A Life with a View

Sometimes something as simple as watching a movie jars you back to what makes your life profound. Yes, profound is a word people rarely use when talking about themselves. I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling profoundly “less than” and I’m tired. We are at a precipice on this planet. We are in the process of eradicating passion, emotion, and feeling. Matter of fact, as a man, I’ve been told countless times these traits are weak, avoid them at all costs. We are seeing the absolute personification of this by those in power in our country, and I’m tired….

We are all leading profound lives. If anyone tells you otherwise they are helplessly trying to suck up your vapor. Stop letting them. You are profound.

This article will, hopefully, be a line of others that will be my soul purging, so…stick with me, if you are interested, through my unorganized goo of thought. My hope is that dialog resonates in us all and we can become better for considering what humanity and personhood means…..I believe we are all tired….I believe we desperately need to connect. There will always be vapor suckers. I’m sure there will be many who I will make very uncomfortable or downright mad. Today we see a tremendous amount of lashing out, demonizing, belittling, and bullying with very little contemplation. I’m not interested in insensitive bullying and name calling because you have nothing concrete to contribute. I’m tired….

Recently, I watched a movie called “Mudbound” with a bunch of historians while we twittered away. I knew it would not be an uplifting movie, thus I had avoided it. I didn’t know it would take me back to the first 25 years of my life of turmoil, pain, and anger that has led me to today…contemplation. I grew up in the south, and two years were spent in Mississippi at a pivotal time in my young adult life. So, this movie hit me square in the face. My family never discussed lynching, ever. We really never discussed anything other than sports and republican politics. I’m tired…

I don’t have the space or time for a thorough history of life as I’ve lived it, so I just want to focus on a mirror into some experiences that came up. I grew up in a racial and conservative south that did and will always deny racism. Yes, for the majority, all the people around me were “very good” people, many with families that were much less racial than mine, some with families that were worse. As I aged, things that permeated what and who I interacted with began to itch my skin. At the time it remained a subtle itch that has become a dire eczema eating away. My family became a battle ground between two progressive women who I loved dearly. My Mom and my Sister (biological aunt) were fighters, but life beat them down. I watched them struggle for room to breath in our home without any real cognizant understanding for what was happening at the time. My grandmother told me on her death bed, when I asked the question “what did you want to do, but were never allowed to do?” She told me she really wanted to go to college because she adored learning. She was the product of the depression and that was never a possibility as a poor woman. She was an A student in Latin, yes, they taught Latin in very small schools everywhere. But, girls got married and had kids, it was what was expected. I’m tired…

Dealing with my own personal issues distracted me, saved me, but ultimately allowed me to put off my understanding of what was around me and escape. How could I justify being surrounded by “good people” and criticize the underbelly of racial, devaluing of women, and an economic divide that was not acknowledged? There were constant reasons of denial before me. While my family was broken in so many ways, it was more important for us to fit into a sense of normality, white middle class normality than anything else. Souls were sold to make room for the endeavor of being a normal middle class, “white family”. It was the ultimate status symbol of my era, my family existence. I still believe this was more indicative of budding middle class white families. I saw more black/white familial interactions in the very poor white families. I also grew up believing that my graduating class of 597 was void of any LGBTIA folks, because I was told so. There were no spaces that you didn’t have to create for yourself, if you didn’t fit in nice tiny boxes. Suppression of any feelings that didn’t “fit” was the norm. Hmmmm… I’m tired…

I’m glad I lived in the “South” believe it or not. Ultimately, my lens was opened and refined by what I experienced. I ran from the South to Boston, heartland of Northern sensibilities, my freedom!, or so I surmised. Let me explain a few things about growing up in a small southern town that might go unnoticed by northern born individuals. We lived with racism, and we also lived with blacks as neighbors, schoolmates, and playmates. A crazy stew of difficult to understand complexities. Yet, we lived together, yet separated by race. In the “North”, I would find much more segregation than I could have ever expected. It seemed easy for people to claim racial equality when it wasn’t a real part of their everyday lives. That’s complicated, I know, but I’m talking percentages. There is always isolated exceptions to rules. I would find it would be rare to have a black or Hispanic neighbor. I’m sure you can say this for large swaths of the Midwest as well. In the south, being exposed to a hispanic family just rarely happened, except in mine. I’m tired…

I hit Boston right before the Stewart killing incident. Do you know about this stain on northern sensibilities? Racism was displayed in a blatantly horrible scenario. Charles Stewart, a “white very good upper crust guy” murdered his pregnant wife and pinned it on…you guessed it… a black guy. No one including police questioned his story early on. After all he was a white guy with a nice job and a pregnant wife. A “good guy”. What hit me so hard was the police went through the black neighborhoods lining up “black men”, fitting any general description, and treating them like criminals. Not on a one at a time basis in their living rooms or at the police station, but right there on the street in front of their neighbors and peers. The message was clear. A racial line in the sand was drawn. It was a wow moment of racism being set back generations. We didn’t have the Internet in 1990, so our white eyes only heard about it in the Boston Globe front page. When Stewart’s story began to show some holes, he wasn’t arrested, he jumped off a bridge and committed suicide. No one barged into his living room, through him to the ground, and shot him. We need to see how very far we have NOT come. I’m tired….

Boiling Stew….

A few years later I was playing a Catholic wedding in Newton, MA and a quite unusual thing happened. I’ve played hundreds upon hundreds of weddings. This was different. I usually always get my pay check either from the organist or a member of the bride’s family before or directly after the wedding. The organist sheepishly told me. “Our priest collects all the checks personally and you have to go see him after the ceremony to get your check.” This is unusual, but also annoying as I sometimes have another wedding right after to get to in a hurry. So…I go back to get my check and the Father asks me into his office, closes the door…my radar is hitting red about now…has my check in his hand and proceeds to shake my hand. No biggy…he would not let go. Awkward silence…I slowly started to pull very hard to get my hand back and starred him right in the face with my “get your hands off me” look, thanked him sheepishly and left as fast as my feet could go. Later, I tried to convince myself that my creeped out meter was wrong. Why would I be so ready to think something ill of this man. This man was Father Paul Shanley, later convicted of child molestation in the Boston scandal. I saw his picture on the news and threw up.

Before all this I had two run ins with Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston. The man clearly in a position to have stopped all of these men, but chose to rehabilitate Geoghan and Shanley at a church facility in Hartford, CT in secret. Look up the timeline on all of this or watch the movie “Spotlight”.

The first incident was literary I “ran into Law coming around a circular hallway in a hotel where I was performing. I apologized…and felt guilty…he didn’t even hear me as he shoved past me on his way to something important. No big deal, but he clearly did not meet my expectations of a holy man. My second run in with him was not really his responsibility completely. I was hired to play for him to enter, with a trumpet fanfare, at Emmanuel College chapel for a very important event. The organist had hired me. I was new to the area, and did it for a pretty low fee. The loft with the organ when I arrived was packed and I was relegated to the back as the organist had brought his flute playing daughter, who wasn’t at the rehearsal, to the service to play as well. She was up front and there was no room for me. So, I suggested the organist let me know when I was to play and I would shove my way through. This was a horrible scenario and I knew it. So, of course, Cardinal Law decided to march in without giving the cue guy notice, as far as I could ascertain, and we missed the fanfare. I was told a check would be sent in the mail….you guessed it. Never arrived. I called the organist who swore it would be in the mail soon…Never arrived….After about the 3rd go around and being consistently lied to, I did what any good Catholic would do. I left it alone, even though I really needed the money, chalked it up to my tithing. I’m tired….

I tried many religious endeavors. I was raised in a Methodist church, even though when I ask my grandmother “why Methodist” she responded, “because there are no Presbyterian Churches in town”. Her side of the family comes from a very long line of Presbyterians, a founder of Princeton, connects to the American Colonization Society, and several preachers, one prominent in the Revolutionary War, with children involved deeply with the ACS. They were pillars of their communities, but not abolitionist. They believed slavery was immoral, but they also believed they should return to Africa. My grandmother never knew anything about her family except they were everyday working class farmers. She was very wrong. But, that’s another big story. I’m tired…

I tried being as good as I could as a child. We weren’t really a religious family. My grandfather never stepped foot in a church for any reason except if someone died or got married, even then begrudgingly. He was a complicated man, read the bible but didn’t believe in organized religion, was not an open racist, but proudly displayed his George Wallace pin. I prayed all the time. My grandmother took us kids to church ever Sunday, to vacation bible school, and we played on the church softball team. I was clearly not worthy. Drawn to religious faith, now I understand more as a study of, than a participation, would permeate my entire life. I took a religion course in college and realize how pivotal that class was for me. It was taught by a brilliant professor who was an atheist. That blew my mind. How the hell did he get to teach religion? This was the beginning of an open door of thought for me. I didn’t know I could open the door. I tried every form of religion…Methodist, baptist…evangelical…even converted to Catholic and taught RCIA at a parish attached to a University campus. What I did know is everyone I meet,who was deeply ingrained in evangelicalism was very messed up. So much so one ended up trying to pay someone to kill off his wife so he could marry another woman, with whom he was having an affair. Ever since knowing this guy in college he lied obsessively. He was engaged in college to someone at another college and cheated on her like she didn’t even exist, all while drinking, partying…and going to church and weekend retreats. Another was clearly gay or bi who swore he was born again to save himself from the wrongful lust. Luckily, these two examples keep me at a distance with faith even though I desired to believe in something. I’m tired…

As a child, one of my earliest memories was being traumatized leaving home on a bus to go to kindergarten, literally 1/2 a mile away. It stuck with me because I was shy and confused about my own family issues. I was born in Kentucky, lived as a newborn in a shack that didn’t have running water or heat, moved to Oklahoma at 1 with my Mom and grandfather. Once settled in Oklahoma my grandfather had a ruptured aorta and died instantly at the age of 47. My mom and I returned to Kentucky and I was given to my grandparents. This was just the beginning of repeated upheaval in my life. It would continue unabated for the majority of my life. Too much chaos would haunt me to this day. Much later in life I would learn I suffer from anxiety (probably PTSD) around over-stimulus caused, I believe, by several other traumatic events in my life. Someday I hope to have the courage to talk about, but now it’s not that important a detail. I’m tired….

In kindergarten we took naps and there were white and black kids in my class. One black girl would choose to be next to me and pinch me. I was too traumatized to tell the teacher, but I told her repeatedly to stop. Eventually she did, and I would later have white girls that would do the same. The difference for me started there, because I kept tabs on people that connected to my life, even if I didn’t understand why. This young black girl and another that I later found an attraction to, didn’t have it easy and I didn’t understand why, yet. I didn’t understand how they were the same, yet different. I would learn very fast as I got older and developed quite the skills in basketball. I would spend every waking hour on the hoops at the school yard where my friends would challenge me to be better. They were black boys and it never dawned on me that there was a problem. Until my grandmother made it perfectly clear I could never play with them again. So, began my life of lying and deception…I’m tired…

When I was in junior high and early high school my mother and twin sisters lived in a trailer right across the street from a black baptist church. Many a night in the summer I would hear clapping and singing like I’d never heard in a white church. I would sneak out at dark, make my way to the open windows and sit below listening. This was my first experience of community that I didn’t feel in my all white protestant church that had music and community. It was stiff, and I never felt like I belonged. I still can’t explain why I felt like I would have belonged in that all black church. It sounds ludicrous. God only knows, but what I did know was the feeling of a shared experience I yearned to have deep in my soul. I still had yet to understand the history behind the beautiful unaccompanied spirituals that touched my love of music, that would lead me to make music my life. I don’t have white sympathy for the black experience anymore. I don’t want to exist on that side of the line. I will never belong in their spaces completely, and they will never belong in mine completely, but I’ve learned what we do share is personhood. I cannot be Black or Hispanic any more than they can be White. When we learn and honor each others experiences, give each other space, and know how to respect paths we become “persons” instead of races or sexes. I don’t know if that is possible to achieve, but I do believe it’s worth striving for. I’m tired…

In early college summers I worked at a horse racing track as a cashier at a beer stand. I worked at the stand that sold generic brands like bud, miller, stroh’s, etc, outdoors but with a huge roof and concrete floors. Next to me was the beer on tap, the cheap stuff, running all over the floors between wooden blanks….. Who served this beer, walking on planks that dripped, froth overflowing onto their hands were the black ladies. I would come to adore these women. They were all older and worn from life and they talked to me, why? Because I choose to talk to them. I was the white youngster surrounded by black old ladies, and it was sublime. One woman who I would develop such fondness for was, I surmise, in her 60's at the time. All of these women stood on their feet all day while I sat on a pedestal ringing up the beer. They weren’t allowed to handle the money other than to hand it to the cashier. I felt so guilty….I needed the job and the money to be able to get back to school each year. I wanted to scream and I knew other whites that hated it too, but we were all poor and young and afraid to speak. I was underage so I couldn’t change places with them even if I wanted. I’m tired….

From the age of 6, Ernie Armendariz was my step-father. It was complicated because my parents were really my grandmother and step-grandfather. If you ask me today who was really a father to me I would not hesitate to say my step-grandfather. But, Ernie, who I really don’t think anyone every really knew, including himself, was good to me. He took me fishing all the time, so ironically, I probably spent more time with him alone than anyone except my mom who had a turbulent relationship with him that involved massive drinking. My twin sisters suffered the most from this relationship, that I could visit and then go back home to safety, for the most part.

I grew up listening to Motown with my mom who could dance anyone off the floor…Redbone, Jose Feliciano would round out Ernie’s pics. To this day, I really believe my extensive study of music came about because of this musical stew I was able to have within this conservative, republican home. Ernie was kind of accepted, but I knew my grandparents weren’t that happy he was a part of our lives. Their grandchildren, possibly another story, to a point. I was taken in by them to raise, my 1/2 Hispanic sisters were not. My grandmother begged, but my grandfather said no. So, off to California my 1/2 sisters went with a alcoholic drifter who would not know how to be an adult for this rest of his life. I’m tired…

Mississippi in the mid 80's was an eye opening experience on so many levels. I went to college there for two years in southern Mississippi. I began my journey by driving from Kentucky to southern Mississippi for 14 hours all in one day. What I saw driving through the Memphis area, close to Graceland, then Mississippi was a swath of poverty I had never experienced. It was segregated levels of poverty, with black people on the bottom. And…oh that bottom…shacks like you see in movies that you never really believed existed, no electricity, no water. That wasn’t supposed to be happening in the 80's, maybe the 1880's. Yet, right there, in front of your face in the moment was a walk back in a time machine. My skin begin to itch terribly. I’m tired….

After I’d been there less than a year a celebration was afoot. The annual Confederate Memorial Day and Confederacy History Month was ablaze with spiffy confederate uniformed, white male students lining the streets to start the parade. This was weird…I was raised in Kentucky and we never did anything like this..well…Kentucky was a bit less convinced during the Civil War about slavery, so maybe that’s why. I wasn’t prepared for this. I noticed there were very few black faces around a normally large black populated campus. The faces I did see were, in my impression, shamed. How else could I explain none of them making eye contact, many just looking at the ground and walking away to…somewhere…anywhere. I felt like I had accidentally stepped into Peabody and Sherman’s “wayback” machine. I’m tired….

I saw the movie Purple Rain in the main auditorium on campus with a musician friend. We seemed to be of the very few white people in the audience. The experience was electrifying. If you’re white and you have not shared a movie with a large black crowd you have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s a community experience where you know you’re in a position of minority. You know you should be shunned and ridiculed for even thinking you should be in their space. But, you get the opposite…no..you get a sense of community of closeness that I have never experienced in white spaces. It’s different. Being white is a lot of uptight, self inflicted pressure. You have no idea it’s there until you are in an environment that doesn’t feed off of it like a foggy, soggy presence. Things were made very clear when we walked into the auditorium. There were still black and white painted, old signs that said “colored” with an arrow pointing up, meaning upstairs only. It was “history” why would I dare think TAKE IT DOWN. But, for that time, it served a purpose for me. It was a glaring reminder of place in the world, and how much we have avoided doing to right the ship. You know….it’s fucking time to right the SHIP! Distasteful reminders of the past should be reconstructed, but I think the statues, signs, etc..can serve a purpose in a museum, least future generations forget. I’m tired…

I consider myself an observer of life. There are so many things around us to be outraged about. I’ve been outraged my entire life. For others, these experiences don’t affect them. I’m not sure where the happy medium should be. We are feed a scenario that is impossible to life up to about a perfect world that has never existed, yet we have collectively shoved history into what we want, not what we see. When I get outraged, like above, I remind myself of EVERYONE who came before me, and are living today, that have lived what I can only observe and feel in a secondary sense. Life is PROFOUND now, then, and tomorrow. My life of observance is a pittance of obligation to truth. All I can do is bear witness…write…feel…love. I know no other way. And..yes…I need a good editor, but that’s not what a blog is all about.

I had a lot to say, apparently…..



Writer, researcher, lover of history, philosophy, politics and critical thought

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Daniel Louis Duncan

Writer, researcher, lover of history, philosophy, politics and critical thought