by Angeliska on November 26, 2015
It’s Thanksgiving time, and the cornucopias are overflowing. Refrigerators are stuffed full, a fruitful spread laden with more dishes than the table can hold, bellies filled to bursting. It’s a harvest pageant, an ancient feast where we eat our fill and spit in winter’s eye, daring our good fortune to hold out through the bitter months. Fields that will soon lie fallow under dead leaves and ice, are now full of bounty. Our winter rituals teem with excess and extravagance – to prove our victory over the vicissitudes of the seasons, over nature. As this holiday season rolls forward, I find myself thinking often about the concepts of abundance and scarcity. I hear these words bandied about quite a lot, and many times, I am the one bandying them. How many times have you said a little prayer (or a big one), did a spell or ritual, lit candles and wished – for more abundance? How many times have I? Oh, plenty and plenty. The truth is: we have more abundance than we know what to do with. If you’re reading this on your very own computer, you know that that’s true. So much of the work I have been trying to do for the past few years really boils down to: “If you’re going to talk the talk, you really have to walk the walk.” For me, in this instance, that means figuring out what the hell I truly mean when I use these words, and understanding better how to come to terms with my own own beliefs about the ideas behind them. Being clear in yourself, in your truth, means that you have a much better chance of making yourself clear and true as you make your way through the world – and are much more likely to respond to others from that place of truth. So, I will do my best to convey my thoughts on this subject (even if I only end up clarifying things for myself). This is something I’ve been pondering and having conversations about with friends for many years, but I’ve never really tried to write about it until now. Recently, I had an experience that brought it to the forefront of my consciousness, and asked me to come to an understanding. I’m still working on that understanding, weeks later. Perhaps this will help.
This experience (call it a dream, or a vision, perhaps) vividly catapulted me into an alternate reality – a place of barrenness and famine. It feels like there’s a part of my soul that’s been trapped in this place for years, maybe even eons – and I’ve been doing retrieval work to rescue it, to make right whatever went awry there. I got trapped in this place again for a bit – shivering and shaking with cold, feeling weak and ill, and dizzy with hunger. I went to that dark place where so many have perished, and knew the terror of being completely without the means to survive, firsthand – huddled in a ball and weeping with helplessness and empathy for all the people whose last moments on this earth were full of fear and wanting. Can you imagine what it would feel like to be so frail and unwell that you could not chop your own wood, nor carry it inside to keep your fire going? Provided that’s there’s even an “inside” to go to. Imagine having nothing left to eat, not enough blankets, and nothing to hold in your hands except the knowledge that no one is coming to rescue you. I was in a stone cottage on a high hill, looking over a desolate plain. Blackened tree stumps dotted the roll of the moor, and there was nothing growing there. The feeling of being completely alone in the world was pervasive. Only the sound of my own labored breathing, and the howling wind to keep me company. Think of all the people who have died in their beds, or on the cold earth, utterly alone. This is the part in the movie when someone is supposed to come, bustle in the front door, get a fire going in the grate, put the kettle on for you, make some porridge and spoon it down your throat until you get your strength back. Like a story from Dickens, where everything is awful and bleak forever, but then suddenly something wonderful happens, and there is hope again. I know that does happen, sometimes. Maybe more often than we know. The thing is – I do believe in miracles. Perhaps, too much. I never want to give up hope, always want to try and stay optimistic, because I know how dark and saturnine my Capricornian nature can be. It can drag you down, deep, and hold you there. I’m having a hard time even writing this, because it’s such a goddamn downer, but the truth is – this is how it happens, for countless people. This is how it happened, for many of our ancestors. This is how it is happening, for many people alive (or just barely) right this very minute. Having this experience put me directly into those beat-up shoes, and forced me to contemplate the harsh fact that for so many, there is no rescue, no respite. There are so many places on this earth where there is just not enough: not enough resources, not enough light, not enough compassion or awareness. People freeze to death, perish from exposure, from starvation. Every damn day. I don’t want to forget it. Once you see, you can’t un-see. But it’s one thing to see it: on television, on the news, on the street corner. It is quite another to feel it yourself, to be so enmeshed in that version of reality that you fear you may die there. At the time, I felt a bit despondent about having had to spend time in that terrible place. I learned what it is to feel hopelessness, and how to accept it. Later, I was so frustrated that I hadn’t been able to use my lucid dreaming tools, my breathing methods, every bit of magic in my bag to get myself out of there. I had to stay there a long, long time. I felt very sorry for myself while I was there, but my self-pity wasn’t the key that freed me. I’m free now, and I’m very grateful for it – and for the knowledge of what real poverty is. For the fact that I do not live that way.
My instinct tells me that some of this vision was given to me through ancestral memory. I came from people who starved, on both sides. The Eastern European Jews on my father’s side, who left Poland and Czechslovakia (before the Holocaust) escaping anti-Semitic pogroms, the Romani in my mother’s line, who have always been persecuted – and the Scots-Irish from her too, fleeing the ravages of the potato famine. All my people came to this country with next to nothing, desperate immigrants. This does something to you, changes you. The memory of going without, of dying without, stays in your DNA. For a long time, healers and lightworkers have known that your ancestors passed down more than their genes to us – we can also inherit their experiences, and their traumas. Many scientific studies have now been done on this subject, and the data is in: Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes
If your people were famine survivors, if they were the victims of persecution for their ethnicity or their religious beliefs, if they were abused and forced into slavery, if they were refugees fleeing war-torn homelands, if they clutched ragged shawls around them, crying, “No fuel for fire, no food for baby!” – then you might find yourself affected by what has come to be known as poverty or scarcity mentality. I perceive poverty mentality to be something passed down to us, inborn – but also something that has been intentionally cultivated by the society we live in to keep us always wanting, always hungry, never satisfied. It can be hard to shake, especially when we’re exposed to media that reinforces this constantly: there’s never enough – you always need more. Unfortunately, poverty mentality is often written off as a mindset that one can just make a choice to change when they are ready to adopt gratitude as their mainstay, and focus on their abundance. I want to believe that, but I had a hard time facing the agony of my ancestors watching their subsistence blackened with blight, evicted from their homes, dying in the road. Maybe I should have told them, “Well, you’re just really giving in to that poverty mentality, you know. Visualize abundance!” Granted, most of these terrible incidents in history would never have happened, or never have happened to the horrifying degree countless occurrences have – without other humans not helping, or more often, even taking specific actions to make it worse. Sometimes there’s a bad winter, and everyone suffers. Sometimes, there’s genocide. I can’t help feeling that extreme poverty is always unnecessary. No one should ever die from deprivation, or go without shelter – especially in this world where so few have more than they will ever need or use, and so many have next to nothing. There’s a sly, underlying notion I come across all the time in our society that anyone who is poor just didn’t work hard enough, or they did something wrong, they made foolish decisions, or they indulged themselves to the brink of poverty. That they’re somehow choosing to remain on the bottom rung, scrabbling in the dirt for leftovers and scraps. People make these judgements on the poor because it makes it easier to avert your gaze, to turn the other way, to do nothing. In Barcelona I remember being shocked to see the beggars there: always making an effort to dress very respectably, but kneeling on the ground (on a cardboard mat or their backpack), head bowed, with open hands or a bowl extended. The picture of contrite shame. Forgive me for being poor. Please help me. People would rush past, toss a few coins, not looking, crossing themselves. There but for the grace of God go I.
This subject brings to mind 5 of Pentacles – a card in the Minor Arcana of the Tarot that is associated with worry, and with shame. Two beggars huddle beneath a stained glass window, gazing up wistfully and wishing they could come inside and get warm, eat soup, feel safe. But they are riddled with wounds and injuries, they wear foul-smelling rags, and their bodies are weak and malformed. They have no money. No one can see them out there behind the colored glass – no one can hear their mewling, pitiful cries muffled by the snow. They are too ashamed to go around to the front door to knock and be let in. Shame is what disconnects us from each other. It’s this same emotion at work when you ignore a homeless person at a red light. Roll up the window, blast the AC. Turn your head and bob to the music to avoid the pleading eyes. I have found that making eye contact, and offering a smile, a peace sign – some form of acknowledgment, “Hey, I see you. You are not invisible, even if I can’t easily help you right now.” It does make a difference, a little one. You can try offering that, even if you aren’t prepared to give money, or your light is about to change. Just connect. Or connect, and then give, if you want to. You can’t help every person, but sometimes you can help one. Handing out water bottles on hot days could potentially save a life. I remember the fairy tales of my childhood, where the heroic fool, or brave true-hearted girl helps the grizzled beggar-woman who turns out to be a good fairy. You just never know. Helping someone can feel like such a blessing. This past summer in Texas was blazing, and being outside in the noonday sun felt like baking in an oven. I passed by an old woman trudging across the bridge carrying heavy grocery sacks. Without even thinking about it, I pulled over and asked if I could take her to wherever she was headed. It took me less than five minutes out of my way. To see the joy and relief in her beautiful wrinkled walnut face was such a gift, smiling big with not very many teeth, giving me a kiss and calling me “mija” – my daughter.
I didn’t know my family was poor, growing up. I never saw it, never thought it – until much later. It was just normal, my family’s humble life – I thought we were no different really, from anyone else. Even when I went to a wealthy family friend’s mansion as a kid – I was too little to register that their relative opulence meant that our financial status was far lesser. They just had a much bigger house. More stuff. A larger television set. When I was young, I thought that boll weevils were called “bowl weevils” because they floated in your cereal bowl and you had to just eat it anyway. For some reason that didn’t seem as bad as at my best friend’s house, where there was never any milk, and you had to eat your generic cheerios with water instead. I didn’t know we were poor when us kids would be behind the old Ford Falcon, push-starting it in the pre-dawn November blue, our ears burning with cold, the smoke from our breath and the sputtering muffler making big clouds shaded scarlet from the taillights. The elementary schools I went to were all built in the 1950′s or so, low brick buildings with aluminum casement windows and cold bathroom stalls that had banged up metal doors, enamel paint scratched with 30 years of naughty children leaving their marks. All the kids were kind of scrappy there, except the girls who had mothers to put matching bows in their hair. There was no obvious class distinctions that I was aware of, other than that I couldn’t participate in the weird trend that developed in 5th grade of wearing double socks and double t-shirts, both matching. You’d wear a pristine pink t-shirt with a white one underneath, the sleeves of the white one rolled up over your shoulders so contrasting color cuffs showed. The socks would be pink over white, rolled and scrunched perfectly to show both colors. It was dumb, but I wanted so badly be able to pull it off and just be like other girls. But I was lucky to not wear the same grubby sweater days in a row. Even then, I knew I wasn’t as bad off as some. I still didn’t think of it as being about money, really. I thought it just had to do with having a mom to dress you. My dad did a great job raising me on his own after my mother died, but I looked pretty feral during those years when it was just he and I: long tangled locks, strange outfits I picked for myself and wore continuously, and a perpetually grubby face.
I first learned that we were poor when my dad remarried, and I had to switch schools. Even though we lived way out in the boonies, in a neighborhood bizarrely populated with shitty suburban tract homes, fancy mansions, and trailer parks – but all mixed up together instead of designated into either gated communities or the wrong side of the tracks. We lived out there so my step-brother and I could go to the “good” (i.e. rich) schools in that district. My eyes goggled the first time I saw my new middle school. I thought it looked like a shopping mall. Everything was new, shiny, and well-lit. I felt instantly alienated. Perhaps the timing of puberty played a part in the sudden awakening to my own awkwardness and outsider status, but it all became very clear to me that I was a have-not, surrounded by haves. Forget double-stuffed t-shirts and socks (with matching double scrunchies, how could I forget?) You were less than nothing if you weren’t wearing Z. Cavaricci, or Marithé+François Girbaud jeans with a Hypercolor t-shirt (that actually changed color according to your body heat! Whoa, so cool – and it really kind of was, except it did show when you were all nervous and sweaty like if you liked someone, I guess. So it’s probably good that I never had one.) I wore no brand names, but only because I had access to none. Our clothes came from garage sales, or discount markdown stores called Solo Serve, or Wiener’s. Buying clothes or anything other than some curly fries or gummi worms at the mall was out of the question, and even those were a stretch, a very special treat. I remember hearing my stepmom sobbing late one night, crying to my dad that we only had $17 dollars in the bank to get through the month. We went on the dole for school lunches, the special card you had to flash to remind everyone that you were one of the scrappers. My parents seemed to be worrying always, and then came that feeling as a child when you start worrying, too. You wonder if maybe you could sell some of your toys to help out (and then you start worrying about the day you’ll have to sell off all your toys). Your folks tell you with grim faces not to get your hopes up with your letters to Santa, because “Christmas is going to be light this year.” It didn’t help that I was a deeply traumatized kid, who often dealt with my overwhelming grief by having tantrums and acting like a spoiled brat. I associated things and stuff with love and attention, but no matter how much I had – I always wanted more.
I didn’t know the phrase until recently, but looking back, I think that there were times we were definitely “food insecure”. There never seemed to be enough to eat, though my parents always managed to scrape together our simple meals. Macaroni and cheese with frozen peas and tuna. Arroz con pollo. I left home at 16, to get away from the discord in my struggling blended family, and to hang out with my friends in town. I was technically homeless, but I never had to sleep on the street. There was always somewhere to go, even if it meant sleeping on the floor of the kitchen in an older friend’s garage apartment. Big cockroaches would march over me en route to the dirty dishes piled in the sink, but even though I could have moved back in with my parents, I picked bugs crawling on me over dealing with the situation at home. I just didn’t want to be there. Eating out of dumpsters felt adventurous and resourceful, like a smart raccoon foraging in the wild. I met so many of my dear friends at the food pantry where the gutterpunks and homebums filled their packs with donated dry goods. I felt like I had found my people, and I claimed my place among them as a proud rag-tag urchin, spare changing on the street and scorning the yuppies who avoided our eyes. I moved to New Orleans when I was 20, and began to learn what real economic disparity looked like. I used refer to myself as “poor” all the time. I’d say, “I can’t go to the movies with you, because I’m too broke right now.” I’d call myself “a starving artist”. But “starving” does not mean living off of beans and rice and cheap tacos or even packages of ramen. Starving means that your body begins to eat itself, when it has gone too long with nothing else. A group of my friends and I went down to the Yucatán, to Tulum, back when it was still cheap as hell and not too full of tourists. We were all fairly skint, staying in concrete block cabanas painted Pepto Bismol pink, with sand floors and ghost crabs dancing sideways over our toes. Still, it was a real vacation, and I realized seeing the way the street kids looked at us there, that in fact, we were quite rich. I have friend who has taken to saying that to remind himself, “I am so rich. My life is so rich!”
There have been plenty of times have I sat at my kitchen table with my head in my hands, wondering how the hell I was going to scrape up the cash to pay my electric bill, my credit card debt, the errant payment for my root canal that was sent to collections, the money for a reliable car after my 30-year old Volvo finally crapped out. And it’s always come. I’ve always been able to work, and I’ve worked since I was 12 years old or so. I’ve always worked, and I’ve always worried. About the rent going up, about not having enough, about always being stuck behind. This worrying though – it almost always occurred within my own (more or less) structurally sound shelter, with a roof over my head, and food in the pantry. There have always been enough clothes to wear (way more than enough! Too many!) and plenty of friends and family who would readily come to my aid, if I ever found myself otherwise. I know this, because so many did – after I lost nearly everything I had in Hurricane Katrina. I do believe that it is possible to shift the energy that we carry from the past – to try and move in a healthy way towards healing, towards a feeling that there is enough. Maybe not much, but enough. To find the abundance in what is already around us. Making use of what we have. Trying not to want for much more. This has an alien concept for me. I have a wishlist a mile long. I inherited my mother’s champagne taste – and her beer budget. Her letters to my grandmother are rife with money worries, and wishes for better things, a better life. It was during the recession in the 80′s, and jobs were scarce. She soldered computer circuit boards in an unventilated basement where she probably picked up the cancer that killed her – for $2 an hour. She had a fine education, intelligence, and was brimming with talents galore. She worked her ass off, and scrimped and saved for decently nice belongings. My mother never got to travel, never left the country she was born in to visit all her favorite paintings in European museums. I did that for her – I was able to travel widely, and to explore the world. I am privileged to live in a time and place, (and in a body) that affords me to have a much higher standard of life than she was ever able to experience. Did she suffer from poverty mentality? Reading her stressed out, embarrassed, always needy letters, yeah – I would say so. But her poverty lead to her untimely death. It wasn’t a concept, or a state of mind – it was her whole fucking reality. So much of abundance versus poverty is just the luck of the draw. Born into a rich family? Lucky you! Go do something awesome with it. But don’t believe for an instant that it has anything to do with your worth or value as a person. Born dirt poor? Well, shit. You could say this one ain’t your turn to be lucky, but sometimes you can turn it around. It does happen, that rags to riches story. It doesn’t have to be riches, even. Just enough – however much that is.
Yesterday, I bought a used velvet sofa from the 1940′s off Craigslist. It’s the first nice sofa I’ve ever had in my life. I paid $375 for it. Until I have a place to put it, it’s stashed in my friend’s storage unit. It’s such a bizarre concept: storage units to keep stuff we don’t need or aren’t using – protected and secure from the elements, climate controlled. We’ll pay for buildings to keep our stuff safe, but not provide housing to the homeless. There’s a guy who lives out of one of the units – a shitty one made of corrugated tin, with no electricity. His clothes are on a rack in there, and he gets dressed and puts on cologne before he goes to work. He has a place to sit inside where he can read a book. He might sleep in there sometimes. It costs $100 a month. I write this tonight, in my beautiful bedroom, with many candles burning in honor of the full moon, from a bed piled high with silk pillows. I went to the fancy grocery store today and navigated a hectic press of shoppers filling their carts with last minute feast preparations. I bought raw honey, lavender blueberry lemon pancake mix, and bright carnations the color of a Revlon lipstick: Cherries in the Snow. Luxuries. I lay these things out in the memory of my ragged ancestors. I enjoy all that I have thoroughly, and hope that somewhere, my mama’s spirit eases up a bit, knowing I’ve found a way to do alright for myself. I work hard, like her. I’m luckier than her, too – and I know it. I am fully aware that despite the humble way I was raised, that a combination of focus, determination, and privilege have aided me in being to pull myself out of that cold place. Privilege is another word that’s being used a lot lately – often in a way that’s meant to be negative, to invoke more shame. Check your privilege: like, check your fly – your wiener’s hanging out. Your privilege is showing. If you have it, yes – check it. But check it with a sense of gratitude when you take a minute to think on how truly blessed so many of us are, with whatever we have that affords us a privilege. Not to feel guilty, or shitty about it, because that never really helped anyone – but to acknowledge it, and to honor all you’ve received. To do something kind and loving with it. To be aware and awake. To remember where you came from, and honor the memory of your ancestors, whoever they are. To honor the ancestors of those who have not been so lucky. Offer help when and where you can. I guarantee it’s more often than many of us really do – and that includes me. We are so privileged to have roofs over our heads, and food to eat. To be able to feel safe in our homes, and to sit on the internet and read articles about whatever the hell we want. We have clean water to drink, showers and flushing toilets, and electricity so the lights stay on. Many of us have air-conditioning, heaters, and washing machines. Most people I know are still dealing with crippling debt from student loans and credit cards. Most still don’t have health insurance. It ain’t easy out there – but we’re still doing okay, way better than okay. My parents are really struggling this year – physically, emotionally and financially. So our Thanksgiving is going to be a small hodgepodge we’re cobbling together, with pre-made stuff from the grocery store, and dishes donated by friends. I’m bringing food and pies and love to the table, to my little family – in hopes that we can just be grateful for what we do have. Still, so much. More than enough. I’ve been thinking of some of my friends who I often see bowing their heads in a silent prayer of thanks before every meal. I’d like to be as mindful as them, to always stop before I dig in – and say thank you for all that I have. They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone – and that you can’t take it with you. This is true. Be glad for whatever is there. Hold on to that, your thankfulness. Try not to hold too tightly to anything else. Share what you have. There is enough for everyone, if we could all do that.
The Irish in America: Long Journey Home: The Great Hunger
Ashley Davis – Na Fatai Bana (feat. Paddy Moloney of the Chieftans)
Ashley Davis, one of my wonderful singing teachers at the Irish Music retreat I attended recently, taught us a song in Gaelic about the terrible blight that killed so many. She originally heard it sung in the documentary above, and tracked down the lyrics, which are a powerful paean and love letter to the humble potato. Peatsaí Ó Callanán (1791-1865) wrote “Na Fataí Bána” (“The White Potatoes”), originally a thirty-three verse lament on the state of Ireland in 1846.
Na Fataí Bána/White Potatoes
A thousand farewells to the white potatoes
For as long as we had them, a pleasant hoard
Affable innocent, coming into our company
As they laughed us at the head of the board.
They were help to the nurse, to the man and the child,
To the weak and the strong, to the young and the old
But the cause of my sorrow, my grief, my affliction
Them rotting away, without frost, without cold.
What will buy a shroud for those to be buried?
Tobacco, pipes or a coffin of wood?
And, of course, it would be a release if we could.
Mo mhíle slán do na fataí bána,
Ba subhach an áit a bheith in aice leo,
Ba fáilí soineannta iad ag tíocht chun láithreach,
Agus iad ag gáirí linn ar cheann an bhoird.
Ba chabhair don bhanaltra iad, don fhear is don gharlach,
Don lag is don láidir, don óg is don chríon,
Ach fáth mo dhocharna is ábhar m’angair,
Gur lobh na preátaí gan sioc ná síon.
Céard a cheannós bráithlín don fhear a sinfear
Tobac ná píopaí ná cónra chláir
Ach Ard Rí Fhlaithúnais le cabhair is slí ‘gainn
Agus ar ndóigh b’aoibhinn dhúinn dhá bhfaigheadh muid bás.
And, some more food for thought:
“In some First Nations tribes, if a person begins acquiring too much land and possessions they are considered mentally ill and a shaman is called in to heal them.”
“Own it if you want to be rich. Claim it if money is important but don’t hide behind the word abundance, because it’s now just a fancy word for greed.
I’ve changed my thinking around “abundance” since my mom died. I used to think I had a poverty mentality and I needed to work harder at getting comfortable with money. But now, I’m just grateful for the small. Since being gutted, I see clearly the fragility of the earth and how little control I have over my day. I’m dedicated to my path, almost militantly sometimes but I don’t do what I do in hopes of making more money. I do what I do because it fills me to the brim. I’m so fucking abundant it’s hard to bear but this has nothing to do with my bank account.”
In 2014, 48.1 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, including more than 15 million children.
This means that 1 in 6 Americans, and 1 in 5 children, lack consistent access to adequate food.
Forty percent of the food in the United States goes uneaten.
Americans throw away a pound of food per person, per day — or well over 100 billion pounds of food per year.
This number does not include the huge amount of produce discarded by millions of backyard gardeners.
“The Arabs used to say, When a stranger appears at your door, feed him for three days before asking who he is, where he’s come from, where he’s headed. That way, he’ll have strength enough to answer. Or, by then you’ll be such good friends you don’t care. Let’s go back to that. Rice? Pine nuts? Here, take the red brocade pillow. My child will serve water to your horse. No, I was not busy when you came! I was not preparing to be busy. That’s the armor everyone put on to pretend they had a purpose in the world. I refuse to be claimed. Your plate is waiting. We will snip fresh mint into your tea.”
– Red Brocade
by Naomi Shihab Nye
by Angeliska on November 11, 2015
I woke this morning of November the 11th to strange dreams again. My subconscious likes to dredge them up for me on this day, make me face them in the wavering dawn light, parse their dark meanings, sit with their harsh truths. I dreamt that I was pregnant, with a stillborn baby. This is the second dream I’ve had like this. I’m always wearing black in these dreams, smoothing the soft jersey over my roundness, a glass alembic flask, churning a nigredo. Last time, my belly was too small, the child unformed, not ready to be born yet. The crones, grey wise women are gathered around me in the dim center of my unfinished house, listening to my belly with a long funnel, shaking their heads sadly, saying “Her heart’s stopped beating… She was too little to live. A partial birth.” I know I will have to still give birth to what’s left, and I am distraught and howling, banging my head and hands into the wall – making a hole there in the rotted wood through which bright sunlight and cobalt blue beams break through. I feel like that was my last chance: that what I had will never come again. This time, there are many doctors are there to guide me through. Maybe it’s the wise crones again, but in white scrubs, their long grey hair tied up, wrinkled faces hidden behind white face masks. I have to expel the baby, give birth to what’s dead. I am squatting over the kitchen table, crying. Blood, sweat, and tears. All for nothing. Earlier in the dream, I helped a fearful woman give birth in just this way – successfully. These dreams are fraught with anxiety and sorrow, wrought in themes of birth, sex and death. I wake thinking: well, of course. Today is the New Moon in Scorpio, the sign that is all about just those very things. I scroll through the morning’s pages, and it’s all there: friends dying, their babies born, terrible tragedies, miraculous blessings, all at once, on the same day. Just like always, but sometimes it feels like it comes in these big black rainbow waves, these monumental tsunamis of birth/sex/death/life/love/tears/loss/joy rolling over you so fast and so hard you can barely see straight. What’s what? Which is which? It’s all together, all the time: this life. I’ve been having these birth dreams for a while, and I think I understand them better now – even as they get more and more complex.
For a long time, I dreamt I’d given birth to babies that ended up misplaced or neglected. I’d suddenly remember the infant I left on the sideboard and guiltily go hunt for where they might have gotten to. It was a self-abandonment, because the babies were always me! Then I started to have lots of raw and bloody labor dreams. These often felt full of trials and triumphs, I suppose the way most births go. Giving birth to myself. It’s almost as if I’m going forwards by falling backwards: into my own symbolic death. You see, I thought for a long time that these dreams were about motherhood – about this long held wish I had to be a mother, to nurture a tiny life inside my body, to feed my child from my breast. If it’s still possible one day, I hope to have the opportunity to experience that. If I can, if it’s right. But there are no guarantees, and I don’t have too much time left for it to suddenly be even a little bit closer to right than it is now. I’ve realized that until I really and truly get a firm grip on this whole self-love and self-care thing, I have no business trying to love and care for a small person who requires so much of that. I believe that goes for everyone, though I realize we are often forced to figure it out along the way. There’s no perfectly right time, and no one is ever really ready. But I am doing my work, and we’ll see what happens. One of my teachers said to me recently, “Do your work, and all things will come.” He keeps telling me this, so I keep trying, keep working. I know this dying into life is part of it. Being willing to let the old dreams, the dead dreams go. Flushing out what’s left, what’s stagnated. Clearing the air, the space for something new. I do not know what this newness looks like, so I just have to trust. Grieving the death of the old me: the tragedy of the sloughed selves, the old shades, cast off aspects of who we once were. I know in dreams I’ll likely continue for a while to be pregnant with myself, with possibility – learning how to carry those dreams to term. Finding the right ways to make the new dreams stick, to nourish them into being.
Room Eleven at the Eleven Inn for a girl born on the 10th day of the first month at 11:11am. Luckiest number. A month and a half ago, I was celebrating the full moon at the Eleven Inn in Balmorhea with a group of amazing friends. I felt that night that a part of all of us would be frozen in amber that night, watching the eclipse through a telescope, laying in the grass under the cottonwood tree, telling stories and secrets and wishes. Forever.
Last year, I dreamt of a botched wedding, a stranger bridegroom, and how it all went wrong. That cherished wish I had so much wanted to go right. I was willing to go through with anything, put up with anything, to be married at the end of the day. To finally belong. To have someone say to me: I choose you – forever. But that was in the dream only – in waking life, I called it off. It’s such a powerful thing, to be brave enough to do. To say: “I’m not ready.” or, “I’m not sure this is right. This may not be really what I want.” Or, for me – “I want this more than anything, I want you, us – forever. But not like this. If it stays like this is won’t end well.” And so it was done. I speak with so many people in my line of work who tell me how they knew, knew the awful truth while their maid of honor zipped them up in a sheath of white silk, knew it wasn’t right sitting in the limo holding their mama’s hand, knew it was too late as they walked down the aisle. But it’s never too late to say, “Stop! I am not sure I can go through with this. I’m sorry for disappointing you all.” No caterer or venue deposit or plane tickets or ring is worth getting married when you know you’re not ready for all that a marriage can bring. It is a real thing. I know this now. And now I can’t imagine sharing my life with someone again in quite that same way. Signing my name on the dotted line. Joining forces so completely. It would have to be so, so right. I don’t even know what that looks like anymore – and I’ve fought so hard to get my footing back as an independent person, a whole person who is doing all the things in life without a partner to lean on, to consider, to deal with. All the good things, and all the bad things. I heard a thought recently, that in a relationship, you’re either a project, or an ally. I don’t want to be anyone else’s project, and I have no time or will to think of fixing another person. But an ally – what would that be like, I wonder? The idea of partnership has taken on a whole new form and meaning for me. I respect the depths that two people can go to in each other when trust and desire are matched. The mysteries of relationship continue to unfold for me even though I’m choosing (mostly) to observe from the sidelines. The dance goes on around me while I practice the steps. I’d like to have a dance partner one day – a travel companion, someone to go on adventures with. Someone who will sleep out under the stars next to me, walk up the mountain with me.
She lives, the bird says, and means nothing
silly. She is dead and available,
the fox says, knowing about the spirits.
Not the picture at the funeral,
not the object of grieving. She is dead
and you can have that, he says. If you can
love without politeness or delicacy,
the fox says, love her with your wolf heart.
As the dead are to be desired.
Not the way long marriages are,
nothing happening again and again.
Not in the woods or the fields.
Not in the cities. The painful love of being
permanently unhoused. Not the color, but the stain.
– HOW TO LOVE THE DEAD, Jack Gilbert
Despite the heavy themes of my subconscious dreamtime wanderings, I had a very nice day. This day for me is reclaimed now. It’s mine again. Sometimes mine to spend wrestling with the old things, the things that happened, and the things that did not happen. Those things are mine, too. I don’t mind. I can claim it all. I let go of my blame, my resentment, my anger. I let go of the story of hurt, and being fucked over, and lost. I released my victimhood into the wild, and it was the kindest thing I ever did for myself. It happened when I was ready, and not before. The time I spent in the bottomless pit was entirely necessary. We can learn a lot in the abyss, in our own oubliettes. When I was down there, I would hear friend’s voices calling down to me, “You’re strong, you’re strong, you’re so strong! You can do this, you’ll make it through this!” I knew they were right, but I resented it – having to be so strong all my life, having to muscle through all the loss, keep a stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on. I wanted just one person to tell me that it was okay to be weak and broken and lost for a while. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay to fall apart, to grieve. Luckily, I had those friends too.
It took a little while, but I found my true strength there after nothing else was left. I learned how to call upon reserves of inner resilience that helped me keep my head down and persevere through the tangled woods. Not to give up, but to keep walking through my own nightmare, until I came out the other end. I know my own strength now. It’s not a buttoned up toughness, it’s not machismo, or empty bad-assery. It’s all the times I cried in front of strangers, it’s in all the ways I asked for help, and it’s in being willing to take responsibility for all the ways I participated in creating this mess for myself. Now I know how strong I am. Nothing can take that away from me now. I mark this day with writing again this year, because it helps me to see and understand how far I’ve come. How much I’ve grown, learned, healed. I’m not the same person that I was. I am and I’m not. That’s part of it, part of the process, and what happens after big traumas, big life changes. You’re a different creature, after. You have to learn how to work your wings, how to dance in your new skin.
Sitting with these memories today, what strikes me most are the kind, true, wise words from so many friends – ones I know, and some I’ve not yet met: bearing witness, sending love, encouragements and blessings for where this journey might someday bring me. I remember reading them at the time, and trying to take them to heart – but I was so numbed with pain then. Blind, deaf and dumb in the face of so much brutal change. I nodded at these good words, and tried hard to absorb them, to believe in them. I know many of them made their way in. I am so grateful for all the ways I’ve been held, guided and supported by my family of friends. They are the ones who can truly see how far I’ve come, and imagine how much more I could grow. Today, it’s all of the friends who read and who reached out, who were with me on that journey all along that I appreciate most – because I see that I was never really so alone. I had to go it on my own – forge the rough waters, and cry in darkened rooms. I had to feel the full breadth of that terrible aloneness – to know its dimensions, its limits. And now I know. The descent into the underworld is necessary. It cannot be contrived, or planned for, or orchestrated. It plunges you straight into the depths before you have a chance to catch your breath or get your bearings. And once you get down there, you have to face yourself. That wounded, betrayed, abandoned, forgotten about self. The dark sister who took all your pain for you, who now will make you pay. Hag-self, a lone Fury – terrible to reckon with. I wrestled with her for a long time, until our battle became an embrace. Ereshkigal and Inanna in the underworld. The monsters I ran from were in me all along, and only needed to be shown love, tenderness, compassion. Mercy. Forgiveness. Peace.
What did I do today? I woke up and meditated and wrote my stillbirth dream down. I drank tea and ate homemade tacos with my sweet friend. I played with my wonderful dogs, and they made me laugh with their antics. I wrote and wrote at my kitchen table and the golden afternoon light poured in. It was a gorgeous day. I went out into it and took myself shopping for incense and candles and aromatherapy gadgets and moon calendars. I treated myself nice and took my time and found a quiet corner to nibble salmon tartines, drink mint lemonade and write about The Lovers. Ironic, in a way, that today’s the day I needed to write about that particular tarot card. I’d been dreading it, really. But it felt good to write about what love is, and what it’s not. The consuming fantasy of romantic love, and the magic of unconditional love. I still have so much to learn about it, to understand about this card, and this subject. The union of opposites, the powerful alchemy that comes from joining them. That’s heartening in a way, and I hope I get the chance. No one has ever figured this shit out, in the whole goddamned history of humanity. It confounds us all, and yet – we know it’s everything. Love is all there is. I found a beautiful golden hoop with garnet (my birthstone) and rose quartz for self-love, made by a friend. I asked another friend re-pierce my septum and now I have this little adornment again. It was originally pierced when I was 15 by my friend who died this year. Full circle, that little golden loop. That it came with some pain feels right somehow, like the tattoos I got to mark my passage through this wild and strange valley. Owning the pain of that transformation, the rebirth, constant regeneration. Afterwards, I took one of my dearest friends out to dinner for her birthday, and we talked and laughed and I drove home through windy streets alone, to my place, the place where I belong. My home. I lit the candles and ate a pistachio eclair, and now I sit here, writing. My dog keeps putting her toy in my lap and gazing at me poignantly, patiently. I am not alone, actually. In a little while, I’ll crawl into my big bed and rest. Most nights, I dream of animal spirits, guides: horses with very distinct personalities, little brown bats trapped in my house, giant condors that let me fly on their broad backs over the Andes.
My life looks so, so different from how it once did, and yet I’m here, in the same place. My perspective has shifted radically, and I for once, am becoming the agent of my own changes – taking charge of what needs to be let go of, rather than always waiting too long and letting it just happen to me without my consent. No longer staying past the time where it made any sense to linger. Trying to hold on to what is falling apart. I’ve always been good at loyally loving the ones who don’t want to be with me, not really. And for some reason, not loving the ones who might love to be with me. I want to change this pattern, so much. I’m working on being okay with receiving. Working on wanting, but not needing. Taking action, embracing the transitions, and hopefully getting a little more graceful about it. These are the big lessons. A cold front is blowing in tonight, and the gales are tossing the trees, making the candles by the open window gutter. More change is coming. Count on it, because it’s the only thing that’s for sure.
I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
and a prescriptive literature of the spirit;
a storm snores on the desolate sea.
The nearest shop is four miles away –
when I walk there through the shambles
of the morning for tea and firelighters
the mountain paces me in a snow-lit silence.
My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
at night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.
I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud –
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like sunlight cleaving the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water
runs cold at last from the tap.
I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.
– The Mayo Tao by Derek Mahon
A part of me is living in this poem, walking alone on a rocky cliff by the sea. Pitching pebbles and humming a tune. A lighthouse rises out of the crags, the waves smashing around it, the air full of seaweed and salt. One day, I will be ready, and someone will be ready for me. We might go to the little warm place, a small cottage where the kettle is on and the bed is warm and waiting for us. I think that there is some kind of love waiting for me on the other side of this. I wonder what that will be like? We shall see.
A Small Love Letter
Will you meet me on the lava by the copper fire shore?
Will you find the fallow field & call it under-dreaming door?
When I find the broken button, when I cast the streaming line,
it’s your name I’ll thread so lightly through lithography & brine.
Will you keep the salvage open, heat & hold a running joke,
fish for peace & urchins, carve a gourd into a boat?
I will answer when you call me. I’ll ring hammers in the fog.
I’ll keep nightfall clairvoyant; build a bed from wheat & awe.
When you meet me on the lava, I’ll meet you on the ancient shore,
& we can sing to the dark center, paddle down with one long oar.
– Abe Louise Young
[Published in Borderlands]
This year has been filled with opportunities for me to work on doing lots of things that have intimidated me in the past. One of the biggest things for me is singing in front of other people. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I would break out into a sweat even attempting it. I’m feeling far more comfortable & confident lately (though I still get nervous!) and have learned so much in the past year. I was raised with traditional Irish folk music being played around me constantly by my parents and their friends, and it’s definitely in my blood and my heart. I remember way back 2011, when the wish began burning in me to sing. It’s taken me until now to really make it happen, but I’m doing it, and it feels good.
Here are two songs. The first one, Slow Moving Clouds, captures where I’m at pretty perfectly. And Lorraine’s Waltz was playing on the radio while I was writing this piece, and I think compliments the other song nicely. Both feel right for me right now.
This is something else that has been resonating with me very deeply, words of wisdom from an Irish poet who I adore:
JOHN O’DONOHUE — The Inner Landscape of Beauty – from On Being, With Krista Tippett
And all the words from before:
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.