The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

yellow fever

In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

storm

A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

Advertisements

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

February 1, 2016

Beads: What New Orleans Puts its Mojo On

I went to my first actual neighborhood Mardi Gras in my new town of New Orleans this Saturday.  I saw the Algiers Krewe, its many floats, the Langston Hughes High School and Phyllis Wheatley Middle School Marching Bands — two schools named for great poets, and I was thoroughly entertained.

zeus float

The False Thunder God’s false king is throwing false (plastic) beads at the crowd.

I saw floats attributed to inscrutable false deities, with plastic-masked kings and queens, standing within the embrace of plaster-of-Paris angels and in floral-bedecked rigs.  I had never liked Mardi Gras beads before, but something about them being thrown at me from a parade float made me want to wear them. Why did they suddenly have value?

 

I am reminded that native Americans traded Manhattan away for glass beads, or so I was told. I realize that this celebration — Fat Tuesday, come on a Saturday — is allegedly Christian but in fact only represents false deities and powerless powers, but the bands play, and we have fun.

marching band 2

The band leader jumps in the air in front of the gas station in Algiers.

It was delightful to watch teenagers in sequins wave flags and batons, to watch a woman run up and grab a tulle-decked plunger from a clown’s hands off a float.  The beads, the tulle, the sequins added a holy mystery to things as banal as sweaty adolescence, plunging, and clowning around. It is the delightful American habit to put lipstick on a pig and to call it a beauty.  Plastic beads are not a trip to Tiffany and Company, not even breakfast in front of Tiffany’s shop windows, especially not with Audrey Hepburn.  So why do they delight? Is there a link between Mardi Gras beads, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which Truman Capote might have thought about while he lived in New Orleans’ Hotel Monteleone?  Is Holly Golightly a Mardi Gras float queen morphed into the guise of a New York party girl?

shoe float

Is this merely a Mardi Gras shoe float, or are we looking at a Louboutin float?

Fashion performs all kinds of acrobatics, I realize, of the plastic bead variety. A pair of black pumps is garden variety, unless its soles are dyed cinnabar red, in which case they are Louboutins.  Plastic beads are tacky, unless they fly off a float into your face, in which case — well — perhaps they do remain tacky, but they mark an occasion. Festivals, pancakes for pancake Tuesdays, boiled eggs for Easter, Twigs wrapped with red ribbon for Christmas — all these things take on an air of occasion because of their timing and placement within a rite.

me at mardi gras

The beads may be cheap and tawdry, but they make me happy, anyway.

I found myself decking myself with plastic beads shamelessly.  I was having a marvelous time, in fact.  I feel that beading myself with these plastic trinkets marks the occasion of my assimilation into the West Bank of New Orleans, a place that seems to value poets, diversity, jazz and tall tales. By the end of the parade, I had eighteen strands of them in all. I looked at them in my room at home and realized they were utterly useless around my neck.  They were no more appropriate for non-Mardi-Gras wear than it would be for me to try to incorporate Christmas tree ornaments into my wardrobe.

 

But I did find a use for the beads, after all.  I am teaching a public speaking course at the University of Mississippi, and we are discussing ways of keeping calm while addressing a crowd.  I decided to imbue each strand of plastic baubles with talismanic power.  I got my students to agree that since fear of public speaking is irrational — unless, of course, someone doing the public speaking is about to face a firing squad — an irrational response might calm the irrational fear.  Without claiming magical powers of any kind on my own, I gave my students each a strand of plastic from the Algiers Krewe parade with a blessing on it that it would give the possessor of it ease while addressing a crowd.  One student said it helped her when she had it on for her presentation later in the class.

See, America, glass beads can get you an island.  Red-soled shoes can make you chic.  Pastry eaten in front of a jewelry shop seems to burn fat cells off of Audrey Hepburn’s waist. Plastic beads, tossed into an American crowd, make a town a tourist attraction, and recycled, they become a tool for orators, the tellers of Louisiana tall tales. We are less the land of Goshen than the land of Barnum.  Kardashians prance on our screens like royal Lipizzaner horses, and we buy false eyelashes to flutter at others. Plastic beads are the family jewels. The king is king of burgers. The queen is queen of the parade. The emperor has no clothes, but in New Orleans, when our neighbors parade around naked, we don’t stand in judgment, as long as it happens before Ash Wednesday.

 

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.