Scribbling Mama

A site where I explore all things related to life as a mother, a professor, and a New Orleanian.

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

I am the mother of a two-year-old and an Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies in New Orleans. I have devoted my career to the study of nineteenth-century American women writers, who were often called "scribblers," and have written a book, Writing for Immortality: Women and the Emergence of High Literary Culture in America, which focuses on the lives and writings of Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Stoddard, and Constance Fenimore Woolson. These four women worked hard to overcome the negative connotations associated with women writers, and I am deeply indebted to their examples for the courage not only to write but to make my voice heard. Now, as I and my family try to rebuild our lives after the loss of our home during Katrina, I am using my blog to work through and record my thoughts, experiences, and dilemmas.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing Again

I haven't done this in a while. But I've decided to reclaim this blog and start writing again. Actually, I've been doing a lot of writing. Fiction, if you can believe it. I hardly can. I feel rather guilty about it. But I can't seem to convince myself anymore that I am a scholar, someone who studies literature but never creates it. Seems I have reached this saturation point with all of the stories I have read, taught, and written about. It's time to write my own. In fact, I'm starting to see the writing I am doing as coming right out of all of those 19th-century women's stories. I have been teaching The Awakening fairly regularly since the storm, and my female students get all worked up by it, as do I. It is one of those books that we can't seem to let go of, which is probably why we all teach it and read it over and over again. It has become one of those ubiquitous books. Many of my students say they have read it two or three times already in other classes. Invariably, though, a student (usually an older one, and always female) says that the book still resonates today. Women are still struggling with the issues it raises. When I first read it as an undergrad, I couldn't exaclty relate to Edna, but I had this sense of foreshadowing, like this is what being a mom could be like. But it all seemed so remote, like this was how women in 1899 suffered. Surely women today suffered, but probably in different ways. Turns out, I have realized, not so different. So when I read the book again a year or so ago, I read it with new eyes. Edna made sense. And lately, she has really made sense. Of course, if she had had therapy and maybe antidepressants, she probably wouldn't have had to commit suicide. She also could have been spared that fate by the chance to get an education, to develop her talents, etc. Yet, the underlying problem, the fact that having children changes your life and opportunities forever, if you are a woman, has not changed. And this is what I find myself exploring in my writing these days.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Mothering Amid the Chaos

I have been wanting to write about what it is like to be a mom in post-Katrina New Orleans. There is a lot of talk about how few families have come back and how the city is not fit for little kids. A colleague of mine who had a baby two months after Katrina did not come back because she didn’t want her daughter exposed to the hazards here. I certainly understood her fears. I wasn’t sure myself that I wanted to bring my daughter back here. It is getting better, but I still worry sometimes about the long-term effects of growing up in a disaster zone.

Everyday as we drive past downtown on our way home, my daughter points out the “big white thing” and asks what it is. When I tell her, she invariably responds, “I love Superdomes!” Of course, the rest of us can never hear that word again without recalling the unspeakable suffering that occurred there. Her innocence of all things Katrina is both soothing and poignant. Thank God she has no idea what happened there. But one day she will.

I am eternally grateful that I didn’t have to actively protect her from the images on CNN. In fact, I barely saw them myself in those early post-K days because I was so preoccupied with trying to care for her and figure out where the hell we were going to go. And then when we got to my mother’s, she didn’t have cable. So I listened to NPR and read the Washington Post, two news outlets that sheltered us both from the hysteria.

Because my daughter is only two and a half, I haven’t had to do much explaining about the past. But I do have to explain what she sees all around her. Everywhere we go we see men repairing roofs or work crews with bulldozers collecting debris. I told her a few times that a big storm came through while we were gone and that now people have to fix the buildings and homes. When we were still in our apartment, we were living in the midst of a construction zone. The day we came home to the sound of men hacking away at the roof above our heads, she was terrified and clung to me like a baby gibbon, so I gathered her up and ran out of the building with debris falling all around us.

While we were still living in the apartment in Metairie, I spent all of our free time when she wasn’t in school looking for un-hurricane-touched areas of the city to take her. We looked for a safe playground that wasn’t shadowed by a burned-out house and that had safe swings and slides. I cringed as we drove past brick buildings that were half rubble, massive piles of debris, uprooted trees, or other obvious signs of destruction. I wasn’t sure how to name these things that she wanted to know about. “What’s that?” she would ask. And I would answer, “That house is broken. They need to fix that, don’t they?”

In a recent issue of her school’s newsletter, an article about helping kids through disasters advised parents to focus on signs of rebuilding and rebirth. The idea is to help kids see that things can be fixed—to make them feel that we have control over our environment, I guess, which helps them feel secure. It makes sense. It took me a while to make that turn away from despairing over the destruction towards seeing signs of hope and renewal. And I still go back and forth. But in the mind of a small child, who doesn’t yet understand the concept of destruction and death, rebirth is a given, once you point it out. We talk about the men laying bricks or fixing traffic lights or re-roofing houses. She wants to know where all the cars are going on the freeway and I tell her they are going to work or school. So many of them are pick-up trucks with ladders and other equipment or bucket trucks from the electrical company or furniture delivery trucks. So we talk about all of that too.

How much of the city’s incessant process of rebuilding is she aware of? It is looking like it’s going to take years. It will be part of the world she grows up in. I hope we can create a better world than the one the hurricane washed away.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

It's Just Stuff, Right?

What was once considered a once-every-hundred-year event, namely a storm that could top the levees and flood New Orleans, is now, according to today’s paper, believed to be a once-every-25-years event. At least that’s what the experts are saying now about a Category 3 hurricane. Of course, Katrina, which was a Category 3, was not supposed to breach the levees, but it did because of their poor design and construction. Now the Army Corps of Engineers is recalculating not only how high the levees need to be, but they are also considering how frequently big storms will hit the area. Maybe it’s global warming, or maybe it’s what a hurricane specialist called a heightened period of hurricane activity in the Gulf, which is (only) supposed to last for another 15 to 20 years. But either way, the new odds suddenly look a lot higher.

The news in the paper hasn’t been real upbeat lately. There has been a lot of concern about how the levees are being fixed and whether the repairs will be sufficient for the next hurricane season, especially considering the system-wide deficiencies that have come to light. Everyone has been waiting on the new FEMA flood maps to see, basically, how low we have sunk since 1984 when the last maps were drawn. The release date for the maps has been pushed back quite a few times, and now we know why—the news is so much worse than anybody (except the scientists who study this stuff) thought. Now they won’t release the maps until Congress will guarantee about six billion dollars more (on top of the 3.9 billion, which was the total price tag to fix the levees just a few days ago) to make all of the levees high enough to keep this sinking region from flooding in a 100-year storm. If we can’t get the money, then all bets are off. We’ll all have to build our homes on mile-high stilts.

The good news out of all of this is that most of New Orleans (except the suburban sprawl in Eastern New Orleans, which was inundated by Katrina) is not affected by these new estimates. They are fixing the levees that broke last time and so, presumably, we’ll be okay. The worst news to me was the idea that another Katrina could occur within 25 years, and that estimates about hurricane activity in the Gulf keep getting more alarming. Before Katrina, our fears about being washed away were fairly vague. Now, however, they are real. It is no longer a remote possibility but part of our lived experience. That it could happen again seems everyday more and more likely. The unthinkable is just part of our lives now.

For some reason, I find myself more willing now to live with that threat. Maybe I’d rather face the devil I know, so to speak. He has shown himself and we know how to get out of his way if (and when) he comes again. But it is, of course, also unsettling to be building a new castle—with new stuff—on what is essentially sand.

Lately we have started accumulating new stuff in earnest. There are the new bookcases with glass doors and the antique French settee and two actual oil paintings. They were all purchased for a steal at a local consignment store, but they are special pieces. That’s what we have decided to buy now that we have the chance to start over. Before we had a house full of stuff that was tolerable but nothing special. You know how it happens. Over the years you pick up stuff as the need arises. It’s usually cheap and fits the immediate purpose. Before long it’s just taking up space. After a while you don’t even notice it much anymore. You look around one day and think, what is all this crap? And you move it out to the garage or give it to Goodwill or just live with it. That’s how we felt about most of our stuff that perished in the flood. We hardly even knew it was gone—except we didn’t have anyplace to sit down or put a drink or lay our heads. So now that we have the chance to start all over, we’d like to accumulate things that we actually choose, stuff that we want to have around us for the long haul. But what if there is no long haul? What if we’ve just bought a bunch of new things that this time we’ll actually miss?

All of this sounds pretty crazy, really—all of this stuff that we accumulate. It is just stuff. In the grand scheme of things, we kept telling ourselves after we lost it all, it really didn’t matter. So here we are now collecting more things to replace the old. I can be cavalier about it all. But I also have to think about all of the people who didn’t have insurance and who really can’t start the whole capitalist, materialist thing all over. Insurance is an amazing thing. It’s as expensive as hell here right now. But we couldn’t live here without it.

And I think about the minister I read about who was helping evacuees in Houston or Atlanta somewhere as they tried to put their lives back together. They had Red Cross debit cards and he lamented the fact that they were all going out to Walmart and coming home with a bunch of cheap stuff, buying new things, anything, just because they could. They didn’t really need all of the little gadgets and knick-knacks they were wasting their free money on. But maybe it’s built into our psyche to buy in times of distress. I ran into a friend at the consignment store that we have been frequently lately. “Isn’t this place great?” she said. “I love to come here. Buying new things is the only thing that makes me feel better these days.” It’s the silver lining to this tragedy that so many people from this area are experiencing. With insurance checks in the bank, it’s time to shop!

On a more serious note, though, it’s not just about stuff for us anymore. The other day during an afternoon with the kids at the zoo, a friend and I were talking about how much we love it here. I told her that this is the best house and neighborhood I have lived in since I was a kid. After years of wandering from Midwestern college towns to bland Southern suburbs, with too little income to purchase or furnish a place that I could really call “home,” we are now somewhere that we hope will be our home for a long time. She said she and her husband had always felt the same way about their home in Uptown, that this was it for them. But now it’s hard to say that because you don’t know how long it all will be here. We joked about how we hoped we could at least get a few more good years out of this place. I’d really hate to lose it all before we even had the chance to settle in and make some memories, to really feel at peace for a while after so much wandering and waiting for a place to call home.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A New Community

I ventured out of my office today and walked across campus, something I rarely do. What I found strengthened my desire to stay in New Orleans. First of all, it is a beautiful breezy, sunny day. Then I also saw a sign that says “Criminology has moved to ED 226,” with ED 266 crossed out and “Houston” written in; a group of Indian men playing a game of cricket; a sign for the UNO Greens announcing a showing of the film “Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices”; and students of every race and ethnicity imaginable. There truly is no place like UNO right now.

In my composition class, we are discussing what kinds of communities New Orleans should be rebuilding, and the subject of who lives in these communities has inevitably come up, with most students saying they want to live around people just like them. We’ve been reading about “New Urbanism,” a design philosophy that stresses walkable, compact neighborhoods and diverse populations. The questions is, can you design the kind of “community” you want? Can you engineer diversity?

Universities do it, and with good reason. As I told them, I much prefer the diverse classrooms at UNO over the homogonous student body at the Big Ten university I was trained at. I love hearing from a student about how the Vietnamese community he grew up in that was destroyed by Katrina is being rebuilt; or how a student who lived in predominately white Chalmette went to school in the predominately African-American Ninth Ward; or a student of Middle Eastern descent who owns gas stations in black neighborhoods. This is part of what I love about my job and what I love about living in New Orleans.

After living in the white-flight suburb of Slidell for five years and yearning to go back to the comfortable but bland Midwest, I am quite happy now to be living in the heart of New Orleans, in an area called the Irish Channel, where Irish immigrant laborers settled around the turn of the last century and which is today characterized by a broad spectrum of incomes, races, and household types. Suddenly, I find we are living in precisely the kind of neighborhood the New Urbanists are trying (and often failing) to manufacture: it is traditional, diverse, walkable, and close-knit.

We moved into our new hosue last Friday, and within a couple of hours we had met five of our new neighbors. The whole five weeks we lived in Lakeview before the storm, we met only the two older sisters who lived next door. There the houses had alleys behind them and you drove up and parked your car and walked in the back door. We never had the chance to run into people, and many likely never even knew we were there. But here the houses are close together, everyone parks on the street (the homes were built before cars became the norm), and when you step out on your front porch you are immediately part of the neighborhood. People work in the little gardens in front of their stoops and hang out on their porches. It feels like Mayberry, but with a difference. There are gay and interracial couples as well as families with small kids. A block away are low-income apartments. The diversity of the neighborhood is typified by the kinds of shops on Magazine, a busy commercial street that runs through our neighborhood. Just one block away, nestled next to each other in the same building, are a tattoo parlor and a store that sells rare chandeliers. An A&P and a Walgreens sit next to a row of funky vintage clothing stores, coffee shops, and a wine bar.

I have never lived in a neighborhood or a city like this. And while I feel like I haven’t had a whole lot of agency in choosing where to live--we stayed in the region because we couldn’t find better jobs, and we chose this house because it was the best we could afford—I am happy with where we have landed. We fee like we are finally “home.” And there is even a sweet, affectionate kitty that looks a lot like a smaller, fluffier version of Jasper, who lives next door but makes frequent visits over to our yard and even inside the house.

Of course, we still have plenty of anxiety about the future of the city as hurricane season approaches. We are waiting for the next calamity to hit us. My husband and I have both had dreams about the house burning down. We will never again take our home and our community for granted. And we both feel as if we have finally found a home that we couldn’t stand to lose. I can sense us developing the kind of fierce attachment to place that is motivating so many New Orleanians to rescue their flooded neighborhoods. I think I finally know what is driving the passion to rebuild this city.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

For Better or For Worse

Last night was one of those magical New Orleans evenings. A rocking Cajun band, couples swirling around the dance floor, the moon shining over the bayou, food and drink flowing freely, and a beautiful bride and groom who brought people from all over the country to share their love for each other and this city.

The ceremony took place on a wide pedestrian bridge that spans Bayou St. John near City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art. My darling daughter was the flower girl and walked down the aisle, smiling and holding the hand of the ring bearer, a sweet little boy holding out his hand and announcing, “It’s raining.” (A few drops did not spoil the event, thankfully.) Her dress with blue flowers was a little too big and his pin-stripe suit was a little too small. They looked perfect together. And it was a miracle to me that they performed their job so beautifully, with a crowd of people on either side, standing and watching their every move. My shy little girl was beaming, and I had tears in my eyes.

Of course, she got a little restless during the ceremony, so my attention was a bit distracted. But it was a lovely tribute to the couple’s relationship and to the city’s recent hardships. The prayer included a plea for federal help, and a moment of silence was observed for those who lost their lives in the hurricane.

Beginning with that moment of silence, the evening got me thinking about so many people who are gone from New Orleans. In addition to the hundreds who died, thousands have moved away, most never to return. I have already mentioned our dear friends who have ended up in the D. C. area. But there are also many friends and colleagues who, it is becoming clear, will not come back. As I walk the halls of the Liberal Arts building on campus, I see the familiar names on office doors, and it is hard to believe they aren’t just sitting inside. From the outside of the building you even can see right through the windows into their offices, which look just as they left them back in August. In one, a book lays open, face-down on the desk, as if the owner will be right back to pick it up and start reading where she left off.

Last night was a reminder of our pre-Katrina lives because it brought together many old friends who have moved away, but all of them in the past year or so before the storm. I have often wondered what it must be like for those who got out before all hell broke loose. I know about ten people who happened to move on to greener pastures in the past two years. One of them told me she felt terribly guilty for leaving, a kind of survivor’s guilt. She had never planned to move away from New Orleans, but she had recently met a wonderful man and decided to join him in his home in Kentucky. Another colleague and his family decided to leave New Orleans because they didn’t want to raise their daughter here. They returned to the New Mexico desert, and he left academia. Certainly they have been thanking their lucky stars. Or do they credit their fortune to premonition?

Our friends who got married last night moved to Boston last Spring. Shortly after Katrina, they decided they would go ahead with their plans to get married back in New Orleans. Apparently, many were concerned about their choice. But they pulled it off beautifully, despite having to choose a new location as well as a new hotel when sites that were planning to re-open in time were not going to be ready. This was the first event since Katrina for the historical Pitot House, where the reception was held. It is a lovely Creole home with balconies, a front garden, and a large side-yard for the tent and tables and dance floor. It was a gorgeous evening, all captured by a photographer from the newspaper (who said he was more used to photographing dead people, a reference to his work during the aftermath of Katrina) and an artist who set up his easel and painted a large canvas with many of the evening’s elements: the bridge, the balconies, the moon, the bride’s long, flowing gown, even a little girl in a dress with a blue bow (our daughter).

Waiting in line for the bathroom, I heard one of the guests from California say that someone she told about her upcoming trip to New Orleans was shocked, as if she were making a trek into a war zone or a wasteland. I suppose this is the image much of the world still has of us. But everything last night contradicted such a picture. There was not a single reminder of the destruction. The fence had been repaired and the storm debris was long-gone. But underlying everything was this sense that what we were doing was momentous, not just for the couple but for the city as well. People from the surrounding neighborhoods came out to watch the ceremony on the bridge and the short second-line procession to the Pitot House. I’m sure they enjoyed the music emanating across the bayou, glad to see that another sign of life had returned. For now is again the time to celebrate and consecrate. A wedding is a beautiful beginning, and all of the New Orleanians there must have felt the promise it held for all for of us. For better or for worse, we are committing ourselves to this city. After years of flirting with New Orleans, I am finally ready to take the plunge.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Successful Mardi Gras

A few weeks ago, when we had dinner with a colleague and his family, he said he sensed a kind of strange euphoria in post-Katrina New Orleans. My husband and I had no idea what he was talking about. We still felt only confusion and despair. Now I think I know what he meant. It is the energy that made us want to settle in New Orleans again and that was on display for the whole world over the past few days.

The euphoria (he could think of no better word to describe it) that my colleague was trying to explain to us was a feeling of community spirit. It is as if everyone has returned from exile and is happy to be home, as battered as it is. Even having to wait at the post office every afternoon for his mail, he said, has become a neighborly activity rather than a nuisance. People are connecting in new ways as we all are suffering the same inconveniences and heartaches. More than that, though, everyone is relieved to find that New Orleans is still alive. Every small sign of renewal (another fast food restaurant re-opens, a magazine arrives in the mail, a street is cleared of debris, a traffic light is hooked up) is a sign of hope that New Orleans is rising from the ashes. And that is exactly what Mardi Gras was this year, a sure sign that the city and its heritage will live on.

There was some attempt to stir up a controversy on the cable news shows about whether or not New Orleans should have parades this year. And there was a lot of hand-wringing in the Times-Picayune from locals who wanted to make sure the national media didn’t just focus on Bourbon Street and wanted to let the world know that our spirit will not die. And it seems that, at least partially, the story did get out, finally, that Mardi Gras is not all “Girls Gone Wild.” The wildness in the French Quarter is conducted almost entirely by tourists, not locals. People who live here congregate along St. Charles Ave. and build seats on top of ladders for their little ones and put up tents for their families. Sure, people get drunk and occasionally a little out of control, especially as the parades extend into the evenings. But if you go earlier in the day and find a spot near the front to hoist up your kid so she can wave to the passing floats and catch some beads, well, there’s nothing like it.

This year, the parades and parties all had a Katrina theme, whether overtly or subtly. Waterlines were visible on floats. The paucity of marching bands reminded everyone of the school kids dispersed throughout the country. And the t-shirts with “Save NOLA” or “Willy Nagin and the Chocolate Factory” were out in force. Yesterday, as the whole city seemed to be in costume, blue tarps (used to cover damaged roofs) were the material of choice for hats and even jackets and gowns. One of the most popular costumes was the blind levee inspector, complete with walking stick.

A friend of ours told us a couple of months ago that Mardi Gras would be a watershed moment for New Orleans. If a shooting happened during a parade, the national media would write its obituary. But if the tourists came and spent enough money and the coverage was positive, the city could be on its way to recovery. All indications are that it was a successful Mardi Gras. I know my daughter, in her ballerina costume and beads, thought it was.

For a while there it did seem as if we were all hanging on by a thread. But the momentum is building. Parts of the city are definitely lagging behind. However, if you go to Uptown, where we are buying our new house, you can almost forget there was a Katrina. It is a lovely part of the city, the heart of New Orleans now, and it is definitely still beating.

It is strange how we have lived in the area for six years but never really felt like New Orleanians until now. I wear my “Save NOLA” t-shirt proudly. And I am ready to embrace life in the city. There was so much about pre-Katrina New Orleans that made it difficult for us to commit to this city. But now that the slate has been wiped clean, so to speak, there is so much promise. We want to be part of what makes this a better city than it was. Suddenly we are optimists, after so many months of death and destruction. Spring truly is around the corner. (But so is hurricane season. Shhh.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Who Wants a "Normal" Childhood?

My darling daughter surprised us by busting out the whole ABC song the other day. All of a sudden, she knows the alphabet. It is one of the those moments when you are thrilled and amazed at what your offspring is capable of. And, I have to say, it was a bit of a relief to have such positive evidence that she is growing and learning, even flourishing, in the midst of all the post-Katrina chaos.

One of our main concerns as we struggled with our decision about whether to stay or move away was what would be the best environment for her to grow up in. Of course, it seems obvious that life in a small Midwestern city would be healthier and safer. The schools are better, crime is lower, the environment is cleaner, and natural disasters are infrequent and more isolated. Plus, life is pretty damn “normal” up there compared to down here, and isn’t that what any parent wants for his/her child? But maybe “normal” is not what she needs most.

Right now she is falling in love with Mardi Gras. We have been to two parades, and she is hankering for more, which she will get this weekend. The parades start Thursday and don’t end until Fat Tuesday. Every time someone walks up to her and hands her a stuffed animal or throws a string of glittering beads from the top of a passing float, we get caught up in the magic of the moment. The whole bead-begging mania seemed pretty pointless to me before, but now the three of us glory in the whole event—the horses, the drums and horns, and the bright colors (but not so much the pre-pubescent girls thrusting their hips in tiny skirts).

New Orleans’ racial diversity (and tension), art and music and parades, architecture, and history, all make this such a unique place. I grew up feeling like I was not really a native of any particular place or culture. But my daughter could grow up as part of an authentic culture here. Is that enough of a benefit to risk her experiencing another hurricane? Of course, the thing about hurricanes is that you have the chance to get out of their way. So I don’t fear for our lives. But I do worry about my daughter having to experience all of this as an older child.

Right now, at two years old, she has been remarkably unaware of the turmoil. The seven-week evacuation and separation from her father was the hard part. Since we have been back together, and especially since she has been back in school, she is a happy little girl. She has never asked about the house or the cats, although she has missed one special friend. (And so do I. Her mom was fast becoming a very dear friend, and their absence is one of the saddest parts of this whole thing to me. They have since moved on to the D.C. area.) But she is making new friends and adapting quite well to the post-Katrina environment.

Although I have worried about her seeing so much destruction, what she seems to notice most are the rebuilding efforts. She is fascinated by all of the construction equipment we encounter every time we hit the road and the men she sees laying bricks or repairing roofs. Although I sometimes say, “women can fix things too,” when she talks about all of the “men working,” we very rarely see women in the work crews. Nevertheless, I hope she will one day be proud of her residency here and the fact that she was part of the rebirth of this one-of-kind city.