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

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

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June 4, 2010

Sex and the City in the Country

Yes, that movie, the second one, bombed.  Yes, the characters, so compelling in the series, became sad caricatures instead of  women who had learned something valuable from the variety of hard knocks they had had over the years.

So what?  Women where I come from, New York City, still identify with them, perhaps more than we should.

The girls with whom the country girls don't identify

When I worked in publishing years ago, there was an editorial assistant there who squealed, after I delivered some diatribe in New York irony regarding cocktails, my shoes, and women’s priorities in New York, “Omigod!  You are so Carrie Bradshaw!”

I did not understand.  Who was Carrie Bradshaw?

She made me, absolutely  forced me, to watch season one of  the show, which I had never watched — I wasn’t slutty, and why would I want to watch a show called Sex and the City?  I wasn’t looking for sex in the city — I was married, so I wasn’t stalking men, and what could possibly make me identify with women in such a show?

I sat and watched episode one.  I was sufficiently entertained to watch episode two.  In the middle of episode two, I jumped off the couch and screamed.

Someone had been spying on me.  I really was Carrie Bradshaw, I mean I was not just like her, I WAS her, at least for a few moments on the screen.

Carrie is talking to Charlotte in that episode, and Charlotte says these words:

“Anal sex?  That can’t be!  I went to Smith College!”

A year earlier, I had had tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with a girlfriend, and that girl, who really WAS Charlotte for fifteen seconds of episode two, had uttered those words precisely to me.  She had said them loudly enough to be overheard by somebody else.  Writers in New York keep notebooks to jot down what others say to use  such phrases later in other creations.  It most definitely was overheard by one of  those notebook-toting writers.

What’s more, I had a  lot of clothes, too many for my apartment closet.  I had shoes, and in that moment, before 9/11, at the tail end of the dot com bubble, I kept buying them, nice ones.  I had cocktails with girlfriends regularly and networked even more regularly in the art world over cocktails.  I had a friend who was an astonishing nymphomaniac, another friend who was pampered and aristocratic, a number of friends with powerful careers that made them fearful  and cynical — in short, I was, whether I liked it or not, one of the city’s many  Carrie Bradshaws.

My friends and I never discussed the series together.  We apparently all got privately hooked, however, because when the first movie came out, we went to see it together, along with the crowds and crowds of us who had gotten privately hooked.  The theater rang with that breathless recognition, when one’s life was splayed out on the wide screen.  We knew these girls.  We were, all of  us, these girls, whether  we liked it or not.

And it’s not just my generation in New York that has experienced this phenomenon — the one that follows us is more convinced that these women are who they should become, not just who they are but who they are truly meant to be.  Note  the continued paucity of real female role models, even today, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice notwithstanding.  I was interviewing interns a year ago, and a young woman told  me it was her goal to become Samantha Jones.

She qualified it when my eyebrows rose: “Not that I want to sleep with so many guys, just that I want to own my own PR firm and be in charge of my life.”

Oh.  They are seeing other things about the forty-year-old, fifty-year-old girls than the girls, that is, we who are them despite ourselves, than we generally see, like Samantha’s emotional immaturity and self-centered outlook.  They see independence and strength.  Are we independent and strong?

Other young women in the city love every episode, see it as an Emily Post for a complex world of male-female relationships which is off-road at best and a survivalist nightmare at worst. 

I’m sorry, younger women. To the extent that I am Carrie Bradshaw, I apologize.  We should have been stronger, more moral, more nurturing of  you.  The shoes weren’t as important as your school books.  Big is nobody’s perfect match, and neither is any other man who has that many issues  regarding commitment.  We didn’t teach you  this.  I, as a spokesperson for the generation of Carrie Bradshaws that somehow emerged on the island of Manhattan, I apologize to you.  I wish we had given you something more admirable to admire.  If you think we have it figured out, we  don’t.  If we look confident, we’re not.  We’re boxing shadows everywhere, and while we look marvelous, much better than our own mothers at this age, and we have had many brilliant experiences, do not assume for a minute we know what we are  doing.  We are piloting this plane without training.  It may crash into those looming towers any second.  We have not meant to be terrorists in your lives.  I fear we may be nonetheless.  Please forgive  us.

Because I am to some extent Carrie Bradshaw, I went to see the movie number two, right here in Vicksburg.  The theater, this on the weekend it opened, was entirely empty when  I arrived a few minutes  before show time.  I wandered  down the aisle toward the front.  I was astonished by the cool emptiness.  I parked myself in the sixth row, where I like to sit, where the screen overwhelms one, and I heard a few others behind me shuffle quietly in over the next few minutes.  I nibbled popcorn and could hear myself  chewing.  I heard neither  gasps nor  laughter of recognition.  I know the second movie wasn’t very good.  However, the girls in New York know they are still Carrie Bradshaw, even on a bad trip to Abu Dhabi.

On September 11th, I escorted that editorial assistant down the fire stairs of the building where we worked and had watched in horror as the largest buildings in New York melted down like  fast-burning cigarettes.  I miraculously got a cell phone signal to call her near-hysterical mother,  who  had been sure that her taking a job in Manhattan was a death sentence before the attack.  We walked by the tents in Bryant Park.  They  had canceled fashion  week.  Eventually, I got her to a subway, finally working, and she took the long trip home to the end of the line.

The next day, I lost my job.

This week, after the weekend debut, I got a text message from one of my cocktail-mixing Manhattanite friends.  She wrote: “Am about to see Sex and the City.  Wish you were here.”

I make no more sense  in Mississippi on some days than Samantha  did in Abu Dhabi.  I am alien to this  landscape.  Slowly, I am  making a few friends.  But who am I kidding?  I don’t have designer shoe money as I get my PhD.  I have a home where it is sometimes lovely, but then the air conditioner breaks, my husband breaks the window and thinks that  duct tape  is a perfectly good solution, the dog poops in every room, my hair frizzes past the point of recognition.

Who am I kidding?  I am alien.  Yet, I belong here.  A PhD will be valuable in my career.  Despite the duct tape and the pretzels he  left all over  the carpet last night, I love my husband.  Somehow, this has got to be my  home.

After September 11th, New Yorkers cleaned up and got on with work.  I got a new job, finished my Master’s Degree.  A wonderful cop told Osama Bin Laden at Madison Square Garden, after losing hundreds of colleagues and no sleep, that he could kiss his royal Irish ass.

My ass is Irish.  I’m not sure who to tell to kiss it.  However, I think it is time for me to shout such a thing.  Who is the enemy here?  Where are my towers?  Where are my shoes?

Mississippi?  That can’t be!  I went to Sarah Lawrence College.

Tomorrow I’ll be glad of the beauty that surrounds me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad for  the time I have to write.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled again at my big kitchen where I bake and cook whatever pleases me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad at the unpretentious way things are done around here.  Tomorrow, I will be thrilled again that this is a place where my  Christian worldview is welcome.

Today, I miss Samantha. and Charlotte. and Miranda.  They are fictional characters, and I am not in fact Carrie Bradshaw, and yet, I met them everywhere.  I mourn for us, we fictional characters, become caricatures of our  former selves.

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