Since early July I’ve been in a state of what I call Not-Very-Employed; I’m not quite Unemployed and I don’t feel Fun-Employed, but I certainly don’t have a thing called a Job. There are a variety of reasons for this – namely a chance combination of pickiness, spotty intuition, and the Internet, which can either make or break aspiring “freelancers” – but anyway, not writing this for pity, just as a preface to explain why I have time for things like musings. Which leads me to:
Number One: Job-searching at Fair Grinds coffeehouse today. My Internet’s out again (thanks, Cox) so I spent a precious $3.00 on a cold brew with the intention of prowling Craigslist, WorkNOLA, Goodfoodjobs and other favorite sites. Lo and behold: Have any of you experienced the cacophony that is Fair Grinds on a Monday morning? It is disturbing. It’s as if the customers are still drunk and decided to bring their weekend debauchery to the coffeehouse and shout at one another over lattes and muffins. I tried blasting classical music – Gershwin to be precise – in my Sony headphones to drown out the rambunctious decibels with the sounds of PEACE, to ease my job application process – but no avail. It was a madhouse in there. Rather than taking on a sense of aggression or energy, my employment hunt began to fade and dissolve. In fact, I gave up. I read a couple good GQ and NY Times articles, watched a fantastic video my friend made about a cattle herders in Kenya, checked my horoscope acc. to Chani Nicholas. Which brings me to:
Number Two: Astrology. I am very curious – how many of my young educated science-minded friends out there are also captivated by astrology? Are you similarly embarrassed about it? The scientist in me is certain that the position of the planets has absolutely nothing to do with my career and personality – the men shouting at one another in a coffeehouse are much more influential there, not to mention my parents and hometown and, well, everything else – and yet in some bizarre backward part of my brain I attribute my Earth-loving pragmatic nature to the Taurean in me, and my secretive manic creative fireball to the rising Scorpion. This, for the record, is probably the most vulnerable confession I will make to the public. Please be kind. And fellow friends with an affinity for astrology, please feel free to come out of the closet.
Number Three: Speaking of astrology: Chani Nicholas informed me that around 11:00 this morning a lunar eclipse would be taking place and for us Taureans we would experience immense clarity around our career. This, now, was fantastic news. It was about 10:45 a.m. and my stint in Fair Grinds had been a failure career-wise. What I needed, clearly, was a revelatory strike from the stars. I packed up my bag and trotted down Esplanade Avenue, admiring the trees and houses and bikers and landscaped lawns, waiting for a sign. Nothing hit me but a slight breeze that rustled the leaves and the strong sun on my skin. I thought: This isn’t so bad. Despite the flooding on Saturday and the suffocating heat and imminent climate change, despite my lack of employment or “knowing what I’m doing with my life,” despite fucking Trump, there is true pleasantry – bordering on joy – to be found walking down a street like Esplanade on an August morning. In this simplicity I find tremendous comfort.
Number Four: Kitchen Witch Cookbook shop. Near the end of my pleasant jaunt I stopped in this little store for the first time ever, after having passed it perhaps a hundred times. I. Fell. In. Love. How had I never had the curiosity to wander in? What a retro, funky, foodie paradise. But as non-hip a foodie paradise as possible. There is literally nothing trendy about this place. There are probably 10,000 cookbooks in there and none of them have the vivid low-contrast sleek photography of our modern recipe age – you know what I’m talking about – no, they’re spiral-bound vintage-y books that are straight out of an old-school Southern grandmother’s kitchen. Kitchen Witch also boasts general interest books and an impressive CD and record collection. For example, a hardcover copy of Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, which I bought for $10. And despite the high-volume nature of their store, the many things to look at, the Christmas lights and lamps and chairs, there is ample walking and browsing space; the layout doesn’t clutter the senses.
Philipe, one of the store owners, greeted me as I wandered in. I introduced myself and his eyes lit up. He let me browse for a few minutes before wandering over and starting conversation. “So do you go to Paris?”
I liked the way he asked me this. Do I go to Paris. As if I were the type of person who casually drops into cosmopolitan European cities. I explained that I hadn’t gone since I was young, with my parents, when I was a bit of a teenage brat and unable to appreciate its beauty, and since then despite adventuring for a bit in adulthood I’ve found myself more and more prone to staying put than anything. A tendency that I find both disconcerting and responsible.
He just smiled, a glint in his eye. “Well, it’s waiting for you.”
I left with my Wallace book and a brand-new copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I don’t technically have the funds for this purchase but I do it anyway, because I like old Philipe and his shop, and besides I dream of someday a) writing like DFW and b) having a kitchen stocked with jars of sauerkraut. We all have to start somewhere, right?
In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.-Joan Didion, South and West
It’s becoming that time of the year where rains are frequent and dead animals rot fast and nights are damp and dark and quiet. Summer in New Orleans. It’s hard to pinpoint its feel, other than hot and troubled. Fortunately someone else has ventured into this literary territory; Joan Didion’s new book South and West contains notes from a road trip she took with her husband in 1970, starting and ending in New Orleans, exploring towns and cities in Mississippi and Alabama in-between.
The book was short and good. It is almost like a little collection of “casual observances” around the South, which, because they’re Joan Didion’s observances, are interesting. And the book hits home for me for a couple reasons. First, her impressions ring eerily true to the atmosphere of New Orleans (and the South) today – which is saying something, given that she traveled here nearly fifty years ago. She picked up on things that I have often felt, but haven’t quite been able to articulate:
It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy… The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.
…In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.
I have always felt that “nature” here is conceptualized very differently than in, say, New England, or California, or places where people go outside to get fresh air and hike and dream and invigorate themselves. “Nature” for me in NOLA feels more formidable and oppressive, less like an entity to lose my consciousness in and more like something I could physically lose my body in. The same could be said of traveling around the South in general. It’s not like renting a car in, say, New Zealand, or Croatia, or Oregon, where beautiful and exciting things manifest themselves on a frequent basis. This is the South. Didion’s book certainly suffers from lack of action; there are many sections that are slow and vaguely boring and completely gaping in plot. But on some level, I think, that’s entirely the point of it.
Didion took the month-long jaunt around the South thinking she’d write an article about it (hence all the notes). But you get the sense that she was ultimately disappointed. She confesses at one point that she didn’t want to drive to Jackson because it had one of two major airports (the other being in NOLA) and she knew she’d succumb to her desire to hop on a plane and get the heck out of the South. Her trip ended on a bitter note, an argument with her husband and a silent night spent in an airport motel. She never wrote the story.
…All the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semi-Finals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.
And this is the second reason why this book hits home. I too took a road trip around the South in the summer (last summer, to be exact). I too took notes, recorded conversations, thought there might be a story. I never produced or published the story. Part of that is because I, unlike Joan Didion, am not a professional writer; but part of that is perhaps inherent to the nature of this place. New Orleans might fall into another category, and perhaps I am just making excuses for myself, but the bulk of the Southern feel – especially in the summer – contains the kind of melancholic somnolence that promotes porch-sitting over reporting, apathy over emotional investment, personal pleasure (bordering on a numbness) over personal growing pains. The energy that is required to report, construct, and publish pieces feels somehow heavier, more exerting, when the humidity reaches 100%, when the atmosphere is literally pressing down on you. “The weather around here must shape ideas of who and what one is, as it does everywhere,” Didion writes. Indeed, it does. The summer contains a darkness here. And it is difficult, I think it’s fair to say, to maintain a certain level of fire underfoot, the flames of ambition, the definitive sense of purpose to your work when the air is heavy with “death by decay.”
I can’t help but wonder what advice Joan Didion would give to an aspiring writer spending the bulk of her mid-twenties in the South. Perhaps she’d say, Get out of the South. Or perhaps she’d say, Who cares if the atmosphere is hot and slow and sad? Stop dwelling and get on with it! I would love to know. You always hear about how New York is the place that tests young artists, the place where you have to be composed of a tougher kind of substance to succeed. But what about the South, in the summer? (And making money as a landscaper, laboring outdoors by day and writing by night? Is this foolish and ultimately debilitating, or is region and atmosphere somewhat irrelevant at the end of the day?)
And perhaps I’m simply over-thinking it. My roommates and I were talking last night about the onset of the summer; one of them, who is from France, knew exactly how I felt; but the other, from Mexico, just laughed. “I’ve lived here for nine summers and it’s been fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who cares? It’s just hot.”
One of the benefits of being a landscaper in New Orleans is that you have a thing called “rain days,” and or better yet “mud days,” i.e. when the sky and ground are too sloppy to plant trees or haul clay or perform any of our other Earthy activities. Sudden and surprising days off! It’s like having snow days again, only better because I’m an adult and don’t have to worry about homework and that cold wet feeling up my sleeves. Today was one of those days – too wet to work, and on a Monday too, which extended my weekend into spontaneous three-day luxury.
So what to do with this newfound freedom? I did some productive-ish things – bought a procrastinated plane ticket, drafted a procrastinated email, attempted to track down a W-2, failed to track down said W-2, picked up two paychecks, deposited said checks, agonized slightly over my finances, decided I don’t care about money, wrote a small poem, bought a couple groceries, ran five miles, read three Nabokov stories, edited some photos, wrote about 500 words of a crappy short story. All during the daylight! It’s amazing what you can accomplish, when you choose to ignore practical and fiscal responsibility and the land is encrusted in mud. By the time 6:15 rolled around I felt fatigued and a little bored of myself and contemplated an extremely early bedtime; but the light outside was beautiful and beckoned me and I decided to take a little photo-walk around my neighborhood. Here are some things I saw. Mud days are the best ya’ll.
For over two weeks I’ve been mulling over how to post my photos from Mardi Gras and kept hitting a wall. I wanted to post them, but I didn’t know what to write about. It is normally the other way around – I more or less know what I want to write and only later scrape together the photos in an attempt enhance my musings. But on Mardi Gras day, I took 643 photos and was left with no idea what to say about them.
Sometimes photos can stand alone, of course, if they’re good enough. But for me, photos have mostly served as an adhesive to my writing, and a way for me to deepen my sense of scenery. I don’t really have the patience nor skill to master the technicalities of photo-making. I like to use my camera as a tool for observation; I don’t take photos to make art.*
The ironic thing about taking photos this past Mardi Gras, of course, is that I hardly used it to heighten my awareness and experience, because I was hardly capable of observing and internalizing what was happening around me, because I was copiously consuming this little substance called alcohol.
This substance has actually been at the core of my dilemma when contemplating writing this post. How much am I willing to share? How much honesty and intensity do I want to dive into, versus something lighthearted, funny, simple? I didn’t really know until a few nights ago, when I was reading my friend Annie’s blog. She’s been writing about some pretty heavy personal stuff and it dawned on me that the best writing is always the most honest writing, whether it’s a novel or news story or letter or blog post, no matter the subject, no matter if it’s “heavier” hearted. At least it’s the stuff of the heart.
So anyways, here goes a grand attempt at writing about my Mardi Gras honestly: I don’t remember taking half of those 643 photos; where they came from, who the people were, when it happened. Nothing. Haha, a lot of you are probably thinking. Yeah, it’s Mardi Gras, of course you drank yourself to oblivion. But somehow this time felt different and jarring in a way that others haven’t. Perhaps it’s because this time I was risking my EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE camera as I carted it around the French Quarter with my daiquiris and shots and free beers. (Reckless. Beyond. Belief.) But perhaps it’s also the nature of what the camera provided itself: Documentation. I had no idea how far gone I was until later when I scrolled through my photos and found faces and places that I felt like I had never seen before in my life. It scared me, and I wondered how many other times something like this happened but I didn’t have a camera, so I didn’t even know how much I had forgotten, if that makes sense.
Honestly (woo! the truth keeps coming), for a while now I have been very interested and concerned about my relationship with alcohol. Why do I feel like I need it? What benefits vs limitations do I incur from drinking it? How much of my consumption has been shaped by my culture and peers, versus a genuine desire to drink? What would I sacrifice versus gain if I gave up alcohol completely?
When I moved back to NOLA, I spent the first couple weeks hardly touching booze in an attempt to find answers to these questions. And I began to find them, because I was feeling so good – energized, engaged, healthy, happy, and like I was saving money. Okay, I thought. Sobriety is cool. I like this. I could maybe do this for an indefinite amount of time.
But then… Mardi Gras happened. The weekends filled with friends and tall boys and tequila and parades, and I had a grand time, and actually kept things pretty in check leading up to Fat Tuesday – partaking in some drinking, but nothing crazy or out of control at all. It was just Mardi Gras day that everything unravelled, my control became undone. And though I’m not beating myself up about it, it has certainly got my mind whirring again, mostly on the question of, Quel est le point? Our culture has completely normalized this kind of behavior, and in New Orleans it’s especially normalized, not just for Mardi Gras but anytime, really; it’s acceptable and okay to drink heavily, frequently, for pretty much no reason. And I’m realizing more and more that I want nothing to do with it.
So this is all to say that I’ve dedicated this month post-Gras to cultivating a very different lifestyle of ~mostly~ sobriety. Maybe someday I’ll go back to drinking drinking, but for now and the foreseeable future, I am enjoying this new habit of mine. When I say ~mostly~ sobriety I mean: Having a beer a party, or a glass of wine with my roommates, infrequently (like one or maybe two nights a week). For example, last Saturday night I went out to Saturn Bar’s Mod Night and DJ Soul Sister at Hi Ho Lounge with my friend visiting from Florida, and I had half a Corona and a LOT of ice cream and a truly phenomenal time. Dancing has never felt so good, I went home at a reasonable hour, and I had meaningful conversations all night. Revolutionary! I know this might not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but for me it’s exciting, and I feel like I’m on the brink of a big positive lifestyle shift.**
I could go on but I think that’s all I’ll say on this subject for now. Oh, I guess, just one last thing: If you live in NOLA and are interested in biking, running, rock climbing, cooking, checking out art shows, listening to live music, sitting in coffee shops, reading in a park somewhere, eating ice cream on a curb or DANCING of ANY kind please let me know… The goal of this new non-drinking lifestyle is not to sit alone in my house, believe it or not. One place in particular I’ve really enjoyed hanging out is a little urban farm in the Ninth Ward called Grow On, they host a ton of events and music and films and yoga etc and the people are wonderful, if you haven’t been you gotta check it out!
Thanks for reading this, whoever you are. And if for some reason you recognize yourself (or a friend) in these photos BY ALL MEANS let me know. For the record, beneath my shame for drinking myself into a wasteland, I do have one tiny glimmer of pride for being able to manually focus and compose these photos. There are lot more of these where they came from, too. I was having a good time apparently.
*In fact, I don’t even have Lightroom or Photoshop. So far all of the photos I’ve posted have been unedited, save a few tweaks of brightness and contrast with Apple’s crappy editing software
**Note: I’ve heard the notion before of, “If you have to think about alcohol or if you’re hyper-aware of how many drinks you have, you’re an alcoholic.” I just do not believe this is true, mostly because I over-analyze and am hyper-aware of almost everything in life. For example: I usually count how many miles I go for on runs, how many hours of sleep I get, how many books I read in a year, how much money I spend on clothes, how much chocolate I ingest on a daily basis, etc etc. The list goes on, for better or for worse. It seems perfectly normal to actively think about how much I drink, when I actively think about most things I do.
While the rest of the world gawks at last night’s Oscar blunder, chews on Trump’s latest budget proposal, and ponders going to the moon, New Orleanians continue to spin around the streets in these days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. There is certainly something beautiful and sadistic about this holiday, this blatant shunning of reality and complete embrace of indulgence, gluttony, and something I think many of us strive for: reveling in the present. There is no talk of tomorrow (i.e. Wednesday), no angst for the past, just sheer joy for being free and alive right here, right now. The whole city shuts down to play; the air is thick with barbecue spits and booze (and piss); there teems an atmosphere of a reckless abandon of responsibility.
To be honest, I dabble between love and loathe for this kind of human behavior. The amount of waste and trash and violence and empty, materialistic foolishness that results from large drunken crowds shoving each other for beads and dancing to shitty American pop music and waving hands in the air filled with “hand grenades” and octane daiquiris – to me, this scene is almost worthy of despondence. Masses of people, tight spaces, and aggressive hollering is a recipe for anxiety, not to mention fear of things like giant trucks plowing into us human sardines, like the one that hit Carrollton Ave on Saturday night. Terrors like that that make me think, what are we doing? And even without that, I still can’t help but wonder, Is this kind of tomfoolery worth it? Quel est le point?
But then there are the incredible costumes, the laughter, the openness, the energy, the marvelous display of human creativity that is incredible, invaluable even. Part of me wonders if it’s not one of the most genuinely human holidays there is. Something about it – when I look at the musicians in the marching bands, the people running down St. Charles Ave with boxes of wine, kissing each other’s faces, dousing themselves in glitter, embracing and enjoying the presence of pure strangers – it makes me feel as if it’s one of the most genuine, natural displays of humanity in existence. It’s hard to explain exactly why and how I feel this, but I do. It feels more human than many things humans do all the time.
So it is beautiful or deplorable, depressing or uplifting? For me it is both, and I think it always will be. I will continue to partake in it as I partially condemn it. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this confliction and hypocrisy, though some New Orleanians would probably condemn me for being absorbed in WordPress right now instead of celebrating le Lundi Gras. But to each their own, we all say here. If there’s one thing this city is good at embracing, it’s allowing each individual to live however they want, whenever they want.
so it’s been three weeks now, three bursting weeks back in new orleans. in a predictable fit of mania that tends to strike me upon new beginnings (“i can bike everywhere! i can work as much as possible and deck out my room and meet up with all my friends and run eight miles three times a week and buy a rock climbing membership and plan five different mardi gras costumes and read the new york times every morning and maybe just maybe even call my mom at some point”), i’ve been running around like a kinda crazy person. “you’re really embodying carpe diem,” my roommate jan told me this afternoon, with a mixture of admiration and minor abhorrence. she doesn’t know that in reality i’m just seizing this rare opportunity of extreme motivation that accompanies a fresh start and this shall not last long and starting around mid-april all i will be doing after work is sitting on the back porch with a book and maybe a cold beer, if i’m feeling frisky. but for now – shaun king speaking for free at xavier university? heck yes! an all-day permaculture workshop? sign me up! a free lecture on “permeable surfaces, vehicular rated”? not really sure what that is, but count me in! training to bird-dog a townhall meeting on public health rights? have actually no idea what bird-dogging is but WHY NOT! (and of course, music and plays and dancin’, check, check, check.)
it’s unbelievable, how many free events occur every day in this city, and how much there is to explore and tackle. i wanted to write a blog post about the excitement of becoming ultra-involved in different kinds of work again, and being a body who shows up to different talks and spaces, and PARTICIPATES in life in a way that is productive and empowering!…
BUT alas, amidst this fresh beginning and the brewing of new collaborations, it’s also…. mardi gras season. yep. time to put some of these frenzied ambitions on hold. i had almost forgotten how mad the weeks are leading up to fat tuesday, to the point where this past sunday morning my friend mario texted me about my parade plans, and i responded i was going to do yoga and some yardwork.
“While your mental and physical wellbeing are important, you should totally come hang,” he wrote back. “We will be around Tacos and Beer.”
yes, i should, and i did. thank you mario! here is a little taste of the mardi gras life. i’ll write more soon.
A tornado tore through New Orleans yesterday, as if this city needed another hit, as if we needed another reminder that there are destructive forces beyond our control. Yesterday marked the end of my first week back in this damaged beautiful place and it’s been a whirlwind, a good New Orleans-style whirlwind: starting a new job, meeting new roommates, running into old friends on their bikes, buzzing the back of my head, getting yelled at by strangers, sitting on the back porch watching the sunset, calling an ambulance for a drugged-up man lying motionless on the sidewalk by a church Sunday morning, accidentally digging a grenade out of the ground and watching the NOPD and NOLA bomb squad evacuate a stretch of Magazine Street to extract the “potential explosive.” It’s been good, so so good. Truly, I feel euphoric here. I beam at the scenery, I’m lifted up by the familiar sounds and feels of the streets, I’m loving the return to physical work, I love the people I work with, I love the early mornings, I love how much I feel at home here. (It makes me feel like that girl Jessica on YouTube who chants into her mirror, I love my house! I love my haircuts! I can do anything good!!, except I’m not as cute and blonde and tiny.)
Of course, some of these feelings wear off over time, and I’m sure fatigue and confusion and existential crises etc will eventually take its place for at least a lil bit; but for now I am reveling in a genuine state of happiness that I haven’t experienced in a while. I also find it interesting that I feel so genuinely good having stopped (temporarily, but for now cold-turkey stopped) drinking alcohol. It is good to know that I love this city sober, and good to know that some combination of nature, physical work, this city and sobriety fill me with positive energy. Progress, this is progress.
It’s been strange moving back here amidst all the terrible, shameful atrocities currently plaguing our country, and another small yet devastating natural disaster, and starting a job that is very disconnected from it all. I feel a sense of moral obligation to keep tabs on, and connect to, what’s happening; but I also feel a sense of moral obligation to allow myself to be happy. I don’t want things to be wasted on me just because I am disheartened and angered by what’s going down politically, or because there are a million places my mind could be occupied other than here. I don’t want the oh-so-beautiful details that make this place magnificent to be wasted on me – the elegant balconies, the funky trim and chipping paints, the Mardi Gras beads strung on metal beams, the distant glitter of the bridge in the dark, the way the night sky is sometimes purple-orange. This is my city again. It hits me from time to time, as I am biking, or walking, or working, or looking at the people or houses or sky. And it feels good, so deeply good, and I can’t quite believe it.
So yet again I find myself blogging about moving, but this time it’s about moving BACK to a place: New Orleans. That’s right, dear WordPress readers, all five of you. I’m packing up my boxes in Florida – for real this time – and driving them to Louisiana on Monday. Saturday will be my last day of work at Satchel’s, and my new job at a landscape architecture company starts next week.
It feels crazy, uprooting again and returning again, doing something new yet old, progressing yet regressing, zigzagging back and forth across I-10 like a logger truck. It feels crazy, going back to a place that I had once needed to escape. It feels crazy, having to say goodbye to this place just as I’m beginning to get in the groove.
And perhaps I am just crazy. But I’m starting to think more and more that NOTHING in life goes according to plan, and it’s good – necessary, even – to abandon what’s not working. It’s good to embrace opportunities that spontaneously arise, the things that might be scary and difficult at first but serve well in the long run. Diving back into building and planting and physical labor is going to be HARD. Leaving here so quickly is going to be hard. But learning about sustainable and ecological design, waking up early and working in the elements, working in a community I love, living in a city I love — this, I believe, is a worthwhile investment of time and energy.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of work, especially in light of the UTTER MADNESS going down in our country. More and more I think so much of living is about working – and what we do to feel useful, what we do to contribute, and what we put into and gain from our work. More and more I think that so much of what we work on defines our lives. “Constant work is the law of art as it is of life,” Balzac said, as Michael Dirda reminds us in one of his great essays, who adds: “If you hope to accomplish something worthwhile during your time on earth, you will have to work.”
No matter how much our country is founded on freedom and liberty, at the end of the day EVERYONE has to work to be a functional human; whether that’s showing up to a job, or cleaning a house, or contributing to a community project, or reaching out to people who need help, or suffering a little for the sake of something bigger than you. It’s all “work,” it all takes energy and time, and it all literally and physically shapes us.
And amidst all this political madness I’m finding myself more and more wanting to do good work – to do good work for my body and mind, to do good work for others, to do good work for our soil and water and planet. And I’m finding myself wanting to settle, plant some roots, and really invest in a community. Fortunately I know that I love New Orleans – time away from it, and visiting it in spurts, has confirmed this for me – and I can envision putting in work there for a couple years (at least). “You make sense here,” my sister told me when we visited NOLA together last winter. Somehow I think this is true. And it’s time to recognize I don’t make sense in Gainesville, and that’s okay.
The next four years under He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named — and perhaps beyond – are going to be exceedingly challenging, that much we all know. But I remain optimistic that we can and will put work into positive places – in combatting greed and oppression and inequality, in nourishing and nurturing our selves and land, in lifting each other up through focused, steady hands and hearts. It seems like there’s a great shift and priority toward this, beyond just me and my friends and family, and across the nation and even the globe. Let’s keep up this momentum, everybody. These times are crazy, and nothing is going according to plan, and we might have to take a few steps backwards before we can go forwards. But let’s launch ourselves into the places we know – or believe – we can thrive and make a difference. Let’s get to work.
p.s. For everyone who has made my life here in Gainesville as lovely as it’s been I THANK YOU and will wholeheartedly miss you. A final tribute to G-ville coming soon….
In typical American holiday fashion, the past week was a marathon of media ingestion: a movie (Moonlight), a National Gallery art show (Stuart Davis In Full Swing), a novel (Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums), and an autobiography (Richard Wright’s Black Boy). It was a fun Thanksgiving, truly. Despite these seemingly random art forms and compositions, they all belonged together; they all felt relevant; and they all felt distinctly American. Why? It is strange and surprising, that these works fit together at all. And what does it even mean for something to feel “distinctly American,” anyway?
I imagine many of us are chewing on questions like this as our country faces a crisis in identity. Because that’s what’s happening, I think – no one seems to know who we are, or what the heck America stands for. Freedom and liberty and justice feel a little out the door given our incumbent President, our incarceration system, our housing and food and education crisis, our potential immigrant policies, and our seemingly ceaseless oppression of millions of non-whites. (But let’s not get started down that road…)
So what do we stand for? What does America represent? Just like the characters in these books and movies, our country is baffled by what it is. Perhaps America is like a teenager, lashing out and suffering what is hopefully just a growing pain. Or perhaps it’s like a middle-aged man going through a mid-life crisis, nostalgic for his past, jealous and wary of others that have emerged stronger than him, and confused and scared for how he got to where he is. Either way, it’s a crisis of identity. And that’s not something to be taken lightly.
It would be impossible for me to weave these male artists together into a seamless cohesive narrative on our country (lest I wished to turn this blog into a small senior thesis) but they certainly all have one thing in common: A great American spirit, a grappling with masculinity and manhood, and an emergence of self-empowerment and identity. (Also, they’re all wonderfully intoxicating compositions in their own rights.) Without reducing these art forms into something extremely black-and-white, I would argue that all these artists transcended modern conventions and found power within their artistic vision; but underneath the surface all of them contain a darker history etched in their lines. And its this expression of darkness, to me, that makes mastery; that’s what makes art beautiful, and worth celebrating, and genuine depiction of identity, and American.
For example, on the surface, Stuart Davis and Jack Kerouac’s works contain an exuberance, a dramatic and excited display for the cultural and artistic offerings of America. In TheDharma Bums, Kerouac talks of “mad” young Americans hiking and meditating and drinking and orgy-ing away their life in the Cascades and Sierras. “Japhy was full of great ideas like that,” the narrator describes his friend’s talent for packing light. “What hope, what human energy, what truly American optimism was packed into that neat little frame of his!”
Truly American optimism. This is how we identify – liberated, optimistic, full of ideas and possibilities. Consider the art of Stuart Davis, whose aim was to be “distinctly American” in the “Whitman sense.” Davis – hugely influenced by the rise of jazz – depicts a bright, colorful, jubilant expression of American life. But the irony is that his art was inspired by predominantly African-American expressions, the products of those who had suffered and endured oppression solely based on their heritage, i.e. being non-white Americans.
The exhibition in the National Gallery didn’t point out all of the darkness that underlies this exuberant “American” art, but I’m not sure that’s what Stuart Davis himself was after, either. Holland Cotter from the NY Times touched on this in an article about the exhibit; he writes that some of Davis’ thinking about art seems “locked in the past”:
I’m thinking about the way he identified his art as American, a product of, and a homage to, “the wonderful place we live in,” a place of entrepreneurial appetites and Walt Whitman-esque enthusiasms. I’m thinking of his insistence that art’s primary moral role is, or should be, to add pleasure to the world, to give an illusion of ordering chaos, as opposed to facing it and staring it down.
Yes – the notion that art must concede with “American optimism” is outdated; rather, one of its primary moral roles is to illuminate the chaos, and identify with turbulence and suffering, if it is to capture an American spirit. The darkness is with us, among us. I keep coming back to this passage in Black Boy, Richard Wright’s autobiography, in which he describes feeling innately like an outsider as a young boy:
In shaking hands I was doing something that I was to do countless times in the years to come: acting in conformity with what others expected of me even though, by the very nature and form of my life, I did not and could not share their spirit…
(Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it.)
Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western civilization. What a bold, jarring statement. I would imagine most Blacks would agree with it. But either way I think that today, when we look at the overall American art forms from the past several centuries, the “Negro spirit” of Wright’s time is a huge, unavoidable component of the “modern” American spirit, even if we have to look between the lines.
For example, Jack Kerouac, a visionary of white-hipster Western America, rarely mentions African Americans in his novels (or at least, The Dharma Bums) more than once or twice. Under the surface, though, Kerouac was fascinated by – and even jealous of – the African American culture in his time. (“I walked on Welton Street wishing I was a ‘[n-word],’” Kerouac wrote in his journals in Denver of 1949, “because I saw that the best of the ‘white world’ had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”) You wouldn’t find this spirit much in his novels, but it’s certainly there in his personal writings published in 2004. When Kerouac looked at the problems in American culture (consumerism, obsession with entertainment and money etc), he actually found a sense of salvation in the non-white world. Consider this passage from his visit to Poughkeepsie in 1949:
What dismal streets… what dismal lives… what futurelessness & hapless woe. Thousands of drunkards in bars. But out of this wreckage rises a Cleo – a veritable Cleophus – the “Negro Neal” I met there this weekend – actually a “Negro Allen” in substance…
The future of America lies in the spirituality and strength of a Negro like Cleo… I know it now… and in all those who understand and receive him. It is simplicity and raw strength, rising out of the American ground, that will save us. We will be saved… There are great undiscovered peoples in America… Our class-laws will collapse.. otherwise America will collapse… and America will not collapse. You feel it in the busy streets… the swing of things; the sound of things going on, going up …
It’s amazing to me, how relevant this passage feels almost seventy years later. The swings and sounds – he’s certainly referring at least in part to the sounds of jazz rising from the streets and clubs, from mostly African American artists. It will save us. This “raw strength” rising from “undiscovered peoples” is the epitome of the triumphant American spirit, and is what will prevent us from destruction; and our future lies in all those who understand and receive this spirit and strength.
This is where “Moonlight” comes in. The movie was created by and based on the true life of Tarell Alvin McCraney, a gay black man who grew up in a Miami ghetto. Despite his turbulent and dangerous upbringing, his strength, spirit, choices and perhaps some chance prompted him to do and create many great things, including this recent beautiful film about power, identity, and ultimately love’s triumphs. There is no doubt that it achieves a level of greatness. But McCraney, as quoted in the LA Times, expressed nervousness about being labeled as just a “queer love story” or a “well-done black movie.”:
The thing that scares me is that people will try to use that to put it in this corner, because we can’t consider it ‘a great story.’ We have to consider it ‘this kind of great story.’ There is no part of me that wants to shirk this identity — it’s just who I am, how I got here.
And there’s no part of me that wants to shirk this American identity – that this is who we are, this is how we got here. Avoiding our past will only cause more pain. I can’t change our past, or what America has stood for. But I can change the way I look at everything created here, and understand the darknesses amidst the exuberance, and understand that these heavier stories deserve the status of greatness, and deserve to be OF the American spirit. While I can enjoy the fun elements of American art – be it Stuart Davis’ paintings, or Jack Kerouac’s ramblings of enlightened hitchhikers – I don’t want to take them on surface level; I want to understand how they actually fit into this country’s identity. In times like this, where I feel slightly lost in my own turf, it is consoling, necessary even, to seek our history, to peer into the masteries of American art, to find a common ground.
p.s. some more moon quotes:
From The Dharma Bums:
“But night would come and with it the mountain moon and the lake would be moon-laned and I’d go out and sit in the grass and meditate facing west, wishing there were a Personal God in all this impersonal matter. I’d go out to my snowfield and dig out my jar of purple Jello and look at the white moon through it. I could feel the world rolling toward the moon… bucks with wide antlers, does, and cute little fawns looking like otherworldly mammals on another planet with all that moonlight rock behind them.
…One night in a meditation vision Avalokitesvara the Hearer and Answerer of Prayer said to me “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney: I struggle with the person I’ve created to present to the world versus my authentic self. And to me, that’s one of the things this [movie] illustrates. It’s not the only thing for sure, but it illustrates who we become in order to survive, or what we think is surviving, and the cost of that.
Vulture: And also, the joy of when you feel like someone can see you for who you are.
McCraney: Absolutely. Being seen is so important and when someone sees you through all of your bullshit or through all of your performances, good or bad … I think in some places, that little boy had to perform certain ways. He was in danger; his world was chaos. But at every avenue, Kevin was there like, I see who you are, I can see you. To me that’s why Moonlight, the title, makes so much sense. To be seen under this light, it’s like it doesn’t matter that it’s just a reflection of the sun. To be seen period is enough. It’s beautiful and it doesn’t matter that it’s in the dark. It doesn’t matter that everything else around you is dark. If you get that light on you, to bask in it, it may not be as warm as the sun, but it’s certainly feels so good.”
For about a week before election night, I canvassed for “For our Future,” going door-to-door to different voters around Gainesville FL essentially to ensure people voted for Hillary Clinton. (This was a paid position, for the record.) I spent a lot of time in east Gainesville, i.e. the lower-income predominantly black neighborhoods, and found optimism behind most doors: People had already made a plan to vote, they were voting for Hillary, they knew how high the stakes were in this election. My job was not that hard. I convinced a number of people to get out there who were reluctant, and clarified some important points (a lot of people didn’t quite know where to go, and some even thought the deadline for voting had been extended PAST election day… yikes). I felt a sense of urgency, but not panic; I was fairly convinced that Florida would go blue. I could tell that the minority voters were taking this very seriously, and I truly believed that this election would come down to a minority voter turnout.
I think for me, one of the most crushing parts of this election has been thinking back to those conversations, especially with the black folks – the old, young, healthy, sick, wealthy, poor – and how I declared with complete conviction that THEY had the power to prevent Trump from becoming President, that the outcome was in their hands. “If you go out and vote,” I said, “and your family and neighbors and friends go out and vote, you can all prevent this dangerous man from becoming president. Your vote really counts here.” “Is he actually racist?” some of them would ask me. “Yes, he is,” I’d confirm with regret. Or, when I told them I would drive them to the polls if they didn’t have a ride, they said, “Does it really matter that much?”
Of course it mattered that much. But apparently the rural white vote still overpowered their ballots, and I regret my approach in these conversations, and I feel sick to my stomach when I think of these Gainesville residents – especially the elderly – who might feel powerless to what’s happening now. What does this election tell them? Did they believe they’d stop him?
A huge part of me wonders if “For our Future” had focused on talking to registered voters in rural areas – even registered Republicans – we’d be facing the same President-elect today. Canvassing in non-urban areas would’ve been costly, and difficult, and probably dangerous and perhaps for naught. But I wonder. Because clearly the rural Floridians had the power here. What would’ve happened if those people – predominantly white, perhaps educated and wealthier, perhaps not – had even seen a glimpse of progressive, informed, rational discourse on this election, even a glimpse? I wonder. Maybe it would’ve swayed.
I’d like to share a story that has really stuck with me, of a woman I drove to the polls on election day around 5:00. I had offered my (shamefully messy) car to voters sans transportation as I canvassed all day, but only found one taker – a very sweet, young-ish white woman at a homeless shelter who hopped in with gratitude. As I drove to her polling location (a church which, by the way, is EXTREMELY FAR for the mostly-black precinct, why can’t they make these polling places more central again…?!) we got to talking about her difficult life. She recently was fired from McDonald’s after trying to switch around her schedule; her boyfriend committed suicide a couple months ago; and she works for a school lunch program for $9.05/hour, struggling to make enough to support herself here in Gainesville (hence having to stay at a homeless shelter that has issues hosting her for the time she needs).
As we near the church, she asks me who I voted for. “Hillary Clinton…?” I say, with the expectation she was on the same page as me.
She laughed awkwardly. “Uh oh.”
“You’re not voting for Trump, are you?” I asked, horrified.
“Yeah, I am.”
The air seemed to escape my car. I couldn’t believe what I had done: I was giving a Trump voter a ride to the polls.
I had no choice but to keep going at that point; we were almost there, and to turn around would rob her of her right as a citizen of this country. But my heart and mind raced furiously. “As a woman, and as a homeless woman, PLEASE reconsider voting for this man,” I practically begged. “He is not looking out for you, he’s not going to install any programs that will help you, he is only running for President to further himself, he has no respect for women, he’s completely unfit to run our country” (etc etc)
“But I don’t think he even really has a chance anyway,” she said, seemingly unaffected by my ranting.
“No, he does have a chance, and we’re in such a critical and close county, your vote really counts,” I pleaded. “Seriously, you have the right to your own opinion of course, but a small part of me would cry if I knew I took a Trump voter to the polls.”
She just kind of laughed and shrugged, and we arrived, and she hopped out and I spent a tense sweaty twenty minutes trying to console my shattered ego, telling myself everyone who wants to vote should have the chance to vote and this is a democracy after all, though maybe I should have bribed her just a little bit, like $10, that wouldn’t have hurt anyone right?!
She got back in the car. “Ok, I didn’t vote for Trump,” she said, smiling. “You persuaded me.”
I’m not telling this to toot my horn as a persuader, people. I’m writing this to demonstrate that people are malleable, so much more malleable than we give credit for. Sometimes it just takes a shared space and sense of trust – and exposure to another side of reality – to change our minds. (There is a great episode on This American Life about this.) As we drove back into town, she told me that had only ever been exposed to Trump supporters – she helped her parents and her boyfriend (while he was alive) put Trump signs in their yard, and had always been surrounded by Republican ideals. I give this girl a lot of credit for being open to me and my ideas. We are vulnerable when we are open to others; it requires us to loosen our grip on our identity, and genuinely respect someone who has an “outside” mindset or worldview. It’s hard to be open and accepting, and it’s certainly not always in our nature. But I feel like in some ways, it’s what makes us human.
I regret some of the conversations I had with the black folks in Gainesville, because I don’t want them to think that racism and hatred prevailed over tolerance in this election. I think a desire for change prevailed. And I think a LOT of people don’t take their vote seriously, and just said well what the heck, why not? This is all joke anyway. I recognize that the girl who I met on Election Day was an extreme case; most people are not so lenient. But to label Trump voters as racist and sexist and homophobic etc is to label and limit them into a certain category, a certain box, that is not always fair or true.
And no matter what kind of belief system they hold, they will never listen if we come at them with anger. They will never listen if we shout at them, label them, diminish them as uneducated or unintelligent. They will never listen if they feel threatened or afraid. We must engage in these conversations with respect and create trust, lest we want this country to splinter into different unions (which I know some people are not all that opposed to). It’s the only way we will EVER stop this terrible reign of white supremacy.
We are facing a crisis of isolation. Forums that generally provide connections are failing us; the Internet polarizes and extreme-ifies us, our public spaces are designed to isolate us, our school system segregates us as kids. In spite of a “more connected world,” we are more isolated from each other than ever. I feel as if it’s my responsibility as a privileged white person to test my patience, to test my boundaries and sense of safety and talk to people who I disagree with. This is not about being accepting or passive to what’s happening. This is about heading into the next four years with as much maturity and intention as I can muster. It’s about letting the unstable anger heal in the ways that it can – through exercise and nature and playing music and time – and using what’s left (because there’s a lot) to put the work into this backwards, scary, upsetting world we face.
I hope you’re with me, and as always, thanks for reading.