Monday, May 23, 2011

Re-BirthDay in New Orleans

It's my birthday today. Apparently, the tradition here is to pin a dollar to your shirt on your birthday, so others can know its your day and, if they are so inclined, can pin another dollar there, to, as my friend eloquently put it, "make sure you stay drunk."

In the midst of a monthlong retreat, of sorts, I woke up to birthday wishes - electronic, postal, and face-to-face. My mom and friend are here to help me celebrate. The air is balmy, the birds fill the air with sound, as do the garbage trucks, workers, tourists, boats, and the cathedral. I'm sunburned from a day on the bayou listening to great music yesterday. And today I truly hit that next great decade of my life: the 40's.

I admit I came here in the hopes that I'd experience a rebirth. A rebirth of hope, of ownership of my own life, of joy. I didn't have many expectations coming here, but I think I did expect to somehow channel a different part of my personality, the one that's always the life of the party, always knows the right thing to say and do, and is never bored, cranky, sad, or drinks or eats too much. I wanted to rediscover self-care, wanted to recommit to getting physically active, eating well, and taking care of my body and psyche. It's a funny place to do that, New Orleans, the center of debauchery. But for me it's never been about the parties, but about the deeper, darker, more complex nature of this town. OK, and somewhat the parties.

I have been meditating regularly, doing yoga almost every day (well, until my visitors came, but now I'm still planning to do it three times this week) have been talking to people, have been writing and thinking, pondering and simply being. But, of course the mantra of "wherever you go there you are" is true. My personality, I have discovered from this trip, is what it is. My lesson is to be grateful, compassionate, and loving of who I actually am, in all my complexity, and not wish to be different than I am. 

I feel very lucky: to have family and friends who want to celebrate with me, to have people I barely know and have just met sending me birthday wishes (Thanks, Facebook!), to have a friend who sent me a real physical card to my New Orleans address, to have my physical health, my insight, and my childlike wonder. I even feel grateful, in a strange way, that my heart is still tangled and knotted so deeply into a situation back home that I recently came to the conclusion that I might as well just accept that I can never extricate myself, and to learn to live my life in spite of this. Being able to open my heart is a gift, even if the outcome is messy and frequently difficult.

Thank you to everyone who has (and will) make my birthday a special one. Be well, happy, and heartful. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Home is Where the Heart is

One of the reasons I wanted to live in New Orleans for several weeks rather than simply visit it for a week or so is that I don't think you can really know a place until you've experienced the actual rhythm of life there, including the things that might make you grumble. In New Orleans, in an apartment rather than a hotel room, on a residential street rather than in a tourist zone, I already feel at home.

Yesterday morning, the jackhammer at the construction site around the corner started up at 7:30 am as the workers tried to beat the coming heat. Sitting here today, writing in my apartment at noon, the sounds of construction just, blissfully, stopped for lunch. if I was in a hotel room, I might complain to someone, or changed rooms. But as a resident, even if just a transient one (is that an oxymoron?) it's just part of the scene. The hotel workers walk by at all hours of the day and night, their talk loud and often disgruntled, punctuated by loud laughter that bounces off the buildings. Someone was fighting on the street corner last night, late, as I sat,  exhausted and weirdly achy after taking the commuter ferry across the river to Algiers and back under a bloated, full red moon. My companions on the ferry were young black men transfixed by their iPhones, and middle-aged people of various ethnicities coming home from working in the city.

Until today, the days have been cooler than I've expected here, but they're warming up again. The wind of the last three or four days has died down. It's expected to get sultry here, every day warmer than the next. If I was only here for a week, I'd have been sorely disappointed in the sweater weather, but with a few more weeks to go, I'm enjoying experiencing the changes in the weather, the way the clouds are different every day, the way the thunderstorm swept through on Friday and was cleared out by the afternoon, and the air became sparkly and crystalline.

These days, I think about what to cook for myself rather than where to go and eat. I clean my own dishes and bathroom,  make my own bed, and if I want clean clothes, I go to a laundromat. I sometimes feel like connecting and sometimes don't, and I sometimes get bored, or sad, or tired, or too lethargic to go out. I walk familiar streets now, to cafes where I know I can get internet and good coffee. I waste too much time on Facebook and e-mail because I'm procrastinating on my job. Just like at home.

The day before yesterday, I felt depressed and tired the whole day, and spent it in my apartment, napping, canceling plans to meet up with people. I went to bed early and didn't sleep well. I listened to the street sounds and, as the sky lightened, to the sounds of the sparrows changing guard with the nighthawks. In the morning, I felt better - even happy -  and spent the day connecting with the people around me. Life is like that, isn't it? Nothing if not changeable.

When we live somewhere, we have these times when there is no escape from real life, and when distractions don't seem to work, times when we feel productive and energetic and times when we feel lethargic and down. Our lives have schedules, but they're not as full of exciting, new things as they are when we're tourists. Here, I make plans to go far afield, to go to places the locals go. The museum, neighborhood eateries and bars, art galleries. I explore the place the way someone would who had just moved here. I look for places to feel comfortable, rather than distracted, places to visit again or places that teach me something. I make note of the trolley routes, the bus schedules. I recognize people on the streets, even if they don't yet recognize me. I consider helping the tourist couple looking at their map, but then realize that I don't actually live here, and might very well not be able to help them. After all, I'm still not entirely sure of the order of the streets here. I laugh at myself for becoming so quickly acclimated to this place. I think about never going back, but I know that that's an impossibility.

A new friend yesterday suggested that I split my time between here and my other home. That would, perhaps be the perfect solution, for how can we get bored with the routines of home if we have two homes? I asked him how I was supposed to do that, and he, a native of Alexandria, Egypt, who came here sight unseen ten years ago and worked his way up from dishwasher to owning his own store, just shrugged, smiled and took a drag of his hookah. I suppose that means there's always a way.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

New Orleans Aria

Sunshine, breeze, music, shouted voices from below, the clatter of horse-drawn wagons, church bells in the morning. This is my experience sitting in my third-story apartment on Burgundy Street in New Orleans, with the breeze wafting in through the sheer curtains, and the mockingbirds and sparrows creating the soundtrack to the day. In the mornings, meditation, yoga, coffee, toasted bagel and fruit, writing. In the afternoons, wandering through the narrow, pungent streets, perhaps doing errands, finding an internet cafĂ© to check e-mail and research the city,  or heading out to some site or another (today I think it will be the art museum at City Park, and then a food festival at Liuzza’s restaurant, then, later, free swing dance lessons, perhaps with a new friend).

In the early evening, as the shadows lengthen, a drink in a bar, perhaps some shopping, and then sitting by the great muddy river, higher now that the northern floodwaters are reaching the sea, people-watching or just meditating. Then dinner at home, watching the sunlight redden the rooftops of the Quarter, finally fading to darkness. Then it’s out to hear the night sounds: music, loud laughter, the clack-clack of the shoes of well-dressed ladies, similar to the clippity-clop of horse’s hooves pulling the tourist wagons. Then to sleep in my room under the eaves with its one small, dusty window looking out over an old loquat tree, lights from the street below dappling the ceiling.

It’s been an intense time, actually. As Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say, “wherever you go, there you are.” An old relationship keeps rekindling and then dying out spectacularly, like a fire that refuses to be put out. I sit with my own mistakes and patterns, and see his, as well. I grow sad that we can’t get out of the cycle one way or another, or if we can, seemingly it will only be by cutting off all communication. I flirt (pardon the pun) with finding a distraction in the form of a young and life-filled man, but then back off at the last minute, afraid of the emotional repercussions. Sometimes it’s just easier to be alone.

I’m enjoying playing house here in this apartment under the eaves. It was filthy when I moved in. I polished the dark hardwood floors, washed all the sheets and towels,  took down the awful New Orleans cheesy wall art, bought flowers,  and moved things around to better suit my tastes. Now it seems classy and modern, clean and light-filled, with just enough funk to feel like home. I never want to leave it, even though it isn’t exactly well-stocked. There’s not a sharp knife in the place, and I had to go out and buy clothes hangers. But it’s coming together and it’s exactly the type of place I was hoping for. The right place to just be, to get out of old habits and patterns, to re-commit to self-care. 

I’m not socializing as much as I’d hoped to, but the energy just isn’t there. I talk to and e-mail friends back home; I will call my new local friend today and arrange to go dancing. This is enough for me for right now. Slow rhythms of the day, no place I need to be, nobody I need to be with. Just me and a city that I love, music in the air and the warm breeze on my skin. Heaven.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Orleans or Bust

I’m writing this from an airplane. About 4 or 5 months ago, things in my life were so frustrating and intermittently painful that I felt like I had to get away. I had to get out of town. Not just for a weekend or a week, but with enough time to really absorb my new surroundings. With enough time to develop a new facet of myself, the new me that seemed to want desperately to get born, but that couldn’t, surrounded by the same conflicts, friendships, job, house, weather; the same entertainments, the same rituals, the same chores.

the Ninth Ward, courtesy of Brad Pitt
For awhile I’d been waking up bored. Bored with the same schedule, the same pattern. Bored with taking a shower, with feeding the cats, with getting dressed, bored with the same clothes and the same drive to work, and the same tasks once I got there. Don’t get me wrong, I feel extraordinarily lucky in my life. I have a wonderful job, supportive coworkers, a fabulous, supportive, fun family, amazing friends, a great house. Nothing in my life is wrong. But the wanderlust that I used to feel more when I was younger just kept popping up, and going somewhere for a week just didn’t seem like it would cut it. I wanted warm weather. I wanted new faces. I wanted time to settle, time to think. I wanted to get away from certain triggers that reminded me of a difficult time in my life, triggers that I saw every day.

And I finally had a book idea that spoke to me, that sung of my soul. I wanted to have space to work on that project. Finally, something to write that seemed like it could plumb that deep river that flows through me. Something I could sink my teeth into. For over ten years I’d midwived other peoples’ books. Now it was time to birth my own.

For years, my mom and I have talked about renting an apartment for a month or more in New Orleans, one of our favorite places on earth. The first time I visited New Orleans, with my mom, I fell in love with it immediately, as she had. There’s something about the balmy air, the tragic history, the celebratory atmosphere coupled with an absolute, no-bullshit understanding of the fragility of life, that speaks to me. The air breathes music. Spirits inhabit the dark corners. The toxic Mississippi meanders past, telling stories to anyone who will listen, as do many of the people. There are artists here, freaks who could find no other place to call home. The buildings are gorgeous – yet most of them are falling down. Even the most well-kept places have ferns growing out of the walls. It’s like in New Orleans, nature reminds us every day that we’re just specks on Mother Earth’s back. New Orleans reminds us not to get too cocky.
Ninth ward foundation, 2010
When I thought about where I might like to hang my hat, a place that might welcome me – the true me, not just the me I’d learned to show in my familiar haunts – I thought of New Orleans. Of course! A city that could absorb anything, a city where you could always find someone to talk to, even if you would be smart to keep your hand on your wallet during the entire conversation. I’d been visiting New Orleans once or twice a year for about ten years, had come to town to help rebuild after Katrina, in fact, I wrote a love letter to the city here and another one, after Katrina, here. But even though our relationship has changed over time, New Orleans has never grown boring. There’s still so much to learn, like a fascinating lover who never ceases to surprise.

So there it was: my escape plan. I would spend a month in New Orleans. I rented an apartment in the middle of the French Quarter, outside of the tourist path, if that’s even possible in the Quarter. I’ve been talking about and planning the trip for five months. Yesterday, I cleaned my place, watered the plants and the cats. Spoke to my house/catsitters, put everything in its place, tied up loose ends at the office, and when I left my house, taking one last look around to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything, I experienced what I always do before a trip: at the last minute, I thought “Wait, why am I leaving, again? This is such a nice place and a nice life.” Maybe that’s one reason why we travel. To appreciate the places we leave.

Now that it’s really here, I hardly believe it. I’m sitting in a first-class plane seat – the first time I’ve ever done that. I got my first-ever manicure-pedicure yesterday. It’s a week of firsts. Perhaps these will be the firsts of many adventures to come in the next month. I’ll keep you posted. And if any of my readers know of great places (music, food, art, dancing, or just general freakiness) to visit that are off the beaten path, please let me know! I’ll be here until the first week of June.

Friday, May 06, 2011

 An Ode to Frida
 "Toni Morrison said that "the function of freedom is to free someone else." This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won't lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it's important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won't like what you say. It's going to hurt—and it's going to heal."
-- Martha Beck, in an article on

 I read this article at about the same time that I was going through a crisis of faith about my writing. Was my writing, as some have said, too much about my depression, my worries, and my relationships? Am I just too self-obsessed, and is my writing just - if you'll pardon the term - intellectual and emotional masturbation? At the same time as I was worrying about this and reading Oprah (!), I was reading Frida, a biography of Frida Kahlo. It struck me as I pondered if the writing I've done up to this point - as obsessed as it is with love, heartache, pain, emotion, and psycho-spirituality - was just a huge waste of my time, that Frida Kahlo probably heard much the same criticisms about her paintings. Not that I compare myself to Frida Kahlo, necessarily, but it did strike me that my writing is always about my own personal inner experience, as are Frida's paintings, and, similarly to Frida's paintings, my writing doesn't shy away from expressing pain or heartache.

 Nearly all of Frida's critically acclaimed paintings are of herself. They reflect her inner world, what she experienced, her pain, her triumph, her loves, and her dreams. Her paintings are often inscrutable. And her life is as fascinating, if not more so, than her paintings. Frida spent a lot of time and energy creating a persona to present to the world. The clothes and jewelry she wore and how she behaved in public were carefully cultivated. In life, she was complex, magnanimous, passionate, and generous, at least when she was feeling well. People loved her. But she was often in extreme emotional and physical pain, both due to her many illnesses and chronic physical damage from the accident that almost killed her as a teenager, as well as her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera, whom she adored and who, it can be argued, treated her terribly.

And she painted herself obsessively. This is how she told her story.

Clearly, this was a woman who lived mostly in her inner world, who spent a lifetime carefully exploring her psyche, pondering who she was and what her place was in the world. Love - not only the love of Diego but the love of her family, friends, lovers, and animal companions - was of the utmost importance to her. She desperately wanted children but was unable to carry a baby to term due to her physical infirmities. And this pain, anguish, and fixation on love and relationships can be seen in her paintings. So would we consider Frida to be overly obsessed with herself? Do Frida's paintings - and her life - teach us anything about ourselves or the world? Would the world have been better served if Frida had just shut up and "turned that frown upside down", perhaps divorcing Diego for once and for all (the man did have an affair with her sister, for God's Sakes!!) marrying a sweet, quiet bureaucrat and living placidly in the suburbs, whiling away her time washing her husband's socks?

I am certainly no Frida Kahlo, but when I read about her, her experience resonates with me. Her life and loves were epic, and mine are not, but whether she was feeling tortured by pain, love, confusion, or absence, caught between societal expectations and her own soul, or enraptured by the beauty of the natural world, she expressed it. In paintings, in letters, in conversations with those closest to her, she never pretended it wasn't happening.  And now, she's not remembered because she had a bad accident, an amazing unibrow, was a devoted Communist, taught art class,  or kept Diego's house; she's remembered because she was a brave, sensitive, passionate woman who dared to express the most intense pains and joys of her soul and to make them public.She's remembered because she told her story. Fearlessly, relentlessly, and without artifice.

Martha Beck says that our greatest gift to others is to tell our story, and that a heart is not imprisoned by being broken by being silenced. My heart has been broken time and time again, but I refuse to shut up about it. Because I am sensitive to the pains of love, I'm also sensitive to the joys of living. And if I don't paint enough flowers and sunny days with my writing, that's because I know wholeheartedly - the way my lungs know to breathe -  that life is more complex than that. It's not because I don't see it.

Storytelling can happen in so many ways. It happens in the clothes we wear, the persona we present, how we decorate our houses, the gifts we give, and, more obviously, in how we talk about ourselves to ourselves and also to others. In this Facebook age, we're telling our stories more publically than ever before, and I, for one, love it. I'm addicted to Facebook because every time someone posts something, they're adding a new chapter to their story. Frida was criticized in some circles for how she told her story. Too dark, too much pain, too depressing, too personal. But to me, her story inspires me, telling as it does the tale of a woman beset by many pains who nevertheless managed to live a vibrant life full of love and magic. I want to learn from her story - as well as from the stories of everyone around me - how to live that kind of life. And, in my blog and in other ways, I want tell my story, hoping that it will resonate with and teach others. My message? Tell your story, and tell it loud!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead. Really?

I wasn't planning on writing about the death of Osama bin Laden. really, I wasn't. I'm not a political blogger, and I find that the easiest way to polarize people is to talk about politics, and to a lesser degree, religion. I'm aware of the brouhaha about the supposedly "fake" MLK quote which wasn't actually fake, merely misquoted clumsily. On the spectrum of responders to the news of his death, I'm one of the ones who posted the MLK quote and voiced my doubts about whether this one man was ever really why we're at war in the Middle East.

But this post is isn't about how I'm right and the people celebrating in Times Square were wrong. This post is about tolerance and compassion. I never liked the world 'tolerance'. To me it sounds like it's asking us to merely tolerate other peoples' differences, rather than to actively respect and engage with them. But I'm using it here in its meaning of  "respecting others' experiences and opinions without denigrating theirs or defending your own."

I heard that bin Laden had been killed while perusing Facebook. I was immediately (as in, within seconds) fascinated by how people fell into three categories: the "Ra! Ra! USA" camp, the "MLK quote" group, and the quiet ones, who never posted about it at all. My immediate response was to post a status update implying that the wars were never about bin Laden. I got two comments, one that supported me and one that didn't.The person who posted the comment that didn't support my position later deleted it, though I did not respond to it in any way. Within a day, blog posts and articles on his death sprouted up all over the internet,  as happens these days. What has struck me in the few days of reading about this incident is how inflamed people are about it, and how unpopular it is to write anything that brings up uncomfortable questions about his death, or that brings up complex questions about celebrating it. You can see what I mean here, if you read this article on the Huffington Post, about a mindful response to bin Laden's death, and then read the comments. The overwhelming tone of responders is condescending, insulting, and childish. They snipe at the author's square glasses, call him names, take his remarks out of context, and generally act offended that he wrote what he did. People who write comments that support him are also insulted, though they, out of all respondants seem to be trying to hold a middle ground (i.e. "I do not celebrate his death yet I grieve for the thousands of lives he destroyed...")

To me, what bin Laden's death has really shown us is that when humans' emotions are inflamed, they absolutely lose any semblance of common decency, respect, or compassion. Obviously, the internet's level of anonymity doesn't help in that regard. The real enemy here was never Osama bin Laden or Al-Quaeda. The real enemy is our animalistic, knee-jerk, illogical need to create enemies at all, and especially to create them out of others around us who are merely voicing opinions that we do not share. No matter what you feel about the death of this man and the others around him who were killed, I want to ask you one thing: Is it possible to allow others to process their feelings without attempting to prove their feelings wrong?