30 October 2012

Two Stories

Last week I drove down to New Orleans to catch composer Sarah Quintana's performance/installation at A Studio in the Woods. Just the idea of driving on my own to the city I love most in the world was exciting enough to keep me awake the night before.

For some people I talked to during my 22 hours in The City, seven hours of driving seemed excessive for such a short visit. For me, it's one of my favorite ways to work.  Drive time is usually think time for me; all the more so through MS where kudzu turns pastoral landscapes into magical kingdoms full of soft but slightly scary giants. In the same way I looked at cloud shapes as a child,  Mississippi kudzu-covered power lines and abandoned houses are re-imagined as imaginary creatures.

The performance/installation turned out to be much less evocative than two stories I heard:  one told by my friend and overnight host and the other by a man I met at an open mic show in a bar on the edge of the French Quarter.

My host told the story of a new client whose adult son recently committed suicide. Unconvinced the death was a suicide, this 60-something woman was in pursuit of official confirmation of her suspicions. Poised and well-dressed, she sat in my friend's office with dry eyes and no visible signs of grief. My friend found the woman's composure and single-mindedness unnerving, unnatural.

The more she talked, the more I was reminded of my own late mother -- and, by extension, myself and my siblings. We are people adept at putting on "the good face". The irony is that in some situations, the better face is the face where grief, confusion or pain are transparently in evidence.

I made my way to the Wednesday open mic at Buffa's to catch a new friend's performance of three new songs. I also hoped to hang out and catch up with her and other folks I'd met there back in May. When I arrived, the act on stage was uninspiring. I stepped outside for a smoke and was introduced to Walter, a bearded bear of a man whose gentle, philosophical nature was quickly evident.

Conversation meandered from the upcoming presidential election to "life in the South" and race relations. Walter prefaced his story by saying "I am from what you would call "poor white trash" stock. I grew up in rural Georgia." He recalled one night when he was about 4 years old.  His father was away, as he often was for work. A deputy sheriff came by to pick up his mother (Walter suspects she was "messin' around" with the deputy). He said he had something to show her.

They drove for what seemed a long time to young Walter. They parked the car and walked into the woods. Walter is in his 60s now but he said he still remembers the night clearly. The deputy switched on his flashlight and raised the beam to focus on the charred remains of a human body hanging from tree. "He was laughing and proud but I felt scared and sick and confused." The dissonance of the experience reverberates still for him, half a century later.

I am taking a break from FaceBook. I have seen too much of the worst human behavior in the last several weeks leading up to the Election. Like little Walter, attending the social network has left me scared and sick and confused. People are showing not "the good face" but the dark heart behind the veil of anonymity that online discourse enables. 

I "Liked" a page called "It's Not Easy Leaning Left in Mississippi" the day before I deactivated my account. I'll check up with them again when I return. Sometime after the Election. I try not to think about my expectation that the results will lead to further strife and conflict. There's no place to hide entirely from this mess but I can take a break from standing at the front.