For her own website, From Pain To Purpose, inaugural Birdsong Ashley Bell has recounted her experiences and thoughts during the period that led up to her life-changing musical collaboration with the BIRDSONG Foundation – and beyond. It is a story of empowerment and inspiration, and appears here in its entirety.
Ashley Bell (left) and Margaret Konopacki
By Ashley Bell
I got involved with Birdsong at the end of summer 2020. As most of you know, I have been injured, and I haven’t been performing much! Most of the things that I like to do for fun have been affected. I also don’t spend that much time on social media anymore! I also walk and do yoga as opposed to long distance running now. I still push through 5K every once in a while just to prove to myself that I can still do it.
At the very beginning of 2020, a specialist told me that my traumatic brain injury (from the car accident in 2012), was being affected by my stress levels. And my stress levels were affecting the motor function in my right arm. That’s why I could no longer strum my guitar. The pandemic began a couple months later, so all of my performances were cancelled anyway (Ashley’s Therapeutic Musical Entertainment). I had a few guitarists helping me during that steady decline of ability, and when I was still in total denial! (Thank you always and forever, Nate Cunningham, Rick Henderson, and Joe Sardo).
I couldn’t believe how stressed and unhappy I allowed myself to become, and it’s like I didn’t even notice that it was rooted in the mind! Once my arm got enough rest, some of my pride was stripped away, along with the denial. Enough to reveal unmanageable stress, ancient undiscovered anxiety, and a depression that was painted so pretty that I don’t think many people noticed. I didn’t!
Being locked down at home served me well though, since I had gotten so behind and disconnected from everyone and everything that should have been important. I needed to make my house into a home, and get healthy for me and my teenage boys. I needed to refocus my attention on my true purpose in life.
In July 2020, I started writing a song for the first time in over a year. I couldn’t strum in time, but I could strum well enough to come up with a simple melody. What started out as hopeless feelings like- I’ve just been working hard my whole life so my dreams would come true, but there’s always something in the way– turned into a song about me not waking up. A song, calling myself out on my people-pleasing-high-functioning depression and anxiety.
“If I can be completely honest, I didn’t even notice that I stopped waking up. The days keep on getting longer and I’m not even feeling any stronger anymore.”
That’s when I realized that I stopped listening to God. Which is ridiculous! Because He literally uses the entire Universe to speak to us. I stopped listening to my own intuition too, so I stopped trusting myself. And then it’s easy to stop loving yourself.
What I perceived as exhaustion and inability to sleep, was me spending my valuable quiet time sleeping instead of listening. Before all this, I used to think “The Universe” was just a new-age word that people used, because it doesn’t cause debates as quickly. But now I find myself calling Him “The Universe”, and that’s because He used every part of it to reveal Himself to me when I thought I lost my purpose.
The following weekend, I wrote another song that ended up addressing my social anxiety. In weeks to follow, I continued writing songs that uncovered the truth that had been buried for a while. I felt like there was a lot of mess to clean up, but I also was learning that my perception of “mess” was a little off all along!
A very good friend had referred me to his chiropractor in August 2020. I was still only having phone appointments with my doctors at the Music Clinic, so I was willing to have any hands-on help I could get! Even if I had to pay for it! Since my neck was also broken in the accident in 2012, he did find significant nerve pressure in my neck. My treatments at the chiropractor started in August 2020, and they gave me a brand new Hope. I felt like I had a small, but mighty medical team like I did back in 2012, and I was starting to feel that unstoppable feeling again.
I also remember telling my psychologist at that time, that I wanted to get to the bottom of my anxiety problem, because I had had enough. I remember him sincerely saying, “do you wanna get to the bottom of it? Or do you want to learn how to manage it?”. I boldly said, “the bottom of it!”. I was absolutely serious about this! I had to retrained my brain before, and I wanted to do it again. I began speaking to my older sisters, and my mom, and piecing together parts of my past that I didn’t realize had such a deep connection!
I even went as far as discussing things with my ex-husband. Learning more about my native roots, as well as native spirituality helped tremendously! It all brought so much healing. For me, being alone in the morning is what made those connections the most! The sunrises spoke to me. Meditating, stretching, and/or walking helped me make sense of it all. And it helped me let go of the things that I couldn’t make sense of! All before my family even woke up or made a sound.
I was uncovering a lot of hard truth, and things that happened right before my eyes in the past. It was actually surprising how much healing came when I looked back with a brand new pair of eyes. I had to take responsibility for a lot of things that I didn’t realize where my fault. I had to forgive a lot of people, including myself, for things that were never my fault. I had to relearn a lot of things I was taught. It was hard work! No wonder my psychologist gave me the option of learning coping skills, rather than unearthing decades of hurt. However, I knew that as long as was listening and writing, I would be able to walk in freedom no matter what. With every bit of freedom that I regained, it gave me that much more strength to keep going!
The truth about who I am, and where I come from was spoken to me through the laughter of children. Poetry about strength and growth was shown over and over again through flowers and sunsets. Kept promises, and new promises were revealed about the next generation, after the sleepless nights I spent worrying. New understanding of my roots, and the way I was created, with new perspectives were delivered and sealed with dragonflies and rainbows. I was reacquainted with the nature that the world taught me to be afraid of. My spider phobia, OCD tendencies, and hand washing obsessions held me back from the exact medicine that I needed all along! It’s kind of funny that I got rid of my obsession with hand washing in 2020, am I right?
I found that it was really helpful to indulge in childhood loves. I remember walking the dog through long grass with flip flops on, getting way too many scoops of ice cream, and wandering aimlessly without a plan through conservation areas, jumping in random lakes and rivers.
Spending time with likeminded friends that made me sing, laugh, and dream was key! I have always made an effort to keep in touch with my childhood best friends, but I knew that I needed to have a good visit with them too, with the way I was feeling. Not only that, my kids were 12 and 14 that summer, so I got to see them bond with their friends. I could see glimpses of who they were going to be, and I could see glimpses of who is going to stay in their life forever.
It was awesome to hear them dreaming out loud and finding ridiculous things hilarious, just like I did with my friends, and still do over 20 years later! There’s something about remembering who you were at your most fearless point in your life, and revisiting it! It’s humbling and empowering at the same time. And when you’re lucky enough to still be friends with the people that shared that with you, you get together when you can! It’s important! I visited many close friends in the summer.
After a really healing girls weekend in August 2020, I wrote the song “Home (Meet You There)”, A song that honours those young friendships. I’m sure everyone can remember the childhood years, when your heart easily finds ways to connect with others before life choices and extra kilometres make everything different! Then when you get together you reminisce, collaborate, and learn from each other, and things don’t even feel that different at all! Your hearts still have the same home, as the song says.
My prayer is that when people hear my song, they feel inspired to get in touch with their old friends that know them best! Meet each other where you’re at right now and raise a glass, hug it out, dance it out, cry it out. Stay up late and talk about your dreams and fears! Or just get up early and do it. That works better these days sometimes too. Either way, they might know things about you that you have forgotten! Music and sweet messages were flooding my life, so I kept writing.
Anyway, it was soon after that, that my great friend from Tree of Stars suggested that I apply to record with a new foundation that she just heard about. A foundation looking to support musicians that are battling mental illness. With my inability to play guitar, my disability being brought to the forefront of my life again, and my new love for just songwriting, I politely listened and then would secretly shrug it off. After a week or so, I finally felt a pull I couldn’t ignore, and got in touch with Margaret Konopacki.
She encouraged me to send in the audition videos before the deadline, and sent me David’s music so I could feel a little more connected. I walked my dog during the sunset that night, while listening to “Maggie’s Song”. That’s the song her son wrote for her as a Christmas present, the year before he passed away. It’s absolutely beautiful. I was so humbled as I thought about my sons, and the fact that I am still able to sing and share with my loved ones, and for my loved ones. And that’s a good enough reason to keep going! So I went home, tried to hide my dirty dishes in the sink, and made 3 videos using a looper so my pathetic strums could add up to a 3 minute song! I got them in the day before the deadline.
In the meantime, I began worrying about finances since I couldn’t perform anymore, and I had new chiropractor costs. With my head injury, I wasn’t sure if I could work any of the jobs that people typically start with. With my empathy affecting my stress levels so much, I knew working in the healthcare field during Covid was not the answer for me! The cool thing is, when I started seeing the chiropractor, my physical health improved so much, that I got a crazy idea that I could do a physically demanding job if it wasn’t intellectually or emotionally demanding.
I changed a few things in my job finding app, and found many jobs that appeared to be mostly physical, in a factory setting with no people at all! I sent in my résumé as a musical rec therapist, and I still got many job offers! I ended up taking a job at a plastics factory in Brantford, and after my feet gained some calluses, and I got on the right sleeping schedule, I was living my best life ever! I felt like I ran a long race everyday, I got to label boxes, stack boxes, lift, bend, problem solve, multitask.
Everything had a time and place. My shifts had a beginning and end. None of the products had feelings. My performance each day made no difference on how people treated me or perceived me. I am pretty sure if I had known how much I loved being a machine operator at a factory, that I would have planned for it as a child! I truly loved it!
Half of my songs were perfected and completed to the sounds of machines manufacturing containers! It was a place for me to do what I could with what I had. And I was good at it! I hadn’t felt that way for a long time. I will forever be thankful to that company. When I had my hairnet, my mask, gloves, my long sleeves, and my steel toes on, I was like everyone else. I still don’t know much about my coworkers at the factory to be honest, but they were definitely my people.
Around the same time that I started loving my job at the factory, is when I was notified that I was one of the artists that were chosen to record with Birdsong Foundation. She even noticed my dirty dishes in the sink, and she loved all of it!
That’s when I wrote the song Best Advice.
“It eventually all fits like a jigsaw puzzle, and what goes up must come down. Anything worth doing is never gonna be easy. One day at a time, two feet on the ground. Something’s gotta give. And love always wins. If you feel like you’ve heard it 100 million times It’s probably just good advice.”
I recorded that song, along with “Home”, in November 2020 with Birdsong Foundation, at B Musique Productions. My friend Rick Henderson perfected the lead guitar, so I brought him with me. Bryant Didier took those simple songs with powerful messages, and created a sound and an experience that match. And together, it made music that makes you move! I’m not gonna lie, it was a little scary to let myself be vulnerable in a music setting again. But our team, with our gifts and our intentions collaborated, made it all work!
I was still stressed and trembling the whole time, but that kept me humble and focused. And when I got to exhale after my part was all over, my perspective changed and I had another new hope for my future. I knew for sure I wasn’t done with performing music at that point. It actually opened up my heart, and created deeper space for deeper longing. Another chapter of transformation was about to start, and we all knew it.
Fast forward to a year later (today), and my life has completely transformed. I am no longer working at the factory, but I use the skills I learned there every day to maintain this crazy household! I can no longer say that I feel lonely or bored, since I have an incredible man in my life now. Believe me when I say that “lonely” and “bored” won’t be written into any of my future songs with him around.
Our jigsaw puzzle is the intricate kind. A beautiful one! As my song said, “Something’s gotta give, and love always wins”. It’s hilarious how much I sarcastically sing that under my breath around here, and I swear I wrote it before we met! We are a perfect match. My kids, who are amazing little men now, are doing great. They’re honest, kind, and humble, and growing like resilient little weeds! I’m so proud of them.
Bryant Didier and I also have a good start on recording 10 more songs. As Maggie suggested, and in honour of Birdsong Foundation, the album is called Love Always Wins! Love won, and is still winning everyday. I’m still writing new songs regularly.
We’re hoping the Love Always Wins album will be released next summer, which is exciting, but I have to say that I love the process of writing, and the practicing! We’re not rushing it.
Please check out Birdsong Foundation, as well as the other amazing artists that are featured on the album. There are two other artists being released early and for free, one of them being David Martin. He’s the heart of Birdsong Foundation, and a truly incredible artist. As the press release says, there will be a tour next year, and the album will be released in May 2022.
Please consider donating. Making music is something that everyone can benefit from, everyone understands it, and it lasts forever! Many people that struggle with mental health have beautiful stories to tell, and important purposes to live up to. Songwriting and music are the miracle that make the difference in countless lives for countless generations.
Sounds like a good investment to me!