I am nominated in THREE categories for the Just Plain Folks Music Awards

I am excited and delighted to announce that I am nominated in THREE categories for the Just Plain Folks Music Awards, (exact date to be announced soon! I will be attending and can’t wait!)  It’s a big deal: 17K albums and 240K songs were entered for the current awards, which cover the expanse of time since their last awards in 2009.

  1. Nominated for Best World Music Album is my Blue Lilah album Medicine Songs by myself/Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Mathews. To hear it click: LISTEN TO THE MEDICINE SONGS ALBUM
  2. Nominated for Best World Music Song is my song Bleyso from my Blue Lilah album Medicine Songs by myself/Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Mathews. To hear the song click: LISTEN TO BLEYSO
  3. Nominated for Best Spoken Word Song from my Kathleen Dunbar americana-rootsy original album The Storm In Our Head is my track Snakecharmer. To hear it click: LISTEN TO SNAKECHARMER

To view the Just Plain Folks website: Just Plain Folks

Accordion Song

A-Accordion Song 05-28-13

Hey Folks, Here’s the lyrics, and you can LISTEN along by
clicking the link, which is: Accordion Song

Accordion Song
Words by Kathleen Dunbar
Music by Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Matthews

when we meet I hold the candle
when we part put out the flame
far from home I’m bought and sold
kisses bitter, love the name

when you ask I do not answer
words you speak I do not know
keep me in the cage you fashioned
say you’ll never let me go

lai dai dai-ee-dai
lai dai dai-ee-dai
lai-dai dai-dai
lai-dai dai-dai

love I wear a little dress of gold and red
how sweet and wise I lead you to my bed
laugh and dance, how deep the sin
spell is cast—we both fall in

I’m your bird, oh-ho you bid me sing
‘pon the cage I beat my wings
sky your blue eyes, close and cool
crumbs of love like broken jewels

midnight’s hush, how cold the wind
turn the key—the dark pours in
at the window—don’t ask why
drop your hands and let me fly

© by Kathleen Dunbar and Gawain Mathews

Photos By Kathleen Dunbar

Listen to “Accordion Song” from my CD The Storm in Our Head on Bandcamp or find it on my website, kathleendunbarmusic.com

A-Accordion Song 05-28-13 best version

A-Accordion Song 05-28-13

Yeah!!! My CD “The Storm in Our Head” just got accepted by Pandora Radio!

A-Accepted in Pandora 04/09/13Yeah! Whoohoo! I’ll be on Pandora Radio by July!

You’ll be able to find me on Pandora by July—I’ll keep you “tuned in” and let you know when it hits the virtual airwaves! The Inside Scoop: the submission/acceptance process is based on unknown Pandora folks listening to only TWO songs! The songs I used were the smoky bluesy Better The Devil You Know and the title song The Storm In Our Head.
In celebration, I’m offering a FREE DOWNLOAD of both of these songs for the next couple of months.  To get the free download:
you can go to the following link, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and sign up for my newsletter—
Free download LINK in my upcoming e-newsletter out next week!  Please pass the links on to your friends, too!

A-Accepted in Pandora 04/09/13

A Little Bit Of Yum

A-A Little Bit Of Yum 03-26-13

a little bit of yum

a little bit of yum
a crumb
a crunch, a bite
and then we’re done.
tidbit, morsel, taste, a drop
a soupçon, nosh
and then we’ll stop.

ambrosia, nectar, we adore
if only just . . .
one mouthful more!

a delectable, a relished heat
to finish off that spicy treat
the midnight hankering for flavor
the craving for the thing we savor
chocolate rapture, rich delight
upon the palette erudite
we nibble, lead by inward urge
oh just this once
no harm to splurge!
the dazed give-in
to appetite.

the moment best
when we can let
the nectar linger,
longing met. . .
it’s not the taste
though that does please
it’s the yearning of
the heart for ease—
and scary! to admit the ache
much easier to reach for—

we’re vulnerable when we believe
that we could let ourselves
the sustenance to mend our hurt—
that kindness is our just dessert
and hunger is a thing to show, so
take the meal,
and eat it—slow—
in the savoring
the heart will know. . .

. . . the honey, goody, nibble of
the sweet we really want
is love.

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photo by Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a little bit of music yum, my song We All Love You on Bandcamp and at my website www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

What Kind of Person Would Beat You With A Bible?

A-Red Cow 2 of 2 Red Bible Story

Yes, I am writing a Western, in my own fashion. Here is a glimpse into some of the beginnings of our hero, Nate.

What kind of person would beat you with a bible? Nate never really understood, he just somehow lived through the wretched and frequent ordeal.

The bible was one with a red cover that had started out as the hide of a cow that lived the life a cow lives, born of a mother like all creatures, growing in the dark from the egg of a black Corriente of venerable stock and the seed of a skinny but tough bull who mounted her the morning a storm was coming. The storm would bring a tornado with it and the bull would die caught up in a twist of wind that did not yield to his horns and hooves and scrubrange attitude. But the sky was yet blue while he eyed the cow in a clearing that afforded him a bit of running room for his approach. She had been chewing her cud in the shade of a rock that was weathered into the shape of a giant tit. Both felt the shift in the weather as an unease in the tough muscles beneath their hides, but this only served to hasten the bull’s purpose, as if he knew he had only one last chance to set more of his progeny to roaming upon the desert hardpan. The pre-storm morning was unusually still and clear, the charged air acting like a glass of magnifying power so that the distant range loomed large and close, the striations of the rock heaved up in ancient frozen waves as he met the cow with the spurting force of creation an hour before his demise. Above the trysting site a cactus bulged with thorn. A small hummingbird sat distinct on its bent and thorny arm and sent a fussy high pitched tip-tip in the direction of the amorous pair.

The bull and the cow were wild, that is untouched by men, and living out a plain life in a dry stretch of country not unlike that of their forebears on another continent who were plenty used by men, long ago gone for Spanish dinners and leatherwork. This cow and bull had been part of old Spanish-Mex stock whose hardscrabble owner had fallen on bad times: a lack of heirs and a wife who had gone off with a passing stranger. The stranger arrived asking for a drink of water in a coat of fancy stitching with two shining conchos to clasp it shut. He had handsome legs, a large mustache, and a big red horse with room on its back for a second rider. Both he and the horse were flashy enough to promise a bit of excitement and both sturdy enough to bear away the plump and bored wife. She left her husband late that night. He felt her move in the bed and reached out to pat her rump which she deftly moved away from his hand. Her last words to him were that she had to use the privy, and farted on him as she slid from the covers as if to prove it. The next day he was alone in the house fingering the brim of the hat he had worn since they’d been married. The spell that had held him to that place was broken. He was gone by afternoon, riding away in a different direction from the tracks of his wife and her new lover, and his puny herd were left to a freedom which perhaps they didn’t perceive in their beeve-brains. They bred and ate and roamed wild along the years till the parents of the bible-destined cow met on the morning of the tornado. The two creatures had paired and parted, and the impregnated cow stood in the lee of the tit-rock and watched across the range as the bull spun into a gray funnel of wind and was gone.

The calf came in the spring, and when grown was rounded up with her mother by a man whose brand was a sideways S and a bar with a hatch. He favored a Mexican saddle with a high cantle because his lower back was apt to hurt—the cantle offered some ease to an injury he’d sustained in a bar brawl landing backwards hard against the knee of a whore who later that night gave him balm for his trouble in the form of cheap whiskey and a free screw.

The man felt fortunate to increase his herd with some wild stock. Later he seared his brand into the flesh of the young calf, who screamed her bovine misery, stood, and scrambled back to her mother. At the end of the season, along with the rest of the herd she had joined, she was shipped on a rattling train bound for Chicago. There she became dinner for a loud young newspaperman and his fiancée at a stylish restaurant. Her hide, which lasted much longer than her flesh, was sold to a bookbinder. He dyed the leather red and fashioned it into the cover of a bible which he placed temptingly in his shop window. There it caught the eye of one Adabelle Cornelia Pettypool.

Adabelle had read a bible her whole life, and the meanings she made out of it and out of life took the shine off her natural prettiness, and invested her with a flat low grade fury. What she never fully allowed herself to comprehend was that the fury she felt was towards her own father. Lonely for his wife who had died of a sudden heart complaint, he turned to his daughter to supply his need. There was a way her mind had split so that she could know that thing and not know it in the same moment, and it left her looking for evil in everyone but him, whom she idealized. To make matters more confusing for her, her father was a minister, mixed up thoroughly in a Methodist sect bound to rescue people out of a darkness that meanwhile he created at his whim in his own home.

Whatever illusions Adabelle may have had about comforting her father, as he put it, ended when she found herself pregnant. Desperate, she rid herself of the child with the help of a doctor she’d met accompanying her father on his ministrations to the local brothel. There were complications, and poor Ada nearly died. Her father gave out that she’d had a bad case of the grippe, but the working ladies at Alviva’s Parlor House dropped a few words to some patrons they had in common with the minister, though their ministrations were of a different order. Word spread and the parishioners soon knew the truth and stopped coming to Sunday service. Her father told Adabelle to pack their belongings.

On the day of their departure she rose early and opened her father’s collection box as it stood among suitcases and bundles on a table with the remains of their last Chicago breakfast. She looked him in the eye and said, “I am doing this one thing for myself.” He looked out the window and began to hum loudly Elvina Hall’s popular new hymn, Jesus Paid It All. Adabelle took only the money she needed and left briskly for the bookseller with the red bible in his window display. It was a thing she’d been yearning after for weeks, and which she had fixed upon during her terrible illness. Her reasons for buying it were not clear to her, except that it was something of her own, which she could hold in her hand and that was not tainted with her family. At the time that seemed enough. The red bible was one of Adabelle’s choice possessions, and she kept it close to her own person on the long journey south, until it landed with all the power her arm could give upon a small boy’s body.

Her father’s public excuse for their move, which he shared with any person who would listen to him on trains, stages, and in cheap hotel restaurants, was that he had been called in a vision to save Whites, Mexicans, Indians, cowboys, gunslingers, fallen women and other numerous recreants in the wild cattle town of Abilene, Kansas. With a knowing look he’d lean in towards his audience at this point, saying in a deep voice that the word “Abilene” had appeared to him in a dream upon a burning map. In his private moments he was relieved to have gotten out of Chicago before things turned ugly. He happened to see the name of the Kansas cowtown in a newspaper close on the heels of some threats from a burly former-parishioner who’d just come around the corner from Alviva’s Parlor House. He prayed that he might ride the current tide of do-gooding into heaven. Whether he arrived at that final destination or was held to account for what he’d done to his daughter and shown the door to the lower quarters, no one could say for sure. His preaching frenzy did not bring in many sheep. He was not a popular man in a town given to excess of every sort and soon took a perhaps-not-so-stray bullet from a bar fight that had spilled over onto the street. He lived long enough to look down with wonder as the stuff of his life leaked out of him, reddening his hands. He was dead before the doctor and his daughter arrived along with curious onlookers. Among the crowd was Nate’s father, in Abilene from his ranch in Texas on a cattle drive. He cast his eye upon Adabelle, perhaps in much the same way the bull had spotted the cow, wanting to set more of his progeny walking on the Texas range. Ada appeared likely. Nate’s father seemed to collect pretty women in need of help, scooping them up and depositing them in his big ranch home, then disappearing for months at a time on business. His first three wives had died and he missed them all in a distant and romantic sort of way. And so he met and rescued Adabelle from the debris of the minister’s life and made her his fourth wife with the blessing of a Baptist preacher in a church that stood handily on the way out of town.

Nate’s father was charming; an older man but fit and active and his ranch business provided a good income. Adabelle was hopeful for the first time in her life. His sons by his first and second wives were grown and gone, and Nate, the child of his third, and Indian wife, was young; in need, he said, of more brothers and sisters. Nate’s father, in his bull way, wanted a big family like the one he’d grown up in and Adabelle aimed to make a family different than her own. But it turned out that the sad fiasco with her father had injured her, and she could not bear a child. This sapped the juices from her prettiness and left her dry and brittle of temperament, turning to the red bible more than ever. Nate’s father was at home less and less, and Nate and the ranch hands came to know Adabelle as the dour and vindictive woman who had no Christian spirit—at least nothing in the last part of the red book she bought in Chicago had Christ laying into a small child for simply having the brown face of his mother and his tribe (Christ probably being pretty brown himself), although the first part of the story had the old desert god laying into plenty of people with apparent satisfaction. And so it was that Nate’s stepmother felt a deep release in beating the boy, leaving welts on his back and a scar on his cheek where the small diamond of the ring her faraway husband gave her cut the boy in the fury she unleashed because she could have no child of her own and must raise this one, product of her husband and his dead tribal woman. Where she might have found a larger life, she could not see it because no kind soul had ever shown her how to have a bigger perspective. She dried up in the smallest of possible worlds—inside a broken, shrunk, unloved and unloving heart. Being of an active nature, she was given to expressing the terrible electric current of her feelings, rather than wasting quietly away. The bible—the object itself, not the philosophy therein—was her weapon against more grief than she could inwardly bear: she took to beating Nate.

And so the cow, dead and taken into parts, had become the unwitting cover that bound together the words of a deity Nate never got to have a feeling for. Adabelle’s blows rained down hard upon his small boy’s body, unrelenting, and with a venom increasing as did her stepson’s unwillingness to bend to her or to her religion. Such was Nate’s life when his father was away from home, which was most of the time. Bruised and lonely, he thought longingly of his own brown-faced mother who had died while he was a babe. And his feelings towards the red bible were, “What a waste of a good cow.”
© Kathleen Dunbar

Here’s a poem set to music, another western-with-a-twist, on my new CD The Storm in Our Head. It’s called “Snake Charmer.” Find it on Bandcamp or on my website, www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

A-Red Cow 1 of 2 Red Bible Story

Kathleen and Gawain on the Radio! Listen to the Podcast!

A-Mutiny Radio Story 4 & Podcast StoryKathleen and Gawain on the Radio! Listen to the Podcast!

Hear us perform live versions of four of my songs, plus I’ll make you laugh and entertain you with the interview—where these songs come from! what inspires me! and more! Thanks Mutiny Radio and Aisha for having us!

Here’s the link BUT you have to
(about 1/3 of the way into it):  Podcast

A Sad Tale from the Old West, from a Woman’s Perspective

A-Red BirdRed Bird
Lyrics from my new cd The Storm in Our Head
Dan Feiszli on his luscious standup bass made in 1932 in Cleveland, Ohio
Gawain Mathews playing superbly haunting acoustic and electric guitars
Me singing, channeling the Red Bird

I come down from old cold mountain
I was a child without no home
there are wings on birds in the mountain
there are wings on birds who have flown
I had no ma or pa to love me
I had no one to ease my way
I had my body ripe as a pear
when I needed money my body would pay

when the rain is through I’ll be gone
when the rain is through I’ll be free
sage smells sweet and the moon is bright
I see and I hear spirits in the night
they come to claim me

many the men who pass through this town
askin for Red Bird by that I am known
I wear a red dress not for my pleasure
I wear a red dress it’s all that I own
here come the riders so dusty and wild
the range and the bottle is all they call home
to pay for the women’s sweet flesh till the mornin
they ride through the rain and the lightnin storm


I don’t give my laugh or my whiskey for free
till I met a cowboy beside me he lay
eyes like the sky and hair gold as sun
he told me my love I’ll take you away
he sat playin cards by an evil-eyed stranger
who shot my love I can still hear the sound
the stranger’s horse I’ve stolen, I’m ridin
when I hang by his hand will you cut me down


and I fly and I fly and I fly and I fly
I fly and I fly and I fly
and I fly and I fly and I fly through the night
I fly and I fly and I fly
and I fly and I fly and I fly through the night
I fly and I fly and I fly
and I fly and I fly and I fly through the night
I fly and I fly and I fly

© Kathleen Dunbar

Photos by Kathleen Dunbar

Hear the song by clicking Red Bird on Bandcamp or visit my website www.kathleendunbarmusic.com 

A-Red Bird

“I am walking in jeweled shoes” –a Valentine’s Day poem


I am walking in jeweled shoes

I am walking in jeweled shoes
the people have made them
for my feet
in joy they have made them
from the dark earth
from the blind earth
from the old earth
the earth has cooked up
red and turquoise and blue
these are her spirit dreams
from deep inside her body
and the people have gathered them
with their hands
of honey color
and love
oh the people of my village
celebrate my going
to you
they have given me
this gift
so that I may walk in beauty
and feel the earth hold me
all the way down
they are the gift for me
as I open my heart
to my man
and dance
in wild amazement!

you and I will not hear the jewels
of my shoes
begin to sing
as I slip them off
this one
that one
your hand helping
but they do
in high and low voices
the people have placed them
soft handed and teasing
tenderly and wise
upon my feet
we cannot hear their song
lost as we are
in our succulent beginning
our wild sacred dance
but we have been
well blessed
we have been blessed
all the way

© Kathleen Dunbar

photo by Kathleen Dunbar

here’s a love song to listen to from my new cd The Storm in Our Head, called Cello Song
find it on my website, too www.kathleendunbarmusic.com

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: www.kathleendunbarmusic.com 

 Photos of Kathleen in Some Russian Hats by Kathleen Dunbar

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Kathleen Live On Mutiny Radio!

What fun! Just came home from doing a live show on Mutiny Radio of my original songs performed by me and my Better Devil guitarist, friend and producer Gawain Mathews, and I give an interview about where these songs come from and how I write ’em! Thanks Aisha and Crystal for having us on your program Sounds from the Street. You can hear the show too! Here’s the link BUT you have to
(about 1/3 of the way into it):  Podcast






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IMG_2904Photos by Kathleen Dunbar and Lorene Garrett