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.

 

 

December 7, 2014

Becoming a Southern Writer

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “On ne nait pas femme; on le devient.” — one is not born a woman; one becomes one.  What DeBeauvoir thinks is true for women is not what Southerners generally think about Southerness.  One is born a Southerner.  “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” some used to say.  I wasn’t even born in South Brooklyn — so how can I become Southern, much less that paragon of the intellectual Southerner, post-Jefferson — a Southern writer?

This blog surely began about my total and devastating culture shock moving South.  I was already a writer, already publishing a great deal about New York and particularly about the immigrant experience.  I wrote a chapbook of poetry that was about 9/11 and its aftermath, its roots in a cultural tension between Islam and Western values, Counterterrorist Poems, which received some notoriety.  I was a New York writer.white trash pantheon cover2

I decided that the beauty of being a writer is that one has the right, even the duty, to make stuff up.  I am not really a journalist.  I have written non-fiction.  This is creative non-fiction.  But that trend, so prevalent these days, to believe that the modern (or post-modern) writer in America is supposed to be confessing some memoir of his or her experience, I buck that.  Like a New Yorker, I said, “Buck the buck out of you, you bucking buck,” or something like that.  I decided if Mark Twain could move to Connecticut and be a Southern Writer, I could, despite being quite the Yankee, move South and write what I observed and heard and be some kind of a Southern writer.  I have no desire to pretend to be more Southern than I am, but I am interested in all kinds of people.  I do indeed pretend that I can observe people and things in a Southern landscape and respond artistically to them.  Try and stop me if you can.  If I am breathing, I am writing about the South as long as I spend time there.

So what did I do? I moved South as planned when my Southern husband proposed to me, and I listened.  I listened to everyone and everything, observed (as evidenced in earlier posts of this blog) the differences between the way Southerners do things and the way I was used to doing things.

I wrote a bunch of poems inspired in part by the simple fact that Southern towns are so often named with classical Greek names — part New Testament, part ancient democracy.  In the South, one finds Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Troy,Thebes, Sparta, and so many other places that testify aspirationally to either a time of early church revelation or noble Hellenic origins of philosophy and golden age.

But if one looks at the towns with these names, there is more Waffle House than Pauline Epistle, more Piggly Wiggly than Socrates under a tree with his young minions dropping knowledge.

Then, there is the Lost Cause Mythology of the South, the belief that (white) Southerners belong to a noble confederacy that lost its way only when Sherman burned Atlanta, that they were sucked into a Yankee capitalist Babylon only after they surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, leaving behind a halcyon nobility for the grasping, prosaic greed of an industrial economy.  In truth, the South did only begin to seriously industrialize after the war, but as for grasping greed, it is hard to imagine anything more greedy than the captivity and forced labor of many people for the benefit of a very few.  The poor white farmer in the South was surely trampled underfoot during the Civil War, made into cannon fodder for the interests of slave-holding millionaires, but halcyon?  Nobility?  No — it was hard to live in the South for the majority of its residents before the Civil War, both white and black, and it was hard afterwards.  The cause that was lost was neither noble nor mythic.

And lastly, there was all that ancient literature from the older places named Athens and Corinth that I taught my students.  I kept telling them, “The Greek Gods don’t behave like law-giving paragons of virtue.  They are like Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power.”

After explaining this enough, a lightbulb went on above my head — what if the Greek gods were ACTUALLY Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power?  What if this reported nobility evoked by both lost cause mythos and Grecian names were a way to unlock the South?

The light bulb above my head attracted bugs.  I was in the South on a sultry night, after all, I swatted them away and started writing.

I started a series of poems, all dramatic monologues, writing back to classical literature.  My Dionysus was a moonshiner.  My Helen of Troy was a beauty contest winner who ran off with the wrong guy.  My Artemis liked to hunt with Annie Oakley’s gun at night.  The Southern pictures I painted were both based on composite observations, careful, careful listening to Southern voices, and a writing back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were at once noble and perverse, simultaneously dignified and slatternly.  I called the collection The White Trash Pantheon.

When I read them aloud for the first time for a Southern audience, as so many of them had been published by Southern literary journals, I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be tarred and feathered.  The Southerners who heard them recognized these people and laughed with me.  It turns out that in the South, “White Trash” is a cultural category that everyone believes exists, and nobody believes they belong to, whether others think they are trashy or not.  In declaring my pantheon of contemporary classical figures white trash, I insulted nobody personally.

A Southern Press, Vox Press, is publishing this collection next year.  At this year’s Southern Writers Southern Writing conference in Oxford Mississippi, I won a prize for selections from the collection, a prize given for not only the best writing, but also for the writing that is judged to be the most Southern.  I have become a Southern writer.

Mark Twain, I may not have worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi.  I may not have been born in Hannibal (another Southern town name with classical world aspirations), but if Tom Sawyer can fake his own death and resurrect, if he can get the whole neighborhood of boys to participate in his games, I feel I have learned from you the recipe for being a Southern writer, anyway.  i have listened carefully.  I have responded to a cultural need to feel attached to legend.  I have, like someone wading out into a river in a white choir robe, allowed myself to be ceremonially buried and resurrected, not in this instance as a new creature in Christ Jesus, which bless the Lord, I already am, but as a new creature in Huckleberry O’Hara, in Rhett Singer, in Blanche Christmas, a newly baptized Southern writer, a witness to things below the Mason-Dixon line, not uncritical — for who among the great Southern writers offers no criticism — but ever lyrical, ever hoping that the great ancients actually start to inform vernacular life, ever watching for the rapture, ever believing, not that South will rise again but that it may actually get up and stretch a bit, walk around and look out in all directions for the very first time, a distinct cultural entity, self-aware and genuinely penitent, and love its neighbor as itself the way I have grown to love the South as my neighbor.

August 13, 2010

Leaping into Faulkner’s Lap

the legend at work

Here’s a bit of practical advice:  Don’t enter the mausoleum, however ornate and lovely it looks on the outside, until you’re good and dead.

When I was first learning to be a writer, Allen Gurganus warned me not to be overawed by “literature.”  If writers spend too much time being intimidated by literary greatness, he said, we would  never achieve greatness of our own.  Our job was to go to the keyboard every day and create something new, polish it, make it good on its  own terms , but we were never to assume the pressure of immortality mid-opus.  Our immortality as writers was only our problem in as much as we were to slug it out  every day.

However much I try to obey this commandment, it is tempting in a place like where I am now — Oxford, Mississippi — to be seduced by the quest for immortality.  Oxford is one of the loveliest Southern towns — a venerable square, many historic churches, quaint gift shops, good restaurants — and many, many shrines to  the great William Faulkner, who lived here for most of his life and set many of his works in this area.

There is a statue of William Faulkner near city hall and the epicenter of culture here — Square Books, a fantastic independent bookseller with a large Faulkner section and tote bags and coffee mugs with Faulkner quotes on them.

The giant and lovely University of Mississippi is possibly more focused on football than Faulkner (especially in the administration, which surely  operates with another “F-word” in mind — “fundraising.”), but in the department in which I am working and getting my PhD, the English department, Faulkner is the raison d’etre. Many professors from Europe with an inordinate love of Faulkner congregate here to be experts in him and in his dense prose.

It is hard not to think of him constantly.  The college library has a  large-letter quote from him on the wall.  Faulkner is dead, but his ghost walks the halls.  People in the English department have  a ritual of drinking at Faulkner’s grave.  I have yet to do this, but as  I  type this, I am looking at a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon already set apart for this inevitable occasion.

However, my writing is not Faulknerian.  I am not destined to be Faulkner, but myself.  No one has built me  a statue.  No one  drinks at my grave. This feels like failure around here.

Enter my step-daughter, Charlotte, an irrepressible fifteen year-old  with that delicious freshness that all young people have.  Tennessee Williams remarked once that young  people love as if they had invented love.  A truer observation would be that young people invent love  and every other human experience with every generation.  Here is a photo of Charlotte taken at a store where they sell bins:

my wonderful, bright, funny step-daughter

Charlotte has sometimes gotten into trouble with older people who feel she has no respect for boundaries and their own sacred persons.  She is not  overawed by any adult — neither teacher, nor parent, nor store manager holds any particular fear for  her.  Sometimes, this gets her sent to the principle’s office or grounded.

To Charlotte, William Faulkner is just some  guy.

When she saw the statue of Faulkner, cast in bronze seated on a bench,  holding his pipe and wearing his fedora, she leapt onto the statue’s lap and put her arms around it.

I have not put up a photo of this event on this blog because I think a person in Oxford might get a ticket for Faulkner lap-leaping.  I’m not sure.

Oh — what the heck — here she is!

a dynamic relationship with literature --no pretenses

I say Charlotte has it right.  Faulkner is just some guy.  So is Shakespeare.  so is her dad.

Veneration is fine for the dead, but for the living, it’s premature.  Literature is just some guys and gals writing some stuff and editing it so it gets really good.

I  took Charlotte around campus and helped her to imagine a more serious future — SATs, college interviews, the five-paragraph essay.  I bought her literature her  woefully inadequate high  school English and History departments don’t bother teaching.  I  showed her some foreign movies to help her imagine a world bigger than her small town shows her.

She is currently reading A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and now loves the movie Amelie.  The universe is expanding, and there are serious parts of it, but there is no reason not to be so scared of  any of it that we miss the fun of it.  This is, in a nutshell, Charlotte’s experience right  now.

Leaping into Faulkner’s lap is a much better impulse, I find, than making him into the patron saint of Southern writers.  If he  is all that good (and he is), the proper impulse is to incorporate him currently into the life of our minds, to approach him with whimsy as well  as  analysis, to make him useful to us, not a heavy bronze backpack for us to climb with uphill.

Writing is the problem of people living today.  Literature is  the problem of  the next generation after my death.  I’m a writer.  I just work here.

One day, when she is  older,  Charlotte will leap less onto the laps of legends.  That will be a sad day for literature.

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