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?
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.
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.
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.”
in light of the events last week, i think many of us (esp. us privileged white folks) are asking ourselves, what do i do? because acceptance – in its purest form – is not an option. (to accept the current state of our world would be a crime.) i think many of us – aware of the dangers of donald trump, the ravaging inequalities in the world, the backwards systems we have in place, the destruction on our earth and selves – feel quickened into verb. we feel the urgency to DO something. but what verb do we choose? to yell? to fight? to organize? to buy a one-way plane ticket to bermuda?!
i’m not sure what to do, except to put in the work and do what i can. so i’m starting a new blog. (i’ve been wanting to do this for a while now anyway.) in the past few years i’ve definitely questioned the written word’s tangible power in changing the world, and especially doubted the power of “blogging” as an action; but in the past week alone, i know i’ve been consoled by something even as simple as a friend’s writings on FB, and i know i’m inspired by maria popova’s writings on brain pickings, and another favorite blog called “walking to listen,” and my dad’s blog for the washington post. sometimes, when i read good writings (even online), it almost feels like having a conversation with an old friend; i feel as if my own thoughts, worries, anxieties, loves and joys are being heard and understood, and i feel less alone. and that in itself is a feeling worth fighting for.
besides, it is time to act in whatever way we can, and this is what i can do. i can write. for those of you who are unafraid to speak in front of a room of people: please grab a microphone. for those of you good with money: please start fundraising. for those of you who are athletic: run a marathon or host a sporting event in the name of a better world. for those of you who are unsure what you bring to the table: just your presence and openness and engagement with these issues (in the physical as well as virtual world) is enough. for all of us: let’s be kind to each other, let’s cook food for each other, let’s take care of ourselves, let’s stay informed. we can only do what we can, but i believe what we can all do has infinite possibility.
thank you for reading.
p.s. i stole the phrase “quicken into verb” from the poem i quoted in the excerpt for this post. it’s called “oysters” by seamus heaney and it’s about luxury and privilege and acquiescence and action, with much more depth and beauty, in a nutshell. my high school english teacher explained it better to his students than i just did (thank you, joe riener), but they are certainly words to live by.