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Emily and Jeanne

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and the 599th birthday of our patron Saint Jeanne d’Arc.  Epiphany babies often have an aura of destiny about them.  As a birth placement, this day can be almost literally brilliant.  According to the Christ myth, today the light of the world appears to those who have been seeking it.  Those who might believe in it.  I’m going to celebrate this evening with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc which will parade through the Vieux Carre and end at the golden statue of the Maid of Orleans near the Market.  I’ll give you a full report tomorrow.  Maybe.  If I’m not carried away by some errant tide of joy.  That could happen.  You never know.

In honor of her soul sister Jeanne, Emily sent this note from the dark.

#1323, ca. 1874

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,

Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead

I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
Deliberately face —

There is so much in this poem that I can’t hold it all at once. I’ll try to swim a straight line through it. My first response is to observe the similarities between Jeanne d’Arc and Emily Dickinson. They were both precocious, neurasthenic young girls with talents far exceeding their society’s ability to appreciate. Both were caught in a time that could not comprehend a woman of any age who possessed the power that each wielded in her own way.

Both, I’d argue here, were “afflicted” with consciousness. By that I mean that these two were both missing a layer or two of the usual protection (that “bandage”) that most of us carry around with us. The layers that shield us from a too intimate knowledge of ourselves or our consciousness. These two could not escape or ignore the experience of awareness. Most mortals can’t survive without ignoring their own consciousness. Em alludes to this protection in the line: “Too mighty for the Daily Mind”. A lesser sort born with Emily’s raw openness to the eternity within would fall into that “Madness.” No one sinks into the darkness behind her own eyes with any real willingness. It’s usually a forced step. Emily is the one with the curiosity and the courage to go there as a regular practice. And then write about it. Maybe that writing spared her from the madness. She was angling slant-wise toward this when she wrote “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —” The fact of conscious existence, our ability to be aware of our awareness, is too excruciating to dwell on in any direct or lengthy manner. For Emily, the most excruciating part, is her ability to hold awareness of life beyond death.

I’ll warrant that Jeanne wondered if she was going mad, as well. Both of these extraordinary girls were shocked, dazzled, and then finally drunk like madwomen on their own talent. Their power to “see”. Both had the sight or visions, which of course, according to the contractual terms of magical power, comes with a big responsibility. The difference between them is that Jeanne left the safe anonymity of her family and went out into the world to become a warrior of enormous political influence. While our little brown sparrow, Emily stayed home and drove herself deeper inward. Her vision bored infinitely into that mustard seed, her kingdom of Heaven.

Emily’s power exploded onto the page in private. “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —” She knew what she was sitting on—an atomic bomb of awareness, her own consciousness. Maybe it was out of compassion for her society that she withheld herself from public view. If she had unleashed her vision, she might have brought a nation to its knees (like Jeanne), and she might have been torn to pieces for her crime of greatness (like Jeanne). So a little of both. Pity for the ignorant society she was given at birth. And a healthy dose of self-preservation.

Who can say what was the better path?  Jeanne changed the tide of history and died in agony before her 20th birthday.  No one got to see Emily’s iconoclastic poems in her life time, but she was granted a long career, made good use of her time, and died as quietly as she lived.  I guess we need both of them.

The gift I receive from Emily is a trapdoor and an invitation. She lifts the cover from the opening and points into the darkness. Readers like me may descend, floating on a dark wave, comfortable, room temperature. There limits melt and open toward the infinite unfolding that lies just outside our peripheral vision. Emily shows us how to turn and see deeply behind our own eyes. That loss of solid space/time boundaries might scare us back toward front and center. But no. It’s okay to follow Emily’s directive. She’s gone there first. We don’t have to be afraid.

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Happy Birthday Emily

Today is Emily’s birthday. She is 180 years old, bless her sweet heart, and a Sagittarius, which is the ideal “partnership” placement for a Gemini like me. At least that’s what people say. I don’t listen to rumors.

I have not been writing about the Saints this fall because it has been such a weird season for our “Bless You Boys”. On the anniversary of her birth, Emily suggested the following:

#1541, c. 1882

No matter where the Saints abide,
They make their Circuit fair
Behold how great a Firmament
Accompanies a Star

So far, this season the only half-way intelligent noise raised by the talking heads in the NFL “commentators league” has been: Why the deafening silence about the defending World Champions? We’re all wondering that. The Saints are the reigning Superbowl Champions, and yet they are still being treated like some unlikely and ignorable upstart potential loser.  The answer may be that it’s been a really weird season.

You could chalk it up to the fact that they opened with Mercury retrograde. Even taking the sky into account, most would have to agree that—although a nine and three record is nothing to sneeze at—those early losses were embarrassing.  Hartley muffed the field goal that would have won the game against the Atlanta Falcons, an easy 29-yard field goal.  We’re still scratching our heads over that one because Hartley loves those 48-yard field goals. (??) Then the Boys lost to the Cleveland Browns, a team with a terrible record, a team that hasn’t been able to do much of anything this season except beat the defending World Champions.  I guess that’s why they call it a game, to paraphrase Zen Master Drew Brees.

The third loss was a legitimate hard-fought engagement with the Arizona Cardinals that we don’t need to discuss here.

Those other two losses, however, are what’s known as “embarrassments”.  The words we save for those are “silly” and “unnecessary”.  It was as if the Ghost of Saints Past had come back to haunt us for a couple of games.  A taste of the old days.  Just to keep us mindful of . . . what?  That it stinks to lose. And it really stinks to lose for embarrassing reasons.

If that’s not weird enough, the Saints’ winning games have also been embarrassing, like the Cinncinati Bengals last week.  (Geoff calls them the Bungles, which is cruel but accurate.)  Sure the Saints won but only just, and only after making a lot of bad mistakes.  Twelve men on the field?  C’mon!  That’s strictly amateur hour.  The Thanksgiving game against Dallas?  The Boys squeaked by in the end, but only after allowing a 17-point lead to evaporate into nothing.  This is weird.  Maybe they’re haunted.  Or maybe it’s just a touch of the Sophomore Slump.  Whatever it is, they better snap out of it because we don’t have time to waste.  Embarrassing losses are bad enough, but embarrassing wins are actually worse.  Those haunt your conscience and make celebration feel hollow.

It is hard to feel triumphant, when we know they won by accident or by means of the other team’s momentary incompetence.  For example, drawing the Bengals offsides in the final 30 seconds of the game for a 5-yard penalty and a first down.  Okay, Drew still had to throw that picture-book pass to Colston for the touchdown.  And no one handed that balletic perfection to them.  It was their own true beauty that we have come to expect from  the Brees-Colston mojo.  Still, what it took to get there was embarrassing in the haplessness of it all.  If the Bengals had just managed to just stay in control of themselves for a FEW SECONDS and NOT MOVE off the line, they would have won.  If the Saints have to depend on the other team’s ridiculous lack of discipline to win, then it’s a hollow victory.

A lot of fellas around here wake up Monday morning and say:  “I’ll take the win.”  After this season is over, no one will remember the embarrassments, only who won.  That phrase, “I’ll take the win” is a rueful acknowledgment that some wins are not a source of unalloyed joy.  Further that “win” focus works against Brees’ own Zen-like philosophical  emphasis on “process” over “outcome”.  The process matters . . . if it’s important to like yourself at the end.  Guru Drew has said in so many words:  It matters less that you get there than how you get there.

I have to agree with him, and Emily does too.  Process makes the difference between a Saint and an ordinary mortal.  Both die in the same way in the end.  Both are made of vulgar flesh that will rot and fall away.  The difference between a Saint and you or me is that the Saint’s progress through mortal life is illuminated by a quality of character and devotion that elevates the vulgar body above its mean concerns.

Process matters.  Don’t just take the win.  Don’t be satisfied with a hollow victory; it’s a lie.  I know why Guru Drew and Payton are not thrilled with their own progress this season and why no one is handing them any bouquets just yet.  They are not living up to their own name, and they know it.

There are a number of important games still  left in the season.  The Rams this weekend—I’ll be there!  Then the Ravens—nevermore!  Then after Christmas, the looming Falcons again.  Geoff and I are going to Atlanta for that one.  It’s official.  I’m in the club.

So we are entering a lovely season of miracles, which also progresses beneath yet another Mercury retrograde.  That means:  review, reconsider, re-wind, re-work, renew.  I wish all of us a careful and deliberate consideration of process.  Do you like yourself after your accomplishments? Not because of these accomplishments, but are you happy with how you got there?  Pause, examine, rinse, repeat.

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Reminder and Reprieve

The ringing bells at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary fill the sky this morning.  Today marks the fifth anniversary of the storm, and we will spend it drenched in a gentle rain.   Both a reminder and a reprieve.

I know this is sacrilege to say, but I am impatient with a lot of the Katrinaversary events.  There is a vague, forced jollity to many of them.  We are in an awfully big hurry to get to the brass band booming “When The Saints Come Marching In.” Then we cheer for ourselves.  As though everyone is a little too uncomfortable with the actual dreadful facts of the thing, and so rush to the happy ending part of the story.  All the parades, the performances, the speeches, people looking at themselves as identified with Katrina, as opposed to being and living that part . . . it feels too self-conscious at times.  I have been looking for the thread that feels alive, perhaps artful and self-conscious because that is unavoidable, yet somehow still jolting with the current of Katrina’s electricity.

Everyone has to mark the day in a manner that seems authentic, which must vary according to each person’s history with the storm.  Some prefer not to recognize the day at all.  Emily marks it this way:

#639, c. 1862

My Portion is Defeat — today —
A paler luck that Victory —
Less Paeans — fewer Bells —
The Drums don’t follow Me — with tunes —
Defeat — a somewhat slower — means —
More Arduous than Balls —

‘Tis populous with Bone and stain —
And Men too straight to stoop again,
And Piles of solid Moan —
And Chips of Blank — in Boyish Eyes —
And scraps of Prayer —
And Death’s surprise,
Stamped visible — in Stone —

There’s somewhat prouder, over there —
The Trumpets tell it to the Air —
How different Victory
To Him who has it — and the One
Who to have had it, would have been
Contenteder — to die —

Here is what I have been doing around this anniversary.  A couple of days ago, I hitched a ride on an errand with Geoff and his brother.  They are working on the house they inherited from their father who died at home during Hurricane Katrina.  The house, which was not in great shape before the storm, had been damaged.  It’s close to the river Uptown, so the flood didn’t get to it, just a bad wind.  Immediately following the storm, they made the house structurally sound and closed in the roof.  The finer renovation details that make a house a home, have been long in coming.  Our errand was to visit an architectural salvage warehouse in my neighborhood to buy some old floor boards.  New floorboards don’t fit in old houses like their father’s, which was built in the late 19th century.  So the only option is to search for remnants that were cherry-picked out of old (Katrina-ruined) houses before they were demolished.

It’s a treasure hunt to sort through the piles of dusty wood, which don’t seem like much to me.  They are grimy and spiraled with ghostly water marks.  Some are decorated with sheets of paper, letters, documents, the print now blurry and unreadable, glued and stuck there by the flood and baking heat that came after, detritus signifying the house’s former life and death.  The floorboards possess their own archeology and offer a weird intimacy, displaying evidence of the humans who walked on them in the past.

Although it looks like garbage, Geoff assures me this is the best stuff in the world—dense with ancient pitch that gives it a fine, tensile strength that new milled boards from young trees would never have.  The houses made from extinct old-growth wood have survived storm after storm after storm.  With some sanding, these pine floorboards would be beautiful once again.

They are shopping for floorboards for a couple of reasons.  Portions of the old floor in their father’s house are missing.  In addition, they have decided to cut out the floorboards where their father had fallen and died.  So that’s a hole that needs to be filled too.

Geoff doesn’t know for sure how his father died.  The cause has never been clear because FEMA, who was in charge of body collection, allowed his remains to lie in the house for more than two weeks after Geoff reported his death.  By the time FEMA arrived in early fall, the man had been dead for nearly a month, and there was no solid matter left to autopsy.  The coroner wrote “drowning” on the death certificate, a bureaucratic gesture to fill a blank.  Geoff requested a new certificate with this inaccuracy removed.

Five years later, the two brothers are going back to that place in the house to finish taking care of their father.  The floor where his body had lain decomposing in the heat for weeks is permanently stained with an oily residue.  The inescapable brute evidence of human life was left behind, after FEMA did its part, because it had soaked through the fibers of the wood.  Geoff says he can still smell the odor of putrefaction in the floors.  They can’t wash it out, and they can’t live with it.  So they will cut it out and replace it with the new/old floorboards.

I asked Geoff what he was going to do with the floorboards they remove, since these do still contain traces of his father’s body.  He said he wasn’t sure.  Burial didn’t seem like the right idea.  For now, he plans to burn the wood.

On Friday I went to the St. Bernard Funeral Home. Someone had the idea of arranging an open casket in one of the viewing rooms so that anyone who felt moved could visit. The purpose was for us to write notes to describe our feelings about the storm and then place these in the casket, to be buried along with Hurricane Katrina. Of course, it was meant to be symbolic—only a ritual after all. But then there is this funny thing that happens in rituals, when the symbolic is concretized in time and space. The purpose of a ritual is to draw a boundary around certain actions and objects to invest those with meaning that would otherwise be invisible. The action we take in ritual reifies what we may not see with the eyeballs in our skull. It brings non-physical reality into physical manifestation. These are never empty gestures but freighted with authentic power. When a priest celebrates the Transubstantiation of the Flesh, it is an article of faith that he transforms that bread into the flesh of Christ, as real as the flesh on your own arm. Not a metaphor but true matter. If some of the Eucharist remains after mass, the priest will inter that in the graveyard because it is literal human flesh at that point, not flour mixed with water. Don’t ever say: “only a ritual” or “merely symbolic”. These are as real as spit on a hot sidewalk.

In any case, they had the funeral yesterday at Our Lady of Prompt Succor where they closed the casket on Hurricane Katrina. Someone called it a “mock funeral”. Nothing mock about it, I thought. I heard it was a blast with a band and everything. All the same, I’m glad I went to the viewing the day before because no one else was there in the funeral home, and it was quiet. I could collect my thoughts and feelings in private.

The day started with the same sheeting gray rain we’re having now. I drove out to St. Bernard and found the funeral home, which is on Virtue Street. (Does everything in New Orleans have to be drenched in metaphor all the time?) When I walked into the viewing room, I heard crackling from a TV screen that showed a continuous loop of old news coverage of the storm, mostly images of St. Bernard police officers. Overhead was the incongruous piped-in music of Mick Jagger singing: “Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Another woman was already there, an admirer of Drew Brees, wearing his number 9 jersey. She placed a sealed envelope into the white quilted interior of the casket and then walked the length of it, bending to smooth her hands over the silver shiny surface, as if admiring the construction. Odd. Was this a sort of professional curiosity? People do the strangest things at funerals. Then she left.

The casket was decorated with a black parasol that sported a gold fringe and fleur-de-lis and “Farewell Katrina” in sparkly gold writing. (Saints colors everywhere.) Inside the open lid was the message: “Goodbye Hurricane Katrina. May Our Future be Bright,” accompanied by the swirling eye symbol for deadly hurricane force winds. There were also some pretty white camellias.

Again, I know I am trespassing on sacred ground here, but I had to read some of the messages people had left. I was thrilled to see there was a member of my tribe—an Emily Dickinson fan—among the visitors, who had left a card inscribed with the poem: “Hope is the thing with Feathers/That perches in the Soul.”

Most of the messages were angry, frightened and sad: “Katrina, you ruined my retirement.”   “The monster under my bed was real. Her name was Katrina.”  “You forced my family to live apart. You took my wedding photos. It’s just not right!”

Some were ballsy: “I am stronger than you!”  “Katrina RIP . . . NOT.”

I sat down and began writing my own message, a simple thing, and entirely theoretical. This task took about a minute. I dropped it into the casket and walked out. As I was driving back down Virtue Street, I had to stop and pull over.  Shit.  I hate when this happens.   I sat in the car, turned off the windshield wipers and let the gray rain curtain the world from my sight. Then I turned the car around and drove back to the funeral home.   I was not finished. I returned to the viewing room and sat down at the little table and filled up about four more pages, front and back, with a dense black script of my frustrations and anger. I had no idea how much I still resented . . . not sure who . . . but that time.   A lot of verbal vomit came onto the pages, incoherent disgust and rage.  I’ll spare you the sordid details.   None of it was so eloquent or succinct as the other notes in the casket.   Then I folded the pages into a tight square and hid them beneath the clean pale violet envelope that the woman who admired Drew Brees had placed there.

Before I left for good, I read one more note that someone else—clearly a poet—had written to Hurricane Katrina: “Hope I never see you again. You change my life.” I copied it into my notebook and then double-checked it.   Yes, the poet had written “change” in the present tense, not “changed” in the past tense.   The ear expects a past tense verb; that is the traditional story-telling voice.   But when I turned the line over a few times in my head, the present tense verb struck me as the perfect choice.   Okay, it was probably just a mistake, but what a felicitous typographical error.  Emily would approve.   She is always wreaking havoc with our expectations in her verb tenses.

You change my life, the poet wrote to the storm. The present tense verb renders life as a state of continual change.   Whether into decay or new growth, we are forever becoming.   We tend to forget that to our sorrow.   The storm forced the poet and me and you into an awareness of the constancy of change.   This gentle disruption in the verb tense is there to remind us of the greater shock:   Whatever you have or think you have, don’t hold too tightly, because change will take it from you.

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