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It’s been really cold here in my neck of the woods lately, and it’s been reminding me of some moments from throughout my life, particularly from childhood:

  • the radiator in my second floor bedroom that never worked all that well (despite all of Dad’s earnest tinkering)
  • sledding and tubing in ‘The Bowl’ on the Hebron Academy campus and making that trek up the hill again and again and again after every sun-soaked, thrilling ride down
  • watching the chickadees hopping about in the snow and feeding on the seed that fell from Mom’s beloved feeders (usually from the crafty hands of the squirrels)
  • my feet and face and hands getting so cold from playing outside that stepping into the bathtub or the shower seemed like a form of medieval torture
  • nose hairs freezing with every inhalation

This last image is one I remind myself and others of regularly when I introduce my song ‘Starlight’. It was a bitterly cold night that inspired me to write the song, and it’s a story that I’ve told from stage many times—still living in Maine and standing in the driveway and staring at the impossible dome of stars sparkling in the crystal clear night sky, pondering the words of Carl Sagan: ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ It was a beautiful moment that I’ll never forget.

The part I’ve always left out of the banter is the circumstances of my life at the time. What my particular part of the cosmos knew at that time was grief—paralyzing grief over the loss of my mother and, with her, the hope that she and I would ever reconcile our deep and devastating differences. I was getting to know grief quite well in those days—because Mom and I had been estranged in the last couple of years of her life, I didn’t know that she hadn’t done anything with any of Dad’s, well, anything. All of his books, clothes, tools, his eyeglasses on the living room table—every last thing he left behind, along with everything of Mom’s, was awaiting my shaking hands and broken heart as I made my way through the impossible task of being the only heir sorting through it all, buttoning up their lives and life together, and cleaning and preparing the house for sale.

Throughout that whole ordeal, I was still working multiple jobs, including my job at the hotel playing piano. I was also grieving something that felt like a long, slow fall into losing my own hopes and dreams—I was longing desperately for expression and sharing of my deepest and most authentic creativity, and at that time, aside from brief glimmers at the hotel or at Norway UU, there was none of it, save for those rare evenings at home when I could work on songs like ‘Starlight’. The night I stood and felt the wave of awe that inspired ‘Starlight’ was a hotel night, and despite my state of utter exhaustion, I allowed myself a moment to put it all down before walking into the house.

And the driveway in which I stood was the one I shared in Fryeburg with an abusive partner who was slowly squeezing the air and the joy and the life right out of me. I’ve blogged in the past about this, so I won’t belabor it now, but the writing of that song—and the rare solitary moments I had to work on it and the others that would become my 2010 Make It Mine album—kept the flame of hope alive in my heart during that dark time.

About three years after that moment in the driveway, I broke free from those tethers of abuse and self-doubt with my heart full of songs and the overwhelming drive to, as I sing in ‘Starlight’: ‘let [my] light shine now for every woman, child, and man’. And though the grief is in remission most of the time these days, the cold January air freezing my nose hairs can bring me right back to that one starry night, drinking in that grief-stricken awe inspired by a world that can so easily and so completely both break your heart and fill it back up achingly to the brim.