Finding Harmony: Navigating Life and Emotions Through Music and Memories of My Father

The Spiritual Care Fund is helping me spend two days in Macon, Georgia, the home of the Allmans…Their music has played an integral part in my life, helping me connect to the universe through music. Perhaps this journey can help me try to connect and make sense of my father’s emotional life…

Over the years I have struggled within and without my relationship with my father, before his death and afterward. No one quite knows another person completely. There were very few people who lived with him – his parents, his brother, my mother, myself, my step-mothers, other girlfriends, other relatives. We were in the position to know him the best, and yet, I think I’m safe in saying that none of us really knew him very well and admitted that readily. We may have known his habits, and like everyone, he had his. He smoked Cowboy Killers, he drank, he was a Coke sucker, he liked to gamble. He didn’t like mornings, but he did them like everyone. We could know those things, but we didn’t know him in the sense that we understood him. One of my friends confided that he had spent the past year having lunch with my dad a couple times a week, and honestly, he said, “I have no idea what motivates him.”
All of us who were part of his life didn’t get to know him because he didn’t want us to. We didn’t get to understand his cares and concerns, his joys and celebrations because he rarely let anyone know what those were. He did not communicate well or often. He did share one emotion well, unfortunately, and that was anger. I felt that anger often. He became angry when I was sick and needed to see a doctor. Was he really mad at me, or was he mad because of the expenditure a doctor visit cost? The time out of his day to drive me around? Does it matter? I still feel guilty for causing the anger. I often felt I was an expenditure that he couldn’t afford.
Likely this led to some of the issues I’ve had in life, and that’s okay. That’s how life happens to us all. We’re both a balance of nature and nurture, and sometimes the nurture isn’t the kind we all need, want, or deserve. As I’ve aged, I try to find the positive in every situation, along with the negative, take from both the lessons I need to learn, and be thankful for what I have been given. It isn’t always easy to relive the emotions to find the lessons. Dream interpretation is like that. Many of our most vivid dreams and nightmares are frought with such emotional intensity it’s hard to wrap our heads around the symbols without our feelings overwhelming us. An incarcerated individual once had a dream that left him in tears and am emotional mess. In his dreams his son had no eyes. I calmed him down and reminded him that the boy’s mother wouldn’t let the boy come to visit him – wouldn’t let him “see” his dad. The father immediately relaxed, let the emotions of fear go. We talked about how he as a father didn’t feel “seen,” either.
Strong emotions can cripple us, even kill us, if we can’t find a way to express them. The year before my father died he tried to commit suicide, but did not complete it. On the phone he told me, “I’m such a fuck up I can’t even manage to kill myself.” I tried to be a part of his rehabilitation, along with Nohora, and found that my father was unable to form sentences that began with the words, “I feel…” He was incapable of saying, “I feel pain,” “I feel love,” “I feel sad.” He did manage to share some things I never knew. He claimed he had been depressed since he was a child. I believe him. He grew up in an era when mental health care was primitive, not discussed, and most americans used alcohol or other recreational drugs as a coping skill. Not that we still don’t, but now we talk about our lack of coping skills and struggle to find meaningful mental health care.

The year after his suicide attempt, and before he died, he tried to live life with medication and occasional counseling sessions. One memorable phone call included a very paranoid rant, threats of life-changing events, unusual statements (even for him). I quickly called in the reinforcements, and a medication change was made immediately. Disaster was avoided, but only briefly. I wondered how my step-mother and her family could live that way, or for how long? This was new territory and it was scary territory at that. I spent my days in the graveyard next to wear we lived, hiding behind tombstones to watch a mother fox raising her new-born kits. They were amazing, and my awe of their existence was an amazing lesson for me that joy could still be found and celebrated in the midst of sorrow.
This past year I have spent time thinking about ancestors, about where I come from, about how that has affected this lifetime around the sun. I enjoy watching the shows on television when people find out the people and the families which came before them. There are great stories we all have in are lives which help us define ourselves, some of them great disasters, some great victories. But the stories of us are all there. My favorite metaphor of our human history is The Creator as The Weaver, sitting at her loom, recording all of our lives in never-ending strands of yarn which weave in and out and around, up and down. Each unique individual in the universe has their own strands, which sometimes come together, sometimes don’t, may have in what we call “the past,” some may in what we call “the future.” The Weaver creates a tapestry of our lived life as we’re living it.
My father has his own tapestry, but at some point, his tapestry and my tapestry begain to interweave. Does this start even before I’m born? I believe human are eternal beings in human incarnation. When does my tapestry begin in this timeline, or does it? Thoughts are hard to express of the eternal in language created for mortal creatures. All of the humans who make up his ancestry now become my humans as well. Their threads begin to create my threads. At the least, our timelines intertwine at my birth, but they never stop intertwining. Never. Those threads are permanent. What I choose to do with the threads, the stories, are up to me, and the weaver can reflect those stories as she wishes.
As I mentioned before, it’s important to me to find the positive in what could be negative. There is so much more I could speak to here about how I experienced our life together and apart. “Together and apart” could be the ultimate lesson in the relationship, because it was neither one nor the other; our relationship was always both from my perspective. This represents both the time we were physically together, but relationally apart. Within that tapestry of our intertwined threads is one ephemeral and eternal in itself: the thread of Music.
We all have soundtracks to our lives. We all have memories which can be triggered by hearing a song. We all have our favorite genres, our favorite hymns, favorite musicians. Music is a shared experience in humanity since the first drum was stretched to possibly echo the sound of a human heart, or the first flute was carved to replicate the sound of birds or the wind blowing through trees. If there’s a positive lesson I received from my father which has influenced my life the most is his love for music. Growing up in the 60’s, our family listened to music on a stereo, on the radio while going on road trips, on television, on the dreaded eight-track tapes when they were introduced.

My memories of life at home always have music playing in the background. We decorated our Christmas tree listening to Christmas albums which only came out once a year. My favorite was Johnny Mathis, whose smooth tones quickly became my favorite of old, dry songs every artist on the planet sang. We listened to a radio station from Indianapolis which featured an “Oldies” hour or two, as I remember. The “American Graffiti” soundtrack was a welcome addition to the collection. As a visual person, I recall album covers as I remember the music. We listened to the debut album of Simon and Garfunkel. Janice Joplin’s “Pearl” was on the vinyl stacked to play. (Anyone else stack their albums three or four deep? The original playlist!) Some of my favorites were “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers debut album. I also liked The Fifth Dimension, Carole King, the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar are some of the albums I chose.
My father listened to jazz often, which I still have a hard time fathoming, but he loved it. We went to see the movie “Janice” together when it came out in theaters. I bought tickets for Father’s Day one year when Doc Severinsen was at IU. The Gift of Music he gave me wasn’t just a gift of particular artist or genre. The gift he gave me was insight into his feelings about his world that he chose not to express, nor perhaps knew how. He gave me the insight that his feelings were expressed by both men and women from different cultures, races, backgrounds, and styles. There was no limit to the music you might hear on our turnstyles and radios. The only limit was whether we liked the music or not. I remember him laughing that I was stuck at the grandparents on Saturday nights sometimes and had to watch Lawrence Welk. We argued at times over some of my teen-age choices, and head-phones quickly ended those arguments; it wasn’t about the volume, but my immature choices (yes, I’m ashamed to say there were some teeny-bopper tunes even I was not immune to).
As he aged he continued to listen to rock and blues, mainly Eric Clapton. I remember he gave me an Eric Clapton record (Cocaine) for my sixteenth birthday. I thought it was an odd choice as a gift to me, because I knew who Clapton was, but wasn’t necessarily a fan. As an adult, I later appreciated the juicy rationalization that in a very small house, everyone will get to enjoy the music. And that was the gift, really. Listening to music as we took Sunday drives, as we cleaned the house, as we were simply together – we were together. We were connected. Sharing his musical preference, for me, was a way of getting to know someone who was incredibly hard to know. If I knew what moved him, whether it made him sad, glad, mad, or afraid, at least I knew. It wasn’t a mystery, it wasn’t something I had to guess. My emotional safety was at stake, after all. Is living in an emotional desert equal to emotional abuse?
Another lesson I learned from him was a layer within his love of music. If you re-read some of his preferences, he enjoyed a wide-range of genres and artists. It did not matter the race, religion, culture, beliefs of the musicians; if he liked the music, then we listened to it. Both of my parents embraced all people of all races, all religions, all creeds. I was taught that human beings were human beings, and all people and animals were to be treated as equals. I never remember that lesson necessarily being spoken outright, but I do remember them living that message. I don’t remember my father necessarily being a spiritual person, and yet at the same time, he once told me about a sermon he once heard from a black, female pastor. I’m not sure how he got to listen to this sermon, but it touched him enough for him to mention it.

It’s been a dozen or so years since he passed away, but my feelings around Fathers Day have been ambiguous for many more. Communication between the two of us was sporadic at best after I moved to Alaska. Years would pass at times between phone calls. After Case and Chloe entered the world, there was more interest on both our parts to communicate. Even then, communication didn’t always include relevant or pertinent information. One year, he flew to Indiana to visit on Case’s kindergarten fall break. We had quite a week, going to the state park, going to the children’s museum, lot’s of time together. He was dating Nohora at the time, and brought photos to show us of the two of them together. After I dropped him off at the airport for his flight home, I waited until I thought he had landed and tried to phone. Later the next day, he called to say his flight was fine, but he was running late for the wedding. His wedding to Nohora, the wedding he failed to mention for a week while he was with us.
Perhaps I share my feelings too much with people as a direct reaction to him not sharing with me. Silence can easily be weaponized as I experienced throughout my life. I may not be a musician, but I deeply embrace the music I do listen to. I am extremely picky. There are some genres which don’t interest me, and others I hang on to tightly, as if my life depends on it. Perhaps it does – I certainly could argue that my holistic health depends on what I’m listening to. My idea of a spiritual song probably isn’t embraced by all folks; I don’t like 99% of the hymns I have ever heard or sung. Most hymns do not reflect any part of my theology and hold no positive memories either. Most of the songs I consider to feed me spiritually include, but are not limited to artists such as U2, Pink Floyd, and The Band. I have long loved the Blues – Stevie Ray, The Allman Brothers, Kris Kristofferson. I would argue that most of the metal songs I listen to are angry songs. What better way than to express anger in a safe space than in the comfort of my own home and shower?
My lesson from my fractured relationship with my father is this: listening to music can be a safe space for feeling emotions. Listening to music can also be a safe way to encounter a world full of dangerous emotions. Finding the musicians whose frequencies match mine then is vitally important to my holistic health. That music has changed over the years, as I mentioned before. The music which is creating that safe place for me is The Allman Brothers music. The lesson of their music is both complicated and simple, just as Duane Allman was. He wanted to play guitar, and make enough money to live, his mother reported. He didn’t want fame and the complications surrounding it. His music was complicated – he found two drummers, another lead guitar player, a bass player, and his brother on organ. He refused a simple trio. Duane was a gifted studio artist, but craved playing live music. He wanted the audience, their energy, the connection. The bands breakout album was “Live at the Fillmore East,” where they played some of their greatest music. The band’s music and life was communal, and must be understood that way. They played, lived, and are buried together.
The Spiritual Care Fund is helping me spend two days in Macon, Georgia, the home of the Allmans. The Big House was their home where the band and their families lived together, and is now a museum. Rose Hill Cemetery is where Duane, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks, and Gregory Allman are buried. Butch Trucks died in April, and will be buried there in the future. There is room for Jaimoe as well. Their music has played an integral part in my life, helping me connect to the universe through music. Perhaps this journey can help me try to connect and make sense of my father’s emotional life, perhaps feeling the same emotions he once felt hearing the wail of Duane’s slide guitar, Gregory’s rich blues growl, the jazz drum, the traditional gospel organ. I have worked years to reflect upon my emotions, hoping to find common ground with him.

My favorite new band? Tedeschi Trucks Band. Check them out. They’re in the Family.

  • Susann Estle

    "Susann Estle is a Board Certified Chaplain and CPE Supervisor with The School of Military Spiritual Formation . Her clinical experience includes thirteen years with the Indiana Department of Corrections, five years as a hospital chaplain, and two as a hospice chaplain. Susann has worked extensively with incarcerated veterans and specializes in supervising military-oriented CPE cohorts. As a Training Supervisor, Susann’s primary focus is developing Supervisors-in-Training into full Supervisors. She follows the Quaker faith (Society of Friends) and has been recorded as having the Spirit of Ministry, the Quaker equivalent of ordination. Susann has served as a part-time pastor as well. She has two young adult children, and lives in Central Indiana."

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