The Detroit Years 1: Guided by Dreams

detroit skyline photo by D.K. Brainard

Between the Dream and the Reality: 9/11, Uranus conjunct Sun, spiritus contra spiritum

On this roller coaster ride
that my emotions have to take me on

– Neil Young, ‘Natural Beauty’

That first line from the last song on Harvest Moon always gets me.  Sometimes my life seems like one epic emotional roller coaster ride. We’re trained by society to believe in control as a positive attribute.

This post is the third in a series on the writing and recording of the Stand & Deliver album Ten Year Bender. The posts are listed ‘in order’ on the Behind the Songs page. Think of how many ways this metaphor shows up in pop culture:

  • Movies: The steely-eyed hero always reins in his emotions. The unbalanced villain, unable to control his emotions, cackles in hysterical, over-the-top glee.
  • Sports – “Since the Patriots beat the Jets in Week 16, they now control their own destiny.”
  • Money: Take control of your finances! Call Prudential today!
  • Drugs: Tired of that embarrassing depression? Take control of your feelings…Abilify!
  • Politics: “President Obama has lost control of Congress.”

I’m a Pisces, born in the last sign of the zodiac – the sign where the individual ego wants to dissolve back into the Great Ocean of Being. Pisces tend to be more comfortable living in imaginary realms than in the real world. This is partly because it’s so easy for us to go there -our dreams seem just as real as ‘reality’. But also because we feel everything, including the emotions of the people around us. And that shit gets heavy sometimes, man. Easier to just take a mental vacation and fly off to a kinder, gentler, less structured Universe!

Plus, with my Moon (emotional nature, unconscious mind) in Aries (the impulsive, fiery first sign of the zodiac), my emotions tend to oscillate ridiculously and unpredictably. I could be fantasizing about checking out permanently at five p.m. and feel like I’m standing on top of the world by 10 pm.

With all that going on, it seems extra ridiculous for me to labor under the illusion that I’m in control of my life. But the programming runs deep, what can I say? Anyhow, during the lead-up to making Ten Year Bender I was starting to discover just how illusory my sense of control had always been. For instance, why did I choose to move to Detroit after the band broke up in 2000? I could have moved back to Midtown. I could have gone to New Orleans – or one of several other interesting cities where I had a friend with a sofa who would let me crash for a while.

The true answer? I had started keeping a dream journal in 1999. And throughout the next year my dreams repeatedly showed me living in Detroit. (See the post: A Short Excursion on the Power of Mental Images.)

Since reading Elmore Leonard as a teenager growing up in Flint, Michigan, I’d held a vision in the back of my mind of me living in Detroit one day. My bro had moved there after high school and several of my close college buddies were from the D, so I’d spent plenty of time “south of Eight Mile” partying, hanging out, and going to shows.

By the year 2000 I thought that window of opportunity had closed long ago. If for no other reason than the thought of living through another long, cold, gray Michigan winter. But my dreams were incredibly insistent throughout the course of that year. I was talking on the phone to my friend Kyle, the artist whose paintings adorn the covers of the first two Stand & Deliver studio albums, and I told him about these dreams. He had just bought a house of his own in Hazel Park. “Come on up,” he said. “You can stay in my basement until you find your own place. I’d be glad to have you here.”

I didn’t really have a plan when I moved to Detroit, other than continuing on as a musician. I’ve been writing songs since I was a teenager and I had several good “softer” songs in the tank. It’s funny, but the real hard rock side of Stand & Deliver has never felt like my strong suit. I love it when we’re doing it. But left to my own devices, I’ve always gravitated towards more melodic, rootsier stuff. My desert island playlist would lean a lot harder towards Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nick Drake, or the Grateful Dead than AC/DC, Sabbath, Fugazi or the band’s heavier influences.

I guess I was thinking about remaking myself as a solo singer-songwriter. Anyway,  I was determined to make it as an artist. Kyle was a successful published visual artist and a super-creative guy. And it was clear that my soul needed a move. So, shortly after New Year’s Day 2001 I loaded up my car with all the possessions that would fit and drove north.

After my year at The Coca-Cola Company, I had vowed never to work in the corporate world again. But I needed money. I was allergic to Kyle’s sweet little cat Rue and needed to find a place to live. So I put my resume back online and landed a long-term contract position in the Web development department at the downtown headquarters of insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

By the time spring rolled around I was making decent money again. I moved into a carriage house in Indian Village, just across Jefferson Avenue from Belle Isle. I hated working at Blue Cross. It was incredibly boring most of the time and our team worked in one of those newfangled (at the time) ‘open office’ environments. Worst thing ever for a Pisces. Surrounded by unhappy, striving people and their emotions, awash in a constant din of voices…I would be so emotionally drained by quitting time that I’d be through a pint of whisky before dinner.

By September of that year I was drinking more and more heavily, partly to wash away the psychic gunk from work, partly to avoid my own feelings, and partly to assuage my music-starved soul.

a Path with Heart

“Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path.”
– Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Something was changing inside me and it felt very uncomfortable. It had started in earnest the year before, when I’d discovered The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and started doing Zen meditation. My drinking had become a focal point of my identity by my early twenties. It was a perverse point of pride, a rebellion against the fear-based religious cult I grew up in.

But the more I kept pursuing the path of awakening, the more ashamed I became of my drinking. By September 11, 2001, I had reached an intolerable impasse in the psyche. I was drinking a fifth of bourbon and often several beers every night of the week. Booze had been an effective and reliable way of numbing myself for many years, but the medicine wasn’t working the way it used to.

And then 9/11 happened. I remember walking into work that morning. I was hungover as usual and it took me a minute to process the fact that I was the only person sitting in my cubicle. I went to look for the others and found them in the manager’s office watching the TV.

To this day, it still surprises me how hard 9/11 hit me. To be honest, I’m not the kind of person who gets super-emotional about disasters happening to people I don’t know somewhere else around the world. But something snapped in me. Maybe because I had lived in New York not that long ago. Or maybe, and this feels the most accurate, because 9/11 underlined the fact that you never now when your last day will come around. We act as if we have all the time in the world to do that thing we’ve always dreamed of doing. But in reality, we have no idea how much time we have left.

more monkey than man hydrant - original drawing by J

More Monkey Than Man: the band so high they could not be recorded. Original art by J.

When Blue Cross pink-slipped my entire team of contractors three weeks before Christmas with no advance notice, that was the final straw. My boss took me out to dinner and tried to convince me to stay on with the company as a full-time employee. He was buying me drinks, prattling on about “benefits” and “corporate necessities” and I was just looking at him thinking, “I thought you were a good person and it turns out you are slime.”

I had started reading The Teachings of Don Juan shortly before 9-11 went down. Part of me really, really wanted to take the Blue Cross job. I liked living in the carriage house. I liked having a steady income. The job might have been excruciatingly boring most days, but it was nice to be able to buy the things you wanted. It was nice having security for once. But it was not a path with heart. I didn’t want to be a writer for a corporate web site. I didn’t want to shut myself down for the next 30 years in order to save money for some fictional retirement I would probably be too beaten down to enjoy anyway. I wanted to serve the Muse, to make beautiful music and to write words that would wake people up, give them the chance to see their lives from a different perspective, maybe even help set them free.

So I quit. And I applied for unemployment, which I had never taken before in my life, even at my lowest financial points. It was scary, but it was also exciting because I was walking a path with heart.

If I knew then what I know now, I wonder if I would have made the same choice. Because, as Joseph Campbell points out in his work on the archetype of the Hero’s Journey, the path with heart will inevitably lead you to the very dark, scary places in your soul you spent much of your life working so hard to avoid.

Spiritus contra Spiritum: A Spiritual experience at 25,000 Feet

During his desperate search for a way to get and stay sober, Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, reached out to the great Swiss psychologist Carl Jung for help. Jung gave him the formula spiritus contra spiritum, perhaps inadvertently helping to launch millions of twelve-step meetings around the world. This was Jung’s way of saying that the alcoholic’s uncontrollable lust for booze is actually the expression of a deep thirst for communion with Life. In cases like Bill W.’s (and I would add my case), Jung said, the thirst for “spirits” can only be quenched by the power of a greater Spirit.

I didn’t start drinking until I was 20 years old. I started smoking cigarettes a couple months later. And I didn’t stop either until I was 33. (“Ten-year-bender” just had a better ring than “twelve-and-a-half-year bender.”) In the spring of 2002, I quit drinking and smoking cigarettes after experiencing a spiritual visitation at 25,000 feet on a plane from New Orleans back to Detroit. I’ll write more about this in another post, but it was a wholly remarkable occurrence.

Uranus conjunct Sun – Anxiety and the desire for freedom

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Uranus was creeping towards a conjunction with the Sun in my natal horoscope. Uranus-Sun conjunctions only happen once in a lifetime for most people; Uranus has an 84-year orbital cycle. Uranus is the revolutionary, the Awakener, the planet of sudden, shocking changes. It feels a bit like being struck by lightning when Uranus hits you, or plugged into a giant power source. The Uranus-Sun transit signals a time in life when the Universe is trying to blast out all of your old programming and set you free to be your Authentic Self in the world. This sounds wonderful, perhaps, but as my friend Phillip says, “Babies are the only humans who really like change.” So Uranus tends to bring a lot of anxiety and even panic.

One of the things I love about astrology is how it helps you understand why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. But while I was already beginning to take astrology seriously at this point, I didn’t really “get it” yet.

All I knew was that I was changing at an uncomfortably high rate of speed. Especially without the familiar insulation of booze, everyday life felt like a barely manageable battle to simply ‘maintain’.

Going home to say goodbye to the past

For many years, I struggled to make sense of that whole period of my life. Why did I move back to Detroit, only to see everything I created musically turn out to be a near-total failure? (In 2002 and 2003 I was also the singer and lyricist for More Monkey Than Man, the band that was too high to ever successfully record a demo CD of our songs.)

Now I’d say that the dreams that led me to Detroit were showing me the clues to that mystery. But I couldn’t have possibly understood the clues at the time. One strange feature of the Detroit dreams was how often my mother appeared in them. It was always my mom and me in an out-of-control car, usually driving through a sketchy downtown area where everything looked dark and murky and it felt as if danger was lurking right around the corner.

Over the last decade, my own unique brand of soul work and creativity coaching grew out of my astrology practice.  In working with clients from around the world, I found that the biggest blocks people face when trying to actualize their potential and live their dream are actually inherited or passed down from their parents.

Near the end of his life, Carl Jung came to believe that the purpose of his life was to answer the questions that life asked of his ancestors and that they could not, or would not, answer.

Maybe this is just me trying to explain the unexplainable to myself. But I have come to believe that my soul insisted I move back to Michigan because “back home” was the battlefield where I was destined to face my demons. Throughout my life, moving somewhere far away had been a reliable form of escape – a way to put distance between myself and my family. In a new place, one can choose a new identity, try on new faces.

Back in the region where I grew up the secret doubt, shame and self-loathing that my mother and father – and theirs before them – bequeathed me was once again very present. That shame, which at the time I didn’t realize wasn’t wholly “mine” at all, was the disease that alcohol had kept ‘under control’ for so many years. Now, without booze to shield me from the world – and from my own thoughts and feelings – new remedies would have to be found.

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