Sunday, April 15, 2007

Livin' & Tryin' in 5/4 time

If you visit this blog and are not a native or committed friend of New Orleans, you must sometimes wonder why we choose to live in Debrisville, far from the comforts and superficial certainties you think of as America. To understand , you would have to join me in one of the folding sports chairs we call a "jazz fest chair" down here, hunkered down in the pouring rain beneath a purple, green and gold umbrella and snuggled into a blue plastic poncho for an afternoon of honky-tonk/rockabilly, blues and modern jazz at the French Quarter Festival.

Yes, the world is thick with jazz festivals and even Fargo, N.D. has a fairly decent Blues Fest. A few years ago I got a CD autographed by the east coast musician my wife went to see when I met her almost exactly 10 years earlier. (I had gone to see the Neville Bros on the same bill) I still treasure the year I saw Jorma Kaukoken at a festival in the tiny town of New York Mills, MN in a baseball infield with perhaps 150 other souls. In most places, these events are just another listing in the Friday newspaper, another in the endless list of choices of how a wealthy nation might entertain itself.

Living smack dab in the middle of the largest disaster area the United States has ever seen, an event like French Quarter festival is more than just an option sandwiched between a trip to Target in the morning and one to Blockbuster for a Saturday night's entertainment. It is a defining and participatory event closer to the civic religions of pre-Christian Mediterranean societies than anything in America, peopled by larger-than-life figures who represent Who We Are. Failure to propitiate them, we remind ourselves, might upset the balance of our cosmos.

Worse, spurning them might be one more reason for our pantheon to consider retreating from the challenges of life here to Austin or Nashville. It is more important now than ever that we come, even in a pouring rain threatening worse (as tornadoes and hail tear through Mississippi to the north). We would no more stay home from French Quarter Fest due to rain than a prominent Roman citizen would miss an important ceremony of Jupiter, or would a modern politician spend the Fourth of July watching baseball on cable TV in his boxers.

Sure, there are many among us who might only make a Mardi Gras parade or two, and only drift through an event like FQF if they have company in from out of town, but our major religions are filled with people who overflow the churches and temples only on the high holidays but never otherwise darken the door. I think that on balance we are a devout group, committed to the calendar of days that block out our cultural piety, a calendar that shares the colors of purple, green and gold with that of the ecclesiastical calendar of the Catholic Church, a cyclic series of observances as rigorous as Leviticus.

Like the faithful everywhere our faith in the vision of what it means to be an Orleanian colors our every step through life. We measure our days by the how long until Carnival, our seasons by the appropriate festival. Outside of hurricane season, we remember the weather not as the twister or blizzard of this or that year, but by that rainy Jazz Fest or that frigid Mardi Gras. Our favorite topic of conversation in a restaurant eating a fine New Orleans meal are meals past, and where we might eat next.

It is not a life that outsiders easily comprehend. They have been carefully trained to judge their their lives in other ways, to measure the pleasure of their life in the length of cash register receipts. America's biggest festivals have become adjuncts to shopping and the success of a Christmas is measured in the amount of extra litter we place out on the curb on St. Stephen's Day. Here we measure our success in the cubic yards of beer-scented go-cups and roux-stained paper plates--measures not of things but of what we have done together.

Its an odd life by American standards, and one that in fact requires more effort than many outsiders would realize. They think us indolent and childish in our devotion to the cult of Crescent City, but they must recognize that either the laundry will be done Thursday, or haunt us the rest of next week on a festival weekend. With the exception of Mardi Gras, the world does not stop. We choose to make time for all this because life without it is unimaginable. I know because I tried for almost nineteen years, and every Mardi Gras Day or Jazz Fest weekend I was away, I wondered if this is what it might be like to be a Christian spending Christmas Day in a country uncaring or even hostile to your religion, because that is what I was: a stranger in a strange land.

That is why we come home in spite of every contra-indication, of every challenge that confronts us here in daily life. Every road of approach to the festival is strewn with reminders that we live amid the rubble of disaster. Despite the distractions little and large, we will make our way through the traffic and join the pilgrimage, be joyous or relaxed as the moment dictates not in spite of it all, but because of it all. We have all come home to New Orleans and all its troubles so that something precious and sacred, the way of life represented by carnival and street parades, by the music and the food, shall not perish from the earth lest we should perish with it.

Pure poetry, my friend.
Distilled essence!

European-Carribean-African livin - livin against the odds and celebratin that livin...

I love this town and wish I'd moved here sooner. My first FQ fest was a blast!!

thanx Mark!!
Thank you, Mrs. Wet. We got the CD on our tenth anniversary, but that was a while ago, now, wasn't it.
Such a nice piece of writing. Really a good post!
I lived in your Fair City for about five months in early 1978 and am planning on coming back soon, but whether just for a visit or perhaps more permanently I'm not sure, yet.......
Thanks again for your post, and your blog!
That's awesome. Can't wait to come home for JazzFest and be part of that number again. Thanks for saying how I feel. Again.
I spent one week in your city, before JazzFest, and I think I understand. It didn't feel like my home at all--but like a place I needed to be, and want very much to come back to.

Thanks for dropping by my blog. Peace to you.
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