Words don't come as easily as they once did. And when they do, they arrive fragmented, not because over time they have deteriorated, like those ancient papyrus papers that hold the fragile remains of Sappho's poetries, but because they are born that way, fragments of thought, bites of ideas, slivers of images, all fragile in their newborn way. Maybe I can teach myself to write again, to rediscover the patience required to sit and sit and sit, to not jump at the slightest distraction, to not become discouraged by silence, to retrain myself to rearrange the fragments, to accept what comes as it does, to learn how to sew again.
Where is the need born, to stitch the random events of our lives into stories? Why are certain story arcs satisfying, while others make us frustrated? Why is it cruel to end a story before its proper conclusion? Why is it so unacceptable to end without some glimmer of hope or change in a character's disposition?
These are things I've been thinking about, the things that keep me from making a single clear and uninterrupted statement. Words don't come as easily as they once did. How easy it is to believe that with practice we become more competent at what we do, how hard it is to accept that this is not always true.
Have I forgotten what it is to play? Why do we do the things we do? Does it all come back, as I've heard it said in a film I once saw on public television, does everything we do revolve around reproduction, of patterns, of cycles, of DNA, of ourselves? Do our stories mirror our desires, the simple desire to love and be loved, to open ourselves up like flowers to the sun? Does the story arc exist in this form because it mimics sexual encounters? After all, I've heard it reported once long ago on public radio that when we listen to stories told, our brains release the same chemicals that are released during acts of love which we learned at some point, whether from a book kept under the bed, or a conversation overheard, or a film strip in a shuttered grade school classroom, we learned at some embarrassing point that all of this grows out of an aching need, out of a primal desire, an unalterable indefatigable microscopic drive towards reproduction.
These are the things I've been thinking about, the things that keep me from making a single clear and uninterrupted statement. Please excuse me. I've wandered far from where I thought I was going.
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According to Janet Malcolm in her book Two Lives, "It is generally agreed that without Alice Toklas, Stein might not have had the will to go on writing what for many years almost no one had any interest in reading." And apparently with Alice, Gertrude was like a child, completely incapable of taking care of her most basic needs.
The walls of their Paris apartment were covered with art work by Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir. They threw many parties attended by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Pound, Wilder, as well as Matisse and Picasso. Gertrude presided over the parties, while Alice presided over Gertrude.
When Gertrude Stein got tired of not getting any recognition, she set out to write a best seller. Gertrude wrote a novel posing as Alice writing her autobiography. In it, Alice is always going on and on about what a genius Gertrude Stein is.
Gertrude wrote (according to Mabel Dodge in Intimate Memories) "automatically in a long weak handwriting - four or five lines to the page - letting it ooze up from deep down inside her, down onto the paper with the least possible physical effort; she would cover a few pages so and leave them there and go to bed, and in the morning Alice would gather them up."
Tad Neuhaus, bass
Joanna Dane, vocals
Gertrude Stein, words
Sappho takes us down to the creek
Where she eats the magic flowers
That allow her to hear
The voices of the ancestors.
Who can believe such a thing?
Until we hear her sing.
We sink into her banks,
Weeping and howling,
Bound by her haunting calls.
Who else has she already spun under her spell?
The boys from down the street?
I ask, but the others just laugh,
"Someday she will be famous!"
But they say that about any pretty girl
Willing to feed them flowers
And sing to them love songs.
Tad Neuhaus, guitar
Joanna Dane, vocals
and gold chickpeas were growing on the banks
Sappho, Fragment 143
The poets for hire sat three in a row on Frenchman Street.
Two had typewriters.
Two wore hats.
One wore leather suspenders.
They all puffed on cigarettes.
How do we choose? we asked.
The one without a hat said he was despondent.
The one wearing suspenders said he was happy.
The one on the end wrote by hand.
We chose the happy one in the middle.
What subject? he asked.
My husband suggested,
"What's Cuter: Puppies or Babies?"
Because my brother had been pressing us on the question all day.
My brother says puppies.
Her face, he knew would be beautiful because, she said, modestly, that others had always said that about her. He had no reason not to believe her. He had had so many conversations with people all over the world. He was not naive. He was college educated, a professional. He made good money and wore a suit to work everyday. He told her so. And it made her happy.
It started very casually, but quickly, they discovered that they had so much in common and got along so well. They had exactly the same sense of humor. He felt comfortable telling her everything, how he dreamed of buying a little house with a front porch and a fireplace, a house where they could eat together and sleep together, a house by a lake where they could take long walks together holding hands and laughing. Maybe they could even get a dog, though he didn't like dogs very much, but she did, he knew. And it made her very happy.
She told him things that made him very sad. She had had a complicated and hard life and many people, maybe because she was so beautiful, had tried to take advantage of her, and it made his heart hurt to hear these things. His heart had never hurt like that before. And he promised that her life with him would only be full of joy and ease, that he was a very simple man, that he liked his coffee however it was served to him and that he went to the movies once a week no matter what was playing and that he ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches everyday for lunch. And she laughed, "Haha!" and that made him smile :)
He began to believe in things he didn't know he believed in, like fate, and the power of positive thinking. He was grateful for each and every thing had that had ever happened to him, even his mom throwing out his entire t-shirt collection which had stung for so long, which he swore he would never forgive. But he understood the butterfly effect and knew that if it wasn't for every single thing that had ever happened to him, then he never would have met her. He tried to explain this all to her, and even though he wasn't very good with words, and English was not her best language, she got it ;)
He knew it was for real, finally, these feelings he had always hear other people talking about, but never had experienced for himself. Something had always gotten in the way, like bad breath, or a horribly loud laugh, or incessant talking about old boyfriends. But she was so perfect it took his breath away and nearly made him cry when he had to say goodbye each evening. XOXOXOXO. He knew it was real because it was the same feeling he had when he watched a really great movie.
The day finally came when she said that everything had been arranged, that she could fly the very next month to meet him. He sent her the check because it was cheaper for her to buy the flight there and included some extra money to settle some affairs that needed settling before she could leave. He was ecstatic. Everyone at the office noticed, and it made him blush like a kid. It was the happiest day of his life, the day she told him that she got the check and bought the ticket. He had two weeks to prepare.
He was confused at first when she was wasn't there. But then, the confusion turned to concern. Something terrible must have happened. But as the days turned to weeks without hearing another word from her, he grew angry and then bitter, though what persisted was disappointment shadowed by clouds of embarrassment.
Believe me, Bernie, I would love to fly back with you the old fashioned way. But with the way the weather's been, one of us has to make the sacrifice and get back to secure the home front, and I wouldn't want that to be you. Trust me, Baby. This is way harder on me than it is on you. Someday you'll thank me for this. That much, I can assure you.
We went to the Maple Leaf in New Orleans and there was Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, aged 71, performing his second gig of the night. He apologized for sitting down and sang about how we need to listen to the old people. His band, the Golden Eagles, was a bunch of young guys with bland expressions, looking like they had heard Big Chief's rants before. "I don't even know what I was saying," the Chief said after several songs. He reassured us it's okay that way, the lyrics just flowing out. The band put me into a trance that made me feel like light beams were coming from my palms.
Out back we sat with some drunk women who, when asked where they were from, said this is their neighborhood, that they live right around the corner. They had an Australian guy with them who they had just met that morning. One of the women flipped through dozens of photos on her phone, of her with the Australian. Then they got into a disagreement about "scrolls", which the Australian guy finally conceded are like cinnamon rolls but without the cinnamon.
After the break, Big Chief said he could only stay for twenty more minutes because the next day was Super Sunday, the only day of the year when all the Black Indians come together for a parade, a tradition the Chief claims to have started. "You all come down to Washington and LaSalle at noon and see," he said. This was all new to me, but we had seen some of the costumes from years past at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, magnificent works of feathers and beads that the curator said take a year to make.
Twenty minutes later and the Chief was still singing. Sitting down on the stage, leaning back on one elbow with the microphone held high in the air, riffing about how he owns his own house, how it took him seventy-one years to do that, and how we are coming down here with all our money and buying up houses in his neighborhood. We had expected to see, post Hurricane Katrina, a shell of a city, but instead we saw people everywhere working to fix up the old buildings. We walked through neighborhoods full of young urbanites with kids in strollers and dogs on leashes. My friend who has been living there since 1988 said it was the most surprising thing, all these people who have moved in since Hurricane Katrina.
Sunday at noon we took a taxi to Washington and LaSalle. The Ethiopian taxi driver told us to stick with the parade and not to hang around that neighborhood. All around were abandoned houses, the glass gone, the doors covered with plywood. But today, the streets were starting to fill as the Black Indians were gathering. I was moved to get out my bamboo flute and play along to the drumming of some white women who were accompanying this particular Black Indian with his burgundy plumes blowing in the wind.
But I got the sense that this wasn't a join-in-if-you-want type of event, so we moved on and found the brass band that headed the parade, the lead man marching with his umbrella, his eyes bulging. Musicians were greeting spectators with hand shakes and hugs. But every time I caught someone's eye they looked away without smiling. There were some tourists taking pictures, but for the most part, this was a neighborhood event. We talked to just one man who pointed out his friend selling BBQ, telling us it was the best in town. We asked him how many years they had done this parade. He shook his head. "Centuries," he said.
What a thrill it was marching along New Orleans style with the trombones and the drums and the tambourines and the singing when I suddenly tuned into the lyrics. Kill 'em. Kill 'em. Kill 'em. They sang. And I started thinking about all the complexities of this place and these people, who not too far back in their history were bought and sold and brutalized, whose culture is now idolized and commodified. Chase 'em down. Chase 'em down. Chase 'em down. They sang. I suggested it might be time to leave.
So we watched the rest of the parade go by and then walked away, the abandoned houses suddenly menacing. But it was just two blocks to St. Charles and a bistro freshly remodeled serving gourmet pizza and micro-brew.