Dreams Were all they Gave for Free

Long ago and far away, when I was growing up in Bisbee, the idea of meeting one of the people whose voices came through the radio on KSUN–the Gentleman Jim Reeves or the Patsy Clines or the Tennessee Ernie Fords of that era–was totally out of the question. They were stars. They lived charmed lives and showed up on our black-and-white television screens.

And then rock-and-roll came on the scene and, for a while at least, seemed to eclipse the country music that had been such a big part of the local radio station’s play list. But the distance between a girl from Bisbee and the new arrivals on the performing block–Elvis, the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel–remained an unimaginable distance, one that would, it seemed, never be crossed.

I grew up. I left Bisbee. By the late seventies and early eighties, I was in Phoenix, selling life insurance by day and tossing and turning in bed at night while I tried to imagine if I divorced my husband, what would happen? Would I be able to support my children? Would we survive? Where would we live? Would I be able to keep a roof over our heads? It’s important to note that at that terribly low point in my life, I hadn’t written a single book. I had jotted off some poetry in the dark of night, but as for doing what I had always dreamed and writing an actual book? Nope. Hadn’t tried it at all.

But as I drove from appointment to appointment in my then almost new but used Cutlass Supreme–a vehicle my first husband said I never should have bought and would never be able to pay for–music came into my life in the form of cassette tapes–Helen Reddy, Gordon Lightfoot, and Janis Ian. Janis’s songs in particular really spoke to me. There was one about a divorced or recently separated woman, looking into the future on her own and trying to make sense of her life.

The days are okay
I watch the TV in the afternoon
If I get lonely
The sound of other voices
Other rooms are near to me
I’m not afraid
The operator
She tells the time
It’s good for a laugh
There`s always radio
And for a dime I can talk to God
Are you there?
Do you care?
Are you there?
And in the winter extra blankets for the cold
Fix the heater, getting old
I am wiser now, I know, but still as big a fool
Concerning you
I met your friend
She`s very nice what can I say?
It was an accident
I never dreamed we’d meet again this way
You’re looking well
I’m not afraid
You have a lovely home
Just like a picture
No, I live alone
I found it easier
You must remember how I never liked
The party life
Up all night
Lovely wife
You have a lovely wife
And in the winter extra blankets for the cold
Fix the heater, getting old
You are with her now, I know
I’ll live alone forever
Not together now

That was how I saw my future back then–bleak and empty while my husband would go on to have a whole other life. I was wrong about that, of course. I had no way of knowing then that within eighteen months of my divorcing him, he’d be dead. Or that I would go on to write books, marry a good man and have a whole new existence.

Lots of Janis’s songs spoke to me back then, especially her iconic At Seventeen. The one that ends with the words,

And dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me.

Because–at six feet tall in seventh grade, as someone who was smart and wore glasses–I had been the personification of an ugly duckling. And after my divorce, after I started writing books, met Bill, and was living a life that was forever transformed, when I was out in public doing presentations, I would often end my performance by singing that song because I think my story gives other people hope that their dreams, too, might come true.

Eventually the Cutlass went away and so did the cassettes, but then came CDs and Janis Ian’s voice and well-remembered words came back into our lives.

Five years ago, I was the keynote speaker at a Writer’s Conference in Idaho. As usual, I finished my talk with my rendition, in what’s actually the key of A flat, of Janis’s At Seventeen. A fan of Janis’s happened to be in the audience, and she let Janis know about it. That was on Saturday afternoon. Sunday evening, an e-mail showed up in my computer from Janis Ian saying, “Hey, I hear you sang my song.”

And that was the beginning of our very improbable friendship. She’s done three of her charitable Living Room Concerts in our homes. We did several talking performances together at the Tucson Festival of Books several years ago when she was promoting her autobiography, Society’s Child, and together we were hilarious. We come from opposite sides of the political spectrum; she’s short and I’m tall; she’s Jewish and I’m Protestant; she’s gay and I’m straight. But we have so much in common in terms of being creative; of having to take our show and go on the road; in having to deal with publicists and publishers and sometimes difficult fans.

So this year, when we knew she was going to be in Phoenix while we were in Tucson, we scheduled another LRC. By the way, those concerts benefit the Pearl Foundation, named after Janis’s mother. The foundation provides scholarships for people, non-traditional students, having to go back to school for whatever reason later in life.

The concert in Tucson was on Sunday afternoon, and the last song in the program was At Seventeen. Janis and I had spent the time, between her previous songs, talking about our shared experiences. But when it came time for At Seventeen, Janis said, “There are two other people whose renditions of At Seventeen I love. One is Celine Dion and the other is Judy Jance because she sings it from the heart.” And then, something happened that, growing up in Bisbee, I could NEVER have imagined, not in a million years: Janis Ian and J.A. Jance sang At Seventeen as a duet, in a living room filled with family and friends and with Janis strumming her guitar.

In the two and a half days since then, Janis and her manager have been here at the house, letting down their hair and being at home; getting laundry done; and packing to leave this morning to get back into the groove and back on tour. If you’ve ever been on a book tour, you live for those precious times when you can stay in the same place for more than one night and not have to worry about getting packed and dressed to go down to a restaurant for a breakfast buffet. They’ll be heading up through California doing performances as they go, and in a couple of weeks we’ll be following that same trail. (By the way, the California and Oregon stops in April for Deadly Stakes should be posted on my website sometime very soon.)

But here’s what the last few days have taught me as I sit here typing while Janis and her travel companions load things into their van. Dreams may be all they gave for free back then when I was growing up in Bisbee, but I’m here to tell you, sometimes dreams really do come true.