Canadian Geese and Ella Fitzgerald

Under the autumn sky, around the lake another time I walk.  Brisk air tossing my hair about, and I catch sight of them.  Grey and grand, they are silent above me.  Determined necks, strong wings in the bluster, they move onward.  Moving together toward a destination – built in the bones.  Just being geese, they pursue what has been etched into their beings, and they live.

For two weeks now, I’ve been working hard on “Green Dolphin Street”, “Take The A Train” and a couple other songs best sung by Ella Fitzgerald.  Geese in the currents overhead, I think about her.  Baby Ella born to a laundry girl and the shipyard boyfriend – the gene donor didn’t stay long.  She said once in an interview “… I never met him.”.  Moving from Newport News, Virginia to New York, Ella, her Momma and the current boyfriend settled in.  Life seems to have gone well for the family; a sister born, attending both school and church. 

Then things got hard.  An auto accident took the life of Ella’s mother.  Just after she died, her boyfriend treated Ella wrong.  Ella was a young teen.  Time passed.  An auntie finally came for Ella, moved her in with her family, but it was too late, Ella’s life had already begun the backward slide.  Failing grades, she skipped school and roamed about in the shadows of New York, dancing the streets of Harlem for a penny.  Ella was caught for truancy and placed in a reform school.  The reformatory was a horrible place.  The girls there were beat by male guards.   When she couldn’t take it anymore, she found a way to run. For some time she lived homeless on the streets of New York.  No year is better for living on the streets than another, except maybe for the years during The Depression – when she was homeless.  She survived somehow, did all kinds of odd jobs… slept wherever she could. 

One night she decided to participate at an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater.  Ella loved to dance, but when she saw the Edwards Sisters dance their socks off just before she was to go on, she changed her mind and decided to sing.  The crowd wasn’t pleased at the sight of her.  She looked homeless and unkempt, because she was.  But when she started to sing, the audience went silent.  A well known drummer in the audience realized this girl had something, and whisk her away to talk to the powers that be.  The answer was no.  They wanted a man, not a woman.  What they were really saying was that she looked like heck, and would not have her.  Well she was given another chance, she cleaned up, sang, and the rest is history.  Ella provided the world with music from age 17 to age 79.  Sold 40 million albums and won 13 grammy awards. 

Ella, a black homeless girl during the depression, on the streets of New York City, chewed up and spit out by life.  Orphaned, molested, a school dropout, thrown in juvie, a runaway, homeless.  When she was given a chance, it wasn’t for the amazing body beneath tattered misfit hand-me-down’s and dirt.  Wasn’t discovered for a startlingly unusual voice, though lovely.  Wasn’t chosen for her ability to charm musicians into choosing her.  She was too plain, too shy, and socially awkward at times.  Like the Geese that fly, no matter the weather, driven to be, she was herself – herself was just what the world needed. 

Circumstances can’t remove a core blueprint.  I wonder how she kept mind lies from stripping from us six decades of herself?  What prevented her from believing lies in her head that whispered she’s a nobody, that she’s got no business singing for people at an amature hour.  A brave moment.  A strong moment.  A moment of taking to the skies, doing what she was made for, just being.  She let her unique internal grid be her true north. 

At times, over the years, dark thoughts did tormented her.  There were times she felt like nothing, wanting to hide because of her failed marriages, and her body size.  A person who gives the best of themselves is not the person who has no dark thoughts.  It’s is the person who doesn’t let the dark thoughts stop movement forward.  She continued to put herself out there despite the struggles. 

Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote just after Ella’s death “Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.”  Some things have changed in our world since that day.  Some things have stayed the same.  There are still homeless overlooked, rarely given a chance to be.  Children are still being orphaned, beat, molested.  Some still treat others as beneath themselves.  At the same time, society has attempted to make laws and movies and music, poems and books for teaching us to accept others different from ourselves.  Ella didn’t set out to change the world.  She set out to be, despite what she lacked.  Every time a person does that, the world changes

Ella, lately you come with me when I walk under autumn skies.  I watch the Canadian Geese above me.  Your songs, they soak into my bones.  I think about the beauty of each human being.  

… the baby born to a young mother and boyfriend

…the little one raised by a step-dad

… the child living in poverty

… the orphaned child

… the molested child

… the child running the streets

… the child harmed by the system

..each one with an internal grid

for giving this sorry world something wonderful

– built into the bones, just being.  

 

And I think of Ella.

 

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Tiger Lady

I’m Tiger.  Mostly Tiger.  A tiger that likes to roam to the out-of-way places.  A perfect day for me would be rugged miles under sore feet, running fast and free and strong.  Power swimming across a frigid stream, pushing, forever pushing body beyond the easy ways.  Tiger Lady I am, with too much round, and short.  Not every Tiger Lady looks like The Williams Muscle Sisters, the powerhouses who beat tennis into submission.  Some Tigers are pudgy and slight.  Some are awkward and pale.  Because Tiger is not a look, it’s a heart condition. One that causes starry eyes and aggressive wonderings. 

This condition of mine has not helped me make friends.   My girlfriends are the best collection of human beings on the planet, and not a-one of them appreciates this side of me.  Shall we say they like me despite my vicious cross-country vigils.  Seems that the tiger types I’ve come across are who I wish I were.  They tend to be highly competitive, and have a body to match the drive.  Not wanting to be slowed by the likes of me.   And not much for books and thoughts and …   definitely a requirement for my dearest of friends.  I’ve not found a Tiger-Lady soul sister yet.  How can I complain?  My own body disowns me in my crazed march.  I’m not made for such brutality, and yet desire it more than comfort. 

My husband says therapeutic marijuana might just be the thing.  I guess I’d rather have a powerful desire to do something I’m not physically capable of, than to have the desire taken away.

I have been altogether unsuccessful in the making of a Tiger, other than a couple of my kids, who I think must have come by these passions honestly, because the other two and my husband, and all my friends haven’t caught the bug.    When I met my husband, I had been running daily from my college apartment through narrow streets, past the college dairy, and tilled corn fields, up the hill to the Whitman Mission Memorial and back again.  A seven mile trek.  I was running every morning with this rather nerdish fellow, and did appreciated having someone along for saftey, but really was not interested in his interest in me, and definitely didn’t want to give him any ideas … so begging a favor, asked my then-friend to come running with me so that nerdish fellow would stop needing to.  I look back on it all now with amazement.  How did Adored Future Husband manage to run seven miles?  Since the day till this day, Adored Husband has never run as far, or even a quarter as far.  False advertising, I say.

It’s not only others that have let me down.  It’s me, too.  A true Tiger Lady is fearless.  I’m your basic Chicken.  Yes, I love to conquer a mountain.  I also will never feel comfortable stepping over crevasses, hanging by ropes, tip-toeing cross shale that sits atop a death cliff. Which is where the quandary comes in.  I do not fear pain from pushing my body.  I fear pain from dropping my body down a distance. 

Tiger Lady must be tough.  I can’t carry more than a fanny-pack or my back starts acting up. The whole thing is ridiculous, really.  What I want to do I’m not built for.  Which brings me to heaven.  I think about a sweet boy just our son’s age who, after a terrible accidental overdose is locked in an body that can hear and speak some, and understand everything, but has no ability to move.  Can’t move his hand to hold a thing, can’t move his body at all, can’t see, can’t walk, can’t run, has to eat pureed food by mouth as his trachea has finally been removed…  And I think about Heaven sometimes.  Think of what it will be like to run for miles over mountains, months and years on end, and never tire.  Where Tiger Lady’s are welcomed, and so are wheel chaired boys. 

Goodbye Elie Wiesel 1928-2016

A Holocaust survivor and author.  A man who endured unimaginable horrors and lived to tell about it made sure that he did. Wiesel once said “I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore because in my place, someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot.”

“Maybe there are no words for what happened. Maybe somehow  … the cruel killers, have succeeded at least in one way, at least that it deprived us, the victims, of finding the proper language of saying what they had done to us, because there are no words for it.”

We honor an unusual man who worked to use words the best he could to never forget.  We honor his brave telling about the ugliest of things, a bulwark of raw words for the prevention of future acceptance of evil. We honor that his honest speak has worked a path of healing for those frozen and silenced by haters.  A way for the harmed ones to move forward. 

And as we bless Elie Wiesel for saying what needed said, we daily shun and hush those around us when words are spoken that tell stories of having been harmed.  Words of being blamed for the harm.  Sideways words reminding another ‘you are nothing, you matter only in terms of how you benefit me’.  The drip, drip, drip of ‘you don’t count, your story doesn’t count, oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad’. 

The murmuring of these same messages run through our speech all day long: 

Get over it.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

Poor you.

Talk about happy things.

What a drag.

She’s such a victim.

As a trauma therapist, I spend more time than any other issue on trying to move my clients to a place where they realize they are not ‘living in the past’, ‘grabbing for attention’, being ‘negative’ or trying to shift the blame when they explore their whole story.  Truth-telling and integrating that truth does create healing, however, it is very difficult for the one having been harmed to admit harm has been done.  In reality, people who have been traumatized want desperately to find a way for what has happened to not have happened. They want to minimize what has happened, pointing to others who had it far worse.  If there is no way around denying it, placing blame on themselves is next best. The reluctance to notice and admit what has happened comes not only from others around us and their words but from our own.  The tapes we play in our head may have been formed initially by another, but we keep them going.

You’re such an idiot, poor you.

You could have stopped it and you know it.

You wanted it.

You got what you had coming to you.

Recognizing lying tapes and correcting them much like we would a sassy child is important, and does eventually assist in allowing for the truth to emerge.

The behavior of speaking truth was an action in direct opposition to the way things were done in Germany before millions were herded off into packing plants and burned whole.  It’s not like Hitler stood up one day and said: “OK guys, here’s my idea, let’s round up all the Jews and kill them.”  No.  The opposite of honesty and openness are lies.  When the goal of a world leader is sadistic, the monster knows it will never sell to the masses at face value, which is where manipulation and sideways speak comes in. The climate of disrespect, jealousy, and spite had been brewing and had been acted upon in many little ways.  Hate was hidden, explained away by what seemed to most as unrelated intellectual ideas that sounded very rational if one happened to be feeling less than.  Less than leading to class envy, and at its heels prejudice.  All of which was hiding what really fueled the ideas.  Murder.  A culture of open truth-telling might have uncovered that for years people were being treated wrong. Emotional safety would have allowed those harmed to say out loud what had been going on, and those who heard would have been safe to be outraged and speak out against the behaviors and attitudes that were absolutely not OK!

When we smother any speech that belongs to one who has suffered for the pretense of ‘Oh, you don’t have it that bad” or in worse cases forbidden speech, we fortify the hater, turn aside the one harmed, and become an unsafe world. 

The Bible is God’s inspired word.  There is no pretense in the Bible.  Stephen was stoned.  The Bible doesn’t cover up what really happened to Stephen and who was responsible for it.  If this happened today, I could hear most Christians say ‘there is no good reason for smearing Saul’s name by telling the story’.  “Telling it won’t bring Stephen back” they’d say.  Might lessen the good name of Paul who did straighten up and become an apostle.  No, that’s not how God in the Bible deals with evil.  One story after another tells the whole truth, the bad right along with the good, and is put into print because evil must be voiced for good to prevail.  Evil doesn’t go away when we ignore it.  It doesn’t go away when we ‘just get over it’.  Evil goes away when those harmed by it become strong, find words for things that have no words and say what has happened.

When will we become the people that support truth-telling? 

When will the entire story our lives be owned? 

When will we choose to not remain in foggy world of pretense?

but instead, agree with what has happened

despite

what should have been? 

When?

When I speak my truth out loud, I am giving you permission to speak yours.  And united we say “ENOUGH!”.   Thank you Elie Wiesel, for speaking up, challenging me to speak my truth.  Your life tugs, it calls to speak of my own pain as a way of giving voice to the pain of one whose words have been taken away.