Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Old Highway

I had vacation last week, and after months of deliberating how best to spend the time, I finally decided to pack up my car with books and notebooks and head to Lafayette to write, read novels, and take long road trips down the two-lane highways that crisscross Acadiana. It was a time, let me tell you. I did yoga; I ate vegetables (and boudin); I lay in green patches of sun; I danced with 75-year-old Cajun men who called me “Cher;” I wrote; I read; I made nerdy strategy charts about my life. And I drove.

I didn’t learn how to drive effectively until I was about 22, and I didn’t drive on the interstate—ever—until after Katrina. True story. For most of my life, driving has been a looming force, simultaneously scary and inspiring and fascinating and dangerous. As a mode of transport I still think driving is for the birds, and whenever I can walk or bike to my destination without expending a ton of time or effort, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. But for thinking, crying, exploring, singing, planning, looking at beautiful things, or generally reminding myself how in love I am with the world, very few things beat the open road. (“Open road,” by the way, can be interpreted extremely loosely here, spanning any stretch of navigable land—paved or otherwise—on the spectrum between Magazine Street and the Panamerican Highway.)

I’ve definitely inherited most of my driving patterns from my dad, who along with my four younger brothers continued to patiently take me driving, year after year, well past adolescence and into my early adulthood, to places like Causeway Pets, the newsstand on Broad and Fontainebleau, and a Rite-Aid way out on Jefferson Highway almost to Harahan which is where, inexplicably, he gets his prescriptions filled. For me and my dad, driving is much more about process than achievement. My Dad will drive his car 11 blocks to a random spot on Robert Street, park, and then catch the streetcar for the rest of the much longer journey downtown to work. Why, you may ask, does he do that? (He has his reasons, which actually make perfect sense.) We are backroads drivers, me and my dad. We take pothole-filled sidestreets rather than smooth three-lane thoroughfares. We bypass the traffic and wave at the neighbors. We park far away and stroll to our destination. On road trips, we stop. We roll the windows down. And, whenever possible, we take The Old Highway.

My dad has about seven topics of conversation that never get old, at least to some of us. One--of which you are no doubt aware if you’ve ever spent any time in a car with him--is The Old Highway. “There’s the old highway, y’all,” he’ll say while you’re speeding up north on I-55. And explain how, back in the old days before there were interstates, you had to take these little two-lane roads to get anywhere. And how going on trips was a much bigger deal back then and everything took a lot longer, and when they finally came along in the Eisenhower administration and started building the interstate highway system, they laid out a lot of these smooth new mammoth roads next to all the old highways. What he never said, but what his tone always conveyed, was that maybe it’s better and maybe it’s not that now it only takes five hours to get to Memphis, instead of twelve. But one thing definitely is for certain: the old highway’s where the magic is.

It might be because I spent so much of my early life as a passenger that I grew up fascinated by roads. I pored over atlases as a kid, fantasized about skipping out on college and driving south to—yes—Chile, in a Triumph convertible filled with old paperbacks. We’d be on road trips with all the cousins and I’d gaze longingly at the green interstate roadsigns for places like Grosse Tete and Iota and think, What’s that town like? Who’d ever name their town Iota? Why can’t we go there?

When I finally got over my ridiculous and all-encompassing fears of driving, which really was a gradual process that did not entirely end until after Katrina (another story for another time), driving began to become a major source of healing and balance in my life. Some nights I just take the long way home, easing over potholes, taking in the jasmine and barbeque smells, the neighbors on the porches. Some days, though, I’ll be driving on Gentilly Boulevard and end up in the East. Or I’ll be at the Farmers’ Market by the old Uptown Square and end up way way down the River Road on the other side of the Huey P Long Bridge. Or I’ll be heading east on Claiborne and find myself clear on the other end of St Bernard Parish, almost to Violet and that End Of The World sign pitching out into the ever-encroaching Gulf. Hours later I’ll arrive back home on my street, possibly with a bait-and-tackle-shop poboy on the passengerseat, clearer-headed and with a stronger sense of connection than when I left.

After my time in New Mexico, these little journeys feel like celebrations. So much of my work and my heart and my sense of who I am is about where I come from; not just our people but the land itself. I guess it makes sense that my healing and renewal come from being consciously connected to this land: being on it and in it, breathing in the river and the bayous, feeling all the water in this air. I’ve written a lot here about how I find solace at secondlines and parades, the hope and the ridiculous impractical optimism that rises up above everything else when we are out among our people, moving, moving, connected not only to each other but to this land that has held us for centuries, made us who we are. The driving, in the end, really isn’t so different: we move and move and move; we dance and sing and celebrate, but where we arrive in the end is just that deep home-place we’ve always come from.

And so, during my time in Acadiana (don’t you love that word, by the way? Doesn’t it sound like I just got back from a whole ‘nother country?), I spent hours on the little roads, buying kolaches and satsumas and andouille from bait shops and the backs of people’s pickup trucks, and singing and dancing and visiting Cajun dancehalls, but mostly sitting behind the wheel while the cane fields and the orange trees and the fishing camps and the moss and the brackish bayous all flew by. And of course there were also the utterly unexplainable and random and beautiful-in-their-own-way things you find in little towns, things you’re dying to know the story behind: not just the billboards with names and pictures of National Merit semifinalists and beauty pageant winners, or the skinny streets coming off the River Road with names like Big Boy and Tip Top (I swear to God), but the entire town of Patterson, blanketed in now-tattered strips of toilet paper; or the shop window outside of Crowley somewhere, busting at the seams with purple suits, and aqua suits, and red-and-white paisley suits complete with matching handkerchiefs, and an enormous banner in front that said, “Dapper!”; or the gargantuan American flag in Broussard, Louisiana, which was at least eight stories high and suspended by a crane over the main street, inching through the town while being ceremonially escorted by a phalanx of police and firefighters. On, like, a Wednesday morning.

Which cracks you up, but ultimately it’s the heart-splitting beauty that stands out more than anything. The strands of silvery mist rising up from a sugarcane field in an orange evening. The trees hanging low over the bayous, moss dipping into the green waters like it’s been doing for centuries. An entire field of nothing but sunflowers. A flock of graceful egrets, rising up over a highway. The Saints banners festooning an entire town—it’s rare to see such exuberant Saints hysteria in LSU country but I guess we’re all believers these days—with golden ribbons glittering in the setting sun. The graves, oh, the graves everywhere: tucked under trees and behind churches and next to barns, or lining the whole highway for miles at a stretch, all covered with blazing flowers and wreaths and, in some cases, Mylar balloons.

Driving past all those vibrant graves, all over Cajun country, I felt the deep cord that connects all of us South Louisiana people to each other. Down here, people talk about how bayou Cajuns and Lafayette Cajuns and New Orleans people—oh, those crazy New Orleans people—are all so different from each other, and it’s totally true: our food and our language and our accents and our dance steps and our music are unique to our teeny-tiny corners of the world. And we make fun of each other and criticize each other and sometimes fear each other. But at the bottom of it all, we are a people who live deep, who put balloons on the graves of our ancestors, who dance at funerals, whose strong abiding impractical faith has us planting, and building, and making art and music, and dancing and raising babies, on a beautiful but ultimately doomed land. Our lives are marked by tragedy, in the past and, yes, in the future. We know this, and we continue to root deep in our land, to make our world beautiful, day by day, even as the very land we live on disappears into the water that surrounds us.

One of the best things was: I finally made it to Iota. Which was, if you can believe it, just as amazing as I’d always imagined. Enormous pawprints (ostensibly of a bulldog, the high school mascot) are painted on the highway that guides you into town, and there are little stores with murals painted on the sides, and one or two places selling amazing-looking smoked meat creations, and this circle of slightly gory lifesize Jesus statues, commemorating each one of the stations of the cross, arranged in an almost pagan-looking circle. You get a little closer to the statues and you realize they’re all kind of covered in blood. Which kind of freaked me out a little bit but, you know, that’s cool. I sent my dad a text picture while I was there, which didn’t really do the town justice but I thought he would’ve gotten a kick out of it. “Greetings from Iota and The Old Highway!” I wrote.

“That,” he texted me back, “is so awesome.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


for new orleans
More than love, these ways you wove me
A hem, a web, a gilt brocade burnished
by clamoring years, by worn generations,
Your soul the frayed cadence of all our torn voices
Our gnarled marchfeet dying, rising by millions
Your bones the parched silt, the long-drowning ground
More than love, this rough salvation
Your eyes our tumbling flames
Our crinkling processions of days
The maps of all our exile, withered
deep in the gulleys of your dark skin.
The back of your neck: still soft in sleep
Your black knees rise from waters, thick,
Dance the shimmered songs of all our ages
The bright dresses, the cracked sidewalks
We are somehow still alive
More than youth, this resurrection
We are, somehow, still alive
I want no other than a future in your knottled hands.
Away, my soul has leapt, grown wings--
Still I’ll crawl to you any day
Down shards of roads, on dusting nails,
Past nameless windswept hollowed cities,
stooping oilrigs, crackled forests,
decayed motelrooms, long-gone swamps,
this tiring bleeding callused journey
the vast impractical looming miles; oh
Still I’d crawl to you any day
If I could only have one night
inside your imperfect, grainy arms

Sunday, August 31, 2008


It’s 4AM in Albuquerque and, like New Orleanians everywhere, I am not sleeping. These days I’m awake at 4 anyway, to get to the surgery service on time. In the night-dark mornings, I fill up the house with candles instead of electric lights, a small attempt to keep my body in tune with the normal day-night rhythm of the world. Tonight I could’ve slept all I wanted. I’m off tomorrow. But here I am, writing by candlelight in a house that seems as empty and ghostlike as the city my people are slowly and silently vacating.

It’s been awful to be away these last few days, taking surgery call and running in the mountains while my loved ones have been going through the motions of boarding up houses, tucking away important papers, having barbeques to use up what’s in the fridge. I don’t have a TV so I’ve been getting my news from friends and family. They all sound so weary and capable. Right now, at 4 am, if they haven’t done so yet, they are packing, or driving, or they’ve already arrived at the far-flung places they’re going. They are bringing pets and photographs and documents. There is no deliberation, no frenzied stuffing of pillows and kitchen tongs in the backseat while forgetting ATM cards and prescriptions. They know what to bring. They know when to leave. They know where they’re going. They’ve done this before. They know.

There is no carnival aspect to this evacuation, as far as I can tell. In the past, even before Katrina, during the last few days before a hurricane came—or didn’t—there was an almost festive air in the city. People boarding up their houses would decorate the plywood with spray-painted sayings, admonishing the storm to go away. There were always a few restaurants defiantly staying open, serving nonperishable food and whisky to the diehards vowing to stick it out. Stores were full of people stocking up on bottled water and batteries, jovially agreeing with each other in the checkout line that it’s always better to stay than to evacuate. There were hurricane parties, and special hurricane masses, and voodoo ceremonies, and smaller rituals throughout the city, some of which had been performed before every impending disaster since the mid-1800s.

Those were innocent times.

Here’s what I’ve been hearing about this one: People have been leaving for days. Neighbors have been watching each other line up suitcases by cars, the houselights turning off, the streets gradually darkening as the life is drained from them. I spent last night on the phone with friends who were evacuating patients from the hospital, taking phone calls about transports while catching me up on their evacuation plans. People have been wandering through the streets with luggage, as though homeless already. Trains and buses have been picking up the lines of the poor and elderly who have noplace else to go, shuttling everyone north. A church in the Bywater evacuated all its members to a resort. Even from here the streets seem gray and somber. The tourists all had to leave by noon yesterday. Instead of drag queens out in full force for the Southern Decadence festival this weekend, soldiers with machine guns are patrolling the streets. There is one, a friend says, on every corner. “I should’ve taken pictures, I guess,” she says. “But. Well. I didn’t.”

Something strangely funny to me is that I keep inadvertently calling this hurricane “Katrina.” As in, “How you doing, Catherine?” “Oh, I guess all right. But I’m really worried about Katrina.” It’s like Katrina’s been out there somewhere this whole time while we’ve been working valiantly, in ways both epic and tiny, to heal. And now she’s coming back.

While I was writing this I got a text message from a friend who was on the road in evacuation traffic, checking in. I called her up and talked with her and her boyfriend on speakerphone as they inched through New Orleans East in a long line of cars and trucks and minivans. We’ve been meaning to talk for weeks, this friend and I, and at 5am on this dark morning we finally caught up, not only about the hurricane but also about internship, our other friends, our patients who have died. Every now and then they’d break in with an update: “We’re still in New Orleans East!” “We’re going between 0 and 3 miles per hour!” “That car has a huge bird in it and the other one has an amazing dog! Everybody’s got their pets with them!” In the middle of a really intense story about a hospice patient dying in the ER, my friend interrupted herself and said, “Whoa, that guy’s barbequing in the back of his pickup truck!” And there, in that long slow line of barely-moving traffic, was a man strapped into a chair in the back of a truck, throwing motor oil on a grill to get it to light, flames shooting wild orange into the chilly night sky.
“This city,” my friends sighed.

Maybe yesterday or the day before, when I had one of those what-else-can-you-do-besides-pray moments, I made a little New Orleans altar in this cubbyhole in my wall that seems like it was created for precisely that purpose. It’s full of random things, like beads and this purple-green-and-gold flower I got one Mardi Gras, and a silver sequined garter I wore in a wedding procession, and a bottle of Abita, and photographs of secondlines and Mardi Gras Indians and my neighborhood and the people I love. I’ve got a candle burning there constantly, keeping vigil along with me.

“Don’t you miss this?” My friend asked me sarcastically while she sat in that crowded pre-dawn traffic. Oh, yes, I answered with utmost seriousness from the calm of my comfy glowing candlelit house. Here, I’m just another displaced New Orleanian, waiting breathless for the inevitable. Right now there’s nowhere I’d rather be than right there with them, in the achingly slow traffic, that long procession of our people, together for the last time until who can say when, leaving home behind like we’d leave our hands, or true love; listening to each other’s voices and the calm barking of the dogs from the open windows of everyone’s cars in the cool predawn dark, together before we all scatter, again, to the edges of this country, those bright orange flames lighting everyone’s way to uneasy, temporary safety.


Saturday, June 14, 2008


It's been yet another long while. Most people in my life know I've now moved to New Mexico to start my family medicien residency, the latest chapter in a long training process. I'm going to keep blogging very sporadically at this site on New Orleans-related matters, but have set up another site at:

to write about residency, New Mexico, and the adjustment of living away from a home where I feel so rooted.

Here's my first post to that site, below.


It’s Gonna Be All Right

I’ve been hesitant to write here. Not because there haven’t been infinite beautiful and puzzling things to write about; not because—believe you me—I haven’t had time; I think it’s more that I’ve been relishing this transition time lately, the in-between-ness and rootlessness that comes when you leave one home and haven’t yet begun another. I’ve known since I was young that, for me at least, if I write something down it becomes true in a way it wasn’t before. You can’t take it back after that. And so I’m realizing that, happy as I’ve been these last few weeks, I haven’t been jumping up to write “I live in New Mexico.” There’s finality there, those words staring back. I think I haven’t been ready for that yet.

But I guess I just did it. That’s something.

I’ve been missing New Orleans in both bizarre and predictable ways. The other day a Dr John song on a friend’s CD made me cry, but I could’ve told you that 3 months ago, when I knew I’d be leaving. Or there’s this thing that happens, which I totally expected and was prepared for, which is that when I tell people here I’m from New Orleans, they say, “Oh. Were you there when all that stuff happened?” (I mean, that’s ok. What else are people gonna say? And it doesn’t make me torrentially sad, or angry, like it used to when people said that, it’s just one of those, “oh, yeah” moments, like when you come back from a life-transforming journey and people are like, “that sounds cool.”)

That stuff doesn’t affect me too much. I think that in a process of nostalgia or longing, it’s the stuff you didn’t expect to provoke strong emotion that ends up taking on extra meaning, even if it just makes you grin, or wonder. Here’s what some of those things have been for me lately:

The fleur de lis on a friend’s hat in an old photo.
A stranger on the street wearing a “Make Levees Not War” T shirt (aww.).
The red beans and rice I cooked for some friends the other night, the way they just didn’t taste the same.
The mailman. He comes every day, in the morning if you can believe it, and he actually brings mail that’s addressed to me, and nobody else. It’s astounding. But we don’t say hi, and he doesn’t know my name or that I just graduated from med school, and he’s never shown me a picture of his adorable 2 year old daughter.
The university hospital, which is shiny and bustling and actually has—yes—a cafeteria.
These crazy yellow flowers—I don’t know what they are—jumping out of bushes and all over the sidewalks and, really, kind of getting in everybody’s way, and they smell just like night blooming jasmine. In the desert! Could you believe that?
Hummingbirds. They are everywhere. My grandfather loved hummingbirds, and every time I see one I feel his spirit with me.
The streets: not their relative silence but that one time, one day, when I heard faint strains of what may have been a trumpet, wafting over a balcony and a fence into the warm rosy street.

But I’m totally not wallowing in sadness and homesickness. Things here have been beautiful and full of—I don’t know how else to say it—potential. There’s more to say but for now I’ll give you a little list of just some of the things I’ve already started to fall in love with:

Bike paths! Oh my gosh, they are everywhere!

Recycling! It comes every week and you don’t even have to pay for it!

The sunsets. I’ve found a couple of hilltops in my neighborhood where you can see for miles, all the red and silver rooftops glinting this weird orangey-gold light, and if you look over to the east the mountains are bright pink.

Lavender, which grows everywhere and makes the streets smell like crisp laundry.

Salsa dancing, which people do everywhere: in jam-packed bars with people dressed to the nines; an unassuming sports bar called The Tavern; a steakhouse (I am not joking); this beautiful amphitheatre place outside of the museum where people dance on the stairs and the balconies and between the seats, and right next to enormous metal sculptures.

The way everybody’s like, “Wow, really? Welcome to New Mexico! We’re so glad to have you here!” whenever I tell them I just moved.

Art is everywhere. People make art out of anything. (That reminds me of home, too).

My neighborhood library, which is in Ernie Pyle’s old white house, which is tiny and white and cute and has a garden outside, and there’s this twinkly white-bearded guy behind the desk who not only knew the name of every single kid who came in while I was there this morning (like, 14 kids), but also what kind of books they’d like. “I think this would be beyond most 8 year olds I know,” he said to this one red-headed girl with skates on, “but I bet you can handle it.”

The guy on Central Avenue tonight with a huge telescope in the middle of the street. “We’re looking at the moon tonight,” he declared to anyone walking by. “Wanna see?” And the telescope was so awesome that you could see canyons and plains and mountains on the moon, and after we were done exclaiming how cool it was the man said, “let me show you something really amazing.” And he repositioned the telescope to some random-looking place in the sky and when we looked through, there was Saturn! With rings!
“How’d you know where it was?” I asked.
“I have great aim,” the guy said.

The fireworks we saw coming home last night (from an outdoor concert! At the zoo! Where you could go look at the polar bears during the set break!). The fireworks weren’t for any major occasion; apparently they just do them on Fridays at the Isotopes games. We pulled over in a clearing by the park to watch them, which I thought would take about 5 minutes. But it just kept going and going. These fireworks were serious. So loud they shook the car, explosions of red and blue and purple raining down on the city. About 30 minutes later I was like, “wow. They really aren’t stopping.”
“Yeah,” Vanessa said from the front seat. “They’re pretty intense about fireworks here.”

I can live with that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

demolition, festival

This weekend the razing of the Lafitte housing development, the last of the so-called Big Four public housing complexes to undergo city-mandated demolition, began. The French Quarter Fest kicked off the morning that I rode by the still-stately buildings of the Lafitte, tall and proud even with broken piles of shingles at their feet. Even though I knew that blocks away the sky was filling up with more free music than I’d be able to catch in one afternoon, all I could hear as I rode by those empty falling buildings was silence, the long-unused curtains rustling out of hollow, half-open windows.

The weather’s been freakishly beautiful lately. Festival season’s in its upswing, our city infused with more music and art than even we can practically handle, but still I feel that brokenness, pulsing as deep as all this celebration surrounding us. My brother left for Iraq again almost two weeks ago, and I feel a tugging at some anchor I have deep within me, those lines that pull all us siblings close in together. My mom’s been driving carelessly since he left, forgetting simple things, afraid to drink or skip Mass or take down the bright red flag she’s been flying from the porch--in case any of those actions, like walking under a ladder, inadvertently place him at greater risk of harm. I don’t think this is silly. I feel my own heart bulging now, making enough room for all my deep and blurry analyses, about war and conquest and the precious lives of all our innocents, to stand up straight against the sharp cracks that kind of fear and longing can produce.

We hold a lot inside these souls of ours. I imagine all the things we carry, sliding over like patient old ladies on the bus, making room for ever more passengers: the moms, the strollers, the young folks dancing unaware in their iPods. There’s enough room in my heart for me to have a deep and committed hatred of war and gratuitous violence, even as I stand with my brother in this confusing and scary journey he’s on. There is so much I don’t understand about the choice he’s made, but I have an abiding faith in his basic tenderness and his deep integrity. I just refuse to give up on his humanity. I’m beginning to understand that this, too, is love: trusting in something greater than my own knowledge; keeping faith even when reason has gone out the back door; staying with someone even when things are hard and uncomfortable and confusing, staying step by step, even while darkness threatens to swallow you both whole.

One night this weekend I went to a reception for the Kids Camera Project at a newish art gallery by St Roch and St Claude. The reception was small and polite; kids grabbed my hand and led me around to show their work, all these photos professionally hung on the white gallery walls. I ended up buying one, a piece by a super-talented 15-year-old photographer named AJ entitled “My Beautiful Neighborhood,” of St Roch Avenue looking worn and stately and vibrant, like an 80-year-old lady who’s been around the block fifty million times and still wears lipstick and dances salsa with the young folks at 3AM. Standing outside the gallery on that warm evening, I could look out at the very blocks that had been captured in that photograph. That night they’d been transformed into a huge street party, bounce music hurtling from the speakers someone had set up on the neutral ground, girls in yellow dresses dancing in sync in the middle of the street, children with cameras running back and forth with neighbors and relatives, from the gallery to the other side of the street where the dancing was going on. “There is nothing so beautiful as this,” I thought.

At one point soon after, a dazed-looking woman walked into the gallery, and then kept going through to a private part in the back where someone lived. People from the reception tried to get her back into the gallery part and she kept going back into the private part. Finally I think there was a confrontation (I’d left by then), and she stormed out in disgust. At this point in the story I start thinking about race politics and gentrification, a white-owned art gallery in a Black neighborhood, showing the artwork of black children from the neighborhood while simultaneously dictating where another black woman, presumably also from the neighborhood, can and can’t go in this community space; what this space symbolizes within the neighborhood; who’s welcome where and who gets to decide that; who’s not even around anymore; how much more to the story there always is, all us good-hearted broken imperfect people, fumbling around in the world together.

Evidently after some moments, the woman walked back in and apologized to everyone. “I just lost my sister,” she said. “I’m not really doing so good in my mind.” And outside the music just continued, those girls dancing in shimmery yellow rows, the kids so proud of their artwork, the crumbling houses glittering still and solid as the sun went down.

There is so much that we carry.

Other things died and other things were celebrated this weekend, too. Finally, after weeks of heavy debating, some official body (the governor? The Army Corps of Engineers? Forgive me for not knowing) decided that we’d better open the Bonnet Carre Spillway, for the first time since 1997, because heavy rainfalls in the Midwest had caused the levels of the Mississippi River to come dangerously high, too close to the tops of the levees, and the last thing we need in this city is more levee trouble. So they opened up the Spillway, which eased the pressure on the levees but also caused a lot of the land around us to become pretty inundated. That has a pretty profound effect on the ecosystems there, the oyster beds and crawfish habitats, the nesting areas, the insect life. They aren’t used to that much water. The oysters, and we who depend on the oysters, took another hit for the city. And I’m left thinking again about water, the grandness and vastness of it, how water rules our world here; and then about the arbitrary small silliness, and also the huge power, of those little humans flipping that switch that day.

And the whole time this was going on, the Superdome had been turned into a huge vagina. Yes. I kid you not.

This weekend was the 10th anniversary of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, and in celebration they chose to have the 10th anniversary performance of the play, out of anywhere in the whole world, not in Paris or Nairobi, which had evidently been in the running, not in Johannesburg or Juarez or Jenin, where the suffering and resistance of women has also been epic, but here in New Orleans, as a way of bearing large-scale public witness to the suffering and also the strength and beauty of the women of the Gulf Coast.

At first I was like, “Spare me. Is this going to be Volume 97 of the latest fabulous event where groups from all over the country/world with names like Breathing In Unity With The Gulf Coast, but otherwise absolutely no connection to New Orleans, jump onto the bandwagon to be part of the latest spectacle? I am so not into it.” And I think my skepticism was a little fair, and not unique to me: we are, in so many instances, the place the circus has come to. And this had all the potential to be one of the biggest circuses New Orleans had ever seen: not only the play, with a star-studded celebrity cast, but also a huge vagina on top of the Superdome, and free pedicures and massages and yoga and breathing, and art and workshops and poetry and drama, and Oprah and Salma Hayek and Jessica Alba, and pink flags all over the city. Whew.

But in the end it was actually pretty beautiful, in no small part because the planners worked hard to be respectful and accountable to local women and poor women and women of color throughout the process. Also, though, I wonder if it’s that the women of New Orleans, in our constant evolution, have grown too tired, or perhaps too wise, to look our gift horses in the mouth. A friend tells the story of Eve Ensler walking into a planning meeting at the Ashe’ Cultural Arts Center and announcing, “I’m Eve and I love vaginas!” And this multigenerational crew of mostly Black women from Central City smiled indulgently and welcomed her into their warm fluffy circle like a madcap daughter. I know that in my own growth, where I used to have all this anger and suspicion and judgment directed at outsiders who came to share a part of themselves with us, now there is mostly gratitude. Vaginas on the Superdome? Oprah and free massages and yoga for the women of New Orleans? Come on in, baby. We got space enough for all of you.

So I’ve been thinking about the strange simultaneity of all these festivals and the unabated sadness, the destruction of so many people’s homes and all the other mournings we must undergo, and the art and the music and the celebrities and all that energy. In the midst of such permanent destruction of the things that are so basic for so many, is all this celebration, even the stunning weather we’ve been having, a slap in our collective face? Is it yet another excuse for all the cynics to say things like, “Oh, whatever, heap it on, just as long as the tourists and Oprah are happy…”? Am I being unaccountably disconnected and philosophical when I think of it all as yet another link in the proverbial Circle of Life?

Or are all of those questions the wrong ones? Should I really be asking something simpler, like Where does it say that a suffering people are not entitled to joy? Or beauty, or art, or the wondrous gratuitous loving care of a thousand strangers? Where does it say that in our suffering New Orleanians must become monolithic, one-dimensional, incapable of existing on any other plane besides that which has been so marked with our deep collective sadness? Who expects, really, that every bit of the beauty we create must be transformational, sublimations of the grief and the trauma, that our art and our laughter can’t just be pure expressions of the moments they come from? And where does that leave us, people who just can't help dancing, in the way that other people can't help breathing?

Ultimately it says nothing more or less to me than that we live a life unabated in its basic real-ness. New Orleanians, since the dawn of our existence as a people, have built a culture of clanging, unabated, public celebration. As real as the light bill, as constant as a spring morning. Before the bones are even swept off the sidewalks, the trumpets are back and the man in the clattering pickup rolls down St Claude, singing “I got oranges and bananas!” This is us. This is who we are.

Homes are destroyed; the city fills with music. Sons and brothers leave, again, for war. We find ways to love and support them even when we very much do not love and support the war. Supermodels and grandmothers and community organizers and pedicurists come down to bear witness to our suffering, imperfectly sharing their vast and vibrant gifts with us. Sisters and cities are grieved; the landscape changes; oyster beds drown; the rest of us are spared, for now, from flooding. Brick by brick, breath by breath, so much of our home is crumbling. And the night blooming jasmine and the solid noise of trumpets continue growing up through all the newly made cracks, like they have for generations, filling up those empty spaces with nothing less than their basic essences: glimmering and hopeful and strangely solid; steady like footsteps and drumbeats, like the ground we stand on, like home: strong enough to keep us anchored, stronger than all the things we carry.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

a little recap

It’s been about a year, and not so much has changed.

On the surface, coming from New Orleans, that’s about as depressing a thing as anyone can say. And in that sense, I mean every bit of it: so many of our streets and schools and playgrounds and hospitals and community institutions and gardens and churches and families still so windblown and empty, their people plucked from them like brittle leaves. Our ghosts still rule the roost here. Not so much has changed.

On the other hand, it’s kind of all right, being able to say that. During and after the flood our lives were rocked by change, and not in a good way. Change is poison to a traumatized people. We had no day-to-day, and it’s the day-to-day, I believe, that gets you through the worst of shock and despair. Things are still happening here at breakneck speed, don’t get me wrong. But these days I find myself having conversations with people where we cautiously say things like, “for better or worse, things are starting to feel a little steady.”

I’m not sure what that means: whether we’re all a little more resilient these days; whether heartbreak and loss and stunning beauty, of which there have been plenty in this city over the past year, have failed to rock our foundations in the way they used to—or whether my expectations of change are that it has to be epic in order to register, that the small rootlets of growth and loss that have taken place over the last nine or so months have been manageable daily parts of a longer evolution that seems glacial in comparison to the cataclysmic traumas we experienced for so long.

I’m wondering how to tell you about the year gone by. It’s been a year of vibrant struggle in a social justice community that tends to see its milestones in terms of small victories and epic failure. I’m realizing, not with cynicism or resignation, but with the clarity you sometimes get from coming out the other side of tragedy, that this is how things are gonna be for a long time. Our wins small and precious, our losses grand and tragic, our fight dazzling and tenacious, both giving and taking of life, well into the future. I feel like this is all right too, and real. This is a time, finally, of building. We don’t tie silver ribbons to every nail; we just reach for another one and continue the small rituals our work requires of us now.

For me, it’s been a year of healing that’s been deeply personal, and more gray and tedious than I ever would have imagined. It’s not so interesting to hear about, and anyway I don’t feel as invested in writing about personal struggle as I do about collective victories against adversity: maybe that’s why I’ve been so silent for so long. I‘ve spent a lot of this year inside my heart. It’s taken me the better part of three years to mold the flood and all that happened afterward into something I can carry along with everything else, instead of a nameless shadow lurking in all my corners and alleys.

Over the last nine months or so I’ve worked hard to reel in, to balance. My work has become finite and concrete, something I can leave behind when it’s time to do other things. I’ve worked to make more room for family and all the other people who’ve carried me through these dark times. I moved out of my joyous, bustling animated household into a breezy oasis I share with no one. I’m trying to have space in my life to cook, exercise and go on long walks. I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand what all those sweet gentle people in my life meant when they told me, for years and years and years, to take care of myself.

The thing that’s hit me the hardest over the past year or so is the realization that it takes so many of us to keep just one person going. I’m about to graduate from medical school, and I’m realizing there’s nothing so humbling as these tangible moments of achievement. I’m still not positive that it’s actually gonna happen, but if I actually do walk across the stage and become a doctor next month, there are literally hundreds of people who will never be recognized who made it possible. I’m working hard to make my gratitude known to those people, to be as present in all their lives as they’ve been in mine.

There’s so much more to say but I think that’s it for now. Tomorrow, or next week, I’ll tell you stories of patients and family and the beautiful moments that have me still falling in love with this city even after all these rocky years. Today I needed to start with where I’ve been, that rough path that’s slowing down, smoothing out a little.

Monday, August 06, 2007

notes from the bronx

Last Friday, my work included salsa dancing in the street. I’m doing a rotation in the South Bronx for the month, and one of the agencies I’m working with held a health fair, which was really more like a block party, taking up 2 whole blocks of a warm busy street that cuts through the middle of the Mott Haven neighborhood. Old men from the neighborhood played salsa music at one end of the street; young men from the neighborhood spun hip-hop and breakdanced at the other end. Grandmothers brought homemade chicken and rice and beans, and a multigenerational crowd danced in the middle of the street, which was lined with mobile vans from different healthcare organizations in the community.

My favorite moment was when the door to the mammogram van opened and someone poked her head out and called into the crowd, “Amalia! It’s your turn, honey!” And one of the dancing women spun away from her partner and said, “I’ll be right back,” and jogged over the van to get her mammogram, and then came back out and kept on dancing.

I loved that block party. I love the combination of dancing and good food and people of all ages coming together, and mammograms and hepatitis C testing and little kids handing out packets of information about HIV. I love witnessing people’s creative work to embed healthcare into a community.

Last week the 20-year-old grandson of one of our patients died from complications of asthma. To me this was a shocking travesty. A 20 year old boy dying from asthma? I know this happens, that this occurrence, while tragic, is not unique; that actually young folks between the ages of 15-24 are the most likely to die from asthma… but I’d never witnessed it before. What a sad new low we have sunk to, I thought. The South Bronx has the highest rate of asthma in the country, and some of the worst environmental indicators in the world. My patient whose grandson died is also taking care of 2 other grandkids, and she’s also struggling with her own diabetes and hepatitis C.

“I wish I could have a whole day to just cry for him, but there’s no time,” she said.

I expected to be blown away by the differences between New Orleans and New York City during my time here, and I am, but what’s more amazing to me, ultimately, is how similar so many of the struggles are. I did outreach this afternoon with someone who’s lived in the Bronx her whole life, and I asked her to tell me what she thought I should learn about, as a visitor to this community. “One word,” she said. “Gentrification. AKA, they’re pushing us all out. It’s starting here. That’s what you need to know. The day I see a Starbucks on 149th Street—oh, girl. Get ready.”

It’s the same in New Orleans, I think: the continued displacement of so many of our people after Katrina. Who gets to live someplace and who doesn’t. How even in this world where we learn that we’re more mobile than ever in human history, our connections to our homes are still such vital, practically physical parts of us.

Since the US Social Forum a few weeks ago I’ve been thinking almost nonstop about land struggles. About how, especially in so many low-income communities and communities of color across the country, people’s struggles are so tightly bound to place: to geography and the histories and communities and cultures that have been impacted by the connections with the block or neighborhood or piece of land they’re happening on. How that’s not just true in post-Katrina New Orleans; how wherever we’re from and whether we acknowledge it or not, our geographical context is a part of us, and how land struggles and fights against gentrification and the work toward justice in the Gulf Coast are all actually parts of the same battle for cultural survival and community intactness, against all those same tides beating against our various communities with such epic volume and intensity.

I’m talking about land because that’s where everything begins. And because for me it’s important to centralize context in our work. To remember that whatever messed up system we’re working in, or receiving healthcare in, or building change around, that it comes from somewhere bigger that’s connected to the rest of our lives in myriad ways. And how it makes my healthcare work both easier and harder, but also more honest, when we locate it within the larger fights for justice taking place all across this country, which are ultimately about nothing less than people’s rights to live full, connected lives that honor our humanity.

It means that for me, sitting on a cracked vinyl chair with a grandmother from the South Bronx, being part of someone’s healthcare is about diabetes and hepatitis C, but it’s also about what it means to be a woman of color in the US raising two young children with very few resources; it’s about the conditions that have made the air in the South Bronx some of the deadliest air to breathe in the world; and it’s about the fact that all of this is happening in a community whose very identity is being threatened with a fortitude perhaps unmatched in history. All of this comes into that room with us, those worn chairs, that curling linoleum. In that room, it’s our job to move over and make room for all that history.

Tonight I had dinner with some longtime teachers of mine who’ve been doing Undoing Racism work for about as long as I’ve been alive. We talked about the long and inspiring history of grassroots community-run healthcare in New Orleans, most of which is unknown to me and the people I work and learn with; we talked about the importance of continuing to find and resurrect and honor our histories; we talked about student organizing within professional institutions, how it’s been students who have historically been the driving forces for substantive radical change within fields like medicine, education, social work, and law; and we talked about the importance of keeping these voices up, especially nowadays.

Toward the end of the night, one of them turned to me and said, “The best thing to me about you going into medicine is that you’re also going to be around in that institution as an educator.” This wasn’t a prediction of the future; it was a call to accountability. “That is also your job,” is what she was really telling me.

Great, I thought. I don’t know if I’m good enough at anything for people to be having those kinds of expectations of me. And I don’t know enough to be an educator! And I worry about messing up, all the time.

But whether they knew it or not, they actually hit on one of the biggest things I’ve been struggling about for the last few months, which is the sweeping sadness I’ve started to feel whenever I think that my commitment to being a doctor might take me away from my communities of people working for justice, who I rely upon so I can stay grounded, so I can exhale in that true way we relax when we get to be around people who speak our language.

No, this longtime gentle mentor was saying to me. “Our world sets things up for us so that we believe we have to make choices between things that are equally vital to us. But we don’t. You don’t have to choose between being part of a medical community and part of a social justice community. In fact, it’s your job not to choose. It’s your work to figure out how to be creative in making sure you’re doing both of those things at the same time.”

Oh, right, I thought. I knew that. And then I remembered: people have walked my path before me. People understand my struggles and see them probably much more clearly than I do. People are willing to be patient and understanding with me as I learn and grow. I started breathing again.

Sometimes it makes all the difference in the world to sit at the feet of elders. Walking home last night, I remembered something else: that human beings are totally amazing! That in the face of all those dismal and disheartening connections I was talking about earlier, that’s nothing compared to us. The world’s got nothing on us, on our ability to live and be creative about surviving and finding each other and staying connected and joining together and resisting and creating spots of beauty in the most unlikely places. Remembering those dancing grandmothers in Mott Haven last Friday, I found my hope again. I started grinning and couldn’t stop. We’ll get it, I thought. One foot in front of the other, walking through the Bronx in that dark breezy night, my smile was ear to ear.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Stumbling, Steady

Here’s something I learned today: New Orleans incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere else in the entire world.

The world! Think of any police state you can imagine; think of repressive regimes the world over; think of cities all over our own country jailing our young people and immigrants and people of color; think about stories we’ve been told of people in other countries going to jail for stealing a loaf of bread or spitting out gum on the sidewalk, and think of New Orleans. Nobody else in the world puts more people per capita in jail than we do.

And still, people are really afraid of crime here. Is putting more people in jail per capita than anywhere else in the world making us feel safer? Do we feel like it’s working? Do I feel safer now, knowing that more of my neighbors are in jail than anybody else’s neighbors in the whole world?

As I write this, a group of mostly white people who live in the Marigny/Bywater and Mid-City areas, and who also work with a variety of local organizations struggling for racial and economic justice, are getting together to build on amazing work that’s been happening throughout the city and engage their neighborhoods in working toward more integrated ways of addressing crime that build justice and stronger communities, so that people who are necessarily worried about their safety have legitimate and humanizing outlets for those concerns, instead of relying on gun-toting vigilante groups or racial profiling by private security companies and neighborhood improvement group initiatives.

I’m excited to see the next steps.


Summer's here for real. I felt it for the first time on Sunday, getting off a plane from DC: the gray wash of air, dripping and bathwater-warm, seeping even through the metal carpeted jetway that led us off the plane, making even my suitcase feel sweaty and slow. Air like that’s not going anywhere: it’ll wrap around us like filmy sheets till late October, getting in our way, dazzling our vision, smoothing its droplets onto our skin and our sidewalks and the coarse jungly vines crawling out from behind the fences. Back in my neighborhood the streets have that just-been-rained-on look: the ground slick and porous and the banana leaves so shiny green you need to squint just to move past them.

We move more slowly in summer because we have to wade. For our entire history this has been the natural rhythm of things. It impacts our lives in concrete ways: because this time of year simply crossing the street becomes Herculean, it’s time for stillness and deliberation. Used to be, those of us in social movements in New Orleans accepted that in summer we’d be taking less outward visible action, and spending more time reflecting and grounding our work for the future in a larger conscious strategy. At the time I don’t think I realized how important it was for us to have those periods but now, with things so high-gear and urgent all the time, it’s no wonder I see more of us breathless and trudging as our struggles continue on breakneck, without regard for the cycles of the natural world. I get it, why there’s no coming up for air yet, but that’s what I want for us more than anything: just a raft for us to hang onto for a second; just the time and space for us to breathe and gather strength before moving on.

Monday, June 11, 2007

What You Need When Your Moles Are Fine

These days I’ve been a little out of my element, working in a dermatology surgery office for the last week, getting daily reminders to wear sunscreen (really y’all. Melanoma is no joke), and learning good and important things about skin cancer and rashes, but aching to be back in the community-based health settings that ground me more than I’m ever aware when I’m in their midst.

My patients these days are all insured. They are people who have the time and resources and savvy necessary to make it to specialist appointments. They are offered coffee by our sweet, smiling nurses if they have to wait longer than, say, 20 minutes before being seen. But ultimately the differences are deeper and more significant than coffee and TV in the waiting room. Being insured means that these patients won’t die of skin cancer, because they have a place to go if someone notices a weird-looking mole. Their lives are longer and higher-quality, partially because they have access to healthcare. It’s a totally different world.

And, also, not.

The other day I had this skin cancer patient in his 80s who patted my hand while I was asking him about his moles and said, “My moles are fine. Let me tell you what happened to us in Katrina.”

I listened to the whole thing, how they were four houses away from the London Avenue Canal, how now he and his wife and three cockatiels and two miniature schnauzers are all living in a microscopic apartment out in Kenner but they’re rebuilding, how he and his nephew go out and work with the contractors a few afternoons a week to speed things along because “you may not have noticed, young lady, but I’m getting along up there in my age and who knows how much time we’ve got left.” This man uses a walker to get around, and I could probably circle his whole upper arm with my thumb and forefinger, but you never know. There’s definitely quite a few things in the world that would surprise me more than if I saw him up on a roof with a tool belt.

After about 20 minutes the doctor I was working with came in, looked at my patient’s forehead and said, “yep, looks like it’s doing fine. Come back in three months.”

My patient was like, “Thanks, that’s what I thought.”

And put on his hat which had this twinkly little blue feather in it, and leaned his mottled gnarled hands into the railings of his walker, and eased himself deliberately out of the high uncomfortable chair he’d been waiting in, and turned and winked—yes, winked--at me as he was walking out the door and said, “young lady, if I’m still alive when you’re done with all this, you could be my doctor any day.”

I’m always amazed and a little sad when patients tell me this. I know enough to know that it has pretty much nothing to do with me; it’s much more about healthcare and the general lonely state of things for so many people in our world. More often than not what most people crave is simple, gentle, loving attention. There’s something that gets me deep when I think about this man waking up early and shaving and buttoning up his dress shirt and putting on his hat and driving here (oh my gosh, was this man driving? Can he even see above the windshield? Did his wife or nephew drive him instead? How many people’s days did this visit impact?), all the way from Kenner, when he knows his moles are fine.

I wonder about what this person’s motivations were to go to the doctor today. It wasn’t to get news about his skin, because he already knew his moles were fine. It certainly wasn’t to tell some random medical student his Katrina story, although I think that ended up being an important part of the day for him.

I think he came to fulfill a duty. He had an appointment, and even if he didn’t really see the meaning behind it or agree with the doctor’s rationale for scheduling it, he kept his word and showed up. And he was patient and tolerant with us while we did what we felt invested in doing, but ultimately I’d guess that the meaningful part of that visit for him was the part where he told me an important story about his life.

I get humbled when I remember that my job is all of this. That of course I need to know stuff, but that also in a lot of cases being able to listen to people is even more important than what I know about their clinical condition. And listening is about much more than being nice. It’s about turning my expectations of healthcare on their head, letting go of my own ego and my own agenda enough to legitimately see that if my patients expect their healthcare to be a place where their stories are honored, then it's my job to figure out how to make that happen.

Time and again, I feel like I’m learning the same lesson: that once I accept how little I understand, and recognize the limitations of my own vision, and let myself be guided by the wisdom of the people around me, that’s when the real beauty comes.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Waking Up

Here I go being all naïve again. Time goes by and I feel like I should be learning more, growing more, understanding more, and I just keep getting blindsided with my own innocence. It’s frustrating and embarrassing but I guess that’s how life is, really.

Here’s the latest: in the past four or five days I’ve been seeing all these stickers, on stop signs and telephone poles and the concrete walls surrounding parking lots, that say “wake up, white people.” I’ve seen these stickers like six separate times in less than a week, uptown, downtown, in mid-city: all over. In places I go pretty frequently.

Wow, was my original reaction, because I thought it was saying something like, “look around, white folks, at all the racist horribleness that’s happening in this city; your life might be starting to achieve some semblance of intactness or it might not, but now more than ever we need to be working together to rebuild this city with justice for everyone; we need to prioritize the right of return for so many African American families who still haven’t made it back; we need to be thinking critically about all this Crime hysteria that’s been happening lately and engage on real levels about things like poverty and desperation, which influence crime rates and which exist in this city in record levels these days; we need to put our hearts and souls into fighting racism within ourselves and our communities if we ever want this city to get it together…” Lots to get out of one bumper sticker, but, you know, I guess I was being optimistic.

Well. Was I ever off-base.

I got curious yesterday when I saw one of these stickers, (on a telephone pole kind of by TwiRoPa on Tchoupitoulas, if anyone’s interested), right above another sticker in the exact same font that said “David Duke for mayor.”

For anyone who needs some schooling on why that’s important, you can check out this Wikipedia page that has some basic outlines of David Duke’s history as a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Currently he self-identifies as a “white nationalist” and is well known, among other things, for his attempts to civilize the image of the Klan (business suits instead of long white robes—I know that makes me respect the Klan a lot more), and his connections with Louisiana state politics, including a governor’s runoff race in 1991 which he lost to Edwin Edwards, a known crook, by a large margin. (Edwards’ win was significantly impacted by committed creative anti-racist organizing that crossed ideology and organizational lines and opened up vast spaces, especially in New Orleans, for crucial dialogue and action about race in many diverse corners of the city, which of course is another really important part of that history.)

So anyway, I started wondering if maybe these little stickers were telling people something other than to take a serious and critical look at racism in our community, and I googled “wake up white people” and found out (also on Wikipedia, by the way—where would we be without them?) that it’s actually a “memorable quote” of another noted Klan leader, Daniel Carver, who is evidently both an Imperial Wizard and a Grand Dragon in the Klan, and who makes a living doing “odd jobs” including selling racist knicknacks out of a post-office box in Oakwood, Georgia.


The Klan, right here, where we’re living and working and struggling, right under our very noses. I feel indignant. And I know, on so many levels, that that’s not the point, but there it is, my righteous outrage at the brazenness of it.

I don’t want to think I’m one of those people who’s shocked to find out that the Klan is alive and well and working hard in my neighborhood, but I guess, on some level, that I am. And I know that it’s not like the Klan just arrived here from out of nowhere, that actually the Klan has a long history continuing into the present era in south Louisiana and New Orleans too; for example that David Duke’s more “respectable” organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP, oh, yes they did) had a pretty big gathering here in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education decision where, I recently learned (yes, also on Wikipedia), far-right groups signed a document called the New Orleans Protocols, which pledged to reduce infighting and factionalization between what are referred to as “racialist” groups.

And I know that you don’t need the Klan to have racism in your neighborhood, that pretty blatant racism, for example, is behind some of the scarier crime-fighting initiatives that have come up in recent months (like a Faubourg Marigny neighborhood association’s push to install cameras throughout the neighborhood and give out whistles for (mostly white) residents to use if they see a “suspicious” person walking by; or the recent memos circulated to (mostly white) French Quarter business owners by BlackHawk, a private security company, explaining that they would be more effective crime fighters than the NOPD since they didn’t have to worry about pesky anti-profiling laws). And I know that structural racism, insidious and hard to define as it may be, is a significant part of the reason why so many African-American New Orleans residents haven’t gotten home yet, and why so many Black and Latino people in this city have to move mountains to get healthcare, or an education for their children, and how that’s not only in this city but everywhere, but that here the stakes are so much higher; that the dissolution of the African-American community here in New Orleans means nothing less than that we’re losing our very backbone.

And I know that really, fighting racism doesn’t mean being like, “oh my Gosh, the Klan! Let’s get ‘em and then our problem will be solved,” and that in some cases focusing on groups like the Klan can actually take away from the more pervasive racism that’s all around us and make it seem like racism comes from different, crazy people who don’t do things normal or respectable people would do. And that really we need to be consciously building communities of justice and resistance that transform our hearts and souls and keep us connected to each other and committed to each other in a way that affirms each of our humanity.

I know. And still, the Klan is scary.

Scariest to me is that the Klan being out and visible means that vicious racialized hatred is suddenly legitimized as part of the discussion. It shifts public discourse so dramatically that coded conversations about “the criminal element” and “what goes on in public housing” become moderate and civilized by comparison. Which means that folks who are working from a justice-centered perspective have that much more ground to cover in order to meet folks even a little bit halfway. It means folks committed to social justice have to spend time and energy fighting these blatantly racist messages instead of doing all the other important work we’re already too under-resourced to do. It’s also scary that the visibility of these messages capitalizes on white fear and stress and anger at a time when we’re all feeling desperate and need an outlet or at least an explanation for those feelings. For anyone working for social justice, and specifically anti-racist white folks, this cuts into our organizing base in a way that is concrete and significant.

The hardest thing about the obvious blatant presence of folks like the Klan, though, is what we do about it. I still believe that putting all our eggs in one basket to go up against groups like the Klan won’t build justice or even solve the problem of racism, and that we need to continue prioritizing accountable, base-building, community-building, relationship building work at the grassroots level in a strategic push toward broad and diverse movements for racial justice that include large numbers of people. And yet, I think challenging direct racism, even when it takes away concrete energy and resources that we could be putting in other directions, is absolutely necessary, even if only to affirm that it’s unacceptable and has no place in our community. (That’s part of the reason why this post is so long! ☺ I think also, for me, it’s reminded me to recommit myself to take a longer and deeper look at history, to maintain my curiosity about things I don’t know about, and to remember the limitations of my own understanding and to look for complexities even when the world appears benign to me.

Finally, I want to remember that hate groups succeed only where there’s room for them to do so. And that for all of us who are committed to building justice-centered outlets for people’s rage and sadness and stress and desperation, that now’s the time to be even more creative, and inspiring, and loving and joyous and visible in that work. And to remember to give props to all the folks in our community and beyond who are building that culture day by day, like the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center, the INCITE! Women's Health and Justice Initiative, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, Safe Streets/Strong Communities, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, European Dissent, and so many others in New Orleans alone.

And at least for me, that especially when things are sad and stressful and hard and hopeless, fighting for justice is the best protection against a hardened heart.


Friday, May 25, 2007


Today at the day laborers’ clinic I took care of a patient with multiple stab wounds; he had been discharged from University Hospital last Saturday with a prescription for antibiotics and the good wishes of his healthcare providers. The bandages packing his wounds had been there almost a week; no one at the hospital told him he needed to have them changed regularly or he would risk major infection. Much less, they didn’t tell him where he could have gone to get that kind of treatment, or how to do it himself if, under likely circumstances, he wasn’t able to be seen in one of the understaffed primary care clinics serving low-income people in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Hearing that story, I felt so naïve. Even though I experience the healthcare system here on a daily basis, and even though I take care of so many low-income uninsured patients who get discharged from hospitals without follow-up, I still couldn’t believe what this patient was telling me. The doctors at University Hospital know better than that, I kept telling myself. Many of those folks are friends and colleagues of mine, people who have put in so much heart and soul and dedication into providing high-quality care for people in a healthcare system whose infrastructure is completely shattered. Many more have worked just as diligently to patch together some beginnings of a free or affordable follow-up system so that patients like these have places to go when they get out of the hospital. Really? I thought. Them? What does that mean for the rest of the city?

Two of us ended up changing this patient’s packing as he sat on an upended milk crate under a tree in the middle of a neutral ground where he and many of his friends and compañeros waited for work. We did our best to keep things as clean as possible, while the wind blew graying dust and long-empty Pepsi cans around our feet. The whole time the other volunteer was gently holding our patient as he squirmed in pain; a visiting doctor from Michigan kept coming over to inspect our careful work while about nine other workers gaped from a few feet away, craning their necks from behind the tree. “Whoa! Look how deep they are! Come see!” they kept yelling while I repeated my requests for privacy, inserting clean gauze into these wide-open spaces in his chest, deeper than my fingers, wider than my knuckles, close enough to the heart that I expected to touch it, beating strongly against my hand.

It’s a miracle this man is alive, I kept thinking. He deserves more than this: this medical care he just happened upon on his walk to work, the tree, the pigeons, the milk crates we sat on, the burned-out buildings on the right and left of us, the audience, that swirling dust all around us. He thanked us so much at the end I almost cried, not out of sadness but anger. Even in this totally messed-up system, this didn’t need to happen.

“I bet if he spoke English they would’ve talked with him about going someplace for follow-up,” my roommate said when I told her the story.


But I don’t know that for sure, and I don’t know which is worse: that this person would have gotten better medical care if they were a native English speaker (which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act, by the way, which healthcare centers in the state of Louisiana, just like everywhere else in this country, get federal funding to enforce), or that maybe it just didn’t matter: that maybe things were so crazy at University that day that nobody had the time to make sure this patient got discharged properly without falling through the cracks.

I think the worst part of this situation was not that I felt let down by people I look up to and trust to be conscious about providing amazing healthcare even in insane circumstances, it was the realization—not new, not earth-shattering, but still hard and sad and frustrating-- that it actually had very little to do with them, that there are so many factors that make this patient’s situation happen anyway, despite the best efforts of so many committed individuals. That we can have all the good people we want doing all the amazing things we want in the world, and we still ultimately need infrastructure. We need a system that acts in people’s best interests. We need for our lives not to depend upon the whims or compassion of good people; we need a society that takes responsibility for its people in a much more concrete way.

All day I did my best not to feel cynical about this situation because I know that's not going to make anything better. But it was hard, I tell you, driving away after clinic was over, all the workers waving at us from the neutral ground, the gray sky hanging over us, heavy, like concrete that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Graduation Day

If I hadn’t taken time off from medical school after Katrina, I would have become a doctor last Saturday. Wow. Somehow that seems even more enormous than if I actually did graduate. I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the things a day like this brings with it: all the growing up that’s been happening in our world these days, all the loss and transition and new beginnings and fear and awkwardness wrapped up in this bursting joy; how education is so much more than the hoops we jump through and how, at its best, it’s really about taking risks and challenging ourselves to become more honest and accountable than we ever thought we could be.

For the longest time, I’ve been so excited about this day: both that my friends were graduating and that I wasn’t. Right now, I’m happy for them to have the milestones, the big moment; more than anything lately, I’ve not felt ready. I’ve been so happy that I have a whole ‘nother year as a medical student: I’m glad I get more practice making decisions about patients while knowing that a real doctor’s watchful eye isn’t far away. I’m excited to spend one more year focusing on things I know I need to improve upon, or things I want to learn more about, just because I can. This is the last time in my life that I’ll be praised, rather than expected, to know and do the right thing; the last time I can make mistakes and not know stuff and have that be part of the process instead of a Really Big Deal; the last time I can spend 2 weeks in Hawaii learning dermatology if I want to (ok, I don’t really want to, but you know what I mean).

But on that day, watching my friends and classmates cross over into this world I’ll join them in much sooner than I’d probably like, I didn’t feel relief as much as I’d imagined. I felt awe. I witnessed in each of them something altogether different and much more powerful than anything I’d expected, and that was grace. Suddenly I had no doubts that each one of them, ready or not, was going to do just fine July 1 when they all start their work as interns for real. Everything they need to shine, they’ve already got it inside themselves.

I thought about how most of our major life events: becoming a parent, surviving catastrophe, taking awesome responsibility for the care of other people—are more than anything about rising to the occasion, how none of us is ever ready and we continue to push on anyway, how for generations as long as we’ve been here, we survive, we bring children into the world, we take care of each other with the best and strongest of our cracked imperfect selves.

And the world’s got nothing on these folks. These are people who’ve shone through death and heartbreak and childbirth and Hurricane Katrina, all while continuing to conquer medical school and dance and play and make each other laugh long and deep. After Katrina hit, these are folks who mopped shelter floors, drove across south Louisiana with cars full of donated underwear and antibiotics, and held long vigils, wherever they happened to be, with the dying and grieving people of our city. They set up clinics, started organizations, made arrangements for our classmates to get an education outside New Orleans when the future here was uncertain; on days off they sorted through the rubble of their burned and flooded houses; ultimately they learned medicine in strange cities and came home to sleep on strangers’ couches at the end of those long ghostly days. They kept going, in those times when the murky road ahead was barely even visible. Oh, the world’s got nothing on these folks, these special, special folks.

And graduation was awesome! Obviously, because I got to see all these people who I love and look up to and who’ve loved me and challenged me and inspired me and taught me and been my anchors for the past four years—I got to watch all these incredible folks become doctors. And also because there kept being these only-in-New-Orleans moments, like the brass band and the way all the new doctors all second-lined out of the place when it was over, and the people wearing Mardi Gras beads over their intense velvet graduation regalia, and the spicy Bloody Marys we all toasted each other with at noon before it started. And then the speaker, who is the new president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, which is not really famous for being a radical organization, kept talking about how we all need to step up and make universal healthcare a reality in this country. I know! Can you believe it?

But in the end, the awesome thing about graduation was how full that room was. All those babies running around in the aisles in pressed dresses and stiff morning hair; all the old people, guided gently to the better seats, knuckles leaning into canes and the backs of chairs, curling heads and necks for even a far-away glimpse of their people. All the miles everyone had covered just to be there.

At one point this one girl, one of the quietest girls in the class who I never really got to know very well, came up to receive her diploma and I think about 40 people stood up and cheered and just didn’t stop. They filled like 2 whole rows, they spilled over into the aisles--they were still jumping and clapping even when she got off the stage. I was amazed at the power of this family’s love for this person. It made me even prouder of her to see where she’d come from, to see such a wild band of people so fiercely there for this gentle person in their life. In the end none of us could take it. We all stood up with the rest of them, cheering so loudly for this one girl and everything else joyous in the room that day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

Mother’s Day started with fireflies, but this was only one of the reasons why it felt so magic. We went to Thibodaux, just my mom and I, to get away from the city for a second and have time to eat crawfish and listen to music and take walks and be absorbed by all the different kinds of green that take over south Louisiana this time of year. And my mom’s been captivated by fireflies ever since my dad told her he saw some out there a few weeks ago. The last time my mom saw fireflies was when she was younger than me and living in Italy.

So after dinner, when it had gotten so dark we could barely see our hands in front of us, my mom said, “Let’s go outside and look for fireflies!” You could tell she’d been thinking about it since we got there. And I was like, “Mom, there’s totally not gonna be any fireflies. It’s too late, it’s too dark, we’re not even looking in the right place…” and we stood outside under that tent of stars that’s so much brighter in the country and the whole time I was like, “See? There’s not any. I’m getting bitten by gnats; let’s go inside.” And then, as if for maybe no other reason than to remind me that I actually don’t know everything, the whole sky started blinking. It was like we were being visited by little spirits. They were everywhere! Better than the Northern lights; better than TV. We could barely take it. Remember this, little one, the world was telling me: your mother’s beliefs are stronger than your skepticism.

It was awesome.

This Mother’s Day felt like my day, too, because I kept realizing all the gifts I’ve gotten from my mom. It felt like I was opening my own presents all day, realizing again how connected I am to the people in my life who’ve made me who I am and who’ve put so much fierce labor into loving me. My mom and I both cry when we hear beautiful music, when we drive past glittering fields and red sunsets, when we tell stories about the people we love. The world grabs us both so hard sometimes, we can barely take it. She’s given me all the awe and wonder I feel at the world. Any scrap of tenacity and determination I have comes from my mom; any search for truth, both in myself and within the world around me; any commitment I have to continue to grow and learn every day I am here on this earth. And our hearts! Have you felt how much loves comes out of these hearts? I think the depth of how we love blows even us away.

I’m realizing as I grow older that one of the things I cherish most about myself is something deep I share with my mom, and that’s our rootedness. This all comes from her: my deep sense of place, the way the smell of sweet olive takes me back to being six years old and up past my bedtime; that thick danger and safety nighttime gave me as a child; the knowledge even then that I was being watched over by all these people I’ve come from, how living and dead they’re with me all the time. My mom planted a garden in the cemetery where our ancestors are buried, and she goes there regularly and waters the flowers there. She takes care of this place because it’s part of her. In dreams she has visits—really, visits!--with our ancestors. Like, they have conversations. I realize as an adult that I believe more in my mom’s dreams than in some scientific evidence, that the world has so many different ways of teaching us if we just pay attention.

Mother’s day is also a day for me to give tribute more generally to everyone who’s raised me: it’s a day for me to realize, with awe, what a collective process my history has been. For better or worse, I’m a product not only of my mom, but all my aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, cousins, teachers, and all the other elders who’ve taken me under their wing. These people have made me who I am in ways great and small: it’s from my aunts that I’ve learned to bring Band-Aids and Excedrin and also mix CD’s and awesome books with me wherever I go; my grandmothers have taught me gentleness and diplomacy and unconditional love; my cousins are this hilarious dynamic posse who keep me grounded and remind me that no matter where I go or what I do, there’s 20 people who’ve got my back in a second. And there are so many wise teachers in my life who’ve pushed my learning and kept me committed to being humble and honest and working for social justice in a steady, long-term way.

No matter how old I get, most of the time I still feel like a kid amazed at the world. Last night, with all those fireflies blinking electric-green above us, we couldn’t stop jumping and exclaiming and pointing wildly at that cool black sky. “It’s a sign,” my mom kept saying.
A sign of what, I wondered.
“I don’t know,” my mom said. “Maybe it means we just get a little bit more time. Maybe they’re giving us something back from long ago. I don’t know. But it’s good.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

All Your Suffering Is About To Be Over!

This weekend Louisiana exploded with music. Friday I walked the three quick blocks to Jazzfest and wandered around on my own all day, bumping into people and taking in the music and the people and about four glasses of strawberry lemonade. I love going to Jazzfest alone mostly because I love watching everybody. Yeah, Lucinda Williams was pretty awesome, and so were the cochon de lait poboys, which I faithfully await for an entire year, but nothing can beat the luminous sign-language interpreter we saw at the last set on Friday, her eyes as loud as the music; or the multiracial crew of teenage girls stepping in unison on the highest bleachers--in the gospel tent, of all places!; or the pair of dancing 80-year-olds: the raspy knees, the perfect two-step, the bumpy lavender fingers they held each other with, tighter and longer than life.

We have a visiting doctor in from San Francisco for the week, and as we were tripping over each other in the medicine cabinet this morning, she said, “Your patients are so special.” They really are. I feel so lucky to be even a tiny part of their lives. Yesterday I saw this 84-year-old man who’s been his wife’s sole caretaker since she had a stroke about 8 months ago. He doesn’t really know how to cook, but he prepares all their food; his knees and elbows are wracked and creaky with rheumatism but still he lifts her up daily, bathes her, changes the sheets, combs her hair. He pushes her chair out on the porch on nice days and they watch the neighborhood go by. They used to be traveling people, the kind of people who’d climb in their tottering black pickup one morning and end up in St Louis for the next five months. Now they’re planted back home in Avondale and he’s starting to feel itchy and restless, but right now there’s no place he’d rather be than their bright yellow kitchen, spooning oatmeal into thick bowls for the two of them to share every morning.

Today one of my patients, an ardent 72-year-old Jehovah’s Witness who comes to visit us about twice a month for minor complaints and also because his rickety house gets lonely now that his wife’s gone, gave me a brightly colored pamphlet that said, “All Your Suffering Is About To Be Over!”

“Oh, this is so awesome!” I said. “I wish everybody’s suffering was about to be over.”

He laughed, this deep scratchy laugh you can hear all through the clinic. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “But I walk around the whole neighborhood and give these out door to door. I sit on people’s porches and, you know. We’re all blessed. It makes me feel better.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Excuses, excuses

Today I wrote the hardest excused absence note ever. We had an 11-year-old boy and his older brother, who both came to the clinic for minor complaints, and at the very end of the visit, when I was asking if there was anything else, the older brother was like, “well—we both need excused absences. I’ve missed a little bit of work and he’s missed a lot of school. A lot of school.”

After Katrina, their mother’s job relocated her to Monroe, but the older brother’s job is in New Orleans and the younger brother is in school in New Orleans. The brothers are constantly traveling back and forth from Monroe to New Orleans, and they don’t always have reliable transportation to make this trip.

The older brother says the whole family has taken responsibility for the little one’s education: brothers and cousins and aunties all go to parents’ meetings, sign off on homework, go over spelling words before dinner. He’s doing very well in school. But a few days ago the family got a letter from the school saying he’d missed over 15 days of school in the academic year (he missed maybe 18 days), and therefore he would not be allowed to move up to the sixth grade unless they could get a doctors’ note for every one of those days, because it would be breaking state law.

Are they kidding? Providing woefully substandard education to our children is completely legal, but if an 11-year-old child misses 18 days, to go see his mother of all things, even if he still gets incredible grades, he's breaking the law?

How on earth is it helping anybody to punish this child for missing school when the whole family is working day and night to support his education, and make sure they all stay connected with each other when they’re so scattered? Any why is medical illness the only valid excuse for missing school? I know so many privileged kids whose families ”take them out of school” for a few days or even a week, so the family can go to Florida or Jazzfest, for example.

And as a healthcare provider it’s hard to be in the middle of this crazy situation, because you can’t be dishonest, of course, and at the same time I totally wanted to advocate for this child. I feel like it’s my job. I feel very strongly that there is no necessity, and no benefit, in this kid repeating a year of school, and that in many ways--healthwise and otherwise--it has the capacity to make things worse for him and his family.

So this is what I wrote: “This child was seen at our clinic today. He is currently a patient under our care. We are aware that he’s had multiple absences from school, and we are excusing him from all of these. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.”

I hope it works.