An itch

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“Constantly risking absurdity/ and death/ whenever he performs/ above the heads/ of his audience/ the poet like an acrobat/ climbs on rime/ to a highwire of his own making…” –Lawerence Ferlinghetti

It has been a long time since I wrote here.  I missed holidays, seasons, thoughts and ideas.  I missed the click of keys and the scroll of ideas across the screen.  I missed writing.

I have been working to the point of exhaustion since my last post, both in person and online.  Days spent on my aching feet and nights straining my tired eyes have been so incredibly long.  As I have been working as a TA, grading papers and looking at the process that others go through as they write, I have missed it myself.  I envy them, getting space and time and an audience.  They get to collect and present their ideas.  They get to narrow topics, sift through articles, make arguments and craft titles.

I miss writing.  I decided early on that I would write here regularly as I teach, to keep my own sanity.  That has not happened so far, but I think it needs to.  As I made my way through the text for this course, Ferlinghetti spoke to me.  There is a drive, a frightening dare to create.  Something inside compels a writer to write, something that is greater than the fear of failure.  I miss that push, that scream that demands to be given voice.  It has grumbled and mumbled, but I have not given it a chance to develop because I haven’t made time to set it free.  I need that time.

In one of the texts I’ve used for teaching, the introductory chapter discusses, at length, the fact that no one is born a writer.  Good writers do not exist–they develop.  They practice and learn mechanics and understand how to structure a paper.  Good writers are made.  Which I belive, to an extent.  I spent years learning rules and diagramming sentences, identifying thesis statements and formatting bibliographies.  I learned to write.  I learned to articulate with conviction and support.  Great men and women showed me how to make thoughts bigger than they started, how to give them life and send them into the world.  They taught me to look at the words of others that came before, see what they meant and mean.  I learned to see the bigger picture, the web of people and life and literature that is more intricate and unbreakable than I know.  I learned to read and write, and how to read deeply and write powerfully.  I learned.

But that push inside me recoils, whimpering, “What about me?”  Aren’t writers born to do so?  Doesn’t something in me, unique and determined, make me write?  Isn’t it the same thing that drives painters to smear the canvas and chefs to filet?  Isn’t something inside me special, something that cannot be taught or learned?  Don’t I have something that makes me write, something that sets me apart?  Or is that all wishful thinking?  Is it only true for real writers, those who have something authentic and big to say with words that are not tired?  This idea, though meant to strengthen confidence, shook me.  If I am honest, I like to think that I am a good writer.  I want to be seen as someone who uses words elegantly and effortlessly, who puts words to thoughts that others cannot.  I want and like to think that I have a talent or, perhaps more powerful, a gift.  I want to think that I was made to write, made to express.  Those words, meant to convince everyone that they have the potential and ability to write well, took all of that away from me.  Perhaps that has also led to my lapse in writing–I feel doubtful.

The one thing that I have clung to, the one thing that I think I do well, was snatched from me.  Even knowing that I have worked hard in school, for years, to learn the skills that the text was encouraging students to learn, stings.  Learning to be a good writer is not the same as being one.  I want that gift that I am now unsure exists.  A skill is not as special, as defining, as a gift.

All of this has brought me here, starting yet again, with the intention to continue.  I guess I want to take time for me to continue to work on the skill that I have developed.  What I pray is that I find a tiny place inside where I still feel chosen to be a writer, born with graphite and pronouns coursing through my veins.  I want that joy, the thrill that string words together brings me.  I feel lighter, more agile and powerful, when the ideas are left on paper.  I need to remember this intense affection I feel for letters and spaces, and the world they create.

“If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me/ Threatening the life it belongs to/ And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd/ ‘Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud/ And I know that you’ll use them however you want to…” –Anna Nalick, “Breathe (2am)”

“Some Sweetness”

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“Grab somebody, come on down/ Bring your paintbrush, we’re paintin’ the town/ Oh there’s some sweetness goin’ ’round/  Catch it down in New Orleans…You wanna do some livin’ before you die/ Do it down in New Orleans…” The Princess and the Frog, “Down In New Orleans”

My final morning in the Big Easy started slowly.  I packed in a quiet apartment, before my hosts were awake, and thought about how quickly it all had passed.  I was so nervous about the trip, about everything involved, and now I wanted it to last indefinitely.  I straightened up the living room and tip-toed over the creaky wood floors, savoring each minute left in the city.

R and I drove back to the French Quarter for breakfast.  Early on a Sunday, it was just coming to life.  Families strolled the streets and vendors unloaded their wares.  It was just beginning to stretch out of sleep as we wandered in.  We walked down to the Mississippi River.  The Mississippi River.  It was surreal, something out of books and history, something huge and untamable.  We stood on its banks in the warming sun, staring out at the rippling water.  I may as well have been visiting the rings of Saturn.  It was all so mythic.  It was smaller than I thought, quieter, but still magical.

We walked the banks back to the historic Cafe du Monde.  Standing in the winding line, we watched people pass and eat.  We inched into the shade of the cafe, thankful for a little relief from the ever-hotter sun.  We picked our way to a table in the back, ready for the heavenly beignets to arrive.  We swooned over the cute children, covered in powdered sugar, being wheeled in in strollers.  Realizing that there is no dignified way to eat a beignet, I dove in.  R laughed as a fine, white dust settled on her black dress and I fought to find a way to bite without sugar coating my entire face.  Eating more than we should have, I finished my plate, reminding myself of Robert Frost’s insight: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Breakfast at the Cafe du Monde!

After  breakfast, we walked back to the car, taking a detour through the French Market.  Looking through used books, shot glasses, produce and drinks, I picked up a small souvenir to send home and we hopped back in the car and headed to church.  I was a bit nervous about going to church, but R wanted me to see it and I wanted to enjoy all of her New Orleans.  We pulled up under a tree and she pointed out that we were parked next to a few of the remaining Projects.  Even they were beautiful.  Red brick houses with old trees lining the streets made even the neediest part of the city enchanting.  We walked into the building and I immediately felt out of place.  After growing up Protestant in a Catholic school, I still feel unwelcome when I attend mass.  I sat alone in the pew as R ran to the bathroom, and looked around the sanctuary.  Transported back to my theology classes in college, I noticed a lot about the church without speaking to anyone.  It was bright, open.  The colors were light and welcoming.  The Stations of the Cross were closer to folk art than anything else and beautiful.  R pointed out that there is only one crucifix in the building, and it is off to the side of the altar, out of sight.  People walked around, some praying, others chatting.  The choir warmed up, piano music floating through the room.

The choir leader emerged from behind the piano, which was adorned with a Saints pennant.  She walked to the front of the sanctuary, dressed in a Saints jersey, black leather pants, and a gold chain belt.  She talked to those of us who were seated, explaining the new language that has been added to the mass and how to follow along.  She was lively and funny, engaging as she readied the congregation for mass.  Then the service began.  The music was enlivening.  The piano played, a horn and saxophone joined in, a drum kept time and a tambourine made appearances.  People sang with joy, the priests swaying at the altar as they did.  Everything that could be sung was, and it was sung with zest.  The mass was familiar but new, welcoming in ways it never was before.  We sang the Lord’s Prayer.  We sang “Peace Like a River” after the sign of peace, which was mashed up with Sinatra’s “When You’re Smiling.”  It was a party, relevant and accessible in ways that I had never felt before.  The mass, which was the same one we crashed at the cathedral, was tailored to its congregation, meeting their passions and needs beautifully.

The priest’s homily hit me deeply.  Tears flooded my eyes as I realized why exactly I loved this city.  He talked about giving to Caesar what is his and God what is His.  He talked about life, how it is fleeting and the important things are what belong to God.  “Amens” filled the air as he continued, a far cry from the silent, formal masses I knew from childhood.  He talked about money belonging to Caesar, because it is stamped in his image, and us belonging to God, because we are created in His.  He instructed that we are to give everything to God, because our lives are His: money, time, burdens, joys.  As the mass concluded, the recessional hymn was a game day tradition: “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  And then a “Who dat?” chant started.  R grinned widely, at home in room of people in love with life and their city.

We got back in the car and I tried to explain what I was thinking and feeling.  We drove through New Orleans and down to the 9th Ward.  She explained the Ward system, described different neighborhoods, and prepared me for what I was about to see.  As we rolled through the streets, I caught glimpses of gutted houses, rotten porches.  Spray paint still marks homes, though I didn’t even want to ask what it all meant.  As we arrived in the Lower 9th, I was fascinated by it all.  I had expected something frightening, a graveyard of houses.  I imagined dark, decaying messes, frames falling apart, destruction everywhere.  In fact, there were cute little homes, brightly colored, all over.  They were smaller than the ones on St. Charles, but I couldn’t help but love them too.  She explained that every empty lot I saw was once a home.  I saw quite a few, filled with dirt or looking like a lawn with no home to claim it.  We crept over the jagged streets and asked if I truly understood what I was seeing.  I apparently wasn’t.  There were plenty of clear lots, but there were also countless homes in fields of grass, reaching at least shoulder-height.  These were once homes too.  What looked like a house built on a lot with meadows surrounding it was a neighbor to an un-kept lot.  Then it hit me just how much was missing, what was lost.  It was weird, driving past places where people died and entire lives were lost.  We talked about whether we would come back, if we lost everything, or if we would just rather not see it all.  She showed me the homes Brad Pitt was helping rebuild.  They were cool, but couldn’t hold a candle to the beauty of the aged New Orleans.

We got back on the Interstate, driving toward my trip home.  We passed through a massive cemetery, lining both sides of the freeway.  White tombs litter the graveyard, housing generations of families together.  They keep the dead away from the mud and rain, keep them buried in the storm.  As I hugged R goodbye, I was sad to leave it all.

I tried to explain to her what I had fallen in love with.  New Orleans is a city at ease with tragedy.  It is violent.  Cemeteries litter neighborhoods.  Brass bands lead funeral processions.  Katrina still lurks, a scar that they cannot shake.  In the middle of all of this is Bourbon Street, children dancing in church, artists lining the street.  There are festivals and music, drinks for everyone and hospitality freely shown.  It is a city with every reason to mourn and fear, but it chooses life.  There is a choice to live the little time we have, to accept that it will end, and the determination to taste all that we can of this world.  The passion and zeal of the city are inspiring, it bursts with energy and celebration.  They dance for marriages and deaths, communion and touch downs.  It is the opposite of my life–vivid and electric.  It refuses to give up or grow up, greeting each day like a child: twirling through life with wonder and radiance.

“Mardi Gras is the love of life.  It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living.  All at once.”  Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

“Dreams do come true in New Orleans”

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“I’m not going to lay down in words the lure of this place.  Every great writer in the land, from Faulkner to Twain to Rice to Ford, has tried to do it and fallen short.  It is impossible to capture the essence, tolerance, and spirit of South Louisiana in words and try to roll down a road of clichés, bouncing over beignets and beads and brass bands and it just is what it is.  It is home.”  –Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic

There is a magic to New Orleans that cannot be put down in words–it must be lived.  On Saturday, R and I woke up a little later than planned and got dressed to go see the mythic French Quarter.  As we walked down the street to catch the Street Car, the sun was warm and a cool breeze sifted through our hair.  We climbed onto the full car and rattled down St. Charles.  As my curls tangled through the open window, whipped in the sun, I drank in more of the beautiful architecture.  R, being the girl she is, struck up a conversation with a lost couple next to us.  They asked where to get off for Lafayette Square and she directed them, asking what they were up to.  They told us there was a festival, so we decided to get off with them and see what was out there.  We wandered through booths and heard a little music.  R told me “I love a good festival!” and that summarizes New Orleans well.  We got breakfast–a beer for R and the best pina colada on earth for me–and walked on.  (One of the strangest, and most enjoyable aspects of New Orleans was the ability to drink on the streets.  It never felt normal to get a drink to go, but it was wonderful!)

R wanted me to see a Second Line, so we walked to City Hall for the Occupy NOLA protest, listening for the band.  As we sipped and watched, R saw some of her friends from school, who stopped to chat for a moment.  They told us that the band could not be booked, and no Second Line was coming, but they were heading our direction, so we joined them.  We were accidental protestors.  “This is what happens when you fly by the seat of your pants!” she said with a wide grin.  Walking with the protestors was surreal and we were glad to have alcohol on our side.  A young girl rode on her parent’s shoulders on the outskirts, taking in the scene.  Signs were everywhere, all angry about something different.  A woman marched in front of us with a sign on her backpack reading, “3 degrees, 2 jobs, and I can’t sell my house.  I’m tired and angry.”  A drummer walked next to us for a block, flanked by a saxophone player, as people shouted “This is what democracy looks like.”  As we entered the Quarter, we broke free and left behind the shouts of unrest.

We stopped in a stately hotel, cool behind its white pillars, and glimpsed the slowly turning Carousel that made up the bar.  After the pit stop, we strolled the streets, passing galleries and shops and a cat in a window.  We wandered the historic streets, older than the stars and stripes.  The corners bore tiled signs, proclaiming the names the streets were known as under Spanish rule.  Stone and brick sidewalks turn into cobbled alleys, old shuttered doors bright and warm.  We wound down to Jackson Square, arriving just as horns began to echo.  We were surprised by a Second Line!  We stopped to watch, as the band approached, and clapped as the bride and groom followed.  We walked past the artists, work strewn on tables and pinned on fence bars, and the fortune tellers, browning in the autumn sun.  Skinny streets with beautifully old names crisscrossed through history and we wound up next to the mule-drawn carriages.  Promised a cheap ride if we joined strangers, we toured the Quarter by carriage, listening to tidbits of history and lore, seeing the oldest bar in America (Jean Lafittes Black Smith Shop), the only business open during Katrina (Johnny White’s), and an elementary school just off Bourbon Street.  Back at Jackson Square, we admired Saint Louis Cathedral, popping in for a look around and a homily about economic justice.  We walked back past the art vendors, enamored with a collection of bird paintings, and then headed for lunch.

We entered an almost empty dining room at the Gumbo Shop, which I would have walked right past if R hadn’t stopped me.  We entered the cool restaurant, seated next to the window where we watched a large woman, dressed all in red, clean up her keyboard and seat for the day.  R ordered gumbo and I enjoyed my first po’ boy after we shared an order of alligator sausage.  It was all new, steps away from all that I know and have ever experienced, and it was delicious–just like the city itself.  Full, hydrated, and content, we left our first real meal of the day for more walking.  Our feet had grown tired and we had not drunk nearly enough for a day in the Quarter, so we made our way down Bourbon in and into Pat O’Brien’s, where we would stay for much longer than we intended.

In the dark, smoky piano bar, we found an empty table near the stage and sat down with my first hurricane.  Sipping and singing, we watched tables fill and empty and fill again.  We heard some songs three or four times, and grew excited when a new one was requested.  We were mesmerized by their fingers, pounding and flying, effortlessly creating every song we threw at them.  The players cycled through, as did our drinks, and we sang on.  Finally R’s roommate joined us, which called for another round of drinks, and shouted our day’s journey to her over the music.  Eventually we tottered our way out, squeezing between crowded tables, and found that it had grown dark outside as well.  We walked to the car, taking Bourbon just to say that I did, and slowly drove away from the Quarter, just beginning to pick up for the night.  We listened to her roommate’s day, filled in details of ours, and decided some food was in order.  We drove through Rally’s, another new taste, though much more familiar than alligator.  We limped home, tired and hungry, and snuggled in for a little television before sleep.

At the end of the day, it felt like we had live a week.  It felt forever ago that we climbed onto the Street Car, and we crammed as much into a day in the French Quarter as possible.  I got to see and taste the city, breathe in the pounding heart of New Orleans.  It is a place of history, rich in humanity.  The streets ring, sing right along with the brass bands marching.  People come to perform, to dance and play, to paint and predict.  People come to where the life is.  For one day, I was one of the people who came to the Quarter, one of the pulses creating the beat of the street.

“You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands.  Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”  –John Updike

Shakespeare, the city and me

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“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.”  –Mark Twain

On my first full day in New Orleans, I was left alone for most of my day.  R had to work, so I woke early (even earlier when I remembered the two-hour time difference) and tried to plan for my time alone in the city.  I spent my first hour catching up with my online obligations for my new job and then debated where to wander.  I checked (and double checked…or triple checked) that I had the spare keys in my pocket (and that they worked…some things never change) and headed out into the streets.  I packed a camera and went to see just what there was to see.

I started out searching for St. Charles to see the historic homes.  I stopped at the corner to watch the street car pass and dodged through some traffic.  I had big plans.  I was going to find a coffee shop, get breakfast, and take in the neighborhood.  I walked and gave myself whiplash looking at all the houses.  Everything is old and wonderful.  Houses are wrapped in cozy porches and balconies.  They hide behind twisting wrought iron.  Bricks are everywhere and broad, white columns stand tall watch.  I could look at those buildings forever.  I fell in love with the old, full trees shielding me from the sun and the bright colors splashing relief against the russet bricks.  I kept watch for my destination and kept walking.  And walking.  And walking.  I passed schools, towering and stately, and more of the delicious homes.  And more.

After a half hour of walking, my feet were sore and the sun left few places to hide from its rays, so I turned to go home.  I walked and savored the homes, the beauty of the old neighborhood.  I stopped suddenly, overtaken with a sweet aroma: floral notes, melted with a fruity scent.  I searched for what the smell could have come from, but could not determine its source.  It smelled like a summer day in the South should.  I lingered over water meter covers, the quiet beauty of something so mundane.  Every street name, tiled into the cement from bygone decades, broadened my smile.  Sweating and aching, I came to my final street crossing and looked at what I had missed before: St. Charles was the first intersection I had come to.  Frustrated that I had missed the mark by so far, and reaffirming that Charlie Brown in me, I went inside to rest.  My feet were blistered and face pink with the midday sun.  So I showered, turned on a movie, and relaxed in the beautiful apartment, tiptoeing over the dark, hardwood floors and lounging under the ceiling fan.

R came home late, so we hurried to get cleaned up and head out for the night.  We started by meeting two of her friends from school for dinner.  I continued to step into a limbo of familiar-new with cajun-mexican food at Juan’s Flying Burrito: jerk chicken nachos.  They were delicious and her friends were wonderful.  They were funny and sweet and instantly treated me like one of the girls.

After laughter and dinner, we set off for the New Orleans Museum of Art for a night of Shakespeare under the stars.  We wandered in, taking our program/fan from the children at the entrance, and got a drink.  We spread our blanket on the grass and settled in as R pointed out acquaintances and professors.  As A Midsummer Night’s Dream opened, I was more enamored with the experience than the play.  We watched the beginning on a grass slope and then moved further into the garden for the bulk of the play.  Trees spread overhead, dripping with moss and fairy trinkets, as the action unfolded in the hollow below.  As I bored of the story, never one of my favorites, I noticed the moon beginning to rise.  It was massive, yellow, magical.  R noticed it too and we were transfixed.  As the play closed, we followed the fairies around to a pond, where the cast rowed out onto the water to close.  It was such a wonderful experience, unique and tactile–theater as it should be.  We loaded up the blanket and left for a bar.

My single gripe about New Orleans is that smoking is still allowed in bars.  Gross.  But we entered and R warned me that it is a “pet-friendly” bar.  We found stools and ordered drinks as a small wiener dog ventured across the floor, looking exactly like my own.  He scampered off into the dark back room and we met more of her friends from school.  They were beautiful, smart, outgoing girls and I felt a benevolent jealousy of her world.  They are passionate and driven to make the world a better place, and have more fun than anyone I know.  We drank and talked until late and then headed home.  Smelly and blistered, my eyes were heavy and ready for some rest.

The play was delightful.  It was a remarkable experience, sitting huddled with the crowd, rapt beneath the moon.  We shared a magical night, sitting among the statues in the shadow of the museum.  The bar was fun, seeing R in her world, her life at its most silly and joyful.  I have felt recently, and my stroll through the neighborhood confirmed, that I was born at the wrong time.  The cracked sidewalks and bumpy bricks tell a story.  The houses are old, have endured and seen, adapted and withstood.  I find comfort and peace in the beauty of the old, something that new, state-of-the-art can never bring.  The steadfast trees and porch swings beckon me and welcome my soul home.  For an hour, those streets were mine, and we both loved it.

“Over hill, over dale,/ Thorough bush, thorough brier,/ Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire,/ I do wander everywhere.” –William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Big Small-Town City

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“Got nothing against a big town/ Still hayseed enough to say/ Look who’s in the big town/ but my bed is in a small town/ Oh, that’s good enough for me…”  –John Mellencamp, “Small Town”

I’m a homebody.  I’m boring.  I like routine and familiar.  I like comfortable.  I grew up in a small town and, while I have enjoyed some of the luxuries of the big city, I miss it.  I don’t fly by the seat of my pants.  I don’t do adventure.  I don’t try new things and most of the time I regret it, and then do not try something new the next time I have the opportunity.  I’m predictable and small.  Sometimes, though, I dream about being big and having stories to tell.  I think about what it would be like to be different, to be interesting, to be alive.  So, when one of my closest friend, R, left for graduate school at Tulane and continually invited me to come visit her at Tulane, I planned a trip with every doubt and reservation in the world.

Nervous and unsure of what to really expect, I left home last Thursday and took flight to the Big Easy.  I was off to see how R lives, so far from everything I know.  Sitting on the plane, I worried about so much.  Would it be too hot?  Would it be filthy?  Would I find new food that I liked?  Would it be scary to walk around in such a violent place?  Would I be boring and disappointing as a guest and friend?  Would I overstay my welcome?  What in the world would I find?  Would it be a miserable weekend?  I was calmer flying than I expected, but the nerves came as I stepped into the airport.

I am not an adventurer.  I stepped into a new place, not sure of where to go.  I felt embarrassed, lost among the people who knew these walkways.  I made my way out the doors and found R waiting for me.  I hopped in the car and drank in the dark sights along the highway on the way home.  We wound through tight streets and sped through the gaps in the neutral ground, which I never got used to during my visit.  The sun had set, but I could still make out the neighborhoods that we drove through.  I fell immediately in love with the houses, the porches, the wrought iron railings, the old trees sweeping over head.  I could not drink in enough of the streets.

Feeling a little less nervous, we climbed the stairs in her quaint, beautiful building and dropped my bags off.  Lingering a little on the crystal door knob, I pulled the door closed and headed out for my first real steps into New Orleans.  We crept down the street, past a pale cemetery bathed in moonlight, and turned down Magazine Street.  I felt a funny recognition, the shops looking like our beach areas here.  We passed bars and boutiques, yoga centers and apartments.  We stopped for pizza–familiar and safe for my first venture into the unknown.  We sat on the sidewalk and watched people walk, and stumble, by.  We saw a couple of her friends from school and watched a man’s car get towed.  We chatted and it really didn’t feel like I was anywhere but home.

After dinner, we went to a small bar, favored by locals, and had my first drink in the city.  In a number of the bars we went to, mojitos were prominently advertised.  It was strange to see something other than margaritas being pushed, and exciting.  I had a blueberry mojito, boasted as the best in the city, and quickly decided that it would be my last.  But I was brave and fought every instinct that pushed me toward the familiar.  We sat on the patio, bathed in smoke (also VERY different from California) and talked about family and boys and work–the familiar in the new.  After our drinks we went home to settle in and watch a movie.  She had to work the next day and I was getting my sea-legs, easing into the big outside world.

That first night, I was comforted by how underwhelming some aspects of New Orleans are.  I expected a sensory overload, people everywhere and no escape from the party.  On the contrary, her neighborhood is quiet and calming.  Life is simple and casual, slow and easy.  I expected big city grandeur, the anxiety that comes with drowning in traffic, sky scrapers, people and rush.  Instead I found a city that reminded so much of home, of life in a town too small for a Costco.  The city is cozy, comfortable with its smallness.  I admire that.  I revel in it.

There is much more that I saw and loved about New Orleans.  That first night, I was surprised to be drawn in and embraced by the city, not swallowed alive.  As I leapt from my comfort zone and dove into travel, I found that I landed somewhere comforting and wonderful.

“Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city/ Linger on the sidewalk/ Where the neon lights are pretty/ How can you lose?/ The lights are much brighter there/ You can forget all your troubles/ Forget all your cares…” –Petula Clark, “Downtown”

Food for Thought

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“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?”  –Lin Yutang

Today Anderson Cooper spent his new show talking about (disordered) eating.  Food is such a base, simple need that is loaded with unbelievable baggage.  We need food from before we are out of our mothers’ wombs, and continue to need it until the day we die.  It is ever-present, both background and foreground for the most important and mundane moments of our lives.  Food is a matter of life and death.  While it seems so simple, such an afterthought, it really is a complex piece of our lives.

As someone lucky enough to live a life where my next meal is not a mystery, where I know that I can choose what I consume, food takes on much more symbolism.  It intricately ties itself to memories and people, to places and emotions.  Cooper admitted to being a surprisingly picky eater and other people talked about idiosyncrasies with respect to their dining rituals.  As a picky eater, I felt validated that there are others out there who share in my aversions, my fears, and my embarrassments.  As I prepare to make myself dinner, with this show on my mind, I’m thinking very seriously about food.

I go through phases when I will crave something and eat it almost exclusively, and then will lose my taste for it.  Right now my taste for spicy food is dominating my palate.  While I still fear new foods, my old standbys are getting a little punch with some chipotle or jalapeno.  And while there are foods that I try and gain a taste for, there are some things that I will never refuse, that I am always in the mood for.

With the absurd request of recently-executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, many are asking what their last meal would be.  I spent a long overnight shift answering this one for myself.  After one of the most fascinating stories I gleaned from This American Life (Poultry Slam 2007), the question stuck with me.  After hearing about the legendary last meal of forbidden ortolan (you really need to listen to, or at least read, the story), I wondered what I would eat.  During a silent night of work, the thought settled on my mind and I quietly realized what I would eat, with no reservations.

If I knew I had only one meal left to eat, I would want my mother’s chicken and dumplings, drink strawberry Quick, and enjoy my grandma’s chocolate balls (yep, laugh all you want) for dessert.  When I’m hot and craving something sweet, nothing quenches my thirst like Diet Coke.  There is no pizza like a hot Round Table pie.  I love the soft, gooey sweet bread my grandma makes each Christmas.  I have a sandwich place I would eat at every day to keep in business.  There are plenty of foods that I love and would eat any time, any place, but that would be my last meal.  I would savor the hot broth, tender chicken shredded in it, saving the heavy, chewy dumplings for last, sprinkled with salt and lemon pepper.  I would remember every cold night, warmed by the scoops out of the steaming pot.  I would remember my family, silently gathered around the table, burning our tongues on the hot broth because we cannot wait to eat the delicious tradition.  I would sip my pink milk, remembering my little mouse glass, the lunches of grilled cheese and crackers.  I would remember being young, as much as I could, and the special treat that strawberry Quick was.  The cool milk soothing my burnt tongue, I would eat until my stomach burst with warmth, heavy with winter.  Then, after the hot meal, I would enjoy the semi-frozen chocolate candy that my grandmother makes each Christmas.  Small, sweet balls of graham cracker, peanut butter and coconut, coated in dark chocolate, are a sure sign that the holidays have arrived.

My mouth waters as I think of the foods, able to recall the tastes as I imagine the glorious meal.  While delicious and satisfying, the meal would be made infinitely better because it is tied together with love.  My mom, leaning against the counter as she stirs the large, stainless steel pot of chicken never gets more thanks than on those nights.  My grandma, year after year baking, her tanned hands forming each ball and dipping them, freezing them and always keeping a few hidden until New Year’s for us.  My dad, stirring the gritty drink mix in as we kids climbed up to the table for lunch.  The last meal I would choose wouldn’t be some of the best food on earth, but it would be food that makes me feel indescribably loved.  It is food that links me to my family, food that brings me home.  There are plenty of other things I enjoy eating and restaurants I love, but this is the food that sustains me, the things that make eating life-giving.  What would your last meal be?

“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Teresa

Ten Years

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“The stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation; the great peaks of honour we had forgotten–duty and patriotism, clad in glittering white; the great pinnacle of sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to heaven.”  –David Lloyd George

Ten years passed.  Ten years of living in a new world.  Ten years of mourning and fear.  Ten years of questions and anger.  Ten years of life and death.

I was 16, up early for school.  I showered first, early in the morning, and often went back to sleep or caught up on homework.  In a dark, quiet house, I watched the news more for the running clock in the bottom corner than for any headlines.  I was putting on socks.  All stories stopped short and footage rolled from New York, a plane collided with a building.  It was shocking and confusing, reports muddled and brief.  Could an accident this ugly really happen?  As reporters relayed what they knew, questions arose.  As a serious concern descended on the Bay Area newsroom, I became more glued to the coverage.  As reporters shared what little was known, a second plane took the nation by surprise, live.  I kept getting ready for school and remember telling my mom as she readied my little brothers in the bathroom.  I was brushed off, clearly mistaken.  I left for school and found my zero period Chemistry classroom flooded with radio coverage.  We listened as buildings collapsed.  I remember the principal making an announcement.  I remember coming home from school, canceling my babysitting appointment that night and the man not understanding why I wanted to be home with my family.

“What broke in a man when he could bring himself to kill another?”  –Alan Paton

I remember sitting in the living room that evening, watching television coverage.  The news continued all day, anchors tired and windows growing dark.  Images of the buildings, of the collapse, of people running and jumping and crying streamed.  It continued for hours, days.  More death, more destruction, more hatred.  It was all so senseless, so unnecessary.  It was brutal and cruel, targeting civilians and innocents going about life and work.  It was unbelievable.

Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance.  It is also owed to justice and to humanity.  Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.”  –James Bryce

Then, among the carnage, something amazing began.  People came together.  People loved and helped however possible.  People gave and gave and supported.  People were human.  In the face of blind hatred, optimistic courage poured forth.  Much like the Whos, America was about more than business and skyscrapers.  Taking away our pretty things, taking away our family and friends, would not destroy us.  We became stronger than the violence that sought to rend us apart.  There was a shining moment when all that was right with our country, all that we idealize and cling to, shone.  We were the American dream: rich, strong, generous and brave.  We were the promise for a tomorrow, no matter how dark the day.

(Frodo) “I wish none of this had happened.”

(Gandalf) “So do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  There are forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”  –Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring

Life is not the same today.  The world is different than it was ten years and one day ago.  I resent that my safety was stolen, my security erased–the world is a scary place.  I resent that I can’t take liquids on a plane, that I can’t meet my parents at their gate as they arrive.  I resent that every fly over for the football games down the street stops my heart and makes my stomach lurch.  I resent that concentrate, small hatred has ruined so much for so many.  Today should be unremarkable.  It should be just another Sunday, wedged between my aunt’s anniversary and a close friend’s birthday.  It was not supposed to be this way.

“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”  –Kurt Vonnegut

And, most years, the day passes as routine.  The date stands out and a slight anxiety surrounds it, but it blends rather seamlessly with the rest of the year.  What I lost was ineffable, theoretic.  There are so many others who lost concrete, tangible pieces of their life.  I was lucky.  But this year, with the tenth anniversary, I am much more aware of the day.  I am astonished that ten years have passed, that sixteen year-old me lived in such a different world.  As I watch the memorials and coverage, I have been unexpectedly moved.  Last night I watched as four firefighters recounted the woman they saved from the tower, and how she stopped to rest as the building crumbled.  Even though they had helped carry her down, she stopped at the perfect spot, cocooning them in the stairwell and protecting them.  The tears welled in my eyes as they reunited, the four tough men stooping to hug the lady.  Tonight I watched the real-time footage documented with the fire department.  As they entered tower one, filling the lobby, my body tensed and I had to keep myself from shouting, “get out!” at the television.  As off-duty men arrived at the station and suited up, racing into the destruction, the tears came.  All of the fear and devastation came back.  The bravery and unimaginable humanity overcame me as they did then.  It was all raw and real, just as confusing and painful as the day it happened.

Ten years has been a long time.  I am a different person and the world has changed.  But it also feels like yesterday, like the dust has not yet settled.  In some ways, it hasn’t.  But today, I know that I love this country.  I love the people who love it.  I am humbled to live under the same flag that flew over those men and women who rushed to their deaths to spare others from theirs.  Today was a very different day.

“The real differences around the world today are not between Jews and Arabs, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims, Croats and Serbs.  The real differences are between those who embrace peace and those who would destroy it, between those who look to the future and those who cling to the past, between those who open their arms and those who are determined to clench their fists.”  –Bill Clinton, 1997

A Dark Day

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“In the future, can’t wait to see/ If you open up the gates for me…It’s kinda hard with you not around/ Know you in Heaven smilin’ down/ Watchin’ us while we pray for you/ Every day we pray for you/ ‘Til the day we meet again/ In my heart I’ll keep you friend/ Memories give me the strength I need to proceed/ Strength I need to believe… I still can’t believe you’re gone/ Give anything to hear half your breath…”  –Puff Daddy, “I’ll be Missing You”

September 8th is a difficult day.  It marks the anniversary of my aunt’s death, which rocked my family.  My mom’s only sister, her death was incredibly painful and something that we just don’t talk about.  In fact, her name is only mentioned with the greatest caution.  While she crosses my mind throughout the year, the day we lost her always comes with an empty ache, a fog that makes everything else so much less important.

Terry was the first person I knew who died.  I had friends who lost parents and knew of some girls who had tragically died when we were in junior high school, but no one that I knew, that I loved, that I had a relationship with, had died before.  I remember the frustration and deep, novel sadness that overcame me.  As a freshman in high school, I was in a difficult middle place between wanting to be comforted and coddled and feeling compelled to comfort my mother.  It pains me that we do not talk about her.  I hate that she is taboo, too hard to remember because she was wonderful.  I know that we turn the dead into saints, and she had plenty of demons that she faced and conquered in her life, but she became a wonderful woman.  I actually spent very little time with her, but she was an inspiration.  On top of defeating addiction, she was the mom I hope to be–she led her daughter’s scout troop, shuttled her children to archery and AWANAS, loved her grandbaby fiercely, and met the neighbor kids at the front door to pray with and for them before they walked to school each morning.  Her family fell apart after her death and now, twelve years later, I still do not see the silver lining, the reason, the good that came of all this.

This unresolved anger, the senselessness of her passing, is perhaps why I feel so unsettled on the anniversary.  As I drove to work, I was incredibly stressed and tired.  I had (big shock!) computer complications that made me miss an important conference early in the morning and was running on just a couple of hours of sleep as I left for a long day of work.  For the last month and a half, the only thing that I have listened to in the car has been the Avenue Q soundtrack.  I closed at work the night before, so I had listened to the radio on the way home because Love Line is a super secret shame of mine.  As I started my car, the radio was still playing.  Before changing over to my cd, I scanned my presets just to see what I was missing.  In a moment that makes me think that “coincidences” are just a simplistic word for God at work, the song that opened this post, good old Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” was just starting.  My eyes flooded and throat closed, but I couldn’t turn it off.  A cheesy remnant of my adolescence, this song is so full of sorrow and strikes me as painfully sincere.  It was a reminder of Terry, of her day, that sadness and anger is okay, and that her memory and legacy live on.  I haven’t heard that song in years, but it made its way, in its entirety, into my drive.  Mourning with the radio made me feel a little less alone.

As the day dragged on and the city baked in an above-average heat, the day looked to be as bad as it could be.  And then everything went black.  From Mexico to Orange County, the Pacific to Arizona, electricity disappeared.  Of course.  Because when it rains, it pours on the day I forgot my umbrella.  Sitting in the darkness, unable to leave work, I thought about the fatigue overtaking my body.  I thought about my stressful morning, about how tired I am of having the worst-case scenario always play out, and then I thought about Terry.  The day was just overwhelming.  I felt small and helpless and very, very alone.

I finally got home and quickly rounded up candles and flashlights.  I called home quickly to tell my parents I was alive and, if something more sinister struck while we were without power, that I loved them.  I settled for the most edible of my food and finally gave into the darkness and went to bed.  Laying in the still, hot darkness, willing my open window to carry a breeze instead of the roar of freeway traffic, I drifted in and out of light sleep.  I woke up and hoped that when I checked the time on my phone that the night had passed, that dawn was near.  It was 10.  I lay in sweat, near tears, and resolved that it would be a sleepless, endless night.  No tv, no reading, no video games, and no phone.  I knew I would never make it.  And so did God.  As I lay there, feeling the hot darkness crush me and my spirit, it happened.  About ten minutes after I woke up and panicked at the long night ahead, the lights came on.  My fan kicked in and the air swirled over my hot skin.  He really wasn’t going to give me more than I could bear, but as Mother Teresa said, “I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” 

I do realize how insignificant a dying computer, mean customers, no lights and a hot night sound compared to my aunt, who no long can fight those little battles.  It was just a long day,  a hard day, a day that I was more than glad to see end.  But, as I fell asleep, with most things back in order, the words of my beloved Avenue Q ran through my overwhelmed mind:

“For now we’re healthy/ For now we’re employed/ For now we’re happy/ If not overjoyed/ And we’ll accept the things we cannot avoid, for now… Only for now!/ For now there’s life!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s love!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s work/ For now there’s happiness!/ But only for now!/ For now discomfort!/ Only for now!/ For now there’s friendship!/ Only for now!… Each time you smile/ It’ll only last a while/ Life may be scary/ But it’s only temporary/ Everything in life is only for now!”  –Avenue Q, “For Now”

Summer Solace

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“If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance.” –Bern Williams

I am not a summer girl.  I loved school and hated to see it end.  Yes, a little rest and freedom from homework was welcome, and the night owl in me embraced the late nights and sleeping through the morning, but in general, I do not love summer.  I hate the heat.  I miss school.  I get lonely and bored.  I get antsy.  I am not a swimmer, not a sunbather, not a traveler.  The months creep past with slow, oppressive heat and the stale smell of sweat and lethargy invades the house.

But my disdain for the sunny months does not dim the nostalgic ache I feel for childhood summers.  I hated them in the moment, but look back with longing for those small town heat waves.

Summers were hot.  I remember lying still on the living room carpet, fighting my brothers for position in front of the big metal fan that stood on our hearth.  At night, after darkness crept through the valley, we opened windows and amped up fans to blow what little cool air existed through the house.   I remember the little brown fan, oscillating on my dresser, and the welcome touch of its breeze as it swayed side to side in the darkness.  Mornings started with a welcome chill, clean bright sun stretching across the neighborhood.  The moments were brief before the sun began its cruel work.  We bathed in sunscreen before swimming, hid in the house during midday.  Summer nights came slow, late, and never as strong as we hoped.  The heat never left, but there is something magical about a starry night, barefoot on the warm cement and cool grass.

I remember splashing in our wading pool out on the cement.  My brothers and I would fill it with cold water from the hose, sliding through the cool stream that penetrated the heated water from the day before.  We wore swim masks and snorkels and would lay on our stomachs and “swim” circles around the pool, dragging our half-submerged bodies in circles to create a small current, and then let it push us as we sat still.  I played dress up in old bridesmaid dresses with my friend, pretending we were brides and princesses, and we picked questionable berries from the shrubs to use for “real” food to play house.  I watched Stick Stickley in my bedroom as I moved furniture and cleaned out drawers until I could no longer stand the afternoon sun baking my windows.  We painted pictures and wrote poems and tried new recipes for the fair.  It was frightening and thrilling to walk the halls and find our entries, some with ribbons, and find other names we recognized.  I can smell the 4H livestock and feel the straw beneath my feet as cotton candy melted on my tongue.

As I grew older, summers changed.  It meant summer school to get ahead and to get my driver’s permit.  It was my first regular job, working at the city’s summer camp.  That was when I got my first honest to goodness tan, spending afternoons watching kids swim in the public pool.  We were mobile and employed, so we spent the summer free.  We had barbecues and parties, spent late nights at the lake and in back yards.  We walked the empty streets and played running charades at the elementary school.

Then, just like Harry Potter’s owl, letters came each August containing our school supply lists.  I loved shopping for notebooks and pens, but secretly feared that first day back.  It was so scary to see everyone for the first time, see new faces, see how everyone had changed.  There was so much at stake when we returned, frantic phone calls comparing class lists and finding someone, anyone that was in our classes.  There were new uniforms to iron and new outfits to assemble.  There was so much anticipation in the end, such a far cry from the endless, lazy days before.

I remember shorts and swimsuits, popsicles and fireworks.  When I think of summer my skin grows feverish and the heat hugs its way around my body.  I can see my mom’s beautifully browned legs as I sat between them while she covered me in cool, creamy sun screen.  I can smell the metallic water, dribbling from the hose, as we made a “safe” path of wet cement, between our chalk artwork, to walk barefoot on.  The crickets and bicycle tires echo through the dark streets in the cool of late night, as the neighborhood comes to life.  I hate the sweat and the loneliness and stagnation.  I hate summer.  And as I remember those moments, the summers of childhood, tears fill my tired eyes and I know without a doubt that I would give anything to return to those blistering days.

“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.”  –Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

A Potter Prologue

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“Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets” –LFO, “Summer Girls”

I love writing sonnets.  I crave the structure of the fourteen lines, find freedom in the pentameter.  I love rhyme schemes and limits–I find them liberating.  Yes, there is something wonderful in writing as you feel, the freedom to create your own, make your mark.  Free verse is beautiful, but I find creativity in rules.  The more that I am restrained, the more I have to work to create, must try to find originality and my voice.  Sonnets are delicious.

As I watched Order of the Phoenix today to get psyched for Deathly Hallows tomorrow, the first lines of this snuck up on me.  I know that I am no Shakespeare.  Lord knows that kind of genius comes but once.  But today I was inspired, and goofy, so I went with.  I remembered how much I loved to write, how I miss structured creative writing (is that even possible?).  So here it is, for all the world to see and mock, because I can and want to.  I needed to write, so I did.  And I love the majestic sonnet, so I used it.  And I am flooded with Harry nostalgia, so I let it inspire me.  In honor of both the Bard and the Boy, here’s my creative mess of the day:

Four houses, all alike in dignity,

In fair Hogwarts, where we lay our scene,

From Magick Most Evile breaks new atrocity,

Where muggle blood makes pure-blood hands unclean.

From forth the fateful scar of He-who-lives,

A connection, to He-whom-we-name-not,

Frightful insight into evil ‘s mind it gives

And drives Rowling’s colorful, winding plot.

To friends and foes they make along the way,

The fearful passage of their fights to live,

O.W.L.s, spells, dragons, and Headless* Nick’s death day,

Through seven tomes, your full attention give.

The “witch” if you, with open mind attend,

What here shall miss, magic shall strive to mend.

“He was not of an age, but for all time!”  –Ben Johnson, To the Memory of my Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare

*”Nearly-Headless Nick” would have thrown off my rhythm, but I know better than to call the poor ghost headless!