When I was 12, I ran away from home. It was a failed excursion but I remember it so well. My family was moving from Minnesota to Pennsylvania and, for some reason, we were not taking with us my beloved dog, Numpy, so my parents drove him off one afternoon (did I go? I don’t think so) to his new owners. Before they left he had been given a Milkbone, but only ate a chunk of it and I took it and put in a tin box I had that held things like friends’ notes passed in class, dried flowers, beach stones and Girl Scout pins. I was heart-broken. A loner, my best friend was this dog and I didn’t accept his leaving. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t come with us to wherever we were moving. We always moved, I thought. Every 5 years. Why not take the dog with us? But there was no answer, it was no and so, after a night of crying, a plan emerged and, at the edge of the following night, I packed a few sandwiches, stole the change out of the top of my father’s drawer, and snuck out, not having a clue where “the big farm” existed where Numpy now lived. I walked the streets of the neighborhood for a few hours trying to remember where all the “farms” were outside of our town. I sat down and ate a sandwich and felt unsure, but something else too. Free. Like at this point, I could actually just keep walking. It wasn’t about my dog anymore. It was about being ok out there, anywhere, on my own. Of course, at 12, I still had a fear of my parents’ wrath, so I bailed before they’d wake up for breakfast and went home, dejected. But the planning of the escape was such a rush. There was a moment whee I thought “if I take a right onto the street that leads to school, I think it gets to the highway and then it should just be north and I can hitchhike to the place where farms are.” (Side note: there’s something charming to me looking back at my little girl self thinking about a place where farms were. As if my world was divided into utilitarian areas. Where our house is. Where the school is. Where the farms are.) Even just wandering through my neighborhood as the sky was still dim with dawn, knowing I was all alone out there and I could go anywhere – I felt free.
Thus, I began a chase of that feeling. Chasing the elusive freedom but alone. Never with others. Had to be alone. I’d hike, ride my bike, play piano, play with my dolls, sing or paint or draw. All alone. In groups, I’d feel constricted and small. Not free. Alone, I could expand into everything I knew I was.
When I was in college, I spent a summer riding trains alone in Europe. I was supposed to travel with my friend Erin. The plan was to meet in Toledo, Spain on a certain day and from there go to France. I flew into Paris and spent a few blissful days there alone, walking, sitting in cafes with my journal open, writing down everything I observed. I had no interest anymore in the original plan. I was on a Hemingway journey. I took an overnight train to Toledo, met a bunch of other Ivy League gypsies and Australians on walkabout who were headed to Africa and invited me. So I got off at Toledo for the night, and told my friend I would meet her 2 weeks later in Barcelona because I was going to go to Morocco first. The boys told me their next stop was Sevilla and so I hopped a train there, threw open the Let’s Go Book and started walking toward the hostels and found them at the 3rd. We drank sangria in a plaza and sang and laughed with other travelers from Mexico and Portugal and then three of us went to Morocco for a week. I never did meet back up with my friend. She diverted somewhere along the way to Italy and I spent the summer following the next boy on the next train and then after a while, i didn’t need the boy, just the train and I was free. Down to Africa, up to the cathedrals of Sevilla over to the beaches of Sitjes south of Barcelona to drink horchata in Valencia north to run with the bulls in Pamplona and then drink sangria with a crowd of youths speaking different languages until we all just dropped on the grass or in the nearest ATM vestibule to sleep, and then, hungover, to Avila to pay homage to St. Teresa, a mystic I was fascinated by, and then, finally, to Madrid, where I called my parents, told them I’d be taking a leave of absence from Amherst College in order to ‘find myself’, to whit my father said, ‘Over my dead body.’
All through my life I have dreamed of being somewhere other than where I was. My only goal as a child was to end up an artist of some kind in Greenwich Village as I had ingested the stories of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Beat poets, the Folk Revival, The Judson Theater and The Wooster Group, Patti Smith and Sam Shephard. A restless seeker of myth and meaning, I was an actor a playwright a director. I was a singer a musician. I loved history and poetry and sociology. I was a temp secretary and waitress and personal assistant and a raconteur at Cafe 9 on St. Marks Street. For years, I lived the exhausting bohemian life (i.e., poor) in The Village, a hyphenate artist-type: actor-director-playwright-songwriter-folkie with a variety of dayjobs we could quit if we had to, endless auditions, open mics with our original music, folk clubs, poetry slams, meetings with Casting Directors and Agents which never really amounted to much and then, voila! A leading role off off way the hell off Broadway in the Lower East Side Somewhere, oh, and it doesn’t pay but it’s SHAKESPEARE and so I took it and loved it and ate Ramen Noodles and didn’t have cable tv or a car. I’d borrowed a guitar and started putting my words to melodies to chords my ex boyfriend had taught me before he went on tour and slept with someone named Jennifer which I only knew because he wrote a song called My Jennifer Cup (“I keep her filled up”…I mean….come on?). And then I’d written 3 songs and was invited to play a show and then another show with 5 songs, then 8 and then after a year of being rejected by every major label in town who told me I was too folky and that I sounded like Joan Baez or Judy Collins, I was signed to a record label by Judy Collins and started touring. Escaping my 500 square foot Avenue A apartment for the open road was a Kerouakain dream come true. And thus, began my career, which has taken me all over the world, playing my music in dark cafes to hundreds, sometimes thousands, sometimes a handful, depending upon the night. I wouldn’t trade it for a 401K plan. Most days.
But in the spring of 2017, touring in Europe, I reached a breakpoint. I was getting tired of being alone. I was 49 and had been at this for over 15 years and was realizing how untethered I was. No matter how seemingly successful I was, I still felt like I wasn’t. I still felt dissatisfied. There were mountains to climb and time was running out. I’d sacrificed every relationship, a marriage, holidays and birthdays and my best childbearing years. Also, I was newly married and homesick, maybe for the first time. I wanted to get back to Nashville. I wanted to go home.
Don’t get me wrong. The road can be romantic as the mythology. A different town every night. Different stages. Short intense conversations and friendships and, sometimes, romantic encounters that can be left behind in the rear view mirror. These are incredible things, connections, it’s like a constant summer camp peak experience where nobody has commitments or ties (even if they do) and we all wallow in our own poetry and music and Grand ideas and dance until the moon and the sun change places and we loose track of time and our bearings and we fall into each other and then wake, like the midsummer dream, and realize camp is over, the festival is over, the tour is over. And we pick up our truths and we shuffle back to do laundry. And then repack and do it again. It’s exhausting. And thrilling. And it can make a young man old quickly. Add to that the haze of booze and pills and smoke and man, it’s a dangerous utopia. One day you wake up and the Eden you think you’re lying in is just another Motel 6 with sandpaper towels and your only breakfast option is Waffle House.
And so there I was in Europe at 49, alone, newly married, and on the verge of beginning the journey of trying to have a baby. One night on this tour, I was staying in an attic apartment in Aachen, Germany. The bells of the cathedral were tolling and keeping me awake. I’d been told that Charlemagne was born and died in this town and that his bones were interred in that Cathedral. And so I wrote. I wrote about the journey, the truth of my life, the touring, the endless cycles of intense conversations with strangers in halted English. The boredom rubbing up against the still very urgent desire to leave something Great behind. Those writings eventually became the song “Me and the Ghost Of Charlemagne” and the centerpiece to my newest record, which releases today.
During my pregnancy I had insomnia many nights and I’d write until dawn cracked the sky. Rambling run-on sentences of alliteration, trying to make sense of this nesting that was happening inside me. I had nobody to talk to about the specific challenges of being literally on the verge of 50 and pregnant. So I wrote to myself. Because the choice to have a child was also a choice to figure out how to land. And I was not very adept at landing. I was terrified I’d never create again, never make a record, never tour. I was uniquely unqualified to do anything else, despite the college degree in English LIterature from forever ago. I had no resume. Had never held a ‘real’ job. I knew only the road. And here I was: a beached whale in a suburbs of Nashville in a home I now owned with a man I married who had a ‘real job’. I was finally, at nearly 50, in a place where I didn’t want to run. I wanted to stay. But to arrive there I had to surrender a few things, mostly, my need for validation outside of myself. It’s a dirty secret and feels like a big confession: to let you know how unhappy I was, how much I needed other people to tell me how I was doing. Crippling insecurity coupled with insatiable ego: ahhh the inner life of most artists.
I also have to admit I still carried more than 20 year old student loans, which made me feel like a failure. I was literally only paying interest on them. I didn’t have any kind of savings for retirement. It wasn’t an option. I wasn’t thinking ahead more than 5 years at all. Then I got pregnant and panicked about these things. And with a big lump of cash that came in to help fund some of the record, I just sent it off to pay the Student Loan because I couldn’t stomach moving forward into my 50s with that hanging over my head. It felt like the same gurgling up in my gut of needing to sell one of my guitars becuase it had been acquired in a rather shady way, a dishonest way, and I wanted that to not be inside my home when my son would be born. It served me well and wrote a bunch of wonderful songs, but it needed to go to someone else now.
I looked in the mirror and I still saw the runaway. The one who couldn’t shake the feeling she didn’t belong. That she really WAS pretty but was never considered one of the pretty ones in school. Or the smart ones. Or the popular ones. I was fringe all of it. I was one of the singers, but there were 3 or 4 world class singers in my high school so it wasn’t like it was obvious I’d be able to do this with my life. Stefanie Sikora and John Goodman seemed like they were the ones. if I placed 1st chair at Regional Choir, it would have been a surprising upset. And so, I felt like wherever I was at the time was not the place I was really meant to be. Janet our choir director gave me mixed signals: you’re great! Don’t get stuck up! You’re wonderful! The solo goes to Stefanie! I couldn’t figure out how to bend to her ego (looking back, I realize I was dealing with a controlling narcissist who was brilliant but maybe emotionally abusive). So I didn’t ever really KNOW. I wanted to run away. I wondered if I just left for New York City, would something happen there, like Annie. Could I just show up and sing “NYC!” And someone would recognize my genius?
I did end up in NYC and I did end up standing on stages singing and for years I carried a shame of failure at every college reunion as my peers gained law firm partnerships and PhD’s and wrote books or managed hedge funds and I was still crawling up the art scale, rung by rung, slowly, poor, alone. I made records. People came to my shows. I got signed. But I still was a runaway at heart. I looked in the mirror and saw Not Enough in my eyes. I worked 3 jobs, I scraped by for rent in my own studio because I finally was able to find a place on Avenue A that I could barely afford. I learned to exist on no sleep and little food. I existed on dreaming. Which, maybe then was still a kind of stationary runaway bike. Because I was running from choosing but I was running in place.
Although, I think about the afternoons I’d sit at the Anglers & Poets CAfe on Hudson and Morton and just write what I saw or felt, thinking if I just kept writing, I’d eventually write into something that would become something – a story, a play, an essay, a poem. These became early song lyrics. I fell in love with the act of writing and letting the pen smear up a page with overheard conversations and details of the spoon that sat in the platter under the coffee. Or the way the waitress always smelled like gardenia and espresso beans. This was an erotic running away for me and this was the New York City I’d come running to. What I found, though, was I had no money to be a dilletante poet wasting time in cafes. I had to make rent and loan payments and I had to get busy.
When I came, years later, to Nashville, I’d been around the world with music, with my career, still writing in journals in cafes alone, still thinking myself a younger Joan Didion, lurking in a corner like a spider to catch some glimpse of heaven or hell and put it on paper. I’d stopped running away externally. I lived now in Nashville. I could travel with my work. But that was not running away. It was changing motels and time zones. But to sit somewhere foreign with an open book and be a scribe, that was my new flight.
And all it took was time and a bourquioise selfishness.
Then I fell in love at 47 just when I was content with me and my dog. Then I got married. Then, at 49 I got pregnant. It was planned. It was scientific and it took a while but I had my son right after I turned 50. And I panicked. I couldn’t runaway. Ever. I was never going to be alone again. I could but wouldn’t divorce my husband but I could not ever divorce my son. I realized the depth of this choice almost as they were wrapping him in a swaddle and laying him down next to my drugged out head after pulling him out of me. “My baby, my baby boy, my Huckleberry, I love you I love you I love you “ and I knew I would never leave. I knew I had landed.
It’s been almost 18 months now and Huck is walking and babbling nonsense and his favorite song IS “Itsy Bitsy” which he asks for by waving his little hands and saying “bidibidibidi”. I’m writing this to you while I’m having coffee in London. It’s Release Week for my new CD, “Me and the Ghost of Charlemagne” and I’m over here to do a few shows and a festival. I’ll be flying home to Nashville in a week to play the Americana Music Festival and then start my tour. I still make my living away from home, but this time I try to only work Thursday through Sundays and Huck comes with me (with the help of a nanny) sometimes. I honestly had no idea how to do this but, like most things, you just figure it out. You say yes, leap into the unknown and somehow the universe sends a support team. A label. A manager. A nanny. In laws who have been invaluable. I’ve learned to write in 20 minute bursts while my son naps. I write more with less time and I feel more fluid because I literally don’t have time to wallow in insecurity anymore. Having a baby took away my ‘give a fucks’ to be frank. Once you’ve had a team of doctors elbow deep into your cervix over the long labor, or leaked milk from your nursing breasts anytime another baby cries while shopping at Target (or onstage), you just stop caring so much about the things you used to care so much about. Including what other people think of you. And, especially, the big bad Music Business. Which is a relief. One of my heroes once told me that I had my priorities upside down. He said, “Here’s the key Amy: Sobriety, God, Family, Career. You’ve got it upside down.” And so I got sober, I found something greater than just my ego to hang onto, I committed to another human being and made space for a child, and then, only then, was I able to really have a healthy relationship to Career without clinging to it for dear life. I guess, in a sense, I stopped running from anything. I decided to stay.
One thought on “Runaway”
Amy, your writing is so touching and honest – I love reading these blogs and hope that you will publish them someday! There are a lot of us women out here that need to hear much of what you feel to become honest with ourselves and to take away the guilt that we feel when we put ourselves first. I have one son and he is my pride and joy, about to be married in 2 months. We have a great relationship and I feel its because I put him first but at the same time I made things that I like to do part of what I did with him while growing up. He got a job in CA a month ago and I was able to travel cross country with them. It was a time that I will treasure forever. I think its great that you are continuing with your music (selfish on my part as I love your songs) and you are able to include Huck in most of your travels. You are a great juggler with the many hats you wear and the love and happiness shows in your family photos. So keep it up and keep writing and singing and for goodness sake, come out to New Jersey! Love your new cd and hope to see you soon! Sue