It is an undeniable fact that all human lives have trials and challenges that shape our human lives. Perhaps part of our human journey is to learn- as best we can- how to deal gracefully, and with dignity and strength with those challenges. The next part of my life which eventually began to be processed through songwriting was one such phase.
The ongoing theme of my adult life has been; how to materially survive and find a way to not just manage but flourish. Most of these challenges has come about through a weird mix of unique and peculiar combinations of facts. My husband was a graphic artist, in the days when it was an artistic medium, not a computer based one. Then he lived as a lay monk and was a meditation and philosophy teacher. When we married he went back to university to do a youth and community work degree, believing that there would be steady work in the field afterwards, in the holidays he was a bin man to ensure there was food on the table whilst I had and looked after our two boys. Following his degree he worked for the Prince’s Trust for three years and I started part time work as a teaching assistant, with the view that it would be sensible to go back to teacher training college. I also had to learn to drive and redo my maths GCSE. He was then made redundant due to the beginning recession, just as I had been accepted to do a post graduate teacher training programme. In order for this to occur we had to quickly move to Cumbria. I went back to university, he got some more training in outdoor Youth work and worked as a gardener part time. We thought we were sorted with two clear pathways ahead of us.
During the course it became clear that I just could not teach maths/or get my head around I.T. In the classroom I was getting outstanding for my delivery of creative subjects and bottom grade for the above. There were seven year olds doing better maths than me and understanding I.T sequences in a way that I simply could not do! I was tested for dyscalculia/dyslexia/dyspraxia and it was shown that I am clearly quite badly dyscalculic and also slightly dyspraxic. In some ways this was a relief to know because it made sense of why I just could not do these things however hard I tried…and why it had taken 15 years to pass my driving test…and only managed it in an automatic five tests later! But, on the other hand, it meant that lots of doorways became closed to me. I could not make the grade as a full class teacher. I took my course almost to the end and only left when I could not get the support I required to teach maths in the last teaching practice. This leaves me with an education certificate rather than a post grad and means still, various doorways remain closed. The irony is, I never wanted to be a classroom teacher- but a music teacher in primary schools, but one is required to jump through this hoop in order to be considered fully qualified.
My husband had also hoped work would spring from his outdoor youth work training, but they were closing programmes rather than developing them due to the recession.
So, here we were two people with two boys to feed and no doorways open to us. My father had not long come back from touring in Scotland where he had played at Findhorn. He had seen this community that ran spiritual/community type courses and thought it would be a place where our slightly left of field skill sets could actually be of benefit to us. We came up to visit and decided it would be worth a try- nothing else seemed to be arising. Rents were also much cheaper in the north of Scotland allowing us to give the boys the rural childhood we believe is a benefit to growing children. There was also the Steiner school- a place that has a curriculum full of artistic, holistic elements delivered in a way that is free of pressure and exams. My extended family kindly volunteered to help with a large percentage towards this, providing we could get bursaries and we also contributed. One of my boys has inherited my dys tendencies and the other was being badly bullied in mainstream, so this educational model felt that it would really support them in these crucial growing years. My husband exchanged some garden work for an ancient old camper van, which he did up and then he set off north. He worked his berth in a campsite so he did not have to sleep”rough”. Unfortunately, the Findhorn community were less than welcoming and he was told that there was nothing there for us and to go away.
At this point, I was about to arrive with two small boys in tow. He had, fortunately found a wonderful cottage on a rural estate. They were happy to rent it to us for a more modest rent if we did up the cottage a little. So, we arrived….the cottage has been and is perfect for us and has been the saving grace- alongside the school. The boys went to the Steiner school and for many years it served as a very full and diverse education for them, allowing each of them to grow in confidence and individuality.
Work wise life was tough. My husband had a procession of jobs; stripping pine furniture, DIY handyman, working in a carrot factory, a mushroom processing plant, a potato factory and finally as a carer for old people. Basically anything that put food on the table. Sometimes we had gaps and this dug the financial pit of difficulty even further. We have lived consistently on the breadline. My step mum kindly paid for me to do my Kodaly Music training. It felt a waste of all my skills to not somehow pursue some kind of teaching and I could also use this at the Steiner school to pay my boys way. I taught music there, cleaned every loo, organised fundraising concerts etc.I also began to set up my own music teaching practice and have slowly developed this step by slow step at a time.
Sometimes we had to go without heating, just to eat and things like car repairs felt like a major earthquake. One time the car door broke and I had to tie a bunji rope from one door to the other to keep it closed. My first song arose as I was driving along…. as a means of dealing with the situation. It was called “Something needs to happen” and has a understandably plaintive feel about it!
We had to constantly work with our minds to not become nihilistic, or turn in on each other. We have tried to deal with this with grace and dignity whilst creating a circle of light and love for our boys to grow in. There was also, at this point an extended family difficulty which caused me a great deal of sadness and despair and isolation. My second song was born out of this. My husband- who also song writes- thought it was rather good and recorded it. He suggested we put both songs in an international songwriting competition and I thought nothing more about it.
Around Christmas that year, we remembered and looked up the results and we were both gob smacked that mine had reached a semi final position…his song had done nearly as well. This song had no instrumentation and was only the second one I had ever written! I decided I should keep on having a go. As I wrote I began to feel like I was finding my voice, my calling, my raison d’être separate to my role as wife and mother and teacher. A stream of songs began to flow out of me…usually whilst chopping vegetables or washing up or driving. When my step mum came to visit I rather nervously sang them to her whilst making a stir fry together in the kitchen. (Having Dame Emma Kirkby as your step mum and first critic of ones songs is a bit nerve racking, however lovely she is and how well we get on). Emma was very enthusiastic and told me to keep at it and that I really had something rather unique. She also offered to pay for some singing lessons so I had could learn how to breathe and support my voice better. She gave me my first singing lesson there in the kitchen whilst we nearly burnt the carrots!
Not long afterwards I did a mornings song writing workshop at Eden Court theatre . I went with a friend and we attended this workshop run by Karine Polwart, who is a well known folk singer and song writer. My friend told me at the end that she thought my songs were just as good as Karine’s and really I ought to think of it as a potential earning strand to my business.
This set me thinking…..we desperately needed more money. Should I just accept my lot and go and get on the marigold cleaning gloves and make additional money as a cleaner and just accept what life had thrown at us…or was I going to be brave, take the hard road, the unknown road and try and rise above our circumstances. Try and shine, allow myself to let my unusual talents grow and blossom and perhaps, just perhaps they might help my wee family rise above the poverty trap we found ourselves in. My husband has not many years of work left for him and then it will be done to me to hold our body and souls together.
So, I decided to try. However mad it may be for a mum in her forties, living in a tumbledly cottage in a field with no understanding of the music industry or any real performance experience (other than the community fund raising concerts I ran at school). It feels like my calling, my place that I have to carve and fashion in my own unique way, from my own heart that sings all the time and cares about the world and has a simple wish to bring a little light and beauty and reflection to others.
This one decision to try is creating the most interesting journey. I have had moments of great serendipity and amazing and touching belief from wonderful people in the industry. I feel like I am finding my voice, my tribe and what I am meant to do. It is also a hard slog as I have so many elements stacked against me. But, it remains something I just have to try and do, however bonkers or difficult it might be. After all, what have I to lose? Nothing…other than pair of marigold cleaning gloves!
Next time I look at my song writing journey till the present moment. It’s twists and moments of delights, the funny bits and the hard work it takes to go from knowing nothing, and living where I do to be an emerging singer songwriter.