Hello Margaret, It’s Me Amy

I love Margaret Renkl. She’s so good, so decent – reading her essays in the New York Times, I feel like a higher version of myself. Even in the often poison NYT comments’ section, the discourse her writing inspires is for the most part touching and polite – people stay in their lane, feel free to nod along; thank her for her writing (kind of like readers do on my writing right here, only on a much larger scale). In a recent piece, she talks about the disconnect between how she feels and what she sees when she catches sight of herself in a window or mirror. Margaret Renkl feels 22 but is 60. 

She’s grateful, as always. Is kind to others and herself.

I’m 62. Waiting for that self-acceptance to kick in.

My best times, I feel somewhere between age 8 and 12. Before puberty.

Yesterday I gravitated to the swings at our nearby elementary school. “I don’t know how this will work,” I thought. “Will I even fit on the strap part?” (Growing up they hadn’t yet figured out that hard rubber or worse, wood or metal seats, would inevitably find their way to the side, back or front of a kid’s head – now things are so much more benign, in the playground world at least).

It felt so natural once I started. I sat on the swing, and like magic I was eight, nine or twelve. I started pumping, toes pointing forward as I dipped and rose into the air, dangling my head back. Then, knees together, I made a semicircle with my calves as I swept backwards. Higher and higher. There was no difference between me now and fifty years ago. I still wanted to swing as high as possible. I still wanted to get all the way up and-

“How do you stop?” Eric asked.

“You jump,” I said, remembering. That moment, up in the air, when you just say to hell with it and fling yourself out into space. I got as high as I could and it felt possible, like I could push out and fly for a second.

“You’re not going to-“ Eric looked alarmed.

I scraped my feet in the wood shavings. I dragged until my swing slowed down.

But I could’ve jumped.

Yesterday I was in pain. Not a physical pain. I’m lucky I don’t suffer those, like people say one might when you reach a certain age. 

No this was a psychic pain: the show I have coming up this Thursday that has been rescheduled twice already due to Covid, that was finally going to happen and be my last show of this difficult year – one I even enlisted other musicians for, as a treat – I got a call from the venue asking if I’d move my show earlier, so they could switch Saturday’s sold out show to later that night, as someone in the band of the sold out artist was sick and felt sure they’d be better by then.

I looked them up – a New Yorker profile from a little while back. A young marvel needing me to gracefully step aside and – because honestly who cares that much about my little show?

All my self-doubt and insecurity came crowding in, yelling in my ears. I wanted to puke, to scream, rage and cry. Hey I was in the New Yorker once, twice, a few times. Never that life-changing profile. Critics’ picks and even a cute drawing one issue that didn’t really look like me but felt like a massive compliment, a vote of confidence. Now that potential profile moment has probably passed. Has it? Has it? That’s what I get from turning older, not so much the physical waning but the waning of possiblity. It’s not looking in the mirror and going “How did I get this age?” but looking behind me, in front of me and trying to maintain a positive spirit while I carry on doing the thing I’ve done for decades; the thing I still love and know how to do. You can’t be promising anymore, when you’re sixty two. You’re a known quantity, if you’re known at all. How do other artists and writers and musicians deal with it – accept reality but keep hope, that necessary element of magic, alive?

Going back to ages 8 to 12 again, I’m reminded of this famous ride I couldn’t wait to try at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. I think it was called the Rotor. A big circular room you stood against the wall in. The room began spinning and spun faster and faster, pressing everyone against the wall and then-

The floor would drop out. The centrifugal force held you against the wall. Some people (me) screamed. Some were bold and actually climbed up the wall, turned themselves sideways or upside down. It was giddy terrifying fun but the scariest thing you realized was – you needed the spinning to carry on. The very thing that made you scream, that drove you crazy, that spinning force – was essential to stay stuck to the wall until the floor rose back into place.

Nearly two years without regular gigs – how do I continue? What keeps me from dropping out? With a good promoter, like Alec in Columbus Ohio the other week, I can fill a room. I can pump and pump myself up on that swing and jump, taking everyone with me. 

There’s comfort in reading Margaret Renkl because she tends to stay in the physical world, writing about nature in a lyrical way.  She is humble, and thoughtful.

She’s not in show business. Am I in show business? I express myself, and am compelled to share that with others. When I feel something, I want to know if somebody else feels it too. Maybe getting up on stage isn’t the healthiest way to work with that.

But just getting up on stage isn’t enough. I want to have an audience there. The other day I joked that Bob Dylan at 80 going out on tour means twenty more years of “doing this” for me. By “doing this” you might think I meant performing but if that’s all it was, I’d feel pretty darn lucky and happy to do it. It’s really the sharing Facebook events, posting on social media as required and putting up posters, feeling not popular enough, measuring myself against other people that feels hard to sustain sometimes. Bob just has to be brilliant and show up and play – he doesn’t have to erect the tent, be the town barker, the cigar-chomping hard guy wringing an extra twenty dollars out of a club for dinner. He doesn’t have to hear a ticket count and die a little. But continue to dust himself off no matter what and get up there, to bring what he does to the good people. 

I don’t know how I came around to talking about Bob Dylan. Maybe he’s like a spot on the doorframe I touch to tell myself “it’s okay…you’re okay.” I wanted to talk about Margaret Renkl and her elegant, gentle spirit.

*

It’s a week and a half later. I played the show and I felt so good while I was playing, and when it was all over. Up until I strummed the first chord onstage, I felt an unhealthy amount of angst. At sixty two I wish I could accept comfy pants and my place in the world – feel grateful for it all. But I still aspire. I brush on the eyeliner, zip into something tight. I keep on pressing myself against the wall while the damned world spins, knowing the floor will drop out but it’s the magic bit that catches me by surprise every time and looks like I’ll never be too old for that.

36 thoughts on “Hello Margaret, It’s Me Amy

  1. Liz

    Amy I saw you at Rick’s in STL. I’ll always have that lovely memory of your songs and spirit.
    Thanks for fighting through those feelings and real situations: I want to see you soon… and then about 10 years after that!

  2. Angel Dean

    Gosh, Amy. You are such a brilliant writer. This piece is just perfect, and one I plan to read again and again. Keep going girl. Even though I’m older than you, I look to you as a beacon.

    1. amyrigby

      Angel, thank you so much. You really are an angel cause I almost trashed this piece yesterday…was worried it was whining and going into self-pity and I don’t want that. I really appreciate your words, thank you dear!

  3. jerseygrl2013

    Amy, like you I feel much younger than I am although I have aches and pains sometimes. Motrin is my best friend. You have done more and experienced more than the newbies ever will. We grew up in a world and and era with the best music and just think you were a part of that and still continue to be a part of it. Keep working it. Bob Dylan and all the old rockers are still amazing. You are amazing. Spirit is what keeps us going and you have it. Here’s to twenty more years of creativity and music making. What a great profession to be in, you will never be obsolete.

  4. Dane

    On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
    On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free

    I can’t accept that you aren’t promising at a certain age. One song, one show – they all can make a difference, as School of Rock has definitively demonstrated. But even your recordings – I hear my wife singing along with them and with my 8 year-old daughter and that’s the best promise right there for me. Thank you.

  5. Jim Sutherland

    Nicely written as always. I suppose that getting older is better than the alternative, although I often wonder who this old guy that shows up in the mirror might be.

    1. Susan Gerber

      Amy, you are such a gifted writer of songs and stories, and it is a joy to attend your concerts! Age is just a number – it certainly does not define you. I just turned 65 this week, but in my mind I am nowhere near that age! Keep doing what you love – because we love what you do!

  6. Robert Burke Warren

    Excellent, as ever. You really are a marvel. I am sorry about all those shadows creeping in, but you really excel at turning it all into fantastic prose and songs.
    Also, I really wanted to make that show but I am temporarily crippled. But my spouse was there to represent and she said it was fabulous.
    Looking forward to crossing paths again in real time.
    ever your fan,
    Robert

    1. amyrigby

      You’re so sweet, thank you Robert. I hope you’re healing up! It was so nice to see Holly and Deb, like we were back in the East Village there for a little while. Take care friend, x

  7. rainperry

    Fuck, Amy, I soooo relate to this on every level. And I haven’t gotten to the New Yorker.

    Not sure I ever told you that it was “diary of a mod housewife“ that made me realize you could be a mom and a musician.

    I too still aspire. What else can one do?

    @rainperry rainperry.com shopkeepermovie.com

    >

    1. amyrigby

      Thanks Rain. I remember reading an interview with Dolly Parton in the early 2000s, she was still working on getting another hit – that really struck me. You don’t stop trying, ever? Twenty years later I understand!

  8. Scott Brookman

    Oh, Amy. Once again, you’ve chosen the perfect words for something I’m going through at 58.5. “The waning of possibility.” Holy shit, that’s good. Nail on the head. Homer right into the stands. My version is “what is reasonable to expect” (at this age you can add, or considering there is a family curse over my head).

    I was too chicken to ever try show biz. Instead I was a good boy who finally got a full-time job with health benefits. I have written some great songs, and at least some of them are “out there” on Bandcamp and other places. No one cares. Somebody listens. Some of the time. But, no one really cares. The job took over as they always do because Americans insist on that just to make life more unbearable. So, the time available for music diminished. The gear is now so old it can’t be updated, though like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake it is still set up for its intended purpose. I have enough money to outfit a new super-small home studio, but my fear of the learning curve is so great, and the knowledge that I’ll never have time for it so strong, I’m paralyzed. And so, that almost complete album from seven or eight years ago, a really great one I wish my 100 or so fans (if I’m lucky) could hear remains imprisoned, and any new song fragments just become phone videos I post on, you guessed it, Facebook.

    YOU, though, should keep going until you don’t really want to. You’ll know. I think somehow you’ll know. And….it’s okay that the moment will come. It eventually happens to all artists. I don’t think this is your time to step down, though. I think this is a really unfortunate combination of one of the worst parts of showbiz + Covid era.

    1. amyrigby

      Thanks Scott. I hope you keep working on your stuff and get joy from it. I actually don’t think artists eventually step down – Matisse cutting shapes in his 80s, Ian Hunter still singing and playing great at 80…Mr. Bob Dylan tearing it up at 80. Georgia O’Keefe. Louise Nevelson. Yoko Ono. Maybe the focus shifts – the very lucky have some means of supporting themselves…retirement isn’t really an option. So got to keep finding a way to carry on and be creative about how and where.

      Thanks for reading and rock on!

  9. Robert Nesbitt

    her picture in the times (the young one) reminded me of Nancy McKeon.

    You DEFINITELY need to engage “that self-acceptance”.
    Do you need reasons?
    How often have people been discouraging to you. (*dis courage: to remove the heart)

  10. SimonH

    Loved reading this! Totally normal thoughts when you put your heart and soul into something. Not that I’m comparing my very low level creative efforts, but I have similar thoughts when I
    write, I never want to know how many people read my stuff!

  11. Maria

    Amy, I get this piece. I look in the mirror and think, “How the heck am I 57?” Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my career and professional life. I’m not ready to just bide my time and coast into retirement, whatever that means. I still have fire in my belly. I’ve decided to put myself out there and see if something new and exciting sticks. I updated my resume and bought a new outfit. Heck yeah, it’s scary. But, after I got a second interview a few weeks ago, it sure felt good. “They like me. They really like me!” Next time you ride that swing, leap off! XO

    1. amyrigby

      That’s fantastic Maria. I love that you bought a new outfit. I will leap off, metaphorically at least! (the idea of landing wrong is just too possible and god I’d hate to be unable to drive or walk due to a broken ankle/knee – I’ll ride a bike every chance I get though)

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