Armor

Old chains rusty gates twisted concertina

worn cement hard red brick dull metal

mountains hills boulders stones rocks pebbles

mud hay glue spit shit

paper hair keys safety pins paperclips

broken plates bent spoons cracked knives candle stubs

bike locks bicycles spokes wheels hubs

mufflers carburetors engine blocks

oil radiator fluid brake fluid gasoline

shovels rakes buckets bones

books mirrors empty lipstick tubes

empty perfume bottles

empty water bottles, crushed

feathers petals leaves sticks burnt matches

driftwood firewood roots trees

whole trees

vegetables fruit rice walnuts acorns pecans

shells and shells and shells

moss

starfish snails slugs

rolled up rugs torn towels stained sheets

pillows and pillowcases

ragged shoes ragged sweaters hangers

cameras telephones blenders irons coffee pots flasks burnt pans

everything cracked bent broken fucked

all the broken glass off the street

nests from branches, branches

aluminum tin vinyl duct tape plastic tarps

whole cars

guitars turntables microphone stands

microphones

thousands of pens hundreds of pencils

sharpees crayons tubes of acrylic and oils

chunks of chalk pastels charcoal cans of linseed

olive canola coconut sesame oils

seeds from all the things

threads from all the things

buttons scraps quilts blankets robes

all the clothes

all the dreams, hopes

smashed crushed compressed 

splintered, packed

between me and my soul

 

 


“We need a thinking that does not fall apart in the face of horror” George Bataille

We try to organize the world, which isn't organized the way our brains want to organize it. We tell stories about the people in our lives, we project ideas onto them. We project relationships with people, we make our lives into stories. I don't think we can avoid doing that. There's no way to approach anything in an objective way. We're completely subjective; our view of the world is completely controlled by who we are as human beings, as men or women, by our age, our history, our profession, by the state of the world.

Change is most likely to occur through people who are as far removed from cynicism as they are from utopianism. At this point we lack any practical blueprint for action, unless we are willing to act as architects and engineer a new conceptual framework for our lives. When a particular cultural idea like freedom becomes so abstract and overvalued that it finally assumes control of the entire personality (or collective mentality) and suppresses all other motivations, then it becomes dogmatic and limiting. In this formula, anything which is not “in the whole” is not individuality but egocentrism.

The question always remains: to what are we really committed? Is it to playing it safe and manipulating our life and the rest of the world so that it will give us security and confirmation? This takes the form of people claiming to be "revolutionary" or "on the outside" as much as anyone else. Or is our commitment to exploring deeper and deeper levels of letting go? Do we take refuge in small, self-satisfied actions, speech, and mind? Or do we take refuge in warriorship, in taking a leap, in going beyond our usual safety zones? Being "avant garde/revolutionary/outside" can be as much of a safety zone as anything else -

I think the current high pitch of cultural anxiety is a reflection of core insecurities in a wild and wooly universe that we cannot control. We try to convince ourselves that we are more meaningful than anyone could actually conceive. It's no doubt that horrific things are happening, there is no doubt that these horrors have the capacity to challenge life at its core. Hearts break, creatures die, innocence is destroyed - evil seems to take control. What can we control? This is a spiritual lesson in powerlessness and acceptance - feelings of hopelessness deepen when our idea of what we can do is out of sync with what we actually can do. I will not surrender to hopelessness; I will focus on what I can actually do. That's not a little - it's everything.

Use, social behavior, mental events - nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal. And many people no longer feel the need for such a separation; indeed, many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not irrational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. Within this framework, teaching modern Christian creationism should be fought as a form of child abuse. Within this framework, we suffer when our family suffers - and our family is all life. Collective responsibility becomes the only answer. Humility in the face of what we cannot control becomes the bravest response.

The love we seek overrules human nature. There is no love that doesn't pierce the hands and feet. I do not know whether science will formulate its grand theory of the universe. I know that it will not make it any easier to read the plain text of our hearts. Creation and destruction are the same. Nothing is created purely out of the ether. Everything comes from something else. This is a comfort to me.

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Chevelle

69ChevelleSS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Author with her 1969 Chevelle SS 396, Detroit MI 1981

Listen here

CHEVELLE

There came a time

when this body of mine

couldn't live the same way without dying

 

Crushing defeat

made a woman out of me,

burning out of the snow into fire


With everyone hanging low to the sun

all that shiny in the light

     

        Come on now, come on now

        get down with the Earth

        I am nothing, you are nothing

        without her -

        Come on now, come on now

        get up with the sky -

        there is nothing but to fly

                   

                (All my dreams came

                    all my dreams go)

 

Turning the cheek

when they're shooting it clean

might not be the best way to get free

 

7 long years

I lived in her fears

never-ending til I threw the first punch

 

My higher power

in the coldest hours

the big engine

I learn how to trust

 

                    (All my dreams came

                        all my dreams go)

 

        Come on now, come on now

        get down with the Earth

        I am nothing, you are nothing

        without her -

        Come on now, come on now

        get up with the sky -

        there is nothing but to fly

 

 

 

 

            


Lucky

18815078_10155714767108676_6465722173275739242_o

I know that it's an absolute privilege to be able to buy, cook and eat clean food that nourishes my body and soul. I never forget my times of homelessness and abject poverty - and the fact that millions of creatures on this planet are starving today. It's my experiences of suffering that have borne my greatest gift - gratitude. I give thanks to the Creator for providing me with all this sustenance, may the strength I gain from it fuel me to give it away.

18768491_10155708862898676_6666870725744414603_o

 


Freedom

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The people who've won MY freedom are the people who practice non-violence, the resistors, the civic disobeyers, protestors, meditators, the spiritual practitioners, creators, healers. It's what's given me anything of real value, it gives my life real value, this is just who I've always been. 

St Roach

For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
for that I saw my people making war on you,
I could not tell you apart, one from another,
for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
for that all the people I knew met you by
crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
water on you, they flushed you down,
for that I could not tell one from another
only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
Not like me.
For that I did not know your poems
And that I do not know any of your sayings
And that I cannot speak or read your language
And that I do not sing your songs
And that I do not teach our children
to eat your food
or know your poems
or sing your songs
But that we say you are filthing our food
But that we know you not at all.

Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
You were lighter than the others in color, that was
neither good nor bad.

I was really looking for the first time.
You seemed troubled and witty.

Today I touched one of you for the first time.
You were startled, you ran, you fled away
Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

- Muriel Rukeyser

 
 
 
 

Sunflowers, stitching wounds to heal  (for Leslie)

It’s me that’s growing. In them

I’m wild things, the faithful and

serene. Bound to the sprouting, budding, open

 

bloomed wide open

singing, bending heavy 

then with life, turning downward

in wind, to sun, with water - shedding,

drooping fat with life, pregnant

seeds, triumphant

leaves, their leaving, all of it

my fruit.

 

Have you ever smelled a sunflower?

Go for it, put your whole face in.

Mine are big enough

to blotto you

with pure sugar, summer kissing, tongues

licking, rock candy, spinning, over and over

again. 

 

 

It was barely spring

when I pushed the seeds into the soil I fertilized

with fresh soil and minerals. 

They eat minerals, you know. 

They eat lead. They leech

everything bad out, the

toxins long been in this land, the cancer

that will get us if it can. They transcend,

 

feeding bees and birds, tossing pollen,

sex and time. They mesmerize

ghosts and call to the workers.

They make kids so happy!

You can.

 

 

Then there was drought and I carried

many many many many many buckets

of water.  And they grew, boy

did they ever. First tender,

 

just stems and

sweet little leaves.  My dog ate them, lipping

the baby goodness, munching

while giving me the sly eyeballs.

I like that, I didn’t mind -

we kept growing.  Eager’s

the only way to call it.

One foot, two foot, three foot, four - fattening even

in belittled soil.

 

 

Maybe it was love

or the marigolds underneath

I don’t know exactly

but they never stopped - they grew into and past

the relentless sun.  And

the people, the people

 

loved them back. I only made them a place

where we could be wondrous beings. Once a lady on her bike

rode by hollering, “Sunflowers! Thank you!”

Once a young mother with a pack of kids

taught them how to pet them. Together,

 

we make. Once

at night

there was an eclipse

and we stood together, me and sunflowers, watching,

un-alone, linked,

connected, rewarded, known

in mystery. Once somebody cut some

 

for some bouquet for a lover

or their mother or their kitchen table.

I was spitting mad.  Who’s entitled

to kill these gifts?  Who, if not me?

So they taught me forgiveness

 

through the rushing growth that never stops -

I saw my arrogance, my

frailty, vulnerability and sin.

It’s not for me to hate the harvest

no matter what form it comes in.

 

 

I forgot to tell you about the kittens.

Three of them, black and white, bones

jutting out of their skin like crimes. The shade

made them safe

plus I started feeding them

at the juncture where the stalk meets the dirt. Underneath 

 

there are roots.  Everything's not about

what we can see.  An entire universe

is working in tandem

to produce this moment

for everything to thrive –

 

flies, ants, ladybugs, caterpillars, butterflies, birds, cockroaches, any thing

we can dream. How many lives

pass can’t be counted - it’s all I can do

to tend to the sown.

 

x

 

Now it’s hot.

And it rained once, under a lightning

storm.  Have you ever held the head

of a sunflower, 12 inches round,

spiraling with seeds?  Nothing but seeds!  This

 

teaches me

how to be human, how

to be loved, to

let go and be let go of

to shine. To find

 

in the deepest crevice

of my deepest heart

how nothing ever dies. 

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Against Spiritual Materialism

This world rewards big, showy displays of progress - a better salary, buying a house, a new baby, marriage, a new car, a brighter future! But the progress of warriors reflects and is humbled by age or grief or circumstance. Sometimes forward movement can be measured only by how many leaves you can sweep from your front stoop; by how many crow feathers you can find on your morning walk; by how many steps you take to get to the bedroom curtains. 

 


Palimpsest

New Orleans is a strange city, always has been. It’s historically charged, aesthetically specific, traditional/anarchistic, secretive/emotive, fundamentally complex—one craves to know it and yet it remains fluid, unknowable. Given this dichotomy, how can I report on New Orleans in a way that’s alive and authentic? I can only write what I know: that my relationship with this city is the defining relationship of my life and it’s changing all the time.

©FirstTripToNewOrleans

(On Esplanade Avenue for the first time, photo Fork Burke)

I came here because of a Tom Waits song, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans,” that I obsessively listened to in my cold Detroit shack. It was on vinyl, my turntable was held together with duct tape. I wrote letters on a typewriter, had a rotary phone with no answering machine, didn’t own a car, I rode trains. It was Carnival when I arrived and I didn’t know anything about any of it; hell, I didn’t even know Mardi Gras Day was Tuesday. I was just a wild pony on the hunt, who knew for what. And New Orleans rewarded me for my blind search with flat-out magic, there’s no other way to describe it. I fell madly in love with its analog velocity and crooked seams, the shadows and synchronicities that revealed promises inside secrets inside delicious buttery food inside drums. I fell hard for the people, sing-songy and proud, everyone a star, life-rich, half-cocked slang, anyone with a vision could make their way, no grid to speak of, anyone who wanted could hide. Here was a place of smoke and cats, fat flowers and coffee and bitters, all wet and abject. I moved here as soon as I could; it’s been over 20 years and I’ll never regret it.

©ElizabethUnderwood_5

Maundering (photo ©EUnderwood)

For folks wanting to understand the psychology here, I suggest beginning with our ecology. In Native American traditions, the South is symbolic of the “eternal Spring” and it’s eternally Spring in the sub-tropic deep South. We’re situated in a web of powerfully colliding waters, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, with their wetlands and swamps, big storms and industry. The physical nature of this place is always regenerating—the earth is constantly turning into its waters and producing new earth, which in turn gets turned—there’s no solid ground in a swamp. The growing season’s year-round; there’s always something dying and blooming at once. Have you smelled rot up close? Has that smell ever turned you on? There you go, welcome to New Orleans.

©ElizabethUnderwood_3

Wade In The Water (photo ©EUnderwood)

And there’s Miss Marie sweeping her stoop after her grandbabies, Slim loping to Jimmy’s for a cold drink, Edwin on the hunt for odd jobs, Laurie the mail-lady who always has a biscuit for my dog, frail Miss Jenny who used to walk day and night with her husband but he passed so now she walks alone, Marty the self-appointed sheriff on his personal neighborhood watch, which entails lying to everyone about everything while reminding us about the 22 in his belt, Tommy the retired fireman gently coaching his skittish pitbull Gert that he rescued out of the big flood, and my beautiful pal Jeffrey telling me all about the Frozen Cup Lady while the first Mardi Gras parade of the season, Krewe de Vieux, tears up the street with their crazy floats and brass bands and mules behind us, “Eli, Eli! You have to know the Frozen Cup lady! They would make the frozen cups, each neighborhood had their own. Yeah, yours might make pineapple, another would make bubble gum, my favorite was pineapple. 25 cents or something, everyone had a Frozen Cup lady! Now they’re just gone.” Jeffrey smokes clove cigarettes; everyone’s in love with Jeffrey.

©EUnderwood

One And Only/Jeffrey (photo ©EUnderwood)

I find myself lying down in a weedy space pulsing with romance and river sounds, to watch satellites sparking as the moon hitches up to somebody grilling down the block who will give me a plate when I pass back by. If you really live here, you never say no to a plate, and you say hello, how you doin’, alright and you my baby, baby doll, baby girl? Mystery still lives here. The unknowable still winks from the high boughs of the old oaks, teasing, calling, flashing a grand prize. And climbing for it still gives me the real story of my life. It’s tattooed on my heart’s fingertips and I will try to spell it out before it vanishes, just another trail of blood in the mud a wisp, disappearing as we kiss — 

©ElizabethUnderwood_8

Royal Rain (photo ©EUnderwood)

originally published Les Chroniques Purple, permission required/all rights reserved

#neworleans #culture #memoir 


America! Look to New Orleans

If you need hope about America today, please do yourself a favor and read/listen to this powerful speech, written and delivered by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, on the removal of the Lost Cause Confederate monuments:

Watch video of the speech here

Click here for The Advocate's reporting, which includes the speech's transcript

I'm overjoyed that our Mayor is taking such clear and direct action in resistance to the tide of white supremacy that is experiencing a resurgence in our country. New Orleans IS a Sanctuary City, and this action, and his fiery words about it, set us up as the example that all American cities should follow: be true patriots, stand up to hate, stand up for a new narrative. 

And while I'm impressed by Mayor Landrieu's willingness to take this on, we must remember that it's black activists who made this real, who lead this effort - for decades, lifetimes. Most recently: Malcolm Suber, Angela Kinlaw and Michael Quess? Moore, and Chuck Perkins, all leading Take Em Down NOLA in this great effort. Our Mayor rose to the occasion that their sacrifices and tireless work created. They literally put their bodies on the line for it, devoted their lives to it by continuing the tradition of the fight for justice they inherited from great ancestors. It's powerful that Landrieu LISTENED and answered the call, and was willing to take the heat, especially given our current political reality, and the freshly stoked flames of white supremacy that threaten to burn us down. He's smart and right, and he's showing great leadership - that we truly can be a sanctuary city that leads America into a more just future. But we must honor and credit the real New Orleans citizens who made this happen - and that they are black - otherwise we perpetuate the same whitewashing of history that those monuments represent.

It feels incredible, driving by these empty pedestals. Charged, liminal - the energy has been snapped and the air is charged with hope. This isn't the solution, it's the action that makes solutions real. History isn't static - the history of the Confederacy ain't going anywhere anytime soon. There's a million markers to white supremacy in this country, and systemic institutionalized racism still runs our show. We know, though, that history is a construction - it is MADE, like a cake. It just so happens that TODAY, in this country that appears to be a gigantic dumpster fire, down here in New Orleans we are making a sweeter cake. And isn't that just like us? As the Mayor explains,

"So here is the essential truth: we are better together than we are apart ... isn't this the gift that we, the people of New Orleans, have given to the world? We radiate beauty! And grace. In our food, in our music, in our architecture, in our joy of life, in our celebration of death, in everything we do. We gave the world this funky thing called jazz, it's the most uniquely American art form that has developed across the ages, and from different cultures (coming together). Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffalatta, think about the Saints, think about gumbo, think about red beans and rice, by god, just think! All we hold dear is created by throwing everything in the pot, creating, producing something better, everything, EVERYTHING a product of our historic diversity. We are proof that out of many we are one, and better for it, out of many we are one - and we REALLY DO LOVE IT."

I love it when he says "funky".

Another powerful quote from his speech:

"We cannot wait any longer, we NEED TO CHANGE, and we need to change NOW, no more waiting. This is not just about statues, this is about attitudes, and this is about behaviors as well. If we take down these statues and don't change to become a more open and inclusive society, then all of this would have been in vain," Mayor Mitch Landrieu, "NOW is the time to send a new message to the next generation of New Orleanians, a message about the future, let us not miss this opportunity, New Orleans, and LET US HELP THE REST OF AMERICA DO THE SAME, because now, see, NOW is the time for choosing."

These are the words of a man fighting for America, with an open heart and intelligence that can't be bought or sold. He is standing up for people, for our future, for children, and I love him for it. I hope he runs for President. After hearing this I think, yeah, he really could - 

Here's a photo of me with him at a lecture on the arts at Lusher High School, I said, "Please be a part of my collection of selfies with handsome men!" 

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Friends have spotted him at PJ's Coffehouse getting tea, at Langenstein's getting frozen pizza, and at parties holding court, casting a spell with his apparent gifts of oration. Yeah, boy. He's a true New Orleanian. And he is reinforcing what I've always said, New Orleans is the spiritual center of this country - our rituals, our literal living culture, not an abstract thing but how we live it on the daily, how we learn to accept loss, how we must accept that losing everything material - and even our lives - might be the cost of choosing to live here, our choice to live here in this dissolving, disappearing, sexy town. This place brings spiritual concepts into high relief - either you get them or you get spit out. I've buried a lot of people who couldn't handle this energy, I've grieved a lot of people who loved this city too much to leave it. I've carried the weight, I've borne witness to those who carry more than I ever will, I lost everything and came back, and do not want for a thing. If you go beneath the surface, New Orleans gives you exactly what you need. And she will turn on you, but ultimately you'll come to believe you needed that, too. So here we are. Look to us, America! We have got you now.

#neworleans #takeemdownnola #mayormitchlandrieu #resist #resistisaverb