Monthly Archives: August 2012

Keeping Vigil during Hurricane Isaac

Remember how, when you were young, and you left your friend’s house across the street as dusk was setting in, and her/his mama watched until you were safely inside your own? How you felt protected by that gaze, even though your pace quickened, and you were scared by any little noise? That’s the kind of mama-vigil I’m keeping for friends and relatives in the path of Hurricane Isaac, which is on a collision course with New Orleans, seven years to the day since Katrina’s winds and water did battle with the levees built of Play Doh by the Corps of Engineers.

We know how that turned out: the levees were not breached but rather undermined, flooding 80% of the 350 square miles of the city’s footprint. This, despite collaborative studies accurately predicting–to the letter–seven years before that went utterly unheeded. Federal incompetency Number One. Local incompetency Number One: there was no plan to evacuate those who had no means to do so. Followed by five days of incompetency on all governmental levels, along with lies, distortions, and more than 1,300 unnecessary deaths, ripping off the mask of polite equality to reveal the racist and classist underpinnings of society. Followed by a breakdown in the fabric of civilization of that beloved city and surrounding parishes. 

That was back home. Meanwhile, in Newton Hospital in Massachusetts, my younger daughter Carisa was in labor with her first child, a labor that took more than 24 hours, and I was keeping vigil with her. (She had a boy, Ellis, named after Ellis Marsalis.) She knew nothing of the hurricane; I made sure of that. Her father, never one to make himself accessible, was still alive then, and worrying about him would only add to her burden. There was an empty labor room next to hers, and I’d steal away to watch CNN for bits and pieces, horrified and shocked by what I saw. There was no way to keep up with relatives and friends; there was no way I could let them know I was watching, doubled over in grief with them, no way for them to contact me. I’d return to her room and soothe her in the ways I was accustomed to doing. 

Now, there’s Facebook, and as long as power holds in batteries and cell phones, as long as access to the internet is available, the larger community is united. I’d like to think that my vigil in some way helps; it’s not hubristic of me–I don’t fancy myself an erstwhile Our Lady of Prompt Succor (the city’s patroness) to stave off another disaster. Rather, it’s the protective gaze that let’s them know someone outside the situation cares and bares witness. It allows them to have virtual hugs in the midst of mind-and-body exhaustion, the toxic stew of cortisol that makes each noise, each gust of wind, each crack of a limb, each stab of lightning and boom of thunder, each screaming weatherman or broadcast journalist set off or inculcate PTSD, in a deja vu all over again. Alda Talley, a longtime friend who lives in Mississippi, told me that it helps knowing I’m watching; it breaks the isolation. I’m glad to know that.

Seven years ago, I brought a vial of tap water to our UU ingathering service, when the congregation begins the new year (lay led services take place during the summer); one of the rituals of that service is for people to bring water, proxy or otherwise, from their summer sojourns. We briefly share the story of the water as we pour it into a common vessel. I could hardly speak as I said, “This water represents the flooding in New Orleans, the tears of those who endured the horror, and the amniotic fluid that protected my first grandson until he emerged from my daughter’s body.” I returned to my pew and sobbed as a friend held me, and can still hardly speak of that time without breaking down. 

Since yesterday I’ve been keeping track of the storm, now a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mpg winds; I write down coordinates, wind speed and movement, barometric pressure, to have a record for my journal–even if it blows over and hurricane hardened New Orleanians (fewer after Katrina) say, “All that worry for nothing!” I’d be thrilled if that happened. Already the governmental incompetence is showing itself: yesterday, the Tea Party-leaning governor said he was putting contra-flow in place (making all lanes one way) for westbound I-10, the main artery out of town. Then he changed his mind. Brian Denzer, a former journalist for the Times-Picayune posted, “I-10 West is a parking lot. I can’t bear the thought of a nine-hour trip to Baton Rouge (80 miles away). I’m going back home.” And this was two days before the storm was supposed to hit. 

Wrap your mind around that, folks. No amount of vigil, not even Our Lady of Prompt Succor’s, can protect from that kind of incompetency. 

You get what you vote for, apparently. 

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Sweet Spot

No one would look at the inside of my house (garage/basement), or outside for that matter, and say “Here lives a women who prizes order and cleanliness.” At least, not with a straight face. Take the front porch, for instance: badly in need of a coat of paint (the landlord’s responsibility; I simply don’t have time/inclination); the floor is littered with gradou from spilled plants, leaves, spider camps; a dirty extension cord; box fan (picked up off the street)–don’t know if it works yet because the electrical outlet has a metal prong from that dirty extension cord stuck inside); director’s chair with step stool for propping my feet; cinder blocks holding potted plants; rusty narrow shelf (plants); various other pedestals for plants; empty pots for plants; a ginormous pine knot (some 30+ years ago a man in Tylertown, MS gave it to me saying he thought it was about 200 years old); ratty desk holding a small wicker laundry box for mail; more spider camps with leaves; metal citronella candle holder sans candle; small “bedside” table holding a plant; two other citronella candles in buckets, etc. Just a short list. All I need is a couple of rusty old appliances–wringer washer, ice box–a big yellow dog scratching her fleas, a grizzled old-timer smoking a pipe and fanning himself with a “Stiff and Sons Funeral Parlor” fan, and a tinny radio playing “I Don’t Know Whether to Kill Myself or Go Bowling,” to truly qualify for one of those politically incorrect epithets bandied about so readily in the south. You know the ones.

Making fun of it helps. Keeps me from running that endless whining tape of “I can never catch up! I want a house that’s clean and orderly, that’s filled with art. I want Lucy and Honeycat to be clean and sweet-smelling. I want to be able to focus intently on one thing, and not feel guilty because ten others are calling me with equal pleas for attention. I want . . . . ”

Wasn’t it nice back in the day when one could just light up a joint and silence all those nagging voices?  Until the paranoia set in, of course. I want the sweet spot where opposites at cross-purposes meet in the center, where the amount of energy/time I have connects peacefully with the long list of demands and desires. Without the drugs. (She says wistfully.)

My grandmother chased dirt her entire life and never caught up with the son-of-a-bitch. She always had six pots boiling on a four-burner stove, as it were. I’m just like her in that respect: a dizzying array of chores (the usual to keep a house running, with summer’s added demands of garden/yard) and creative projects (trying to get the novel published, researching black Madonnas for a commissioned shrine). And then there are all those projects that never get done: clean and organize the basement and garage, wash the car, repair that necklace, shirt, sweater, etc. (Windows, don’t you dare look at me with your cobwebbed and filthy panes! It just ain’t gonna happen.)

As I write this, my laundry is dry and ready to be taken down; the sun is waning, which means I can stand outside for an hour hand-watering the garden; Lucy will be demanding her walk soon; and it will then be time to cook supper. In fact, Lucy just rose from her nap and is walking back and forth, giving me the 45″ warning.

Now that I think about it, I guess I attained a bit of that sweet spot just now, didn’t I?

 

 

 

 

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Figs Redux

I’m not proud of myself. Not by any means. But when I got to Market Basket about 1 pm and searched for the reduced produce cart, where a man and his adolescent daughter were touching this and that but NOT the packages of figs I was so heartened to find, I was as crazed a woman one would find at a Filene’s basement girdle sale. I began grabbing trays of four, and kept seeing more and more, not just two I first spied. I loaded eight square trays into my cart, surely breaking the speed record, I’m certain. Meanwhile, the man and his daughter had moved away, then returned and he said, “You took all the figs,” with a teensy weensy playful whine. I was nailed. Of course I offered him some.

“No, you take them, they look mushy anyway. I was thinking of getting some that weren’t.”

“These are ripe,” I said, still offering. After four offers, I simply put one in his basket.  “I can’t stand the guilt,” I said, also playfully, but truthfully, and rolled the cart away.

And don’t you know I heard my parents’ voices, “You have to SHARE! You can’t be greedy.”

Oh, honey, yes I can. Even as I say my mea culpas and shudder at my behavior, I eat my figs, two at a time, now 24 left.

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Figs.

Each July 4th Errol Laborde wrote his fig column for Gambit, always a paean to that celestial fruit so ubiquitous in southern Louisiana because that date was when fig season arrived. (I’ll attach his column from last year, now written for New Orleans Magazine.

My grandparents had a fig tree in their cemented-over back yard on S. Derbigny Street, one house from Jena. It wasn’t the smaller Celeste fig, but a larger eggplant-colored variety that was equally sweet, although not as “jammy” in the mouth. I was the oldest of six children, and treats always had to be shared. But when I spent time at my grandparents’ house in Broadmoor, I had that tree to myself. I’d sit in the lower branches and pick figs to fill her colander, easily four for my mouth to one for the collection, violating Nanee’s rule about washing the “amoebas” off first. As if. I couldn’t eat them fast enough!

If you’ve ever encountered a south Louisiana fig tree, you’ll know what I mean.

At any rate, as an adult, I had several fig trees gracing yards of different houses. None ever got as big as my grandparents–mine were always Celeste–and the last tree I had in Hammond, had just begun to come into itself. I moved to New Hampshire, and Katrina killed it the year after I left.

Not having access to a fig tree is a price I pay for living in New Hampshire. And I crave them.

Yesterday, after my women artists’ group meeting, Laura Morrison gave us a tour of her fabulous garden and new chicken coup with still-young chickens. I walked around and looked up to see the fig tree she mentioned some time ago; in a pot, it’s perhaps four feet tall, a single stalk with a few short branches and a few leaves. I went up to it and caressed the leaves, feeling for their nap, then put my nose to it, hoping to catch the “green figgy” smell, but it was very faint. How many times Betty Lee, my best friend from childhood who lived across from Nanee and Pawpaw, sat under the huge fig tree to escape the blistering summer heat, crushing the fragrant dry leaves for our “tea” parties, using the white bead-like seeds of night jasmine for “cookies” for our dolls.

Now segue to making groceries after leaving Laura’s garden. I’m in the produce section of Market Basket on Ft. Eddy Road, where one of the first things I do is check the items on the reduced price cart. It was chock full, more items than I’d ever seen on the cart in the years I’ve shopped there. I put plantains and yucca in the cart (for the black bean dinner I’ll make), then I looked up and saw there was a second cart at the other end of the aisle, it full to bursting also. And there I saw small trays of yellow mission figs. Reduced from .89 each, to four for .99 on one tray, five for .99 on the other.  I bought two–should have taken all of them!

And yesterday I ate figs. Figs! In two batches then, and a third this afternoon, my mouth once again in heaven. You can be sure I’ll be watching those reduced price carts pretty closely from now on. What a blessing to happen upon.

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August 16, 2012 · 1:53 am

Goodbye Little Friend

Many years ago, when I lived in Covington, Louisiana, I photographed a wedding, and the bride’s mother, Caroline Sontheimer, gave me a single reed of horsetail fern as a pass along plant.  I’d never seen a horsetail fern before and I was smitten by it. She said hers had come from Mignon Faget, a New Orleans jewelry designer. I took the reed home, sat it in water until it rooted, then for Mother’s Day, planted it in a pot outside. It was a foot high, about the width of my little finger, green and translucent in places when the sun was low, segmented with fringed crowns, and I marveled at this plant. Because I was in a bout of depression and feeling pretty disconnected from my daughters, I projected a lot of hope onto it: its survival would be my own. Not only did the plant survive, it flourished; I even took several reeds up here to New Hampshire when I moved, rooted them, put them in a pot and watched it grow in a sunny window. In the summer, I put the pot outside, and then, because it was very large, decided to risk leaving it out, buried under a lot of maple leaves and a blanket; it survived the winter nestled against the basement on the south side of the house. It’s survived two winters there, in fact, and even grew into the ground and ha,s via runners, popped up in a straight line. Imagine, my southern plant right here in Concord.

So, last winter, again in the doldrums as I’d been that Mother’s Day decades ago, I came upon a tiny cactus on the reduced produce tray at Market Basket. Stubby, three-sided, with a “head” of what looked like white fur in that perfect mathematical arrangement of sunflowers centers, for instance, and a tiny identical version perched askew, as if a little flower or a jaunty hat.  All winter–and they are so long here in New England–I ooohed and aaahed over it, and gently lay my hand on the barely prickly “fur,” cooing my appreciation each time I passed it. The “head” grew in size, and all was fine until a few weeks ago, when I noticed the “body” was not as green as it had been, and there was a small dry, brown circle on it.

Now, I am one of those plant-moms who, I’m learning–and I am so ashamed I can hardly bear to mention it–over-waters. I discovered this when I finally repotted several of my non-cactus plants. Sodden at the bottom, yet dry looking at the top, they were utterly root-bound. All winter, my geraniums have been stagnant, barely putting out new leaves, certainly not blooming.  Geraniums, for goodness sakes! Same for my gardenia, hibiscus, jasmine. And other than my Christmas cactus, I’ve never had a succulent before. Well, I do have an aloe. I’m a waterer, as I said, and I don’t speak succulent, I suppose.

When I saw that brown spot, I thought the little plant needed repotting.  After all, it was in the same tiny pot I’d bought it in last winter. So, I found the remnants of a bag of “succulent mixture,” got a bigger clay pot, and a few days ago, nestled the little plant into it and surrounded it with more mixture, and set it outside in filtered light. Each day, the “body” lost more green color. Finally, this morning, I saw it had collapsed, the little head resting on the soil, the body oozing. It is a loss, truly. My friend who’d cheered me all winter, who I hoped would accompany me through the next to come, has died. And all day, I’ve thought about it, wanting to write a tribute, an elegy, and I decided to begin a blog so that I might do that.

I removed the body from the head and nestled that atop the soil. I have no idea if it will root, or if it, too, will shrivel and ooze. I will be sad if it does, but I will transfer that need to place hope onto another plant, perhaps another tiny, jaunty cactus. Maybe I’ll learn more about their care; I hope so. I don’t want to kill another one (if that’s indeed what I did with this one).

So mote it be.

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