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Murmuration

Seen while returning from the funeral of an old friend.

All I Ever Had

A Timely Passage from A Tale of Two Cities

Far and wide lay a ruined country, yielding nothing but desolation. Every green leaf, every blade of grass and blade of grain, was as shrivelled and poor as the miserable people. Everything was bowed down, dejected, oppressed, and broken. Habitations, fences, domesticated animals, men, women, children, and the soil that bore them—all worn out. Monseigneur (often a most worthy individual gentleman) was a national blessing, gave a chivalrous tone to things, was a polite example of luxurious and shining life, and a great deal more to equal purpose; nevertheless, Monseigneur as a class had, somehow or other, brought things to this. Strange that Creation, designed expressly for Monseigneur, should be so soon wrung dry and squeezed out! There must be something short-sighted in the eternal arrangements, surely! Thus it was, however; and the last drop of blood having been extracted from the flints, and the last screw of the rack having been turned so often that its purchase crumbled, and it now turned and turned with nothing to bite, Monseigneur began to run away from a phenomenon so low and unaccountable. But, this was not the change on the village, and on many a village like it. For scores of years gone by, Monseigneur had squeezed it and wrung it, and had seldom graced it with his presence except for the pleasures of the chase—now, found in hunting the people; now, found in hunting the beasts, for whose preservation Monseigneur made edifying spaces of barbarous and barren wilderness. No. The change consisted in the appearance of strange faces of low caste, rather than in the disappearance of the high caste, chiselled, and otherwise beautified and beautifying features of Monseigneur.

The Poetry of Black Boy

I’m reading Black Boy by Richard Wright and enjoying the poetry of these passages:

Each event spoke with a cryptic tongue. And the moments of living slowly revealed their coded meanings. There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountain-like, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road through clouds of powdered clay.

There was the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun to the bright horizon.

There was the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks and shins as I ran down the wet, green garden paths in the early morning.

There was the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River from the verdant bluffs of Natchez.

There were the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky.

There was the tantalising melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood.

There was the teasing and impossible desire to imitate the petty pride of sparrows wallowing and flouncing in the red dust of country roads.

There was the yearning for identification loosed in me by the sight of a solitary ant carrying a burden upon a mysterious journey.

There was the disdain that filled me as I tortured a delicate, blue-pink crawfish that huddled fearfully in the mudsill of a rusty tin can.

There was the aching glory in masses of clouds burning gold and purple from an invisible sun.

There was the liquid alarm I saw in the blood-red glare of the sun’s afterglow mirrored in the squared panes of whitewashed frame houses.

There was the languor I felt when I heard green leaves rustling with a rainlike sound.

There was the incomprehensible secret embodied in a whitish toadstool hiding in the dark shade of a rotting log.

There was the experience of feeling death without dying that came from watching a chicken leap about blindly after its neck had been snapped by a quick twist of my father’s wrist.

There was the great joke that I felt God had played on cats and dogs by making them lap their milk and water with their tongues.

There was the thirst I had when I watched clear, sweet juice trickle from sugar cane being crushed.

There was the hot panic that welled up in my throat and swept through my blood when I first saw the lazy, limp coils of a blue-skinned snake sleeping in the sun.

There was the speechless astonishment of seeing a hog stabbed through the heart, dipped into boiling water, scraped, split open, gutted, and strung up gaping and bloody.

There was the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks.

There was the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun.

There was the saliva that formed in my mouth whenever I smelt clay dust potted with fresh rain.

There was the cloudy notion of hunger when I breathed the odour of new-cut, bleeding grass.

And there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earthward from star-heavy skies on silent nights…

The days and hours began to speak now with a clearer tongue. Each experience had a sharp meaning of its own.

There was the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies on drowsy summer nights.

There was the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias.

There was the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass swaying and glinting in the wind and sun.

There was the feeling of impersonal plenty when I saw a boll of cotton whose cup had split over and straggled its white fleece towards the earth.

There was the pitying chuckle that bubbled in my throat when I watched a fat duck waddle across the back yard.

There was the suspense I felt when I heard the taut, sharp song of a yellow-black bee hovering nervously but patiently above a white rose.

There was the drugged, sleepy feeling that came from sipping glasses of milk, drinking them slowly so that they would last a long time, and drinking enough for the first time in my life.

There was the bitter amusement of going into town with Granny and watching the baffled stares of white folks who saw an old white woman leading two undeniably Negro boys in and out of stores on Capitol Street.

There was the slow, fresh, saliva-stimulating smell of cooking cotton seeds.There was the excitement of fishing in muddy country creeks with my grandpa on cloudy days.

There was the fear and awe I felt when Grandpa took me to a sawmill to watch the giant, whirring, steel blades whine and scream as they bit into wet, green logs.

There was the puckery taste that almost made me cry when I ate my first half-ripe persimmon.There was the greedy joy in the tangy taste of wild hickory nuts.

There was the dry, hot, summer morning when I scratched my bare arms on briers while picking blackberries and came home with my fingers and lips stained black with sweet berry juice.

There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.

There was the all-night ache in my stomach after I had climbed a neighbour’s tree and eaten stolen, unripe peaches.

There was the morning when I thought I would fall dead from fear after I had stepped with my bare feet upon a bright little green garden snake.

And there were the long, slow, drowsy days and nights of drizzling rain…

My dad gave me

My dad gave me
The history
Of future things
That he could see

And when I saw
The fatal flaw
He showed how mercy
Breaks the law

My mom and I

My mom and I
Flew through the sky
Towards the sun
On wings of why

We circled high
And in her eye
Some kindness answered
To my cry

This plague is not a hurricane

By: Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson is a professor of history at Tulane University.

29 March 2020

On Mardi Gras Day this year, we had friends over to watch the marchers and musicians of the St. Anne parade strut and dance past our balcony on Royal Street. By the end of the procession, many of the marchers had dropped out and joined our party, wearing their clever costumes. A few were dressed as the coronavirus, with bodysuits that mimicked the beer bottle and hoods that made them look like viral rockets. It was still early enough to be amusing.

Now as I look down from our balcony, Royal Street is nearly deserted. A lone cornetist on the corner is playing a slow rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” but there are few people to drop tips into his bucket.

Did Mardi Gras help make New Orleans a hot spot in the current plague? Probably. Should it have been canceled? Well, obviously, just as in hindsight it would have been good if we’d canceled all big gatherings and sporting events in the country in mid-February rather than mid-March. But I can’t blame our governor or mayor for not knowing that. By Mardi Gras weekend, there had been no deaths or reported community-spread cases in the United States, and Trump that Monday tweeted, “The coronavirus is very much under control.”

Now there are 3,540 reported cases in Louisiana, as of Sunday, making it rank as the ninth most-afflicted state in the nation, and 1,127 have been hospitalized. New Orleans has 1,350 of the cases and has suffered 73 deaths so far. The governor says hospitals in some parishes may soon be filled, so the city’s convention facility is being converted into an emergency facility. While the toll will be nowhere near the 1,500 or so who were killed in Louisiana by Katrina, I understand why we have been called an eye of this hurricane. It’s an apt analogy, because the atmosphere in much of the city, other than the hospitals, is eerily calm but charged, just as in a hurricane’s eye.

There is still some music in the streets. Doreen Ketchens, the beloved clarinetist who plays with her band on Royal Street in front of our corner grocery, performed to an empty sidewalk a few days ago. “It’s the week after the madness, but we’re out here anyway,” she said. “We wanted to give some music to a very quiet Royal Street.” She sings a final rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” stressing the verse about “when the sun begins to shine,” then plays happy birthday to her tuba player. In Jackson Square, a lone drummer plays in front of the cathedral. As Brandi Carlile once sang, “You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you’re standing in the eye.”

Walker Percy, a Louisiana novelist with a wry philosophical depth and grace worn lightly, had a theory about hurricanes. “It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” he wrote of the semi-autobiographical title character of his second novel, “The Last Gentleman.” During a hurricane, we no longer feel alienated or uncertain. We know what to do, and we do it. We are together, in the same boat. Then we have a hurricane party.

But this plague is not a hurricane. In a hurricane you know that, if you ride it out for a day, the sun will begin to shine, the waters will recede, and the earth will begin to heal. During this plague, we’re not quite sure what to do, other than stay socially distanced. New Orleanians are not good at social distancing. It’s also unclear how this storm ends. The song that resonates is not Brandi’s “The Eye,” it’s the Neville Brothers’ cover of “Sitting in Limbo.”

So we look for something to do that might be useful. Throughout the city, restaurants have set up tables outside for people to come buy takeout plates of their specialties. For the homeless and less fortunate, pickup trucks with volunteers drive through the neighborhoods handing out boxed meals for free. Various groups, including my Tulane students, have scrambled to set up funds to help hospitality workers, musicians, those in the gig economy and others who have been hurt.

A few days ago, my wife and I drove two hours south to Grand Isle, where the marshes meet the Gulf of Mexico. People used to go there in previous centuries to escape the plagues. There was a semblance of normalcy. The Starfish restaurant was serving at outdoor tables, and as we drove back up along Bayou Lafourche, we stopped at the tin shed of Big Jim’s seafood dock and bought a couple of dozen oysters just off the boat.

Louisiana used to go through these plagues regularly. The worst year on record was 1853, when 7,800 of 115,000 New Orleans residents died of yellow fever. Right after that plague receded, the town’s first Mardi Gras krewe was formed. The pent-up city needed a release.

Will there be a Mardi Gras next year? Yes, but only if it’s safe by then. There’s a resilience in a city that has come through many plagues and hurricanes in its history and which, like our nation, will come through this one.

COPYRIGHT 2020: The Washington Post

Just give me one thing that I can hold onto

From Fiona Whelan Prine…

Our beloved John died yesterday evening at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville TN. We have no words to describe the grief our family is experiencing at this time. John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter in law Fanny, and by our grandchildren.

John contracted Covid-19 and in spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team at Vanderbilt he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body.

I sat with John – who was deeply sedated- in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity. My dearest wish is that people of all ages take this virus seriously and follow guidelines set by the CDC. We send our condolences and love to the thousands of other American families who are grieving the loss of loved ones at this time – and to so many other families across the world.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world. John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.

In lieu of flowers or gifts at this time we would ask that a donation be made to one of the following non profits:

thistlefarms.org

roomintheinn.org

nashvillerescuemission.org

The Bag

Winter Reverie Whilst Walking

My nose
Is froze
And so’s
My toes*

* Poetic license, my toes are fine.