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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SUICIDE

Like many people, suicide has been a part of my life. My family history includes it; my personal journey  also includes it. Family members have killed themselves; friends have killed themselves. It's part of the story of my life. 

I've found 2 dead bodies from intentional suicide and I've found one dead from unintentional suicide. The difference seems semantic and yet it's meaningful when thinking about the people who used to live in those bodies. How people die is a big chapter in the story of one's life. It can define how we're grieved and how we're remembered. It can fuel all kinds of emotions and ideas; it can drive the direction of the survivors lives.

An intentional suicide victim? I feel they chose the fact of suicide to be a fact of their life. Did you know that when people shoot themselves, they have to pull the trigger with their non-dominant hand because they need the strength of their dominant hand to hold the trigger hand down? That's how hard the body fights to live. A police officer in the homicide division told me that.

In other words, it seems an impossible thing to deny - that person took his life. It seems to me to be a ferocious act of will fueled by horrific suffering, but a defining act of personal will none-the-less. In this regard, an intentional suicide is fundamentally different than an unintentional one. 

When  talking about intentional suicide, people ask, "Why did he (she) kill himself (herself)?" I have the answer. I really do. Search teams of great thinkers have swept the wide terrain far and wide for centuries upon centuries seeking the answer, little did they know an ordinary lady would hold it. It's a true answer, unarguable, and has given me great comfort when I've been driven sleepless, traumatized by my own exhausting search for "why". Here it is:

People kill themselves because they don't want to live. 

That's it, it begins and ends there, it's the only answer that anyone living can live with. It's the only answer that a grieving survivor can be calmed with. I know, I've calmed many. And it's worked for me. 

When my dear friend Tobey commited suicide I thought, oh God, how does one cope with this? I thought, I can be brave. I thought, I can choose not to die. I thought, how terrible his suffering must have been - how wretched and lonely and crushing - for him to have done such a violence to himself and our lives. Because Arun and I found him, because he shot himself in the head in his bed in their house on Constance Street, with the dogs and the kitchen and the toilitries, the magazines and coffee cups, the daily living life of stuff. He did it there and it was gruesome; there was a roomful of blood. 

Yes, that is how great his suffering was, that he created that for us. Breathing that idea in, becoming intimate with it, pressing my lips to it, clasping it to my bosom, carrying it against my bosom as I carried his things to the thrift store, as I carried Arun through the days - that is how I have managed to build compassion for suicide victims in my life. That is how great his suffering was, that he did not want to live.

This idea of the immensity of some suffering, I didn't come up with that one; I had help from the Buddhists with that - help from Gelek Rinpoche in Ann Arbor Michigan, in fact. And it comforts me. It helps my heart soften, it softens my heart. Cuz I was mad, oh yeah. Anyone would be. Anger is one of the stages of grief? Anger is an honest reaction to something so ugly happening in your world. 

Tobey's suicide took Arun away from me, is how I felt then, and I was mad. And I confess, I was mad our adventure was over, that reality had slammed down upon us and now, death. I was mad when I saw what it did to Tobey's parents - the most charming, generous, loving people I've ever known. Immense, heavy, black - there it was, the fact of his suicide and the terrors it brought down upon my people, and still: I wanted to live. Building compassion for him, forgiving him, it wasn't some idea in a book on meditation on some glossy bookshelf - it's what I needed to do in order to survive - it was really a matter of life and death. 

Funny thing - there were people who wanted me dead then. Yep. One guy - an infamous redheaded Detroit rock & roll junkie - backed me against a wall at Tobey's funeral and said, "It should be YOU, dead." It's interesting, having someone wish that upon you; it brought the phrase "in cold blood" to life for me. And I had no answer to him; I just walked away. What can you do to make someone feel better about the fact that you're still alive?

So - Arun's death 2 months after Tobey's was ruled "unintentional".  Yes, I found his body and yes, it was horrific. But the whole "unintentional" thing with him, that makes sense to me. Because it wasn't a month earlier that, sitting in my kitchen eating potatoes and eggs, Arun told me, "It's not that I want to die. I just don't want to feel alive." Yep, that can kill someone, too. But that's a different death, it's a different story of death. 

The differences in their lives and deaths? They are significant and they are meaningless. They mean nothing to grieving parents and siblings; they mean nothing in the end. And still, I can't help but think - these are their stories, death is a part of the story of life. 

And there were people after Arun's death who also wanted me dead. One woman - an infamous mousy haired skinny Detroit rock & roll  junkie (a pattern!) - told me she wished I were dead instead of Arun and that she'd kill me if she had half a chance. That's something. It's breathtaking. And it's hilarious, if you look at it the right way.

Because they tried to kill me with slander and fear, and they failed. Because the events I was surviving, that I was in the middle of, that haunted my eyes and panic'd my nights, threatened to kill me with their weight, and they failed. Winters, beatings, rape, homelessness, poverty, hunger - failed to kill me. And then I spent years chasing the bottom of my own bottles, trying to not feel alive, and I failed. I have failed to commit suicide. Again, why? Eureka, I have the answer!

And it's a good one, it's as simple and brilliant as my answer to the suicide question. I've honed this answer through years of peeling bark from trunk, of threading needles and splitting hairs - I've pieced it together from shards of bloody glass and opalescent wings of things I don't know the names of - I've practiced it in the mirror, morning and night, and I've been waiting all this time to tell you: 

I haven't killed myself because I want to live. 

I've been thinking lately about the unfairness of life, how so many people will never know what it is to read a book or drink clean water, how so many animals will only be tortured, how many people will never know what it is to be truly loved or own a new car or a house or a mattress or even an old crappy car or a cheap ass mattress - how unfair life can be for the living. Anyone who thinks they got all their good things because they somehow did something right? Foolhardy. You can't tell me that stuff isn't random; it's just the arbitrary stuff of life.  

Which leads me to thinking of death and coming to believe that it's the fairest thing about life. Every single living thing is going to die. This calms me, the impersonalness of it. It has nothing to do with me, or you or you or you; it's not going to take some people and leave others, nobody gets out alive. It's an even playing field. None of us knows how or when and we certainly don't know what happens in that immensity of the after-life. So I'm thinking, death - it comes - with its voracious appetite for all things - and the person who enacts his own death? Well, that is its own kind of bravery. 

I want suicidal people to get help and to stay alive; I don't want anyone to suffer that deeply; I don't wish for anyone to find the body; I don't wish for people to have their lives shattered and hearts broken and buried and wrung. But beside all that human emotion, that natural reactivity, there's a part of me that kindof admires the man who intentionally takes his own life. I couldn't do it, that much I know. 


Hey New Orleans, where can workers picnic?

Why, 9 years after the levee breaks, is the free & public beach on Lake Ponchatrain still closed? I hear all the time about the progress we've made post-Katrina; it seems to me the only progress that's worth anything to the media & the general public at large is the kind that benefits rich people. 

That beach was the only place in New Orleans where families, lovers, pals, pets could hang out in the sand and kindof cruddy water on a summer's day or night. Lots of fishers, bbq'ers, kids and radios, laughing, staring out at the sailboats. There was shade and shells and sunsets. I loved it cuz it was the opposite of Audubon Park - there were all kinds of people, people of color, and food and rowdy and fun. Folks kissing under trees and men fishing for supper. 

I drove out there today, hoping for some change. The fences, stanchions and locks remain. On the other side of all that authority, the grass is trimmed, the trees are loving, the water laps at the quietness and I miss what used to be. 

So we've got an endless crop of small plates restaurants, artisan doughnut shops and even a storefront where you can lay in a chair & get plugged to an iv to "rehydrate" with precious electrolytes to "recharge" after a late night at the funky dive bars or from a long work week. There's more grocery stores than there have been for a long time: a new "co-op" nobody in the neighborhood can afford to shop at, a new Whole Foods nobody in the neighborhood can afford to shop at, and so on. The rents have skyrocketed and wages haven't. My neighborhood has become achingly hip, flooded with white people in sharp clothes who don't say hello. And the protests to gentrification are comprised of hysterical zealots who think tearing down trees and dumping trash in rich people's front yards is an effective form of protest. And still, we can't swim in the lake.