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

June 26, 2016

Too Hot to Kneel — Southern Heat, Southern Church, and Hellfire

In a marvelous essay recently published by Image, Southern Catholic poet Molly McCully Brown told a story about being in church with the brilliant fiction writer Kate Sparks, and a man commented to them that it was too hot to kneel that day in St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi. I believe that too-hot-to-kneel day happened last summer, and this Sunday we are having another day where it’s too hot to kneel.

Old sheldon ChurchChurch in the South can be sweltering, I mention for those of you who stay home on Sundays or attend church up North.  The ladies with the fans in the pews that you see in movies set in small Southern towns, that’s no joke.  While the majority of church vestry committees down here make the purchase of air conditioning a top priority, air conditioners give out, and there are just some days where it doesn’t matter how frigid a blast you get from your HVAC, you find yourself reaching in the freezer for ice cubes to drop into your cleavage.  On such a day, you might try to stay at home and to lower the blinds.  You might keep a cooler of drinks on hand.  You might do as I have done this Sunday, which is to skip church — it was too hot to kneel, too hot to sing, too hot to stand or sit, too hot altogether — and to go to the usually chilly Ole Miss Library, where I am looking for all the references in the Latin Vulgate Bible of Effeminacy.  Why?  It’s a long story, trust me.  You don’t want to know, not even if you are effeminate.  Anyway, it’s too hot to explain.

A friend of mine told me about her strict Southern Baptist upbringing, and her youth pastors decided one summer to teach young people to fear Hell.  They did this by locking them in the church with the air conditioning off and the lights out.  It was too hot to see God, and too late to repent.  She feels traumatized to this day, doesn’t attend church anymore, just in case.  It’s too hot to have flashbacks.

There is hellfire in the Southern sun from late June to late August.  Like Milton’s devils, we cluster in dark corners, glowering.  We are, like them, overwhelmed with ever-burning sulfur, unconsumed.  We can try fanning ourselves, but it seems to fan the flames. Some of us try drinking alcohol, but that pours kerosene on the barbecue that roasts us. The library air conditioner is barely functional.  The third floor is hotter than it is outside.  The second floor seems to be slightly cooled.  The first floor is about as steamy as a shaded patio in swamp country.  It’s too hot to move.

I squint down on the Latin words on the page — molles, mollis, effeminati — the effeminate consonants seem to sweat ink on the page. In many cities, there is a parade today, and people are sweating glitter.  I am just sweating sweat.  It’s too hot to translate Latin.  It’s too hot to dance Latin dances.  It’s too hot to be in Hell, on Earth, or for all I know in Heaven. I fan myself with a paperback.  I drink some Diet Coke.  I stretch my legs, but it’s too hot to stretch.  I would type more here, but it’s too hot to type.

Lord Jesus, fix the air conditioner in every church in every small Southern town so that we can kneel or take a nap on the pew bench until this steamy season subsides.  I repent in this dark Southern Baptist Hell-simulation.  I repent of my absence from church, of my sweat beads on this Bible. I repent of my consuming of high-calorie foods and of taking so long to write a dissertation. I repent of my skin still being on the meat of my body, not yet simmered off like stewed chicken thigh off a bone. Mea culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea maxima culpa. The heat gives no absolution.  It just lingers like a malevolent spirit in the dusty room of books. It swirls around my legs like an unfed cat, but I can’t find the can opener. It creeps down the back of my neck like a feeling of foreboding. It abides like the smell of cigars in a humidor, only I smell dusty books ever so slightly mildewed and a few sweaty male graduate students who need a shower. It’s too hot to complain.

I would wish you all a cool evening, but it’s too hot to wish. I would wish you an end to global warming, but it’s too hot to globalize.  Instead, I write you mint.  I write you Michigan mid-winter for five minutes. I write you a cold plunge from the edge of this hot sauna.  I write you a breeze, one that lifts the pages of the Latin Vulgate so that they blur into a crenelated fan, a breeze that clears the air and beckons a deep breath, that clears the head and makes the Latin declensions easy and even the condemned effeminate Roman robust.

 

 

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June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

June 10, 2016

This article has coined a term for me “Babsonesque,” which surely means I have arrived as a writer!  Come tomorrow evening and have your hair blown back, y’all!Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

At the lovely new Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford tomorrow night (June 11) will be an affair to remember, and also one for the history books. Salt Zine, an

Source: Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

The Southern Concept of “Fixing to,” and What I am Fixing to Do Tomorrow Night

Southern supermodel and ex-wife to Mick Jagger Jerry Hall told reporters about her looks, “My momma always used to say, ‘honey, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.'”

Jerry Hall

“Momma always said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” — Southern model Jerry Hall

Southern women are not lazy; after all, look how carefully groomed they usually are!  No Sarah Lawrence College bohemian tousled bobs on their heads — Southern hair is always intentional. Neither are Southern men lazy, though they are less carefully groomed on the whole than their sisters and wives.  However one might say all those well-groomed Southerners are in much less of a hurry than Yankees tend to be.

When I moved from Brooklyn down South, the hardest thing for me to absorb was the Southern concept of timing.  I itched for the whole first year down here for a New York minute, and honey, while there are no ugly minutes down South, there are plenty of lazy ones.  That New York minute never came; it wasn’t even unimaginably delayed coming on the Northbound F Train because of extensive trackwork; it never existed and never would. I mourned the New York minute the way I mourned the chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli.  Both New York phenomena are hard to explain to outsiders as charming.  You have to take a bite of one to know how good they are.  I am at an Irish wake in permanence for the New York minute.  As anyone who has attended an Irish wake can tell you, such events involve tears, off-color tales, prayer, and a little bit of whiskey while nobody else is looking.  New York minute, we hardly knew ye, at least down South.

resting Southern men

These men are fixing to get up and go back to work.

Instead, down South, we don’t bound out of seats to do things as much as we are “fixing to” do things. For those uninitiated to that grammatical structure, “fixing to” do something means one really may get around to it eventually.  If one is “fixing to” pick up his friend at Memphis International Airport, for instance, that means one is watching the last five minutes of an episode of Designing Women on DVR, wondering if the shirt one is wearing has a stain on it requiring a change of clothing, and looking under the coffee table for one’s other flip-flop.  Maybe in fifteen minutes, the one who was fixing to go to the airport will have fixed himself, applied a little designer impostor cologne under the armpits of the shirt with the stain on it, which one has decided to wear despite the small splotch of barbecue sauce, found the flip-flops, and sauntered over to the car to open the driver-side door.

To their credit, Southern cardiac surgeons are usually never “fixing to” perform a balloon angioplasty; they operate as emergency requires with a brisker pace. But the cardiologist usually nods understandingly when the patient says he is “fixing to” start an exercise regimen, no riot act read.  It’s just the way things eventually get done around here.

Anyway, I am fixing to do something myself tomorrow. I am fixing to give a reading of new poetry as part of an important New Southern literary event.

There is a marvelous avant garde literary journal called Salt down South; they are as experimental as anything coming out of literary Brooklyn in recent memory.  They are so avant garde they have rejected old paradigms and rebooted themselves.  They are now Salted 2.0, and they have published a work of fiction I wrote about Irish-American identity and cultural expectations within that community, to which I belong.  They have asked me to read at a literary reading, art show, and harmonica and steel guitar folk extravaganza tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi.  The event is fixing  to go from six-ish to ten-ish tomorrow evening at the Shelter on Van Buren, directly adjacent to Oxford Square and across the street from Off Square Books.  There will be beverages and snacks for sale.  There will be bonhomie.  There will be me reading poetry commemorating the smashed glass ceiling of Tuesday night, another Irish  wake with off-color tales of the highest literary caliber.  The editors of this journal are not just good editors; they throw a wonderful Southern beaux-arts party (or bozart party, as H. L. Mencken would have it). Prepare to feel happier and hipper leaving than when you arrive.

This is also the launch party of the rebooted avant garde journal. The honour of your presence is respectfully requested.  Again, that’s Saturday, June 11, 6-10 pm, at The Shelter on Van Buren, 1221 Van Buren, Oxford, Mississippi.  I sincerely hope you are fixing to attend.

June 3, 2016

The Official Guidebook to Whoredom — New Orleans’ Storyville Blue Book and the Women it Commodified

New Orleans has plenty of prostitutes today, but about a hundred years ago, sex work in this city was legal, zoned, taxed, sponsored and cataloged.  Yes, I said “cataloged,” by which I mean approximately what Land’s End and Fingerhut mean when they say “catalog,” only it’s not snow boots that are for sale but the bodies of women, complete with Zagat-like ratings for the services of each.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, New Orleans planned Storyville, a community of whore houses, segregated officially between octoroon “cribs,” where women of color or of mixed racial background sold their bodies, and all-white Maisons de Joie, perhaps the most famous of which was Mahogany Hall, memorialized by Louis Armstrong’s “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Storyville was named for the legislator who suggested its legal codification, reform-minded Alderman Sidney Story.  Women of ill repute were supposed to be confined to a sixteen-block ghetto in the Treme section of town, and the implication of their zoning was not only to restrict the work of prostitutes but also their lives, as women who worked there were supposed to stay within the boundaries set up by the city government for almost any imaginable activity.  It was as if they were under house arrest, only they were expected to continue to work as whores to the benefit of the madams, pimps, and Tom Anderson, mobbed-up cabaret owner and the putative “mayor of Storyville,” who seems to have taken a cut of everybody else’s ill-gotten gains in this district.

storyville whorehouse bedroom

This is where clients could expect to have sex for money, — no visible sign of venereal diseases on those throw pillows.

The city itself of course turned a profit, as it could tax these very lucrative businesses that were kept under a watchful eye.  As one government official remarked about sex-for-hire in New Orleans — “You can make prostitution illegal in New Orleans, but you can’t make it unpopular.”  The city, too, was reaping benefits from the legalized trafficking of women’s bodies, and some men’s bodies, too (there are some references to “fairies” in Storyville, though they are not cataloged like women are), it seems. The only initial concern expressed about Storyville by many city officials was that it should not encourage men of color to sleep with white women, though white men were free to roam the district and purchase anybody’s body at will.

Before the establishment of an official tourist bureau, New Orleans businesses compiled something it called Blue Book, too racy to mail according to federal law, but the City of New Orleans determined could be given out to tourists and thrill-seekers of any kind.  In it, potential whorehouse customers could see a list of women for sale in Storyville, divided between white and black women, and inside, one could see photos and read about the various charms and talents of the women for sale, like they were seat cushions on display at Pottery Barn.

The purported purpose of the sixteen-block ghetto designated for whores was, according to the prose of Blue Book, was first, “to put the stranger on the proper and safe path … free from ‘hold-ups’ and other games,” and perhaps more atrociously, “it regulates the women,” keeping the rest of the city free from women who make a living selling their bodies. The purported purpose was therefore to pen in and legalize the transaction of the prostitute and Jon for the Jon, especially if he were white, but it made the woman a prisoner of a mobbed-up prostitution district.  If the sex worker entered Storyville freely to start work there as a prostitute, the law henceforth could hold her hostage even if she wanted to quit the oldest profession for something new.  It made her subject to pimps like Tom Anderson, madams who might tolerate brutality or cheat women of their wages, and with a smile in Blue Book, she was trapped night after night, day after day, in a Mahogany prison.

blue book prostitute mademoiselle rita walker

Mademoiselle Rita Walker’s Blue Book listing exoticizes her, and the combination of her barefoot dancing and expensive wardrobe make her a spicy commodity.

I do not assume for a minute that all the women in Storyville were there against their will.  Surely some of them, whom men at least called by names of royalty or aristocracy — there was “Queen Gertie” and “Countess Willie” — might have found work in a brothel preferable to other forms of menial labor open to working-class women, and perhaps the work itself was less exploitative than some “legitimate” jobs.  In a world where sexual harassment was frequent and legal, maybe getting paid for sex was better than being used for sex while officially being a washerwoman, nanny, or store clerk.  But the fact that these women couldn’t leave if the city didn’t let them slip by, if the mayor of Storyville did not wink — that made Storyville into a gilded form of convict prostitution.  It was not unlike the situation of sharecroppers just outside of town who might have been menaced by the Klan if they threatened to board a train for New York City in the middle of the sugar cane harvest.  In Storyville and the plantation, just like at the Hotel California, you could check out any time you liked, but you could never leave.

And the idea that women were for sale like stoves at Sears — how American a way to hurt people! Capitalism is often subtly ugly when it sells clothes made in factories where workers do not make a living wage, but the clothing itself is lovely.  This, though, was not subtle.  The commerce of the female body is here, and adding insult to injury,  the women in this trade were expected to smile for a photo that advertised them like washboards or shoes.  They were reduced to things, rides at the carnival, adventures — not fully human at all.  I wonder if we remain inured to this kind of commodification of women as pornographic websites speak of parts, not people.  What is voluntary in our day troubles me less than the thousands of underage girls advertised for “outcall massage” in legal classified ads, girls kidnapped, brutalized, and peddled for profit by the mob.

I wonder if we continue to live in a society that could sanction the selling of female flesh while male flesh is mercifully off the auction block these days. Joe Francis has made a wholly disreputable bucket of cash from his disgusting Girls Gone Wild series that convinces women to flash their breasts for his profit.  Women in New Orleans, at least some of them, lift shirts for plastic beads once a year.  Again, I am less troubled by girls lifting shirts than I am boys filming and making bank off of it.  I am not really against whores, ghettoed or not, but I am uncharitable in my views toward Jons and am really totally ready to cut a pimp.  New Orleans places no stigma on what the French call louche.  I particularly take exception to bohemian proclivities expressed by one person that others leech and exploit.

Storyville did not end because of any moral sentiment from the city government of New Orleans.  Rather, the United States military insisted, under the aegis of Woodrow Wilson, who was no whoremonger, that it would be morally and physically unhealthy for soldiers and sailors to catch a boat to World War I through a port town where hookers operated legally.  One may be pretty certain that the president did not consult the soldiers in question about this, but he was adamant.  As a result, Storyville’s interests were less lucrative to New Orleans business and government than a military port contract.  The Mahogany Hall and its neighboring buildings were shuttered, but unsurprisingly, the hooking has continued on the DL to this day. It’s not hard to find a prostitute for sale in New Orleans in the twenty-first century, but it is hard to find a published catalog of them, and the city has ceased to sanction anything they do officially.  There are no doubt plenty of cops on the take, plenty of pimps, and plenty of frightened girls who never went wild, who just fell into the hands of abusers. Storyville might be closed, but it is still open in spirit all day and all night in the city that zoned it.

May 23, 2016

The Ninth Ward and 9/11: American Grief Tourism in New Orleans and New York

A few months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that I did not watch on television but out the window at work as it happened, then walked through, then got laid off about, then wrote poetry about (see my short collection Counterterrorist Poems (Pudding House Press, 2002), Americans lost their abject fear of New York City. That fear had been a long-standing terror predating Osama Bin Laden, previously consisting of fear of muggers, rapists, people with punk-rock hair and piercings, and rude men in expensive suits shoving others out of the way  to grab a cab.  They decided for reasons that I fail to comprehend to come in droves to the fenced-in Ground Zero, still slightly smoldering its asbestos cauldron of carcinogens, to gape and to lament.

I understood the Billy Graham Ministries red-vested prayer teams that stood in subway stations praying for the grieving New Yorkers, the fire fighters who, bless them, filled the sudden hundreds of vacancies on a temporary basis that the FDNY experienced when so many brave men were crushed by rubble.  I am grateful to this day to those who came to lend a hand to my hurting city, whether they understood our needs or not.  I am not baffled by the charity of those good people.

ground zero tourists

These people aren’t in New York in early 2002 to help the shell-shocked Manhattanites. They are there to take pictures and gawk at a gaping hole where thousands of people they don’t really care about died.

I am rather baffled by the people who came to see our wounds and stare without offering a hand.  What might motivate them?  Some of them cried.  If they were there because they lost a cousin or childhood friend who moved to the big city from their small town, I understand perfectly, but those who had no body in the  rubble?  Those who had never much cared for New York, except possibly for a couple of shows and shopping, who wanted to see a hermaphrodite or a woman and a donkey, then return to their safe suburbs and decry us?  Why were they there?  Why were they crying?  How DARE they take what happened to us, not them, personally?

I had an estranged step-mother who had the nerve to write me in a note two months after September Eleventh, “Thank God we didn’t lose anybody that day!”  In the same note, she enclosed a book that was supposed to be self-help but which showed a woman on the cover who looked crazier than anybody who could be of assistance to anyone else, and she told me I needed to reconcile with my father, the implication being that I might die at any minute from another terrorist attack, and then how would it be for me to go to  my grave if I hadn’t apologized  to my father for wrongs she perceived I had committed against him?  Indeed, I owed no apology, and she would offer none for the obvious offense.  I sent the book back, told her how unimaginably insensitive it was to send such a note to a New Yorker in November 2001 who had actually been there, and that she needn’t ever contact me again.

I marvel to this day at the temerity and the total lack of human compassion that allows some suburban gum-chewers to consider the tragedy of another as an occasion to pack a suitcase, to board a discounted flight, and to take a tour bus.  I know that Ground Zero was filled with the ashes of thousands, but I fear that Hell awaits the torment of the tens of thousands who did not come to help but only to gawk and to personalize selfishly somebody else’s pain for something like a personal catharsis of no benefit to anybody else.

This didn’t just happen to New York, of course.  The same thing happened to my new city, the Crescent City, New Orleans.  After Katrina, thousands of Americans, many in church groups, came to help clear away debris, offer food and water to those rendered homeless, to comfort, to hold, to hammer, to pour concrete, to roof, to wire, to plumb.  Those people, I imagine, retain the immense gratitude of those who were assisted by them.  But what about the Katrina Tourists?

Tourist_sign

A sign in the Ninth Ward, 2006.

I cannot imagine boarding a tour bus to rubberneck at the condemned buildings while frantic people try to reconstruct their lives. I cannot imagine staring and not getting out of the bus (even if had been drunk on Bourbon Street when I had boarded the bus), not running over to hug, to pray, to help, to get my hands dirty, to give out money, to apologize, even though it all was not my fault.  What kind of brain-dead habitual sodomizer of livestock, what kind of certifiable sociopath, can imagine making a family vacation out of a community’s devastation?  This happened.  Americans in particular did this to Americans.  9/11 didn’t just happen on TV. Neither did Katrina. Are Americans indifferent spectators to the sorrows of other Americans?  Has reality TV done this to us?  Or is this the same crowd who used to be in regular attendance at public hangings and the burning of witches?  Are human beings just so very awful?

We are all our brothers’ keeper.  God is watching.  You shouldn’t watch impassively from front row seats the next time a national tragedy happens.  If you must go see it for yourselves, bring blankets and coffee for the freezing, lumber and copper pipes for the homeless, prayers for the hopeless.  Pray for America while you are praying, because some ugly element of our national character shows in this phenomenon.

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

February 16, 2016

The Genesis of Elvis: What Origins Tell Us About Where We Go

I taught a student at the University of Mississippi who is a cousin of Elvis Presley.  As Ole Miss is less than an hour’s drive away from Tupelo, where the Presley family has long lived, this was not so surprising, really, but as a Carpet Bagger, I was charmed by the

Elvis birthplace 2

Elvis was born in this shack during the Great Depression

implications of my encounter with Elvis’ DNA, still responsive — not an Elvis sighting but a confirmed Presley sighting, surely.  This Presley was blond, almost exactly the King’s height and body shape, and he had piercing blue Presley eyes. As he took his final exam in my modern American Literature section, I silently tried to will him to burst into a chorus of “Hound Dog,” but to no avail.  If he had for some odd reason fallen prey to rock n’ roll hypnosis, it would have been the second-most rock-fantasy-fulfilling thing that ever happened to me, second only to the time I danced onstage in Paris for a half hour in a go-go cage with another band leader named Elvis, this one with the last name Costello.  But Elvis of Tupelo’s cousin did not once seem all shook up.  His hands might have been twitching and his knees weak, but that wasn’t because of love or music.  He might have been concentrating on the essay question of the exam. So despite wishing fervently for this young man to jump up on his desk and start throwing scarves off his neck into a screaming female crowd, instead I realized that we could not go on together with suspicious minds, and I gave him his semester grade and said adieu.  He wasn’t Elvis, and no amount of hoping could make him so.

elvis birthplace 1

Seventeen dollars gets you what they call the birthplace experience.

As it turns out, I found myself at a car dealership last week in Tupelo, getting my tires rotated, and I realized I really ought to go visit the birthplace of the American icon.The museum isn’t like the Met, where one donates as one chooses, and then one sees masterpieces. They wanted seventeen bucks to tour a diorama room, the two-room shack in which he was born, the relocated and renovated Assemblies of God church building in which Elvis first sang hymns, another chapel built for those who wish to marry in — let’s admit it — a more authentically Elvine Elvis Chapel than the one they have in Las Vegas — and to watch some films.  They had life-sized cardboard cutout Elvis dolls, they had a multimedia presentation of Elvis’ church services which were almost exactly like the church services I regularly attend, only people dress like it’s the twenty-first century and there are microphones, and they had a film  to let me know what any listener knows — that Elvis was influenced by both African-American blues traditions and Country music.

But the epicenter of the museum was the humble house where Mrs. Presley gave birth to a

Elvis birthplace 3

Elvis emerged here.

boy.  There was neither electricity nor plumbing.  Elvis’ father was not a financial success, even by the standards of the Great Depression, and they soon  lost the home and had to move elsewhere.  Looking at the metal bed in which Elvis crowned, I was somehow reminded of my trip years ago to Bethlehem, where I saw the birthplace of Jesus, which monks who had never witnessed an actual birth marked with something that looked like a large gilded dinner plate on the floor. And I realized then that the Elvis  I was seeking in this poorly ventilated shack was no more discernible than the golden Middle Eastern floor platter made Jesus appear in the flesh before worshippers there , alas for the worshippers like me of the King of Kings like Elvis and like me.

After all, what had I come to see? Down the road, there were somewhat updated versions of the same two-room shack’s architectural design, surely home to people of the same class as the Presleys during the 1930s. Today, they have plumbing, electricity, and aluminum siding. Is there rock greatness in those shacks?  At least they contain the living, not the dead. The Elvis I sought in his cousin and in his kitchen is dead — and yet, I say long live the King. The King is gone. And yet he is everywhere. All Americans are heirs to Elvis countrythe kingdom of Elvis — the bad fashion sense, the fatty foods, and yes, the rhythm, if we let our insides shake like a leaf on a tree, as he sang to us. Elvis might have lived in a shack, but he became as prosperous and as lost as any American can. He is the style without the substance, the default position of portions of American life, the gender performance, the hazy-eyed side-burned hunka-hunk of us burning.  We burn like Elvis burns.  There are sightings to this day. Elvis is not a saint but a relic, touch the reliquary, and what a chill I got — we are all shook up.  We are shaken.  We are seeking out a dream of ourselves, of who we have meant to be or who we have accidentally become. The genesis of Elvis, his birthplace, is like the rock at Plymouth, Massachusetts — we visit it to find America but find ourselves instead. The King is dead.  Long live the King.  Don’t look in the platter, look in the mirror for the next Elvis sighting.  If you were born here, right here on this platter, on this gold  record, then you are an American.

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.

 

November 25, 2015

Après le Déluge, moi — Moving to New Orleans

King Louis XIV famously declared, regarding his excessive spending and living, the construction of Versailles on the peasants’ backs, his love for rich foods, brocade, gilding, and fireworks displays, “Après moi, le déluge.” This refers to an economic collapse he foresaw due to his excesses, but it literally means, “after me, the great flood.”

 Well, today, like a large number of Americans, I am able to look South and declare, not so much in French as in Cajun, “Après le déluge, moi.” After the great flood of Katrina, me, here I am, and I am moving to New Orleans, excessive, effervescent, and like the insect life of the bayoux, burgeoning, fecund with possibility, alive despite toxins and people trying to crush me underfoot when I cross their path.

My husband just got a job transfer down here, and I write this on the Rive Gauche of the Mississippi as we hunt for a place down here. We have investigated rentals of an urban renewing nature in neighborhoods plagued by crime and poverty, and we have investigated choices more conventionally sprawling into prosperous housing.  A French Quarter townhouse lovingly restored will cost one the monthly champagne bill at Versailles, and as lovely as that might be, we aren’t working with the Sun King’s budget. We will likely end up in a small house with a patio in the back.

There is something profoundly invigorating about moving to a place that is rapidly building or rebuilding. It makes a person feel urban, feel renewed, whatever storms have hit. The fumes of fresh paint drying are intoxicating, and like absinthe cocktails at brunch chez Broussard, might make one have visions of the future. In mine, I am writing while being served another unsweet tea at a round table in a brick courtyard, chatter around me, the sound of a trumpet in the background. After all, if a girl can’t write in New Orleans, she can’t write.  And I can write.

If my future vision is a bit cliché, please forgive me. It’s just that with New Orleans, as with so many things at least partially French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Like Anne Rice’s Lestat, New Orleans may have a deadly air, but it is forever renewed and élégantà sa façon ringarde, elegant in its tacky ways. Like a jazz funeral procession marks death and grief with joy and syncopation, New Orleans, like anything at least partially French, sees tragedy in defiant irony and triumph with the doubt expressed by Napoleon’s mother when he was crowned emperor — “pourvu que ça dure!”– “we’ll see how long this lasts!”

And will it last? Of course not! And yet, of course it will! New Orleans will never shed its character, and an influx of newcomers, however large or diverse, cannot change this, as New Orleans, like New York, abides in the expectation of newcomers, including carpetbaggers like me, getting tossed in its gumbo.  The roads crumble in flood seasons, but the places to go remain places to go. New pavement cannot change the directions on the face of the compass in the navigator’s hand. New Orleans will always be the home to an enduring and culturally rich African diaspora, Pirates and other transgressive Eurotrash, missionaries, outlaws, and outlaw missionaries. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, no matter who shows up.

Like any urban space, New Orleans has traffic laws, and here are a few of them:  Shake hands with the preacher,but keep your wallet in your front pocket where you can feel if someone is trying to lift it. Pay your taxes, but know that not all of the amount due ends up in the government vault. Be a lady, at least while anyone is looking. Strut if at all possible. Be friendly quickly, but make friends slowly. Be better at holding your liquor than the tourists are during Mardi Gras.

I am good at understanding the rules of city life. I am always a lady while anyone is looking. I strutted out of my mother’s womb, so don’t try to out-swagger me. I am friendly. I rarely drink, but my Irish blood keeps me clear-headed, and the sight of my nipples is not available for the tossing of some plastic beads. In other words, it’s practically like I was born here! If not born here, I am at least reborn here, transfused like Lestat by the blood of the living, high on the energy of new beginnings of things without end. Après le déluge, moi. Me voilà.

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