Nov. 16, 2013: I officiated a civic tree-blessing ceremony on the bayou. We had a real-live fire dancer and Big Chief David Montana led us in singing “Indian Red.” Still can’t believe this really happened. It seems remarkable that someone like me, without any relevant credential, would be invited to do something like this. Many thanks to Jared Zeller et al for pulling this together. And thanks to Michael Homan for taking these photos.
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Nov. 16, 2013: I officiated a civic tree-blessing ceremony on the bayou. We had a real-live fire dancer and Big Chief David Montana led us in singing “Indian Red.” Still can’t believe this really happened. It seems remarkable that someone like me, without any relevant credential, would be invited to do something like this. Many thanks to Jared Zeller et al for pulling this together. And thanks to Michael Homan for taking these photos.
The nearest airport is in Connecticut, so when your plane lands you still have a good long drive to get to Amherst. You talk to the shuttle driver. She has an accent you can’t place, but she’s lived in Massachusetts for at least a decade.
She drops you off at Allen House, a little bed and breakfast you found online. It proves to be a lovingly-done Victorian-era restoration, cozy and charming. The place is booked full of people from all over the world who are here for the same purpose as you. An instant and easy camaraderie springs up between you.
You’re here for the Fifth Annual Conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), which is being held at Amherst College.
You make your way up the street to a noodle shop with a couple fellow travelers for a quick dinner. It’s cold, much colder than New Orleans, but only outdoors. You’re surprised to find that it’s warm and toasty indoors wherever you go. Apparently central heating is to New England what air conditioning is to the Deep South.
Then you walk over to Amherst College campus. The conference begins this evening. After registering at Converse Hall you find your way to Stirn Auditorium.
The ACMHE conference is a little different from other conferences, and that’s evident from the start. The opening plenary begins with silent meditation. There are a couple hundred people packed into the auditorium. Though no one says a word, you feel the power of their presence all the more. You are aware of the potentialities that will unfold over the next 40 hours.
If that wasn’t enough to distinguish this conference as unique, what comes next certainly seals the deal. An extra space has been reserved on the keynote panel. An audience member is randomly selected to fill it.
And so the conference begins. The theme this year is “Integrity of Practice.” The panel considers questions that revolve around this theme. Then the audience members discuss the questions amongst themselves, and finally share their thoughts with the larger group.
The next morning you have breakfast at the Amherst Inn, owned by the same people who run Allen House. The breakfast table serves as an extension of the conference, the conversations of the night before continuing over pancakes and coffee.
Very soon, you’re back on campus for the first of the parallel sessions. There are nine sessions running at the same time, and all the topics look fascinating. How to choose? You find yourself drawn to a session by David Forbes of Brooklyn College/CUNY, with the provocative title, “Contemplative Education and Neoliberalism: A Perfect World Still Requires Radical Action.”
Forbes’ presentation is chock-full of ideas, far more than even a fast-talking New Yorker can cover in the allotted time. He is asking all the right questions. “What is the purpose of contemplative practices in education? Is it enlightenment/awakening and the elimination of greed, ill-will, and delusion for everyone and at all societal levels, or is it a relativistic technology used to improve attention, reduce stress, and gain personal success and productivity in a competitive society?” The conversation that follows is galvanizing.
The morning continues. All the sessions look so promising that you decide to take a cue from the previous night’s panel and select your next session randomly. You end up listening to Ed Sarath from the University of Michigan hold forth on “Integrity of Practice in Meditation and Improvisation Pedagogy.”
You’re stunned to realize that improvisation has been perhaps the most central musical practice throughout world history, except for a period of about 200 years in Europe. This seems to throw light on the state of the modern academy, which even in America tends to be both highly traditional and Eurocentric. But that is changing.
You’ve come here from a historically Black university, so it is with special interest that you attend your next session, “Contemplative Race Theory: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Racial Discourse.” The presenters, Seth Schoen and Rev. Christopher Carter, seem very young. In fact, they are graduate students, and this is their first such presentation.
They present a “compassion practice” which they have developed together, a fairly advanced guided meditation that is grounded in critical race theory. It would seem to be a good way to prepare classes for difficult, sensitive or contentious discussions. They hope to publish on the practice soon. You make a note for future reference.
In the afternoon, there are open space sessions, organized around topics suggested by participants that very morning. You attend a discussion on race, class and gender.
The conversation is heartfelt, respectful yet challenging. You are taken by one participant’s observation that contemplation disrupts her “default modes of being,” which suggests the subtle potential of such practices for subverting engrained social structures.
The theme for the conference is “Integrity of Practice.” But your own personal theme is beginning to emerge. It might be called, “The Joy of Walking Slowly.” You find yourself walking often in the company of two women who walk slowly for different reasons. Karen is walking with a cane. Eileen simply seems to be the sort of person who is never rushed. You find you must make a conscious effort to slow down and stick with their pace, but this seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the conference.
Before dinner on Saturday evening Karen reveals she doesn’t have a sprained ankle or a broken foot. She suffered a life-threatening stroke some while ago. You listen in awe to the story of her recovery, and how her 30-year practice of meditation helped her through a very difficult time.
It’s been a full day. You’re tired. You sleep like a rock that night, for about ten hours, disturbed only by a welcome nocturnal visitation from the B&B’s resident housecat.
Sunday morning begins in much the same manner as Saturday, with conversation around the breakfast table as stimulating as any one of the formal sessions. You walk to campus with Robert-Louis Abrahamson. When learning of your fascination with seasonal progress, he bestows upon you a touching gift: a copy of his own CD and accompanying booklet, Journey Through the Seasons, a cycle of meditations on the five Chinese healing energies.
You’re excited to attend a roundtable discussion on “The Role of Teaching Centers in Introducing and Supporting Contemplative Practices,” convened by your new friend Eileen Abrams.
A nascent faculty development network seems to be emerging. You know from previous experience how powerful this can be, and the exchange of ideas is invigorating. For example, one colleague suggests exploring the connection between contemplative pedagogy and retention rates. It seems like a promising line of inquiry.
But the best has, perhaps, been saved for last. The impromptu student panel was one of the most engaging sessions at the ACMHE conference. This was, in part, an opportunity for faculty to ask students, “What do we need to know from you?”
A number of new connections are made for you. For example: Metacognition is enhanced by meditation. We’ve sponsored workshops on both topics but never drawn that connection. You think to yourself: We should sponsor more student panels at CAT. We have much to learn from our students.
On the ride back to the airport, you find yourself once again conversing with the shuttle driver. He hails from Morocco and is a big fan of the Boston Celtics. As you describe the conference you discover what you’ve learned.
Pedagogy must connect course content to a larger whole; otherwise, we are merely conveying disassociated tidbits of information, quickly “crammed” into short-term memory and just as quickly forgotten. Pedagogy must be meaningful, purposeful, and connected to deep values in order to be effective and transformative. You’re struck by the awe-inspiring scope of this charge. You realize that this domain — the domain of meaning, purpose and values — provides a good working definition of spirituality. These issues are the main concern of many religions. Therefore, in order to be effective, teachers must be on a spiritual path or grounded in a spiritual practice. It’s not something extra, some “value added” proposition. It’s absolutely essential. It’s the core, the foundation of what we do. And it follows that a holistic faculty development program must provide support for the spiritual development of faculty members.
The implications are staggering. However will you communicate this to the folks back home?
Cross-posted at CAT Food (for thought)
I’ve been doing it again: writing elsewhere.
I’ve just finished up a series of six essays for College Contemplative on the topic of “Contemplative Faculty Development.”
- My Story
- Stepping into Silence
- The Transformative Banquet
- Sustaining the Dialog
- What’s Next
Read at your own risk; I apologize in advance for the length.
I wrote these in preparation for the Fifth Annual Conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education where I presented on this same topic. More to come.
How did this shopping cart full of miscellaneous hardware come to be parked in our yard for three months?
Therein lies a tale.
One day in late May, a guy came walking down our street. He started talking to Xy and somehow convinced her to hire him to cut our grass. Before I knew it she had him in the house and she was showing him a broken window pane. Could he fix it?
I scoffed, but I guess he had a way with words because the next thing I knew we’d agreed to hire him to fix the window pane and the drainage under our kitchen sink to boot.
The guy was a bit of a character. Called himself Preacher because he’s a man of God. A fast-talker, but likeable. Charismatic. Slightly tenuous grasp of what is laughingly referred to as “reality.” Seems like I’ve known a few guys like Preacher over the years. I drove him to his house, just a few blocks away, so he could get his tools.
He did fix our drainage, and he cut our grass once or twice. But he also seemed to keep asking for more money, and between Xy and I being generous and not communicating with each other, we ended up paying him more than we should have. He was still “working” on the the window pane project when he showed up one day with this cart load of stuff he got on discount somewhere. He asked if he could stow it in our yard while he ran some other errand.
Then he disappeared.
After three months we were really getting tired of having this cart around. I took this photo with plans of posting it to Freecycle.
But lo and behold, Preacher showed up the very next day. He had been in the hospital. He took the cart with a promise to come back and trim our grass one more time. No charge. He seemed to have forgotten about the window pane entirely.
But that’s fine by me. I wish him well.
I recently read Toby Tyrrell’s new book, On Gaia, which provoked me to write three short essays. The first is a review of the book, and the subsequent two are further ruminations inspired by this reading.
I feel well out of my depth here and welcome your insights.
The traditional gift is china, or diamonds, but we opted for foam.
Let me back up.
Twenty years ago, my mom and dad bought a mattress for Xy and me, a wedding present.
This year, as an anniversary gift to each other, we got ourselves a new mattress. That’s right, we slept on the same mattress for twenty years. It served us well in its day, but that day is past, long past. There was a deep trough where my body used to lie, and we’d flipped and rotated all we could.
It was time for something new. So we got a Sleep Innovations 12-Inch SureTemp Memory Foam Mattress.
It’s awesome, and it was affordable. Many thanks to Brother O’Mara for the recommendation, and for letting us come over to his house and roll around on his bed.
Interestingly enough, this mattress comes with a twenty year warranty. So maybe this will last us until our 40th anniversary.
We promised each other that this mutual gift would fulfill our gifting obligations with regard to our anniversary, but I couldn’t resist one little surprise. I knew that Xy would check her laptop first thing in the morning. I left her a note that said “please check your email.” In her inbox she found a message that said “please watch this video.”
And then she saw this.
NSFW, probably. No one ever saw this video before. It was just sitting on a tape in a shoebox in the closet. Xy had certainly forgotten all about it. But I knew it was there, and I knew this would be the perfect time to edit it up.
I’d had some vague thought that a ten-year follow-up would interesting, but I seem to have lost interest in cocktails.
On the Friday before the equinox, I caught a ride with Daniel Samuels up to the Old Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge. It was built by Huey P. Long in 1930. There was a really cool version of the state seal carved into the fireplace in the library.
But I wasn’t there for the architectural details. I was there for an award luncheon. It was a special honor to meet for the first time the other two finalists in the Louisiana Cox Conserves Heroes contest, Landry Camardelle and Wilma Subra.
There were a lot of people there. Turned out it was also the culmination of the Keep Louisiana Beautiful conference. So we had a great lunch in a big fancy room and a bunch of people got a bunch of awards for a bunch of good work. Meanwhile, as they led up to the Cox Conserves Heroes Award, I was on pins and needles. Who would win?
Wilma and Landry certainly had inspiring stories of their own, but since the winner was chosen by an online vote, I knew that it would come down to who had waged the most effective internet campaign. I thought I had a good shot because understanding social media is part of my job. I’d been posting on on various networks daily, begging for votes and asking people to share the link in hopes of expanding my reach.
And, in the end, it worked. I won.
But really I should say: We won.
Sure, I got my little moment of glory, and that was sweet and euphoric and extremely gratifying to my always-hungry ego. But the big $10,000 check isn’t for me. It’s for Friends of Lafitte Corridor. Exactly how they’ll use the money, I don’t know. Perhaps it will go toward hiring an Executive Director. That would be a major boost toward FOLC’s mission of building, programming and promoting the Lafitte Greenway. The other finalists got some money for their causes as well, but they both agreed it will make an even bigger difference for FOLC.
So that’s a victory for all of us, especially for folks who live in the New Orleans area, but also for anyone who gives a damn about health, sustainability, and a greener future.
Thanks to Cox Communications and the Trust for Public Land for organizing and funding the contest.
Thank you for voting for me. And thank you for allowing me this opportunity to represent such important values as community, ecology, and good old-fashioned grassroots organizing.
For this, I am grateful.
Long Time No Read
It’s been a year since I wrote anything here. Did you miss me?
Did you even notice I had stopped? I thought I’d made myself clear when I wrote about stepping into the dark, but apparently I was too subtle. I’ve spoken to a few readers who didn’t understand its implications.
I’m curious to know how many people will even see this, since the site has been fallow for a year. If you’re reading this, please leave a comment and let me know. You may be brief; a simple anonymous “Yo!” will suffice. But say something, won’t you? You don’t even have to read the rest of this article, which is too long anyhow.
I have still been writing lo these many months. I just haven’t been writing here. But I have been writing a lot. Some of it is ephemera: status updates, tweets, comments on blogs and the like; no matter how thoughtful, no matter how substantive, these still feel insubstantial, like chaff that is lost in the breeze.
I had some essays published in a series of e-book anthologies called Voices from the Grain, but that seems to be defunct now, or dormant. You can read my articles for Yule, Ostara, and Beltane. See also my article for Candlemas which was published in a different venue because the ebook didn’t “make.”
But mainly I have been attempting to focus on fiction writing. It’s very different, and hard work to boot, but I’m hopeful that eventually I will have something of substance, a story worth reading by my own standards at least. Maybe, someday, I’ll have something to share.
In the meantime, this is surely an auspicious time for an update in the classic confessional style which I’ve always employed here. It’s the autumnal equinox again. It’s a good time for reflection and introspection. Also, the equinox marks the point at which I stopped writing here a year ago.
Since then I’ve continued to celebrate the eight holidays that make the Wheel of the Year, finding them a rich field of inquiry. They open up so many questions. They offer a continuous series of opportunities to reflect on cherished values and the deep mysteries attendant to our place in the cosmos.
There are many ways to interpret the Wheel. For example, the solstices divide the year into halves. From the winter solstice to the summer solstice the days get longer; from the summer solstice to the winter solstice the days get shorter. So in terms of light, the year has a waxing half and a waning half. The holidays in the waxing half celebrate desire, while the harvest festivals in the waning half are a time for gratitude. That’s one way to look at it.
The Wheel recapitulates the life cycle. I’m somewhere past the summer solstice of my life, moving into the cross-quarter: my Lammas, my Lughnasa. Perhaps I’m there now, perhaps I’m still approaching. Perhaps that’s why that holiday has resonated so deeply in my soul and been so precious to me. Of course we may experience gratitude and desire every day, throughout the year and throughout our lives, but I feel an undeniable sense of passage, of tipping forward. Gratitude comes easier to me now. The flames of desire and ambition still burn, but it takes a little more effort to keep them stoked. I remember being young. This feels different.
And now it’s time once again for the equinox, the second of the three harvest celebrations. I associate this holiday with gratitude, balance, and the mysteries of darkness. Without darkness there is no wonder. For this, I am grateful. I have not yet reached the autumnal equinox of my life. At least, I don’t think so. I’m looking forward to it with hope and trepidation. I’m sure not in any rush.
Bring the Crisis
I’ve come to understand my recent spiritual crisis as a transition between life-stages. We hear a lot about the midlife crisis, spoken in ominous tones, as if it’s a singular discrete event unique to the middle years, as if it’s something dreadful. But that’s not quite accurate on either count. What is life but a series of crises? And what is a crisis but a change, an opportunity? Without crisis there is only stasis. If we wish to grow, to develop as human beings, to reach our potential, then we should embrace the crisis.
That’s what I’ve done. That’s what I’m doing. My personal crisis has been documented in my writings here over the last several years. I’m happy to report that the crisis is ongoing. I feel that I have undergone, and am still undergoing, a spiritual revolution. It has been a process of transforming the self which seemed to begin almost spontaneously. At some point I recognized it, grabbed it with both hands, and started shaping it myself, to keep it going, and to guide it.
It has been, for the most part, a wonderful and joyous thing, shot through with strains of bittersweet and melancholy. But then my whole life has been that way. It’s just part of my character, part of my way of experiencing the world. But these recent years have been particularly joyous.
Some may wonder what I’m even talking about. It might help to pull this out of the abstract and give some concrete examples of changes that have manifested in my life. These are things that have taken root over the last four years or so:
- I meditate daily. Or almost daily. Certainly on workdays. It’s hard for me to articulate how this affects my life. I’m not sure if meditation is the catalyst for other changes, or the result. Most likely I suppose it’s an iterative process. Meditation is part of my practice that deepens and strengthens and integrates other aspects of my life. You hear people talk about meditation as peaceful and relaxing, and so it can be, but I also think it’s much more than that.
- I stopped drinking. I noticed I was drinking more and more but enjoying it less and less. Maybe years of steady moderate-to-heavy drinking changed my body chemistry. Maybe I’ve come to cherish certain aspects of cognition which drinking does not promote. Maybe it’s a combination of the two or something else entirely. I can only say I felt the need to quit, so I did, as of Mardi Gras this year. I’m not a strict teetotaler, but almost. I’ve gone from drinking every evening to drinking only on special occasions, at intervals of a month or two. And usually after those special occasions I wonder, “Why do I bother?” Alcohol is rapidly losing its appeal.
- I’ve made changes to my diet. A couple years ago I made a conscious effort to start eating less, to cultivate a sense of hunger. I started to place a big emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, not just for me but for my family. More recently, after watching Forks Over Knives, Xy and I decided to stop buying bird and mammal meat. Our three motivating factors might be labelled health, earth, and ethics: that is, a healthier diet, a lighter impact on the planet, and the aspiration to inflict less cruelty on other living beings. (We agreed we might make an exception for animals raised in a more humane fashion, but we haven’t actually acted on that.) We still eat a lot of fish, though, and I find myself eating other meat occasionally when it’s already bought and paid for by someone else.
- I have gotten into a regular exercise program. I started jogging. Then I added yoga. Then calisthenics. I would rotate through these three daily, then rest for a day and start over. I did that for about a year. Combined with the lack of alcohol and dietary changes, I lost about 25 lbs. over the past two years. Now I’m actively trying to build muscle mass through eating a high-calorie, balanced diet and lifting weights four days a week.
I can hear the objection: You’re just on a self-improvement kick. It’s nothing more profound than that. Further, one might note that these changes are all very self-centered. And it’s true that many of my recent efforts have had an intensely inward focus. Yet despite appearances I do actually have a social conscience. It’s not all about me. In fact, my relations with others, my family in particular, have been a prime motivator.
Since I stopped writing here, during my daughter’s first year at her new school, I found myself visiting her classroom repeatedly to celebrate the Wheel with them. Without planning it, I developed a miniature curriculum around these seasonal holidays, one part science, one part cultural awareness, and one part spiritual development. I read them books about the solstices and equinoxes, gave demonstrations with oranges and lamps, baked treats for them, told them stories and did rituals. I had a blast and I think the kids enjoyed it too.
My interests in these matters have also driven changes in my professional life. I’m no longer strictly a technical/creative specialist. In my role as a faculty developer, I now make an effort to recognize the whole person. My repertoire has expanded to include subjects like time management and work-life balance. I regularly facilitate discussions on sensitive topics. I’ve conducted workshops on mindfulness and other types of meditation. I wrote a grant that sent three faculty members to a week-long seminar contemplative pedagogy, and we have formed a learning community here on campus. Last week, we met in the Meditation Room in the newly constructed Katharine Drexel Chapel. A decade ago I would never have imagined this.
So what’s it all about? You could say I got religion, I suppose. Sometimes that’s what I call it. But our society has such strange ideas about religion. My approach, devoid of supernatural notions, might be seen as secular. Sometimes that label seems safer. I can only report that my experience of life over these last years has been suffused with a sense of wonder, awe, humility and love.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say at the root is the simple idea that I am part of a larger whole. And so are you, Dear Reader. We are all children of the Earth.
Does the Earth constitute a coherent whole, a self-sustaining system, an organism of sorts? I’m still sorting through the science and philosophy on that question. But whatever the exact nature of Gaia — mythical, archetypal, empirical, fantastical — my heart is filled with reverence for Her. I recognize that all my efforts and motivations spring from Her. She is the source of my very essence. I try each day to participate in Her more fully. For this, I am grateful.
FOLC nominated me for the Louisiana Cox Conserves Heroes program. Now I’m a finalist.
While I’m deeply honored to have gotten this far, I really want to see us win this thing. And that’s a tough challenge. Because I’m competing against some pretty awesome people.
So vote. Sure. That’s the first step.
Then share this link with everyone you can. Use your fancy social media networks or send a good old-fashioned email.
If you know anyone who supports the recovery of New Orleans — anyone who like the idea of a multiuse urban greenway — anyone who likes bicycles and walking — anyone who wants a greener future for our children — please share this with them.
Thanks for your support. And check back here next week for a real update on me and my life.
A year ago I set myself a project, an experiment, a journey, a spiritual quest. I wanted to discover, uncover, delineate and define my religion. I wanted to deepen, strengthen, and integrate everything in my life. I wanted to live with greater intention.
And I wanted it all to happen on a one-year schedule. It sounds pretty silly when I put it like that. But sometimes we need silly conceits to prop up our most serious ambitions.
So anyhow, the year has gone round again. Here we are back at the equinox. The planet keeps revolving around the sun. Our journey is not finished. Not yet.
With my family, I celebrated all the seasonal holidays or sabbats known as the Wheel of the Year.
- The Autumnal Equinox
- The Day of the Dead & Hallowe’en & Samhain, etc.
- The Winter Solstice
- The Vernal Equinox
- May Day
- The Summer Solstice
- And here we are again
I’ve just read back through what I posted here since the last autumnal equinox. I aimed to post with less frequency but greater depth. And I did that, at least for a while. For the first six months, anyhow. I probably would have done better to break some of those massive posts down into sections and post them in serial fashion. But whatever.
It might seem I lost focus over the summer months. I did indeed get distracted by our travels, and the ROX party, and Persephone’s new school, and Isaac. I wrote about those things, but didn’t explicitly integrate them into the narrative of my quest. It would have required a little more effort to make those connections, and I didn’t make that effort. I got lazy.
But there’s more to it. A key piece of the puzzle, for me, was the question of theology. I published an essay on how my thoughts were evolving, but that was extremely tentative and exploratory. I continued to think and work on that over the summer, but I didn’t write about it. The time did not seem ripe, and my thoughts were far from clear.
Finally, a couple weeks ago, things crystallized somewhat. It was not a soul-shattering epiphany. It was more like a few ideas quietly clicking into place. Yet the ramifications are profound, at least on a personal level. I’m now prepared to make a basic statement of belief and identity.
While I’d like to articulate those thoughts, I’m not sure this site is the best venue. I’ve poured my heart out here for the last eight and half years. I think it’s time for a break. I suspect that if I stop writing here, I will be able to funnel that energy into writing something else, somewhere else, and I have some vague ideas about that. I think I’d like to write fiction for a while.
Every year is divided into a light half and a dark half. From now until the vernal equinox, the nights will be longer than the days. Right now we are losing one minute and 47 seconds of light each day. Over the last twelve months, I found I enjoyed the light half of the year more, but that the dark half was more productive. That dark half begins again now, with the autumnal equinox. Glenys Livingstone writes about the autumnal equinox as a time for “stepping into the creative power of the abyss.” So it felt last year. So again this year. New beginnings require old endings. I feel the need to step into the dark awhile, and harvest dreams.
You are fifty-five months old today.
In the past month you rode out your first hurricane. When we decided to stay in place for Isaac, my main worry was that you might have some sort of traumatic experience. We had an interesting talk about about the many faces of Gaia. But the only real tragedy in your mind was that you missed cartoons Saturday morning because we still didn’t have power.
You had a much worse experience one week later. It was just a typical Friday morning, but for some reason you were out of sorts. You didn’t want to get out of bed. You didn’t want to eat breakfast. You didn’t want to go to school. Your mother and I could not discern any cause for your foul mood. You were grumpy and uncooperative. It got ugly. It was truly a morning from hell.
Such moments highlight your usually sunny disposition.
By contrast, allow me to mention one of your finest moments. Our neighbor Olivia Rose turned two recently. You attended her party and gave her a small gift. A short while later you got a thank-you card from Olivia Rose. This inspired you to make her a thank-you card in turn — a thank-you for the thank-you. “And then she’ll send me a thank-you card for that, and then I will send her a thank-you card, and she will send me one and I will send her one and back and forth and back and forth until it runs out.” Meaning the ink in your respective markers.
Oh, and I just wanted to note you are still in the “why” phase. I thought you’d have outgrown it by now, but no. Sometimes I think “why” is your favorite word. It’s not even a question anymore; it’s just something you state in reply to virtually anything. “It’s Tuesday.” Why. “Look, it’s raining.” Why. “Good morning.” Why. And so on.
And now some assorted tidbits.
- “I can tell what people are feeling. Just by touching them. I have more power than grownups.”
- “That lightning made my heart jump!”
- We were listening to a scratchy old Thelemic chant one morning, a recording from 1914: “The Call of the Second Æthyr.” You thought the voice sounded familiar. “That’s you, right Daddy?” No, babe, that’s Aleister Crowley.
- We caught our first flat ont he way to school one morning. We still made it to on time, though, as we got a lift from a neighbor who’s daughter happens to be in the classroom next door to you. Funny thing is we’d never met these folks before, but they live just a couple blocks up the street from us.
- The Saints lost their first game of the season. I said, “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints.” You said, “The Redskins bwhahaha!”
- A morning question: “What do clouds taste like?”
- You invented a new word, “indecorgeous,” but you aren’t sure what it means.
I rented a car and drove west. All by myself. I drove and drove and drove until I got to Austin, Texas. And I thought to myself, how uncharacteristic. I felt like I hadn’t done anything like this before, at least not for a very long time.
There was a reason for this pilgrimage, of course. Over thirty years ago, a woman named Lisa and a man named Brendan began a musical collaboration in Melbourne, Australia. Later they moved to London. For the better part of two decades they made amazing music together under the name Dead Can Dance. Then they broke up in 1998. During all that time, I never heard them, never even knew of them. They got back together for a world tour in 2005, but I was still entirely ignorant. I only discovered them around the time my daughter was born. To say I found their music transformative would be an understatement. They’re the only act in recent memory that I would actually want to see live — and they aren’t even together anymore.
Except now they are. When they announced a new album and a new tour, I bought tickets at the first opportunity. The closest they got to New Orleans was Atlanta. I opted for Austin, which is almost as close, but home to many more friends, even some relatives.
That was some six months ago. Xy thought I was crazy and vehemently disapproved. If Hurricane Isaac had come a week later, we might have evacuated to Austin and everything would have worked out nicely. As it was, we were just getting back to normal and it didn’t feel quite right to run off. I mailed my tickets to PJ in Austin. Then I talked to Xy; she’d had a change of heart and wanted me to go, with her blessing.
So I went. PJ came to see the show with me.
And the show was really good.
After the show we stopped to see some of PJ’s friends and jammed until the wee hours of the morning.
I spent the night at PJ’s house. It was great to see Andrea and the kids.
The next day I drove back home. In total I was only gone 32 hours, I think. I felt bad about burning all that gas just to move my body a thousand miles. If I’d had my act together I might have car-pooled with some other fans. But I’m glad I made the trip.
I recently facilitated a roundtable discussion on parenting, and now I’m gearing up to moderate a parenting panel next Saturday.
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Isaac is gone, but his odor lingers on.
Seriously. There’s a smell in the air, a certain peculiar smell I can’t describe. I’m not sensitive to smells. I often think if I was more tuned in to my sense of smell, I’d have a radically different way of being in the world, more animalistic perhaps and less hyper-rational. I don’t notice many smells. But this smell I do notice. It reminds me of the smell after Katrina, which at the time I thought was all mold and rot. Now I’m not so sure. There was plenty of mold and rot, to be sure, but this is maybe something else that was also in the mix. It sprang up almost immediately after Isaac’s winds died down. There were massive amounts of live oak leaves scattered all over, damp with rain. Could that be the source of the smell? Those leaves don’t decay quickly. But perhaps they have some kind of mold growing on them, there already before they fell. Who knows.
It’s not an unpleasant smell. Not entirely pleasant either. I might say it smells like mold without any mustiness if that makes sense. Fresh mold. I’m trying to invent terms to describe a sensation for which my vocabulary is inadequate. But every time I catch a whiff, it brings back memories from 2005.
How long does a storm last? My boss speculated that people who haven’t lived through such storms don’t understand. The storm itself was only on us for a day and a half, right? But we were watching Isaac since August 21st. Most people around New Orleans lost at least a week of work to Isaac, factoring in the preparation and the subsequent power outages. When I got back in my office, it took a full week of rescheduling and catching up before things got back to what is laughably referred to as “normal” around here. For some, though, “normal” is still a long way off; some offices were compromised by the wind and rain and mold has set in. Remediation is under way.
As of today, two full weeks after Isaac’s landfall, our city streets are still lined with piles of debris, mostly branches and sometimes whole trees that have been cut down to size, stacked and bundled. They sit waiting to be carted off somewhere. (Probably a landfill, more’s the pity.) It’s a massive task and the city just doesn’t have enough crews to get it done quickly. I fully expect there will still be plenty of work remaining to be done in a week’s time. At that point, Isaac will have dominated our attention, or at least impinged upon our collective consciousness, for a full month.
I’m talking about those who weathered the hurricane with minimal impact. For some individuals, some families, some communities, the road to recovery is much longer. For those folks, the consequences of Isaac will linger long after his smell has faded from the street of New Orleans.
It wasn’t until after Labor Day that I passed by the bayou and saw what Isaac had done to my favorite tree.
This is the tree where my daughter got her name back in 2008. Throughout the 2010-2011 school year I stopped at this tree almost daily for a moment of contemplation. This tree survived a lightning strike last year. But I’m afraid Isaac may have dealt the death blow.
When I saw the damage, I was devastated. I embraced the tree and my tears flowed freely.
In the forest such a tree might continue to live for many years, but this tree is in an urban area, on public land, and highly visible. Some time in the last week, the tree was trimmed back and all the dead matter removed. Half the tree is gone now. The trunk remains and one major branch, giving it a lopsided, severely asymmetrical profile.
Will the humans allow it to live? I guess that’s the question. So I called Troy at the Orleans Levee District. He said their policy is not to cut down such a large oak, as long as there is life in it, without special authorization. I contacted his boss to say I want to help in whatever way I can, either to save the tree or to plant a new tree it if this one must be removed.
I’ve also been reflecting on our decision to stay in place for Isaac. Was it the right choice? There’s room for disagreement even in our house. Over the past week Xy has repeated “Never again!” whereas I’ve found myself saying I’m glad we stayed.
So what were the pros and cons of that decision? It’s tempting, though foolish, to look at what actually happened.
For example: On the negative, the winds were kind of unsettling. None of us slept well that first night, when Isaac made his stumbling landfall not once but twice. Our whole house shook. Our house shakes whenever a truck rolls by, but sustained shaking for many hours is worrisome. Also, we were without power for four days. That was the worst of it.
Problem is, any analysis of our decision should be based on risk assessment, on what could have happened. To judge our judgment based on what actually happened is foolish — and irresistible, inevitable. Human nature, I suppose.
A tree could have fallen on our house. But it didn’t.
What’s the worst that might have happened? Here’s one nasty scenario: Hurricanes can spin off tornadoes faster than a late-70s sitcom. In fact Isaac was responsible for some tornadoes in Illinois. Tornadoes, to me, seem like tiny superfast hurricanes, much more unpredictable, highly destructive though much more limited in scope. So, a tornado could have hit our house in just such a way as to make it collapse and kill us all. I have no idea of the statistical likelihood of such an event. It would be interesting to compare that to the risk involved in, say, driving an automobile on the interstate.
In the end, though, it doesn’t come down to a rational analysis of statistical data. As I talked to people about their various plans to evacuate or not, I found a lot of it had to do with their previous experience. The authorities warn us that every storm is different, yet we can’t help comparing to the last one. Some people had a bad time in the evacuation for Ivan, which experience led them to stay for Katrina. Our Gustav evacuation informed our decision for Isaac.
I’m worried that going forward I’ll have an overly rosy memory of Isaac which will tempt me to stay at some point in the future when I really should go.
And so forth. There’s no escape from second-guessing.
I’m still thinking about Isaac. My writing hasn’t been able to keep pace.
They say every storm is unique, and certainly Isaac was very different from Katrina. Yet comparisons are inevitable, despite being problematic. One headline put it this way:
The US Army Corp of Engineers has done a lot of work since the floods of 2005. In monetary terms, it’s something in the neighborhood of $14 billion. I have no idea how many hours of human labor that represents. I still believe we should aim for a higher level of protection. We should build not for a so-called hundred year storm, but for 10,000 year storm, as the Dutch do. But that’s a separate gripe. One story coming out of Isaac is that the work the Corps has actually been tasked with appears to be effective. New Orleans was not flooded by Isaac’s surge.
But immediately outside of these federal flood protection structures, communities did flood. Braithwaite. LaPlace. Slidell. Lots of homes under water. (If you want to help the people who were flooded, please consider making a donation to Beacon of Hope.) A key question is, did our flood protection cause or exacerbate flooding elsewhere? It will take a while for that analysis. But if the answer comes back yes — if the system that keeps my home dry floods someone else’s home — what then, I wonder?
If my recent posts have made it seem like Isaac was all fun and games, well, that only reflects my own personal experience. Other people experienced it differently. If your house flooded or a tree fell on you, for example, your experience was probably pretty negative. Even in our house, we had different experiences. Xy was pretty aggravated by the whole thing.
To honor these divergent experiences, I offer a text message I got from our friend James, after three days without electricity.
Sent: Aug 31, 2012 7:33 PM
I had some punks try 2 break in2 my car last night, then the bar across from me was robbed-where’s the damn power-this city blows-ineptness everywhere! Screw it!
The next evening, a few minutes after we got our power back, we exchanged texts again, and I asked him if he had electricity yet. His reply:
Sent: Sep 1, 2012 9:13 PM
Of course not-maybe by Christmas & I’m sure those cretins @ Entershitgy will charge me an extra fee somehow-they probably will call it a not having power service fee-they suck!
I think his sense of exasperation comes through quite clearly.
Even more succinctly, Karen Gadbois summed up the experience for many:
Time for my nightly shower in the dark then dousing with bug repellant, later I will listen to the drone of a neighbors generator
— Karen Gadbois (@kareng) September 1, 2012
Lots of people had a perfectly miserable time. Some of them still are. And I haven’t even mentioned the flooding.
We lost electrical service to our house for 98 hours. That’s just over four days. And during these four days I discovered something odd.
I sort of liked it.
It feels wrong, saying that when over a hundred thousand of my fellow citizens are still without power. The constant question around the city these days is, “Your lights on yet?” I was at a meeting Sunday, a small group of parents; of the eight of us, five had power; to those other three, I hardly felt like reflecting on how much fun a power outage can be.
Life without electricity is not exactly the Stone Age. We still had running, potable water. We still had gas. Of course, the electrical starter mechanism for our range was out of commission, but most people still know how to light those things manually. Ironically, no electricity means no hot water for us because our tankless water heater depends on it. But cold showers felt better in the heat anyhow.
Ah yes, the heat. That is the biggest complaint for most people. Yet my barber said it best, when he came to remove the plywood from his windows this morning. “Us Americans, we’re used to the AC. But people used to live without it. We’ve just gotten soft.”
I read today about a 90 year old man who died of heat stroke over the holiday weekend. He was in a house in the suburbs without power. I don’t wish to imply that he’d “just gotten soft.” The heat can be dangerous, and any time the power goes out it’s the sick and the elderly who are most at risk.
Still I wonder. Would that man in Marrero still be alive if he’d been living a hundred years ago, before air conditioning?
Much of our old building stock reflects a different way of living, designed for comfort in this warm climate. We now say these buildings are energy inefficient, but actually people consumed far less energy a century ago. Contemporary architecture strives for efficiency of a different sort. The modern ideal is to consume massive amounts, then reduce by 10% and call that efficiency.
In a blackout we recover some of the efficiency built into our older homes. I experienced this during our days without power. It was markedly more comfortable in our living-dining rooms, where the ceilings are super high by modern standards.
I often hear people say they don’t like to eat as much in the summer when it’s blazing hot. I’ve said it myself. Yet I’ve noticed my actions rarely match this assertion. With constant climate control, we hardly feel the heat. Our so-called epidemic of obesity — could that be another electrically powered way we’re getting soft?
No electricity means taking the night more seriously. It gets dark, probably a good time to go to bed. Modern urbanites are chronically sleep-deprived. Getting into the natural rhythm of the sun is not such a bad idea. Besides, reading by oil lamp is kind of romantic. Over our four days of blackout I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Reading about an icy cold planet helped take my mind off the heat. But I digress.
An interesting thing about this outage was that we still enjoyed some benefits of electricity. We lived in walking distance of several electrical “islands.” We visited Brocato’s for a treat one night, and I spent an afternoon drinking beer at the Mid-City Yacht Club while Michael Homan watched the Nebraska game. Also the cell towers were still up, so I was able to use my phone to access the web. Twitter is a great source of info in disasters. When the battery ran out, I recharged it in the car. I’m sure that charging batteries off a combustion vehicle is not the most efficient means, but it worked.
One of my favorite albums is “Who Needs Electricity?” by Operation: Cliff Clavin. It’s essentially an acoustic album for a band with an amped-up electric sound, made as the principle players transitioned into more of a folk-punk thing. Rather than call it “unplugged” or some derivative of MTV’s famous series, they frame the album as campfire songs for after the collapse of civilization. It’s a brilliant conceit, and the songs ain’t bad either.
I’ve always regarded anarcho-primitivism with a jaundiced eye, while at the same time feeling they’re right about some things. The revelations of the week just past seem to bear that out.
I’m not against electricity. I like it. But the truth is we could get by using a lot less of it, and still maintain a high quality of life. In many ways we’d be better off.