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

January 16, 2017

The Word of Our Testimony — Writing the World we Want into Existence

Yesterday, I attended the Writers Resist event in New Orleans. PEN organized such events all over the country, as many writers are concerned that the new administration will censor words and limit access to the press.  The alt-right has tried to characterize the writers of our media as “lugenpresse,” a Hitlerian term used to call the media that criticized the dictator “lying press.”  We declared collectively that we would sooner call them  “Wahrheitsgemäße Presse,” or truth-telling press. We came to listen to words that would tell the truth and give us the sense, as all good writing does, that our own thoughts are not held in isolation, that we have kindred spirits that transcend geography and time.

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Writers Resist New Orleans, January 15, 2017. It’s remarkable how a room full of writers looks the same whether it is in New Orleans, New York, or the New Hebrides.

Forrest Farjadian, a school interpreter and assistant, sat next to me and told me he hoped to receive poetic inspiration. Indeed, the words spoken were adamant and unapologetic. Authors recited included Audre Lorde, June Jordan, first-person accounts of torture at Guantanamo, contemporary Syrian poetry, letters from elementary school students who are worried about the incoming administration’s intentions toward people of color, and even J.K. Rowling, for whom magic is a metaphor for the freedom of creativity.

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Readers at Writers Resist New Orleans, January 15, 2017

Sadly no magic wand, no “Accio Hillary” could take away the spectre of Voldemort that hangs over the future, but not in New Orleans, as not even voodoo curses stick for very long in such a festive town. The Art Garage was filled with people of every ethnicity, women in head scarves, men of color with long beards, lesbians holding hands, Latinas in leather jackets, white men in hipster jeans and glasses. The readers were gender-diverse and racially mixed. The readings all pointed heterogeneously to one conclusion — the words we speak and write are testimonies to combat dark nights of the national zeitgeist. Indeed, we were the nightmare embodied of at least a few of the stadium rally-goers who wore obscene t-shirts chanting “lock her up.” We are the cultural elite that they cannot understand, smugly vegan, hemp-woven accessories, internationally minded, welcoming of difference, brainiac urbanites. How different we are from they are, and how frightened each faction defining America is from one another.

All we can promise to do is to keep thinking freely, keep writing despite pressures to the contrary, keep producing evidence that we will not be silenced.

September 27, 2016

Who Dat Dere Gonna Smash the Glass?

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This party was for both for the Clinton debate and the Saints game, no need to pick just one.

Last night, I had the delightful privilege of watching Hillary Clinton shoot a fish in a barrel, one that looked remarkably like a coked-out real estate developer and aging game show host named Donald Trump.  I was not alone for this festive occasion.  I was seated in a pizza parlor in the Gentilly district of New Orleans, surrounded by people who like me, have volunteered for the campaign to elect the first woman president.

We have been making phone calls around here to get out the Democratic vote, and we have found Louisianans surprisingly receptive to our phone calls, given the reputed redness of the state.  Most of them seem to have gotten a robo-call from white supremacist David Duke, who is running for senate and who endorses Donald Trump, before we with our real voices and our real diversity call to suggest they come out and volunteer for us.  It’s like Mr. Duke rolled out the red carpet for our second call’s arrival.  No pollster predicts that Louisiana will turn blue this election, but New Orleans, birthplace of Jazz, has always liked the blues.  It is a pocket of organized Democratic Party voters in a sea of otherwise-inclined conservatives.  Yet the choice could not be more stark this election, and David Duke has yet to win an office after he served a single term as a state representative.  His endorsement makes non-Klannish white Louisianans weigh their voting choices more carefully, and we are glad to give them something to think about.

On my way to this combined Saints Game Tailgate and Orgy of Joy Because a Raging Sexist Pig was About to Get Beat by a Girl, I convinced my Uber driver to register to vote, and because I told him the details of Clinton’s energy policy, a subject close to that man’s heart, he told me he would vote for my girl HRC.  He is a laid-off oil industry worker, and the details of Clinton’s plan seemed to spell greater prosperity and greater independence from foreign oil markets to him.  He had never voted, he said, but this election seemed really important.  I couldn’t agree more.

Watching Hillary with a room full of rowdy and racially diverse Democrats was a pleasure straight out of an episode of The West Wing, if Aaron Sorkin had let Spike Lee direct that episode.  The crowd hooted and hollered when Hillary laughed at the lies falling out of the sad old man’s mouth, and when he insulted her personally, we all gasped, and the ladies of color shouted in unison, “Oh, no he didn’t!”  But her simple remark, that while he was out on the road bloviating, she had not only prepared for the debate but had prepared to be president of the United States — well, that was worth the price of pizza alone.  His return to birtherism and stopping and frisking, perhaps that played well with the withering Fox News audience, but most of America seems to think that his version of Law and Order is not so much lawful as Orwellian-sounding.  We laughed as Hillary Clinton laughed, and we hoped that America saw as we saw her competency and his ridiculous ineptness and ill-informed and misinforming bombast.

The men who were with us checked in on the Saints’ game on their phones once in a while, but we were glued to the screen.  Neither male nor female was impressed with Donald Trump’s denial of his support for the Gulf War, nor were we convinced that it was Hillary Clinton who had a temperament problem — and what, he’s an incarnation of the Dalai Lama?  Please!  His entire career has been based on being rash and quick to anger. Nobody bought it.

Trump’s bringing Gennifer Flowers to the debate with him is proof he actually knows nothing about the thinking of women.  If he were running against Bill Clinton, this might have been some sort of an effective jab, but he’s running against Clinton’s wronged spouse, who neither orchestrated nor condoned that affair. What women saw in this was an incomprehension of our individual dignity, and he looked like he was just being absurdly bitchy.  Also, we might wonder what he would expect — that she would burst into tears? Nah.  Our girl Hillary is like all of us who have had to attend a cocktail party where some woman was there who had tried to take our man.  He might as well have handed her the election with that single mean-spirited gesture. The sight of an ex-mistress isn’t devastating to a grown-up woman; it makes us taste the copper of blood rage in our mouths. By bringing Flowers to the debate, he guaranteed she would be relentless in her criticism of him.

It was truly a pleasure to watch Ms. Clinton work last night.  I got a fan handed to me by a woman running for  judge.  I got a new lawn sign and a new sticker.   The Saints lost.  But who dat?  Who dat dere gonna smash the glass ceiling? Who dat dere gonna smash the patriarchy?  We dat.

July 27, 2016

Breaking Glass and Other Unladylike Activities

Pardon my silence, gentle readers, over the last two weeks. Apart from the horrible shooting of innocent civilians and police officers in Louisiana, about which I will have much more to say later, I have been glued to the television watching a barrier  to women’s progress drop — why others seem to care less, I cannot say.  All I know is that whether you adore or loathe Madam Clinton, that barrier got busted last night, and I feel like a huge burden has been lifted off of me that the women in my family have carried for generations.  I suspect the women in your family have been carrying it, too.

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It’s not corny. It’s not something to take for granted. It’s really important.

My family’s women fought for the right to vote.  They have been involved in politics in material ways since then.  One of my grandmothers joined the League of Women Voters pretty much as soon as it was opened and organized for the Democrats.  My other grandmother joined the Communist Party when she was young, attended meetings (really quite possibly) in the same place Arthur Miller did.  The women in my family never devoted much energy to Junior League-approved activities.  Multiple generations of them (before me) were bad cooks. They never did more sewing than the socially acceptable minimum, probably dating back to the reign of Queen Neb in Ireland. They wanted something more public to do, always.more engaged with the world outside, but that world dismissed their efforts.

Survival for these women was always precarious, as they couldn’t run their own lives as much as they ought to have been able to do, and it was always by grit that they pulled themselves out, not ladylike graciousness.  Let me give you some examples from my past:

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My great-grandmother walked out of this mess with a chest of drawers strapped to her back and toddlers clinging to her skirts.

One of my great-grandmothers lived in San Francisco in 1906.  She had a drunk for a husband and several small children. When the quake hit, her house stood, but her husband was trapped under rubble in some bar.  She assumed he must be dead.  As the fire approached her block of the city, she had to flee.  She took a chest of drawers, some of her husband’s belts, filled the chest of drawers with all the valuables she could stuff into it, strapped it shut with one belt, strapped it on her back with two others, and she told her children to cling to her skirts while they walked away from the fire, the billowing smoke close behind them, the sound of windows exploding in the heat shattering, the dust of the rubble in their nostrils. She managed to walk the little family to a patch of land they owned far outside of town.  She managed to get a house up.  She managed to get a job as the post mistress, though this was a novelty at the time, a woman touching others’ letters. She put money aside to build a church in the country town near the house was.  Meanwhile, her husband eventually showed up, temporarily sober, and eventually disappeared again for years and years, to show up periodically. She didn’t legally own the land or the house.  She couldn’t preach or even read a Bible passage in the church.  She couldn’t have risen in the ranks of her profession.  She didn’t own her own life, really, but she had built it out of the ashes of disaster.

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My widowed great-grandmother, saddled with six kids, made it out of this squalor and sent all her children to college.

Another example: Another one of my great-grandmothers was on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, married young to a door-to-door salesman at about that time.  They had six kids, one right after the other.  She did work with artificial flowers for a factory at home as she watched them in a tenement apartment. When the youngest child was two and the oldest child was only ten, my great-grandfather stepped on a rusty nail while making his rounds and died of tetanus the next day.  There was no social security back then, and no life insurance.  By the absolutely mammoth grit of that woman, she worked herself harder than a human being ought to work in order to send all six of those children to college.  She made every activity into a lesson.  Counting blocks on the bus was a math lesson.  Family meetings were run by Roberts rules of order as a civics lesson. All six of those children went to college. A couple of them became millionaires. She never lived in anything bigger than an apartment in a city. She poured all her resources into others, except for her truly indomitable strength.  I remember her staring at me when I was a toddler, beaming with pride.  She did not suffer weaklings well.  In the bitterness of her hard life, she could be cruel. In me, she saw a future of strong women.  That, she liked. She needed someone to win the fights she had not been able to win, to carry on a struggle that stemmed class struggle and the double indemnity of being born female and poor.

Nobody tells these stories to children, I think.  They don’t want to frighten them.  Grandmas are supposed to bake things. They are supposed to sing songs with little girls and braid hair. But that’s not the truth, really. The truth is that life is always tough as a mother in one way or another, and the women have to dig deep into the dirt, drill into the concrete, to make sure they can withstand it all.  You probably have no idea of the struggle behind you.  It’s not ladylike to talk about such things.  I’ve had to piece together the real story of my family in tiny scraps. You weren’t told the war stories of your foremothers.  You don’t even bear their family names.  But believe me, this is your story, too.  You probably don’t know half the hell you’ve made it out of, because you were clinging to somebody else’s skirts while you walked along slowly singing the alphabet, unconscious of the disaster you just barely eluded.

So all this I just told you — that’s why I don’t care whether you love Hillary Clinton or you hate her. What happened last night in Philadelphia matters to those rugged women behind you that got the short end of every stick. When they announced her nomination, my lungs filled with new air.  I stood taller. I felt different, a difference that I am certain will be permanent.  If you are a woman, and you don’t love what happened last night, I declare you blind.  I declare you unpatriotic.  I declare you so frigging privileged you have no idea what a spoiled brat you really are.

Gentle readers, I tell you — register to vote. Be brave. Take a deep breath.  The air is different today.  You can breathe deeply today.  You have no idea how much oxygen is left for you to take in.

 

February 28, 2010

Hair

My hair with recently done Southern color

“The Higher the hair, the closer to God.” — K.D. Lang

Not quite the look I was going for

While there are good hair days and bad hair days  everywhere, in the South, there are superhuman challenges to good hair days.  Astonishing humidity turns even the most flat-ironed tresses into brillo pads.  Provincial hair cuts seem like a bad day in Dollywood.   And not all Southern women have given up complex up-dos for moderately formal occasions.  However, the ladies of the South have a sense of hair warfare when it comes to battling their sundry hair challenges.  If there are white women without flat irons here, I haven’t met them.  Some even carry them in their purse along with the ubiquitous can of hair spray.  I used to wonder why all the stiffness occupied the coifs of the sisters of gamma delta phi, but now I understand — surrender doesn’t mean a return to antebellum sausage curls.  In this era of global warming and life without parasols, it means a tenure as the bride of Frankenstein.  Between monster movie hair and sorority hair, I pick sorority hair, too.

Despite my trepidations about potential bee hives and under-cultured characters straight from the drag play of Steel Magnolias on Christopher Street in the 1980s, I discovered that my fears were largely unfounded in the twenty-first century.

My lawyer in Vicksburg, Leslie Rowe Sadler, has  lovely hair.  If I had her permission (I have not asked — I’m writing this post around midnight, and I imagine she’s out of the office), I’d post her photo here — she has a conservative, CNN newscast-worthy blonde bob.  Now, I had seen some nasty hair coloring around town, but Leslie, when I went to see her — she put my name on the house with my husband’s — and she was gracious enough to give me some advice about where I could go and entrust my hair and my nails, where the independent book sellers were, where the places were that I might find a  smattering of urbanity.

She told me to go to Barnette’s salon in Jackson, the one above the bridal salon across from the nice independent bookstore.

Understand that my colorist in New  York and I have a special bond.  Florentina is one of my favorite people on Earth.  In a city of sultry brunettes, Florentina instinctively understood my need for big blonde hair and did not try to make me into either a frosted Debbie Harry, an aging Carmela Soprano, a who-are-we-kidding Lady Gaga or  an overly subdued Hillary Clinton.  She understood my need for verisimilitude.  She understood my need to be that blonde actually having more fun but not necessarily the kind that gentlemen prefer.  She neither over nor under processed my hair, and I count among my happier hours in New York hours where Florentina told me about her daughter while wrapping small bits of my hair in individual foil packets and where I percolated to a  nice golden blonde with dozens of aluminum boxy antennae pointing outward toward my mother ship.

I miss Florentina.

That said, I have made a marvelous discovery.  Most Southern white women want my color.  My hair, which is coarse, is every woman’s hair in a Mississippi summertime.  Unlike in Florentina’s chair, where I think I had a relatively unusual request, color-wise, my hair is the absolute happy meal of the deep South.  Every colorist here trains to give it, so while replacing  Florentina the woman  is unthinkable, finding a suitable professional was sufficient to guarantee success.

I found hapiness in a stool at Barnettes.  My requests for cut and color were implicitly understood.  The aging cheerleader who marries the ex-football  player — she  has this hair.  The non-obsessive Martha Stewart matron, she has this hair.  The head of the alumni committee for Delta Nu, she has this hair.

My hair has found its roots.  The roots have stubborn gray, these days, but the color — the root of it — is the Southern bodacious blonde.  While Mississippi remains a disorienting landscape culturally to me, my hair has found its mother ship.  Those antennae pointed to a GPS system that guided it home, down home.

I don’t think I  look  half bad, do you?

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