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.