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

January 12, 2016

Arrived in New Orleans – and already bucking for Sainthood

saint louis cathedral

This cathedral is named after a crusader king who became a saint. These days, there are multiple New Orleans Saints, and they wear helmets, too.

Dearly beloved, I am sleeping in a rented bed on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans while my husband and I wait for the delivery of our belongings into our house by the moving company.  The house we have rented has a narrow front porch, a faux fireplace with a white wrought iron grille. Our dog has already barked at the neighbor dogs and marked his territory in our shallow back yard with an oak tree and a brick patio. The neighbors are busy, multicultural and middle-class.  I see dogs but almost no children. From my front porch, I hear the bell of a church tower, a church named something like “Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity,” that chimes the hours during daylight, and I am charmed.

The neighborhood has many Catholic churches in it and a Catholic college as well.  As televangelist from nearby Destrehan, Jesse DuPlantis, often remarks, “Everyone in Louisiana has been Catholic at one time or another,” and one senses this to be so.  The rhythm of the neighborhood seems to comply with the traditional daily cycle of matins, compline and evensong.

I have no idea whether my neighbors confess sins to a priest (except a middle-aged Vietnamese-American man who lives around the corner with me who has repeatedly invited me and my husband to church with him and who seems baffled I have no children). But the city, like many Catholic communities, is socially permissive of public forms of decadence (which at least at one point were) absolved in small booths in towered buildings smelling of candle wax.  While Mississippi, for instance, a traditionally protestant state, taxes booze and controls its distribution as an unfortunate concession to a baser nature that religion ought to make one rise above, Louisiana has no such scruples. Louisiana allows the sale of liquor at grocery stores and gas stations.  Gambling happens at rest stops along Interstate 10 with no finger-wagging from the State Capitol or the swamps.

While in Mississippi a great deal of lip service is paid to the way one ought to act, to abstinence, and to fidelity, even the so-called family values gubernatorial candidate in the last election Louisiana held was caught in whore houses.  It’s not that people are less moral in Louisiana; that’s not true at all.  It’s that the State doesn’t see itself traditionally in quite the same role as the morality police that state governments do in surrounding areas. Except for my Irish ancestors and some others from that cold-water island, who hoped their children would have nothing to confess to the priest, Catholicism’s confessional is often a pressure valve for the explosive gases of human experience.  Internalized moral fiber is for Calvinists, not papists, who admit the virtuous among them are exceptional enough to deserve statues and annual processions. Louisiana is marvelous, but it makes no attempt to appear genuinely good.  The beads thrown at Mardi Gras are made of plastic, not gold, and the topless women who dive for them are not perpetual virgins.

I surmise this difference in local Southern cultures has deep Hurricane-Katrina-resistant roots in the Middle Ages. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, observed that pre-modern societies dominated by the Catholic Church had rigid rules but used what he termed “the carnevalesque” as an inversion of the rigid social order at least a couple of times a year.  The discourse of the church of the Middle Ages could be self-flagellating, but certain works of art in churches depict lewd scenes.  The festival of Ash Wednesday, one where the recipient of ashes to mourn his or her own sinfulness hears, “you are dust, and to dust you will return,” as a call to penitence, is preceded by a hangover-inducing bacchanal the day before.  It’s not that the Church was ever sex-positive.  They to this day consider sex of all kinds, including within marriage, inherently sinful unless the sole desire of the participants is to produce legitimate offspring.  But the Catholic Church has been sex-acknowledging in that it concedes that people mess around on the DL and produced both rigid rules and periodic catharses to let off steam. Louisiana is anti-choice, often teaches abstinence-only sex education, and claims to hold conservative values about all sorts of social issues, but in New Orleans, drag queens have paraded around for at least a century and a half,  vaudou (voodoo) has cursed many for about four hundred years, the greatest genius ever born here – jazz inventor and legend Louis Armstrong – was born in a whorehouse, and the carnevalesque constitutes its greatest tourist attraction.  What happens on Bourbon Street does not stay on Bourbon Street, as one says about debauchery in secularized Vegas, but what happens on Bourbon Street has the potential to be forgiven a few blocks away at any of the churches in the French Quarter.  And to get absolved takes less resolve than a willingness to restitute and conform to ritual.  There is no altar call in the Catholic Church, a protestant tradition where penitence happens in the heart first and one gets saved.  There is an altar at the Catholic church, and one faces it and recites liturgy, stands, kneels, stands again, crosses one’s self, and one admits one was wrong but without a total life commitment for permanent change.  Penitence on the Rue Saint Charles doubtless consists of more regret than permanent resolve in most cases.

As I wait for my furniture to trek through the bayoux down here, I resolve not to give up my Irish primness such as I ever possessed it.  I intend to keep my shirt on no matter who offers to throw plastic beads my way next month. I intend to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes us to do in one epistle, rather than to rely on others to make the sign of the cross in my direction.  It’s not in my own power to act right, of course, but it is my responsibility to seek out forgiveness from God and to avoid purchasing an excess of vodka at the local gas station, to avoid lewdness, even if the engraving in the cathedral shows a tree growing genitalia (yes, that really exists in one European medieval church).  I am going to try to do what God would have me do here, whatever that might look like.

For Protestants like me, the Saints are all those who make it to Heaven, not just those whose coffins smell like roses and where prayers offered for them to intercede are answered by miracles.  Goodness is a personal responsibility for all of us who answer altar calls, though none of us, not even saints with statues, manage to be perfectly good.  I would like to smell like a rose instead of a corpse, but I notice that on a hot day, all of New Orleans smells at once deliciously floral and rather putrefied at once.  I think perhaps this is why I feel so at home here already.

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November 11, 2015

My Yankee Blood at Vicksburg

Living in Vicksburg, Mississippi for three years, I was not particularly welcomed by all in town.  I drove up with New York plates on my car, and even though I baked all my neighbors cookies, only one very sweet woman across the street stopped by to thank me.  The rest seemed to sneer about me half behind my back but with enough scorn for me to catch their disdain for me.

I made a few friends, but they were the exceptional people in town — an African-American woman chemist, a pioneer in her field, a white woman attorney for the ACLU and her historian husband, a retired nurse, and a few others — but while making friends for me has never been hard, in Vicksburg it was like trying to crack a joke at a non-Irish funeral.  My efforts fell flat. The second my Yankee accent poured out of my mouth, I was less than perfectly welcome.  I used to joke that since the neighborhood was so cold to me, I ought to show them how little I cared by getting four big German Shepherds and naming them after Yankee Civil War Generals.  That way at sundown, I could call them inside every day — “Come on, Tecumseh!  Come on Ulysses!  Time to eat!”

Sometimes, historic doesn't involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

Sometimes, historic doesn’t involve so much reenactment as simple enactment.

I thought that if they were going to treat me like an occupying invader, why not act like one?  After all, what had I ever done to them?

It’s true that Vicksburg is filled with the evidence of a siege to this day.  My wedding was celebrated in the antebellum mansion occupied as Yankee headquarters during the War Between the States.  There are still holes in the floor from Confederate cannon ball fire.  We consummated that marriage in a bed where General Grant slept, though they had changed the mattress since his departure.  Annual reenactments take place on the battlegrounds of the Battle of Vicksburg, and there is a huge Civil War cemetery and park in town.  While many tourists come to Vicksburg for the casinos, some come to remember that battle and to pretend to be in it.

I never thought that the battle had a thing to do with me personally, until my cousin Marcia did a little research on one of our great-great grandfathers, Andrew Gast.  Apparently, as an eighteen year-old farmer in Indiana, he decided to join the Grand Army of the Republic.  He marched through Tennessee, Alabama, and he eventually ended up in Vicksburg.  He was honorably discharged in Vicksburg, possibly by Grant, possibly as he signed papers in the room where I consummated my marriage.  He lived to be old.  His corpse was not left on a Civil War battlefield.

Our family, like so many Yankee families, has never had much reason to reflect on the Civil War, unlike so many Southern families, who either gained their freedom or lost their primacy over others, maybe lost limbs or lives, maybe lost pride, during the conflict.  For my great-great grandfather, it seems to have been a momentary adventure, neither tragedy nor trauma.  The fact that he walked away in one piece from the siege of Vicksburg implies he probably took down a Confederate or two, that he at least fired a few volleys in their direction.

I suddenly imagine my great-great grandfather, then a teenager, striding vigilantly through the marshy reeds near our house, stepping carefully around the places where he might make noise.  I imagine him waiting for orders, getting bored between commands the way my college freshmen students do in my class.  I wonder if he slept a night in the big house where my wedding was — Yankee soldiers slept there if they were sick or wounded, and he took sick while he was there, a severe fever, one which he survived.

I see my Vicksburg neighbors’ dislike of me in a slightly different light. I was an invader after all.  My arrival in Vicksburg was a reenactment of my great-great grandfather’s invasion, only without uniforms and guns.  I was once there, or my blood was, to kill them. It wasn’t history.  It was me.  I was the enemy.  I remain the enemy of the Confederacy, though not of the South or contemporary Southerners, which I still love.

I cannot know my great-great grandfather Gast’s motives for joining the army, but given the subsequent politics of my family, I can imagine easily that he was against slavery.  I, too, would wade through a marsh vigilantly to help end it, were that necessary.  Where Vicksburg remains any kind of bastion of bigotry, I remain an enemy invader.  Where it is a free city, one where there are many highly educated people, a thriving black middle class, and a place of new ideas, I am a friend, not marching but frolicking.  My marriage South, it respects the traditions that do not oppress.  After all, I may have sojourned in the very house my ancestor sojourned in Vicksburg.  I certainly came there with peaceful intentions, but I occupied just like he did.

October 21, 2015

The New Magnolia State in Bloom — Mississippi Wakes Up a Little Freer Today

It is with great delight that I declare a symbolic victory in this blog space, a victory for the New South over the Old.  Symbolic victories are not the same as sea shifts.  Rather, symbolic victories signal a long-fomenting sea shift, one that may have gone unnoticed.  It’s a bit like the blooming of magnolias.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Let me explain.  My Vicksburg home was mid-century, not one of those antebellum mansions (alas) for which the city is so rightly famous.  But we had one venerable piece of Mississippi heritage right in our front yard — a large magnolia tree. That tree had probably stood there while non-reenacting Civil War-era beseigers and defenders of Vicksburg sniped at one another through bull rushes and barley fields.  It had probably stood there when Native American tribes trudged through the marshes to gaze over the Mississippi River over the bluff, on the lookout for good places to camp for the night.  It had stood there before North was North and South was South, before slaves arrived in shackles and before cotton got picked in nearby areas.  That tree was a kind of deep-rooted truth about the region even before it was a State, a Mesozoic veracity, something subtle but undeniable.

During winter in Mississippi, things freeze over.  Often farmers burn the cotton plants, already harvested, into cinders so that the crops can get rotated next year.  The earth is partly scorched.  The trees are mostly bare.  The Earth is grey and brown.  Then, as the first harbinger of thaw, one sees buds forming on all the dusty-green-leaved trees, buds that grow the size of outrageous mangoes, already tropical before they even open.  Then one morning, people wake up and find that the entire state’s magnolias have exploded open.  They preen like debutantes making a fine entrance in white ballgowns into an exclusive cotillion.  They waft in the ruffles of their petals a vaguely citrus-y and honeyed smell, gentle except for the enormity and large number of the flowers; one magnolia smells like almost nothing, but an avenue of magnolias? It is a time machine back into our prehistoric selves, the waking of pterodactyls and dragonflies to buzz overhead, the invitation to even volcanic things to return to life and to thrive.  The season has changed, even though the week before it seemed like nothing was going on, nothing, that the dead things were always there, it seemed, and nothing was ever going to change. It turns out, every year, that this is a myth we told ourselves in our gloom. The renewal of the magnolia — this is the true thing we forgot.

Blooms like this are heady.

Blooms like this are heady.

Magnolias announce the start of a new season of growth.  The tree grows slowly but surely.  When the blooms appear, everything starts to buzz.

The University of Mississippi campus has an avenue of magnolia trees planted decades ago by women alumnae. When it blooms, it is heady.  It is a fair walk from the Confederate cemetery on campus, where the only blooms that one sees are in the form of wreaths left to remember very dead soldiers who died defeated.  The magnolias, on the other hand, they win every year, which is (alas) more than the football team of the university can say, despite its fans’ adoration.

The ASB (that’s student council, for you Yankees) of Ole Miss voted last night overwhelmingly to take down the Mississippi State Flag from the campus until there is no trace in that flag of a Confederate symbol, and they urged the state’s legislature (among whom are counted many Ole Miss alumni) to hurry the process by which they alter the flag to reflect the dignity of all Mississippians, black and white.  The pretty young Southerners blooming on that campus today have decided overwhelmingly that they don’t stand with the boy who got expelled for lynching the James Meredith statue a couple of years ago, with the Klan protesters, with old messages of hatred, the dead and killing things that made the South decay for years after the Civil War.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

But those dead things, those decaying things, it turns out — those things constituted a myth people told themselves.  The truth of Mississippi is that it is The Magnolia State, a venerable thing that thrives indiscriminately when it blooms.  The truth of Mississippi today is that young Mississippians plan to live an integrated and dignified life.  They respect their ancestors but intend to live together hospitably and equitably in the present, not the past.  They intend to be polite to others, those who share their ethnicity, and those who don’t.  It doesn’t mean they have figured it all out — racism (alas) did not die last night on the Ole Miss campus.  However, a sea shift many did not see happening was happening slowly and surely, like the growth of the magnolia tree, and now we see the blooming, inhale the fragrance of it, and it is heady and invigorating.

I congratulate my colleagues and students at the University of Mississippi for being harbingers of meaningful change.

July 28, 2011

Strange Meat

Billy Holliday sang a very serious song about the South called “Strange Fruit.”  Let me offer you silly prose about strange meat.  Put away your copy of Julia Child — she didn’t write a recipe for this stuff.  In Mississippi, these venerable customs persist among sportsmen, and the resultant cuisine is astonishing.

GATOR HUNTING

The principal at my step-daughter’s school told me that gator hunting season has commenced.  To Yankees, the idea doesn’t cross our minds of looking at an alligator and not thinking so much that it toothsomely wants to eat us, but instead to say, “That thang shore would taste nice in a jambalaya tonight!”

I bet these boys clean up good, but if they invite you to dinner, make sure they're not cooking at home -- you don't know what-all you might get served.

For two weeks in Mississippi, particularly, I am told, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, it’s open season on alligators. Men go out with rifles in boats and shoot the superabundant alligators that lurk in the marshy waters.  To my knowledge, no one in Mississippi has ever bagged a gator with a ticking stomach, like Captain Hook‘s nemesis gator had in Peter Pan.  It is rather the ticking in the hunters’ stomach, or perhaps the growling, that motivates this hunt, at least in part.  They drag the body of these big gators one at a time into small row boats and paddle back to shore to skin and cook.

I imagine the shoes, the bags, but steaks?  Gumbo?

They say it tastes just like chicken.  No thank you.  I’ll stick to chicken.

FROG GIGGING

No, this does not mean a French band is playing somewhere.  Frog gigging is a local custom along the Mississippi River.  It hardly seems fair.

Let me say first that Mississippi has no shortage of frogs and toads.  These are not rare Costa Rican tree frogs we’re talking about, with delicate sensitivity to the environment.  One day, I was picking up a shirt my husband had discarded outside so that I could wash it, and a giant bull frog leapt out of it into my face.  I screamed, and it hopped into the large irrigation ditch that runs through our property.  My dog often catches them and eats them.  Frogs are everywhere, under cars, leaping out of laundry, right by your big toe wherever you walk.

However, I have mixed feelings about something that local men here do (I know of no women) called frog gigging.  They go out at about 4 am on the river (again, in the same gator-hunting row boat) shine a bright light in the face of these many frogs, who remain motionless because they are stunned by the bright light, and the frog giggers stab them with pitch forks.  They eat the frogs’ legs, usually barbecuing them.

It may not mean that a French band is playing somewhere, but I nonetheless blame the French for frog gigging.  This is a Cajun custom — I live on the edge of Cajun country here.  I have never been so fond of cuisses de grenouille that I would consider them a delicacy.

Again, give me cuisses de poule a la Lyonnaise.  If it tastes anything at all like chicken, just give me chicken.

FISH GRABBING

Catfish is a staple food along the Mississippi.  Catfish is not really exotic at all.  However, when the catfish is not, say, ten inches long but a good yard or more — that’s exotic.

I am told, again by my step-daughter’s high school principal, that such a beast — a 50-pound catfish, can’t be caught with a line.  The waters where catfish can be found, unlike deep sea fishing, are too shallow for the physics to work in the fisherman’s favor.  There’s only one way to get one of those hefty muthahs — you need to get into the muck yourself with the bottom feeders and yank them squirming into that gator-hunting-frog-gigging-stank rowboat.  You need to stick your fingers into the dark silt of the river, in the shallows, and draw them through the dirt until you feel something animate.  It might be a catfish — it might be something far less edible, and you have to grab onto it and wrestle with it until it becomes yours.

This, by the way, is how my whole life feels in Mississippi — like my fingers are down in the muck, and I’m trying to wrestle  with something that might be wonderful, might be horrible, but I still can’t see it. It’s trying to get away from me, whatever it is, but I’m hanging on as well as I can in the slick filth.  I’m covered with mud.  I’ll never get this shirt the way it was in New York.  I’m fighting in the dark, but I might just be winning.

That catfish you wrestled with, neighbor, I would gladly eat a slice of that, once it’s cleaned.  I recommend hosing the rowboat down daily, though, maybe with with bleach as well as water.  It has held some strange quarry in its belly.

If I eat the catch of the day here, I suppose it’s bound to be strange, just like my life down South is strange.  There is a clock ticking in my stomach.  There is surely a clock ticking somewhere — I thought I heard it just now.

May 17, 2011

Apres Moi le Deluge — why the news coverage of the flooding of Vicksburg is an exaggeration

See that hill that the Yankees are taking? That's where I live -- Vicksburg. Go Yanks!

I don’t mean to demean the troubles of the small number of families in the Vicksburg who have been flooded out of  their homes.  However, the national news coverage of my post-New-York home town of Vicksburg of late has worried a number of people I know.  They imagine me wading through muck trying to salvage my DVD player.    But the reason why Vicksburg was a crucial part of the Civil War was that it was placed on a high bluff ABOVE the Mississippi River.

If I watched Fox News, and I don’t, I might think I was gathering the animals two by two to repopulate the Earth after the water recedes.  CNN has filmed the train depot more than half underwater — and it is indeed more than half underwater right now.  However, what the news doesn’t show you is that the entire town is up a very tall,  steep hill from this place.  The illustration from the Civil War to the left shows the geography of  the town.  Where most of us live is where the flag is planted in the distance.  The casinos are at the riverbank — so is a defunct railway station that the town has been planning to make into a museum.  So are some vacant lots and a very few houses.

But the news media is making it look like the Johnstown Flood.  In fact, it is nothing of the kind.  Things are far worse in Memphis, in Louisiana, and in other places outside of town.  Not only are the Army Corps of Engineers working to keep the water back from the  casinos — the Army Corps of Engineers lives here — the Waterways Center of the Army Corps of Engineers is up here, and these engineers are defending their own houses from the deluge.  They couldn’t be more personally motivated to get it right, and they are truly doing their very best work despite very difficult circumstances.

We in Vicksburg are mostly doing alright.  My husband volunteered to help move the four families at our church that might have their houses flooded, but he has not been called off the bench because they have not been victims of any high waters.

Ironically, parts of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? were filmed in Vicksburg, and that film climaxes with a large flood.  Admittedly, this narrative is not yet ended, but the water is supposed to crest in three days.   There are no rain storms in the forecast.  The media should cover the people who are really suffering.  Most of  them don’t live in this town.

November 10, 2010

Drinking an “Autumn Collins” at Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi

Autumn along the Mississippi River

Every New Yorker knows that there are times to worry, or at least where worry might be a first impulse.  In Mississippi, I am learning that there are times to relax, and autumn is definitely one of them.

As I drive down Interstate 55 toward Memphis, my I-Pod plays me this lyric sung by the Dixie Chicks:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

By the time they hit the three part harmony for “Wide Open Spaces,” I’m singing along with them, and yes, in a state that has only 62 people per square mile, I do indeed have room to make my big mistakes, as the song goes, but I don’t think I’m making any big ones right now.

I hit the cruise control button on my husband’s new car — he has given it to me to drive because he loves me — and I take my foot off the gas.  I take a deep breath.

I see trees everywhere I look.  The trucks on the highway are distant.  I motor through a canyon of gold, brown, touches of red, some splotches of green.  The cows ignore me as I whizz past.  The haystacks, rolled round and bound with wire, stand sentinel in the field but don’t fire.

The Dixie Chicks continue:

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

I don’t have any tests to take, but I am leading a panel discussion at a conference this Saturday morning at the University of West Georgia.  I need to turn in about 50 pages of text in a week or two, and every time I think I’ve finished my research, I find more to read on my subjects.

While this feels a little pressureful, it honestly is a walk in the park compared to other experiences in my life.  It is a cruise toward Graceland and Sun Records compared to a bad day in Brooklyn.  While there are certainly days in Mississippi where everything goes catastrophically wrong for some individuals, usually one at a time, in comparison to a semi-annual disaster that almost every New Yorker experiences — a burglary, a near-rape, a you-just-got-fired-right-before-Christmas, a your-husband-is-sleeping-with-your-friend and she sees no reason to hide this from you — in Mississippi, where there is right and wrong, where the roads are empty, where lines in government offices are short, where if you failed to fill out form 42 that was required, they might actually have a copy on hand that you can fill out right now, don’t worry — a bad day is not often a catastrophic day.

In Mississippi, my colleagues go out for drinks and tacos.  Last night, after a class discussing the implications to Victorian mores of the novel Dracula, instead of fearing rustling in the dark that might be from vampires, I joined a group of them around a long table at Snackbar on North Lamar, and I had an absolutely delicious cocktail they called an “Autumn Collins.”  Actually, I had two of them.  They had some kind of artisanal sweet potato liqueur in them.  I used to take vodka martinis at Dorothy Parker‘s old haunt — the Algonquin lounge — and I miss the dry martinis there, the tuxedoed waitstaff, and the cat named Matilda.  However, I wonder if the Autumn Collins might not become my seasonal drink from now on.

The Dixie Chicks wrap up:

She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

The words are ominous, but the melody of the song, the song of my open road, it is blissful, and I stretch my leg out.  The cruise control works fine.  I am thinking deep thoughts and writing them down.  However, I might just find my way to a good conversation in Georgia, a juke joint, a falling leaf, a sizzling catfish in a pan, a hug, a hymn, a “momma says it’s gonna be alright.”

I’m learning to relax.  I might just set a spell.

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