reviews to write: 3
essays to grade: 115
days to Ireland: 16
cups of coffee: 2
essays to write: 1
letters to reply to: 1
books sold this week: 4
busts on desk: 1
Hiraeth (Welsh): a homesickenss for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
The heat. The stifling weight of the humid air. The shrimp po-boys at Liuzza’s by the Racetrack. The sign for Mystery Street. Henry Moore’s “Mother & Child” statue in City Park. The Jazz Fest bands sound checks in the early morning hours and me sitting on the balcony of our apartment wondering how I arrived here all the way from Dublin, Ireland, where I’d left my parents teary-eyed and aging at the airport gates almost twenty years before. The city, she smells of rot, decay, baking bread, and funerals. The city is a long way from where I live now, on an avocado ranch, surrounded by trees rich with the hand-grenade sized fruit.
N’awlins, or New Or-leans, or Noo-ahlinz. Call her Nola. Call it home. Call her dirty and violent and loud and destroyed. Call her eternal. Once I arrived I never wanted to leave. Maybe because she’s not a typical American city, maybe because she’s a terribly European sort of a place. Call her cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde at three in the morning with drunken friends and famous writers far from their families. Call her a branding iron seared into the heart. Never call her predictable. New Orleans is a muddy mistress, sultry, seductive, callous, and all-encompassing.
Nights and early mornings I walked the dog, our red heeler, around the neighborhood, past the shotguns and the porticoed mansions. One night a massive black dog sprang from a stoop and bared its teeth at us. Rua, our dog, barked, strained at the leash, and I said, “Jesus Christ!” A voice from within yelled at the black beast and it slunk back to the steps. “Are you a mick?” the voice asked. “I’m from Dublin,” I said. “I’ve got some Jameson’s. You want a drink?” Glasses, bottle, and New Orleans character appeared, and behind him a baby grand piano in a room with polished hardwood floors. Shots. More shots. “You like to smoke a little?” he asked, not cigarettes, either. “No, thanks. Gave that up for Lent a long time ago.” We talked of jazz, and Montreaux, and Cork, places he’d played before. The dog walk continued on a decidedly less stable path that previously taken.
Weekend bike rides into the quarter. Out-of-towners stroll about snapping photos of bead laced balconies and blue dog paintings. Mint and lavender popsicles at Meltdown on Dumaine, followed by a Bloody Mary at the Napoleon House. Crooked pavements and buskers. Our apartment a house divided four ways. The young father separated from his wife, taking care of a small boy. The yells through the walls. His frustration. We’d meet him as we walked the dog, pulling his son in a little cart, swigging on a bottle of Coors Lite as the kid sucked on a lollipop. The bike rental guy directly beneath us, the ever-present stink of his weed penetrating from below, his altercations with passers-by who were afraid of his dog. Next door the preacher with his four kids and the largest rabbit we’d ever seen. The city held me in her thrall, the dirty imperfection a familiar note to my own flawed self.
Sunday Gras and the Krewe of Eris parade. Discord. Anarchy. The trumpets and the drums. We’d congregate by the railway tracks, hundreds of steampunk revelers, costumed and chaotic. Midnight and the crowd dancing, singing, jugglers with blazing batons, the edgiest costumes possible, the procession wound through the Bywater to its eventual demise in Jackson Square. We found an outlet for our darker selves, more acolytes than strict devotees, we made the winding journey to the quarter for three years, and the last time some of the crowd got over-zealous and caused some minor damage to cars and property. As the parade hit the quarter proper, we witnessed the police tazering and pepper-spraying the crowd in an attempt to break up the gathering.
A city of dogs and dog walkers, the dogpark in City Park and its obstacle course, the water fountains we’d watch our friend Laura’s dog, Zadie P. Jones, frolic in, the fenced-off area for the small dogs, all longing to escape and join their larger brothers and sisters in the larger area. Our dog, Rua, raced around in circles, chased by a line of fellow-revelers, almost their own canine marching parade. Evenings I walked Rua with Laura and Zadie, across Esplanade and by Alcee Fortier Park with its chess tables and fish fountains, and along by the bayou where in the late-1800s Marie Laveau cast her spells. We dug in the mud of the bayou when the water was low and unearthed vintage bottles of different size and color, and imagined the old days when people used the bayou as a dumping ground.
Cabrini High School and the statue of the Virgin Mary. We walked by one night and the grass beyond the fence was dotted with little crosses. Halloween, we thought. Not Halloween, rather a student project representing aborted fetuses. A makeshift cemetery to prick the consciences of all who walked past. The metal footbridge adjacent to the school served as an impromptu picnic site for locals at weekends. Sometimes they set up tables with tablecloths and wine glasses.
Novembers we’d attend the Words & Music Literary Festival, meet with agents and editors lured by the free lodgings and bountiful food and alcohol. Lunches at Muriels, turtle soup and juleps, academics blathering on over dessert about Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. The final night’s prize ceremony and gala, and one of our friend’s drunken howls as the singer launched into “Runaway Train.” She hollered, “That’s my favorite song,” over and over, other friends trying desperately to silence her. When the song was over the singer bolted for the exit, my wife in hot pursuit, trying to apologize for someone else’s transgression. When the organizer took us aside and asked for names, we feigned innocence, saying we weren’t sure whom the outburst had come from. The following year the festival punished the writing program’s students by reducing privileges and upping the cost for us. I still have the audio recording of “Runaway Train,” from that night, Dave Pirner’s rage and retreat to his Bywater home.
We lived in Louisiana for three years, and New Orleans for one. It took little time for the city to imprint on my heart, and when we drove out of there for the last time I was stricken with regret for not having made more of my time there. It was in New Orleans that I grew as a writer, surrounded by the ghosts of St. Louis #1 cemetery, drinking too many coffees at Rue de la Course on South Carrollton, jazz at the Three Muses on Frenchmen. The heart of the city was to be found in the hidden spaces where inspiration lived in the shadows. Courtyards with gorgeous stone fountains, narrow alleys with rickety iron fire escapes and cats licking their paws in the sunlight.
New Orleans and the big muddy river above the roof of Cafe du Monde, the tourists forming neat lines to be seated for their plates of powdered beignets and steaming hot cafe au lait, and the rest of us, locals, knowing it’s okay to wander in and sit at the first empty table we see. It’s easy to love a city that feeds her people so well. I ate more po-boys than a man has a right to eat, and practically licked the remoulade sauce off the plate to savor the last drop of creamy heaven.
And the rain, always the rain, the rain that flooded the streets in minutes, that ran down gutters in torrents, that soaked us to the skin, and then disappeared as swiftly as it had arrived. The thunderstorms were amazing, sky cracking peals, blink and you miss them lightning strikes. In our waning days living in the city we had frequent storms, as if the city knew we were departing for the avocado groves of home. It was in one of these last storms that our daughter was conceived. Humid air, cloud-filled sky, the bedroom lit by the lightning, our passion mirrored by the electricity in the air.
It was by the waters of the bayou that we said goodbye to the soul of my mentor, Jeanne, who had died in a terrible car wreck on the road to Lafayette. We made paper boats from one of my manuscripts she had marked up with her notes, and in the late evening light we placed tea lights in the small craft and set them on fire. By the water’s edge we said our goodbyes to Jeanne and witnessed the paper boats burn and burn until only one remained, less paper than wax, half-submerged, the flames flickering and dying, then springing back to life, as if Jeanne didn’t want to depart.
When it came time for us to depart we met our friend, Laura, and drove to Magazine Street for a last social gathering. In Juan’s Flying Burrito we sat at a table and ordered drinks, while Maureen headed for the restroom to take the pregnancy test that would propel us back to California, to the relatively safer world where we would raise our child, far from the banks of Bayou St. John, far from the voodoo shops and the third lines, far from our apartment on Grand Route St. John with the Buddhist prayer flags on the balcony, and the musty scent of the neighbor’s weed rising in the humid air.
days to Ireland: 22
cups of coffee: 3
cups of tea: 1
inches of rain fallen:1.75
readings this weekend: 1
essays to write: 1
letters to respond to: 1
books to review: 3
cups of coffee: 2
chicken fried rice: 1
days to Ireland: 25
novels to edit: 1
kites in tree: 2
deer on walk: 4
hawks on walk: 0
eyeglasses on desk: 2
Novel edits are back from RW at Thrice Publishing. All that remains is for me to go through the manuscript and check his edits, make any last minute changes I want to make to the novel, and then send the file back for the last time. This prospect fills me with a strange doubled emotion of dread/happiness. These days there are not enough hours in the week to even see where novel edits might fit in to things. Between teaching full-time at high school, and raising a two-year-old, and sometimes a seven-and-a-half-year-old, the hours of free time are few. Maybe on the flight home to Dublin in March, and on the return journey? Maybe. I know the changes I want to make and though they’re not plot-altering, they represent a layering of sorts, a thickening of the roux, to drop in a gumbo-making analogy. The best roux is dark chocolate colored, taken, as my gumbo mentor, Lucy Buffett says, “to the edge.” So, the manuscript needs to be stirred some more, a little more flour added, a little more stirring, the storyline thickening, richening, maturing. And then, it needs a title. Good grief, the hardest part of all. That conundrum is going to be a tough nut. It’ll take a few pints of Guinness in Kehoes, or the ‘Diggers, to figure out that one. It’s a bit like the endgame in a game of chess. One false move and disaster awaits.
The snake’s corpse dries in the front garden, next to the blood orange tree. Death seeps into the dry earth, the winter an impossibility, the heat, an ever-present. Pages, stories, reviews, edits, shucked and discarded. There are not hours enough. Nor time. Empty vessels convey great noise, the beat of stick on plastic drum, the tap tap of woodpecker on telephone pole. Dog Days. Church, kneel, pray, subside. These are troubled times, the weight of things, eustress, the replacement for the distress of lassitude. 25-foot lengths of hose, soaker, laid flat about the shrubbery, the beads of moisture on the forehead, fever broken, the coffee cold in its cup. Far whistle of train, rolling stock through evening town, jump the rails and head for the border. The constant buzz of social networks slows down, ennui brought about by hoarse-voiced tweets, impotent likes, the gratification as useful as a sieve in a sinking vessel. Somewhere close the air is pure, crisp, oxygen-depleted. Across the sofa, the pelt of a zebra from imaginary journeys to Tsavo. Lions, once. Prize, too. Then I had possibilities. I cover the ground in straw, crunching with each footstep. At night the possums tread on the strawberry plants, their footprints on the muslin dropped to keep the weeds at bay. Each moon a moment, each restless turn a mercy.
I strode the staggered rows of avocado trees, the dimpled, rat-gnawed fruit suspended as lights from the distant oil rig, the bright green center a glowing filament of cream. The sharp whistle of the red-tailed hawk, circling high above. A spinner on fishing line flung in widening circles of leaden power, thrumming with sharp-eyed malevolence. In my hand the cutters; red, plastic-handled, blade dulled by oiled branches and misuse, my imperfect ability to prune a tree, as clear as the dumb rabbit’s obvious pattern of death. Later, between the rusted Morris Minor, where black widows shelter their young, my boot crushed a speckled egg fallen from where the nest sat empty between crook of trunk and branch.
cups of coffee: 2
hours sleep: 8
book reviews sent: 1
books to review: 3
projects to grade: 26
novels to edit: 1
falcons on wire: 3
days to weekend: 3
guest posts to write: 1
She sat at the Leeson Street bridge. Beautiful. Long violet hair, a flowing multi-colored dress like one the flamenco dancers wear. Her eyes, two swirling absences. Her shoes, patent leather polished to a fine sheen, in which every movement of the street was captured. Crystal balls, future told in confidence—of lost children, broken hearts, work in far-away places. Like, her laugh, too, musical notes slowly falling.