I would climb cottonwood trees to see if I could peek inside their nests. One evening, when I was about fourteen, I remember returning home as the sun was just turning golden, and I was unfathomably starved.
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I looked at the clock in the cabin to see it was 2 a. Jasper Jewel Carroll, my maternal grandfather, was the thirteenth child of coal miners, and his mother, knowing he would be her last, decided to name him after all the precious stones that line the path to the gates of heaven. Everyone called him Jay. They were Mormon, dating way back, and had six children. Their eldest daughter, Nedra Jewel Carroll, is my mother. Jay was a bright young man and good with mechanics.
He built a snowmobile out of spare parts before anyone had seen one around that part of the woods. He built his own plane and then taught himself to fly it, eventually becoming a legendary bush pilot.
He was known for treacherous landings in remote mountain regions, to find game for hunters or to take adventurous souls to untamed land. He was also something of a drunk, which is how he lost his left leg. He was flying half-lit in a blizzard with a client, who was also half-lit, I can only imagine, and they crashed into a mountain. They hiked to a small cabin and were rescued eventually, but not before severe frostbite and gangrene set in. I knew my grandfather only years later. He chain-smoked wherever he was, indoors or out. He wore thick glasses and polyester pants.
I remember watching with great curiosity as he sat down each morning in his La-Z-Boy recliner to put on his socks. He had a large, hard, round belly that protruded like a melon from under his wool flannel shirt, and he had to strain to bend around the thing to reach the socks to his toes. His prosthetic leg was smooth flesh-colored plastic and disappeared quickly beneath the sock. He hardly ever said five words, and those words were usually commands. Grandpa Jay had a routine everyone in town set their clocks by. Ham steak and eggs for breakfast, then a drive out to the gas station in his black El Camino, with a red firebird brazenly painted on the hood.
He owned the station and his son Jay Jay helped him run it. Then home for lunch, that El Camino crawling at 45 miles an hour back to the house. Drive out to the Spit a large tongue of land that juts into the water, a famed attraction of Homer , the horses under the hood never given a chance to let loose. Jay died of a perforated ulcer. He collapsed in the bathroom at home, blood spilling everywhere.
She handed it to my grandmother, saying they had found it in his hollow leg. For years after Grandpa died, I could not keep my mind from wandering morbidly when I went into that bathroom. I would stare down at the linoleum flooring and imagine my poor grandmother, dutifully cleaning all that blood from the very spot. My grandmother Arva was the quintessential doting grandma. In a world where nothing was stable or kind or sweet, she was its counterpoint.
She was affectionate and warm.
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She gave me Twinkies and doted on me and I knew she loved me. I stayed with her often, and had a small room that was sort of mine. I watched her, ever the subservient housewife and slave in the kitchen, serve Grandpa. But with me, she was funny, and opinionated even, though always in her kind way. She took me to church with her and always made sure I had a nice little dress to wear. I got the feeling she had lived her life for everyone else and she was just waiting for the chance to be free. We were in the car, and I remember the soft, round outline of her cheek, her smooth nose in profile, as she paused a bit too long, as if contemplating the one stop sign in town.
After Grandpa died she got a new hip and an RV and hit the road, visiting relations all over the Lower 48 what we Alaskans call the continental U. I was happy for her. They had come to Alaska from Switzerland. My grandfather told me that they were part of a group of young idealists from various disciplines—painters, singers, filmmakers, philosophers—determined to leave Europe before the war. They had heard that the Territory of Alaska was giving away homesteads, free land to anyone willing to settle the wild country.
They sent a scout, Yule, a dashing and charismatic philosopher, musician, chess player, and linguist, to go ahead and secure the place. Reportedly, he stowed away on a ship and was discovered by the crew. Yule guessed correctly, and followed up the trick by singing folk songs particular to that region. The captain was suitably impressed, and I like to imagine my grandfather and that captain, drunk from wine, singing songs as they sailed through the dark night. Yule eventually made his way to the New World. He hiked over the Harding Icefield with a ladder on his back, and when he came to a crevasse in the ice, he would lay the ladder over it, walk across it, return the ladder to his back, and keep going.
It took him two years, but he finally arrived in Homer and secured a homestead free of charge, a gift from the government.
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He sent word to his comrades, telling them to come on over: he had found a beautiful place, and they could create their Utopia. But everyone had moved on with their lives. Everyone but Ruth. Ruth was an aspiring opera singer, and she decided to leave her dreams of singing, her loved ones, and everything she knew, to marry a man she hardly knew, because she felt that if she was ever going to have children, they must be raised in a free country.
With the war imminent, she left a modern Europe for a new and unsettled land to become a pioneer woman. No electricity, no water, no market. Just mountains and a fertile but unforgiving land. They built a cabin from trees they felled. They took a horse and wagon to town on the beach at low tide.
She learned to hunt, can, and cut hay by hand. The family sang folk music from the old country instead of saying prayers before each meal, and music was passed down to generations in our family like antiques or heirlooms are in others. Songs are my history—the story of us. Where there was pain in our family there was also song not far behind, and healing.
My dad is Attila Kuno Kilcher. We call him Atz. He was the fourth child and eldest son, born in Switzerland while his parents were there visiting relatives. Yule was enigmatic and brilliant, but like many early settlers of the West, he had a hell of a hard streak. You had to, I imagine, to tame wild land. To build rafts of raw timber and sail across uncharted Alaskan waters. He also had an abusive streak, physically and psychologically, and Ruth and many of his children suffered dearly when his moods turned dark.
Yule was so angry and embarrassed by the defeat that he accused my dad of being happy about the loss. It is the first memory my dad has of his own psychological suffering. Physically, Yule hit my dad often, backhanding him head over heels or striking him with a tool that Yule deemed had been fetched too slowly. When Yule found out my dad had been smoking, he made my dad strip down naked and then walked around him and whipped his whole body.
Yule built many layers of shame and cruelty into his abuse and punishments, in both mind and body. My dad suffered a lot of trauma in his childhood, and then went off to Vietnam and sustained more. In his final hours a miracle occurred. Yule softened and looked at my dad and said he was sorry, that he loved Atz and was proud of him. It gave him something he had needed so desperately. Many stories like mine end without a parent making amends, or achieving a loving, honest relationship.
He and I share a common goal: to be accountable, fulfilled human beings. I have a relationship now with my dad that I cherish. As for Yule, I loved and feared him. He was one of the brightest men I have ever known, and when he gave you his attention, you felt like the sun was shining on you alone. He spoke many languages and knew the root words that unified them. He was forever espousing philosophy.
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His temper was quick, though, and his sharp mind could turn on you, leaving you bare. He would walk into the barn where we lived, unannounced, and begin to read our mail. He had a thick Swiss accent and wore a beret over his thinning brown hair. He smelled of stout sourdough bread and garlic. He was not overly tall, but was lean and powerfully built, with chiseled features.
Ruth was the perfect counterpoint. Her Swiss accent was gentle, lilting, musical. She was every bit the poet and artist. She had high cheekbones and wore her long hair in a simple but elegant fashion. She wrote and won awards for her column in the Anchorage paper. Yule helped draft the Alaska Constitution. I remember my grandmother telling me the story, pressing a cool shard of that jade into my young hand. As Yule became political and went on to be elected as a Democratic senator for one term, it was up to Ruth to run the homestead along with her children.
As the years turned to decades, the abuse and long winters finally wore her down, and she took Catkin, her youngest, still a baby, gave up her stake in the homestead, and went to the Lower She married a Marine and lived out the rest of her days in Knoxville, Tennessee. Years later I went to visit her there, and she gave me a self-published book of her poetry. It was called Voice of the Initiate. She told me of her youth in Switzerland, her dreams for the artistic colony in Alaska, how she gave up her dreams of singing to have kids in that beautiful wild country.
How she taught singing to all her children.
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She had tears in her eyes as she pulled a file from a box near her bed. Inside it were press clippings of mine. She said it had been worth giving up her dreams to see them come true for me. I honor and respect the generations who have come before me, and I wrote them a song about this unpayable debt of gratitude. I was privileged to perform it as a duet with Dolly Parton on my newest album. But we did not always live on the homestead. We started out in Anchorage.
We started out as a family, with a mom and everything. My father was the first one of his family to carry music from a passion into a profession, and began writing his own songs when he was a teenager, eventually making a living at it. He took his guitar to Vietnam, where music helped him to assuage the trauma of his childhood and the effects of war. When he met my mother, he found a new family in her religion that felt safe to him. He converted and they were married in the Mormon Church.
At first they lived in a remote cabin at the head of Kachemak Bay. They had their first child, my older brother Shane, in Their second son, Vance, was born in September of He died suddenly, before he was a year old. I was born there in while my dad was attending school.
When he graduated, we moved back to Anchorage, where he worked with troubled youth. We lived in an apartment until my dad had the money to build us a larger house. Only a few memories stand out for me. I remember feeling safer by making myself a pallet of blankets by the bedroom door, choosing to sleep there instead of in my bed. I remember a giant rotating Big Boy sign across the street. I remember a small kitchen window where sunlight streamed in. When we moved to a larger house shortly after, I got my own room and was allowed to pick my own carpet—pink shag.
My younger brother, Atz Lee, was born in Around this time my parents began to sing together, first doing dinner shows at hotels for tourists. Music was the happy part of our lives. The sound of my parents practicing during the day, melody and harmony wafting through the house like the smell of baking pie, but for the ears and for the heart. Warm, sweet. Me, wandering around the house till I found them, engrossed and focused.
I loved that focus. Even more than the singing, I loved the feeling of being so overtaken by something. At a very young age I fell in love with the puzzle of harmonizing and learning melody and vocal control. I became fascinated with the effort of learning, so consuming that everything else left your mind. The time travel of losing yourself in practice. Even when there was fighting in the house, even when practicing with them was hard, I loved the puzzle of trying to get better.
No matter how much my dad yelled or how impatient and angry he was to work with, I hung in there. Shane and Atz Lee were part of the act at first but could not tolerate the heated and often agonizing practice sessions with my dad. I practiced all the time. In my room. At school. Learning to yodel is probably the reason I had no friends in kindergarten. My brothers teased me, saying that I sounded like a cross between a dying seal and a cow in labor.
But I was determined to learn because my dad had told me I was too young to. What an insult! Too young? I took it as a challenge and became obsessed with disciplining the crack in my voice. By Daniel D'Addario September 23, TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors. She writes lyrically about the natural wonders of Alaska, about pain and loss, about the healing power of motherhood, and about discovering her own identity years after the entire world had discovered the beauty of her songs.
New York Times bestselling poet and multi-platinum singer-songwriter Jewel explores her unconventional upbringing and extraordinary life in an inspirational memoir that covers her childhood to fame, marriage, and motherhood.
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She has received four Grammy Award nominations and has sold more than thirty million albums worldwide. This is a book that lingers in your heart. My friend Ben Keith brought her to my ranch to record, collecting our favorite musicians together for her early songs. The result, the enduring Pieces of You , was a great record. In this, her first memoir, she has a lot to reflect on, and the touch to tell her story well.
This book is filled with deep, rewarding pleasures. She is honest and tender, yet has a backbone and a fire that only comes from her roots. The good, the bad, the love, the heartbreak. The author mines her psyche for the benefit of both herself and anyone else embroiled in profound emotional crisis…. A moving musical essay that should strike all the right notes with a wide selection of readers. Her book will delight her fans, [and] reach beyond that base to those intrigued by what it takes to be successful after years of plugging away. Jewel reflects on an abusive upbringing and the highs and lows of her professional career, including discovering that she was broke at what should have been the pinnacle of success.
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