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August 2014

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 

 

 


My Life In Music

Part One (Detroit, Michigan)

The first I remember truly actually singing is in church. We went to St. Vincent's, Catholic, it couldn't've been more white, but there was soul. It moved through me, a toddler in her mother's lap. "Gloria in excelsis Deo", a Christian hymn, the long ribbon of it coming out my throat, hitting all the notes. They put me in the choir and said a lot of formal things I didn't care about: my range (3 octaves), my pitch (perfect), an alto soprano, a gift from God. There was love in my heart, I sang it, why hesitate, at that age who knows a damn thing about dynamics? You either loved me or hated me. I was unashamed. 

listen: In Excelsis Deo

Those hymns and gospel spirituals, and then the popular music my mother loved, which seemed to begin with Christmas songs. There was something about winter in Michigan that brought singing out; in the Oldsmobile and then the Nova, driving around to just feel something of adventure, she was either smoking or singing. Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney. "The Christmas Song" was maybe the first song that really made me cry. I loved it. I wanted to live there.

listen: The Christmas Song

My mother had lp's and a stereo in the living room with very humble furniture, a worn green carpet, a few lamps, lots of books, newspapers, encyclopedias. At about 3 or 4 (so tiny!), I fell deeply in love with vinyl, as an object - first I would stare at the album cover, inside and out. Then I'd take the lp out of its sleeve, stare into it deeply and fall into a trance. This could go on for hours. It was then that I became obsessed with the "Thoroughly Modern Millie" soundtrack, the paper sleeve, the art work, pen and ink drawings, the music - specifically the title song. There just weren't enough hours in the day! It was a wonderful place. Also, the encylopedias. 

listen: Thoroughly Modern Millie Soundtrack

AM radio in Detroit was powerful stuff, and it was everywhere. Baseball games, morning shows, the music coming out at you, Motown. I can't put a finger on when I first heard those voices and songs, they were just always there. Stevie Wonder, the Miracles with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Supremes,  Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Mary Wells, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Spinners, Isley Brothers, Edwin Starr, David Ruffins - it just goes on and on. That music is so embedded in my psyche it's dna. I hear the opening notes of any one of those gems and I'm time traveled back to my childhood, everything felt. It's a pre-verbal knowledge. Blindfolded, you could find your way.

listen: You Really Got A Hold On Me

My mom thought it was important for us to witness the '68 riots. Or she was compelled to get out into it and couldn't leave us at home alone. Either way, there we were, while something tremendous was rolling, I could smell and feel it. I was in kindergarten. At this point, we were living in one of the first suburbs of Detroit skirting the northern edge of the city, straddling the racist white-flighters and the poorer communities living on the outer edges. For us, in one direction it was safe (toward the city/family/poor people), and in the other it wasn't (toward the developing suburbs/rich people). She loaded us into the car and drove right downtown. My grandparents still lived there, she had friends there, she was in love with Detroit, it was home. Earlier than I can remember singing, I knew Detroit. But it felt different - a gigantic energy surged around us, it felt like drifting away on one of my night visions; I wasn't afraid, I was lucid dreaming. Our car overheated and a big black man helped her put water in the radiator with a hose. There was my mom, leaning against the hood smoking, people talking to each other, voices joined together, chanting, singing, humming, hugging, searching the horizon for what. Maybe we were in her childhood neighborhood, maybe we were just on a street she knew. I can't place it on a map but I can place it in my body - right here, the heart. I was so young, it was so visceral, and the songs I heard were Motown, which felt like protest songs, spirituals, gospel, pure Detroit. Those visions stay, and that singing carried me away. 

listen: Precious Lord Take My Hand

In third grade, I started acting in school plays and in sixth grade, I got the lead in an operetta being staged at my elementary school. Pretty sophisticated stuff, which is why my mom moved out of Detroit in the first place: to get us just over the school district line so we could go to Oakland County public schools. The arts programs couldn't be beat. Having already gotten a great buzz from making people laugh from the stage, it was during this production that I realized I had the power to make people cry - finally realizing my Nat King Cole dreams. It wasn't that I wanted to hurt them, it was that I felt a large inherent sadness in the world that I wanted to give voice to. I've searched for the lullaby that did it and alas, it's slipped into the ether. The lyrics, "Go to sleep my baby dear, go to sleep and do not fear, little fingers little toes, like petals of a rose." A woman in the front row was sobbing. I never felt more alive. 

Sometime around then, I adopted my sister's ignored records, saving them from a slow death in the basement - lp's and 45's, paper sleeves, all that art. The record player moved into our shared bedroom, cloth-covered speakers moored to it with tangled wires. Pennies, then nickels, taped to the needle arm, to keep it from skipping. Grooves! I had to chase them. 

listen: As Tears Go By

"December's Children", The Rolling Stones. I'd play the side with "As Tears Go By" with Marianne Faithful singing, for hours. "It is the evening of the day, I sit and watch the children play, smiling faces I can see, but not for me, I sit and watch as tears go by." Leaning on the windowsill, staring out at the big trees. Yep, that was me - that was really just me.

listen: I Think We're Alone Now

Hairbrush singing 45's: Stevie "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"; The Miracles "You Really Got A Hold On Me"; Tommy James and the Shondells "Crimson and Clover", "I Think We're Alone Now"; Aretha's "Dr Feelgood"; The Beach Boys "Wouldn't It Be Nice?"; Bee Gees "To Love Somebody"; The Rolling Stones, tip to toe. Were there no Beatles? The Beatles were everywhere but I don't remember singing them in the mirror. 

listen: To Love Somebody

Now I'm hitting 12, 13. Was I still singing in the church choir? I quit when things started going off the rails at home, just before my mom started beating and torturing me, before I was driven into homelessness and got raped. Music has always been the spiritual tradition that's kept me alive, I didn't know it til I almost died. 

Cathouse_Finneys_Sized

 


Deliquesces

at least I'm not sixteen anymore

drinking all the hard stuff

I can find in anyone's basement or

get men in parking lots of liquor stores

to buy for me in brown paper bags. Keeping it down

with greasy chicken sandwiches, chocolate

and gasoline

stolen with my mouth on a hose into an old

metal can. Blacking out in back seats

 

or $15 motel rooms, getting

the hot fevers in the early

hours of blizzards

that burned my dreams into ashes

caught in the low hanging branches

in the woods behind the church. Staying forever

 

homeless, completely completely abandoned - 

knowing God has cut me out or

it was my mother who sucker punched me over and over and left 

me bleeding, jagged, feral - 

begging to be free.

 

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Who Is Actually Perceiving

Although everything is just a thought

in the end we can begin to feel

things as dreams, begin

to see things

in a state of compassion

to the rest of the world and

your life. When extremely evil

or joyful situations occur

be a fundamental frame of mind connected

to the paramita of meditation. The sword

can afford

to let go. How we start

 

if there were some kind of dream

you could have a tender heart

in any situation. It's much better

to have accepted you have

a soft spot in your heart. They think

 

if they put their honey or jam or

glue on you that you might buy it and say

Okay, the blame is mine. You can absorb

the poison. It isn't even tight. The text says

 

Drive all blames into one. The 

whole thing can be done

very gently, with the threshold of power

collectively of this world. Only you

really know your self. You just witness

what you are.

 


Checklist

AQueensRule_Shantrelle

Shantrelle, Cleaver, Abandoned Building                                                                 photo ©EUnderwood

 

  1. My whole life
  2. Is a personal challenge
  3. kindness, justice and love
  4. I start with a little
  5. is often painful
  6. and growth of a spiritual experience
  7. We nevertheless found ourselves alone in the world
  8. to be unafraid
  9. What were you thinking
  10. Those women who betray women
  11. Love as a moral imperative
  12. not all mothers are mothers
  13. A tendency to look
  14. You do it every hour
  15. I just wanna run
  16. Those goddamn bitches
  17. who exist
  18. I know a few
  19. Being able to say no
  20. it is necessary for survival
  21. Transformer
  22. riots and racism in America
  23. I had to answer the phone
  24. the first time I'd really been funny
  25. with the heavy metal band
  26. you feel like you're on a team
  27. And I wasn't 
  28. My dad was always right about that
  29. I won't tell you
  30. my Indian name
  31. Do I remember that I have a right?
  32. Trauma recovery therapy
  33. Degrees

Checklist (Montana)

1. Ghost hunting
2. rusting American sedans that wouldn't fetch much even as spare parts
3. Having visited his spleen, the biker whispered
4. We're going to build a farming center right here
5. When I was young, a long time ago
6. Serious rodeo journalism
7. About six pounds of fluids
8. Several hundred old-timers
9. The anonymous crowd quickly went
10. Fallen cabins
11. "Did you see the hanging?" "I did." 
12. It was a very cold evening.
13. The dogs/close to our hearts
14. A trim athletic man, neatly dressed in a cowboy shirt
15. A-kok-kiai-wa, Many Bears
16. No wonder the bears were attacking campers
17. Bulls have names like Grand Coulee, Rain Dance and Roughneck.
18. Comical and dangerous
19. Bat-wing chaps
20. I'm in love
21. Havin taken a responsible stance
22. We rocked from side to side
23. The church really helped me
24. The heart, or perhaps the liver
25. I wandered through the crumbling red-light district
26. A thick pastry shell stuffed with herbs and onions
27. Last night a horse's teeth ripped a 3 inch gap in his neck
28. I looked in his eyes for some recognition
29. Mirth and myth making in progress
30. Not so much as individuals but as a team
31. Wiped his eyes with his bandana
32. But the highway called
33. Degrees

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