Thursday, February 22, 2007

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

A Lenten Reflection

I apologize for the delay in posting – personal and professional business has been intense in the past two months! I have been meaning to continue the discussion in the post below, but have been too busy to organize the thoughts for it. Writing a dissertation is like entering into a huge fog from which you are not sure you will emerge (it never lifts – it’s waiting to envelop every unsuspecting person who goes to grad school). Excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission between the prefrontal cortex and basolateral amygdala in response to cues haunts my life right now, and I need positive thoughts and good memories at this time. So instead of a ridiculously long post on the Catholic experience in 2007, I’ll stick my head out a bit and post a reflection on my hometown.

Recently, PBS’ American Experience aired a two hour documentary on New Orleans. Louis Armstrong singing the above title has me thinking. I believe all people remember their childhood in a certain visceral way: tastes, smells, colors, sounds. For me, New Orleans is in pinkish corals, golden yellows, ecru, pale blues, and the dark greens of trees and brownish-grays of moss. It smells like either coffee or a certain staleness that I would realize in adolescence was a sometimes (depending on which way the wind was blowing) pungent combination of cigarette smoke, stale beer, waste, and the accumulation of the latter that’s in the slow-moving, murky Mississippi River that runs through the city.

My parents are from towns north of Lafayette in Acadiana so I never associated gumbo, etouffee or boiled crawfish (certainly not boudin or rice dressing!) with New Orleans food. My parents’ heritage resides in Cajun territory; my sister and I were born in the Creole city. New Orleans’ cuisine was shrimp bisque, bread pudding with whiskey or rum sauce, turtle soup, these wonderful shrimp toast appetizers that a neighbor made, beignets at Café du Monde – none of which my mom cooked for us. And of course po’boys. And the sounds – any brass band, actually any brass instrument, draws me back to New Orleans. I associate hot and humid with New Orleans; the weather-induced slowness is New Orleans too. There’s even a ray of sunlight from a certain angle – about 40 degrees from vertical, with a pale yellow light that becomes golden the closer it gets to the ground – that is New Orleans. So is sitting on the wet green grass under huge cypresses and live oaks covered in moss with mosquito-larva filled water slowly moving by (especially when in City Park, with the Museum of Art only a few paces away).

And then there are the churches. New Orleans is a Catholic city, and has historically fancied herself a European city. Thus, the churches (and there were so many of them in my childhood) are ornate in French or Italian baroque style, statues and paintings larger than life and in Technicolor with gilding everywhere. My sister used to fear a large statue of St. Lucy, holding her huge green eyes on a platter in front of her. There was St. Anne’s Church, where my mom often went to daily Mass and as she’d kneel and pray, I would play with an extra rosary she had that had a strange blue iridescence. Then, my favorite part: the Stations of the Cross, meditated on while crawling up steps on one’s knees. I didn’t do that bit, so eager to reach the Resurrection (at the top of the steps one walked out onto the roof, in the full blaze of that New Orleans’ sun) and then walk back into the darkness of an alcove where Mother Mary was, with votive candles surrounded by blue glass at her feet.

At least, that’s the way I remember it, having left the New Orleans of my childhood at the age of six. We moved back there when I was nearly ten (my parents and sister still live there), but now we lived elsewhere in the metro area and I was older and wiser and the ability of sensory details to make deep imprints had been dampened by the skill of living inside my own head and having what I imagine were heavy intellectual discussions with myself.

But let me assure you, if you haven’t experienced it yourself: nothing is as sharp of a contrast as going from the Carnival season in New Orleans to Lent in New Orleans, with all the repentance hanging heavy in the air. From Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday. For me as a child, it was awful. From Christmas we celebrated straight through ‘til Mardi Gras. I actually think the holiday season in New Orleans may stretch from Halloween to Mardi Gras, and I’m not talking the commercial buying and selling. It’s parties and celebrations, as if we were medieval field workers who just finished seeding the soil for the following spring, and could have festivity after festivity. The week of the Passion was almost a release – finally, something was happening again! Anything was better than the nothingness of Lent (besides mandatory seafood dinners, of course).

That’s one of the many things growing up in New Orleans taught me about Catholic life: to be IN Lent is to be in a certain kind of nothingness, realizing that you don’t deserve what’s good, and that to be alone, truly alone, is the most terrible of things. We are strengthened in community, and sometimes the whole community needs to repent, each on their own and yet together at the same time. As one commentator in the PBS documentary said, in New Orleans everyone is different, but everyone moves to the same rhythm, partaking from the same culture that has been able to incorporate French and Spanish upperclassmen, free blacks, Native Americans, WASPs, German, Irish, and Italian immigrants, and just about anyone else who wanted to add a little to the mix. There’s something here about being Catholic too. But for now, I’d prefer to remember what this time felt like for me as a child, to recover just a bit of the emotional impact the sensory details had on me, and the sense of darkness of this season.


AG said...

Reading back over this a day later, some of my memories sound cliched. Nevertheless, that is how I recall them. At least there's no moonlight and magnolias!

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

Thank you for sharing that.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Yes, I do. And thank you for reminding me.