Ghosts of the Flood August 29, 2014Posted by Mark Folse in A Fiction, Corps of Engineers, Fargo, Federal Flood, Flood, FYYFF, Hurricane Katrina, je me souviens, memoir, postdiluvian, Shield of Beauty, the dead, The Narrative, The Typist, We Are Not OK.
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” . . . so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many . . . “
The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
Sometimes I feel them, my wife told me, their spirits, as I’m driving down the street. All that suffering, she explains, all those people. As if 300 years of yellow fever and the lash, the lynchings and gansta gun battles weren’t enough to populate a parallel city of spirits in this place where tombs are mansions and burials a celebration, the Flood came.
Now there is a brooding presence even in the bright of day, looming over us all like a storm-bent house on the verge of collapse. These empty shells of former lives that line so many streets are a daily reminder of the vast catastrophe; the windows staring lifelessly at broken sidewalks, the facades washed pale and colorless. Each still bears the esoteric marks of the searchers that mimic the scratching on tombs in the old cemeteries, some the dreaded number at the bottom that totals up the lost.
The tally marked beneath the cross now rises to 1577, a crowed like that described by Eliot. I imagine not a host but solitary figures, the ghosts we know from childhood stories. In their newness to death, I picture them wandering as curious as children in the house of an aged aunt, getting underfoot and touching what they should not, interrupting and making unwelcome mischief. The brush of their passing is still strong enough to reach out and touch a good Catholic girl from North Dakota, one as innocent of the spiritualist shadows cast by every flickering candle flame before a New Orleans saint’s statue as a Midwesterner could possibly be.
Even the most rationale and disinclined among us imagine ghosts in a city this old, where the steamy air is a tangible presence on the skin and lights flash erratically in the night through the stirrings of the thick, tangled foliage, where the old houses creak and groan as they settle into the soft earth like old men lowering themselves into a chair. Once I wished to experience that touch of the other, a product of reading too much fantastic fiction. One of the signature scenes in film for me is John Cassavettes as a modern Prospero in The Tempest, standing in his urban tower and saying, “Show me the magic.” For him, the sky erupts in lightening. I would sometime catch myself whispering those words, but they were simply blown away by the night wind.
Then one bright August afternoon I was sitting in my idling car in my driveway in Fargo, North Dakota. At just before five o’clock that 29th of August a string of Carnival beads which hung from my rearview mirror–black and gold beads interspersed with black voodoo figures–suddenly burst. It seemed strange at the time that they would break as the car sat still, would break at the bottom and not at the top where they routinely rubbed against the mirror post, where the string was tied off, the knot weakening the line. It was not the way that I, as a sailor with some idea of how a line will wear, would expect them to break.
Perhaps the beads slid about at the end of the string as I drove around, causing the string to wear through at the bottom, so that it was inevitable that is where they would break first, given enough corners turned, sufficient applications of the accelerator and brake. The timing of just before five o’clock on that Monday in August of 2005 was just a coincidence, the inevitable laws of physics unfolding without regard for the observer and his sense of time.
Be careful what you wish for is the lesson we learned in a dozen fairy tales. The longed for touch of the other, and the tide that washed me up on the shores of my personal Ithaca, into this house on Toulouse Street in the only place I have ever thought of as home, came with a terrible price: both are tainted with graveyard dust. I would undo it all in instant, if I only knew how.
I’ve written this post before–or ones very like it, that tell this story of the broken beads–and then deleted them. It seems just too strange and personal a tale to share with just any aimless visitor wandering the Internet. What will people think? I ask myself in a voice that sounds vaguely like my mother’s. What if some future employer Googles up this article? worries the husband with a mortgage and two children to raise. I don’t expect them to understand.
Unless you learned from the maid that cleaned your family home that crossing two matchsticks in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and sprinkling them with salt would bring rain, unless you believed that a piece of candy found on the ground could be made safe to eat by making the sign of the cross over it, if people did not come in the night and scratch odd marks on certain tombs on the grounds where your family is buried; if these were not part of your earliest experience, then my tale of the broken beads sounds like the product of an overworked imagination, something like Scrooge’s undigested bit of beef, a spot of mustard.
There is a spectre over New Orleans. As the August anniversary slipped away, I thought the grim, invisible cloud that hung over the city would begin to drift away. Instead, as the weeks passed, I was increasingly convinced: everyone in New Orleans was haunted. You could see it in people’s eyes, in the way they walked, hear it in the words they spoke, or the ones they wrote online as they spoke about their lingering pain. It was a spirit as much inside as out, the ghost in the machine that haunted our every step.
Then came the Monday Night Football game. I thought about the curse of the Superdome, the one that suggests destruction of the Girod Street Cemetery has cursed the ground and all who play there. Was the spirit of the people in the Dome that night just the charm needed to lay that particular haunting to rest, to break that curse? The morning after the strut in people’s step, the lilt of their voices told me that perhaps, just perhaps a healing had begun. We were not a city in need of an exorcism: we were the exorcism.
The ghost of the Flood is now a part of who we are. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if it is ectoplasm or the synchronized firing of a million neurons in ways science does not yet understand. In the end we have to come to term with it. This is something that we as Orleanians, the people who live next to our dead in their exclusive farbourgs of marble and white-washed stone, should be able to do.
We need to honor these dead and respect them, not with the weight of Confucian ancestor worship but in the simple spirit of the pre-Confucian Japanese who venerated odd stones, in the ways inherent in our own Latin roots mingled with the traditions of Africa, where the community of saints and the loa of Africa intersect. We don’t need an exorcism. We need a conjuration, a ritual that calls up the ghosts and honors them, that welcomes them in the way the way the devotees of Vodoun welcome the possession of the loa.
Perhaps next August 29, we should all tie a brown cord on some pillar or post of the house at just the point where we have carefully painted over the water stain. Just above that, we should mark in dust of ground gypsum the rescue symbol that is now as much a part of our selves and our city as the sign of the cross. We will do this to tell whoever is listening—Our Father, Oshun, Mother of God, ghosts of the Flood—we remember. We have suffered, and we will never forget the Flood and those who did not come through. We are the people who came through and came back. We remember the lost. We remember you. Je me souviens.
When we accept and embrace this spirit, perhaps the haunting will end once and for all, will not be a permanent pall over the city, a fearful sound in the night like a howling in the wires, or an unpleasant knotting in the stomach as we pass an abandoned house. It will cease when it becomes instead like the glinting of the sun on white-washed stone above the neat green grass of the cemeteries, just another comfortable part of who we are.
First posted Oct. 5, 2006 on Wet Bank Guide.
Daydream Believer April 8, 2013Posted by Mark Folse in A Fiction, Shield of Beauty, The Narrative, The Typist, Toulouse Street.
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The tragic, formulaic sitcom of my life, as viewed with excessive empathy which renders too much of comedy painful. [I watched Synechdoche, N.Y. several times before someone pointed out it was a dark comedy.] Swallowing the draft of poison every day until I become invincible. Possible side effects include madness and sharing too much in writing.
“You give me a reason to live
You give me a reason to live
You give me a reason to live…”
— “You Can Keep Your Hat On”
Jumping the Groove October 22, 2012Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, Fortin Street, Jazz, New Orleans, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Ali Jackson, Snug Harbor, Victor Goines
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like a skittering stylus, a warp in the musical continuum when even the moderately sophisticated listener who is not a player loses connection to the time, the drummer Ali Jackson’s soft foot on the bass drum and his mad, scattering drum licks like the branches of lightning in a duo with Victor Goines’ tenor, playing inside the time that lifts the listener outside of the time, outside of Time entirely, into a void bright as stage light with only two voices, reed and drum, murmurs of appreciation and cocktail clink muted to zero, everything not born of breath and stick muted to zero, the players trading off one to the other, trafficking in time on a wavelength undefined by sine and cosine, mind to mind, instrument to instrument. When great players recalibrate time your body, unnoticed, still dies cell by cell but your mind is briefly illumined by the infinite, your life not longer but broader, your personal event horizon expanding in a perfect sphere to encompass everything which, in that moment, is not, the Big Bang and Gabriel’s horn reconciled.
The Blooming New January 1, 2012Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, Shield of Beauty, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
Tags: fireworks, Lakeview, New Years
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The highest of the downtown fireworks were just barely visible through the trees, but that hardly mattered. Lakeview resounded with something like the sounds of battle, a steady crackling like rifle fire and the wump and burst of artillery and the sky was alive with rockets and star shells, the bang whoosh snap pop hiss of burning metallic blossoms in the dark, dissolving into columns of smoke hanging hesitant in the sky then rushing past like a crowd of ghosts fleeing the ecstatic mayhem.
Lakeview announces to the mob that they have no need to crush themselves into Jackson Square but can drive to Gretna and peel off the hundreds to load their car with all the fireworks they need. I suspect they do not know the history of fireworks but as I stand in the street and watch the ancient Chinese art of lifting fiery flowers into heavens, inadvertently hoisting Sun Ra’s shield of beauty, and with these exuberant explosions of Li Tian’s gung pow simultaneously driving away the smoky ghosts and lingering demons of the old year, clearing the air for the new just as last night’s rain washed the new day clean of the last remnants of the old. I sit on the stoop of the backyard smoking and listen to the bells of Holy Rosary and they seem to ring with a clarity not explained by simple tricks of atmospherics. After last night’s purgative pyrotechnics the bells sound not to drive away but to draw together their faithful for the celebration of the old magic, the rite of transubstantiation.
Two crows fly over at a diagonal of the line between the church and their crossing severs ties to the past. The spell is reversed: flesh into bread, blood into wine, the labor and reward of a life moving forward, outdistancing the past. I feel like Scrooge reformed, want to rush into the streets wishing everyone a Happy New Year.
Thank you Lakeview and to everyone, without reservation or exemptions, a Happy New Year.
This Day a Child Is Born December 25, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in cryptic envelopment, New Orleans, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street, Xmas, Yule.
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For, Lo! today a child is born in the East and her name is Rebecca and her name is Azra. His name is Mohamed and his name is David. His name is Kripalu and her name is Yasmin. His name is Kibwe and her name is Ngozi. Her name is Lian and his name is Chao.
And farther East, across the Pacific which means peace, where East meets West and the circle is closed, her name is Maria and his name is Jesús .
Wise men honor them all.
May the peace of the gods of their names be upon them.
A Long Winter’s Nap December 24, 2011Posted by Mark Folse in 504ever, A Fiction, Dancing Bear, NOLA, peace, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street, Xmas, Yule.
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Toulouse Street is now on holiday autopilot until the eggnog is gone. I’ve posted a few of these before but we all have our own old chestnuts to roast and the one original story is rewritten and I think improved.
The sun has closed it’s circle and is born again. As we gather around the fire with our circle of family and friends to tell the old stories may it’s waxing light warm the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike.
Village Ghetto Land December 8, 2010Posted by Mark Folse in Dancing Bear, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Rebirth, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
Tags: Songs in the Key of Life, Steve Wonder, Village Ghetto Land
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It has probably been 20 years since I last heard this song. I think I still have my vinyl but it’s somewhere I’m not, as is the turntable, or I might have played that record to death last night instead of climbing into bed at six to sleep off a burgeoning cold. It puts me in mind of Sun Ra’s words about lifting the Shield of Beauty against all the ugly of the world. I think of Stevie Wonder and Rahsaan Roland Kirk but the image of the blind seer has been with us since humanity first learned to tell stories. Just ask Tiresias should you be (un)lucky enough to find yourself in a position to ask.
I have very eclectic taste in music, but when I offered my son a copy of spoken word artist Katalyst’s CD he told me he’d been listening to gansta rap, something I have no use for. I was a professional propagandist too long to not take seriously the impact of glorifying violence, misogyny and death, and the evidence can be found all to often on the streets of New Orleans,sometimes lying cold in a pool of blood. This song is taken from the same mean streets, changed only since the 1970s by the drugs of choice and the efficiency of the weapons and the demolition of everyone’s momma’s house in favor of Urban Renewal (remember how well that worked in the Sixties and Seventies).
So somewhere here at the midpoint between Thanksgiving and Xmas, when most people are too busy at the orgy of shopping and parties to consider what these holidays are about, too deeply enmeshed in their traditional Xian faith to see the turning of the solar year as a time to stop and think about what those holidays tell them about the world, about the cyclical rebirth of the world and what opportunities that presents (think New Year’s resolutions), to sated by celebration to think back on all the parables of the Carpenter they’ve snoozed through the rest of the year, along comes this song and perhaps if they hear it, it will hopefully stop them in their tracks for a minute and give them pause.
I think I may buy a stack of those mini-CDs and give everyone I know this Christmas a single (with an A and B side of course) of this song and The Rebel Jesus (which I’m bound to post up here before too long).
I Am Upright April 13, 2010Posted by Mark Folse in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Poetry, Shield of Beauty.
Tags: Moose Jackson, Rising Tide, Treme
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Somewhere at the confluence of Treme, wage slavery and poetry this popped into my head as I struggle through my typically dysfuntional morning. I can’t get a link on here because the Counting House fails to understand the business necessity of dialing out to MySpace for quick dip in the pool of sanity, prefering I go get more coffee. I made green tea instead, and popped Sanctuary: Music from a Zen Garden into the laptop, and turned it on over the speakers (workspace etiquette rules? in a knife fight?) to try to drown out the movers wrapping two dozen computers and monitors in brown paper and strapping tape in the walkway right outside my cube while I try to stuff 10 hours of work into an eight hour day without violating Generally Accepted Accounting Rules.
I used this quote to open my panel on the State of New Orleans Culture at last year’s Rising Tide, and it seems to belong in the cloud diagram of thoughts Treme is drawing on the inside of my skull. I need to get them out of my copy of Visio, as I need it for work.
I am not all right but I am upright. I am here, a warm body, clinking glasses with the dead.”
–O’Neil’s Lament, by NOLA Performance Poet Moose Jackson
P.S. Yes I managed to figure out how to get a link in here. Now back to work before someone comes down to supervise the packers and notices what I’m typing.
P.P.S. Must turn up the Japanese flute music a little louder to get the words Must Stop Thinking About Tomorrow to the Fleetwood Mac tune out of my head. Yes, I know those aren’t the right words.
When there is no sun February 4, 2009Posted by Mark Folse in Jazz, music, New Orleans, NOLA, Shield of Beauty, Toulouse Street.
Tags: Saturn, Sun Ra
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As we crawl over the finish line of what I lately think of as “slump day” rather than “hump day”, here’s a soothing sea of darkness for travelers to the outer planets and other Odd folks, courtesy of the one and only man from Saturn.