Category Archives: Journal

catching up

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The transition from being on the river to being here at Montalvo, and the various adventures that happened in between the two places, has definitely broken my posting rhythm, and I MISS being here with you! Funny how this blog feels like an actual place to me, different from email or phone or Facebook or whatever other forms of communication we might use together. I want to see if we can continue the conversation here, although my guess is that it will be different now that I’m in one place for a while and writing music again.

Before I do anything else, I want to just give you a short picture of where I’ve been for the last several weeks.

Mac and I had a few more days in New Orleans after my previous post, and we heard lots of wonderful music on Frenchman Street and at the weekend Gumbo Festival in a converted funeral parlor, we went to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church (with Linda Norton) and heard the Treme Brass Band again at the parish Christmas party, visited the African-American Museum and the Port of New Orleans and Brad Pitt’s new houses in the Ninth Ward, hung out with Scotty Heron, who generously sheltered us from the rain for a few nights, cheered for the Saints in R Bar, ate incredible meals and more beignets and coffee than should be legal, and altogether had an excellent time. Here are a very few photos.

On the 14th, I dropped Mac off at the airport and headed back north to Vicksburg, where I stayed with excellent Chris Porter for a couple of days while waiting for the M/V Charles F. Detmar, Jr. to arrive. My friend David Greer had arranged for me to ride this towboat with Captain Richard “Bear” Gettelfinger. It was totally amazing, a completely different way to experience the river than a kayak, that’s for sure! I want to write more about this experience later, but for now, here are a few pictures, along with a million thanks to Bear and his crew, and to David for setting the trip up for me.

I got off the towboat Saturday night back in Vicksburg (we had gone down to just above Baton Rouge and back in four days), watched the Saints lose, went to Episcopal Church in Vicksburg Sunday morning and met the fabulous and inimitable Ms. Ike, and then a whole crew of us went sailing Sunday afternoon on a lake just north of Vicksburg, stopping at the Reverend Dennis’ wonderful artwork/church on the way. (More info about Reverend Dennis here.) We ended up with five women on the boat, a slightly different crew than the eleven men of the Charlie Detmar(!)

My friend Cori Ellison arrived from NYC on Monday night, and we headed west on Tuesday, stopping for two nights (so we could go dancing) in glorious Lafayette, LA with Chris’ excellent friend Marie, about which I want to write more, and then through Texas, where I got a chance to paddle on the Rio Grande at Big Bend National Park, totally great, and then west through Arizona, staying a night in Sonoita with Cori’s friend Saba, and finally arriving at Montalvo on 30 December.

I’ve been here ever since. It is exceedingly strange to sleep indoors in the same bed every night, to unpack my books from the trunk of the car and put them on an actual bookshelf, to shower every day, to have constant access to electricity and running water and refrigeration and high speed internet.

It’s wonderful here, a great place to make this transition, and I am getting started on sorting through all the materials and ideas I want to explore for the next many months (years?), but my first priority is to get my voice and fingers working because I have a solo show at Stanford on 4 February, and I have not even been thinking about singing or playing or talking or manipulating electronics for many months now.

I am absolutely loving getting up and practicing every day, perhaps for the first time in my life. I used to find practicing boring, but I think these many months of paddling or biking for six hours at a stretch taught me something I never really understood before about how the physical and the spiritual (and the emotional and the intellectual for that matter) can be intertwined. Long distance paddling or biking just naturally becomes a meditation: I’m out in nature, I know going to be at it all day so I’m not overexerting myself to exhaustion, and something happens to my mind: I’m focussing, but also relaxed; I’m concentrating on the task at hand, but my mind is simultaneously free to notice stuff.

When she was visiting me in Iowa in late October during the lost gear adventure, my friend Rafaela mentioned something in her wonderfully low key and wise way about Jung’s four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition, and how doing this journey might be allowing me to shift my own internal balance of the four. I heard what she said at the time, but it is only now when I sit down to play and sing each morning that I realize the river has taught me a marvelous lesson without my even being aware it was happening. I am delighted and grateful.

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when the saints

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Mac and I decided it was somehow necessary to go all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, but rather than following the official channel of the Mississippi River, the road for which reportedly peters out in a sort of industrial place, we chose to drive down to Grand Isle. Famous as the location of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is also known as one of the great fishing spots in the world, and has a great beachfront state park, which we had nearly to ourselves.

It truly feels like the edge of the world. All the structures are built on stilts, on shifting sands that will never be stable. You drive for a couple of hours south through land that becomes more and more intermingled with water, until you are on a little spit of land surrounded by water on all sides. The map of this whole area looks like beautiful lacework. It’s the opposite of the Greek islands, which feel massive and immovable, where the warm and clear waters of the Mediterranean feel like your friend and the earth is dry and stony and unforgiving. Here the water is poised to wash away the tentative stretches of sand and swamp at any moment, and you feel oddly protective of every spit of land that can support life, fragile and wet and temporary as it all is.

Mac and I took a walk on the parts of the path that didn’t require waders, and I found a bird skeleton and took the beautiful curve of the main wing bone as a memento of the final official day of this trip.

On the way home from dinner I hit a pothole badly enough to blow out a front tire, so the next day I cleaned and reorganized the entire car while waiting for AAA to come and change it. Spreading everything out to dry in the December summer sun and warmth, tidying the papers and maps and books that had been floating around the car for months felt really great: the first step of Phase 2, somehow!

We got back to New Orleans in the late afternoon, set up camp at St. Bernard State Park just east of town (the area that was purposely flooded by dynamiting the levee in the 1927 flood), and drove into the city and sampled some live music in the bars along Frenchman Street and then headed over to the Candlelight Lounge, home of the Treme Brass Band. A really great night of music and dancing, totally local in the best sense, listening to the music alone couldn’t possibly give you the full sense of the whole scene, the whole feel, which is urban, cosmopolitan in all the ways that make cities so great. Everyone is radically individual, the small-town pressure to conform is non-existent, instead, it is as if every person is carving out a unique space for their own fierce selfhood, so that the coming-together, the community that is woven together by these hundred souls in a little club on a dark street in the old neighborhood, the birthplace of jazz, is made of a hundred different histories and styles and stories and reasons for being there, united in that precise unrepeatable moment in time and space, dancing together to the music that connects us, the music that will never end.

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mac is back!

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I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.

I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!

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We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.

On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.

Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.

We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!

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knowing it when you see it

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The ferry at New Roads was closed, so I had to drive down to the bridge at Baton Rouge and then back up to St. Francisville, where I found an RV Park right next to the Audubon History Site and talked Bill the owner into letting me set up my hammock in the back. Bill introduced me to Luke, a delightful man, a biker (of both kinds) who turned out to be the ideal host and companion for exploring St. Francisville. He shares my affection for history and churches of both the natural and man-made kinds, and because he has biked all the roads around here, he really knows where all the good stuff is. He also took me out for really excellent meals: you can taste the Cajun influence already, that’s for sure!

This RV park is a whole different experience than staying in a state park. Most of the people here are contract workers building bridges and roads nearby, so no-one is on vacation. Luke is the exception: he is retired, lives in Baton Rouge, and his trailer here functions as his house in the country. Both nights as I set up in my hammock, I overheard two guys sitting out around a fire talking, and even though I didn’t listen for all the details, the sense of a particularly male anxiety was palpable even in the snippets I did hear: talk of work and money and the effort to win the approval of fathers. These guy-guys definitely do not have it easy, and it helps me to understand where that weird America-first anti-immigration political rage comes from even though it’s misguided and confused about the actual economic roots of these guys’ insecurity. It must be terribly lonely to be a man in this sort of milieu: a wife and children are responsibilities, not companions. Awful for men, awful for women, I really wonder how this model has lasted so long.

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Thursday afternoon I went over for a tour of the Oakley Plantation, the house where John James Audubon worked as a tutor for four months, during which he painted the first 32 plates of Birds of America. Not quite Rilke in Duino Castle writing the Sonnets and Elegies in a white heat after ten years of writer’s block, but pretty damn close! Audubon was in his mid-thirties, with a wife and children, and pretty much bankrupt and a failure when he headed out here and took this tutoring job and began his incredible project. Seeing his little bedroom here, walking in the woods he ranged to find birds to model for his paintings, was a really moving experience.

I had not really thought in advance that of course this place he was living was a plantation powered by 250 slaves. The oddly unfriendly woman who gave me the tour pointed out the master bedroom tub, a metal basket shaped sort of like an upright half-papaya with the seeds removed. The only way a person could sit in this tub would be spread-eagled and helpless to move or get out, except with the help of another person: the slave attendant, of course. I keep trying to make sense of the implications of having that level of intimacy and dependence on a person you don’t even regard as fully human, a person you own the way you own a car or an iPod. I begin to feel like an ignorant innocent: this is not a fun sexy little game of BDSM, this stuff is for real, and I begin to understand what obscenity really is.

fighting bishops and control structures

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I spent a few days in Natchez camping at the state park just out of town and alternating working at the library and the cafe during the days. Natchez is one of those towns that revels just a little bit too much in its own beauty, if you know what I mean. If it were a person, it would not be able to pass a mirror without admiring itself. But it was a great place to hang out these gray rainy days: comfortable and well-equipped places to be indoors, an attractive downtown to wander around for an afternoon walk, and an empty and peaceful park not far from town where I could hang my hammock for cozy nights. Although one night my headlamp caught the eyes of some biggish creature who wanted to come out of the ravine near my hammock to check out the dirty dishes I had left out to be rinsed by the rain. I was already zipped into the hammock, so I yelled and kicked at the tarp and made enough ruckus to scare it away. I finally feel like I am officially no longer solely an urban person, ’cause I was happily asleep a few minutes later.

On Wednesday, I crossed the Natchez bridge and made my way down the roads closest to the west side of the river: I was too wimpy to bike in the cold and wet, so I drove very slowly through this lightly settled area: it’s the place where the Red and the Atchafalaya join the Mississippi, and the Corps of Engineers has a network of control structures designed to prevent the Mississippi from joining the Atchafalaya instead, which would leave Baton Rouge and New Orleans orphaned. I remember reading about it in John McPhee’s book, The Control of Nature, but to actually see this Herculean and (according to many scientists and engineers) doomed effort was pretty intense. (You can read more about it and see some pictures here.)

And then I suddenly came upon St. Stephen’s Church, a gorgeously maintained little Episcopal church and cemetery that would perhaps look more at home in an Old or New England town than way out in this strange forsaken place dotted with a billion dollars worth of hulking dams, miles of sugarcane, and signs for Angola Prison on the other side of the river. The church was consecrated and named for the first martyr by “the Fighting Bishop,” Leonidas Polk, whose name came up as long ago as Columbus, Kentucky. (It was he who invaded previously neutral Kentucky, which then asked for Federal troops to defend the state, which ended up putting it in Union hands for the rest of the war.) Polk seems to me an inexplicably complex character: almost completely incompetent as a general, but beloved by his men nonetheless, he was also a rich planter who owned five hundred slaves. Five hundred slaves. I’ve never read a sermon justifying slavery by a person like Bishop Polk, and I think it would have to be kind of fascinating to watch the moral contortions.

something’s coming

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Mary Rowell flew in to Jackson Wednesday afternoon, and we stocked up on groceries and headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway Thursday morning in glorious weather, set up at Rocky Springs State Park and explored the remaining bits of the town — two safes too heavy to move, a wonderful old church (still in use), and a couple of foundations are all that remain of a once-thriving village that was destroyed by a combination of the Civil War, yellow fever, and poor agricultural practices. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal outdoors using two pots, two plates, about six pieces of silverware, and liberal amounts of aluminum foil, since most of the food got cooked in the campfire. It was totally great: one of the most fun Thanksgivings I’ve ever had!

The next day I biked down to Port Gibson while Mary drove back north to explore Vicksburg, and we met up and picnicked on leftovers in downtown Port Gibson and then wandered around checking out the town Grant called “too beautiful to burn.” Then we headed out to Grand Gulf, where there is another military park and a beautiful campground up on a bluff, and we climbed an observation tower to watch the sun set over the river. I am really enjoying biking the Trace: it’s a beautiful road, but I am so very sorry I am not paddling the river. I ache with an almost guilty longing for the dangerous lover I desire but cannot have. (hmmm, does that maybe sound a bit familiar?!)

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Saturday, Mary and I drove instead of biking, so that Mary could have a chance to see more of Mississippi before leaving. We traveled crazy back roads with overhanging trees and Spanish moss to visit the ruins of a castle in the wilderness, and the first African-American college, and the incredible town of Rodney, which is a different species of ghost town than Rocky Springs in that there are still houses standing there, but perhaps not for long. We also stopped off at Emerald Mounds, and the Church on the Hill — the whole area is full of amazing sites, a person could happily wander for weeks.

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We arrived in Natchez in time for a late lunch at a cafe looking out at the river, and then we drove down 61 to Baton Rouge, where Mary had to fly out at the crack of dawn Sunday. I had considered going to Jimmy Swaggart’s church Sunday morning, but I was already a bit cranky from getting up at 4:30 to get Mary to the airport, so I was not up for listening to gay-bashing right-wing Christianity on the first day of Advent. Instead, I drove back up to Natchez and got settled at the State Park and got out my bike and drove down the last fifteen miles of the Parkway and to the Indian Mounds outside of town.

Biking back up the Natchez Trace Parkway in the dusk was one of those perfect moments that happen sometimes: just the right balance of comfortable exertion and natural beauty and excellent light and simple joy. Even though I can feel myself beginning to wind down from the journey — there’s not that much farther to go before New Orleans, and I can feel my heart yearning more and more to give myself over to settling down for a while to write music — I really love being out here. Something serious has shifted inside me: I have emptied myself further than I ever have before. I have never taken this big a risk with my own creativity, and I am sort of amazed that I am not really afraid. I have no idea what is going to emerge from me musically, and I am really excited to find out what it’s gonna turn out to be. I feel like I’m winding down one journey and beginning another, which is going to be at least as much of an adventure as the one I’ve been traveling all these last months.

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After an very fine day working in Chris’ studio, Whitney arrived and invited us to join her parents at a special Thanksgiving service at Triumph Church. I am so glad to have had that experience: the first authentically multiracial church service I’ve been to on this trip, and for it to be here in Vicksburg makes me totally happy. The music was forgettable but heartfelt Christian pop, and there were video screens everywhere projecting the song lyrics, various announcements, and inspirational snippets: call it the Church of Powerpoint. But then the sermon, given by the cowboy-booted casual-Friday-dressed pastor, was quite a strong discussion of communion as thanksgiving. I feel a bit silly that had it somehow never occurred to me that the Greek word for thank you has the same root as the word eucharist. Of course!

I am definitely feeling very thankful these days, that is for sure! After church, Chris and Whitney took me out for a night on the town: first dinner and then to a blues club, and hanging out with the two of them was really great. Whitney is a nurse who used to do house calls to disabled seniors until the program got cut: I think she might know every impoverished old person in town. Her real passion is end-of-life care, but at the moment she’s working in a GP’s office. What kind of a world is it that won’t let people do the hard jobs they actually want to do!??!

Wednesday morning I got a glimpse of contemporary Vicksburg city politics, and boy, the Civil War isn’t over, in ways I’m not sure I’m really equipped to describe. It seems there’s been a concerted effort in the last few years to revitalize downtown by fostering live-work mixed-use development. Chris is a prime example: her gallery is on the ground floor of a building on the main downtown street, and her apartment is the second floor. A guy wants to open a second-floor dance club above his restaurant two doors down, and he’s got the new young mayor’s fierce support: to the point that the mayor decided to override all the existing architectural guidelines and allow the bar owner to install a staircase from a balcony down to the public sidewalk in order to meet fire department rules for two means of egress. It doesn’t matter that the staircase will intrude in front of the building next door and interfere with the flow of pedestrian traffic, it doesn’t matter that the egress problem could be solved by making a deal with the next door neighbors: basically, the mayor has decided to give the bar owner everything he asks for, no matter how ungainly, impractical, ugly, shortsighted, and just plain silly. And he calls anyone who disagrees with him a racist. Hello?! Yes, the bar owner is black, the mayor is black, and most of the people currently living and working on that street downtown are white. But the staircase is a bad idea no matter what color skin you have. It seems to me that the trouble is that the mayor has no way of seeing anything but race in this story, and his anger is making him do foolish things. It was really painful to sit in that meeting, and to realize that what was going down had little to do with logic or practicality or common sense, and everything to do with the Confederate flags and Mammy dolls being sold in the Old Courthouse Museum. And my heart goes out to the mayor in his rage, but he is still wrong about the staircase.

darkness in Vicksburg

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It was a rainy and gray weekend, and I spent most of it at Poverty Point Reservoir State Park, doing some much needed housekeeping (my computer was misbehaving, laundry needed doing) at this quite wonderful spot that has free wifi and laundry and good showers. I did take a drive up to the town of Lake Providence, looking for a cafe that turned out to be closed on Saturday, and ended up having an excellent oyster po’ boy at a little place overlooking the lake. The town felt oddly exposed somehow: I could feel almost viscerally what high water must be like for a town like this, on a promontory almost completely surrounded by lakes and rivers, and miles from any other town. The fields surrounding the town don’t really feel like they count as actual dry land, somehow: you know that if the water breaches the levees it will just pour down and across however many miles of farmland there are. Five miles, fifty miles, once those levees are breached, the water will be everywhere.

On Sunday, I came into Vicksburg for church at Bethel AME, a tiny congregation with a new young preacher. The sermon text was from 1 John 4, about how it makes no sense to say you love God and hate your brother. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

My first view of the river from the town of Vicksburg really took my breath away. To be up on a bluff again, overlooking the river after so many weeks of being right down in it in the Delta, was somehow deeply moving to me. I guess because I feel like the river is part of me, or I of it, I immediately felt protectiveness and kinship for this town that so honors the river.

I spent the whole afternoon at the battlefield park, which is a pretty overwhelming place. Miles and miles of statues and markers and memorials dot a landscape of hills and mounds and ravines and trenches. I had talked a bit with Shawn, one of the rangers, in the Visitor Center, and I ran into him again at the Illinois memorial, a Pantheon-like structure with really beautiful resonance. We talked for a good long time about Native American as well as Civil War history: he’s worked at a succession of parks over the years, so he knows about lots of things that interest me. He showed me a name on the wall of the Illinois Memorial and asked if I knew the story of that particular soldier. Turns out he served the Union for four years, returned to Illinois to work as a handyman and gardener, was hit by a car and taken to the hospital, where they learned Albert was actually a woman. The sad ending of the story is that Albert ended up in an insane asylum, where he was forced to wear women’s clothes, and died from a fall he sustained tripping over unaccustomed skirts.

In the midst of all these Civil War memories, in a town that perhaps has embodied the Confederate spirit longer than any other place (they did not officially celebrate the Fourth of July here until World War II, because Vicksburg fell, after 47 days of siege, on the Fourth of July 1863), I finished Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Somehow I had never come across this book before, and once I started reading it, it was hard to stop, and it is definitely hard going. It’s painful to walk around rage-filled and mourning the casualties of racism as you visit a place like the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.

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(The caption reads: “$500 REWARD for the arrest and conviction of Johnny Black alias Possum, has black skin, white eyes, kinky hair, smooth face and has a frightened look.”)

*

At a certain point on Monday, I reached a pretty dark place. I’d been looking too closely at the evil we can do convinced of our honor and virtue and righteousness, I’d been alone too many days in a row, that late-November desolation is in the air, and all of this together was beginning to be a bit too much. This journey is definitely about putting myself out there, but I had really reached my own limits.

And then in the course of a couple of hours, everything changed. Mary Rowell texted me to say she’s coming back out for Thanksgiving, dear Melissa was her unflappable and kind and competent self, organizing getting me insurance cards and audio interfaces, I talked with Mac, who told me he’s almost done with his grad school apps and he’s going to try to join on in ten days or so, and Linda Norton’s going meet me in New Orleans in December. Is that an embarrassment of riches, or what?!

But that’s not all!

My friend David Lehmann had introduced me to H. C. Porter’s gallery in Vicksburg and told me a bit about her powerful post-Katrina work. The gallery was closed on Sunday, but I stopped in Monday afternoon and met Lauchlin, who sent me to the cafe down the street and said Chris would stop in when she got home. And she came and retrieved me and immediately took me in and told me many good stories and gave me excellent dinner and a warm bed in her beautiful space that has a rooftop balcony overlooking the river, and we have approximately four hundred eighty six thousand things in common, and suddenly everything feels transformed, a light switches on in the darkness, and I can move forward, chastened by my awareness of how very much I need other people, how reliant I am on the kindness of friends and of strangers, both.

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only a pawn in their game

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It’s been a sort of strange and unfocused few days these days: I left the river to go to Jackson to meet up with a new fellow-traveler who got laid low with asthma at the last minute and had to cancel. Somehow the combination of being far from the river, needing to re-calibrate my plans, and being in an actual city again, has put me a bit off balance.

I spent an excellent evening reading stories by Eudora Welty in the Jackson library, which has been named after her. I was given a tour of her house the next day by two lovely ladies, I stayed in a pleasant state park right in town, I hung out at an excellent cafe in a house, so there are many rooms to choose from to sit and drink your coffee and read or write, I bought some books at Lemuria Bookstore (“capitalism at its most transcendent”, David correctly describes it), I stood in Medgar Evers’ driveway where he was shot and killed in 1963.

One of the docents at the Welty House reminded me of a Southern version of my mother: she was wearing a scarf of that exact style my mother excelled at finding: artsy and unique, not something you’d ever see in the pages of Vogue or at Bergdorf’s, but probably just as expensive. And she let me know in a million small ways that she recognized me: she told me of her time in NYC as a young woman in the 60s, generously complimented me on my neat appearance for someone camping every night, commented on my handmade Irish sweater (brought home by my mother from a trip to Ireland in 1967); “each one unique so that they’ll know the drowned man by his sweater if not his face when they fish him out.” She told me about Eudora’s first love: “he lived for fifty years with another man,” she said, looking at me steadily. And when I said I was going to Medgar Evers’ house, she told me there’s a whole tour of civil rights sites around Jackson, “if you’re interested in that kind of thing.” If I were Eudora Welty, I would definitely put her in a short story.

*

I headed back out to the country on Thursday, to Poverty Point, an ancient Native American site in northeastern Louisiana that flourished for more than a thousand years. I was completely alone there, and wandered by foot and bike all over the place in the late-afternoon light. It is structured as a series of long concentric half-circles that radiate from a center mound which is in the shape of a winged bird. I made a big circle around to the main mound, where I walked up to the head of the bird and down again, and then pedaled around the mound itself and climbed up to the body. Standing there, I had a glimpse of something very powerful, a sense of being sheltered — held — in the body of this giant effigy bird, and close to the ghosts of all the people who had scrabbled in the dirt to pile up and carry soil, basket by basket, to build this sacred place.

We human beings are miraculous and pitiful creatures, all of us. And I think of a line from a novel of Penelope Fitzgerald’s, not about people building mounds, but about young actors putting on a show, but it’s all the same thing, really. It’s all the same thing. “Happy are those who can be sure that what they are doing at the moment is the most important thing on earth.”

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being a girl

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Stephanie, Mark’s wife, is a dancer who splits her time between New York and Lake Village. (Mark grew up in Mississippi, but went to school at CUNY and Stony Brook, and we had met once in NYC a while ago.) She threw herself into this adventure with great aplomb! On Thursday, we took a good bike ride to explore north of Lake Village, where there’s a channel marked on the map as the Old River. We were looking for possible put-in points for a paddle, but the Army Corps maps don’t cover all the back channels of the Mississippi, since the maps are optimized for barges and towboats, not for kayakers who prefer the back ways and side trips. We rode past a huge dam out in the fields, and near it is a perfect boat ramp, completely empty and unused. I’ve been avoiding the main river when I’m traveling alone: my vision of this journey does not include drowning, or even capsizing. So every chance I have to get on the river these days feels like a wonderful gift, and the back channels down here are strange and mystical places. Towards the end of our leisurely paddle Friday, which we treated more like a float, I noticed that there is a back channel to this Old River, which is of course already a back channel of the present Mississippi, so I left Stephanie and paddled around the long way, which must once have been the main river, because the state line is drawn along this tiny back slough. We met up again at the pullout, and retrieved cars and kayaks and headed home for a quick shower and then over to Winterville Mounds, where Mark works. We got there in time for Mark to show me around a bit before dark, and he told me a great story about the Native Americans accosting De Soto’s people in huge canoes each painted in a different primary color, and the paddles and the men themselves painted to match the canoes. Can you imagine how terrified De Soto’s troops must have been to see these brightly painted warriors paddling out into the main river, with their drums and their fierce songs?!? They didn’t kill De Soto’s band, but would come up to their boats and rock them until they tipped over, basically messing with them, hazing them, before disappearing back up the Deer River to Winterville. De Soto’s people decided soon after that to forget about the gold and treasure they had been seeking and just go home. De Soto himself was already dead and consigned to the river: legend has it that he was buried in what is now Lake Chicot, the lake Mark and Stephanie’s house is on.

We drove up to Rosedale for dinner at a good restaurant with very slow service, so we were late to the show at Po’ Monkey’s, a storied juke joint way out on a farm road sort of near Cleveland. A group of electro-acoustic musicians had taken over the place for an evening jam, which Mark had been asked to join. None of the regulars were there, apparently last year’s version was enough for them. And I’ll tell you, I mean no disrespect, but the whole scene rendered me almost inarticulate with despair. Here’s this whole group of musicians and composers from all over the country, who have shown up for a festival of electronic music, and they come down and jam badly for one another, jamming after all not being exactly what they are skilled at, and they congratulate themselves for playing in a juke joint, despite the fact that no-one from the actual community, not one regular is in the place. And then I overhear one guy saying to Mark Snyder, the festival organizer, that another guy is “being a girl” about getting up and playing: he keeps saying he’ll join in after the next song. And to Mark Snyder’s credit, he called the guy on it, claimed not to know what he meant, asked for clarification that had the guy sputtering a bit. But sitting there as one of three women in the whole place, electro-acoustic festivals in general and this one not exceptionally being something of a boy’s club, I was not exactly offended, I think a better word would be heartbroken. In this day and age a full-grown nominally educated guy actually casually and unthinkingly derides someone by calling them a girl?! Are you kidding me?!? I don’t know that guy, he might be an otherwise lovely and talented human being, but I hope women steer clear of him for the rest of his natural life.

But Mark Snyder’s sly and effective response really got me thinking. I have had occurrences in the past couple of weeks where white people have said things I regard as racist. And I struggle really hard to know how to calibrate my response. I remember being in a cab once in New York with my friend Juliana, and the cabdriver said something racist and she immediately said something like, I don’t agree with or accept your way of talking, and please do not speak that way while I am in your cab. But that’s a slightly less complicated situation: Juliana did not have any relationship with the cab driver beyond an economic exchange. But when people are hosting you, or doing you favors, or being generous to you, how do you indicate your dismay and disagreement with the language they use, the attitudes they express? My answer so far has been to think more like an anthropologist: I’m trying to understand how people are rather than judging them or arguing with them. And perhaps my way has some tiny impact, however inconsequential. The person who made the most racist statements I’ve had to listen to also noticed and commented on my interest in black music and culture, and told me some useful information about the history and geography of black music and musicians.

The discussion at the BB King Museum the other night was full of talk about the complicity of the North in racism, claiming that Northerners, even abolitionists, didn’t actually like black people any more than Southerners did, and in certain ways understand black culture far less than Southerners do. Martin Luther King said he was more scared of the white racists in Chicago than he ever was down South. And of course, there are proportionally so many more black people down here than up North, and I do think there’s a complexity to the whole question of racism that I’m not going to address productively by demanding an old man to change his vocabulary so as not to wound my sensibilities. That man has lived and worked side by side with black people all his life. Let’s be real here: his daily life is in certain ways more integrated than the new music scene in New York City, uptown, downtown, or midtown. That’s part of the reason I’m not in New York right now, I’m trying to get some perspective on my own provincialism.

But it’s easy to be shocked. I am definitely not at home. Black or white, rich or poor, in one way or another, I am aware that I am an outsider, I do not really fit in here anywhere. Which is why hanging out with Mark and Stephanie is very welcome right now. It feels like a break from constantly negotiating my own otherness.