STAGE FRIGHT                                                                        (Strings 06’)
Amy Penwell

My father worked while I was growing up with two brothers.Tony and Jerry. Their last name was very Italian.

By looking at their business of construction, portable toilets, making gravel, and pouring foundations, one might draw the conclusion that they were related in some way to the Sopranos. In this case that stereo type wasn’t true. A few things come to mind when I think of Tony and Jerry; they really loved my father, tried to help him succeed after he went bankrupt, and helped him restore his pride before he died in 1985.

Tony was the younger brother. He and his wife had taken in 5 or 6 foster children from a group called Downyside, run by a group of fryers in Springfield Massachusetts. I vaguely remember going over Tony’s house for picnics and being introduced to children of many colors. At the time that was the only thing I could see. Not ethnicities, or children from different parts of the world, just different shades of hair and skin color different from my own. I thought it was neat, and yes, I think that is the word I would have used to describe if asked. This puts me at the age of 5.?

One evening our whole family went to Downyside for some sort of what looked like a church party. I was getting used to odd gatherings. My mother has been following the same Guru since 1973. I was subjected to a number of devotional chanting occasions, boring lectures on her gurus’ teachings, bland vegetarian meals, extra long days of worship, study and staring at his picture. There were long bouts of yoga and meditation/contemplation of his image. I would stare intently trying to figure out what all the hype was about? ( This is what I later felt about my first sexual experience). I was told that if I contemplated him long enough I would “feel his presence.” This was to a five year old. On Sundays after a two hour Episcopalian mass that was headed by a priest who later joined my Mothers’ guru loving community, this is what we would do. Mind you we were poor in a very white- collar town in Western Massachusetts in the late seventies. Let’s just say my mother was no longer invited to the neighborhood knitting groups. (You can’t make this shit up).

An evening with a bunch of guys in long brown robes, tied with rope around the waist was just another weird group of people, in an equally alien venue, that my parents introduced us to.  I remember being very curious whether, or not they wore any clothes under the robes. I  had no idea we were shopping for a foster brother that night.
We owned a house, and a church donated car. We nearly lost that house on a regular basis. The cops visited because of partying and truancy. My point being we were poor, loud and a little lost. This kind of poverty has affected my siblings and I in ways that are as different as we are. I can’t speak for them, but in my own life it’s been hard to allow myself to fully go for it, yet I have. The other shoe is always about to drop, but it doesn’t always. It’s going to fall a part at any minute, but it doesn’t need to. Will the cupboard be empty next week? Maybe, but probably not. Control issues. Of course, I have never starved, and always had a warm place to sleep. For many that is a lot. For fuck-sake I live in Marin County! I live with much less fear these days, but I see it in my brothers and sisters and that makes me sad. Poverty consciousness is a tough thing to overcome. It can be very subtle, but it cuts deep. I found that I couldn’t overcome it alone. It had be traced back, acknowledged, and voiced. I could find no other liberation from it’s grip.

One of the fryers came up to me and asked
if I wanted to go up to the stage with him and welcome the crowd.
My mom agreed, I reluctantly nodded in Fryer Tucks’ direction,
and when it came time, I took the strange mans hand and we walked down the aisle.
I was peering down at his feet as we were walking still wondering if he had his undies on when the fear of all fear hit me. It was the kind of fear where you feel like you are a mutant alien dropped on a creepy planet. It felt like a combination of burning embarrassment, constricting humiliation, with a lumpy, coating of smarm poured down my center. This was the beginning of a long stretch of stage fright that has only in the last year left me. It was of course fueled by other events where the feeling of your skin feels like it has been ripped off, but this is the first one I can remember. As I just mentioned I find it helpful to follow a neurosis to the source, and lean into what I most resist. I have done that in this case by performing a lot in the past couple of years, and saying yes to things I REALLY don’t want to do. A quote by Eleanore Roosevelt that I love is this:  “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” In my case it’s having a music career and staying true to myself under all circumstances. Sounds simple, but Lord have mercy, it takes a mountain of patience, a steady stream of cash, walking away when something is just not good for me, and yeah, talent helps too.

A strange teenager came up to my family after the stage fright sent me running back into my mothers’ arms. His name was Kenny. He was wearing a red down jacket. He was odd looking. He had a strange nose. I later found out that it was a plastic surgery nose due to some violence he had encountered in one of his twelve foster homes. We were number thirteen, and like it’s reputation for being unlucky, I believe our family was worse than that for him, but like most true stories you don’t find that out in time enough to change the circumstance before there is more damage than can be repaired. In real life it can drag on, and on.

We ignored, we built resentments, learned how to keep deep, dark secrets, and we children learned how to drink in a relatively alcohol free home. (no small feat) People who loved disco were being forced to share rooms with people who loved hard rock. I like to refer to the next several years in my family life as ” The Jerry Springer Years.” It was almost all wrong, but in real life, with real pain there are also real joys and real “Jimmy Fly Snooka” moments. There is learning how to disco dance, there is learning the Barbara Streisand parts while the new brother is Barry Gibb on “I Am a Woman in Love”. There is a shared joy of winding up so tight that you pee your pants from being tickled too much. There is playing freeze dance and pretending to be Leroy and Coco from Fame. There was the first stereo he bought me from the money he saved working at Denny’s. There was the first U2 record he let me pick out for my 10th birthday. It was The Unforgettable Fire, another album that changed my life. It introduced me to my favorite photographer Anton Corbijn, my favorite band of all time (except for Radiohead), and introduced me to my favorite producers; Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. That is a whole lotta good mixed with a whole lotta painful. Honestly, I am very grateful for all of it. Right now as I edit this I am listening to a Sade song called ” It’s only Love that Gets You Through”. Ain’t that the truth.

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