This week you hear from Nikole Potulsky. Last summer, just weeks after my mother died, I met Nikole at a party and was immediately drawn to her easy laugh and her way of telling captivating stories. I don’t know that I’d had a good laugh in weeks, but her stories not only coaxed a smile out of me, but made me laugh hard.
I learned she was a musician and went to one of her shows, live music and all that. Nikole is not just a stand up there and sing kind of guitar player, but a storytelling kind of musician who sucks in her audience as she quietly plays G, Em, and D chords, and spins the backstory of the song about she’s about to perform.
A few months later Nikole contacted me to ask questions about writing—about how you start to capture a story on a page. We sat in a coffee shop for four hours while she told me story after story and I said to her, “Well I sure hope you’re a good writer, because you’re an amazing storyteller.”
Turns out she is. A good writer, I mean. So sit back and grab a cup of coffee and read about how Nikole found her path through life, lost it, then regained it again 13 years later and is making her dream happen right now.
The Authenticity Experiment, the pathfinder edition. In 2002, I dreamt up the idea for a Fool’s Journey with a new friend who had just renamed herself Luna. The Fool card in the tarot means new beginnings, trust the process, trust that when you step off cliffs you will fly or land softly. We quit our jobs, put our things in storage and bought a 1992 forest green Ford Aerostar that we named Sophia. We drove to Eureka Springs, Arkansas first, then onto Pagosa Springs, Colorado, down to the cold springs of Austin, Texas then onto a dozen more hot springs throughout the southwest, finally making our way to LA, where we began a long slow drive up Highway 1.
Each night we found a park, or a quiet neighborhood and transformed Sophia, into a comfy sleeping nest. We spent quite a bit of time in coffee shops, with journals and art supplies, happily dreaming and reflecting on life. In the van, we argued about the music, she preferred high energy dance songs with electronic beats while I wanted acoustic singer songwriters who made me cry. It took a few days to set up the rules—driver chooses the music, and the driver changes every four hours.
She told me her mother had schizophrenia and wore noise cancelling headphones so that the sound of her daughters did not upset her. Luna was twenty-nine and already divorced. I told her about being raised my extended family of sassy aunts and grandmothers, my mother’s multiple marriages and the father I didn’t know. I told her about putting myself through college while I worked two, sometimes three, jobs. How I’d worked since I was thirteen but had no idea how to choose a career.
After a couple of weeks, our conversations got thin and the long drive got quiet. This was before smartphones, and there was nothing to distract me
from my thoughts. In the evenings, I pulled out my guitar and started writing songs. In San Luis Obispo, I opened my guitar case and sang on a corner, I made fifty dollars in an hour. In San Francisco, I sang at a bar and the owner smiled widely, extended his hand to s
hake mine and said “you’re famous aren’t you? And I’m stupid because I don’t know who you are.”
I wrote a song everyday as we traveled up Highway 1. By the time we got to Portland, Oregon, I had thick callouses on my fingertips and over thirty new songs. We opted to spend a couple nights in the hostel on Hawthorne, to stretch out in real beds, hang with other people and have a hot shower. I chatted with a couple of guys from Australia and one of them asked me what work I did for a living and without pausing to think, I said “I am a songwriter”. I remember an eerie tingly stillness fell over me—not numb, not dissociated, a feeling I now recognize as presence, recognition, truth.
Six months later I was back in Missouri watching the first season of American Idol. Kelly Clarkson, a round faced girl from Texas, was winning and, in a fit of jealousy and inspiration, I grabbed my guitar and headed out the door to find an open mic night. I walked into a basement dive bar filled wall to wall with dudes with guitars. My heart was pounding in my ears as I put my name on the list, sat down at the bar and waited my turn. When the bartender asked what I’d like to drink, I pointed to the dude next to me and said “I’ll have what he’s having.” It’s the first time I drank bourbon straight. It burned right over the place in my chest where I felt terror, distracting my fear just enough that when they called my name, I didn’t panic and leave.
I don’t know if it was that I was the only woman there to play, if I said something captivating—or what—but you could have heard a pin drop. When I closed with, “Maudie’s Lament,” half the room got to their feet and cheered. As the man that went next took the stage, his buddy shouted, “Top that, Israel!”
Israel Gripka, now called Israel Nash, mumbled when he spoke. He was awkward and messy, but from the first note on his guitar, I knew he was a genius. His friends invited me to their table and for the next several months, we played music together every day and they were my first back-up band, we were called “Nikole and the Bitter ex-Boyfriends.”
By spring, I was playing paid gigs every weekend and in the summer I went on tour as the opening act for a comedian. I was saving money to record an album and was meeting with sound engineers to map out the plan when I lost my voice. Not just hoarse, or laryngitis, I lost the ability to make any sound whatsoever, I could not talk at all. I had been singing my heart out in loud smoky bars, on street corners and in jam sessions. I had no formal training and didn’t know the damage this was doing to my voice. Turns out that I had developed nodes—which are like callouses—on my vocal cords, but I had no health insurance and needed expensive surgery, coupled with expensive speech therapy, to repair the damage. Time slowed and what had felt like a calling began to feel like an unattainable and impractical dream of a child.
One thing led to another, as it always does, I went back to a day job and eventually moved to Portland, Oregon, bought a house, had two children and got so comfortable with the low level dissatisfaction and longing, that I forgot where it came from. I forgot that I ever knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. When my kids started elementary school, I had some space and I decided to play music again. My voice had mostly healed, the nodes had left an added gravely tone and moved my range down from first soprano Alison Kraus to alto Lucinda Williams. The first year was weekly band practice with no gigs but when we started performing, the rooms filled and I remembered the magic of quieting the dive bars with my stories and songs.
Last year, approaching my 40th birthday, once again I found myself listening for my next step, asking again for the magic of the Fool to guide me onto my next path. I took myself to Cannon Beach for a few days to disconnect, listen for my own inner counsel, and to answer the questions: What will I do with my one precious life? What legacy do I want to leave for my children? What can I do to make myself proud of myself, so that they see me act powerfully and bravely to claim my own dreams?
I paced the beach alone at night, talking to myself out loud: I should identify the way to make the most money possible so that my kids are always secure. I should get an MBA. I should move to DC. I should run for office. I said every possible idea that I’d ever considered until I said, I should record an album. The deep sorrow of leaving my music began to pour out to me, coupled with the deep fear of failure, fear of wasting time, fear of poverty, fear of regret. Sobbing, I fell to my knees on the edge of the shore and begged for a different dream.
Just last week, a full nine months after that night on the beach, and thirteen years after that open mic night in Missouri, I spent two ten hour days back-to-back in a recording studio working with a professional producer, sound engineer and a team of women musicians. When the engineer sent over the first tracks, I sat in total silence filled with pride that the incredible music coming through the speakers was mine, I made it happen.
The lesson of the Fool is to have faith in the magic of new beginnings, be spontaneous, take a risk and most of all, trust your heart’s desire. I don’t know where this journey will lead, I know that I am again on the path that feels like my own.
With sincerity and ease, Nikole Potulsky’s music and writing takes you to visit people you’ve never met and places you’ve never been. Fortune tellers, good ol’ boys, fierce women and grandmothers in strip bars. Union towns, kitchen tables, house fires, and deathbeds. After a few stories, you start to feel like you have been where she has been and you recognize yourself in her work. She is currently recording her first album, “You Want To Know About Me.” Learn more at https://igg.me/at/NikoleDebut
I’m finishing the final edits on the manuscript of The Authenticity Experiment and it’s hard to write and edit simultaneously. So, for the next two months you’re going to hear from a variety of amazing writers. You’re gonna love their writing. Dark and light, both/and from voices you should know and will soon want to be following.
If you miss my voice too much, you can always buy yourself a copy of Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. And those of you in Portland, I’m reading at two Lit Crawl events on November 4th, Get Nervous at 6pm at Tugboat Brewing and Grief Rites (natch) at Literary Arts at 7pm–and then at Wordstock the next day. In fact, I’m reading in a whole bunch of places, including Corvallis and Eugene at the end of October. Check the event calendar. Until then, be well.