Thursday, September 23, 2010


I've just come back from a few days in New Orleans. We went to visit our daughter, a lighting designer. The theater company she is a member of was/is performing The Mad Woman of Chaillot, written by a French playwright in the '40s, a tale of corporate greed and oil lust. The New Orleans group decided to mount this play well before the Deep Water Horizon oil explosion. So History stepped up to intersect with their artistic concerns and interests.

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I have always loved the bowl shape of the Mississippi where it hugs/contains/cradles the city of New Orleans. I spent some time looking at maps of New Orleans on this visit, as we stayed at a B&B that had many antique maps of the city on the walls of the dining room, and the B&B owner liked to talk about them and the city's history as we ate breakfast. One thing I hadn't known was that NO was originally planned as a walled city. This wall would have contained the area we now know as the French Quarter, the Vieux Carre. Our host did not think that any of the walls had ever been built. The walls were intended for protection from the native tribes. But, our host said, the settlers and the natives ended up getting along well, so perhaps this is why the wall project was abandoned. In my novel-in-progress, I have a character in a contemporary setting who is proposing to build a wall along the border of his town because he is afraid of the people who live on the other side. I do not think he will get very far with this project. But it seems worth exploring.

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When we arrived at the B&B, our host introduced us to his wife, who was sitting in a corner of the living room, gluing glitter onto stilettos, and she had a whole shoe rack of amazing women's shoes waiting in line for similar treatment. They explained that she is one of the Krewe of Muses. In NO, Krewes are the groups that parade during Mardi Gras. And this particular krewe is beloved because as the muses float by on their floats, they throw the glittering shoes out to parade watchers (the things they throw are called "throws," and these shoes are considered to be high-quality throws.) 
     If you read this blog, you know that the muse is a concern of mine. Also, a concern of my friend Patry. My last morning in NO, when I went to check my email in the living room where the glittery shoes are produced by a Krewe Muse, I found a message from Patry, saying that she had just completed our collaborative muse-summoning/blueberry-pie-baking annual ritual. Furthermore, every time I am in NO, I contemplate the unusual/unpronounceable/impenetrable array of street names. Terpsichore, for example. Melpomene. Euterpe. When I mentioned these names to my godson over dinner, he shrugged, so casual. "Oh," he said, "the names of the muses."
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The work of W. G. Sebald, one of my great literary inspirations, is saturated with just these kinds of intersections and "coincidences," as we call them. It is reported that when asked about the role of coincidence in his work, Sebald said that whatever path he took in his writing, he always, sooner or later, came across another path that led quickly back to some detail from his own life. He also said that the more one was attuned to look out for such things, the more frequently they occurred.
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One morning at breakfast, we met a young woman who is in the army, stationed in Louisiana, part of an engineering brigade that works on vertical projects. She may have called it the "vertical unit" or the "vertical brigade" (I am not sure), but she explained it by saying they work on bridges, towers--anything, I guess, that takes one up. She was also one of the first responders during Hurricane Katrina, staying for a time in the Convention Center, then in a camp the army set up. An actual person who is trained to take charge in the midst of human catastrophe. Sitting quietly and eating breakfast. And I was thinking about that, with a hushed awe. I was thinking about that capacity in her, but I'll admit, I was also thinking about the circus act that occurs in my new novel--what I call the "Spiral Ascent"--and I was thinking about whether she might have any tips for me.
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There's no real way to end a post like this but to sit with the idea of intersections, let it filter down and see where it takes us.

6 comments: said...

Not sure walls make good neighbors. More like walls make walls.

Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us!

Susan Messer said...

Oh, yes, thanks. I'd forgotten that quote about walls and neighbors. And thank you for reading. It's an odd, meandering sort of travel piece I've presented here. I'm glad you liked it.

Jim Poznak said...

Susan, your post brings to my mind the random nature of intersections and how profoundly they change our lives.

Susan Messer said...

Yes, it is impressive to consider how much of what happens to us is random. It's human consciousness, I think, that finds meanings in the intersections. said...

I am thinking about "Mending Fences", a poem by Robert Frost.

Interesting to note that Mr. Frost was known to be a dour man.

Susan Messer said...

Ah. I see. And Sebald was a melancholic one.