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

September 5, 2016

Seeing with “Vampire Eyes” in New Orleans at Five A.M.

For her extraordinarily popular book Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice imagines a man in colonial Louisiana just outside New Orleans converting from human being into an elegant vampire.  His converter warns him to go outside as he changes but not to “fall so madly with the night that you lose your ways.”

Of course, the new vampire in the book does lose his way to the beauty of the night.  He says, “When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there….Standing among the cottonwood and oaks, I heard the night as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.”

bloodmoon-JPG

“When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there.” — Anne Rice

I am gradually learning that nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and yet nothing at all is purely fictional.  Writers here, Anne Rice and others like me, don’t need to make anything up, really, so much as press record like the interviewer in Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans provides enough vivacity to transform us all, not necessarily into vampires but certainly into raconteurs. Our old limitations die in the elevated graveyards, but our new eyes as writers in this nearly mythic town — a place of real magical realism — fall so in love with the night that we indeed risk losing our ways.

So it is with me at five a.m. when I walk my dogs around the block.  I choose this time because I leave for work quite early, and my dogs have fewer people to bark at or to try to sniff. That said, I was astonished when first I walked them around the block about a half hour before sunrise.  It wasn’t Lestat who had given me new eyes.  It was New Orleans.

At that hour, even at that hour, it has been well above eighty degrees outside most mornings, and the town glows despite the lights being off.  Even when I walked around the block during a power outage, the town still glowed.  How? The moon hangs low in the sky, a glass of milk seen from above, and the sky is not so black as it is royal blue with a widow’s veil hanging over it.

The cars are distant as my dogs and I circle the block, but the end of night is noisy.  Before the birds are up, a timpany chorus of insects click and chatter in what perhaps Anne Rice meant when she said her newly minted vampire heard a “metallic laughter” in the air.  It is a cocktail party of bugs held before the curtain of a big show, the chatter of socialites in a treble staccato — and it is intoxicating to hear! Occasionally, we hear the lone voice of an insomniac bird, too early even to catch the worm, but more often than not we hear only the arias of the insects in the trees.

We encounter a few mammals other than ourselves, and they, too, take on mythical qualities. Once, I crossed paths with a woman in yoga pants with a blue tooth in her ear, negotiating an international deal with the Pacific Rim in Vietnamese, but I have not seen her since.  I saw an illicit lover dart out of a door once and hide when he realized the dogs and I saw him. Usually, though, the only mammal we encounter is a single neighborhood cat, gray in the way that the French mean when they say, “La nuit, tous les chat sont gris,” and long-haired.  That long hair stands on end as the creature arches as tall as he can as my bigger dog spots him — I am having trouble convincing that dog that we are not on a hunt and that the neighbor’s cat is not our quarry. Most mornings, though, it is just us, no other creature with hair on its head or body. We are not hunting for prey, neither like a dog nor like a vampire.  We are just walking, losing our ways in the lovely late night.

We walk along the still-unrepaired undulations of the sidewalk caused by Katrina.  After a rainy night, we have to avoid deep puddles still caused by the aftermath of that now-old storm that rippled the roads around here as if they were tresses that might frizz in Category-5 humidity.  Our feet get muddy in certain ruts. The dogs sniff the ground and read the route’s olfactory braille with their wet noses. What they read there, I cannot say, but the ineffable language of the smells of this route excites them, sometimes appearing to cause debate between them. It is a lively hunt for the maker of smells, the walk, the quarrry not so much being the steak as much as the sizzle-sound of the bugs and the smoke of the frying meat they find the trace of in our tracks. We are not vampires on the prowl, but some of us smell blood.

When we return home, the night’s magic dissipates.  We enter the house as a few neighbors begin to stir, switch on lights. When I unhook the leashes of my companions, we are all covered in sweat. The night’s passions are sultry.  We catch our breath in the air conditioning. We have had a close encounter — with what? Not Anne Rice’s vampires, perhaps, but with her vampires’ New Orleans nights, heady and astonishingly beautiful.  Over and over again Anne Rice’s interviewed vampire expresses frustration at his inability to explain an experience to the interviewer.  He laments, “How pathetic it is to describe these things that can’t truly be described.” He is right, Rice is right — a night in New Orleans contains a kind of mystery that only beckons one toward meaning, a seduction not quite achieved, a new vision through a glass darkly, and the aporia is a dark river, perhaps the Mississippi at night, perhaps the Styx, that beckons us deeper but offers us no promise we can ever again pop our heads up into a rational sunlight. We are not vampires, but in this, the night of New Orleans is vampiric.

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.

 

 

June 10, 2016

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.

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

April 19, 2016

A Candlelight Vigil for the Slaves at Ole Miss

Governor Phil Bryant, as he resists the inevitable wave of change in his own state by legalizing cake discrimination, defending the inclusion of the stars and bars in the Mississippi flag, and general attempts at revisionism, declared this month Confederate History Month in Mississippi.  The Confederate dead have long be mourned in greater pomp than the dead of any other war in this state, but the story told about the South at reenactments and here, on  the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi, where a costumed annual wreath-laying takes place in the Confederate cemetery behind the old basketball stadium, is generally false.  It’s not that people fought without gallantry in grey uniforms, they did.  It’s not that they were mean to family members or small puppy dogs.  But there still abides a myth that says, 1) The Civil War was not a war fought primarily over slavery (the statements of Confederates as they declared war belie this idea), 2) Those who were slaves were generally happy, and 3) The Yankees ruined a really good thing by ending slavery and thereby effectively ending Plantation culture as it had previously existed down South.  To all this, the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP chants, “Hell you talmbout.”

candlelight vigil 2Though not a particularly politically minded campus, compared to, say, UC Berkeley, Ole Miss has a Black Lives Matter movement, and happily, there are white people on campus who agree that black lives do indeed matter, and all people deserve respect.  Last year, despite Phil Bryant’s advocacy for a Confederate-ish state flag, the student body of Ole Miss overwhelmingly voted to remove the state flag from the campus until such time as the image changes to something less offensive to African-American students, whose families were terrorized under that symbol.  The white students are generally unwilling to be chained to the ugliness of past genocide, generally unwilling to manufacture or perpetuate myth in order to cover up ugliness that they do not claim as their own present-tense sentiments toward people of color.  It’s not a perfect campus — the statue of James Meredith got lynched by one student, who was expelled and charged with vandalism, and his conspiring fraternity was unhoused from the campus by the governing body of that frat’s national Greek organization.  But it is not a campus like the one James Meredith walked onto when first he desegregated this institution with its Grecian columns and shuttered colonnades.  Then, he got shot at and shouted at.  Today, most students just want to get to class before they get marked absent.

candlelight vigil 3People of multiple races participated in a candlelight vigil to remember during this so-called Confederate History month the lives ruined by slavery on this very campus, individuals who built buildings on the campus and were owned by the plantation scions who did things in some instances like rape or put out cigars on the skin of these slaves.  We cannot walk into the Lyceum, the administrative building, without seeing the work of their hands.  They did not come to learn.  They came only to survive, but the students of color who have followed James Meredith here and those of us who are fortunate enough to study with them have a moral obligation to commemorate them.  If we are going to remember the Confederacy, then let us really remember it.  Not just the wasted young lives shot up at Shiloh, hospitalized here, then buried, but those who had no choice in their comings or goings and who suffered under the oppression of the wealthiest families of the Confederacy, whose sons attended this school with an entourage of slaves. Let us remember how we who are free and of multiple classes and genders, the rich white boys who came here would have scoffed at all of us who aspire to live a life of the mind alien to their own idea of world order.  Let us remember, really remember all of it.

candlelight vigil 1We gathered, held candles in plastic cups, and sang spirituals sung by slaves in order to remain hopeful of freedom in this life of the next, recited their names, where we even have their names.  Mostly we do not have their names, not even their names.

Here, though, I write the names of the ones who ended up in court records, bequests, arrests, seizures — recorded as livestock might have been recorded, not the way citizens were ever discussed, but this is all we have to witness them — these kinds of records, no parentage, no address, no testimony of likes or dislikes, no images, no words that quote them at all — just these names or fragments of names.  Here they are:

Jane

Alford

Collins

E.M. Farill

Lou Farill

Ann Thompson

Ema Jones

Frank Watson

Tom Brown

Seth Brown

Clarecy Brown

Phillip Brown

Frank O’Brian

Tom Goodey

Jeff Profit

John Thompson

James Kerr

Peter Kenshaw

Callie Pillar

A. Nelson

Mary Nelson

S. Williams

And the others, the many whose names are lost to history, Confederate or Union.

Say their names and remember.  Don’t lay a wreath for them wearing a hoop skirt.  Rather, come as you are, free as you are. Sing about freedom.  Carry a light. Bless them.

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.

 

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.

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.

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