The Monolith of Meh
“New Orleans is a bad place to hold a conference,” said my ghost tour guide, sympathetically.
You could be inside the mile-long hermetically sealed Monolith of Meh, listening to people who couldn’t talk and breathing chemical-scented air under fluorescent lighting. Or you could be outside caroming through an infinite Bacchanalian revel of purple wine-soaked heady voluptuous carnal erotic splendour.
I did attend a few lectures.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the looking-glass…..
Electric with stories...pulsating with rhythms of life and death...festooned with black iron lace...teeming with music and smells and spices and people and ghosts...vibrating with soul and dance...languid and indulgent with caresses from a thousand courtesans...dripping with juice and stench and dreams of humanity...this was New Orleans. C'était mon Vieux Carré.
I checked my name at the border and answered only to “honih” or “sweethort” all weekend. Every waiter I talked to emphasized that they were here to take care of me, and they meant it. In this lawless land of pirates and prostitutes, there was one law to rule them all: “ENJOY.” My new favourite three-syllable word.
New Orleans…n’AWlins…the Big Easy...where nothing is direct, nothing is fast, even the roads meander with scant evidence that they will ever get where they're going....
New Orleans, where the journey is the destination.
France is a country best served up as fusion food.
I love France as much as the next bluestocking. But I’ve always felt strangled by its relentless insistence upon tasteful moderation at all costs. France’s contribution to culture is its mastery of order-of-operations. You lay down a nose-bleedingly logical skeleton. Then you build on top of it. And whatever you do…do not go overboard. That is all French art, all French food, all French music, and all French architecture, ever. Since art is the balance of the rational and the irrational, this basically works great. This is why France got away with Rococo when no one else could swing it. This is why courtiers at Versailles looked dead sexy instead of just dead ridiculous. But after a few weeks in France I start to suffocate, my inner scarcity-anxiety rebel wanting to go crazy and do something unacceptable, like…order two salads, or wear noticeable lipstick, or skip the trigonometry before designing a city park.
I’m just not socially acceptable enough to hack it all the time. I like my France cut with some funk.
New Orleans brought chicory to the café au lait. New Orleans took her rational French heritage and remixed it for the New World. With African people stolen from their homeland, hot sticky weather, harsh living conditions, hardship, the bayou, Spanish rule, pirates, whores, thieves, madmen, witches, artists, dreamers, raconteurs, rebels, suffering, voudou, ghosts, music, riverboat captains, gamblers, nuns, con men, rebels, temporal decay, and, above all, Soul.
New Orleans knows how hard life can suck sometimes (and by “sometimes” I mean “for up to a hundred years at a time”). Life is too darned tough for behaving dans une façon bien mesurée all the time, and you don't get any gold stars for good behaviour. Donc...laissez les bons temps rouler! And we're not talking French bons temps here, where women order steamed vegetables and nobody gets drunk and if you meet your lover's wife in the market you don't say a word. We're talking full-on, knock-down, drag-out good times. Sugary sweets with a side of sugar. Gutters flowing with booze. Dancing in the streets. Music. Staying up until morning...two days later. Music. Sleeping with all the wrong people. Music. Killing people and escaping on someone else's ship. Haunting the tourists. Music. Charlatans, raconteurs, con men, witches, priestesses, spirits, and rebelling revellers. Meals that take half a day, redolent with rich deep soul-anchoring flavours. Music.
This was not your Mother Country's France.
Add Spanish pimentón and some African slaves for funsies, and you've got a culture that embraces human tendencies instead of continually checking them. I don't know that this is better, or that either culture is any happier than the other. But I do know it's easier to breathe in this Creole gumbo than in self-consciously perfect Paris, and I don't have my chronic Paris fear that I'm doing life wrong and everyone can see and is silently pitying me. New Orleans shocks me, but that means I run no risk of shocking her.
The Lady of the Night
The bedroom is my favourite classroom. I understand nothing until I understand it in terms of sex (which makes the drier work at the University extremely difficult!). New Orleans taught me everything I'd ever need to know about the art of seduction...and now I have the rest of my life to unpack her lessons.
I spent the weekend frolicking in bed with this mind-blowing seductress of a city, and I delighted in every moment. She wooed me with her rose-petal-silk negligées peeking through black lace, with her louche smiles, with her earthy embraces. She lured me on with her maddening secret glimpses to hidden gardens beyond, her easy ripeness, her ferns sprouting casually out of improbable cracks, her fifty thousand layers of peeling paint an overwritten palimpsest on ancient walls, everything sagging and crooked and glorious. Because she was French, she was inherently deeply logical and organized. Because she was Creole, she set me at ease and encouraged me to let out my messy humanity. She was silly, she was tragic, she was erotic, she was profound. She shocked and titillated and soothed and caressed me. I marinated in her aura, I bit into her voluptuous juiciness, I swam in her music. Her embrace led me into the darkest and lightest corners of my soul. When I finally emerged from her boudoir, blinking and sated and still drunk on her rhythm, I chuckled and rubbed my hands together gleefully: she had given me her secrets and by the time I was eighty I might actually understand a few of them! Watch out, world!
Whenever I am in New Orleans, I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers, just like Blanche duBois. (Note: there really is a streetcar that goes to Cemeteries; Tennessee Williams didn't make that line up.)
So there was this Beautiful Blonde Actress.
Somewhere between dancing tango and making a buttload of her own money, she bought a sprawling shotgun-style two-hundred-year-old Creole terra-cotta-red apartment with the forest-green shutters and white trim on the quiet end of rue Royal, hidden behind a secret courtyard of pink oleander, rustling palm, and shivering bamboo that bumbled about in the breeze and whispered a jazz lullaby every night. She was off filming in another part of Louisiana and let her friend who ran the local milonga give it to me for the weekend.
Because sometimes great fortune just happens.
You won’t find this Best Apartment in New Orleans from the street. You have to be cognoscenti.
You unlock the right wrought iron grille and pass through a cool dark passageway that smells of the memory of wet cobblestone, up one unnoticed shadowy staircase, turn, up another, turn, down another, along the gallery, fourth locked shutter on the left, squeeze through an impossibly narrow French door, and there you are.
The peeling paint on the warped wide floorboards, the swinging ceiling fans with the painted flowers, the beat-up Persian carpets, the roomful of Mysterious Objects and one brass bedstead, the stately ceilings that let the heat rise, the window that was really a door and the door that was really a window, the outdoor walkway reminding me so much of Buenos Aires and a response to a similar hot sticky climate, the tall thin glass doors and tall thin shutters opening into a hidden garden where no one could see me except the trees. I learned something in that flat. I don't yet know what it was.
Sometimes people or places come into your life and you only have a limited time to share and you both know that when you say goodbye it will be forever. I shed a tear when I locked the gate behind me for the last time. I knew something important had happened to me back there in my secret silent shadowy short-term home. But I had to trust it when it gave me a nudge out the door. “It's time, you're ready,” it told me. I wanted to cling like a kid. But it told me that the important thing was now inside me. And over time it would unfurl. I took that home with me, on the inside. And then I stepped outside, the electric sharp shadows etching perfect black copies of wrought-iron lace and lamp-posts onto ice-cream-candy-colored walls….
The Dark Mother
There have been many voudou queens but there have only ever been...two...Marie Laveaus.
Not that I know anything about voudou. Just that it’s a spiritual practice that sounds like an African-Caribbean-Southern version of Reiki with way more handy tangible-aids-for-understanding than I’m used to. But, many paths, one Way. Regional accents just provide colour.
Whenever I’m in New Orleans I always visit the Maries Laveau.
Wise women, dispensers of homespun practical advice, eyes that saw humanity, a hairdresser and her daughter. Electrical engineers like me. Women who danced in Congo Square.
If you want to call that witchcraft....
I walked near her shop early one morning (which “her?” Indeed!). The least interesting-looking house on beribboned Bourbon Street. A squat grey plain thing. You have to look with your inside eyes. The inside eyes see her slow-glowing dark sun, an oasis in the middle of a neighbourhood of jittery echoes of past drama, epic stories of epic characters and epic energetic events, a pulsating hum of accumulated human electricity.
I stood in the intersection facing the shuttered black-roofed quiet house and a wallof that deep, slow, dark, rich feeling that says, “somebody has spent a lot of time meditating here!” hit me. Just thinking about it makes my sacrum drop, my breath deepen, and my roots unfurl.
I remembered the day I hung out with the Dalai Lama. When you’re the Dalai Lama, your presence makes everyone around you feel like you’re already best friends, even if you're addressing the entire Great Lawn of Central Park. So...the Dalai Lama and I, peeps from the same hood who just hadn’t yet had a chance to become besties. He had a bright, light, joyous energy, an infectious felicity of spirit. He was a funny guy. (Plus, I arrived at the talk limping from a inflamed sprained ankle and could barely walk. When the talk concluded and I stood up, my ankle was fine, the inflammation was gone, and I walked home to Alphabet City as if nothing had happened.) Marie’s energy came from the inverse end of the spectrum, a yin to the Dalai Lama’s yang, but it was otherwise the same.
Time makes some energies fade and some intensify. In Maries' cases, time had turned them, er, her, into a living pearl, rounding and broadening her energy. Her life was a pebble dropping in the water and gradually the ripples were spreading out. There in the intersection (because life loves heavy-handed symbolism) I stopped in my tracks and closed my eyes. The energy in the space bounded by the house was ruthless, peaceful, and unbearably soft, as all great healers are. I started to cry.
I shivered. Here was someone who knew suffering. I felt something dark about Marie. Frightening, but not in herself. It was more that she had looked humanity in the eye and not flinched.
I paused in that encounter with fear, love, and tears, until it was time to go, and then released, my root chakra unfurled and the air around me was quieter and bluer. I felt slower.
I thought that was enough Marie Laveau for me. But something made me return a few days later.
This time her house was open.
Initially I thought, “I got more out of standing in the middle of the street.” At first it was harder to hear Marie's energy inside the place than outside because they turned it into a tchotchke shop for tourists. The Zen monk points out the moon to a novice and says “don’t confuse my finger with the moon.” This place was jam-packed with pointing fingers. I wasn’t sure whether to chuckle or to sigh, thinking of all those innocents who were definitely going to confuse them with the moon. But I stood my ground and let my eyes glaze over and tuned out the hubbub of all the physical things around me in that physical museum/shop in that physical moment in time….
My roots dropped into the ground all by themselves.
Ah, we had missed this, they said, licking their chops. They plummeted a thousand fathoms deep, unfurling like time lapse photography of a happy pea plant, their little toes reaching ever further into the dirt. And…I was not alone any more. Finally I was together, with the Big Good Thing. It was all around me and inside me, which I know is always true, but it’s easy to lose sight of that, and now since it was just there, I didn't have to work at remembering it. Everything moved slower and bigger and my insides got slower and deeper and I was surrounded by white light. “Ahhhh,” my self said, grateful for this respite from the hard work of being human. I loved this more than anything, this was my favourite, thank you so much for letting me put down the heavy continual burden of maintaining human form for a little while, there was nothing I loved better than merging (which is why I have to do an everyday grounding practice). I had temporary permission to let go of this meat-suit part-way and dissolve back into the light…I was undifferentiating right and left, and every particle of me that rejoined the white light was blissfully peaceful…I wanted to go all the way…ahhhh….
“That’s enough for today,” a voice said, gently tapping my root. Here and no farther, this time. It felt like an amused tap, like that of an indulgent parent. I was glad there was someone around to keep me in check. —The light let me swim in it in my glorious silent half-dissolved state, the way you let a toddler paddle in the swimming pool for “five more minutes” after you’ve already told them it’s time to go home, because they’re so cute and happy. Then I obediently put myself back into my meat suit as the little voice bade me.
I came back into time and place and noticed that some kink that had been in the air around me before was now missing. I hadn't known there was a kink until it wasn't there any more. But something that I didn't know had been stuck was now unstuck and I felt a low slow molassesy flowingness around me that hadn't been there before. My lower chakras felt like they had spent the day at a spa, and I was breathing. I didn't remember breathing like this since I had been small! It was so easy! I was breathing deeply with my whole body and my lower back lungs were expanding the way we always hope they will and it was perfectly easy and I didn't know why I didn't breathe like this all the time.
I breathed my way out into the street and wanted to tap strangers on the shoulder and show off my new parlour trick, breathing, because it felt so amazing.
Twenty minutes later my realtor called. We had just gotten an offer on the apartment.
My apartment had been on the market for an alarming amount of time without one single nibble. The San Francisco bubble had popped the precise day I had listed it. This apartment was my only capital in the world and other than that I had a pile of credit card debt. Keeping it open and on the market was costing me a fortune I didn't have and my bank account was a pile of red negative numbers.
I closed shortly afterward and now have a tidy nest egg.
There were some other things that unstuck themselves too...but that's a story for another day.
New Orleans feels like a lifetime ago already, but whenever I feel like it, I dip back into my memory of how it felt to stand in the presence of the Maries Laveau, and I instantly slow down and drop my roots. And afterwards...something always changes. Theirs was the quintessential New Orleans lesson: slow down and enjoy and life will work itself out around you without your doing nearly so much work.
I wish I had brought a second stomach with me to New Orleans.
I love food. I miss food. I miss eating. I miss chewing. When in school I stay alive off of whatever makes its way blindly off a disposable spoon into my mouth while I'm staring at a computer screen or running between the studio and the computer lab, gagging down as many calories in one huge bite as I can because I don't have the free hands available for holding cutlery, let alone the luxury of putting down whatever I'm working on. Mealtimes are permanently double-booked. I feel like a starving wolf. I have caught myself seriously wishing I had an IV. I, who love million-course candlelit dinners in wonderful restaurants, I, who will spend a whole day cooking for a dinner party, I, who have all Ruth Reichl's books and never met a Michelin star I didn't like...I am out of my element as a harried grad student. But here on the other side of the country, I was away. Nobody could touch me here. The work...screw the work. The work would happen later. I had a social and ethical responsibility to experience this rich Creole culture with as much sensual direct physicality as I could possibly muster. And if that meant spending a lot of time sitting around eating...then so be it.
I live in humbled awe of cultures who have had plenty of time to get it right and have used that time to...get it right. I love biting into flavour compositions that are the deep and rich results of hundreds of years of learning about human taste buds. —I also love sitting down at a table that doesn't have a computer at it, and using real cutlery and real plates and real glasses. I love the incredible luxury of being able to actually see my food because I have time to look at it. I love slow. And so does New Orleans, where the service is slow and the cooking is slower. Waiting for your food requires commitment and a cool head. But it's all good—it's not like you have anywhere else you need to be or anything else you need to do.
Here are a few things I ate while I was in New Orleans. Each one was a poem.
Fried alligator remoulade (tasted like chicken nuggets). Andouille and shrimp jambalayas. Jambalaya and cheese grits. Gumbo. Snapping-turtle soupe au sherry. Chicory café au lait. Too many beignets. Okra. Soft-shell crab. Sweet potatoes. Fried green tomatoes with shrimp. Veal grillade. Buttermilk biscuits. Smothered turnip greens. Red beans. Glazed ham. A praline (too sweet). Praline parfait (also too sweet). New Orleans-style French bread. Oysters Rockefeller, free on the house because a Single Lady has to be treated extra nice. A French Martini, free on another house because a Single Lady has to be treated extra nice. Coffee, extra everything, more cocktails, more lagniappes, and more appetizers, all free on various houses because…a Single Lady has to be treated extra nice. Merci beaucoup, New Orleans. I like your style.
How do we interpret life and our role in the world differently when we are well fed?
How much can we share with the world when we understand that we're part of something bigger than ourselves? How does understanding ourselves as one element in the family of man, one member in a local community, and one step in a broad cultural history free us to more fully express our own unique voices?
Once upon a time a boy lived in a bad part of town. His mother was a prostitute, alone in the world with five children to feed. You do what you have to do. The boy did odd jobs to bring in money. One of those odd jobs was selling the other prostitutes a red powder made by voudou priests. After the sales, he’d hang around for hours listening to the musicians who played in the brothels.
The boy grew up with all those old music roots inside him, and he ripened into an especially juicy apple on the giant New Orleans Music Tree.
Louis Armstrong brought the bayou sound to the white world. He was a crossover artist in a time when crossing over did not happen. He exported genius loci— which is usually about as successful as Fed-Exing a soufflé—and made a music that was specific to one culture feel relevant all over the world. His genius was not that he invented something new. His genius was that he successfully shared a musical heritage with outsiders by internalizing this heritage so deeply that what came out was Louis himself. And Louis was a sound for all time.
And yet when this huge international star returned to the New Orleans that he lived and breathed, to do a tv special, they still treated him like a nigger. The folks at the Commander's Palace will tell you about how they didn't let him inside, so he sang outside on the corner below—this household name, this living jazz legend, out in the street like a panhandler. Singing on the street is different in New Orleans...but still. A shameful chapter in US history.
There are so many of those.
How can we find in ourselves the comfort and certainty of group identity that Louis brought with him from New Orleans to the rest of the wide world, that was an unconscious yet essential element that afforded him the mental comfort he needed to share and develop his artistic voice?
Apples on the Tree
I attended the best concert ever at Preservation Hall. Even Louis Armstrong can’t export that musical genius loci. The music was the breathing soul of the place that spawned it; it was the collective experience en masse, and to take away a single element would diminish the experience. It was the warm evening and the stench of Bourbon Street just meters away. It was the groundlings shoulder-to-shoulder sitting on wide worn floorboards, almost touching the musicians' feet. It was the rest of the audience packed onto battered chipped church pews, everyone doing the sittin’-down-dance, everyone laughing, everyone clapping time. It was the filtering dusty ochre and amber and fawn of the aging walls and the falling plaster and the ancient wooden lath showing through and the patches of brick and the breeze through the carriageway. It was the grizzled men who had been playing so long their instruments disappeared, part of their bodies, and they were just singing. It was the younger men who had lived and breathed this music since before they were born, playing with it and making it their own in a way you can only do when something has already been your own your whole life. It was the slaves who had been sold on the block just minutes away, it was the hurricane, it was the jambalaya, it was the free-flowing booze, it was the joy of people who had died long ago, it was family parties, it was Mardi Gras and it was Ash Wednesday. It was the musicians' growling voices, their knowing inclusive looks, their jokes, and above all, their ease of place. These were people who were standing eyebrows-deep in their dharma and who had always known what so many of us have to learn at great cost: that they are just apples on the big tree. They let the tree do the work. They were so rooted in their place, and their history, and their culture, and their community, that enormous powerful living organism made the music for them, and they just went along with it. The music is New Orleans, the way our nervous systems are ourselves. The trick is getting out of one's own way and letting the music happen...and these masters had that down to an extent that felt reincarnated. The only way they could possibly have the experience required to be that free and that stable was if they were tapping into the experience of everyone who had come before them; borrowing the practice hours of great artists like communal DNA.
I thought of my friend the Alexander Technique teacher, for here were the ultimate Alexander Technique teachers. They were doing nothing. They were being apples on a tree with a huge root system that reached into its native ground, and that was everything we wanted, and we all applauded like madmen. Because when others show us how connecting is done, we can do it for ourselves, and then we feel good. We all need a little help sometimes. And we all left that hall looking bright and pink and as twinkly as if we had all just gotten laid.
When I grow up I want to come up with an excuse to spend a lot of time in Congo Square. If that means having to write a dissertation or something, then I'll write a dissertation or something. It is a magical landscape node for all time. The Houmas Native Americans celebrated their corn harvest on this holy ground since before anyone was counting time. Then the French settlers sold slaves there. Imagine the ground filling up with the energy of countless human beings, many of them already half-dead from the journey to the New World, being permanently separated from their families and sold into lifetimes of involuntary hard labor (there's a reason they called it slavery). At the same time, those same slaves were human beings who came from parts of the world with rich spiritual cultures, where people were intimately tied to the rhythms of nature, of music, of dance, and of magic. Slaves did not suddenly spring into existence when they arrived in Louisiana; they brought with them the cultural outlooks and the traditions of Africa, and those didn't suddenly disappear just because the people who brought them had to sacrifice their lives for drudgery. The Creoles, unlike the Brits in the rest of the colonies, didn't care about blacks assimilating. So they didn't assimilate. They kept their magic and their culture alive.
Slaves and free blacks made magic in Congo Square throughout New Orleans' history, because this was the one place where they were allowed to congregate on their days off. African dances all mean something and are all tied to natural forces. They all have purposes and effects on the energy of whom and where they're danced; that's the point of them. So when the now-resident slaves gathered and danced half-naked and drummed in Congo Square, they helped develop the richly accrued layers of deep meaning it has been gathering since the dawn of time. When Marie Laveau, and then her daughter, Marie Laveau, danced and did voudou in Congo Square, they were contributing to a living and continually developing energetic sculpture, an intentionally focussed arrangement of energy around that landscape. When the blacks, enslaved and free, gathered to socialize in the square, this socializing created a group identity for them, a strength that counteracted their position of class weakness, and a voice. Congo Square was their special place, that made their communal, magical, and artistic voice possible.
Jazz was born in Congo Square. White locals and visitors came to the square more and more to listen to the black people's music and to watch them dance. New Orleans knew that something special happened here. Then early jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton hung out in the Square, soaked up what they heard and saw of African music and dance, and evolved them into jazz and blues. Congo Square kept these musical, magical, and dancical traditions alive by giving them a safe dedicated place to flourish. Without it, we might not have the jazz and the blues we have today, nor even artists influenced by these musical traditions. If it weren't for the lenient French and Spanish colonists allowing the African slaves their animistic, colourful, and magical cultural practices, we might not have Etta James, Leonard Cohen,and Adele today.
The Garden of Apollo
One of the Chinese girls in my class said: because home is so far away and I don't get to be there often, it is more intense and alive in my mind.
New Orleans burns brightly inside me because it's far away and I don't know if I will ever go again. Every day my visit recedes farther into the past, the New Orleans in my mind grows more intense and more alive. It is the Garden of Apollo and I hear its music from here.
The cityscape of the Vieux Carré was the epicentre of a symphony written for a thousand street performers. Music flowed through its street-arteries instead of cars. Roving brass orchestras and hymn-singers and singers and guitarist and electric fiddlers and saxophone players and the second coming of John Coltrane were the blood cells that continually coursed through the body of the city. Any given block of the Vieux Carré would have three or five or ten or more musicians playing in the street, simultaneously, surrounded by lawn chairs full of music lovers where other cities would have parked cars. Where other cities' air was full of smog, New Orleans' was full of soul. Impromptu dance breaks swirled through the streets instead of cars. Slim black men in Sammy Davis Jr. trilbies spun smooth dance moves as a matter of course on their way across streets. Tourists grabbed their girlfriends and busted Lindy Hops while the Below Sea Levels crooned out Ben E King hits.
Nobody was getting anywhere, and that was what we all wanted. Streets weren't for getting from one place to another. They were for Being Here Now.
Jackson Square. A cauldron for real rock and roll. Once home to tortured dying criminals, military troops, and daily Mass, the square was a perpetual musical showdown. One morning I heard a bagpiper playing as he marched back and forth in front of the cathedral, and when I came back at bedtime, he was still at it. Ghost tour guides competed with endless rock concerts. A cute electrified kora player reminded me of another of that species whom I'd known. A pair of fat greying country boys belted out Willie Nelson and John Denver favourites. A neo-pagan's mystical wailing mingled with the cries of a homeless dredded hippie in black going into labor right there on the stone steps.
A walk down Bourbon Street was chronic harmonious cacaphony, the din of drunk tourists staggering around with their to-go cups blending with uninterrupted funk from a shoulder-to-shoulder mob of bands.
Rue Royale. An endless mélange of young boys playing the plastic pickle tub, women violinists and ukelelists and grunge guitarists and whiny Dylan wannabes and soul groups and, everywhere, jazz, jazz, jazz. Music was the city's air, its life blood, its sweat. Music dripped from its pores. Without music there would be no New Orleans. Merely existing there meant our ears rang day and night with soulful melody.
Apollo, bedecked in purple and green bead necklaces, reigned in this garden of sensual delight, and the good times rolled. The gutters flowed red with wine. Every street and every wrought-iron gallery and every peeling pastel surface embraced dancing bodies, all the time. Every day and every night was a party celebrating life. Fecundity and sex and the juice of human life.
The Crescent City
City planners will tell you that Katrina spared the Vieux Carré because it was built above sea level.
Potato, potahto. A much more plausible explanation, that fits this energetic node where voudou queens run local life even after they're dead and the rhythms of life are built around mystical parades and magical rituals, is that Diana takes care of her own.
Diana, goddess of the hunt, the moon, nature, women, and children. Diana, who dwells on mountaintops and in sacred woods. Diana, who wears the crescent diadem in her hair.
She must have a special place in her heart for this crescent-shaped city so clearly dedicated to her.
Life is full of stuff we have to do someone else’s way, stuff we can’t control, and stuff we have to deal with. Life is full of denial, pain, and hard knocks.
So anything we do purely for pleasure should be as voluptuously delicious as we can make it.
The Commander’s Palace has hosted a Lucullan banquet of seduction since 1880. “Sporting gentlemen” took their mistresses here for resplendent dinners in intimate satin splendour. (I say, why phrase this great idea in the past tense?) Good girls had to walk on the other side of the street when passing the restaurant.
I wonder if this made them grow up and want to be mistresses themselves.
Mistresses happen, and how men treat them defines our greater social understanding of the role of pleasure in life. So why live in a society where men take their mistresses to dingy scrimpy holes in the wall where nobody has a nice time, when instead you can revel in redolent sensuality. A mistress is the ultimate personal choice: something (er, someone) you do entirely for your pleasure and for no other reason. So where you take them describes your relationship with enjoyment. A wife is always chosen at least partly out of social obligation, or in conscious rebellion of social obligation, which is the same thing. A wife is for responsibility. A mistress is for fun. Where we think “fun” belongs on our plateful of life tells us who we are as a culture.
I appreciate New Orleans' values.
The Commander’s Palace was a silk-lined love-nest unique in the annals of restaurants. Its real treasure was its staff. I’ve never experienced that kind of customer service before; I don't even know what to call it. The staff made every person there forget everything and wallow in a nurturing embrace of ease and peace. This was the epitome of the official seduction-song of every New Orleans waiter, pushed to the nth degree: “I’m going to take care of you.” Perfectly, inobtrusively, keenly, and in a way that will make you never want to let another restaurant embrace you ever again.
They reminded me of Jorge Torres saying, “you have to embrace a woman as if she were a sleeping baby.” They looked me in the eye and saw me as a person and spoke to me as a person, not as a wallet. They connected with me just enough to make me feel like I was an appreciated part of a bigger thing, without making me feel like I had to invest emotional energy in them. They all knew my name (although it took me a moment to realize that I was “Madam del Feld.”) They brought me a cookbook to read and free things to eat and drink, they knew what would make my life nicer before I did, they shared an experience with me.
I ate my lunch in one of the discreet upstairs parlours for those sporting gentlemen and their mistresses. A jazz quintet came by often enough to be delightful and infrequently enough to stay out of my hair. Everything was arranged to make people calm and happy. I thought of Frederick Law Olmsted, designing Central Park as an elegant and gracious place so that people would feel elegant and gracious when they visited, so that they would behave elegantly and graciously to others when they left, and the world would be a better place.
If I have to personally save the world by eating in fancy restaurants once in a while, then by God, that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.
Eliza Doolittle knew that people behave how we treat them. “A lady isn’t a lady because of how she speaks, but because of how she’s treated. I will always be a lady to Colonel Pickering because he always treats me like a lady, and always will. And I will always be a flower girl to you, because you always treat me like a flower girl, and always will.”
Be excellent to each other, man.
After revelling in Bill and Ted’s Commandment until I was so stuffed I could not face one more bite, I floated out of the restaurant, full of gracious bien-etre, peace, and goodwill toward men.
And straight into the cemetery across the street.
For this was New Orleans, where a temple of hedonism has to abut a memento mori. They love their striking contrasts. They have their constant intimate relationship with death, their constant heady cocktail of eros and thanatos, their constant awareness of the sad truth that underpins all life. Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow ye die.
Show me your dead and I’ll tell you who you are. Every cemetery has a different character, and every group of dead people behaves differently in the ground. There's regional accents to everything, even decomposition, and how dead people experience the process says a lot about how life was for them before they died. Death is the ultimate definition of cultural life.
Every cemetery is different. Montparnasse had a deep sense of mournful urgency, like something sad had happened to a lot of these people and they wanted us to know. I suppose this is fitting considering how many World War II dead people are there. Recoleta was a block party, more alive than many dance halls, the people in it didn’t seem to know they were dead! It bustled with life, and everyone in it seemed to feel death was a temporary state of affairs, like adolescence. (This made me wonder about Catholicism.) —The cemetery on Capitol Hill is full of dead people acting like plants, slowly turning into compost and releasing their energy from their specific beings and returning it to the general earth, where it can get recycled into something else. It was when I was passing that cemetery that I realized we really plant our dead, like seeds, and then the energy, once reassumed, can go into something else.
Here in Lafayette Cemetery, the dead people were knocking back iced Sazeracs. These dead people had seen plenty of life, plenty of loss, plenty of hard times, but they felt chill about it. Energetically, they were sitting around in rockers on porches (er, slabs in front of their crypts), clinking glasses, slowly decomposing while simultaneously keeping an eye on this world.
Dead people have personal interpretations of their experience of death just as live people have personal interpretations of their experience of life. What can each side of the Great Divide learn from each other, that can enrich our experience of whatever side we're on at the moment?
And what about all the energy that reverberates between the world of the living and the world of the dead?
My skin crackled with the energy around me from the moment I arrived in the Vieux Carré. But I did not think, “oo, ghosts!”
Because these people did not feel dead. They felt more alive than the tourists in the street.
This place was crawling with vibrant eccentric impassioned Alpha dead people! I had stumbled into a raging party! It was like they were all taking dead-people Viagra. The streets pulsed with life. And not just any life. Similar to the life I knew in theatre departments: esoteric, arty, imbalanced, loud, passionate, urgent, electric, fucked-up life. That makes sense, considering who, historically, lived here.
There was a huge disconnect between what my mind’s ear saw and what my eyes saw, because my inside saw the energy of the past, here, now, electrically vivid and alive and real and throbbing with explosive vitality, and my outside saw the significantly less alive meat-people walking around today. But the past was present there, it was like seeing two things at once. If you look at a stereopticon, it has two photos next to each other but not completely overlapping, and then if you stick your eyes into the viewer, you see them both together and they create a well-rounded image. Or, imagine if you went outside naked and it was snowing. You would feel the cold, and you would feel the snowflakes hitting you, because they were real, they were going on at that moment. But then somebody strapped VR goggles over your eyes and played you a beach scene from Maui. For me the dead people were the snow and the live, less interesting people were the beach scene. The live people were harder to believe, and they left a much smaller imprint. I didn’t know much about New Orleans’ history but I didn’t need to know history in order to know what I felt right now. There had been a lot of larger-than-life people here! And a lot of crazy people! And a lot of dominant, eccentric personalities! Exactly the kind of people who leave big traces. They rearrange the overall timbre of a place; I don’t hear individuals so much as how the whole palette has been affected. And this was a very special, very alive place. I wondered if it would be overwhelming for the living people who were here now.
A lot of Betas and Omegas walk around there today. The kind of people who will eventually fade into Nilla wafers on the big buffet table of life, elevator muzak adding to the general hum of the greater current but not standing out on its own. On the other hand, plenty, even “most,” of the live people walking around could not feel the ghosts. It was like they were deaf. It’s like, say you were in a small room with twenty other people, and you all held still and nobody touched anybody else. If you closed your eyes, you would still feel the people around you. But I saw that most of the people walking around Nawlins just couldn’t feel the people….
One evening I passed a ghost tour while the guide was saying that there are two ideas about ghosts. One is that they’re like a scratch in the record, an energetic glitch in history that keeps getting replayed. The other is that they are entities that can learn. This guide said that the second idea fit better with what people in New Orleans report, namely phenomena that change over time. I know that both ideas are both right and wrong. A ghost is what happens when something of significant energetic import happened and something hasn’t resolved. The energy sticks out like a snag in a stocking or a burr in a horse’s pelt, and it stays that way until it gets addressed and helped on its way. A ghost doesn’t have to be a sad thing, although sadness often makes for the most noticeable ghosts because it has such an energetic impact. A ghost doesn’t even have to be of a dead thing, or of a specific person. Any living thing or things or events can leave a ghost if it has enough of an energetic impact. And dead people (or events, or animals, or whatever) are the same as alive people: we’re all perfect as we are, and we could all use a little help! Sometimes we can’t fix our own stuff on our own. Sometimes we need that helping hand to get where we’re going. So, Reiki the ghosts and they’ll evolve into whatever the highest possible good for them is, exactly as you would a living person. —I don’t know that a ghost is even the same thing as the person that it was when alive; it’s more a frequency pattern that got recorded into the hologram, and could use some addressing with an Energy Detangler.
The only ghosts that really scared me in New Orleans were my own….
They told me before I came that New Orleans was full of ghosts. But I did not know they meant my ghosts. Yet as soon as I arrived, spectres from my past whooshed up to meet me in my present; uninvited, uncomfortable, raw, and filling me with, “I thought we'd finally put that one to bed!” —It’s nicer to tamp down our ghosts like compressed files and stuff them away and think we’ve dealt with them. But they keep coming back. Hopefully, every time we let them come out and we grapple with them and suffer through the discomfort of having them alive in our presence for a while, we change their energy and get that much closer to a time when we can let them go.
Time has gone by since my trip and I still feel different. I feel that I am missing dark notes that I had carried into New Orleans, and that there is a new warm energy percolating through old deep scars, as slow as molasses. I feel I am not where I was before my trip, and that I have evolved as much as my energetic body was ready to evolve, forward, in a healing direction. So I suspect having all those old ghosts rush to my foreground was the best possible way to redefine them and allow them to evolve into productive forces for creative growth.
But facing my ghosts while I was there was still pretty raw and tormenting.
Life and Death and Suffering and Indulgence
Energetic evolution is a luxury not always afforded everyone. Much of the history of Man on this planet has been exclusively involved with mere survival.
Life was fucking hard in the old days. Modern bayou dwellers' first-world problems are trivial by comparison. Nobody had anything, work was scarce and brutal, almost everyone was poor and uneducated, people died all the time of pestilence and childbirth and disease and bar fights and Spanish soldiers and hungry alligators, and those who did live did not have the most savoury of neighbours, considering that being sent to the colony of New Orleans was a punishment for French convicts.…
One tour guide made a fine point of how life back then was not great for raising children (if they survived, which was always a crapshoot). He stood on the steps of the big church and told us how in the big piazza in front of us, one of only two public open spaces in the French Quarter, criminals were strapped to big Wheels, and then one by one every one of their joints was destroyed with a hammer, and then they were left to die of their injuries. Horrible passersby would give the victims water and food to make their deaths take longer. “So, you gotta remember, this was a Catholic colony, and everyone went to Mass here every day. Imagine taking your kid to church and every day they’d have to pass these people screaming in mortal agony.”
New Orleans has been a hard-drinking town since its birth. Perhaps because of the less-aristocratic nature of its original inhabitants, but I suspect just because life was so fracking hard. Still…when things were bad, people got drunk. When things were good…people got drunk. During the Revolution, the surgeons were constantly drunk, to forget the emotional pain of having to amputate 60 limbs a day with no anaesthetic for the patients other than a slug of booze. I expect the Civil War was the same.
—I am amazed anyone was ever sober enough to build all those elegant town houses.
It’s easy to only see the “haves” of New Orleans, but they make more sense when you see the “have nots.” Even a little thing, like, the prevalence of rice and corn in Creole cuisine makes more sense when you know that the French settlers learned from the natives how to use what was available because for years at a time they had no flour. They have a big sweet tooth because often there was no food. They eat alligators because it was better than being eaten by them.
I had never been to a part of the US that had such a deep and intimate relationship with life and death and suffering and joy and loss.
I left part of myself there. She is waiting for me to come back and rejoin her.
A Tale of Two Cities
In my mind the French Quarter is New Orleans. Everything outside it is discreditable homogeneous urban sprawl. However, the rest of the world likes to think the city is a little bigger than that one tiny district.
I went to the Garden District and felt epically out of my element. But it was a comical lesson in the power of urban planning and landscape architecture. The English wanted to live far away from those damned Frenchies, so the Garden District is a bloody inconvenient distance away from the Vieux Carré. You can look on the map and see the age-old political joke playing itself out every day. Walking through the district, I was embarrassed at what the English version of “ideal wealth” looked like. There’s the Englishman in his fake castle, surrounded by his fake meadows and pastures and farmland, surrounded by his fake fortress to keep those damned Frenchies out, and it’s all isolating and lonely and hierarchical. The huge single-family houses removed from one another by their miniature versions of English landscapes and their serious keep-the-rabble-out fences, their lack of fun, their lack of seductive flair, their lack of spice, their conspicuous lack of noise and music and street life, everyone locked away in their own kingdom and not mixing…mine was the “blah” heard ‘round the world.
The Garden District made me nervous, and made me love “my” Vieux Carré even more. Everybody mooshed together, unbroken rows of town houses built against each other, aristocrats and beggars passing each other in the street, and a whole teeming community of rich life playing out on the second and third floor galleries. The Garden District was a plate of dry singly-iced petits-fours. But the Vieux Carré was a three-layer cake of humanity, everyone out on their balconies, in the street, music everywhere, food everywhere, dancing everywhere, smells and noise and horses clopping down the street and jostling of elbows and colours and flowers and bric-a-brac gingerbread trim and streets flowing with booze. The Vieux Carré was a Fitzgeraldian party that celebrated human life around the clock. The Garden District was…not.
So…if you like that sort of thing.
Who are we when our designed environment treats us like a peasant to be excluded? Who are we when our designed environment treats us like an unquestioned family member in a big messy spicy family that spills out into everything? Who are we when our environment is too calm and quiet too often? Who are we when our environment is too on and exciting too often?
If you can’t find me one day, you’ll know I’ve gone to go follow Chip Sullivan like the Grateful Dead. I'll be fulfilling my dream of hanging out under his drawing table like a Golden Retriever, snapping up every nugget of magic he dispenses. Here was my mentor. I had recognized him as such, back when we read his Illustrated History in Berkeley Extension, then when I looked him up at Berkeley. Some silly admissions committee rejected me, and I found it preposterous that they dared stand between me and someone who was so right for me. Chip had what I wanted, a Bart ride away, and I couldn't get to him.
Finally, thousands of miles away from our habitual environments, we were destined to meet. In the middle of the Amazon rain forest (or so it felt to me). Dr. Livingston, I presume?
Chip-Merlin came into court and wrought a blooming spell of words around him that captured every one of us. He made real magic and we lay in the palm of his hand like puppies in the middle of a morning glory. Chip spellbound us, making us care passionately about landscapes that dreamt of humans, the magic of genius loci, the spiritual dimension of landscape as something much more than just a physical place, the unfathomable interconnectedness of man and nature and forces beyond all of us. I wanted to brand every word onto my soul for permanent letter-for-letter future accessibility and I believed I would remember every single comma. But my waking mind has already forgotten some of Chip's dream of a more magical world.
I will just have to recreate it for myself.
I got what I needed out of that conference, and I got it delivered in the format that would make it stick most. One-on-one, outside, with no time constraints and no PowerPoint presentations. —I was sitting in the piazza under a palm tree, drawing, and up rambled a landscape architect from Ohio who asked to share my shade. We got to talking. We had both been in the talk that told us to plant perennials in massed layers, a ground cover, mid-range plants, and taller structural plants, to avoid mulching. I found this talk tooth-grindingly boring, because I thought everyone already knew this. Why were we spending an hour and a half stuck in this horrible conference room talking about something that my old boss Dat did all the time as a matter of course? (Apparently this guy had not known that, and he was a principal at his firm.)
Then we got to really talking. For he was the Lorax. He spoke for the trees.
He told me about what mattered about landscape architecture in Louisiana right now. Levees are bad. They’re destroying the marshes, that can’t get fresh water in. The land is disappearing as the soil literally breaks down. Houses that, when they were built, were above sea level, are now 15 or more feet under sea level. Louisiana lost 1800 miles of land this year and will continue to do so every year until Somebody does a lot of Big Picture changes that will cost a ton of money. The Lorax told me that if things go as they are now, in 50 years New Orleans will be under water, it’s sinking just like Venice, but faster. They’re trying to redirect the Mississippi and get rid of the Delta, which blows my mind. They’re creating buffer islands. They’re suing every oil company that ever worked in Louisiana, to try to get money for the restoration projects, which include getting rid of the canals the oil companies dug. The BP oil spill’s silver lining was that BP consequently gave Louisiana like $38m for restoration. A hopeful note is that the state bird, the brown pelican, had left Louisiana altogether by the 70s and 80s because its habitat had been destroyed by DDT, and now, thanks to no more DDT and to habitat restoration efforts, Louisiana is one of the best places for birdwatching in the country, and crawling with brown pelicans. The first pair of red-billed cranes has recently returned.
There is hope!
We only save what we love. It's all in the phrase: to care for something. What do we love? What's worth saving? What matters? There's an infinite number of excellent causes out there, but what feels nonoptional to you? And how can you help?
What came back in my suitcase
Besides the chicory coffee.
Well I brought back some voudou....
Marie dropped into my life and since then everything has been inexorably unfurling like “the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream” (Michel Legrand). I had set up my life with calipers and gotten Everything Exactly As I Liked It, and then...she, or I, or the universe, or chance, knocked down the dominoes and some new pattern I don't understand yet has been slowly emerging is, not without its own heartache and pain. “But I was so good with what was,” I said, in wondering confusion. “I had it. I was like a fucking rock with it. Now we're doing this other thing? What if I hadn't put in an order for this new life?”
Marie, or God, or I, laughed at me the way one would laugh at a toddler with a doughnut on their head, chocolate-side-down. “This is your life, Jordana,” s/he/I chuckled.
Welcome to the next chapter, Jordana.
This new life gumbo has just that little bit of Creole spice in it that will make all the difference. I wonder how the flavours will unfold.