NOLA Notes

Popping with NOLA-Living (and Dying)

Tonight, Sun and I went out on the town. Ok, fine. We went to the main library. But it was at night! And to hear Poppy Tooker discuss her new book project, Mme. Bégué’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery! It was delightful. Poppy signed her book for us, inscribing it in Sun’s name while at the same time giving her this advise:   “I have the perfect recipe for you in the book. Have your mother make with you the Stuffed Eggs. They are delicious and fun to make.”

We sat down in the second row (Sun wanted to be front and center) and Sun flipped through “her” cookbook as we listened to the story of Mme. Bégué. It was sinfully simple and also decadent  We sat holding hands, with Sun’s head occasionally in my lap, listening and learning. And enjoying ourselves.

Then we hopped in the car for the short drive home.

“Mom, is Peanut buried in our backyard?” Sun asked out of the blue. “No, honey. She’s not,” I answered. “Well, where is she?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her the cat went away when she got sick and I really had no idea where she had died. So I lied: “She’s in Mrs. M’s yard across the street.” “Why?” she questioned, of course, because she is a five-year old. “Because,” I continued, on firmer ground with the truth, “she took to Mrs. M at the end of her life and it was there she wanted to die and be buried.” Satisfied with this line of questioning, Sun went further.

“Will we bury Beau in the backyard when he dies?” Sun asked. “Yes, honey, we will,” I promised. “Then what?” she asked. THEN. WHAT. What do I say to this question? I answered as best I could, I stalled: “Then what, what, Sun?” I asked in return to her question. “Well, then do we dig him up?” my sweet five-year old asked, stunning me in its ghastliness.  “No, honey, no. We don’t then dig him up,” I answered firmly. “Why not?” she sincerely asked. “This is hard to explain. Do you remember the pumpkin you had that turned black and got smushy? (She had.) Well. It got that way because it was dead. And people and animals do the same thing. They get smushy and gross and so we don’t dig them up. Got it?” (She did).

Then she doubled down:

“Why can’t I be buried in the backyard when I die?” she asked. “Because they won’t let you. They have laws. You need to be buried in a cemetery. Like where my grandmother is, you know, Sunshine, whose name is close to yours. Remember visiting her grave?” I asked. “Yes, the small buildings,” she answered. “Yes, Sun, that’s right. We live in New Orleans, you know, and we have to bury our dead above ground in tombs and copings,” I explained to her again. She knows this fact cold now. And at last she seemed satisfied with this line of inquiry.

“So, can we pass to see if the king cake place is closed? I really want king cake.”

And it is not lost on me that my friends in Kansas and Colorado and Florida did not, and will never, have this conversation with their child. And I couldn’t be happier to be a New Orleanian.

Cloud Atlas, Or, Why Violence is Never the Answer

SPOILER ALERT! I discuss the end of this novel in detail. If you wish to read this book and not be spoiled, come back after you’ve read it.

A friend recommended David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to me over a year ago. I finally got around to reading it. The title of the book references one of its major themes: “[H]ow disparate people connect, and how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.” (Publisher’s description.)

Other descriptions of this book focus on the different “styles and genres” this book utilizes: “The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” (Michael Chabon.) And that certainly hooked me. It’s a series of six stores, “each is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book.” (Publishers Weekly.)

Yeah, yeah. So it’s clever and has an original idea as to HOW to write a story. And that’s cool. But that’s NOT what makes this book fantastic. It is, as any fantastic book must be to make it fantastic, the story itself, and the timelessness of its tale. And that story unfolds itself with deliberate slowness and a deft hand.

What this book was about to me was simple human nature. And the price the human race pays for the decisions of its selfish individuals.

In the fifth story, wherein an archivist interviews a clone, the clone makes the following statement:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. . . . [I]n a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.

And in the first story, that, in turn, ends the novel, the narrator comes to pin things down to a system of beliefs:

Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontations, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being. . . . You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds out. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance or our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world can come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want [my child] to inherit, not one I fear [my child] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.

Since my days of devout yoga practice, I have been repeating the mantra that violence is never the answer. That violence always and only begets more violence.  And Mitchell’s novel brings this point home in a poignant, stark way. What do we need in this world to give peace a chance? It can’t grow in a world that is consumed by fear and violence. By allowing such fear and violence to dictate our actions, our reactions, with more fear and violence, we are dooming our own future, our children, our very world.

It’s not easy to turn the other cheek, to not seek revenge, to not fear Others of whom we either misunderstand or choose not to understand. But by upping the ante with ever-more violence, we are ceding more and more power away from ourselves and to those in power, and not necessarily a just power or even a power concerned for the survival of mankind.

And to me, the novel reinforces that if enough of us put down arms (physically as well as mentally — nonviolence in our actions and in our thoughts), we can have a world of peace, a better world for our children. Or even just the survival of the world for our children to come to this conclusion on their own.

 

A Lifetime Supply of Hardware

When the call came, I thought it was just an odd question needing an answer. So I hit “Ignore” to answer once I was back from lunch. Then my phone beeped and I had a text message alerting me I’d been paged.

“Someone’s died,” I said. And I knew I was right. So I called the hardware store expecting to get Ernie. Lesa answered, and my heart sank. “You haven’t heard, then?” she asked. “Oh, no,” I sighed, “when?” “Last month,” she answered. “So I missed the funeral.” And I swallowed back tears.

It was Ernie who had died. He had seemed immortal, and this news hit me like a kick in the gut. Ernie was my first boss, my brother’s first boss, and my other brother’s first boss too, and the first boss of half my old neighborhood. Ernie told hunting stories and country stories and had a saying for everything.

“Variety is the spice of life,” he’d exclaim when I complained of boyfriend trouble.

“Don’t hoot with the owls at night if you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning,” he’d bleat when I arrived a minute before opening with bags under my eyes.

But when my boyfriend proved to me to be the loser Ernie knew him to be the minute he laid eyes on him, his kindness was palpable. And when I still stuck with the loser because I believed “love conquers all,” Ernie hugged me and allowed me my mistake. And when I needed $5 for gas because the loser lied and “borrowed” my car all night and left me literally on fumes, Ernie didn’t ask a single question. He could read it on the lines of my brow as he handed me a $10.

Eventually, and while still working at the hardware store, I did dump the loser. It was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned: Love is not all you need. But there were upsides to dating the  loser. It has keep me drug free for my life.  And it made me more independent. And all this made Ernie proud of me. Which was another upside.

After four years, I left the hardware store. It’d take me 15 years to stay at a job that long (and more) again.

I’ve never forgotten Ernie. His kindness. His generous spirit. His quiet fatherly love. His pride in his employees leaving him to accomplish bigger and better things.

The years I worked at Ernie’s store equipped me with the hardware I needed to face the world on my terms, without needing to imagine it ending solely as being the supporting role in any man’s life. I’ve used the tools I picked up there well. And I am a better person for having had Ernie in my life. And I will miss him for the rest of my days.

The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans, Part 2

David Lummis’s second installation of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans was recently published. Whereas the first part, reviewed here, was more a “lighthearted and irreverent and even campy” (as Lummis himself describes it) romp in and around the French Quarter, Part 2 is a more serious work. A more serious tone, a more serious topic. And a more true voice, I suspect, of Lummis. And for that, a far richer gift to the reader. Lummis lays bare his soul as he writes of the tormented soul-searching done by the last son of an old-school blue-blood New Orleans family, and the struggle of those who love him to keep him from losing himself in the process.

As Katrina approaches New Orleans, B. Sammy Singleton is on the search for his missing friend, Catfish Beaucoeur. Sammy, in a role similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is the narrator but not the star of CSCNO2.  In his frenetic search for Catfish, Sammy encounters Lee Ann, Catfish’s oldest friend. And when it is clear Catfish is well and truly missing, Lee Ann decides it’s time for Sammy to know what Lee Ann herself knows to be the truth of Catfish’s tortured past.

And in this manner, Lummis takes us to 1970s New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana. And the curses that were cast in the long-ago past and the long spidery legs that still stretch and scratch into the present.

Although it is Catfish who is the subject of the novel and for whom the reader will root, it is Lee Ann for whom the reader will relate: Her struggle to love, and be loved, in an imperfect way but in a way as pure as imaginable. Even when she knows it is utterly and completely hopeless.

Upon one reunion of the teen-aged Catfish and Lee Ann, with Catfish recalcitrant as always for having had to leave Lee Ann to fight his own darkness alone, Catfish extracts a vow from Lee Ann never to give up on him.  Here’s Lummis’s description of Lee Ann’s coming-of-age moment:

 And with that vow, Lee Ann felt herself letting go of all she knew she should do, not for Castfish, but for Lee Ann. And it was as if she were taking leave. And as she sat in the Firebird and listened to Catfish read “Old Glory” out loud, she saw the Lee Ann who knew better, the Lee Ann with the Lucky Strike rasp, open the car door and stride out onto the water. And as she watched herself go, this wiser Lee Ann kept on walking out onto that vast pool of night until she reached the center of Lake Pontchartrain, where she stopped and turned back as tiny waves lapped her calves. It was pitch dark in the Firebird and she was a long way from shore, but she could see Catfish plain as day, his eyelashes, the spray of freckles on the back of his hand. She could feel him too, his essence, his beating heart. Negating the distance, he was bigger than life, while the little girl to his right was scarcely a silhouette. From her marine outpost, Lee Ann waved but the little girl wasn’t looking, so she whistled, then called out. No response. The windows were closed and the words hit the windshield and flapped outward like Halloween crows. Her only chance of getting through to the girl, Lee Ann knew, was to return to dry land, but with the first step she comprehended her ability to walk on water was, like most things, imagined, and that all she could do to keep from sinking was to stay where she was, dead center on the lake. So this she did as Catfish started the car, and the headlights broadcast over the water, and the Firebird backed away from the curb and crawled along the shoreline, then winked red and disappeared.

This is not a cliff-hanger story-plot-twist of a novel. Rather, it’s one of strong character development among real-life afflictions and the struggle for regular folks to face life on its darkest days and push to get through to fight another day. And to love others enough to help them push on as well when they fail to find the strength on their own. CSCNO2 is at times lyrical, at times heart-breaking; and it is part historical fiction. But at all times, it is an attempt to explain who we are by where we—be it an individual, a family, a city, a society—have been. It is genuine and palpable. Written with a deftness so that the reader understands the love, and struggle thereto, Sammy and Lee Ann have for Catfish, and, more, to understand the demons that haunt Catfish. Even if the solution to exorcising those demons is not so obvious.

And best of all, it’s not the end of our journey. Part 3 is yet to come.

More Lessons from Isaac

1. After 4 days, change the oil in your generator. If you want it to love and serve you for a long time, you need to love and serve it first. She deserves it!

2. Take time to talk to your neighbors before and after a storm. Get to know them. Offer what you can (in our case, a/c and a fridge for spoiling food). It’s just about the best thing a storm can do–bring your neighborhood together in a way no Nite Out for Crime or other such contrived event can.

3. Keep meds handy. I’ve had headaches almost every day. Not sure what’s the cause. But aspirin and migraine meds have been in constant use. And working.

4. Allow that you are stressed and may go through stages of anti-social behavior. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you are on the slippery slope to a long depression. It could just be your body’s way of telling you you need time to yourself. Take it, any way you can, if at all possible.

5. Be kind to each other, as best as possible. We are ALL stressed. And storms result in unexpected things happening–a roof leak; a generator mishap. Don’t play the Blame Game. Realize we are all in this together, and will get through it, and will get through it better together than alone.

6. Be grateful. Whether it’s for the return of power, or cable or internet. Or for a lack of serious damage, or for no harm to your car or your loved ones. Or all of the above. These are dark days and if you do your best to look on the bright side, there are shining lights of good all around. It’s not easy to stay positive the whole way through. And I am not suggesting you be Pollyanna about it. But when you hit that wall, and we ALL hit that wall at some point (or points), take a breath and KNOW your feelings are normal. And push through to the point where you KNOW that this too shall pass.

May we all be talking about our Isaac experience in the past tense VERY soon.

Namaste.

Lessons from Isaac

Isaac is, for the most part, on the books for New Orleans. After Gustav, we fine-tuned our hurricane preparedness plan and went into Isaac with hardly a thought of evacuating. We made sure the generator was working and had gas; we readied the window unit. We grocery-shopped for food for three days and stock-piled water. We filled our cars with gas and parked one in a raised, covered parking garage. We shuttered our windows and filled a tub with water (in case water pressure got so low it was needed to help flush the toilet). Then we hunkered down (or, as the news tell me it’s called now, “sheltered in place”) and we waited for the storm to hit.

Then we lost electricity. And within 30 minutes, we had the window unit and refrigerator humming back to life. We then settled in to a long sleepless night, listening to bumps in the night as small limbs fell off our oak tree and transformers blew.

In the morning, we patched a damaged, leaky roof (borrowing a ladder from a neighbor); checked and “triaged” my evacuated neighbor’s house. And generally stayed connected via Facebook and Twitter. And massaged stressed nerves.

So what are the lessons of Isaac?

1. Losing electricity WILL happen. Be ready. And be ready for it to last for days. In my case, during Gustav, we purchased a generator and a window unit. Those have already paid for themselves in saved hotel bills.

2. Having good neighbors is critical to a successful Sheltering in Place. You will need them; they will need you. Why go it alone when the folks in the house next door are doing just what you are doing and neither can predict which will be damaged in a way that the other can be of service. I’ll think long and hard about ever leaving my small house if for no other reason than losing the great community of neighbors we have among us. It’s special and much appreciated.

3. Go heavy on the food and fuel. There’s really no such thing as too much of either. And if the store closures/messy streets/lack of electricity/curfew situation is such that you cannot get replenishments for days, you will want to have more than enough. Nothing worse than wasting gas looking for gas. And all salty snacks with no sweets? Bad planning.

4. Bring your patience; you will be rewarded with being able to abate your damages. Hurricanes are slow to come in, hit, then leave. The news wants to hype it from an early point. And the parishes and electric companies always seem to take a painstakingly slow time bringing things back online. And if you are Sheltering in Place, it’s a lot of Not Much Excitement going on. Heck, even if you evacuate, it’s a slow tedious process as you wait to be allowed back home. But if you DID stay, you WILL be doing damage control and clean-up sooner than your evacuees’ counterpart. So appreciate that you have the leg up on this point. They are sitting in a hotel biting nails and worrying; you are wiping water off your floors and keeping worse damage from happening.

Sheltering in Place isn’t for everyone. For me, it’s the right option. I find evacuating more stressful. I hate deciding what things of sentimental/financial value I need to pack. I hate paying the cost of an overpriced hotel whose walls will all too quickly close in on me. I hate that Sun complains that we didn’t pack her right toys. I hate the worry of how long I will be away from my office and CS his shop. I hate worrying about my house and whether it sustained any damage we could be fixing had we stayed.

Staying put, on the other hand, comes with a soundtrack that will scare your pants off. You will fear a fire when a transformer blows; a tree slicing your house in half; floods or trees destroying your car.

I play the odds. And the odds for me have always favored hunkering down. Only once, Katrina, was it the right decision for me to evacuate.

Now I feel we’ve got this Sheltering in Place down pat. It’s no cake walk. But I have zero regret about the plan we made and the path we took. And we’ll pack our supplies up in a few days and cross our fingers we won’t need them again for years to come. But will take comfort in knowing they are on hand if, and when, we next need them.

Why We Tremble

Hurricane Isaac is on the charts and damn near every New Olreanian is a bit bonkers about it. And superficially there seems really to be only one reason why: Katrina. That bitch.

But is that all that’s going on? Some sort of weird Post Dramatic Stress Syndrome for those of us that went through Katrina? Are we just branded now to see the Cone of Uncertainty and have a Pang of Nausea?

I think it’s more than that.

I am 42 years old. And I’ve lived every one of those forty-two years in Louisiana and Florida. Hurricanes are a part of my life just as fishing camps, hot Christmases, and Mardi Gras. I have been through more hurricanes than I can count. I have evacuated for one: Katrina. Well, two. After Katrina, when Sun was a year old, we evacuated for Gustav, swearing never to do it again.

Growing up, New Orleanians didn’t evacuate. We put masking tape on our windows, filled tubs with water, and hunkered down. And that did the trick.

But in these past forty-two years, a lot has changed. And these changes have allowed for the “perfect storm” that was Katrina:

1. We’ve built out all of our suburbia. When I was little, the backyard of my grandparents’ house in River Ridge was woods. Deer would walk to the back door. Now? That whole wood, and miles of other green space, is developed and paved. It’s all filled now with neat rows of houses all over the land.  All the drainage that used to go to these green spaces? Gone. Now all that water goes to canals protected by levees. Levees that, we learned the hard way, will fail us.

2. We’ve lost acres of wetlands. A football field of Louisiana wetlands an hour is currently being lost. And that’s been going on for years. YEARS of loss of our protective barrier. New Orleans is quickly becoming the face of America’s Wetlands.

3. We’re far more dependent on electricity than ever before. Forty years ago, we needed electricity in a storm for air conditioning and our beloved deep freezer. These days we are addicted to our cell phones, tablets, laptops, Tivos, Nooks, etc. It MATTERS now more than ever when we go “off the grid.”

Katrina opened our eyes for the first time in at least forty years. We are vulnerable. Naked. Dependent. And, when a storm starts to form that elliptical shape and heads to the Gulf, we are scared. And too proud to want to admit how scared we are. How scared to the core we are in a way we have never feared before. It isn’t about being inconvenienced; about losing electricity and going off that grid. It’s about losing our identity; our city; ourselves.

So, please, pardon us in the Gulf as we freak the hell out watching what wouldn’t have been cause for concern forty, or even eight, years ago; as we re-assess our lives, our existence, our significance to these United States of America; as we get a few post-Katrina storms under our belt and learn to “live through a storm” again as we’ve done for centuries; as we face the loss of our innocence in a real and all too palpable way.

Scary, isn’t it?

Ebb Tide

I, like I suspect most of us, live my life in the middle. Not a frequency of highs nor lows. But relishing in the highs when they flow in. And allowing for the lows when they, seemingly all too often, flow in as well.

I was given a gift of gratitude, one that has filled me, in turn, with more gratitude than I can articulate. And thus I am spending this week, seven glorious days, at the beach. Away from the low tide that is my house repairs these days. Away from the schedule of work for me and CS and summer camp for Sun. Away from appointments and structure.

Taking the place of our busy schedules, we have long walks on the beach; witnessing the hatching of sea turtles and their trek to the sea; swimming in the surf; kite flying and seashell hunting; discovering mermaids’ purses and hermit crabs; card games at night. And laughter. Lots of laughter.

Yet the tug has already begun. The urge, need, to return home and to the ebb tide of our lives. To look forward to the coming school year and all its challenges. To return to a heavy work schedule that will provide its own highs and lows. To sleep in our own beds and dream of the Christmas in a house newly renovated.  And to look ahead to the next high tide to flow our way.

Relative Blessings

The old adage is that everything is relative. And I know I tend to be a half-empty kinda person. I drive a 14 year old car by choice, but there are times I admit that I am shied by a fellow Mom in a BMW SUV: That I will be judged and found wanting because I don’t care that my car isn’t new and shiny. Or my house bigger. Or the number of my children higher. Or that I dare to have a career.

But this past week has been one, for reasons I can’t exactly pin down, of feeling quite Goldilocks-like. This life I’ve carved out for myself, had the audacity, even, to plan, certainly isn’t one that would be a right fit for everyone, but it fits damn near perfectly for me.

Blessings, I’ve got them. And it’s not always in my vision to see them. And that’s a pestering problem in my life. But as of now, this moment, this past week, I see clearly all the gifts my life offers me. And new ones presenting themselves daily if I but look.

A new friend said to me of her life with her husband of 20 years and their four children: “Life is better every day. Every single day.”

And if you but allow it to be so, it is. And it’s my singular goal now to harness this vision. To share it with Sun and CS. And to allow this just-right life to be just-enough even when shied by shiny baubles others possess.

In the End

In the beginning
There was my career.
Then there was a baby.
But even then it was
My career and my child.
Or is it
My child and my career?
I love both.
I need both.
And the one makes
the other all the more
appreciated.
Especially the days
I get to bring my child
to my office
then leave early
to play in the sun.