It’s hard to describe, even though we’ve all experienced it, that sliver of time, the mental quiver between hearing the words and the emergence of a tear that you hope nobody sees. It’s more than just a flash of unexpected emotion triggered by something buried long ago. It is a powerful thing that can throw off the weight of the world in an instant, by vanquishing our fear that we are alone, or by reminding us of the things that truly matter.
It may be sparked by nothing more than words and a tune, but when delivered by an artist who has traveled the hard road and embraced the journey, it is a moment that can better us for a lifetime. It is the pain that heals, a gift that connects us all.
Art affects us. It’s powerful. It can knock us down like a hammer or keep us afloat even after we stop treading water.
And despite our diversity, it seems to work its magic on each of us by way of a common thread.
All of us, no matter our station in life, have suffered. We have failed. We have all found ourselves misunderstood, lost, alone, or helpless. We have all walked a ways down the hard road.
And even if we have been fortunate enough to get off that path, and stay off for the most part, our miles there have left wounds in places that others can’t see and that are often invisible even to ourselves. For whatever reason, call it grace, some artists who have experienced more than their share of difficult times seem to have an ability to illuminate our previous sorrows and, by doing so, help them fade. It is a healing of sorts.
They do this by first examining their own painful experiences under a magnifying glass so powerful that most of us would never use it even if God had given us one. And then they share what they’ve learned with the rest of us in such a way that it feels as though they are speaking to our lives instead of describing their own.
How exactly all this works, I can’t pretend to know. Bottom line, it’s a gift.
There are a number of artists who have walked the hard road and are willing to share their experiences with the rest of us this weekend in Lyons. I couldn’t talk to all of them, but I sure enjoyed my time with these three.
“You are not too old and it is not too late to dive into your depths where life calmly gives out its own secret.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Things got tough in a hurry for Mary Gauthier. She was dropped off at St. Vincent’s Women and Infants Asylum in New Orleans right out of the gate. She never got the chance to know her mom or dad. She was later adopted and carted off to a place called Thibodaux, La. It was a bad fit for a million reasons that only a teenage girl struggling with abandonment issues and her own sexuality could understand. So at age 15, Gauthier ran away from home, trading the pain of the frying pan for the fire.
For the next few years she practiced the addictions she would perfect later on, only taking time out from her drinking and drugs to complete the occasional rehab program. Her teenage years were bad, but her 20s were worse.
She left Louisiana and wound up in a cooking school in Boston. But her addictions weren’t fooled, they just followed her north. And while she owned a guitar and thought about writing, it was only a passing thought that couldn’t find anything to grab onto.
She told me her mind was a “mud puddle” back then. “I always had a guitar,” she says, “but I mixed drugs and alcohol with it and it never got anywhere.”
Eventually Gauthier, at age 29, opened a Cajun restaurant called Dixie Kitchen (also the name of her first album) in Boston’s Back Bay area. On the way to the restaurant’s opening night she got arrested for drunk driving. It must have been some kind of a long-overdue wake up call because Gauthier, now 51, has been sober since that night. Even so, the songwriting was still a ways off.
Owning a restaurant and finally being sober was an important step, but Gauthier heard another voice telling her that it wasn’t enough.
“I knew I was called to do it [songwriting], and I was terrified. I thought I was being put at risk. The voices said, ‘You need to walk away from the restaurant and write songs full time.’ I really thought I was going to end up homeless and poor and screwed up. I didn’t know if I had the talent or could make a living. But I knew if I was going to continue my recovery I had to answer the call.”
She did, but it was a process that found her still holding on to the restaurant five years after she wrote her first song at the age of 35.
“For me, my whole journey as a writer is connected to my recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. That’s why I got started so late, because I didn’t get sober until so late,” she says.
When asked about the music she turned to herself to get through hard times, Gauthier tosses out the name of another songwriter making his way to Lyons this year, John Prine.
“I played ‘Sam Stone’ over and over again. I’d play it at this little bar, and the bikers there had all been to Vietnam, and they’d cry and say play it again. And I knew then that was my goal. If I was going to become a songwriter, I had to write something as good as ‘Sam Stone.’”
She understood why Prine’s song about PSTD and addiction resonated.
“They were living it,” she says, “their families were living it and so were hundreds of thousands of others, and [‘Sam Stone’] plugged them into that. I watched what that song did to those guys and I knew it was important. And I knew they needed that song to let them know that they were OK, that it wasn’t just them, that they weren’t alone.”
Gauthier now knows her own music connects to others. People share stories with her about how this song or that one helped them out, got them through a tough time. Even so, she says she never sits down to write a song based on trying to make that connection. Her process is all about self-reflection. She says her writing is her therapy.
“I write songs to make sense of things that just don’t make sense to me. I use songs to create some kind of order and to turn the chaos into something I can understand. It’s a life raft for myself, and then I float it out there. I want it to help other people, but the motivation fundamentally is to save myself.”
We may all have shared experiences of one kind or another, but not many of us have ever so radically changed course so late in life, as Gauthier has done. At nearly 40 years old, to walk away from a successful restaurant business that she had built to pursue something as uncertain as a career in songwriting is beyond risky.
So what gave her the strength or freedom to throw it all away and make that jump? Again, it came back to the hard road.
“I knew in my soul and my head that I should be dead. I never should have survived my 20s. But I did, and I was sober, so I felt like I was in the gravy boat with biscuit wheels. I got this second chance and I’m not going to waste it doing something that I don’t love and that I’m not called to do. What was the worst that could happen?”
Whatever that “worst” thing might have been, it didn’t happen. Gauthier’s transformation from restaurateur to songwriter has been a success, and those who know her music are the better for it.
As for how she connects to her audience, Gauthier says, “We can never fully understand what our songs can do in the world, because we don’t know all the people that we impact. So often I’ve seen myself in songs and heard my truth in songs, and that’s given me something I’ve desperately needed, which is to know that I’m not the only one feeling this way.”
“We’ll only find equality in our number of tears.”
Shane Koyczan was born in a cold place … on many levels. He made his appearance in Yellowknife, a Canadian town less than 250 miles from the Arctic Circle, just before his parents made their disappearance from the same place. They weren’t willing or able (it doesn’t much matter which to a kid) to raise him, so they left him with his grandparents and that was that. It was the self-described “accidental” poet’s first step on the hard road. His second was being an overweight kid who stood out. He quickly realized he was in a place where having any quality that differentiated a person came with a guarantee of cruelty. Unfortunately, the young Koyczan had been amply blessed with differentiation.
You can’t read Koyczan’s poetry or books without becoming profoundly aware of just how much pain he was in back then. I asked him if he was being literal during a talk he gave at a TED conference when he said, “When I was 10, I was told that my parents left because they didn’t want me. When I was 11, I wanted to be left alone. When I was 12, I wanted to die. When I was 13, I wanted to kill a kid.”
“Oh, definitely,” he says. “I don’t think it takes that much to start fantasizing about revenge. It’s a sweet guilty wish that some people grab for. I’m fortunate to have been raised by a grandma who made sure I didn’t, but I certainly got close on some days. I see things like Columbine and Sandy Hook, and as much as it is like, oh God, how awful, I can remember kind of being there in that place. It’s just one switch that I didn’t flip, the one thing that I didn’t grab for. As much as it’s a truly terrible thing, what happened to all those families, I can kind of understand the other side of it because I’ve been there. I’ve had those fantasies. It’s a very awful place to be.”
Shane Koyczan | Photo courtesy of Shane Koyzcan & The Short Story Long
Koyczan never flipped that switch, but he did lose it once when he was 15. He had a “violent episode” in class after a kid made fun of him. School officials told Koyczan’s grandparents he was a bully. It was such a wrongheaded notion that Koyczan just remembers laughing when he heard the words. But then it hit him, at least the “bully” reputation made people steer clear of him, and he found isolation to be better than the abuse. So he did what he had to do to keep the bully image alive.
“I turned on all those people in school and it was indiscriminate. I was a 24-hour diner. I was open to anyone,” he says.
The isolation was nothing new to him. To some degree he had always felt alone, which fostered his early connection to books and poetry.
“Words were just friends,” he says. “Books weren’t there to judge you based on what you looked like or what kind of clothes you wore. So I liked that escapist element of books and poetry.”
Another turning point in Koyczan’s life came when he was inadvertently transferred into a drama class.
He recalls, “They just wanted to stick me somewhere because I was a troubled kid. They didn’t care where. In that one little twist of fate, it sort of turned my life around. They ended up putting me in the one place I actually needed, because I needed to know how to express myself.”
In college it was creative writing that caught Koyczan’s attention, but he found himself always starting things and never finishing them. His teacher told him he had to complete something, and that’s when he turned to writing poems. He could finish those.
Today, Koyczan is often described as a “slam poet,” which irks him a bit. He points out that “slam” is in reference to the competition, not the style of poetry or the poets themselves. He says he left slam because it was too limiting, with too many rules, like no music and no props, and there were time limits.
“I wanted to grow and do something more,” he says.
So he left the poetry circuit for a real job that could at least support him financially.
“It was a very dark time in my life,” he says, “because I thought, here it is, that trap that everyone falls into. They cash in thinking they are going to be able to buy the time to do the things they want to do later in life.”
But then something strange happened.
The places where Koyczan had performed at slam competitions kept calling and asking him to come back. When he said he couldn’t because he had to make a living, they offered something new. They offered to give him the stage for an hour all by himself, along with the money from ticket sales. It was an interesting proposition, but it flew in the face of everything he had ever been told about making a living from poetry — namely, it can’t be done.
“There came a point when I said, I’ll give myself a year, just a year to see if I could make it on poetry. I thought at least then I could say I tried.”
By the end of that year, he was doing more than making a living at poetry. He was making a difference.
Koyczan’s 10-minute TED speech on YouTube, titled “To This Day … for the bullied and beautiful” has been viewed nearly 10 million times.
I asked him why he thought his work was making such a connection with so many people.
He told me it’s because “we live in a world that tells us we need to turn that part of ourselves off. We live in a place where we’re not allowed to feel our feelings anymore. So art is really that release for a lot of people, whether that’s music or theater or poetry or whatever.
“My grandma says, ‘We’ll only find equality in our number of tears.’ And she’s right. I don’t see it happening any other way. There’s all these things, all these differences that keep us apart. But it’s mostly all these physical things, packaging. You don’t buy food for the packaging it comes in. You buy food for the food. I think people forget that there is sustenance in their emotions, and your honest connection with other people.”
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
How do you know what time it is on the hard road? For singer/songwriter Ellis, whose last name disappeared way back because no one could pronounce it anyway, it’s when your mom decides to buy 20 or so watches at the same time for no good reason. At least that’s the oversimplified version. It’s far more complicated to describe the life of a little girl growing up as an outcast in Liberty, Texas, because her mom was bipolar, didn’t know it, didn’t treat it and didn’t act like everybody else’s mom in town. When it came to cruelty, Liberty, Texas, was just Yellowknife, only hotter.
Ellis’ mom and dad divorced very early on in her life. Her dad moved to Houston and remarried. Ellis would sometimes stay with her father and his family, but that was hardly an escape from the difficulties of her life in Liberty. That’s because in one of those examples of life kicking you when you’re down, her new stepmom was also bipolar.
It’s hard for a little girl to understand what’s going on in the world when the adults she’s looking to for guidance are having their own difficulties getting a handle on things.
“It’s tough on a kid trying to figure out highs and lows by watching adults who don’t know how their behavior is affecting people around them,” she told me last week. “It’s hard to learn. There were times as a kid when I was invisible. Mental illness can be very big and take up a lot of space. But there was a lot of love, too.”
For Ellis, like Koyczan, it was her grandmother that created her early stability. “It was my granny. She was able to bring me to light. She came to my aid at times when I was left because I wasn’t seen.”
Under such circumstances, it’s no wonder that music took on an important role in Ellis’ life as a child. She used it in many ways, as an escape, a companion and even her spiritual connection.
“Music to me is freedom,” she says. “It was a world outside of the world I was living in that cared about me. It was really a spiritual connection with something greater than myself. It was so connected to spirit, to something greater, to that God that I felt like was really saying, ‘I’m there for you.’ Basically God was the parent that I didn’t have at the time.”
Ellis remembers as a kid thinking that the singers on the radio were her friends. She says, “I thought that if they knew I was alive, they would take me home with them.”
Being raised in a home with mental illness can create questions later on that most of us never have to ask ourselves. Because she learned much of her behaviors from her mom, Ellis eventually began to question if some of her own behaviors that were outside of the norm were the result of her own mental illness.
“There is a real worry,” she says, “when you grow up in some of those circumstances, that the behaviors that you have because you learned watching them, that those are actual mental illness. Now that I have clarified and reclarified with therapists over the years that I’m not crazy, I’ve been able to change some of those behaviors and have clarity and discernment.”
As an adult, it is clear that that clarity and discernment are reaching others through her music. She has an uncanny way of telling her own stories in such a way as to create an intense emotional connection with her audience.
“I love the idea that in the universe, we are all made of the same elements,” she says. “We all yearn to be more connected because there are times when we feel so alone. There is a power in everyone participating in the same musical event. I think it can be comforting. It can be transformational. It can heal us in ways we may not have even known we needed.”
As an example, she references one of her songs in particular. “I’ve had so many people tell me that my song ‘Right on Time’ has touched them and really helped them through difficult times. I believe that there is a truth in it. It can’t be any other way.”
When Ellis wrote “Right on Time,” she was in the middle of her own struggle.
“My partner was pregnant with our baby, and we were in the process of digesting the information that we had just gotten. We were told it was very possible that our baby had Down syndrome, based on a few tests. And they were saying, well, you know, there is a choice. But there really was no choice but to continue with the pregnancy.
“We started to ask, what would that be like? We had to think that our daughter could potentially have, I mean, be differently abled. So the song started as what would I say to my daughter. I wanted to tell her, ‘You were right on time, and I want you to be free from doubt when you feel left behind or left out.’
“I was just thinking of this kid growing up in a world that’s so fast. Would she feel left out, being a kid on a different track? I wondered if my kid will be happy, will she get to enjoy experiences in life? I had to think that maybe there are some really great things about this particular disability. And then, as I was writing it, it sort of transformed, as songs often do, into this idea of gosh, I feel this way. It’s also speaking to me, it’s speaking to us, as parents of a potentially differently abled person. And I wondered, can we be kind amidst the process of not knowing right now? That’s how the song unfolded, but now I can look at it as applying to lots of things, like my music career, or now I worry because my daughter is pretty darn smart, I think what if she’s too smart for me?
“We can all get the feeling that we’re running behind. It’s not just my song anymore. It’s cool how that happens, that songs belong to other people too.”
Yes it is.
Rocky Mountain Folks Fest preview: The hard road (2013)