The Wandering Scientist

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Monthly Archives: December 2014

Midnight fog on Mississippi

Written: December 29, 2014, in Orlando, FL

About: New Orleans, the night of December 27

Fog rose up from the night-time Mississippi in tongues like ghostly flames. A low wind drove this fog, it slid over the levy and then lapped against the squat buildings of French Market. In places, the fog piled up, rising in a wispy columns. Gnarled and twisted, they rose up until they joined the low clouds, which themselves were held up by the glowing high-rises of the Central Business District.

The docks of Algiers, across the river, were but a disjointed collection of lights and angled roofs. Someone began to imagine them, but did not quite finish, and so they floated on, primeval and hypnotizing.

The wind picked up, and the fog grew into a shapeless behemoth that charged the shore. It moved fast, and almost instantly the levy disappeared, swallowed up. The lamps glowed weakly, like distant frozen comets. The massive wave of fog breached the flood wall, broke up into a legion of shadows and apparitions that rushed into the streets of French Quarter, growing ever more invisible with every step, every leap.

As the surge dissipated, it left behind a ragged sheath of fog, showing the water beneath. It looked taut, rough, grey, and wet, like the skin of some vast, languid animal dreaming under the fantastical cloak.

In all of this, Natchez, at her night dock, appeared as if behind a ward – completely free of the fog. The water around her sides was a pure, glistening black. Her light shone brightly, their clarity made more brilliant by the chaotic and unfocused world of the fog swirling around the ship.

All Souls 2014

Written: December 14, 2014 in Washington, DC

About: November 2, 2014, in Tucson, AZ

My mother called me late at night. My grandmother had passed away. She kept her composure, but the unusual raspness of her voice betrayed the grief. We spoke briefly. She made plans to fly back for the funeral. This was not possible for me.

You always hope that this call would come at a time when you are in a comfortable, safe place. It never does. You are at a birthday party, or eating breakfast, or pumping gas. I was at a laundromat. The phone call left me wiped out and numb, but I had to stay in this place until the spin and dry cycles all finished. It seemed absurd and grotesque that instead of profound, this moment was menial and full of strangers. So it goes.

At least it was in the middle of the night, and I could escape into the empty street for some relief.

A heaving loss was lumbering somewhere beneath the surface of my consciousness, but I could not quite figure out what it was that I had lost. My grandmother had drifted into the fog of Alzheimer’s long ago. Even then, she was left behind that brutal watershed, immigration. In my mind, she had become a fable, and her departure only confirmed her mythological status.

Next morning, compelled by childhood memories, I got up early, went into the kitchen and started cooking. The sun peeked over the roofs and found me with a tall stack of bliny, warmed by the gas stove, as it had often found her. The clouds were turning red and gold, a sight to share with my grandmother. I learned to make bliny by watching my grandmother do it thousands of times.

I have previously been considering going back to Tucson for this year’s All Souls Procession. Now this became an essential, vital need.

***

A mass of humanity – thousands of people – has arranged itself on Tucson’s 6th Street as the desert sun rolled away. It had stoked the afternoon heat, but with the soft darkness drawing upon the city, everything and everyone felt unburdened and refreshed. Filling the streets as a vast flood, we have come for death and remembrance. We have come here not in sorrow, but in unity.

Many carried memories of those who passed away in the last year. Anything from a small pocket photo to costumes to large family gatherings carrying altars adorned with lights and icons. The Urn took up its place at the head of the Procession, filled with letters written to the departed.

Shared sadness turned into great joy. People formed a mad, often bizarre tapestry of costumes, masks, and painted faces. A mesh of music coming from stereos and musicians hung over the gathering. Yet friends still found each other in this chaos. Time passed in smiling conversations, punctuated with excited greetings and hugs. Then by some command, more felt than heard, the crowd shook, the drums kicked up, and we began to move. The sidewalks – the banks of this human river – were packed with onlookers, waving and cheering on those walking.

Somewhere in the thick of it, the pipers of the Tucson Highlanders blew their pipes, lofting that perfect sound of steady hearts and hallowed memories. We followed the thin ghost of their distant sound.

As we followed the pipers, the procession pulled into an underpass beneath a railroad. The entrance into narrow concrete tunnel was ringed with people hanging off the guardrails and the top of the bridge. It was a portal made of humans. The pipers drew themselves up, and launched into Amazing Grace as they descended.

The concrete underworld vibrated and bucked with the power of the music and of the people singing, cheering, whooping, dancing, stomping. The walls beat with our hearts and the lights shined brighter. Sorrow burned and evaporated away, leaving behind only the joy of remembering those we love.

The memories of my grandmother welled up in my chest, too compressed and entangled to pick them apart. Rather, I remembered her, and what it was like to be with her. This feeling pushed out against my bones, burst upward, roaring. I lifted my head and I howled. I howled and I howled I howled, with tears in my eyes, with all the sadness and the longing and the love, until it all emptied out of me, until the pipers led us out of the tunnel, back into this world, back into the crisp night, our river flowing steady between the human banks.

I was in a place removed infinitely far from grandmother. In a foreign country, in a strange desert, a small human in a giant ritual that was unabashedly grotesque and alien. Yet then I was as close to her as I have been in the hot summers of my childhood, on the cool riverbanks, in the green orchards heavy with cherries, in her small kitchen, watching her cook an endless feast for a gang of grandchildren.

Later, in the leery midnight hour, feeling fresh from a monsoon that passed through us, we found a street vendor serving up Sonoran hotdogs, in itself a small tradition. In this safe harbor, we stood around making cheery small talk with the woman while she prepared our food. On the other side of the cart, obscured by a shifting cloud of steam, a beautifully painted Katrina stood leaning on an old cab, another haunt, another apparition.

All Souls 01 (edit 800x480)

The Christmas Mass, in three acts

Written: December 25, 2014 in New Orleans, LA

One

The façade of the Spotted Cat has been torn down, replaced with a mesh of bare plywood and sagging tarp. The only way you’d even know the place was by rote memory and the crowd of people busily stuffing themselves through the door. Let us go, out of the cold and into this temple.

Inside was warm and drunk and merry. Drinks came easy, and the jazz was laid back and smiling. Everyone – from the stage, to the crowd, to the bartenders – were friendly, and the shots of whiskey grew larger with every order. The Spotted Cat is an institution so deeply steeped in the jazz and the ghosts of a myriad musicians and travelers, that even if they razed the place, you’d still get a headful of swing just standing in the rubble.

Another whiskey and a grin for the road, then back into the cold.

Two

This act was unexpected.

Wandering around Jackson Square, a beautiful voice drifted from the top of the steps across Decatur. Her hands nervously grappling the banister and leaning forward over the vacant street, she sang Ave Maria. Halting, barely audible and shy, but unyielding and powerful in its sincerity, she lofted the vibrant notes in the clarity of the Christmas night. It seemed the very wind had stopped to let the song go on.

I stood, transfixed, at street level beneath the singer until she let go of the last night and retreated. I climbed the stairs to thank her, and found her overcome and embraced by her friends. She sang for her grandmother, for the first Christmas without her.

I gave my brief and embarrassed words of gratitude and retreated.

Three

The hall of St. Louis Cathedral is large, pure, dressed in white, accented with gold and candlelight. The holiday crowd overfilled it, with every pew full and people standing along the walls, in the back, and even in the atrium. The people were silent, only daring to impinge on the choir with only the politest of whispers.

The choir was on the balcony above the entrance, so it remained invisible for majority of the people in the cathedral. Its presence, however, was inseparable from the experience of the place. Its unassuming, unpretentious voice filled the hall with the potent, sourceless voice of the divine.

I find it very moving to see people of faith perform their rituals with simple, earnest genuineness. A countless number of people in the cathedral hall prayed and sang the hymns with expressions of genuine peace and quiet joy in their eyes, even those who found difficulty in the physical acts of standing and kneeling.

The sermon spoke for the need of peace, for the whole world, nations, cities, communities, and individuals, of the heartbreaking violence that takes people away from us daily. Peace means different things in different contexts, but there is an underlying desire for harmony and kindness. It also spoke of the need for silence and reflection.

Epilogue

I walked home feeling wonderfully, thinking on what I had seen and heard this night, and how it all fit together. Life is rarely if ever neat. Sometimes we need to get drunk on sin, and sometimes we need to pray for grace. Sometimes we need the humanity behind us, and sometimes we need the solitude of a cold night. Neither one makes sense without the other.

New Orleans is a city that looks in the dusty corners of your heart to find what you need, rather than what you want.

PS The sin link is NSFW. Of course.