion. On a cross-country adventure in January 2013, I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be passing through Houston, where there are a lot of Piersons. An impromptu family reunion of sorts was quickly organized, and I was able to spend a few short hours with several of my cousins, their spouses, and their children. I even got to spend a couple nights with one of my uncles, with whom I’d been close as a child and then the connection somehow was diminished.

It really was an awesome time.

The word ‘family’ has always felt like an oddity to me. More to the point – I’m not sure how I relate (no pun intended) to the word at all. I’m the only child of two deceased parents (Dad died in ’98, Mom in ’07). I grew up in Maine, thousands of miles from the nearest next of kin. Holidays were always just the three of us. Other family members only appeared to me on rare occasions throughout the year, their voices coming through the crackling of the telephones in the kitchen or the living room, or through their hastily written Christmas cards arriving in our mailbox. My mother’s mother and one of my British cousins visited us in Maine a couple of times, as did my father’s father and one of my uncles (the same one that I stayed with during my Houston visit). Sure, there have been Facebook exchanges and a very rare email now and again between me and one of my uncles and a couple of my cousins, but aside from these few-and-far-between digital communications, there’s been no other contact between me and my family.

Last night, my friend said, ‘I’m so close with my family. I can’t even imagine that.’

Another friend once said to me years ago, ‘There is the family you’re born into, and then there’s the family you choose, and sometimes they’re the same.’ These days, I do have what I think of as a very loving family: a scattering of people, yes, but dear friends all, complete with their own idiosyncrasies, with whom I feel a mutual and unconditional love and support.

Even though many of them are still among the living, I have often thought of my blood relatives as ghosts of a sort, drifting along the edges of my awareness. Yes, they’re out there, and I do love them and care for them, even though, sadly, many of them really are strangers to me.

And I’m not alone in feeling this way. After bringing it up once to one of my cousins, he agreed, saying, ‘The Piersons just aren’t close.’

So, maybe it’s in our shared genes. A propensity to go it alone, to find our own stubborn way.

But on both sides of the family?

Aside from encounters when I was an infant of which I have no memory, I’d never met or even spoken to my mother’s brother until she died. He traveled to Maine from England for her funeral – his first trip to the US – and though I did spend some very informative and all-too brief time with him in the sanctuary of the church after the service was over, we’ve not had any contact since then.

Then there are the very real ghosts of my parents. No, not their disembodied spirits (I tend to not believe in supernatural things). But it’s the memories of them, the unfinished conversations with them, the never-to-be-had second chances with them, that do truly haunt me.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and it is the birthday of one of my uncles. I probably should call him, but I know how this narrative goes. It’s the one I learned from my parents (especially Dad, from whom I inherited my distaste for talking on the phone), both of whom were at odds in their own ways with their own families, both of whom were haunted by ghosts of their own. It’s the narrative in which I’ll wish my uncle well in my thoughts and think, as I often have, ‘I really should call my grandmother one of these days.’

Here’s to family, and to whatever that word actually means here in the real world outside of Webster’s dictionary.

A few thoughts on Father’s Day.

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One of my father’s favorite sayings was, “If I can’t make you happy, I can damn sure piss you off.”

He was a man of few words, but boy, did they pack a punch when they needed to.  He wasn’t, as the saying above suggests, a neutral guy.  No, he wasn’t chatty or even all that sociable, but he had strong opinions and, given the right circumstances, he let those winds blow.

And oh, how he made me happy: bringing the love of music into my life, into my tiny little five-year-old hands as he guided them across the keys of the first piano that he’d brought home; that surge of excitement that first time when I realized he’d let go after pushing me on my bike after taking off the training wheels; the sweets and treats he brought home to me and Mom every Friday afternoon after he got his paycheck; those incredible steaks he used to cook on the grill in the summertime; his unending litany of jokes and one-liners.

So many precious memories.

And yes, there were times when he pissed me off, too — most memorably (and humorously) when I was in fourth grade and, after getting into a raging alcohol-fueled argument with my mother about the state of his beard, he went into the bathroom to trim it with a pair of dull scissors.  She was always after him to keep it short, while he preferred it a little more unkempt.  I escaped most of the drama and went to bed.  When he showed up at my school the next morning to chaperone my class’s trip to the Portland Symphony, his beard had vanished.  Though he later explained that he’d “screwed it all up” and had needed to shave it off, I refused to speak to him for a couple of days and even wouldn’t sit next to him at the symphony.   I really liked his beard.  (And I can still recall the deeply apologetic glances he gave me over his shoulder from the row in front of me and just a few seats to the right.)

But then, there were more moments of genuine pissed-offed-ness: his stage fright — how could a man with that much musical talent get stage fright?!

Then there were all those times when he took my mother’s side in everything, no matter what crazy thing she said.   Those really hurt.

And I was really pissed off after he died.  Pissed at him for not taking better care of himself, for not ever exercising or eating better or drinking less or giving up those damned Camel straights that he loved so much, all of which certainly set him up for the terminal cancer that beat him just a few weeks after his fifty-first birthday.

But I’m not angry so much anymore.  It doesn’t feel good to hang on to the anger, to any anger, really.  A dear friend said that sort of thing is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

I’m lucky that I get to complain about missing my dad.  I’m lucky that I got to help the girls upstairs today in getting their Father’s Day cards and gifts ready for tomorrow’s celebration.  I’m lucky to have all those traits of my dad’s that always frustrated me: the stubbornness, the tendency towards shyness, the propensity for unhealthy choices.  But I’m also lucky that I got a sliver of his sense of humor, and his undying love of music.  We’re all lucky to be here, to have a chance at anything.  Happy Father’s Day, everyone.

 

A very special five year anniversary.

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Five years ago today, I finally summoned the courage to leave an abusive relationship.  I’d been with him for seven years.

“Why don’t they just leave?” I used to say of women who stayed with abusive partners. I thought I was too smart to fall into that trap.

I learned the hard way how wrong I was.

He was older and seemingly wiser.   His charms slowly tarnished over time, until words that I’d once used to describe him – like smart, quick-witted, observant, attentive – became what they really were: sarcastic, harsh, cynical, obsessive.   Throughout our relationship, I felt my identity slowly slip away from me, until I was merely a means to his end.  I was not as important.  He made that clear.  I stopped caring about myself sufficiently and considered only him and his opinions, his feelings, his plans.  I believed that he was the most important person in my world, and that I was secondary.

There were no telltale bruises, marks, or scars.  All of my wounds were on the inside.  Words were his weapon of choice, and he was a master of manipulation.

Even with my two closest friends beseeching me to leave him, I stayed. “I can’t leave him — it would devastate him,” I would say, giving very little consideration to how terribly depressed and unfulfilled I was.

One day — five years ago today — with the help of a friend in whom I’d confided my fear, I did finally leave, knowing that it was necessary to preserve my sanity, but feeling terrified that I was making a mistake.

It was no mistake — it was the wisest choice I’ve ever made in my life.

Since February 26, 2010, I’ve accomplished some pretty awesome things.  It’s a long list, but here are some highlights:

I’ve recorded and released 4 CDs of my music.  I’ve toured all over the US in a Winnebago with my bandmates and closest friends.  I’ve learned to how to ride a motorcycle.  I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon.  I’ve been brought to tears by the wonders of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  I’ve watched the sun set on the Pacific Ocean.  I’ve played jazz on Bourbon Street.  And I fell in love and built an amazing life with my best friend, someone who encourages me everyday to be me.

Every single one of these things was a lifelong dream of mine, and every single one was unthinkable in my old life.

Take it from someone who usually learns things the hard way – don’t ever let anyone tell you that your dreams aren’t worth following or that you are selfish for even wanting to do so.  Such sentiment is a poison.  Those admonitions still occasionally haunt me, and yet I wake up every morning feeling grateful for another opportunity to continue living life in full pursuit of such dreams.

Life is beautiful and tragic and, most strikingly of all, it’s far too short.  Get out there and live your life! — because when you do, you smile, and then everyone around you will start smiling too.

Why I stopped celebrating Christmas.

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Sometime in the month of December 1998, I was standing in a very long, slowly-moving line at Borders in South Portland, ME.   I was clutching a couple of books in my hands — one for my mom and another for my boyfriend Scott — that I intended to give as Christmas gifts.

I’ll never forget how severely depressed I was in that moment.  My father had just died of cancer in November.  My mother was, of course, a wreck, and my job of consoling her was impossible.  And in those days, I was living on my own (mostly) in a rathole of an apartment in Lewiston, working in retail (which meant, in December, working nearly every waking moment of every day), and struggling to pay my bills.

I could barely afford the books I was holding in my hand.  I could barely stand there and endure the holiday music that blared incessantly from the wall-mounted speakers.  I did, however, manage to gaze around me at the dozens of tables of last-minute impulse buys and brightly colored bargain books around which we in line were all snaking our way toward the registers, and I did also manage to notice the looks on the faces of nearly everyone else in that line — unsmiling, unfriendly, exhausted.  “Let’s just get this over with,” we all seemed to be thinking.

And then, I had an idea.  I will get this over with.  I stepped out of my place in line, placed the two books back where I found them, and walked out of the store with an incredible sense of relief.

It was at that moment that I pretty much dropped out of Christmas.

The one thing I wanted — and that my mother wanted — more than anything was to have my father back.   How was a stupid book about cats going to assuage that?

She and I didn’t exchange gifts that year.  It seemed pointless.  It was pointless.

There have been a few exceptions over the last fifteen years — including a gift or two for my mother before her death in 2007 — but very few.

As the old cliche goes, the best things in life aren’t things.  Yes, things are nice.  Some things are even necessary.  But I find the idea of compulsory gift-giving to be a grotesque one.  The giving of gifts should be a joy in and of itself, not a stress-filled obligation.

Many do agree with this sentiment.  Others point to the religious origins of the holiday as a respite.  I am not a religious person, so I find no consolation in these various myths.

But there is music.

For the last four Christmas seasons, I’ve been a part of a tradition of sharing the music of Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas in a live concert setting.   The message of the original TV special was that of that same exasperation that I felt standing in that long line at Borders all those years ago — commercialism run amok.  I’ve heard many folks say to me that it has made their whole holiday season, that it has brought the true spirit of Christmas back into their lives.  Music has the power — and, indeed, the tendency — to do just that.

So, I won’t be giving any store-bought gifts tomorrow.  Hopefully, I won’t be receiving any either.  The only gift I want — tomorrow and every day — is the loving presence of dear friends and loved ones.  That should be enough for anyone!  It’s certainly more than enough for me.

Halloween 2014

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Regular hotel night tonight.  A quiet Halloween night, which has its own eerie quality.  I overheard a man, who had been applauding me all through dinner, say as he and his wife walked away from tipping me:

“What is she doing playing here?”

I know what they mean when folks say things like this.  They were both very sweet.

I kinda wish he’d asked me that question directly.  I would’ve said, “Playing for folks like you who listen and appreciate it.”

That man and his wife only want what’s best for me, of this I’m sure.  And once I figure out what that is, I’ll go after it, too.

And even though I’m quickly approaching forty, I still feel like my life is brand new.  In a lot of ways, at least in the last five years, it is brand new.  A whole new set of circumstances and goals.  Sure, I’m happy, and things are moving onward and upward, and sure, I get sad and blue as hell sometimes, and I’m working on that stuff.  Trying, anyway.   And sure, everything feels uncertain and downright scary sometimes, even when things are going well.

I’m finding that both the bitter and the sweet stuff is in the searching.  That old saw about the journey, and not the destination, blah blah.

And all the while, the clock is ticking, and friends and strangers alike are cheering me on.

Who knows how and why we end up where we do, doing the things we do.  Some people have strong convictions about that sort of thing.  Some have faith, others don’t.  Everything from “It’s all pre-determined” to “It’s all a crap shoot.”

Me?  I don’t really know a damn thing, except that I intend to get up tomorrow morning and keep trying to figure it out.  Of that, I’m as certain as I can be.

So, on this spookiest of nights, when it’s okay to be scared and uncertain about what’s lurking behind the corner, I admit that I am – and I’m smiling about it.  Happy Halloween.

Robin.

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When I was ten and eleven years old, I wanted – or so I thought at the time – to be a stand-up comedian.  In the privacy of my bedroom, I would arrange every stuffed animal I’d ever snuggled or otherwise kept close in rows on my bed to face me as I stood, with hair-brush-microphone in my hand, reciting, word for word, the routines from my two favorite albums at that time: Bill Cosby: Himself and Robin Williams: A Night At The Met.

I knew every single syllable of these recordings and I never tired of repeating them, word for word, before my beady-eyed, non-responsive audience.

Bill’s rhythms were slow, steady.  They would build, and then they would relax, and then they would build again.  Himself felt safe, warm, friendly.

A Night At The Met, however, exploded like a bolt of lightning, even after thousands of repeated listenings.  The rapid-fire frenzy of Robin’s routines were, to me, absolutely heart-stopping genius.

I’d loved Robin since I was a young child, when I, too, had a pair of rainbow-striped suspenders and would chant “nanu nanu” and “Earth to Orson!”  We even had two cats named Mork and Mindy.

I amused friends – and, I’m sure, often drove them crazy – with my incessant quotes of Robin’s material, both from his stand-up and from his movies.  I really wanted to BE him – to be able to create so effortlessly (or so it seemed) – and to somehow bring electrifying, manic, child-like joy into the world.

Eventually, my obsession with Robin faded, but I never lost my reverence for his genius. Oh, and how deeply I imbibed Dead Poets Society from my seat in that dark, crowded movie theater where I first saw it.

And to think that a man who brought that much happiness and laughter and light into the dark world couldn’t hold onto enough of it for himself to see him through.

When I first heard the news about Robin’s suicide, I couldn’t hold back the tears.  Is there really a world in which he no longer exists?  Unthinkable.

And then… I started to get very angry.  How could he do this to his family, to all of us?

It’s always the ones you wouldn’t suspect.

Though he rarely spoke of it, my father was completely devastated by his brother Roger’s suicide on New Year’s Eve of 1981.  Dad was so angry that he refused to attend the funeral services.  He simply bottled up those feelings and never brought them out again.

Roger was a brilliant musician, a father, full of that same manic joy — and yet he fell prey, quite surprisingly, to the same demons of drug addiction and despair.

And those same poisons taint my blood, too.

Life really sucks sometimes, you know?  It’s hard friggin’ work.  I know exactly what it feels like to despair, to lose hope – to feel like, “You know, I just can’t do this business of waking up every morning anymore.”  I really do.

The sun sets and then it’s dark – too dark for some.

Poor Robin.  His poor family.

I’m not angry anymore – just devastated by the loss.  Aren’t we all – all of us who felt like Robin was in our close circle of friends, who were immeasurably and irrevocably shaped by his influence?  He was one of us – one of so many beautiful, mournful, lovely people trying to get along in a big, crazy world.

Yes, there is more darkness than light when you look up at the night sky – but it’s the stars, the givers of light, that persist.

So, for as long as we can stand to do it, let’s choose to remember the light and the joy.

So long, Robin.

Saturday Morning Musings – Forever returning.

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Hello!  I’m back.  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Where to begin?  I’ll be very brief.  A successful SERFA conference in May with Shawn and Davy.  Six wonderful weeks in New Orleans.  Four years and counting with my sweetheart.  More traveling to more shows all over the country.  A new record in the works.  So much excitement and joy!

It’s incredible to think of how unhappy I used to be a lot of the time and how, unfortunately, the residue of those unhappy times had indelibly stained much of the rest of my life.

But that stain is slowly fading — I see it in photos, in the mirror, in my improving posture.

I’m smiling more than I ever used to.  I’m growing more confident.

Wynton Marsalis once said, “In jazz, every moment is a crisis and you bring all your skill to bear on the crisis.”  Life can be a crisis too, can’t it?  Hard work for sure.

I feel like I’m forever returning — to the piano, to melody and harmony, to the blank page, to here and now — and when I arrive, all I can do is just try to figure out what needs to be done next.

In the meantime — which is also here and now — I hope to continue to hone my skills and bring them to bear as wisely as I can.

And keep smiling!  :)

Saturday Morning Musings – Farewell, for now.

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Have you ever tried to prepare your own self and a 31 foot Winnebago for an eight-week long adventure?  Let’s just say, it’s been a really hectic week.

This Monday, Shawn and I are headed on another adventure.  Along with Davy, with our instruments in tow, we will be setting sail on Miss Winnie!

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We will arrive in Montreat, NC next Wednesday for the SERFA conference where, in addition to presenting an official showcase on Friday night, we will be meeting up with old friends, making new ones, sharing our songs, stories, and selves with presenters, radio folks, venue owners, and fellow artists from all over the globe.  This is a fantastic opportunity for us!

We’ll be in North Carolina until Sunday-ish – then we bring what we do to Eddie’s Attic open mic in Decatur, GA on the evening of the 19th!  That’ll be fun.

Davy flies home from Atlanta on the 20th, and then Shawn and I mosey on down through the deep south to New Orleans (arriving on the 23rd) where we will be camped out until the end of June.

I.  Can’t.  WAIT!

Nearly a year ago, I set out to post every Saturday morning to this blog, and for nearly a year I have done so.  I’ve shared stories, lyrics, sometimes deeply personal, other times light-hearted, always honest.

It’s time now for me to take a break.

Believe me, I’ve still got plenty to say.  I am just feeling a need to write a little less often, to ease up on my pace.

“It ain’t a race, kid,” my dad used to say.

If you’re so inclined, you can certainly follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and/or Twitter (links in the sidebar).  I’ll be posting at least one photo and/or a short video every day of our eight-week-long adventure.

Writing has always been and will continue to be a deep passion of mine.  Though I won’t be posting every single Saturday morning as I have for the last year, I will still on occasion and as the muse strikes be sharing my thoughts here.

So… farewell, for now, friends!  I can’t tell you how much I have appreciated you taking the time to read my musings all this time.

Stay tuned!  And much love to you.

And off we go…!