reminiscent

A couple of years ago, I attended the Heinemann literacy retreat in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. We spent mornings in this idyllic environment filling pages of writers notebooks while working with Linda Rief. Really, those mornings earned and own space as beloved moments of time–moments that could never endure a precise recreation, for I will never be exactly as I was then. Yet, they live on inside of me nonetheless.

On one of those brilliant Maine mornings, I wrote the following piece. I’m not sure what made me think of it today, but suddenly I found myself possessed with the desire to seek out my notebook from that week and find this particular piece…and maybe nudge it and rework it a bit. A response to Katrina and the loss my family suffered in her fury, this piece testifies, I think, that even though lives move on and we find healing, solace, old wounds still open up every now and again, proving painful with their sting.

My mom and dad and sister and brother will probably read this piece and I worry that it will be too much (so maybe, stop reading here you guys…or if you continue, don’t say I didn’t warn you!). But I also don’t want to leave these thoughts out of the record of my heart, my life.

~~~~~~~~~

The table that got carried away by the flood knew stories, so it knew lives. Knew my childhood. My family–all of them: those that came before me, those that sat around it with me, whether for many years or for fewer than felt fair. It knew projects and homework and it knew me–the tiniest in the house charged with dusting its belly and legs—a job to keep little hands occupied and little me out of the way (that is until I deserted its secret dusty crevices in exchange for the tedium of picking parsley leaves in the kitchen).

It knew warmth. The center of our gathered hearts as we shared a meal, exchanged communion in conversation, offered up wishes of Thanksgiving or Merry Christmas or Happy Birthday or Congratulations–our most precious occasions. And it celebrated with us. Holding up our joy, taking in our laughter (or our tears), relishing it all. A bounty of food could only further adorn its beauty, a bounty of love surrounding it, effervescent. It became a touchstone, a symbol for family, for togetherness.

The table that got carried away by the flood also knew discord (all families really do). It stood strong in the midst of disagreements, teenage angst, parental concern…endured the occasion frustrated fist hammering down in order to punctuate a point…and it reverberated the echo as if in agreement. It knew grief too and absorbed the weight of loss as we attempted to endure and learn to live again.

But the saltwater of those tears could not prepare it for the deluge to come, for the sacrificial offering it would become. The table had withstood floodwaters before (though they merely tickled its toes), so it had remained confidently behind…on guard so to speak for all the life that house contained even with its people huddled together in some other house, in some other city just distant enough to escape danger (they were some of the lucky ones; they had a place to go). Yet, the enormous rush of water didn’t baptize to bring forth new life. No, these waters came in a hurry and took up residence only to depart weeks later leaving mold, stench and destruction in their wake.

Today, there are grandkids who sit around a different table (one with far less history) beside their parents, grandparents, cousins. Today, new conversations scintillate the air around a new table in a new-old house. Today, there are celebrations and arguments and joy and there is family and that abundance overwhelms, but the missing remain present as no one expected the lingering litany of loss.

The table that got carried away by the flood could not be replaced, though a stand in fills its vacancy. Memories only surface intermittently these days causing ephemeral tinges of longing for another chance to grace its antique sturdiness. These moment usher in longing and then gratitude, for life, health, the past, and the people that brought that table to life.

(Day 33–this one was a joy to write, though I don’t love the ending…it is a bit rushed, but so am I. I can return another day.)

ask

So, I’ve spent the weekend with teachers from around the country talking about and considering the importance of inquiry and literacy for kids. Even though we have all come from different places, it just so happens that this institute is being held in my home town, New Orleans. However, despite being in my actual hometown, I have found myself confronted and surrounded by more thoughtless stereotypes about this city that I love and about what it could mean to be from here than at any other point in my life–which has also heightened my realization that the number of people who buy into these over generalizations and the number of people who label the residents of this city based on those assumptions is far larger than I might have originally thought.

I suppose I sort of insulate myself–wrap myself in the belief that surely people know there is something more to the fabric of this richly historic town, something more to its culture and to the people who cling to it fervently than just raucous drunkenness. More than just a Southern drawl (that actually doesn’t even exist here). More than the sort of grotesque caricature shown in film and on television that is fun to imagine but denies the complexity of reality.

I just assumed that people would know better. I felt like if nothing else, the resilience and spirit the people of this city displayed in the aftermath of Katrina should have helped to erase some of the broad brush strokes. People weren’t just clinging to a city in those days; they were clinging to their home. But time has passed and I suppose those images have become blurry, maybe a little forgotten.

So, as I attempt to absorb and understand the nature of these predispositions, as I attempt to inform without sounding too defensive, I recognize that as frustrating as this bias has been, I don’t have to face it everyday. On any given day, I am mostly surrounded by native Louisianians. But, there are far too many people in this world who have been walled in by stereotypical expectations and who live every single day of their lives trying to break free from that prison of sorts. I have come to realize that just as teachers at this institute  have been breaking away from their assumptions by working through an inquiry process, through a question asking process to uncover some truths about this city and its people, we need to be conducting inquiry every single day of the week in every week of every year to uncover the truth of those around us. We need to take the time to ask the questions that will scratch past the facade we have created with our simplistic assumptions.  We need to ask questions that show interest in actually understanding rather than gathering ammunition to further judgement. We need to ask questions so that we can listen and consider the information and then reconsider our original thoughts. We need to ask questions without fear of having to admit we were wrong–because that admission is where the change begins.

I’ve lived in or near this city my whole life and felt like I didn’t really need this inquiry group study. Except in asking questions on our topic, I realized there was still more to uncover. I was reminded that my story and understanding of this city is just one of many and that I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to some of the threads that make the fabric of this town so rich, so vibrant. In acting as though we know the truth of a person or community or faith or country without ever asking or seeking to know more, without ever hearing the narrative of the person or people living the reality, we will live our lives ignorant of the vibrance of the whole story. And that loss is profound. That loss is dangerous.

Ask.

(Day 15 of the king cake season writing challenge–this could have easily been about the Saints playoff game instead…figured I would channel that energy here instead…can’t win them all I suppose…)

 

A ticket for my destination

“I was in crazy motion

till you calmed me down…”

(“Something So Right”, Paul Simon)

To the observant eye, Jazz Fest 2006 was a composition of strange juxtapositions. The pain of loss was fresh—surreal but powerful, pervasive. But, the city, nurtured and healed by its heart and enduring community, was reaching for recovery. Jazz Fest activities offered reprieve and felt almost normal, as though for a moment you might forget. But even amid that semblance of normalcy there was a constant haunting reminder that outside the gates of the Fair Grounds lie the lingering stench of floodwaters that sat for too long, houses (lives) left in shambles (unrecognizable), an emptiness left by those displaced or worse. There weren’t bookmarkers to measure this loss.

Inside the gates, however, was something else entirely–a vivid display of all that we are and have been; a brilliant indication that we would in fact be okay, we would rise again. The food, the music and the community of people joyously gathered together in spite of it all worked to heal something inside of me that day. Something I wasn’t so sure could be healed.

I went to that particular day of Jazz Fest as a bit of an unwilling participant. In addition to the devastation the storm brought to my family, in the months leading up to the storm, my husband and I had lost our son midway through the pregnancy and another baby to miscarriage. My body, my spirit was battered and seemed to understand a depth of loss that my empathic nature could never have predicted. It seemed permanent damage. And maybe on some level it has been.

Except not entirely.

I went to Jazz Fest that day for one reason only: Paul Simon. I was in a funk. I was sad…for myself, for my city, for my parents…and I just wanted some do-overs.  Paul Simon’s music does something to me that I don’t have proper words to explain. His lyrics are poetry in a way that not all lyrics can hope to become. His awareness of words, his attention to how they work together, to how the sounds of the letters and their repetition create a rhythm just as the music does, how his words create a moment for the listener–first inviting you in, then residing in your heart, in your mind. That is what poetry does…that is what Paul Simon’s work has done for me…storied my life, guided me through.

As I stood in that field, Paul Simon, playing songs we had all heard before, somehow uplifted the city of New Orleans, and I was delivered to a sort of rebirth…a baptism if you will, but not by water (there had been enough of that). It was music that brought healing and comfort that day and carried me from the funk to the other side…to a place where I could see the possibility of goodness again. I stood in that field not knowing if I would ever have children, but knowing that my spirit was healing and that no matter what, I would be okay.

“My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled.”

(“Patterns”, Paul Simon)

Thirteen years later, I find myself in the midst of a new sort of recovery, facing the hope of yet another rebirth.

I spent so many months of the last year disabled by hearing loss and vertigo…and after becoming resigned to the fact that my hearing could be permanently damaged but I might still potentially hear the movement of my eyes forever (I promise, the novelty of this idea is deceiving)…after spending months trying to memorize the sound of my children’s laughter rather than be annoyed by the noise of it and carefully studying voices of loved ones before I no longer heard them as I should…after learning not to trust my body or my balance and after fearing loss of so much, I have come to find my body healed (at least for now) by a surgery that seemed unfathomable for so long.

Yet, while my inner ear is currently in a more cooperative mood, my mind and spirit are still trying to catch up. On any given day, at any given moment, I find myself suddenly stricken with absolute panic over the possibility of symptoms returning despite the fact that, everyday, my life is a little closer to normal. Or, I find myself unexpectedly emotional at the weirdest times when gratitude for health and healing overwhelms me. I’ve learned what it means to be a fighter over time, and while I am weary of having to continually prove my brawn, I furiously battle on through the weight of this anxiety and these grateful tears.

In the midst of all of the unknowns of this illness though, tickets went on sale for Paul Simon’s New Orleans show of his farewell tour.  We bought floor tickets without thinking too much about it. I had no idea if I would be able to stand in a crowd or stand at all…I had no idea if I would be able to hear well enough to enjoy the show…I had no idea if I would be too sick to attend. All I knew was that if Paul Simon was coming to New Orleans, I had to be there.

Buying those tickets was a leap of faith.

Recovery has not been an easy road, but my beacon all the way through was knowing that in just a few short weeks, I would be in the New Orleans Arena vertigo free, with my hearing restored and once again having my soul replenished by the beauty and richness of Paul Simon’s lyrics and music.

As I sit here tonight typing these words (the night before the concert), a tropical storm looms in the Gulf (I promise, this English teacher has assigned more meaning there than should be).  A bit of a reminder for me that storms will come–they might flood, they might destroy, they might bring uncertainty and fear and it might be hard to see in the midst of them or to know when it will subside, but there is another side.

There is always another side.

Tomorrow night, when I walk into that arena, I will be stepping not just into a shelter from the storm, not just into a brief respite, but I will be stepping toward the consolation that will be my reward.