Friday, August 17, 2018

Going Home.

Tomorrow, I'm going home, to my birthplace. It's been fifty years since I lived there.

I'll drive up the lane beside the pond where Nathan drowned. We'll greet the current owners of the farm and set up cameras—looking for the best place to shoot video.

And oh, by the way, tomorrow is my parent's wedding anniversary. They are both deceased, but maybe they'll be able to watch. I hope so.

(I'm interrupting the regularly scheduled blog post to bring you a special announcement. If you've been following the story of our family, you'll know that I mentioned plans to do a music video to the song "Pond Beside the Barn" this summer. As it turns out, we are going to do it this Saturday—weather permitting.)

It's been 10 years since we recorded and released the album with this song on it. For many years I refrained from doing it in my concerts because it was so potent and personal. When I did share it, I wasn't sure people were receiving it well. Too personal perhaps? Many times I wondered why I even recorded it. It's one thing for people to listen to the song whenever they want, but it feels like a very different thing to share it with audiences in a live setting. After all, I don't want to leave everyone feeling like they need Prozac—though we've often joked that I might make a better profit from selling that than music. 😉

But since the writing and release of my projects "Portraits of White" and "Brand New Me", the song has found a proper place in my concerts. Though the song hasn't changed, this singer has. My perspective is so different since I first wrote the song. It seems like I had to write two more albums to get to this point.

I am not going back to the farm in sadness. The seasoning of time has helped me process the grief. Perspective has given me a deep strength and peace. I realize now why I wrote so many songs about death, why I needed to do a Christmas album and Portraits of White show. The loss of a little loved one has made me dig deep. I'm ready to move forward, record the story/song on video and use it to encourage others who walk through similar journeys.

This past year, I've started putting the song back in my concerts. I've met people who come up to me afterward and say, "I lost someone too". They'll be able to tell me exactly where it happened. Funny thing about living—landscape IS important to us.

A few weeks ago, I returned to a venue to do a concert in the Pocono Mountains for the second time within a year and a gentleman came up to me and said, "You didn't do the song about your brother this time. I remember the sweet story." He brought his family with him and now they are interested in coming to the December show—and that's how the world works.

Life (or death) happens.
Seeds are planted.
Songs are written, recorded and shared.
People are touched.

Yes, tomorrow I'm going home.

This visit is very personal.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Those Faint Whispers! Part 1

Sometimes we feel or hear faint whispers that give a sense of direction, but we don't pay attention to them, for various reasons. Maybe we underestimate our ability to hear. Maybe we just don't want to hear. In the case of the story I'm about to share, it would appear as if my Mother really loved doing what she was doing and didn't want to stop, in spite of a faint whisper she was hearing.

I've been sharing extensively the impact the death of my brother, Nathan, had on our family. Our story doesn't end there. As you'll begin to see, there were many more struggles ahead for my Mother—which continued to rock our world, and I think that if she had heeded a whisper, a feeling she had, the next phase of our lives could have been very different.

I'm not in any way pointing a finger, because we've all had those times when we don't heed a warning we have. I just share it as part of our family's story.

The story from Bertha Sollenberger Crider Heisey continues:

"We ended up selling Willow Springs Farm and moving to a farm near Newville...Mt. Pleasant Farm. It was much larger and required more from us. One year, around 1970, to help make ends meet, I took on the job of driving a school bus. My route took me back towards the mountain on many narrow roads. Oh how I loved driving the bus and learning to know the children! I taught them Sunday School songs. One time, we got stuck in a snow drift...and the children said, "Let's pray, let's pray!". (I, Frances, have fond memories of sitting on a metal box of some kind right behind my Mother's bus driver seat. I enjoyed going with her as we picked up the children.)

At some point I began feeling like I should stop driving the bus, but I didn't want to. I liked the job and the extra income. I kept on.

And then, in January of 1971, about a year after I had been driving the bus, I had no choice to but to give it up. I was diagnosed with viral meningitis. For adults this is often fatal, and I was very seriously ill. But, I recovered.

Several months later though, I had symptoms of pounding head pains, lack of balance, distorted vision and taste. I remember working in the garden, (once I felt good enough to do that), I was down on my knees and there was an awful thumping in my brain.

By the beginning of 1972, those symptoms were so severe that I could not get around or take care of myself. Five weeks of tests and observation in two different hospitals—I was finally diagnosed with Hydrocephalus - which basically means "fluid on the brain". It was thought to be caused by scar tissue which formed when I had the meningitis, thus blocking the normal drainage of fluid from the brain. But the doctors knew what to do—a mechanical shunt would regulate the fluid in my head by way of a tube that would go from my brain to my stomach. Three openings were made, the shunt and tube were installed, and the operation was a success. My hair grew back slowly and I began a long road of gradual recovery that took about two years.

I cannot begin to tell you the extent of the generosity given to my family and me during those years of illness and the long road to recovery. I feel indebted to so many people—the church community, neighbors and our extended family—the meals that were brought in, the help and support that was given on so many levels, the cards and flowers sent, the visits made, the prayers that were offered. We witnessed first-hand just how far people will go to help."

Frances here:

Next week, I'll share how this experience impacted her and our family. I'll also share a time in my own life when I didn't heed a whisper I was hearing.

We can all learn from these mistakes.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What Do You Say When Someone is Grieving?

She had no idea that the moment I pulled into the parking lot to attend the picnic, I wiped the tears away so no one would notice. How would I explain that the death of a little boy, over 50 years ago, still makes me cry?

Our conversation was too timely to be a coincidence!

"I knew your brother, Nathan", she said.

I know it can be hard to figure out what to say, but those are some of the most comforting words you can say to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one—even if it's decades later!

On my way to that picnic I had been listening to the song I had recorded years ago—Beside the Barn—surrounding the tragic death of my brother, Nathan. I was practicing the song for an upcoming video shoot we are planning sometime this year.

(When you're preparing to do a music video, you have to learn the song exactly the way you sang it the day you recorded it so that in the music video, your lip syncing appears to be as if you're really singing it live. You ARE singing it live, but it's not being recorded in a way that people will hear it so it has to match your original version. The only way to do that is to listen to it and practice with it. Even your breathing should be in sync with the recording.)

As I drove to the picnic, each time the song played, the tears would accompany my shaky voice. I could barely even get through the song. It was an interesting prelude to my conversation with the new-found friend at the picnic. (The hostess of the picnic introduced us and thought we'd enjoy connecting because she knew my Mother.) She shared that when she was a young woman, she and her mother were watching children in the nursery at a conference and my Mother brought Nathan to the nursery to be cared for while she attended the missionary conference.

Apparently, while all the other children ran around the room with much animation, Nathan just sat in his little chair and watched. He hadn't been walking yet but not long after that event, my Mother shared that Nathan began to walk. As she shared her memories of him with me, I drank in every word. I asked her all kinds of questions about Nathan. Curious....what was he like that day in the nursery?

She is the one who brought up Nathan—not me—which made it all the more mysterious.

If you've ever lost a loved one, you understand this. Hearing about your loved one from someone else is a fragrance that lingers long after you walk away from the conversation and you absorb every word.

Words like this are a verbal bouquet and the fragrance has an enduring quality. If you know someone who is grieving, perhaps a simple mention of their loved one is a nice place to start in offering comfort.


If you're like me and you're curious about "behind the scenes stuff", take a look at the music video, "Inside Things" that I did years ago. You can't see this, but while I sang this song (using the lip syncing method that I described above), I had a whole crew of people helping me: my performance coach reminding me to smile, or look "this" way and "that" way, the videographer running around me with his big camera, plus, my producer and the makeup/hair artist making sure all was well.

In the end, I was shocked that I was able to pull it off. I had to perform as if it was the day I first wrote the song and yet sing it as if no one was there. Like acting as if nothing is going on in the midst of a tornado.....

It was a really fun experience and I look forward to doing it again for the upcoming video shoot of "Beside the Barn". However, this will be a much more challenging song to do because of the nature of the story itself and going back to the home farm where it took place could be quite emotional.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Like Drops of Oil on a Sandpaper Heart

"Like sandpaper grinding on sandpaper in my chest."  It's the description my Mother used to express the sorrow following Nathan's death—and a very descriptive one.

"Sandpaper Heart"— I've written it down as a song title. I have no idea at this point what the song will be about but it's such a picturesque word, I feel I must write a song about it. Until then....

The story of Nathan's death (her 2 year old son) continues in my mother's words:

"That night, (after Nathan drowned), I tossed and turned, was up and down; I could not sleep. I had never felt hurt and pain like that, and it was beyond what I thought I could sand paper grinding on sand paper in my chest. Finally, toward morning, the vision or dream came back to me—I had not thought about it until then—seeing our two families assembled in the basement of the church ready to go upstairs for a funeral.

Not long before Nathan's death, I had a dream or a vision, was I sleeping or awake? I saw plainly our two families—the Sollenberger and Heisey families in the basement of Air Hill church, waiting to be ushered upstairs for the seating at a funeral as was the custom...and I said in the dream—"That means there is someone in our family—Orville's and mine, that has died".

Cousins as pallbearers with funeral directors - walking to the cemetery of Air Hill Brethren in Christ Church, carrying Nathan.
When the day of the funeral came, there we were; the two families brought together just as I had seen it. I realized then that the dream of vision had been from God, trying to prepare my heart.

God again had gone before me to tell me He was in control—a drop of oil was dropped onto the sandpaper in my chest. I can't describe the comfort it brought, ever so delicate and gentle but so soothing. As the days passed, more drops of oil were administered, bringing the comfort that God has promised to those who mourn. I said, "Thank you Lord..this is all part of your plan"...and my burden was somewhat lightened.

Even though I was able to rest in God's will, we all took Nathan's death very hard. We had great sadness—it would take a long time to grieve. We couldn't help the question—why? why? why?—trying to make sense of what seemed senseless. Finally, with God's help we began to see that Nathan was a special gift to us for two years. His life was not snuffed out—it wasn't shortened. He lived his full allotted time and our home was the one blessed by his earthly visit.

We would often reminisce at the table, remembering the little clown that he was, how much joy he had brought our family. Nathan seemed to have been "loaned" to us for two years, and we had to give him back."

Nathan just a few days before his death.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Re-write Your Past or Move On?

I never set out to write a song about the tragic death of our brother, Nathan. It was too delicate. Too tragic. Too personal. I would have never thought to try to write a song about it.

But it came about because my older brother, Adriel—who I've always looked up to, called me one day in October from his home in Arizona. Adriel and Nathan were both born in October. It was also the death-month of Nathan. October is bitter-sweet.

On the phone, Adriel said, "What's the weather like there today?"

I said, "It's a perfect day.  The sky is a deep blue, not a cloud anywhere and the leaves are starting to turn."

In his warm, brotherly voice he said, "Ah....when I hear you talk of blue skies and colored leaves, I can just picture it!" 

I detected a smile in his tone.

As soon as those words came out of his mouth, I heard the lyrics and melody for the song in my head and to this day I have no idea what the rest of our conversation was about because I was already starting to write it in my head based on that one line. (Sorry Adriel.  😔) We hung up and I immediately sat down to write. 

Sometimes when I'm writing a song, it feels the same as trying to write down a dream. When I first wake up in the morning, the dream is so vivid, until I try to write it down. It evaporates as I write, though the residual emotions can last all through the day or even years.

Trying to write a song based on an idea can feel that's hard work to make the inspiration settle down and say what you want it to say. I'm sure if I had deliberately set out to write a song about Nathan, it would have felt like recording a dream.

But the one line from Adriel was all I needed to get me started. I began to think about the month of October and how monumental it is in our family history, which served as a natural progression leading to Nathan's story. 

I've wrestled with whether or not to share this next paragraph, but since I'm growing as a songwriter and sharing that journey with you, I decided to not delete it:

As I study the craft of songwriting, sometimes it bothers me that there are two lines that aren't consistent with the rest of the song's rhyming scheme, Maybe I could re-write it better now after years of distance from trying to re-write it and much more learning under my belt. In fact, when I pulled out the past notes from the song, I saw that I only have a few copies of re-writes. These days, I have a LOT more copies of re-writes per song.

The recording will always stay as it is. Perhaps that's a great lesson for life. There are many things we'd like to go back and "re-do", but there is a time to just keep moving forward and learn from past regrets. 

The only time I ever heard my Mother speak of regret as it related to Nathan's death, had to do with her realization that Nathan had just discovered the pond and she asked Daddy to consider building a fence around it. I never, ever, sensed that she blamed anyone, my Father or herself, for his death. That doesn't mean she didn't carry any regret, I just never heard her speak of it. She seemed to have learned how to remember the past and yet keep moving on.

One of my "re-writes" for "Beside the Barn".

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Last Kiss.

"It was early in October
on our little farm in Gardners
when we lost our little brother
in the pond beside the barn"

Frances Drost
Beside the Barn

This old photo of our pond on the farm in Gardners was recently sent to me by a relative.
Perfect timing for this blog.
I asked my older sister, Aspen, if she'd be willing to share how she experienced the death of our brother, Nathan.

So in the words of Aspen....

"I remember walking up the lane with Mother and Adriel (our older brother) – where was Frances?!

It strikes me now, after all the study I have done around death, how exceptional and important an act it was that Mother carried Nathan in her arms from the pond to the end of the lane, and then up to the house. There is something about feeling the weight, having the body register experientially the sensation, the reality of the death of the loved one.

When I first wrote my talk about death (see below) I did not even clue in on this subtlety but I get it now. Here is my own story of how I (Aspen) encountered death as a 7 year old, and again at 21 – how these predicaments with actual dead bodies became my most poignant moments of encountering death."

Aspen's "talk" about her experience with Nathan's death:

"My first encounter with death was when I was about 7 and my little brother, Nathan, was 2, and he drowned in the pond on our farm. That was 1966, in Gardners, Pennsylvania. My older brother was 8 and our little sister was 6 months old. I was at my girlfriend’s house up the road. A call came that I needed to go home right away. The scene at the end of the lane stopped me from getting too close – there was my mother, and I guess the doctor, and perhaps a neighbor, all there, bent over and busily doing something….. it was CPR they were doing. An unsuccessful attempt, as it turned out. I was looking at my first dead body.

They took Nathan up the lane to the farmhouse, laid him on a blanket on the living room floor. It was a long evening. Thinking about it now, it was this time with Nathan that made all the difference…. To be in our own house, in the middle of our living room where we played and had birthday parties, where we had Christmas, where we made forts, where we practiced the piano.

To see that he wasn’t getting up.

To see that he wasn’t sleeping.

This was serious.

There was now a gap between us the living siblings and our dead one, a gap we couldn’t grasp but at least there was time – time to take in a kind of sweet rawness about just being there, being in our own living room; just having time to take it in. And when the undertaker came to take Nathan, and my mother cried desperately “– you can’t take him! you can’t have him!” (My father wasn’t back from his conference yet and she couldn’t fathom all of this happening without him there.)

They wrapped Nathan in a blanket and just before they took him away my mother said she gave us, my brother and I, “the privilege of kissing him.”

The last time I saw Nathan was at the funeral at Air Hill Church. I remember two details: That we sang this song – When He Cometh, When He Cometh, and I distinctly recall my mother leading us up to the casket before it was closed for the last time, her leaning, and kissing the face of Nathan. Then, she wanted my brother and I to do the same. I wanted to, but not really wanting to, and doing it anyway.

Orville, Bertha, Adriel and Aspen viewing Nathan, at the funeral home in Mt. Holly Springs, PA.
So began my spiritual and cultural immersion with death— how we love the dead.

What we do with the dead. How the community and larger family responds.

I watched as my parents moved through this territory.

They did not shield us.

They didn’t think about shielding us."

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Sorrow is Better Than Laughter. WHAT???

I've always had a very serious side to me. In fact, my whole family is pretty serious. We think and feel very deeply. I also have a quirky side to me and the more freedom I experience in my life, the more that side is coming out. But obviously, the heaviness that I grew up with still shows up even when I write funny songs.

"Even the funny songs that you write still have a serious edge to them", came the words from my manager. I sighed inwardly (and probably outwardly too). I didn't notice that until he pointed it out. The critique session was so rough I wondered if I should keep writing music. "Absolutely", he said. "I just want to see you get better overall and that includes your songwriting."

As a songwriter, it's always been my aim to be the best writer I can be, which has meant allowing professional people to speak into my writing. It isn't always easy to hear a critique of what you wrote, even when it's given in love and intended to make you better. I'm thankful to have people around me who love me enough to be honest with me about my writing, so I took his words to heart and began doing all I could to learn more about writing better songs. 

Up until then, I had written mostly from inspiration only. I'd hear lyrics and a melody in my head and sit down at the piano to write. Now, I still write from inspiration, but I've also learned how to work hard at the craft and develop the seed of inspiration with the sweat of perspiration.Yet, no matter how hard I work at getting better, I'm afraid my serious side still shows up. 

So when I read the following passage this week from someone else's blog; Solomon—the wisest man who ever lived—I almost laughed out loud in light of the story I've been sharing the last couple of months in my blog. Perhaps this explains the underlying theme of death and heaviness that shows up in so many of my songs;

"Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. 
After all, everyone dies, 
so the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter.
A wise person thinks a lot about death,
    while a fool thinks only about having a good time."

If sadness has a refining influence on us, than I should be as "fine" as gold. LOL! 

Yes, I see now that all of the sad stories in my family history put us ALL through the fire. 

A few weeks ago when I was reading a book on songwriting, the author (who is a hit songwriter) said "write what you know". That's exactly what I've been doing. I had an epiphany in that moment. I decided to embrace my history, my story and all the heaviness and sorrow that came with it. It's what I know and it's what I've written. I do have something to share and yes, it might have a certain slant to it, but that's who I am. 

That doesn't mean I won't keep trying to improve in my writing, but I realize that as Solomon said, sadness has a refining influence on us, so I've decided to accept my past and at the same time, keep moving forward. I know as I keep growing in wisdom and understanding (a prayer I pray often) it will be reflected in my voice, both on paper and audibly.

So with that, I will continue the next phase of the story of the death of Nathan in next week's post, but this time, you'll get to hear from my sister, Aspen, as she shares what the death of Nathan was like for her (when she was 7) and how it has impacted her life.

Until next week, I thought a picture of someone having a good cry might feel appropriate right about now.  ; )