by Angeliska on September 4, 2015
As I was struggling to write my own recent piece commemorating the decade since Katrina hit, I found myself thinking about my friend Raven, a lady who has been in my life since we were both wee rag-tag teenage snippets, witchy little waifs haunting the sidewalks and botanical gardens of our hometown, here in Austin. We have both grown up into women since then, and been through all our up ands downs and backwards and forwards, and find ourselves now here once more: contemplating those journeys and all we have learned in walking our roads. Raven and Jayme (another dear old friend of mine) got married in City Park a few months before the storm, at the base of an enormous and ancient tree. We, her sisters and bridesmaids, are all gathered around the bride and groom. If you made the picture below black and white, it could easily be 1920.
They stayed in New Orleans through the deluge, and after, as worse (man-made) disasters struck down, and held on – as best they could, to the city, to what they had left, and to each other. They went back and visited their wedding tree, only to find that it had been destroyed in the hurricane. This is the second image: two tough survivors of a strange war – they could have come out right out of the Great Depression. The photographs of them before and after spoke to me so deeply. I have held them close, and ruminated on the power and meaning in these images for the past ten years. In the process of delving into my own feelings about impermanence, relationships, love and survival, I turned to these images again, and decided to ask Raven if she wanted to tell her own story about them, and about her experience. Her words, and those photographs are here:
Katrina, Ten Years Later – by Raven Hinojosa
Katrina came ashore a few months after my wedding. That summer so far had been a sink-hole of stupefied dread and fretful busy-making, as only New Orleans summers can be. In my case, the usual torpor of heat and humidity was aggravated by a sense of unarticulated isolation. I was even then coming into the need to come out of the closet to myself – and that made me half of a mismatched whole, only made worse by how much I loved my husband.
After Katrina – the storm, the shrimp that swam down St. Claude and over my feet as they rested on my porch, the carnival of looting that thinned into a horrifying march of beaten survivors who trudged towards the Superdome three days later – after all that, my husband and I bonded through the adventure of the aftermath. We were good at transitions, good at crisis. We left, came back, and resumed life newly defined by the long black line. We ate baloney sandwiches out of the back of the red-cross truck, wiped bleach over our surviving possessions, and traded stories by candlelight at Sugar Park with others from the neighborhood whom made it, or made it back early. Meanwhile, National Guard rattled in and out in the shadows, strangers wearing machine gun sashes. Squatting like troglodytes in the intermittent dark, we told our storm stories over and over. We were weaving a personal and collective narrative where we could hang our shattered faith. We eyed the armored soldiers, kids though they were, with resentful suspicion. Where were they when we were trapped and drowning? How did we, New Orleanians, become so vulnerable while oil companies and the politicians they own remain so untouchable? What “Heck of a job?!”
Five years later and shortly after I left my marriage, BP vomited 210 million gallons of oil into the gulf, twisting that same knife a full rotation deeper. By that time I had disentangled myself somewhat from the city. I have the habit of thinking of her as a lady, so you’ll understand when I say that New Orleans and I both acknowledged that even if I left, my heart would always belong to her. Now I live in Oakland, a place that doesn’t stir any strong feeling in me whatsoever. Things work here. It’s remarkably supportive of my goals. They collect compost for Christ’s sake. But I don’t think I’ll ever be in love with this place, and I’m ok with that for now.
That said, I am finding love here in abundance. I have little children in my life. I have my re-entrenched love for the stage, and I’ve recently met someone that feels like another exclamation-point full-stop next-chapter love. Maybe it’s this Venus retrograde summer of love’s-reckoning or maybe it’s the familiarity of new love’s frights and pleasures, but I’ve been lingering long and lovingly on relationships of the past. Abandoned memories surface. Pop-up panoramas bring new understanding. What stands out is the way that love abides after cycles of affection and disaffection complete themselves. That love is something that is carried for a lifetime, and even when it is heavy, it makes us stronger.
After the storm, when my Mamaw first visited the pile of rubble that was once her home in Biloxi, she didn’t experience her grief in that moment. Rather, she told me, she stood in awe at the wonderful power of nature to create and destroy. No one who lived through Katrina will tell you that Katrina destroyed their lives. It was people who betrayed us. It was power over compassion. It was the single most indisputable example in recent history that to those who hold the reins, black lives don’t matter. We live under an oligarchy, in a community deeply corroded by racism, and nowhere is that more apparent than New Orleans, before, during, and after the storm. I used to choose New Orleans because I felt closer to this reality there than anywhere else. Along the way, through the accumulation of broken marriages and neglected levees, my relationship with New Orleans shifted fundamentally. I won’t be running back into her arms any time soon, though sometimes I miss her terribly. I will always love that city with every chamber of my heart. On this ten year anniversary, that love is very heavy, and I am stronger for it.
– Raven Hinojosa
Photographs by Jayme Kalal
by Angeliska on August 29, 2015
I started writing this three years ago, but I was so broken towards the end of summer in 2012 that the things I so desperately wanted to express wouldn’t come together. My whole life was falling apart, again. I was returning to an empty shell of house, after my relationship imploded. I thought it might help to try and write about everything that had lead me to this place, but it was too much to process, to hard to understand at the time. I sat alone on the cracked asphalt, a handful of disparate fragments of thoughts and words slipping through my fingers like mercury. Those mirrored globules have continued to roll around in a dusty drawer at the back of my mind, making a lot of noise. I have taken them out and looked and them again and again over the past few years, but never have been able to say the magic words that would help them coagulate into what I really wanted to express. It’s like a spell, a secret incantation – writing. Trying to dredge up the memory and knowledge and understanding from the seaweedy shipwreck groaning in the murky water of your own heart. Those silvery eels slip in and out through the wreckage: elusive, full of stories, truths, wisdom. I’m going to try to catch them here, and let them speak.
The 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this year is attracting all the expected media hullabaloo, of course. It’s a marker that some people want to examine, and some do not. I understand that. I need to, though – because I haven’t been able to write about it for so long, and in that time, I’ve come to understand more deeply all the ways that this event completely altered the course of my life, my entire reality. The effects of it altered me profoundly: body, mind and soul. A decade feels very heavy. It’s hard, to really look clearly at who I was, where I was, back in 2005. 26 years old, shell-shocked, about to begin my Saturn Return. I didn’t know myself. I was completely lost. It’s a lot to reckon with. Circles and loops, always returning to the place that my heart never left, this day when everything changed, forever.
The storm stole so much from us when she tore through the Gulf of Mexico, and crawled onto the land we called home. She stole lives, she stole homes, whole neighborhoods, communities, families, pets, lovers and friends. She stole a certain innocence, a trust that can never be regained. We say Katrina, a woman’s name. They call ships and cities and storms all: she. We have this tendency to anthropomorphize both the city and her destructor into larger than life females, brutally cat-fighting to the death. We call the monster she: storm goddess, mother nature’s wrath, Yemaya and Oya wrestling, unleashing the fury of the earth and ocean scorned by human hubris. But it was man’s neglect, greed, and uncaring that made the disaster so unbelievably devastating. The storm was bad, very bad. What happened after could have been avoided, could have been so different. Before August of 2005, I still had some reason to believe that the center could, and would hold. When things fell apart, I started to see, and could never un-see that harsh truth. The cracks had been there, for a long time – but I wanted so much to believe. I wanted to believe that the government truly cared for its people, its citizens – and would do whatever it took to protect them if disaster threatened their lives, their homes. I wanted to believe that houses were sturdy things, that wood and walls and windows could be enough to provide shelter from the storm. It was only after I saw these things dismantled, only after the chaos and confusion had settled, that I realized these structures were flimsy protection from any real threat, from nature, from chaos.
This was the hardest lesson, for me. That everything I believed in, trusted, depended on – could fall apart so horribly. Living with that, sitting with that knowledge: the truth of impermanence, the myth of security, has been at the root of my story for the past ten years.
This is the beloved taxidermied peacock that I lost in the storm. Reverse Phoenix. It lay sodden in the flotsam and debris of my bombed-out parlor, and I left it for dead – deemed it too wet and moldy to try and salvage. Someone else did, though. A dead thing, once revived, and revived again. I had given it up for good, and then came back to me, unexpectedly. I tried to make a new place for it in the home I’m creating, but it really is disintegrating now, at a rapid pace. A thick dust drifts from it, silting everything in its vicinity. The once proud plumage has lost its iridescent sheen, and the long tail-feathers fall to the floor in chunks. It might be time for this drowned phoenix to be laid to rest. Go home to the ground. Bury the bird and plant a tree. A creature of the air, conceived in fire, drowned in the water, consigned to the earth.
The first Mardi Gras after the storm, we came back – to dance and revel and reconnect in the streets we loved. I dressed as a phoenix in crimson and copper, rising from the ashes. It was a perfect day, and I saw so much joy on the faces of the friends I loved, faces I hadn’t seen since before the hurricane. It was a reunion, a homecoming. We ignored the judgments of the foolish pundits on the news who said that there should be no Mardi Gras that year. That to sing and dance and laugh in sequins and masks would be frivolous, disrespectful. How dare we be anything but beaten down? If New Orleans taught me anything (and she has taught me lots), it’s that in the face of death we must sing and dance. It’s all we have. Everything can be lost – it will all go away. What endures is love. The hokey-pokey is, in fact, what it’s all about.
For those who left the city, and even for many of those who stayed, the challenge has been to keep dancing – to keep that joy in our hearts, despite all the fear, all the sadness. The body count on the statistics for how many people died in the storm does not count the suicides, the people who could not take it anymore, and saw no way out. It doesn’t count the people who drank themselves to death, or overdosed, in desperation and despair. It does not count the people who were murdered by other people who were also traumatized, lost, had nothing else to lose of themselves. Hurt people hurt people. The struggle to survive, to endure, has gone on – these past ten years. The phoenix didn’t really rise from the ashes. There was no fiery triumphant burst, a wild and bright bird taking to the sky, rampant against dark clouds. No. The phoenix drowned in the dirty water. It had to go all the way down to the bottom and find what was lost there, before it could rise back up into the air. Survival sometimes means that we surrender, that we give ourselves over to forces larger and more ancient than we are. There is wisdom in the water of the heart, in the tears that flow down our faces, in facing the pain and the overwhelming tides of emotion that threatens to rise up and subsume us. The tidal waves and floodwaters of dark feeling: terror, loss, confusion. The dark water won’t begin to recede until we are willing to dive into its depths. We learned to swim by drowning.
“If you set out in this world,
better be born seven times.
Once, in a house on fire,
once, in a freezing flood,
once, in a wild madhouse,
once, in a field of ripe wheat,
once, in an empty cloister,
and once among pigs in sty.
Six babes crying, not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.
When you must fight to survive,
let your enemy see seven.
One, away from work on Sunday,
one, starting his work on Monday,
one, who teaches without payment,
one, who learned to swim by drowning,
one, who is the seed of a forest,
and one, whom wild forefathers protect,
but all their tricks are not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.”
I look back now at a lot of the decisions I made after the hurricane about my life. 2005 had already been a very rough year for me, even before Katrina. There was a lot of death, a lot of heartbreak. I was feeling at a dead-end in New Orleans, and even though I had a great job, a sweet boyfriend, and a beautiful place to live, I felt like something was missing. I was stagnating, and still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had no real prospects, no projects, and everyone around me seemed to be intent on unwittingly recreating drunken scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire. There was a lot of drama, sordid love affairs gone wrong, and way too much yelling. A month before Katrina, a minor hurricane named Cindy hit the city with 70mph winds and the worst blackout since Betsy, 40 years before. I wrote about that experience back in 2010, if you want to read the full account – but that storm brought an awakening for me. Sitting on my balcony in the morning amid the broken glass and oak branches, with the radiant dawn breaking over a miraculously calm city, I knew that it was time to go, time to leave the beloved city I had called home since 1999. I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to. Being afraid in a city constantly on the verge of natural disaster had taken a toll on me. That constant looking over your shoulder, the way you learn to do after many years there – ready for the next threat. Every hurricane season brought that inevitable question: to evacuate or not? Which option would be worse? It was always a crap-shoot, either way, and that roll of the dice brought stress and worry no matter how things landed. It was time to go, and I knew it. I wrote a letter to my folks saying that I was thinking I’d like to move back to Texas and go to school – maybe after one more Mardi Gras. Who knows if I actually would’ve done it, had Katrina not made my decision for me. I had moved to New Orleans a couple years after high school, thinking I might try and go to Tulane there – but I had no money, and no real idea of what to study. There was an attractive linguistics program in Austin at UT where I thought I might like to delve into Slavic Languages and study Romani culture in the amazing program there. I was desperate for something, anything that might lift me out of the doldrums where I’d gotten stuck. I had left Austin at the beginning of its boom, because my beloved hometown was beginning to change at a rapid pace. I wanted to live somewhere where things stayed the same, for a long time – where buildings weren’t torn down just because they were old and in disrepair. It took me seven years to realize that so much of the preservation in New Orleans had occurred because there was simply no money to build anything newer, shinier, uglier. Things stayed the same, sometimes in a beautiful way. Traditions went on, family names carried forward, buildings built before the turn of the century continued to endure. Until Katrina. She took a fat fist and slammed it into the belly of the city – sending all those pieces flying. Nothing was ever going to be the same again.
I see now clearly, looking back at the story of my life, how dearly I clung to any kind of stability. I’ve never done all that well with change, though I learned to become “adaptable”. The thing was, I never really had much of choice. My childhood was a train-wreck of illness, death, and sudden moves. After the storm, I was set adrift in the deluge, clutching at the shattered shards of anything that might keep me afloat. I needed a life-raft, a piece of driftwood, someone to hold in the long dark night, and a home. I was so blindly hungry for safety, for security, I didn’t much question where I found it, or how much pressure I put on it to keep me above water. Two months after the storm I fell head over heels with someone who seemed to me to be the most solid, dependable, trust-worthy person I could ever wish for. To me, for a very long time, he was all of those things. But we see what we want to see. The irony is, looking back – I think he fell for me because he saw someone strong, an indomitable woman, a tough survivor. And I was that, sometimes. But even I couldn’t recognize how deeply broken I was at the time, how much help I needed. I wasn’t getting it. I didn’t go to therapy. I went and got acupuncture at the Academy of Oriental Medicine from a wonderful master who treated me (and anyone from New Orleans suffering from PTSD) for free. He taught me Qi Gong and advised me not to get another job right away, or quit smoking (I did both) and to try and laugh, to watch lots of funny movies (his recommendation: Steve Martin, The Jerk). Instead, I watched Sophie’s Choice. I cried a lot.
Helen Keller wrote that “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” This woman, who could neither see nor hear, understood something that the rest of us who happen to be blessed with functional senses rarely do. That safety is an illusion. We are all so eager to latch on to some kind of structure, something to depend on. I was intent on finding something that I could trust to be there, trust to exist. I thought I had found it.
After enough terrible experiences as a renter with no rights in New Orleans, (that culminated in being completely S.O.L. after the storm ripped my roof off), it occurred to me that buying a house was one of the only ways to ensure that I could never again be evicted by shady landlords who wanted to jack up the rent, or have to dwell in a state of dangerous disrepair, all the while paying somebody else’s mortgage. I won’t go into all the details that accompany the saga of buying a house, or the various vagaries of homeownership here, but let’s just say that I have learned a lot of things about what a house is really made of in the last ten years, and what it really takes to make a place a home. I don’t think I really understood what a house was before I saw mine taken apart, deconstructed by water, wind, and mold. All the houses I grew up in were for the most part, concrete slab pre-fab shit-shacks, though I doubt I really registered it at the time. I’ve always been attracted to old houses, to their steadiness, holding up through the decades, despite the inexorable march of time. I fall in love with Victorian houses, ones with long tall windows, with attics and gingerbread and widow’s walks. Shabby mansions with creaking cupolas, and storybook bungalows with stained glass and cedar shingles. I liked the idea of old houses, with their history embedded deep into their walls and floors. I lived in places that were falling apart, with no air-conditioning and leaks in the ceiling, but they had crystal chandeliers and marble fireplaces. They had a sense of grandeur. The first week I spent as a resident of New Orleans, barely 20 years old, staying in an old brick walled building that overlooked the French Market. It was a picturesque view, but you couldn’t see it from up on the top floor in the windowless loft of my new housemate, eccentric artist of some kind who had generously shared his last half-joint of skanky skunkweed with me. I remember that feeling of being suddenly uncomfortably high with a total stranger, one who was describing the history that had taken place just beyond his bedroom walls: shiploads of slaves being unloaded on the docks. He described to me the auctions had been held there, and it was as if I could hear the voices calling, crying, buying. I realized suddenly that I had just moved to a place where I was going to be constantly surrounded by reminders of the painful past, and the ghosts of those people who were kidnapped from their homeland and sold like animals, worse than animals. I had never been surrounded by that energy so viscerally before. Everything was so old, so saturated with the shades of a people heinously wronged. My eyes goggled, trying to focus in on the glowing tip of the roach my housemate was waving around trying to make a point. He handed it off to me, and scratched a finger along the brickwork behind my head: opening up his palm to show me a pile of dust, “Horsehair and mud. Human hair, dirt and moss. Whatever came to hand – that’s what this whole city is held together with, darlin’. This is the mortar that holds the bricks of all these old buildings together.” On so many different levels, my mind was blown. I had never really thought about any of this before. What a place is made of. The mud and blood soaked into all the cracks, the history in everything you can touch and so much you can’t.
What is a house made of? Plaster and wood, brick and nails, wires and pipes and lots and lots of insulation. What holds it together, keeps it standing upright, keeps it intact? A floor and walls and a ceiling. A roof. A house is what keeps you safe from the elements, from danger. It keeps the rain out and the warmth in. Until it doesn’t anymore. Seeing my house turned inside out, blackened fiberglass spilling from the where the plaster had slid of in sheets, like those ash snakes you get from the fireworks stand. You expect a house to withstand, to endure. At least I did, once. What is a relationship made of? It’s made of you and me and love and trust, fire and time, touch and tears and so many stories. I wanted to take an idea like home at face value. I took the idea of love for granted. Of course this house will keep us safe forever. It will always be here, until long after we are gone – and we will always be together. A person can be a home. The heart can be a house. I love you and you love me and that should be enough. Isn’t it? I didn’t question these things before. It didn’t occur to me to look deeper, to take more responsibility. Until I had to. I really thought that buying a house and getting married was going to save me, anchor and root me down to earth so I didn’t float away. I thought that this house and this man would keep me from drowning, keep me safe and sane. I jumped aboard that raft and clung on for dear life. I needed so much, and I had so little. I see now that there was no way for even the strongest, steadiest partner to be the savior, the knight in shining armor who would rescue me. The lost child in me wanted to be taken care of, protected. I know now that it wasn’t fair or realistic for me to expect that from anyone but myself. The pressure was too much, and eventually, cracks began to form. I put on a good face for everyone, including myself – but it’s only now that I can look back and see how truly lost I was then. There’s a lot of that period of my life that I have no memory of. I was so checked out when we bought the house that I couldn’t see what an enormous project we had taken on. It was insane, and I was completely naive about what it would take to make the huge abandoned crack-house we had just purchased into a proper home. It had walls, and ceilings and a roof – so, I thought that that was enough. I imagined that all it would take would be few coats of paint, some plaster in patches, and we’d be ready to decorate in no time. Or, you could just take a sledgehammer to those old walls, deconstruct the thing into an empty shell – and walk away, leaving it half finished, less than. Nearly ten years later, I’m still living in a half-gutted shell, alone. What will it take to make it whole? I’m learning, piece by piece. Nail by nail. Ten years later, and I’m still rebuilding. It’s done a number on me – not having the security of a finished home for so long. Trying to heal in a place where the vines grow inside in summer and the cold wind blows through the cracks in winter. Towards the end of our relationship, I tried to explain to my partner how badly it was affecting me, to live in such a state of chaos for so long – when all I wanted after Katrina was a home to feel safe and secure in. He responded by saying that he thought I’d be into living in a gutted old wreck – because after all, “It’s just like New Orleans.” We called off the wedding not long after.
This painting came to me in the midst of all that pain and confusion, and it spoke to me deeply. That sense of clinging to each other, both unable to let go. The vulnerability of being so naked, so hungry. This image pierced through the fog of delusion I had been wandering in, and told me something about love. That it’s not what I thought it was. I thought that fantasy was what I needed – that it would save me. But that’s not how it works. You have to be ready. You have to be equal to it, approaching your partner with a full cup, and their’s full as well. To truly join forces, as allies, as equals. Not both walking wounded, looking to the other for some kind of solution, some kind of salvation. There are no quick fixes – and if you’re looking for security, another constantly changing, evolving, growing human being might not be your best bet.
“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”
― Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker
I fell in love again, after the apocalypse of that long relationship had ended. And, after many fits and starts and stops, that ended too – more or less. I had tried to do the same thing, made the same mistakes again. I didn’t know how to do anything else but beg, “Please fix me. Mend my heart. Put my house back together. Make me whole again.” He tried to, with some success – but that’s still not how it works, not really. It’s not somebody else’s job to fix me. It’s mine. Only I can put myself back together, supply all the missing pieces, forgive what’s lost forever. All we can do is try, and sometimes we fail. We huddle close together in the dark, and we learn things from each other.
That man said to me the other day, “I don’t think I understand what intimacy is.” So I tried to explain it to him, as I understood it. I said, “Intimacy is when you tell someone the truth about yourself, all the hardest truths, including your dark and scary secrets and the bad things you’ve done, and all the things that might make someone run away from you screaming – like you did the first night we ever talked alone, but instead I drew closer, and wanted to know you more. Intimacy is all the times we woke up curled around each other holding hands. It’s every time we cried together, or held each other’s gaze as our bodies moved together as one, every time we laughed loud and long at the same thing. It’s the kind of closeness that lets your nakedness be seen, in the bright light of day – every flaw, every scar, bump or errant hair is illuminated in that gaze – made holy. Intimacy is having someone see you as you truly are, and accepts what they see. It is laying in bed reading together, not needing to talk, but occasionally catching one other’s eyes, reaching out to stroke your hip under the quilt. This kind of closeness can happen with someone who knows you almost better than you know yourself, someone who is always turning towards you, even in the hardest moments, instead of pulling away.
A poem by Yehuda Amichai, for the Days of Awe. This came to me with a note from my friend Jonathan Tel that said:
“One of his I have by heart, in Hebrew. My translation.”
elohai, haneshama shenatata bi/ hi ashan/ mesrayfat tamid shel zikhronot ahava./ anu noladim umiyad matkhilim lisrof/ v’khakh ad sheha’ashan c’ashan yikhleh
My God, the soul You gave me
from the never-ending burning of memories of love.
We are born and straight away we have them
to burn, and on and on
until the smoke like smoke dies.
After Katrina, I had only the salvageable belongings that could fit in the smallest U-haul trailer. Books, mostly – miraculously unharmed, though I lost almost everything else. What else do you need? Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” I have both, but all those books still live in boxes stacked to the ceiling, ten years later. I didn’t have much to hang on the walls, so it meant a lot when my Aunt Ruth brought me her print of The Gleaners, a painting by Jean-Francois Millet that hangs in the Musee d’Orsay. It depicts three peasant women gleaning what they could from the empty fields after the harvest. She said to me, “We come from a long line of tough old birds. Texas women who survived wars and the Great Depression, eking out an existence out of whatever they could cobble together. You are strong and resourceful. You will come through this.” I thought of that painting when I went back to New Orleans to sifting through the morass of my blasted bedroom, pulling the remnants of my jewelry box out of the rubble. I thought of those peasants, and the country women I come from, gleaning sustenance from the earth, treasures from the dirt, gems of wisdom from the sewer of experience.
Around the time my relationship was disintegrating, I consulted a $300 an hour astrologer in a frantic bid for answers, or anything she could tell me that might help me make sense of the awful mess my life had become. Over the phone from California, She told me: “It looks like in your last life, you lost everything.” Maybe that’s the reason why I had to go through so much loss again in this life. Who knows. Whatever the reason, I think I understand the lesson now. I’m getting better at reckoning with impermanence, with finally letting go. When everything falls apart, there’s a tendency to want to cling hard to whatever you can, whatever comes to hand. I did this, for years after the storm. Kept every little scrap, all the broken pieces, too scared to throw anything away. What if I needed it later? Many people who become hoarders have suffered a trauma, or some kind of major blow to their sense of stability. I could see myself becoming like the old ragpicker puppet lady in the movie Labyrinth – surrounded by bits and bobs and teetering piles of junk. My relationship to stuff, to objects is finally changing. I don’t need it anymore. I don’t want it. I’ll probably never be a minimalist, but I’m becoming a lot more intentional about what I choose to keep around me. I am changing, in ways I never imagined I could. I’m finally healing. There are so many stories from this storm. The only one I have is my own – but I encourage you to seek out others. There are people who lost it all, everything they own sunk deep in muddy water – people who lost not only their homes, but their families, their children. So much loss. Mine seems paltry in comparison, but I stand with them, in sorrow and with compassion.
The day after tomorrow, I have to get a tooth removed. Losing a tooth feels worrisome. Having it out feels like a failure. A week ago, it started to fall apart – a piece of the tooth got loose, wiggled disturbingly, and then came out. The day after that, I spit the amalgam filling into my hand. This was like having those bad dreams about your teeth falling out of your head come to life. Oh, shattered remnants of Molar #2, you poor old bastard – cowering hunched in my jaw towards the back and out of sight. I always called it my Katrina tooth. It had given me trouble since before the storm – getting infected after a filling went bad. I remember vividly, racing my bike down Esplanade, across Bayou St. John, trying to beat a massive summer storm on my way to LSU Dental School to get a root canal. The dark clouds loomed up over the ivy-tangled mansions like a behemoth. I had an appointment to get the crown placed on August 29th, 2005, the day Katrina hit. Exactly ten years ago, today. Needless to say, I didn’t make that appointment. I always imagined my dentist’s office underwater, and the little porcelain tooth with my name on it rolling around in the murk. I never had it replaced – just left the empty lot with a jagged stump that eventually became too small to attach anything to. It will be strange to have a smooth expanse of gum back there, instead of the little gravestone that my tongue visits often. An era is ending for me, and I’m ready for it. Ready to put some of this pain to bed, ready to not wake up with a metallic taste in my mouth, bitter dreams fading. When I go back to New Orleans, there is so much I don’t recognize. The city I thought would never change finally has. There are a lot of people who weren’t there before the storm. There are so many people who left and never came back, or who died, or who I never saw or heard from again. Displaced, dislocated – like an arm still out of socket. I walk into bars now and don’t recognize anyone. The easy familiarity that welcomed me home has shifted. There’s a strange territorialism, mostly from people who’ve only lived there a couple years – the ones who don’t get how it’s supposed to work. They give me a side-eyed glare like I’m some tourist, an interloper. It was always a transient town – people came and went, and you never took it too personally. It feels different now, people are less gentle with each other, strangely. More guarded. One of the most precious things to me about New Orleans was that people would always greet you on the street, take a minute to say “Hey, how you doin’?” – I hope the new people will learn how to do that, too. I hope that the people who didn’t come back have taught the folks in their new towns how it’s done. I know I try to always make a point of it. My friends who still live there have never, not once, stopped telling me how much what I am, what I do, is needed there. How much I’m missed. It’s hard to want to be in two places at once. It’s hard not to be able to contribute more. The ones who stayed, they’ve held down the fort these ten long years. Been through so much shit, unimaginable horror and nightmare and nonsense. They stuck it out from sheer stubbornness, badassery, and the knowledge that they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. On this full moon, I raise my glass to them, and their strong spirits. I’m hosting a gathering at my house tonight, the first in a long time: it’s a story circle with tales and music on the theme of homecoming, profundity, and migration. I want to gather together to honor and remember the lives lost and irrevocably changed by the storm and all that came after. There will be an altar for moon offerings, and for reverence to the spirit of New Orleans and all her children, lost and found. I’m co-hosting with my friend Olivia Pepper, a magical witch who wrote these wise words today:
“Tonight is the full moon in Pisces. The moon is close to the earth tonight, as if yearning for our company, as if leaning in to listen. The meaning of this moon is emotional overflow, a deluge, a profound depth of feeling, and also a homecoming, a cellular knowledge that is deep as bones and buried far down like diamonds in the heavy earth. The message from the moon says:’Somehow, my friends, you are going to have to save yourselves.’
Not save the world, mind you, as the world will persist without us: the fires will burn out by themselves, and the slow progress of unhindered eons will do the work of purifying the rivers, balancing the air, dissolving our traces from this good earth, birthing new flowers. What birds and butterflies survive our time and evolve in our wake won’t remember our sins; they’ll not recall our anger, our fear, our deep simmering resentment, our scornful apathy toward bloodshed and loss.
But if we want to see these new flowers bloom, if we want to chart the glorious unfolding of new life in our world, we are going to have to save ourselves. We are going to have to clean the muck of hatred from around our hearts like cleaning oil from a waterbird’s feathers. We are going to have to battle our ugly fury like those fighting the wildfires in the west (and later, just like them, find ways to allow the fires to burn cleanly, naturally, truthfully – your anger is a purifying force – you must use it carefully and reverently). We are going to have to contain our shame and self-hatred like containing a spill in a river, so that it doesn’t pollute the larger body. And we are going to have to make gentle preserves where love and vulnerability can flourish like rare plants and soft-bellied salamanders, places where we can show kindness and fraternity without fear.
Stewardship, of ourselves and of the larger world, is our only path to survival. Start with yourself, because you must do that first; but start soon, because time runs short.”
Ladybabymiss and the Tigermen – Answer The Call
“Some of us rise
like a moon,
like a tide.
Some of us rise,
like the sun,
like the heat from a fire.
Some of us fall,
Some of us answer the call
and some of us burn.
Some of us fight,
some of us crawl,
some of us learn,
and some of us shine.
We are all.
Here we are.”
☂ SOUR TIMES REVISITED – by Clayton Cubitt in the preface to this piece, Clayton mentions an interesting book called Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina Paperback – by Cynthia Joyce. I met and became close with Clayton, and so many other New Orleans folks who I might never have connected with had blogging not become a way to share and exchange information after the storm. Writing here definitely became my lifeline, and I’ve talked to many people ove th years who have told me that they became aware of what was really happening down there from reading the pieces I wrote here. I’m happy that someone wrote a book about this phenomenon.
☂ My friend and writing teacher, Abe Louise Young, created an incredible repository of stories gathered from Katrina survivors after the storm: Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History & Memory Project
The legacy of how this project came into being, and how it was almost lost forever was featured in an Austin Chronicle interview: Documenting Disaster – Alive in Truth: The New Orleans Disaster Oral History & Memory Project
☂ The UT Libraries Katrina Memory Map collects the memories of people who experienced Hurricane Katrina first hand. It was created in conjunction with the UT Libraries’ Katrina & Memory event commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. You are invited to share your memories on their map, and have the option of additionally sharing your memories with the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.
☂ Here’s a source for even more collections of Katrina-Related Oral History Projects, more than I even knew existed. There is power and truth here, in all these stories. It is worth your time to sit with them.
If you’ve still got it in you, here’s some collected writings
about my experiences with Hurricane Katrina,
in reverse chronological order. Dig in:
✸ One Year
by Angeliska on August 28, 2015
My friend Meghann wrote this essay about her life in New Orleans over the past ten years since Katrina. Her words moved me so much, and spoke to my heart in such a powerful way about experiences that are often so difficult to express. I wanted what she wrote to be read by more people, so I asked her if I could post it here, in hopes of possibly being able to share these truths with a wider audience. I also wanted to share this recollection that she enclosed along with this piece:
“…I remember your amazing apartment, and that New Orleans I stumbled into all those years ago of ramshackle romance and courtyards full of old medicine bottles. It seems to hardly exist anymore. I also distinctly remembered coming back to the city right after the storm and that you were one of the first people we saw. You were standing amidst the rubble of your home. The roof was caved in. It was so surreal and terrifying. You said, “Welcome to Bosnia.” That was seared into my memory but had been sort of buried, like a lot of that time after the storm. The reaction of a lot of people here is to not want to acknowledge this anniversary, but, as painful and exhausting as it can be, and as easy as it can be to distract and anesthetize ourselves, I think we humans need to mark time, in celebration and in grief.”
The View from the Other Side – by Meghann McCracken
There is a stretch of levee on the upriver side along the Industrial Canal that separates the upper and lower Ninth Wards in New Orleans. No one said upper Ninth until after the storm. Colloquially, the spot of land at the end of this piece of levee is referred to as The End of the World. It has never been clear to me whether this is public land or not.The other day, while looking at a Google map of the neighborhood for an altogether different purpose, to my amusement I noticed that it was on the map, as the very clipped: End of World. I didn’t go up there much until after the storm. Back then, the only people you would see were fishing or squatting, maybe walking their dogs off leash. These days you can find joggers and newbie twenty-somethings in ironic, nineties regalia dragging their visiting parents along and looking at them like, See isn’t this great?, while the parents cock their heads a little and try to understand why (possibly) trespassing on a barely maintained sliver of industrial, river access has lured their newly-minted bachelor of arts away from them. Back then it was just the place where Sneaky Pete took his mottled hound, Spartan.
We bought our house ten days before the storm in The Sliver by the River, another geographical term you didn’t hear before Katrina. The Sliver refers to the narrow strip of settlement that hugs the Mississippi River within the city of New Orleans. It is among some of the oldest architecture in the city, and on the highest ground. A few weeks before the storm hit, we sat in sticky, late July heat at our mousy, mustachioed, insurance agent’s office in the suburb of Metairie as he showed us the flood maps of New Orleans. They clearly indicated the entire city filled up with water, like a bowl, with the exception of a few ridges and rims, one of which was where our new house was. It was as if we had been taken into an unassuming, wood-paneled, office and shown a mystical oracle of exactly what would happen just weeks later. We were the lucky ones in the twenty percent of the city that did not flood. Sometimes in that awful year or so after the storm I would guiltily wish we had flooded, just so we could have taken the insurance check and resettled ourselves back out west where we were from. We had a lot of options other people did not, but because we had bought that house, we had little choice but to come back as soon as they would let us in and deal with living in a decimated relic of a city.
In the fall of 2005, I was finally going to Graduate School. I had just bought my first house with a man I knew I wanted to spend my life with. It was to be the start of my real, adult life. The first weekend after classes started at UNO, the city was evacuated. Once the campus reopened in the spring of 2006, however, I found I couldn’t handle driving through flood-ravaged parts of the city to get there. The drive up Elysian Fields Avenue, from the Mississippi River to the campus at Lake Pontchartrain, was like descending through rings of Italianate hell. The further I moved from The Sliver by the River, the more bizarre, ornate and gruesome was the damage to what had once been suburban neighborhoods. Even in the populated, unflooded parts of the city, we had curfews and the National Guard, frequent blackouts, MRE’s. Out there, by the lake, it was dissected dioramas of peoples’ lives, all waterlogged and left for dead. I was one of the lucky ones, but somehow I couldn’t distance myself from other peoples’ suffering. As I drove deeper into the devastation, my breathing would become shallow, and I would start to hover somewhere outside of myself. I quickly realized that if I were going to make it through that time, I would have to make my world very small. The Sliver by the River became all that existed. But then the world kept shrinking and shrinking until I stopped wanting to leave my house altogether. I went to work. Night was less scary than day. I drank a lot. A lot lot. I started to create elaborate bargaining rituals with invisible gods in order to keep the panic attacks at bay. I had to suck on cough drops constantly to ground myself in my body so that I knew I was still there. Writing would have helped, but I didn’t have the perspective yet to broach the storm. Trying to write about anything else just felt like an exercise in distraction. I needed a project and, luckily, Luke asked me to marry him.
By surviving a long period apart and then reuniting, by going through the process of buying a home together, by living through that year after Katrina, we were already married. But now we were going to plan a huge event, which is just the sort of focused and organized endeavor my itchy, obsessive mind needed. The wedding got me through the end of 2007 and up through the big day in the spring of 2008. The anticipation and joy lit me from inside out and everyone I crossed paths with seemed to see it. Luke’s sisters gave him an antique diamond ring that had belonged to his grandmother and is more delicate and exquisite than anything I ever imagined I would get to call my own. The anxiety was still there, haunting the edges of my life, but the excitement of the big day left fewer drafty corners in my days for the terror to seep into.
There are still stories about the staked, roasted, pig’s head making its way at the front of a procession from Truck Farm to the French Quarter in the final hours of wedding revelry. We had the service and reception in the back yard at Truck Farm, a beautifully ramshackle commune cum recording studio that takes up about half a city block off of St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward. A fine rain fell, and a chorus of frogs who had taken up residence in the abandoned pool across the way began to sing as we said our vows before hundreds of invitees and crashers, alike. The wedding was an answer to the question that our friends and family from other places always asked us, that we sometimes asked ourselves, and now more than ever after the storm: Why do you guys live there? This is why. This glorious, magical, rag-tag evening, with these gorgeous, banged-up people. This is what lured your children away.
It took a few months, but the luster and glow of the wedding eventually fizzled out and a wet wind blew through my rafters again. The fear took over. I would literally run from my car to the house when I got home. I would crawl under my covers and shake while Luke was away at a gig or working. I took pills, Xanax, Ativan. We got a dog, Lola. It was she who made us regulars at The End of the World. More often than not, though, we’d just walk up to the end of our block on Gallier Street and slip between the levee walls, take off the leash, and walk along the broken concrete, burnt up piers and wild bramble and flotsam and jetsam that used to be our riverfront. The plans to redevelop the river in the upper Ninth were already in place before the storm, but it took years to get them back on track again. It wasn’t until 2010 that the city started to enforce the trespassing rules at the future site of Crescent Park. Our trips to The End of World became more frequent then.
Luke got some health coverage through the Musician’s Clinic, and it extended to me as his wife. I had some minor medical grievance, some sort of contusion or carbuncle that was concerning me, and I went to the clinic’s offices at University Hospital. During that post-storm period there was an alarming spike in the suicide rate, so they had everyone take these mental health-screening tests no matter what they were being seen for. I rated my emotional state pretty honestly, circling somewhat arbitrary fives and sixes out of ten. I definitely didn’t expect my questionnaire to be flagged. They told me little bump or lump was nothing to worry about, but that I should consider talking to a mental health professional about my psychological state. This would be my first foray to a therapist since my sophomore year of college in Santa Cruz back in 1996 when the therapist I had just began seeing asked me if I thought my boyfriend, Archie, was good for me, and I left the appointment on the back of his motorcycle, probably without a helmet.
I was taking the post-storm devastation a little harder than most of my friends and co-workers. I spent most of my time in the world of bar and restaurant people who love to eat, drink and be merry, and all I could see was the suffering, the danger, the hopelessness. I was embarrassed about how badly I was doing psychologically, and how much I felt traumatized by the storm. After all, we were fine, right? High and dry. So many people we knew had lost everything. So many others desperately wanted to come back, but couldn’t. What was my problem? Therapy would help me learn that there is only a finite amount of trauma a person can take in her life before it manifests as a psychological problem like Panic Disorder. And, if that was the case, then it all started to make a little more sense. The year when I was in fifth grade and my family went from being cloistered Jehovah’s Witnesses to paranoid tweakers on the run already had me most of the way there; Katrina sent me right over the edge.
When you walk to the end of North Rampart Street to get to the entrance to The End of the World, on your right is the sprawling, decommissioned Naval base that is now mostly a place where people shoot Denzel Washington movies, but is also a proving ground for really ambitious taggers. At one point we heard that Disney was considering putting a cruise ship terminal in there, but that possibility seems to have passed. On the left is some industrial warehouse where people who are very patient with all of us trespassers work. You step onto the gravel and keep walking over the railroad tracks. I always pause a little at the spot where, one summer recently passed, some poor guy laid himself in front of the train. HazMat did a really bad job cleaning up and for weeks Lola would go crazy at that spot, until she didn’t anymore. After the tracks you walk around the chain link fence and from there it is just a grassy mountain up to the top of the levee. You can run straight up or take the more gradient walking path a yard or so down. If you are following your dog and if she is puppy, and she is Lola, you are running straight up. If it is seven years later, and she is older, she might have the patience to take the path with you. When you get to the top of the hill, there is the Industrial Canal straight ahead, and, on the other side, Holy Cross, a subsection of the Lower Ninth Ward that spans from St. Claude to the River and from the canal about a mile up to the Parish Line.
When we were evacuated in Cajun country, just two hours away, the news kept saying, “The Ninth Ward is under water.” There were several days we did not know if our new home, and our community (of the last ten years for Luke, five years for me) was gone. The Lower Ninth was a distinction people used then, but this epic difference in the way parts of the ward fared made “upper” a necessary new distinction. It was all one neighborhood until the Canal was dredged in the early 1920’s, forever making the lower part of the ward extremely vulnerable to levee failings. The first time we drove over the bridge to the Lower Ninth after the storm you couldn’t get very far in most of the neighborhood. Houses, cars, and boats were erect, toppled, and stacked like a giant maze of dominoes. Eventually they bulldozed through the debris to reveal where the roads had been. In Holy Cross the water had been high, but homes weren’t ripped from their foundations like they were further from the river. We knew one woman who had a beautiful historic home on an idyllic patch of land right on the levee and was rebuilding it herself, slowly. Wiring. Drywall. Starting all over when the copper miners got to her pipes and wires, living in it all the while. We had a good mutual friend who would come to town regularly, and we would go with him to Holy Cross to check on her. Over the ensuing few years we’d take a pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward a couple times a year when we had visitors, monitoring the painfully slow progress. I couldn’t imagine the courage it took to live among so much destruction and blight. Never would I have imagined that ten years after the storm, Luke and I would be packing up our home in upper Ninth, the house where I gave birth to our now two year old son during a lightning storm and a meteor shower, and would be moving to Holy Cross ourselves. The writing was on the wall when the paintings were on the chain link fence.
When you get to the top of the levee that leads to The End of the World, if you look straight ahead you see Holy Cross. If you turn to the left, you see St. Claude Avenue fenced off and leading to the drawbridge that leads to the Lower Ninth Ward. If you look to the right you see the Mississippi River. If you are like most people, you start walking toward the right. The Canal is lined with rocks and trees and wildlife, sometimes there is the odd alligator. In the wintertime, white pelicans migrate in flocks to the canal. In the fragile first trimester of my pregnancy, I would walk Lola up there most evenings and wait to see the white pelicans. My monkey mind trying to make order out of the unbearable randomness of reproduction latched onto the pelicans as a sign that the baby would stick, and come out healthy and fine. Walking. Meditation. Being able to take this distance from my own mind and observe it. The awareness that the thing that I fear most (that I will lose my mind) is a thing that has never happened, and so, most likely, never will. These are the skills I learned after the stint in therapy that led me to the place where I felt mentally and emotionally healthy enough to bring another person into the world. The Canal leads to what people are referring to when they say The End of the World. It is the point of jagged little cliff where the Canal meets the River. In the cooler half of the year, the water is lower and a little beach appears, with thick, unforgiving, river-bottom silt acting as sand and prehistoric-looking trees that spend half their lives half-submerged standing in for palm trees. From the beach you get a beautiful view of downtown New Orleans, the French Quarter, the Mississippi River Bridge. You can’t help but feel like you have the best kept secret in town. One day Luke and I were up there, toddling along with Arlo toward The End of the World when we saw several mediocre paintings of the barely abstracted female form hanging from the chain link fence way down at the end. Some out of town kids from either Brooklyn or Austin, or both, were having an art show. I was amused, somewhat curious. I turned to Luke, who was snarling. To him, these were the real trespassers.One could argue that we were just an earlier wave of these kids that have changed the neighborhood. We were a little tougher and scrappier, had fewer options, more substance abuse issues, more of us died. We got a lot less writing and painting done. Our bands were rowdier and a lot further from making it. We had our shit way less together, but, maybe, maybe had a little more respect for what we found here? We didn’t have any presumption or hope of really changing things. We matched the beautiful mess that was here. Maybe our parents didn’t do such a good job. They definitely didn’t give us seed money to start non-profits or bistros.
Ten years in a house is when things really start to fall apart. Especially if we’re talking about a hundred year old house. Whatever work the last people did to get you to buy it starts to decompose a little. New problems emerge. Your appliances start to break. New people move in around you and do expensive renovations and all of a sudden you are the crappy house on the block. You can take out a home equity loan, but that payment is going to be a little steep, or, perhaps, you can start looking around at what is for sale out there…Then, maybe, a doctor from one of the coasts buys the house next door to you for twice what the last person paid.You start to wonder what’s going to happen to your property taxes, but you also wonder how much your house might go for… All of a sudden all the airbnb’s on your block with all their coming and going and gawking become a little more annoying. As do all the tourists spilling out into the street at the brunch spot at the end of your block. When did you stop going there? When was it that you realized that all this wasn’t for you anymore, but for these people riding by on the bike tour…?
Walking up the levee in Holy Cross is a lot less of an ordeal than it is at The End of the World. (And certainly less of an ordeal than the arch of stairs at the manicured and patrolled new Crescent Park along the river in the upper Ninth Ward). It is an un-intimidating green space that most people could walk up without losing their breath. Clearly it’s a levee that leaves us a little more vulnerable over here. And, I’m not sure if it was a therapist or real estate agent who told me this but, at a certain point you just have to decide if you can live with uncertainty, buy some surprisingly inexpensive, federally subsidized, flood insurance, and move on. When you get to the top of the levee, though, there are benches along the path, encouraging contemplation, reflection, staying a while. People of all ages say “Hello.” Dogs roam free alongside their people. Men walk back with buckets of fish. No tourists. More walking and talking, less headphones and jogging. The young, hip people look like a little more like they could take a punch. It feels like ten years ago. It feels like a community, not something on display. Maybe that’s all in jeopardy because of more people like us showing up –a white couple with a little blonde kid. Or maybe that Canal, which dooms the neighborhood to flooding, also protects it from the encroachment of the French Quarter and its tourism money siren’s song… At least for now, when you sit down on the bench, it is so quiet. And the view is astounding.
by Angeliska on August 8, 2015
Last year on this day, the anniversary of my mother’s death, I didn’t feel like writing. I just felt like living. That’s what I did, and it felt right. Every year is a little different. Stands to reason, with the passage of time, and all – but it didn’t start to change for me, for a long time. I didn’t know how to heal, or that there even was a way to. For years before that, I didn’t even know there was a wound. Or, I did – but it was kind of like having a giant sinkhole under your house that you just put a rug over. Pretend it’s not there. Everything’s fine. Back away slowly from the lip of the abyss. I’ve found that everything changes when you stop running away from your pain. This is what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. How when I finally learned how to cry, I started healing. There are so many layers to this process, and where I’m at now feels like a really good place. I’m exploring it, and it’s been really interesting.
‘The ocean with its vastness, its blue green,
Its ships, its rocks, its caves, its hopes, its fears,—
Its voice mysterious, which whoso hears
Must think on what will be, and what has been.’
– John Keats
(I’ve been very much influenced by the poetry book I got for $2 in San Antonio. It’s simply full of beautiful quotes.”
I wasn’t really able to consciously think or process much about my mother’s death until my mid-twenties. Until then, I was a hardened little shell of a girl, always struggling to keep my balance tiptoeing around the edge of the bottomless pit where I’d stowed all my grief. When at long last it hit me that the source of so many of my issues revolved around this deep loss, I realized that I might have to actually investigate what had been hidden away in the the darkness for so long. I started with honoring the day my mom left this world. Dedicating this day to understanding more about her, about myself. Some days that meant practicing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on her violin. Some days it was just laying on the floor crying. For many years, I spent the day alone. I would hang out in my studio, and read her letters, page through her scrapbooks. It helped, always – the writing, musing, making little altars. Sitting with the pieces of her I had available, trying to understand more about who she was. I never went anywhere, because I didn’t drive back then. I always did this work alone, and it never occurred to me that my partner at the time, or anyone else, would really be interested in participating in that process. But in 2012, someone came into my life who did. A very sweet man who wanted to sit with me, while I sat with that pain. A person who truly wanted to help me honor my mom’s memory. Our relationship ended up being a tumultuous and revelatory puzzle piece in my healing process, and I’m still learning from it, though we’re not together anymore. I learned a lot from being with him – about myself, about the way I love, and the way I allow myself to be loved. This person showed up for me, over and over, in some very surprising and profound ways. For the past two years, he helped me find a way to celebrate this day. He showed me that I didn’t have to do it all alone, and that it didn’t have to be a day only for sadness. He took my hand, and led me out of my dark studio filled with dusty books, and out into the bright light of Texas August. We went on some adventures.
HONEY BABE, I’M BOUND TO RIDE – DON’T YOU WANNA GO? An old-tyme song lyric markered on a plasticine envelope years ago by my mom. This is what holds many letters she wrote to my grandparents and crayoned artwork I made as a child.
Coming thru old Nashville,
Coming thru a flying
Studying about my little darling
Couldn’t keep from crying
Honey babe I’m bound to ride
Don’t you want to go?
Going to Atlanta
Just to look around
Times they don’t suit me
Find another town
Riding on a streetcar
Looking all around
Eating salty crackers
Ten cents a pound
If I die a railroad man
bury me beneath the ties
So I can hear old Number Nine
As she goes on by
Coming thru old Nashville,
Coming thru a flying
Studying about my little darling
Couldn’t keep from crying
On August 8th, 2013, I had stayed up late the night before writing about my mother. I was glad to have gotten it written and out of me, early that year – so that the day could be spent out in the world, in experiencing life – not just dwelling on death. I wanted to go visit some of my mom’s old stomping grounds, her old neighborhood where some of her favorite places still are. I had intended to do this alone, not expecting to have company. But my boyfriend showed up at my kitchen table that morning with a fancy breakfast he procured – and in his hands, a bouquet of roses, fiery orange with red tips. He knew I liked varicolored flowers, but he chose these for the name, too: HIGH AND MAGIC. He showed up for this, for me – even though I didn’t ask, or expect it. Even though I didn’t necessarily even think I wanted him to be there. I didn’t know what to think when this golden haired giant turned up bearing roses on a morning I had prepared myself to be sad for. I didn’t want him to feel like he had to be there out of obligation. Unlike me, he is a person who loathes most of the rigmarole surrounding holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries – but this was different. I could tell that it came from an honest, heartfelt desire to help me honor that loss, my biggest wound, in whatever way would feel best. I asked him if he wanted to read what I had written for my mom, the night before, and he said yes. He sat very still, reading it intently for what felt like a long time, and I sat, trying to be still, trying not to watch him read. When he had finished, his eyes were glittering and wet with unshed tears. The way he looked at me was so full of love, and I was taken off my guard as he stood suddenly and took me by the hands, pulling me up to my feet and into an embrace. When he kissed me, there was so much in it – all the feelings he couldn’t convey in words, expressed in that touch, that connection. I’ve never felt anything else like it. Swept up, soul deep – that’s what it was. The kind of moment it feels impossible to try to write about or describe because it went so far beyond what could ever be spoken. It was the single best response to anything I’ve ever written: that beautiful, incredibly loving and totally overwhelming kiss. That anyone would be so moved by what I had written there. That this person I loved so much would respond to it with such passion. We stood in my hot kitchen gazing at each other: our faces shining, our eyes streaming, our lips beaming. We went out into the world, and had a very good day. I wore a dress my mother made for herself: red corduroy with little flowers. We were in love, crazy cascades of hearts pouring out from our eyes. Things between us were not always easy – but when we were good, it was beyond amazing.
Last year, he wanted to be there with me again. We got tacos and coffee and drove out of town, taking the long way out. An unfamiliar road through the hill country – pines and shadowed valleys, dry creeks with stands of sycamores surprisingly still green for August in Texas. Bumping over the backroads, in my beloved old beige Volvo station wagon, all the windows rolled down. We hit estate sales and antique stores for most of the morning, bright sun burning through the haze. Pawn shops, bomb pops. We made it out to Llano by late afternoon – to the house in Lone Grove where my mother died. I wanted to hear stories, to be able to better understand, and hopefully write about what had happened on that day. I wanted to ask the hard questions, and even hear the hard answers – but my favorite aunt, my mom’s sister, didn’t seem to want to go there. Instead, she regaled us for hours about trying to help a lonely old hoarder who lived in a trailer down the way with a bunch of guns and dozens upon dozens of feral cats. People aren’t always going to be able or willing to walk down that road with you. Zach squeezed my hand under the table, seeing how disappointed I was. I’m still trying so hard to remember and understand that period of my life. There’s a lot I just don’t remember.
It had been years since I had been out to the cemetery where my mother and grandparents are buried. The man I spent seven years with and nearly married never saw it. He never asked, and I never thought to take him. I think I had been a little scared to go out there, myself. It felt like a terminus, an ending place. There’s a finality to the grief there that goes beyond what happens in our memories. There’s nothing but nature, and enduring stone. The bodies are all dust and ashes. It was good to not have to go there alone. We walked over to where the my family’s graves lay nestled under spindly oaks, in the tall dry grass, holding hands. Coming to that place, standing on the earth containing the bones of the people who made me, laid out in a row, I felt suddenly awkward. What else is there to do, in that instance, but make introductions? “Well… Mom, this is Zachary.” “Zachary, meet my grandparents” It hit me like a bullet, the stark realization that this was the only way they would ever meet. There’s a song by the folk-singer Scout Niblett, called “Do You Want to Be Buried With My People?” and I thought of it then:
“Do you want to be buried with my people, dear
was the look in his eyes
we can rest our bones side by side
in the dirt of yonder high
it’s so fun to see me being me alongside you
that’s how I knew the answer dear
to the look I got from you
we can rest our bones side by side”
That’s the kind of love I want, when it comes down to it. The kind of love who will come willingly with me, to meet my family in the only way they can. The kind of heart that would want to put down roots in the earth where I come from, to graft their family tree with mine, entwining around each other, and joined: in life and death. I don’t love lightly, and I’ve learned that I won’t bother unless I know the answer to that question. I felt it all then, rising and building in my chest like a pressure – all that love and all that sorrow running down my face, as I watched this kind and beautiful man kneel down the earth, pulling a pocketknife out and using it to cut away at the weeds that had overgrown my mother’s tomb. He cleaned it up, made it look as nice as he could – all the while incurring fire ant bites and sticker-burrs in his knuckles. I planted a succulent in the cement urn covered in pottery shards, and watered it from my glass bottle. We wandered through the graves, old stones, telling stories of Indian attacks, pieces of mica embedded in old stone, families who lost all their children, soldiers buried at home. The sun was starting to set as we drove away, making an angelic chorus of light in the clouds, heavenly cascades of golden rays, looking like benedictions from seraphim on high. One hand on the wheel and the other around me, the sun on his face as we rolled through the hills, looking at me, both of us in lit up in wonder. “It’s all for you,” he said, “For you and your mom.”
On the way home, the sky erupted into such a glorious celestial jubilation of angelic rays that we couldn’t help but wonder if my mama wasn’t smiling down from the heavens… I don’t actually believe in a place called heaven – but sunsets like this make me wishful.
So this year, that man is not here. He called this morning because he knew what day it was, and we talked for the first time in a few months. I do miss him, but it’s okay. His not being here doesn’t have to echo that old hurt, the old loss. I’m on my own now, and I feel strong in that, most days. I thought about going out into the world, and doing some rambling, but today I’m feeling pretty under the weather and so I’m just resting. Writing this in my beautiful bedroom, and thinking about what it really means to care for yourself. Not just because you have to, not because everyone who you thought was supposed to do that has gone away – but doing it because you can, because you want to. For so many years, this day was just about honoring my mom. I still want to do that, but even more – I’m learning how to honor myself. How to take care of myself like a loving mother would. There’s this stubborn part of my heart, the sad little kid part, that kicks the wall and throws a tantrum about this sometimes. She stomps her feet and keeps persistently reaching out for the people that can’t be there anymore. My mom was an amazing person: an incredible artist and musician, and an all-around renaissance woman and an inspiration to everyone who knew her. I’ve come to realize, though, that even before she got sick, she wasn’t always up for being a totally present and emotionally demonstrative mother. She suffered from depression, and was often consumed with stress and worry, or by her creative passions and obsessions. She had a lot of stuff that she was super interested in doing, and, well – I think that paying attention to me (at least as much as I wanted or needed) was maybe not always one of those things. She tried really hard, and did the best she could. I know that. But the way she showed me love seems to have helped to create some neurological patterning that makes me very attracted to people who are only intermittently available. I’m working on looking at that, changing that. Today, I’m thinking about the fact that I know I am loved. Even and especially by some very wonderful people who also were or are very hurt or ill, which impacted their ability to consistently show that love. That doesn’t make it any less real. I’m realizing very clearly that the most generous thing that you can do in and for this world is to seek out your own healing. To lovingly face your pain, and find a way to come through it. To show up for ourselves makes it possible for us to be there for others. There is no other way. I think about this quote all the time:
“I would say that the thrust of my life has been initially about getting free, and then realizing that my freedom is not independent of everybody else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn’t create more suffering. I help people as a work on myself and I work on myself to help people.”
― Ram Dass
I talked to my father and the phone last night, and he gave me some things to think about that really blew my mind. He’s a wise man, my dear old dad. We discussed some radical concepts in self-love, in receiving love. I think for a long time, that little kid part of my brain just thought that gone is gone. And that if you were gone, your heart was gone too – so that meant there wasn’t anything to love with anymore. If you were gone, it was because you didn’t love enough to stay. If you really loved me, you wouldn’t leave. You’d want to stay here with me. These complex equations the childish heart makes: since you left, you must not love me, and that means that I must be very unlovable indeed. I realize all the ways I’ve been playing out that faulty kid logic, and for how many years. Too long. My dad tells me that my mom still loves me, and that she wants me to feel good and be happy. That I can mother myself as her proxy, giving myself everything that I need. I can always tell when my dad says something very true, because my throat will get real tight, and I’ll feel like crying. It’s hard to think about. I realize I’ve had a block there, for a long time. Maybe in dreams or visions, in alternate dimensions, I’ve seen my mom. But most of the time, in regular, every day reality: she’s not here. Or so I thought. Gone is gone. I always scoffed a bit internally at the well-meaning people in my life who would assure me that my mom was still here with me – because in all the ways that I felt really counted, she wasn’t. She never saw me grow up. She doesn’t know what I look like. She’ll never meet a love of mine, or my children, if I ever have any. Or can she see, somehow? I feel my grandparent’s spirits around me, and know they’re there. I trust that the souls of my pets that have died, my animal familiars, are still with me. So why not my mom? Why have I been so resistant to imagining that she might be my number one guardian angel? What if every time I’ve had a close call on the highway or tripping down a tall staircase, and felt a magnificent force swoop me to safety – it was her? Who knows, really – but it’s fascinating to me that I’ve never even really let myself imagine it until now. What if every person who ever loved you, still loves you? You can be gone, and still love. Your body can be burnt up to nothing, your bones just dust, and there will be some part of you that can still go on, loving. People might physically go away, but that doesn’t mean that the part of them that loves you is doesn’t exist. Maybe this is obvious to most people, but I think for anyone that’s lost a parent at a young age, it’s just not.
A good day for Strength. The image is a detail of that card, from the Zerner Farber deck.
The lemniscate, or infinity symbol, ( ∞ ) is a variation of the ouroboros: a circle curled in on itself, doubled, and continuous. Today, August 8th, 2015 is known as 8-8-8, as 2015 adds up to another 8 (2+0+1+5=8). 888 is triple fortune, and considered very good luck in Chinese numerology. The triumverate lemniscate. So, I’m thinking about eternity, and about how nothing ever really dies. There are no endings. There is no death. Our lives are so short, because we are constantly regenerating. When we love consumed by the fear of loss, we’re forgetting that love never dies. It just transforms. Love is all around. You’re not alone, kid. I get that today, even though I’m sitting here by myself – I do feel completely surrounded by love. So many kind friends and family have reached out to me today, and sent sweet messages to let me know they’re thinking of me. I know that if I didn’t want to be alone right now (though I actually do!), I absolutely wouldn’t have to be – that there are plenty of people who would be thrilled to go get ice cream with me. I didn’t always know that. Or, rationally, a part of me did – but on a soul level, I could never absorb it. The fear of being totally alone and abandoned was once the hollow thing at my core that motivated so many of my interactions. I’m working on being able to receive love – from myself, and from the people who love me. I didn’t realize that there was a part of me that didn’t really know how to do that. That didn’t feel worthy of it. It’s taken some time, but I do feel that being healed. I’ve had some pretty incredible experiences recently that have shown me that, so powerfully. For the first time, it occurs to me that maybe the date of my mother’s death was no accident, or coincidence – that she left this earth on the day that a portal of light opened up, and that every year, it opens up again, so she can shine to me.
This past Mother’s Day, my writing group, Revolution Writing Workshop, participated in a special reading at Malvern Books. I shared something that came from the writing about my mom that I’ve done here:
And, if you’d like to read more about this journey, here you go:
by Angeliska on August 6, 2015
“In that latitude the temperature flirted with a hundred degrees for a few of the dog days, but to a child it can hardly ever be too hot. I liked the sun licking the backs of my legs, and the sweat between my shoulder blades, and the violet evenings, with ice cream and fireflies, wherein the long day slowly cooled. I liked the ants piling up dirt like coffee grounds between the bricks of our front walk, and the milkweed spittle in the vacant lot next door. I liked the freedom of shorts, sneakers, and striped T-shirt, with freckles and a short hot-weather haircut.
We love easily in summer, perhaps, because we love our summer selves.”
― John Updike
Here you are towards the end of summer, a peach on the tree, unripe.
Nothing feels ready, nothing feels done.
What does it take for anything to feel complete?
The heat in your body ripples out in quivering waves: creating mirages,
shimmering oases, pools of clear blue water that coruscate
upon the tarry asphalt blacktop,
beckoning for an instant and then gone.
Burning up inside but no fever.
It sucks so bad to be sick in summer.
All the soup and tea in the world can’t help you.
It feels wrong anyway. You drink it down anyway.
You must stay down, stay inside.
cherry bark cough syrup spilled
and coating the inside of your thighs
sticky but not sexy.
The optical illusion of all the time in the world.
Iced tea drinkin’, front porch sittin’, and no deep thinkin’.
The only way to survive a summer in the south.
The mosquitoes are mostly gone because all the rain’s dried up
but you didn’t go swim enough. Got that end of summer feeling again
like maybe you missed the boat. So many photographs of friends
at weddings, dipping in sacred cenotes, lounging on boats,
washing their hair in rainbow waterfalls with blue butterflies all around.
I mean, you’ve been that person too, sometimes. Right?
Texts and subtexts. Everything’s gone to pot, and the pot’s black.
It’s days like this that make you want to throw your hands up,
move to a cave somewhere far away, stop trying to ever help
anyone ever, never speak a word to any humans ever again.
But, whatever you do, don’t try to escape from your pain. Just be with it.
The surest way to go to hell is to run away from hell.
Dog days and the dogs are bored.
Long hours spent, tongues lolling
on the cool concrete floor of the laundry room.
Little projects and bits of big ones finished here and there, but it’s never done, never enough.
In winter it’s okay to rest, to hibernate. In summer, you just feel like a jerk for it.
Classical station KMFA on the little rainbow radio, late into the night,
on the nights you can keep your eyes open long enough to catch
the good stuff. The music to keep the night owls company.
Not such a good night owl anymore, but you more or less fail
at being a morning bird – so what kind of strange bird are you now?
Rara avis, eh? Or maybe just the in-between kind. A cygnet, famously ugly.
One day your eggs will hatch – and some very strange birds are going to emerge.
The overall lassitude is infectious. When you’re not traveling anywhere:
not preparing to travel, or recovering from travel. Just staying put.
Staying in. Your elevation may require your isolation.
It’s the same old story. But you miss your friends.
Old summer habits are hard to break:
That staying too much indoors, because of the heat, the bugs, the brightness.
Your body feels like lead by midday, though early in the morning it’s made of pure gold.
All you do with it is stretch out in that shining dazzle coming in the windows from the east
Wave your hands in thanks, in dazed gratitude, and fall back fast asleep.
You meant to swim more, play dominoes, think less,
stretch the body, delight in it – at the radiant joy of even having one,
being gifted this form. You meant to walk the dogs more, take them
to the not very secret place to splash around. But everything got very heavy.
One page seemed to take all day. Four hours passed in the blink of an eye.
Time ceased to make any sense at all.
To be a green anole, perched on the handrail by your bedroom window:
heart-shaped throat bubble beating like a valentine, being presented outward,
over and over, as a gift, an enticement, a form of communication.
We could learn some lessons in that, and in regeneration, from lizards.
The tiny chirps of the golden eyed tree frogs who seem to live in your windowsill
serenade you in the evenings. You want so much to learn their language.
You like to imagine their tiny hands, with orbed and sticky fingertips. If you had fingertips
like that, you could climb the walls better. Vanquish those monstrous tree roaches,
nemeses that plague you, who desecrate your sanctuary seeking out water, your company.
Yellow-jackets and lazy red wasps get trapped in your bedroom.
They used to fly in through the broken window before you taped it up.
The fly around aimlessly, prompting theatrical maneuvers,
much ducking and covering, cowering in the dark. Keeping very still.
Dusky green hummingbirds shop the turk’s cap, un-photographable.
Crepe myrtle’s heavy fuchsia heads sway listlessly in the warm breeze.
It’s like living something out of Tennessee Williams or Eudora Welty,
why feel moved to review it, if you exist in it?
There’s always something to recover from in summer:
some sordid drama or flare out of energy.
Sunspots cause brownouts in the grid
and in your vision as you stumble, blinking, inside.
Disasters in this season always have a bit of theatrical flair:
enter the black plague on the back of a flea, stage left.
It’s stands to reason, being the Leo time of year. If you listen
closely, you catch echoes of the lion’s dying roar.
There are always catastrophes – deaths, wildfires and big storms.
Heated up tempers. The horseherb is burnt to a crisp, the grass gone yellow.
Nighttime doesn’t feel safe for long strolls and canine constitutionals.
When you do go, you come back with your shoes filled to the brim with salt-water.
Hands bearing the marks of a rope wound tight, spine set rigid, then slack as a whip.
Strange shapes move inside of the night that might swallow you up (and your little dog too).
You think: maybe pushups, for these arms that used to resemble sticks.
Now much rounder, softer stalks, made of marshmallow root. Maybe yoga,
and pour another glass of iced tea. The hammock goes unhung.
The early hours untested, though it’s cool enough still, then.
You lay on the wood floor in an old rayon slip, soaked to the bone,
flapping a rattan fan hopelessly like the mouth of a goldfish upended:
oh no oh no oh no
You get lost on the way to your sad appointment.
Nearly get into an accident on the highway with
a bald man in a big truck who pulls forward into
oncoming traffic without looking, his hand clutched
at his ear, foot on the gas. You honk at him and then
honk some more. A scared and angry goosegirl, sent
into an animal confusion and so you mix up north and south.
Migrating for miles and miles in the wrong direction.
You’re having a panic attack but don’t know it yet.
You are reminded of this fact by the handsome young man with the trim black beard
sitting at the bus stop dressed in neat and sober charcoal grey despite the heat
who watches you roll past crying, your hand pressed to your mouth.
He nods gravely in acknowledgment. You make your way down the
quiet road a piece to a spot of shade where you can properly fall apart.
There’s a difference between inaction and velleity.
This feels like being so tired you can’t move.
You work so hard to make things better, and in
the end it all happens anyway. Where’s the space
for real rest? Where do we make room for powerlessness?
There are plenty of good and lovely things, too. Of course.
There are worse things it does no good to even allude to.
You had started writing poetry again, sort of.
This is how it came out today. As an experiment
in standing outside the self, and seeing how it looks from there.
Easier, sort of – and yet infinitely more uncomfortable.
Lispector – Peachtree Street
“Once I saw this famous actress on Peachtree Street.
There is no tree. There is no peach. On Peachtree Street.“