The Kingdom

I wrote this last month. I wanted to share it here for the release of our debut album, The Kingdom Belongs to a Child. 

Every once in awhile at night when I was a kid trying to get to sleep, I would get a strange sensation. I would feel the inner me—my soul? —roll over toward the wall, whereas the outer me—my tangible body—kept facing my sister sleeping in her twin bed. It felt like a pleasant stretch before joining the two back together. After my dad died last year, I thought about this a lot. It was some personal evidence in the possibility of the afterlife, that my dad’s consciousness still existed somewhere, that who he was in the end had little to do with his physical body. 

Yesterday, I read What It Is by Lynda Barry as part of a class I teach. Reading this book felt like listening to the conversation my inner and outer selves have been having since I was born. A conversation that has been increasing in volume little by little, that sometime during the last decade I began to decipher, and that over the past year I heard at full volume while we made our record. This conversation is a reckoning between all that is tangible and logical with all that is indefinable and ethereal.

Amy Winehouse’s Last Song is Named Power

A few days ago I saw the documentary film Amy about Amy Winehouse. Other than hearing her song “Rehab” and seeing her image on magazines, I knew nothing about her until I watched the film. I have now heard all of her music, and feel foolish I allowed the tabloid image of her to deter me from seeking it out before. When the film replays her death, it’s nearly impossible to not feel a part of your heart fall away. Mine did.

The film reveals how closely Amy’s songs mirrored what was going on in her life. On her album Back to Black, there’s heartache I’m sure she hoped she’d live long enough to atone. “Love is a losing game” wants love to win. The sting of the line “I died a hundred times” wants so much to be believed. “I told you I was trouble,” asks for a kind, trustworthy soul to see the misguided attempts for love. She was only 27 and she was going through the lessons of her relationships the way any of us do in our twenties, except hers became drenched in the sickeningly oppressive celebrity culture and the hardest drugs money could buy. Amy was loving, loyal, sensitive, kind, witty, but painfully lonely. Her personality was magnetic. There’s a scene of her in the recording booth singing “Back to Black” and at the end she says timidly, “It gets sad there at the end, doesn’t it?” Smiling, with the corners of her mouth turned down, it’s as if she is asking permission: is it okay to be this sad? She proudly trots out of the recording booth, having finished her work—the work of making a space where it is okay to be that sad, knowing full well that she will be heard.

Holding the Dying Baby of Dylann Roof’s Heart

Inspired by the voices of the victims' families today forgiving Dylann Roof, Ryan and I wrote this today. 

When a person criticizes, blames, or shows contempt for another person, he is destroying trust and safety in the relationship. For some, these wrathful behaviors escalate into violence, domestic abuse, murder, or terrorism. In this relationship, the abused person has to minimize himself and behave in a way to control the behavior of the abuser. This is not compliance or manipulation, but rather it’s self-monitoring to make the environment safer and more predictable in order to survive. In America, Black women, men, and children have always had to monitor themselves to attempt to avoid the repercussions of a collective, abusive white culture. We now know from videos taken by bystanders that Black Americans have not just been abused by law enforcement, they have been murdered, in some cases just for moving in a way that irked an officer. And this week in Charleston, Black people were murdered for merely existing. They were hunted and killed as if their existence threatens the survival of their white counterparts.

Oppressors believe their contempt for the oppressed is a static truth. In Dylann Roof’s case, his contempt gives him a purpose, a reason to feel righteous, and a feeling of significance that he cannot forge through his own merits, but only by degrading or destroying the merits and lives of others. His contempt for Black Americans is what he uses as a distraction or antidote to his own self-hatred. If he can blame these difficult feelings on others, he believes he is safe and invulnerable from all the pain of his wretched reality.

But the contempt he feels is not enough. He believes that the validity of his perceptions—his righteous indignation and contempt—rest upon other people being wrong or invalid in their perceptions that disagree with his. For Dylann Roof, white supremacy cannot exist at the same time as equality for all.  The fact that Black Americans at a church can be free, happy, loving, and kind—something he does not have—is the ultimate threat to his distorted internal world. It weakens the shield masking his self-hatred. He must prove that he is superior and Blacks are inferior. He must make judgments and assumptions about them rather than know them, receive their kindness, and examine his own feelings and behavior.

If he had taken the time to open his heart to one of the 9 souls he murdered, he may have found the deep emotions of feeling hurt, scared, abandoned, and insignificant. He may have made a path of healing rather than a path of death and destruction. But Dylann Roof is a coward. With his racist terrorist attack, he attempted to create what he believes is an ever-lasting, global mask for himself, to avoid the certainty of his cowardice. But we see through it.

The mission of the wounded, masked self is to occupy the space with any number of distractions, be it dramatic conflict with close family or friends, social media, alcohol or drugs, television, porn or sex, video games, or violence. Dylann Roof found the perfect distraction and antidote to his problems. He made himself a part of a dysfunctional group and mindset that offered him identity, significance, and community. Perhaps he feels he is reclaiming familial love by enacting racist terrorism in the name of his ancestors he has aggrandized as victims. People bond over shared experience and familiarity. In a dysfunctional family or group, the shared meaning between group members can be very cynical and strengthen the isolation of the group in that they cannot trust anyone but each other. But the only people doing the oppressing are the group members themselves, keeping one another fearful, aggressive, and presuming powerlessness. They make themselves the heroes of their own falsified persecution when they enact violence on their chosen enemy.

Truth is not static. The concept of “truth” is a perception of the beholder who is mistaking it for a concrete reality. Truth is more of a verb and should be used more like “truthing.” Truthing is the acknowledgement of our ever-changing and moving experience—to pay attention to what we are feeling nonjudgmentally. Truth, on the other hand, is the belief that my truth is dependent on others’ truth agreeing with mine. To enter this kind of conflict is to assume there is a winner of the truth. This is the root of war, extremism, and terrorism. This conflict between “truths” creates a panic because the image of ourselves, the core of our beliefs and identities, is threatened by the other, and so we attack.

The families of the victims of the Charleston shooting voiced forgiveness of Dylann Roof in an emotional bond hearing today. They see the true cowardice, the misery, the vacuous, unloved heart of Dylann Roof, and are not afraid. We must hold their wisdom. We must acknowledge that this is their way of truthing. They are paying attention nonjudgmentally to their grieving, aching hearts and by doing this, they touch the sadness in all of us, even those of us who are cruel, unforgiving, and murderous. They are showing the true compassion of Christ by holding the dying baby of even Dylann Roof’s heart. 

What We Deny Fathers

Before I got pregnant with our son, I had a week or so when I didn’t think I could live another moment without him. I felt there was this little person knocking at my door, and I was on the other side calling to him, “Baby, it’s me. I can’t get to you.” This one month, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I needed my baby or I would die. This was exaggerated perhaps because we had had a miscarriage the year before and I had waited to get pregnant again because I felt too fucking sad to be happy about another baby. I finally was happy for another baby again and wasn’t willing to wait. Each night, I’d lie in bed and my heart would burn for this person I felt was already attached to me. I found myself seducing Ryan in my hormonal drunkenness, saying sexy things like, “The only reason we’re here is to make babies. Now do it!” He said he wasn’t ready. When that ovulation window closed, I curled up in the bed and wailed and wailed the doom of the world.

We were both ticked off with one another, each of us resisting what the other said they wanted. After a few days of talking it over with each other and with our close friend Luke, Ryan said to me, “We will have a baby. Trust that. We will. But I want to want our baby as much as you do.”

And that was an eye-opener. I had assumed he would never come anywhere close to the desire I had for a baby. I had been a sexist punk, staking sole claim of any and all baby-wanting. Here he was, with tears in his eyes, telling me, I want to experience what you’re experiencing. I want the burning heart. I want that knock at the door.

I knew I didn’t want to steal that from Ryan. I hadn’t realized my desire for a baby hadn’t given him the space to realize what the hell he felt about having a baby, or even give him the space to have fun, to enjoy this rite of passage. I also wanted our baby to be given the gift of being desired by both his parents.

I was able to lay off and find patience. I thought about the fact that somehow my baby was already with me, that the burning sensation in my heart truly was the soul of our baby. Each night, I’d be excited to lie in the dark and concentrate on this feeling. A month later, Ryan was the one whose desire for a baby could no longer wait. I surrendered and we got pregnant.

Raising our son has been very much like this early realization. Ryan desires all the rites of passage with our son as much and sometimes more than I do. In the early months, it was very easy for me to want to take control, to tell Ryan to hold the baby this way, not that way...and I would realize I was falling into the belief, whatever cultural belief, that the baby world is a woman’s world, a woman’s place, a woman’s purpose, and not a man’s. There was even a part of me at times that believed I knew more than he did about this (even though I had no clue). In these moments, Ryan would remind me, “This is mine too. I need this.” And I would take off the mommy-crown, collapse in the chair and just be me, the part of me that is not a mother, the part of me that is so thankful I don’t have to know what I’m doing and carry the weight of the world, the part of me that can be an artist, the part of me that can be a daydreamer, and just let my partner relish in his part of parenthood, his part of the despair of not knowing why the baby is crying, and then the joy of soothing him and soaking in that relief of silence and peace. 

We talked about how my urge to micromanage him made him feel as if I believed he was not capable of being a father, of taking care of his very own son. I quickly realized that if I said one thing about actually it’s easier putting the onesie on this way, I was undermining him, disrespecting him, making him want to yield to me and give up. This simple interaction of not trusting a father to put on a onesie the “right” way gives weight to this myth that women know better how to care for children, that mothers are more essential than fathers, that fathers don’t know what the hell they are doing with a baby, and that a woman’s place is in the home with her children. If a new family starts out this way, how is a father ever to catch up with not only his child but with his partner—to be trusted, seen, respected, and loved as a man, as a father, as a capable human being? And how is a mother ever to catch up if she is given this duty as her sole purpose in life, when she has so much more yearning inside of her to say, create, become, change, build...a new world?

I stopped butting in. When he was with the baby, it was his time for trekking the unknowns of baby-land, and it was my time for wow-I-can-just-be-here-and-not-worry-land. Ryan took the reigns of being a father, but he could only take them if I let them go.

Because of Ryan’s desires and his willingness to fight for them, I haven’t had to enter the lineage of women in my ancestry of being the dominant caretaker. It sometimes feels so engrained inside of me to feel guilty or ashamed if I’M not the one with my child all day, or I’m not doing whatever activity with him to develop the such-and-such part of the brain I read in some magazine that mothers (not fathers) should be doing. I am certain that being a mother is not what I am solely here to do no more than being a father is what Ryan is solely here to do.

For years I didn’t think I’d ever want a baby, and then suddenly I did more than I ever expected. The want was voracious and all consuming, so much so that I feared motherhood would erase me completely. Ryan’s desire for a baby was different, but no less important. He was not going to let me or any backward cultural expectation make him miss out on the small, intimate moments of his son’s life. And because of this I haven’t had to miss out on the other things I am here to do, to make music, to write songs, to hopefully make a difference with what I think, what I believe.

If we want an equal world, with equal pay, with equal opportunity to make our mark, with more affordable and accessible childcare, we need to acknowledge fathers’ desire to be with their babies and carve that identity, even among the fathers who seem desireless and those who withdraw. One step forward is honoring that what may look like absence has its origins in cultural shaming of men who express nurturance.   

Aunt Buna Low: a song that didn't make the album

There never was so ugly a girl as Buna Low. / Of six sisters, her face stood alone. / At 14, each danced to the altar to and fro. / Five times a maid poor Buna Low. 

Her sisters gave an army the town / of boys who loved their sweet Buna Low. / One by one the coal mine did crown / the boys new kings of the underground. 

Aunt Buna, grown grey, made pie each day / for the tins her nephews devoured / until the day the methane sparked / and under earth her little boys cowered. 

Buna's sisters wailed at the black mouth / where no man came in or out / and the fire burned for a decade / clearing the town of people and doubts. 

Aunt Buna Low stayed behind / where she sang to her buried sons. / Her skin withered and hung / as the smoke blacked out the sun. 

She cried ten years a tear / so sad God condemned her doom / by churning a storm so cruel / rain made an ocean of the mountain tomb. 

The bodies of her boys surfaced on the water / to each Buna swam and kissed. / They cried, "Sweet Aunt Buna Low, / why did you leave us so alone?" 

by Cashavelly Morrison


Long-Haired Mare: Daughter WRites Down what her mother used to Say

  1. Eat. You’re a grey dress of bones.
  2. You with that hatchet wound between your legs. I’d sew yours up if I could.
  3. Talk about the nice things. Don’t talk about the bad things. Everyone's nice, everyone's happy. Tell them you play tin-can-alley. Well, it ain’t a lie! Tell them about the tree taps for maple syrup. Folks that don’t come from here find that interesting. They think it's a miracle. They don’t know where things come from. They eat eggs, but they never seen a chicken’s ass swell up red. But don’t talk about that. Talk about the great big musky fish we fry up. Or the walleye fish. The gold scales. Talk about that.
  4. Remember you ask anyone for anything, you’re asking for shame.
  5. He’s so rich, he spends it on silver buttons. 
  6. Once you got yourself a fire, most of the day’s battle is over.
  7. When I don’t got something is when I want it the most. Even if when I had it, I hated it.
  8. You ought to have yourself a good time before you be put to work the rest of your life.
  9. Sleep is the only come-easy thing in this whole world.
  10. My little doe. Don’t ever leave my lap.