Lakshmi Appears In The Form Of An Old Lady

A-Lakshmi Poem 03-15-13 Lakshmi Appears In The Form Of An Old Lady

There is an old lady
getting out of a geriatric van
that gives an hydraulic sigh
I can hear all the way into the café
as it whooshes three precious inches
closer to the pavement.
The old lady is
just making it away from the van steps
with the help of a wheely-walker
and two extra sets of arms:
the van driver with a “help the old lady smile”
and a younger woman
in an official-looking smock—
together they are the four-armed deity
who helps the old lady descend from on high.
They thread their way from the street
through an empty parking space,
just makin’ it up on the sidewalk
perilously close to teetering over
and scraping the walker
on the special silver gunmetal paint job
of the $130,000 Porsche
in the parking space
next to their adventuresome path.
I sip my tea and watch through the coffee shop window
exhilarated with the effort,
my own muscles firing sympathetically
to help maneuver the walker
on it’s perilous way.
The Porsche’s driver is not in the car.
It’s a close call, but—
they make it!
The old lady waves goodbye to the two
and looks ahead at the freedom and delights
of the neighborhood stores—
grinning like a maniac
she sports her own
special silver gunmetal paint job
in the coloring of her hairdo
and the sensible lines of her walker.
She’s made it out of wherever she lives
and into the thick of things,
back in the hood!
The van pulls away
and the old lady delightedly
guns it down the sidewalk
as the driver of the Porsche appears,
unaware she is covered
in the dust of the old lady’s getaway.
The Porsche driver,
a bored-looking, able-bodied woman
perhaps oblivious
at this moment
of the great gift of physical mobility
hangs up her cell phone, sighs,
and slips into her sexy machine.

I finish my tea.
The old lady has gone her way down the street
and the woman in the Porsche has driven off
in the opposite direction,
the parking spaces
filled now with ordinary cars. . .
when suddenly I hear laughter
arising fresh from my depths,
the sound splashing between the café windows
and the espresso machine.
My friend the young barista catches the wave
and calls out to my delight,
“That’s Kathleen Dunbar in the house!”

I aim someday
to be such an old lady
with a well polished gleam
in my eye,
but it is so radically honest
so difficult
so irrational and
such the right thing: to be here
to surrender to the laughter and surprise
of standing upon this moment
to savor my body drenched in this life.

Thanks to the old dear
I catch a glimpse of myself as I truly am,
bejeweled and dazzling
astonished at the bling of me
of us all
of our fine wide souls when we let them shine!
I’m worn out from working so hard
when it’s not necessary.
I unabashedly laugh out loud
through my sweet warm tears,
I grin like a maniac!—
these are my acts of gratitude
in the wake of an old lady
disguised as Lakshmi.

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photo of Flowers on My Altar, and The Porsche Lady’s Car by Kathleen Dunbar

To hear a sweet inspiring song of mine called We All Love You click on this Bandcamp link, or find it on my webiste:

A-Lakshmi poem 03-05-13

How I Staged “Ivan the Terrible” for my Sixth Grade Class

1.A-Russian Hat 54 - Version 2There were two rival theater companies in my elementary school. Jill Rausch’s company put on what I considered sappy stories of heartache and love gone wrong. None of that for me, thank you. The plays I put on were always action affairs—girls blown off course by hurricanes and left to survive by their wits on wild islands, Klondike Joe’s adventures in the Yukon north, the clashes of the Greek gods. Jill and I obviously had different family dynamics going on at home.

In the sixth grade we both took it up a notch. Jill’s crew put on A Love Story, which was all the rage at the time. She had attracted the interest of the high school drama teacher and they were doing a full blown production on the stage in the gymnasium. The drama teacher thought of herself as avant garde and a cutting edge purveyor of the arts. Jill convinced the teacher to lobby the powers that be and got permission for the boy playing the lead to smoke an actual cigarette on stage to lend reality.

Now something had happened sixteen years before I showed up in the sixth grade wanting to put on a play. Some personality glitch between my brother and the drama teacher had set them at odds. At the age of eleven it was astonishing to me that anyone could remember anybody as far back as sixteen years ago. But teachers did. Along came another Dunbar kid to school. The drama teacher said, “I remember your brother,” and turned her nose up at me. The old Greeks no doubt would be speaking of the machinations of Fate at work here—I had washed up in a country where the citizens had formed opinions of me long before my birth.

Sixteen years is a long time, but I was not a “surprise” late in my parents’ marriage. They actually wanted more kids. The reason for such a hefty lag time between my brother and me was my father’s poor quality semen, weakened by his childhood diphtheria, WWII and who knows what. The doctors said another child was unlikely, though not impossible. Along I came, a “miracle.” I have always figured I arrived so late because I was holding out for more progressive times to be born into. It was helpful for me to have the backdrop of the sixties’ and seventies’ social consciousness to help balance my dad’s “women shouldn’t vote or wear pants” attitude. I never worried like some kids that I was adopted or my mom stepped out because I had both the Nelson’s lanky body and a definite resemblance to the Dunbar face. For better or worse I was in my tribe from hell.

So there were only two kids in my family, and I showed up ages later at school and the teachers still remembered my brother, Chuck, or Charley as my mother and I called him. Mostly favorably. One elderly lady gave me an A just because I was Chuck’s sister. Others wrote me off, including the drama teacher. This was all very mystifying to me; more so because I could do nothing about it. I only knew my brother by his infrequent visits home. He was a kind of far away hero for me. I thought that he loved me simply because of the fact that he didn’t yell at me. It was many years before I realized that not being yelled at by someone doesn’t necessarily equate with being loved by them. It just means that the person doesn’t yell at you. But it was pretty refreshing to not be hollered at in a house where every stick of furniture had an argument around it. I longed for someone to see me, hear my expression, and recognize my stories. Underneath, what was too painful even to consciously recognize was that I just wanted somebody to notice me, to love me and to tell me that I belonged. In truth I just wasn’t much on my brother’s radar, as he was having his own serious fallout from having been raised in the Dunbar household.

So, love stories held no appeal for young Kathleen. I opted for the grit. For my sixth grade production I wrote a script telling the story of Ivan the Terrible. Typical of a Russian tale, there were so many characters that I needed the entire class to fill the roles. There were only a few kids too shy to perform left over to watch the grand production. We needed an audience. I was persona non grata with the drama teacher, so no gym stage. I got permission from Mr. Wilson, our teacher, to stage the play for the sixth grade class next door in front of their chalk board.

Now, Jill may have had a real cigarette in her production, but I also had the real deal: I had the thrill of being able to cast an actual Russian boy as Ivan. I knew Michael was Russian because he had confided to me that his last name was not really Fedor, but Fedorovich. His dad felt that the patronymic smacked too much of the old country and changed their last name to fit in. His American-born boy would be registered at school with the kind of name that he hoped hinted at baseball and apple pie rather than piroshkis and the gulag.

However, I knew the inside story. Michael had the magic –ovich at the end of his real name, which spoke to me of troikas, Russian wolfhounds, and Baba Yaga. All things Russian seemed very exotic to me. I later went on as a young adult to read practically every Russian author I could get my hands on. (I drew the line at reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, however—I found out that she was overcome by sorrow and offed herself in the end and I didn’t need any encouragement that way). Anyway, I’d take a real Russian over a real cigarette in my play any time. My dad smoked three packs of Pall Malls a day, and smokes didn’t hold any romance for me, just a nose full of stink.

With all this old time Russian heavy winter and far north cold going on, I felt that to lend further reality to the play, we needed someone to wear some fur, some real fur. I had just the thing. I had an actual seal skin that my brother had brought me back from Alaska where he was stationed during the Viet Nam War. One of the cold war worries still around was that the Ruskies might invade us over the Bering Strait, thus a lot of young men were stationed up there in cold so intense that if you threw a boiling hot cup of coffee out into the dark night it would freeze before it hit the ground. My brother told me he had actually done this. The first Christmas that he came home with this story he gave me the seal skin. I was enthralled. Mom called the seal skin smelly, and kept trying to hide it, which of course made me prize it more highly. I took a good look around and found it up in the attic behind Dad’s old WWII GI winter coat. This coat was lined with some kind of pelt as well, but it was too smelly even for me, and in no way Russian. The seal skin was just the right prop. I thought perhaps the seal had swum over from Siberia to the Alaskan shores. Many years later I realized that the poor creature was probably a young seal clubbed to death by someone trying to make a buck off the American soldiers. The skinned remains of my seal ended draped around the shoulders of a Midwestern girl with glasses playing a Czarina. Later in the year this girl changed her allegiance, joining forces with Shelley. Shelley was the girl whom I’d cast as the beautiful young Russian princess and who gave blondes a bad name for me by hatching a plot to make Kathleen a tormented scapegoat. But the winds of Fate hadn’t blown me that particular storm yet.

The play was cumbersome to rehearse with so many actors, but we managed. I was too busy being director to play a part, but that was okay. I was in my element, putting my creation out to the world. The day arrived and we pulled it off. For those of you who don’t know the history of Ivan the Terrible, one of the ignominious highlights of his reign is that in a drunken fury Ivan murders his own son after a feast. Looking back I wonder about my interest in this sad and true Russian story of a father and son. The undercurrent that I didn’t get as a sixth grader, interestingly, was the huge and vitriolic rift between my own brother and dad. Out of the mouths of babes, kind of thing. I was just telling what I knew without realizing it. In fact, the seal skin might have materialized as a way for my brother to annoy my dad, in a cold war that played out with young Kathleen as unwitting pawn.

I was director, so I could cast whomever I wanted. I gave the part of Ivan’s son to a boy named Jeff who wore hightop white basketball shoes. I had a hopeless crush on him and he totally did not know I was alive. (I began to understand at the age of eleven how some people get parts in Hollywood). My history book said that Ivan killed his son by a blow to the head, but this didn’t have the emotional impact I wanted to convey, so I wrote my own version where Ivan killed his son by stabbing him in heart. For the murder scene I directed the boys to use a move with a cardboard knife I had made. Michael practiced executing—so to speak—the death blow, so that the knife landed craftily between Jeff’s arm and off-stage side, looking, hopefully, from the audiences’ point of view like a real stab in the chest.

The day arrived. We gave the play with all its delightful Russian darkness and spirit. In the culminating scene, after a Russian feast with plenty of faux vodka-drinking, Ivan and his son get into a heated argument. I watched from my director’s place, stage right, thoroughly satisfied. Years later I would read lots of Dostoevsky whose characters are constantly jumping up from sofas and chairs and exclaiming things. Next time you read Dostoevsky keep an eye out for this. I was always going to keep tabs on the number of times the jumping-up-to-exclaim happened in his stories. In the sixth grade I’d instinctively picked a real Russian and he admirably jumped up from his chair and exclaimed “I will kill you!” overturning the dinner table with a lot of noise and grabbing his son by the front of the shirt. The Czarina gasped and lost hold of the seal skin as the class stood up from their desks to get a better view of the actual wrestling match between Ivan and his son on the floor beneath the chalk board. The moment arrived, and Ivan plunged the highheld dagger into his son’s heart. His son gave a satisfyingly pitiful death howl—“Arghhhhhhh,” and Ivan, eyes cast up to the exotic gold painted god of the Russians, exclaimed with plenty of drama, “What have I done!”

I never learned how this went over with Michael’s dad, if he was proud or concerned or unaware of his son’s portrayal of their cultural history. I went home with my armful of props and nobody said anything. I don’t remember, but it would be a good bet that there was an argument that night, in the hallway per usual, and I went to bed in the lonely dark. As a singer-songwriter-performer now I know about the blues that hit after a show is over, the high is gone, and another show’s not on the books yet. But back then I just went home and disappeared into the background of the fighting and the blues that were our daily bread. Those fights were real, there were real cigarettes, and yelling with the real intension to hurt. Maybe in Jill’s house her parents never had a last act of redeemed love, and so Jill put it in her plays to have some crumb of it.

There’s a lot of ways to get stabbed in the heart that usually don’t involve blood but which are just as deadly. What gets murdered is invisible, is the spirit, and nobody stops to ask, “What have I done.” I naturally honed in on these words as the exclamation point of my play. They’d stood out for eleven-year-old me when I learned of the history of Ivan; I read that witnesses at that crazy royal family dinner reported that’s what he’d actually said. And even if those weren’t the exact words, all the witnesses came from families, just like I did, just like Jill and Michael did, and it certainly is something that somebody might have said.

A couple of years later I knew without having to read the book the inner ache that compels Tolstoy’s Anna to bend her neck before the oncoming train. I knew about pain and blues so crazy bad that stopping the whole production makes sense. But I didn’t. I wrote and I sang and I travelled and I had sex with boys who didn’t care about me, I learned Russian, and I sang and I wrote some more and not only did I keep my body alive, I kept my spirit going too.

Somewhere along the way I became a psychotherapist, which among other things is being a person who sits in a chair and knows how to wholeheartedly hold the ache of people coming from real families. It’s the clients who do the work really. I’m privileged to remind them of their courage to recognize the pain of “What have I done”—what they did to us, what we did to ourselves in accepting as truth the messages that we are unworthy, and what we in turn do to others as we blindly play out our human drama. And I tell ya, this being with, this courageous ability to tolerate asking, “What have I done,” takes the darkness and the frozen cold of surviving and allows it to transform into thriving, opening, and a life fully lived.

After my day job is done, I get behind the microphone and sing every sweet and bloody and tender story I can think of that we humans are capable of. I don’t know where Michael is now, but I think I’ll dedicate a song to him at my next gig, maybe Better The Devil You Know, a song I wrote about some people who didn’t ask “What have I done?” until it was too late, preferring instead the comfort of nightmare, because it was what they knew, after all, coming from a real family. © by Kathleen Dunbar

You can listen to my song Better the Devil You Know by clicking Bandcamp.
You can also find all my music on my website: 

 Photos of Kathleen in Some Russian Hats by Kathleen Dunbar

1.A-Russian Hat 55-edit FAV - Version 3

A-Russian Hat 19-b

The First Time I Saw “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”

A-Cowgirl in Red  I remember the first time I saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. My mom had gone down to FLA for my grandfather’s funeral. Me and Dad were left to duel it out in the house (I was a teenager and my Dad a general foreman at a factory that made truck axles. His refrain, “How come I can boss around 300 men and not you two women!”) Dad had sometime stints of wandering around in his underwear, an off-white ensemble of not-so-tightie-whities and what he called an “undershirt” and that I later learned people are wont to call “wifebeaters”—skinny straps and kind of ribbed cloth. So with this outfit of course he cranked the heat up to keep him warm with Ohio snows outside.

But mom was gone and he was alone with his teenager daughter—time to let her know who was Boss. He turned the thermostat down, put on a lot of layers and gave me a tough-guy stare to let me know, “This town is only big enough for one of us.” I should say that he used to practice making scary faces in the bathroom mirror to intimidate the men under him at the factory, but I’d one time caught him practicing. I was about six, and peered through the partly open door to find him standing puff-chested, trying out different glowers and frowns in the mirror to polish them up. As he would make a face I’d mirror him, screwing up my fresh young brow into a scowl until he caught me: He scowled, I scowled. “Little girls don’t do that. Stop it.” To which I replied with the child’s perennially sageful question, “Why?” “Because I said so”—that four-word recipe for your kid to start losing respect in you.

After many years of “Because I said so’s” Mom was in Florida and with the furnace on low pretty soon the winter ice tried to push in through the windows and sit down on the couch. This was crazy! Of course I cranked the heat back up. He stomped into the hallway and turned it down. I long-leggedly drifted by and notched it up. He announced that he was the Father and cranked it down. I announced that I was the Daughter and was freezing. Up and down it went. And of course he hollered and of course I dug in. And the whole fight mighta gone south (that’s a story for another day) except for the family truce device:

A movie was coming on, a Western for chrisakes, that we’d found in the TV Guide. There was only one color TV in the house, thus enforced proximity. Now, watching a Western was the only time that my family actually sat down together and had a good time, be it movie or weekly series, often accompanied by a tin roof sundae with walnuts or Spanish redskin peanuts, and I got to stay up late to see the end if it ran long. I’m not really sure why this was, but it, well, was—any together-time-port in a storm kind of thing. Tonight, however, instead of the usual John Wayne hard jaw, thank you m’am, you’re either on one side or t’other, for ‘em or agin ‘em, an entirely different kind of movie came on in the back bedroom where teenage Kathleen and her Pop had truced it up with a Western and a sundae, a movie that changed my life:

A blonde stranger in a black hat chewed a little cigar, took aim and shot clean through the hangin’ noose rope setting free a hardened little rat of a man (Tuco means rat) whom you could not help but like. The stranger kept the reward he’d collected for this Wanted Man all for himself—he didn’t split it with Tuco per their usual scam, but he didn’t let Tuco hang either. He made him walk through the desert and Tuco eventually evens things up and the pale stranger must make his own sunburned walk….But Tuco turns out to be more honest than his pious cowardly priest brother, and Blondie is strangely and refreshingly (for a Western in that era) three-dimensional, which means a stiff drink of plenty of badassness and a generous helping of self serving along with the occasional good impulse. The Bad Guy by his through-and-through evil is a foil for The Good and The Ugly’s complexity. I was captured for life.

But, I was in Ohio with a sometimes only-underwear-wearing WWII veteran dad who told me he was King (he actually said this). Oh take me to that great western desert……

Leone’s story unfolds, of course, in the wonderfully hellish heats of a Landscape without which this movie would not happen. Now in certain kinds of stories, the land itself is a character in the story. In the Western this is often the case. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was shot in Italy, yeah, but the archetype of the land speaks beyond the borders of countries. The landscape of the Western is heroic—and by heroic I mean that beautiful, deadly, otherworldly territory through which Everyman must pass on a Quest, in this case the Desert:
the sky so wide it can hold two storms at once
blue sky between them because it can
and endless stretches of
no rain, no water, only sand
dead bone dry
no whiskey left dry
aching heart dry
greedy white man dry
and poured into this extreme landscape the age-old collection of forces that each and every one of us has inside, no exception, doesn’t matter if they dress like a Cowboy, a Native, or a New Yorker. In all compelling stories we meet ourselves, all of ourselves, whether we like it or not: Hero, Maiden, Whore, Fool, Seeker, Prophet, Greedy Bastard, Wise Man, Healer, Bad Guy. For the story to be interesting and worth something the characters are complex and mixed in is a dose of humor and a good musical score. That teenager that I was didn’t know that many years later I’d walk down a nighttime San Francisco street singing out loud “Oo-ee-oo-ee-ooo…” and immediately get the iconic response to the call from a darkened doorway, “…Wah-waah-wah.” Nor did I know that I’d sit in the Castro Theater for the long-awaited rescreening of the movie complete with never-before-seen Italian version scenes, the house sold out by hardcore fans!

My dad died pretty young, 64 (which seems younger the older I get) when I was in Wales on my junior year abroad. We’d been fighting long distance but for some odd reason I called home, he answered and neither of us worried for once about the long-distance bill (which would be hefty) and we had an incredibly and unusually good connecting conversation a couple weeks before he died: After mowing the lawn he sat down on the back porch and his heart gave out.

I can say in truth that my dad was a real bastard. He actually told me he’d rather have a different daughter, and I’ve spent a ton of money in my life on therapy; and I’ve had the kind of pain one has in choosing not the greatest boyfriends cuz I had an oddball template from my old man. He told me women shouldn’t vote or wear pants! He meant it! However, I went on to do both things in my own Heroine’s Quest which I set out upon from the hardscrabble territory of Dad- and Mom-land. My Dad, a compli-fuckin-cated guy coming from that kind of gray area which makes life so damnably, uncomfortably, tormentingly…interesting! (At least if you can make it through the desert, which I did, though not without second thoughts—also a story for another day).

I went on to find my own unique strength and learned to do things my own way—that is a short way of saying how I made sense of a lot of craziness growing up. What I’ll leave you with is a tale of the old West that I’ve written from my own woman’s-view of the Western: a song I call Red Bird on my new CD, The Storm in Our Head (hear it for free in the link you’ll find at the end of this paragraph). Here’s a big nod to Sergio Leone, Clint, Eli and the gang for doing their thing differently than the previous gang, and for showing up in a refreshingly compelling story in a snowbound Ohio house where me and my Dad forged some kind of bond—not the kind where a father gives his daughter confidence in herself, and so small as to highlight the grief that there wasn’t more, but a little something human, complicated, heartbreaking. To be continued… © Kathleen Dunbar 2013

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Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

Easiest way to listen quick to Red Bird is via Bandcamp
Via My Webpage (it’s track 15, towards the bottom) 
Via Itunes (it’s track 15, towards the bottom)
Via CDBaby (it’s track 15, towards the bottom)

A-White Mnts via Dutch Pete's Ranch