Tag Archives: New Orleans

A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.  She is 182 years old.  Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.

#1228

So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him — then return
And he has hauled away

A birthday is the thing with feathers. So much to say now. I’ll try to encompass it all, as we move deeper into the winter dark.  First an update:  The weather is springy warm and humid.  The Saints lost yesterday.  The end of the world is nigh.  Not necessarily because the Giants killed the pants off the Saints, 52 to 27.  Yet, surely these facts must have some meaningful resonance with each other.  I couldn’t help myself.  I was depressed and declared that the dwindling days of the Mayan calendar and the Saints’ abysmal performance are energetically linked . . . somehow.  Then it was time for dinner.  Pizza and beer helped my mood.  I also had to ask Geoff, “What spiritual lesson do we take from this game?”  He hates spiritual lessons and would not answer.   He was even more depressed than I was.  After dinner, several hours after I asked the question, he did finally answer it.  I’m paraphrasing here:  The lesson is that however bad it feels when the Saints lose, it’s never so terrible that you cannot recover and look forward with some optimism, a little joy.  Of course, by “forward” we mean next season, not the next game.  This season is cooked.  And that “look” will have to draw on the deepest stores of renewal and fundamental faith in the simple ideas:  Onward, practice, figure it out, and try again.  Try again.  And then try again.

Now for the poem.  Honest, I did choose this one at random.  The Saints line jumped out on its own.  The stanza at the end holds me.  “Too much of Proof affronts Belief.”  The literalness of the physical world diminishes our capacity to strive toward the fuller development of our Self.  We won’t do it without that ever receding thing we call faith.  (Faith in what, you ask?  Oh, I don’t know—honor, dignity, fairness, goodness, that seamless connection on the long pass out of the shotgun, the poetry of beauty that works.)  If the things we want to believe in announce themselves in the world as if produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, we’d scoff at these as too literal.  Paradoxically something seems less spiritually True if we can see it as literally true.

So those things we believe in or have faith in—whatever it is, doesn’t have to be God—such ephemera make us get up in the morning and try to accomplish tasks greater than merely maintaining bodily existence.  In order to draw this effort from us, these ephemera must remain slightly unknown, just beyond the limit of the mind’s capacity to comprehend.  If these ephemera that ask for our faith appeared in concrete totality, so we could see all the sides, top and bottom, then we would not accept them as worthy of our faith.  And the engine loses its drive to exist.

Emily plays with the mind’s ability to set its own impossible tasks.  Human survival requires that we try for something that will never be realized.  That’s the job that keeps our blood circulating.  So this is not idle poetic meandering to formulate such ephemera as honor, dignity, fairness, goodness . . . the hope for that perfect long pass.  These are deliberately elusive.  Suggested without complete realization.  (It takes imagination to love the Saints; you have to be able to see things that may never exist.  Imagination feeds the human life force as much as pizza and beer.)  The power of the unproven outcome to simulate our life force is counter-intuitive, but it works.  Now, you’d want to build a house on a solid four-square foundation, such that you can see all the physical aspects and know it has structural integrity, in order to trust that foundation to hold up your house.  Conversely to build a life, you’d start with a foundation made from a concept (honor goodness dignity) that never fully reveals itself.  You must place your faith here without compete proof that it exists.  Human existence rests on the continuing puzzle of unverifiable existence.

Thank you Emily and happy birthday.  I am so happy that you exist.

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February’s Foot

Ground Hog’s Day seems a good time to make this announcement.  My book, My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of  a Lover (Michigan State University Press) has been published and should arrive in bookstores any day now.  There is more information on my new website.

Ground Hog’s Day or February 2nd is also Imbolc, sacred to Brigid with her great belly-shaped cauldron.  It is also the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, when the Blessed Mother leaves her postpartum seclusion and goes to the temple, where she is bathed and prepared to re-enter society.  Forty days after his birth, her baby has grown safely past that delicate, infection-prone stage of early life, and she may present him to the world without fear that he’ll catch his death of cold.

The day marks the faint stirring of new life.  It shows here in this mild, rainy humid place.  The Japanese magnolia in my yard is sprouting all over with small green leaves.  There is a lot of dead brown junk, but I see the beginnings stirring underneath.  This weather would be considered spring by most other standards.  Emily looks onto a New England winter that is nothing like mine.

#1133, ca. 1868

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

The only thing Emily and I have in common right now is February’s Foot. We’re both under it. The difference between this condition in Amherst, Massachusetts and New Orleans is that here February’s Foot wears a jeweled strappy sandal with a soft sole and a kitten heel. In Emily’s case, the foot on her neck wears an ice-crusted boot, thick, solid, unforgiving.

The winter freeze in her poem has a cleansing quality, setting out a pure white space. The cold kills off everything but loneliness. The color of white is really the absence of color. We can even call white the color of death exactly—it does not point to loss or decay, but removal.  A vacancy, where life and color used to be.

This a an abrupt contrast to my February where winter is a riot of color. Purple, gold and green! Carnival is about to explode into our daily lives. We grow fat on cake and misbehavior. One of the first changes I noticed in myself when I made New Orleans my home was that my customary seasonal affective disorder disappeared. All my life I had experienced a deep depression in winter. My emotional state went into steep decline in January and a didn’t come up to a level approaching normal until April, after the ice had thawed. Once I’d had a few winters in New Orleans, I noticed this depression never had a chance to take hold of me again. Just as winter sadness began to creep into me, Carnival would snap its fingers, and I had to get busy, making my costume. It’s impossible to be depressed under the gauzy banner of Mardi Gras. Plus the weather doesn’t lock you indoors where depression incubates. Who knew?! All those years I didn’t need anti-depressants, just the Pagan Rites of Carnival.

This is genius, whoever thought of it. What a smart antidote to the inevitable emotional flattening that our environment slams us with each season. Of course, New Orleans is not the only place to celebrate Carnival. The practice exists in France, Germany, Italy, South America . . . wherever you find deep and old enclaves of Roman Catholics, you find this wise, psycho-cultural anti-depressant. Just not in New England. Those Protestants wear their depression with pride. Important to note this is not the grand, sparkling, spiking pain of Roman Catholic suffering—also called “passion”—how operatic. No, the Protestants have cornered the market on that low-grade, chronic, dulling down, long drawn-out suffering—the pain of endurance.

I’m over-simplifying, but I’ve got my reasons.

Emily strives to make the point, “pang is good.” She insists we need these blanketing snow-bound February storms where all the eye can see disappears as if into the great void for a time, which on the poet’s clock is forever. Emily claims that without the contrast, we do not gain the emotional value of the return to life. While under the frost of February’s foot, the depressed person cannot remember anything else but nothingness and loneliness. It stretches infinitely in all directions at once. The depressed mind knows no limits, sees no shape or cycle to her emotional life. Each minute of winter is eternal.

Emily wants us to consider the value first of being muffled into vacancy and then given a reprieve. The shift from nothing to something, the first green shoot that sends life and juice into all our cells, and we return to ourselves. Em says we can’t fill ourselves up without first becoming empty.

I’m not sure . . . after enduring plenty of those vacant winters myself, I want to invite Emily to live in south Louisiana for a few seasons and then ask if she is still so attached to that seasonal affective disorder. I’m glad she has made poems about it. What else is there to do in western Massachusetts in February? Still I’d like to see what Emily would do with Carnival. Wouldn’t you?

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Between Spirit and Dust

As we move toward the best season of the year, Emily’s birthday on December 10th, the news is good.  Ford in his Flivver and all is right with the world.  The Saints are 9 and 3.  Last night, Patrick Robinson flew like a bat out of hell to block that field goal attempt by the Lions.  A thing of beauty.  I’m happy with where we are at the moment.  Although the Titans could give us some trouble next week.

Despite the cheery season, Emily returns to her favorite subject.

#976, c. 1864

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
“Dissolve” says Death — The Spirit “Sir
I have another Trust” —

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.

Here Death is the argument between the matter of the earth and the ghost in the machine.  Death gets to say something, but Death owes its existence to the tension between the physical outcome of organic degeneration and our imagination’s stubborn refusal to give in to that.  So much spirit talk is born out of sheer obstinacy.

My focus goes to the line where she characterizes Death as a dialogue, not an entity, although Death does assume form and speech in the poem.  Death is a conversational exchange.  It takes two to create Death.  An essential split in our nature is where Death emerges as a character with something to say.  Without that duality within ourselves, we don’t have anything to talk about.  Or rather we have no one to talk to . . .  No dialogue, no Death.  Only changing form.  Skin, hair, bones, teeth, dust, mud . . . fertilizer.  And then some other form.

My own conversation with Death has been lively off and on since I was fourteen years old, both as a theoretical concept and as a more brute consideration.  This past September is a good example.  If you want my advice, don’t get cancer.  It puts a damper on things.

All right, I’m being glib.  That’s how we roll in my tribe, especially when considering Death.  The way to get through life with any dignity is to act the fool.  Afraid of Death?  Grab him by the throat and crack wise.  You’ll never make a friend of Death.  But do make him your straight man.

For the record:  I’m not dying.  Not yet, at least.  But I had an interesting brush with malignant melanoma.  A bad mole on my left arm.  The good news is that we found it at an early stage, so the surgeon removed it all in one swoop, along with a large portion of my skin.  No need for further treatment, no chemo or sentinel node biopsy.  I will have to be on high-alert for other bad moles, but for now I am in the clear.

Those are the clinical facts, over and done with in the space of a month.  The waves that move out from those facts continue to roll up against my thoughts, and I expect will do so for the rest of my life, which I hope will be a long one.  My sister who is a survivor of stage III breast cancer has talked about “the gift of cancer.”  My friend Shaun who is also a melanoma survivor used the same phrase.  They were talking about cancer as a great awakener.  That it clarified how they had been neglecting some essential part of themselves.  They said cancer gave them the power to love their own lives and act accordingly.

So I have been looking for the gift of cancer in my medical adventure.  It’s here.  What great material.  I can run my engine on this for a long while.  And I’m not done yet.  Not by any means.

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