The Epiphany

Sunrise on January 6, 2019. Three kings in the foreground?

This past Sunday was the Epiphany, or King Cake Day as it’s known to some around these parts. January 6 marks the date the three wise kings visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. In New Orleans, it marks the start of the Mardi Gras season, and also the date when king cakes become available.

If you’re not familiar with king cakes, I wrote about them a few years back, in a post titled, appropriately enough, King Cakes. For the next two months, these sweet treats will be purveyed at bakeries all around town.

There were also parades and parties on Sunday, of which I did not partake (I’ve been fighting a cold for the past week and a half). The weather was perfect, however, so I did get out for a nice long walk right after sunrise. A good opportunity to clear the lungs and nasal passages, (not a pretty picture) and, more suitable for this blog, capture a few photos (hopefully prettier pictures).

It’s a long Carnival season this year — Fat Tuesday isn’t until March 5 — so I’m confident I’ll have ample time to join in the festivities. In the meantime, here’s my own, simple, gentle epiphany: I’m happy to be part of a place that elevates food, music and frivolity to royal levels, but still allows me to escape into its sylvan expanses when needed.

Before the Solstice

Sunrise in the Couturie Forest, November 18, 2018

So, winter officially begins this Friday at 4:23 pm local NOLA time. According to an article I found on mentalfloss.com, this specific time corresponds to the moment the North Pole is pointed furthest away from the sun. It’s also the specific moment when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn.

I’m not a huge fan of winter. I’ve probably stated that here before. It doesn’t get super-cold in New Orleans, and we rarely have to deal with the problematic logistics of trying to get to places dealing with snow and ice, so I understand that there are worse places to winter. But it does get cold here. . .a windy and damp cold. And it still gets dark early.

But that leads me to the thing I love to celebrate about the solstice—it’s the turning point. After Friday at 4:34 pm, the nights will start getting shorter. Ever so gradually, until we all find ourselves at 10:54 am on Friday, June 21, 2019. (That’s the next summer solstice, when we’ll have the longest day and the shortest night).

The impending change of season has me reflecting on the one just past. Speaking for myself, the Fall of 2018 was a good one! I was blessed with the opportunity to reconnect with distant, long-time friends (Tamara, Stacey, Carol, and Christine); I traveled to Houston and Amsterdam; the Saints are having a phenomenal football season. And, oh yeah, MY SECOND NOVEL RELEASED.

Again, personally speaking, getting #2 out into the world was a huge boost to my confidence as a writer. Now, I’m sure I will still get in my own way, writing-wise, on a daily basis. But I also know what I can do—and continue to do— if I simply persevere.

Those feel like nice words to conclude my 2018 posts. . .I’m taking a break next week for the holiday, and will resume in the New Year. Happy Holidays, everyone, and thanks for reading!

In this post, I’ve shared some pictures from Fall 2018, that never made it to any social media outlet. . .

Superdome, November 18, 6:42 am
Red berries near City Park, November 18
Black and Gold carpet in the Couturie Forest, December 1
Sunrise in City Park, December 12
Everblooming Azaleas, December 12
Near Popp Fountain, December 16

Community Book Center Read-A-Thon

Vera Warren Williams opening the Read-A-Thon

I had the good fortune to participate in Community Book Center’s inaugural Read-A-Thon this past weekend. A little bit about this remarkable spot: Community Book Center’s Facebook page states it’s “more than a book store,” but that’s really an understatement.

This gathering place has been a part of New Orleans’s landscape for thirty-five years. I first entered its doors on Bayou Road, in the Gentilly neighborhood, about two years ago, and I’m always astounded by how enlightened I feel upon exiting. Earlier this year, I was there for Jan Miles’s presentation of her book, The Post-Racial Negro Green Book. The book is “based on the Jim Crow-era Negro Motorist Green Books, and chronicles contemporary racism in ‘post-racial’ America.”

Here’s what I wrote about it back in March, in a post titled The Writing Spectrum: the book “documents acts of racial bias against African Americans in the U.S., from 2013 to 2016. Jan Miles read from a list of incidents—some from the recent years captured in the book, and some from the Civil Rights era—and had the audience guess the century they occurred. We got many wrong; it was an amazingly eye-opening exercise. She compiled this archive ‘for the sake of review, consideration, discussion, and action.’ ”

Just a few months ago, I picked up a signed copy of Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies at Community Book Center. It’s currently #2 on my TBR list. (I had thought of going off on a tangent, about how slowly I read, about why I read slowly, what I’m currently reading. . .but it all felt awfully excuse-y. So suffice it to say I’m very excited to read this book.)

And then the readings on Friday night! I was enraptured by the selections from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. (This extraordinary playwright died very recently, at the end of October. I have to share this quote I found about her passing, from her sister, the playwright Ifa Bayeza: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”)

The heart and soul at the center of Community Book Center is Vera Warren Williams. She read from Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls. . ., along with sisters Christine Jordan and JoAnn Minor. Their voices, along with others like Rose Bratcher, Sunni Patterson, and Christopher Williams, will resonate with me for a long while.

Thank you, Vera, for organizing this event!

 

You Are A Tourist

And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born
Then, it’s time to go
And you find your destination with so many different places to call home

Those are lyrics from “You Are A Tourist,” a song from alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie. It’s from their 2011 album Codes and Keys, and it’s quite possibly one of my favorite songs of this decade. Easily in the top ten.

The song has been in my head since this past weekend. My friend Stacey (featured in Greece 1 and Greece 2) was in town from Los Angeles. We spent the weekend dining, browsing (and shopping) in local spots, taking a French Quarter ghost tour, and marveling at New Orleans’ holiday decorations. That last part—the holiday part—is something I almost never do. More than anything, that might be what had me feeling like a tourist. It was fun!

Pictured at the top of this post is something that caught my eye at the Roosevelt Hotel in the French Quarter. This hotel always does an amazing holiday array, and the lights really set off this statue. It’s called the “Mystery Lady Timepiece,” and its nameplate indicates it was displayed at the Paris Exhibitions of 1867 and 1878.

Concluding with those opening lyrics, for a few days, I did feel like a tourist in the city where I was born. And at earlier times in my life, I definitely felt (and answered) the call to “go,” finding different destinations to call home. But I realize now, writing is the journey that calls to me. The different destinations exist only in my mind’s eye, and it’s up to me to bring them to fruition.

Who knows. . .the “Mystery Lady” seems like she might have an interesting story. What has she witnessed between Paris in 1867 and New Orleans in 2018? Enquiring minds want to know. . .

Thanks for reading!

Celebration in the Oaks, New Orleans City Park

More photos from the Roosevelt

Garden District Book Shop (and Chapter 1, Part 2)

I am thrilled to announce the local launch of The Trouble on Highway One at the Garden District Book Shop, on Tuesday, November 20, at 6pm! If you are in town, please stop by.

Garden District Book Shop has some very positive associations for me. Shortly after I moved back to New Orleans, in the early 2000’s, I went there to meet Greg Iles. I had just read The Footprints of God, and saw that he would be in town, signing copies of Blood Memory at Garden District Book Shop. It was such a great opportunity to meet an author I had just discovered, and pick up a signed copy of his next book.

And just two years ago, my friend Kristen’s publishing company released a book of poetry, I Am One of You, by Nicole Eiden. (That’s Kristen at the podium in the picture above.) The event she held there was a real success. I’m so excited New Orleans readers will get to pick up their copy of The Trouble on Highway One at Garden District Book Shop!

I plan to read an excerpt during the event. Last week, I mentioned that I would publish the second part of Chapter 1, so here you go:

1

. . .

Birdie hummed along, until the last passage. Then she sang aloud, her voice like salted honey. A warm, earthy, resonant note.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”

Birdie didn’t see the man standing in the road until it was too late. Too late for her.

She swerved to the right, the opposite side from the bayou. In less than an instant, the steep embankment rose up, and her truck ended its collision course against a tree.

Her eyes opened, and her face felt wet. Something obscured her vision. She thought she’d gone into the bayou.

She drew the back of her hand across her forehead. Holding it out to the dim light of the dashboard, it was coated in a thick redness.

Help.

She would need to get help. It was too far to walk back to Galliano, and too far to walk forward home to Larose.

Home. Morris. He’d be angry about the truck. But he’d be more worried about her, she knew.

None of it would matter if she couldn’t get out of the truck and flag down help from the road.

She turned toward her driver’s side door, and focused her effort on the door handle. The front end of the truck was crumpled, and it kept her door from opening.

Looking through that window, a familiar figure appeared.

Help is coming to me, she thought.

As the figure grew larger in her view, she saw him. It was a man dressed all in white. Why did he look familiar?

That was the man in the road. What was he doing walking in the middle of the road? Can he help?

As the man came closer, her blood ran cold. He had a man’s face, but there was something unnatural about it. Birdie thought of a picture book she had when she was a child. A picture book of Bible tales. One page showed the devil’s face, when he appeared to Jesus during his forty days in the desert. He had bloodshot eyes, and a rapacious mouth.

That picture terrified her. And that’s what the man’s face looked like.

Now, he stood right outside the truck. Her limbs felt heavy. He held his palm up to the glass of her driver’s side window. All she wanted was to turn away. But she couldn’t.

She was transfixed.

She saw his palm pressed against the glass, but felt an invisible, icy pressure just above her heart.

Terror enveloped her. The pressure escalating to an inexorable conclusion.

In an instant, she was released. No more horror, no more pain above her heart. She could finally turn her gaze. She looked at the passenger seat, and Momma was there. The light of her smile made the devil disappear from Birdie’s thoughts.

Birdie couldn’t feel her own body anymore, but she could feel Momma take her by the hand. They left the truck through the passenger’s side, and someone was waiting there for them. A warm, distant memory made concrete. It was Birdie’s father.

The three of them made their way to the woods.

Like in a dream, Birdie could see her form in the truck, the blood on her face. The devil was nowhere to be seen.

Her heart ached a little for the Becnel children, and more so for Ronnie and young Cecil. Morris made her stop in her tracks. He couldn’t live without her. She tried to turn around. To go back.

Birdie felt herself shrinking. She looked up, and her parents were on each side of her, towering above her. Gently, they each put an arm around her and carried her until she was whole again.

The woods never looked more peaceful. The cicadas sounded otherworldly, heavenly. The smell of eucalyptus enveloped them as they crossed the threshold.

Figure of Speech

Last Saturday, I went to the studios of WRBH and read from my soon-to-be released novel, The Trouble on Highway One. It was a trip! Sitting in sound proof booth, filling up twenty-seven minutes with a soliloquy of my own making. In my marketing past, I’ve done some fill-in voiceover work, and recorded a few 30-second and 60-second radio spots. But this was an entirely different experience. Like the difference between a daily commute and a cross-country road trip.

This segment will air on an upcoming episode of WRBH’s “Figure of Speech.” Here’s the description of the program, from the WRBH website: “Local authors and poets share and discuss their own work, as well as work from the artists who influence and inspire them.” Local meaning New Orleans.

Here in New Orleans, (and in the U.S.), WRBH is the only full-time FM reading radio service. And much of their original content, including “Figure of Speech,” “New Orleans By Mouth,” and “The Writer’s Forum” is available on Soundcloud.

For my segment, I read the first chapters of The Trouble on Highway One, and The Incident Under the Overpass. In between, I talked a little bit about traiteurs, and their healing tradition here in Southern Louisiana. At the end, jumping to artists who’ve inspired me, I mentioned Walker Percy for how he evoked the spirit of New Orleans in his writing, and I read from Jane Austen’s Persuasion (my favorite Jane Austen novel!) Funny how I found my own work easier to read aloud than Jane’s. 😉

My “Figure of Speech” episode should be available sometime in the next month, but in the meantime, don’t hesitate to check out the WRBH programs on Soundcloud. I listened to some really compelling stories as I prepared for my session!

 

 

Writers Roundup

All the authors had the opportunity to participate in a book signing. Heather Graham signed her books in front of my banner for a spell!

An overdue shout-out and THANK YOU to Heather Graham’s Writers for New Orleans. I was excited to attend this writers conference, held in the French Quarter over Labor Day weekend. Here’s a bit more detail, from the “thank you” email sent to the participants:

“We’re a unique little group, which came into being because of the devastation created in NOLA when the levees broke after Katrina. . . We’re warm, we’re small, we’re intimate. And, my biggest hope each year, is that we manage one task for you–and that’s to send you home happy and inspired.”

In my case, they definitely succeeded!

I was happy to meet and spend time with so many writers; and share thoughts and ideas on researching, publishing, and balancing all the demands of life with writing time.

Just a few of the writers there:

Heather Graham—the best-selling author is a native of Florida, but has a long-standing love for New Orleans. Indeed, several of her more than 200(!) romance, suspense, and paranormal novels are set here. I am so very grateful to Heather for her generosity, her time, and her dedication to great stories!

David Morrell—“Rambo’s Daddy,” David Morrell hit the scene in 1972 with his debut novel, First Blood. He is the author of over thirty books, thrillers set in different times and locales. His latest series explores Victorian-era London. And he has such thoughtful advice on writing. Here is something I heard him say in a session (that I later looked up and pulled  from his website): “Before beginning each project, I write a letter to myself that asks the question: ‘Why is this book worth a year of my life?’ There needs to be something about a book’s theme, its research, and the way it is written that grabs me and won’t let go.”

And I was really thrilled to chat with my fellow, local, New Orleans writers; this was my first opportunity to meet most of them face-to-face. I’ve included links to their websites below:

Stella Barcelona – author of the Black Raven romantic thriller series

Colleen Mooney – author of the New Orleans Go Cup Chronicles

Liah Penn – mystery/suspense writer, and author of four novels, including the award-winning Pure Death

Alexandrea Weis – author of multiple paranormal, horror, and romance series, including the Magnus Blackwell series

My apologies to everyone I missed—I’m sure I’m leaving some folks out. I could fill pages and pages more about this event. But I have to stop somewhere.

So, to conclude, I’ll give an update on my own writing: the weekend of the conference, I juggled the sessions with running home and dedicating time to my second novel, The Trouble on Highway One. I was combing through some final edits, and hoped to be complete before the conference began, but, alas, it didn’t happen. I can now report that last Tuesday, September 4, I submitted a (hopefully, nearly,) final draft to my editor for one last review.

Happy and inspired, indeed!

City Park Pictorial, Part 1: The Fishing Pier

On Memorial Day morning, I got up with the sunrise, with the intention of capturing some photos in City Park’s Couturie Forest. I visited there a few weeks ago (without a camera), and wrote about the experience here.

For the next several weeks, I intend to post more picture-heavy posts, rather than word-heavy posts. I’m going off the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words. Because I really need to get cranking on the third and final story of the trilogy I’ve been working on. For what feels like forever. Certainly longer than I’ve had this blog.

So anyway, the intention with the pictures, is that maybe I will channel the writing energy into the novel, while still sharing glimpses of the things I find compelling about this strange and wondrous city.

As it turns out, the Couturie Forest pictures will have to come at another time. A pad-locked chain link fence kept me from entering Monday morning. I suspect it doesn’t open until after 7 a.m., and I was a bit early. So I trekked about another half mile north to the City Park Fishing Pier. It was a beautiful morning, and early enough so that it was still cool.

I checked the Couturie Forest gate on my way back from the fishing pier–no joy. (It was still a few minutes before seven o’clock.) I will try again next weekend.

I was not the only one out that early
I think that’s the Couturie Forest in the distance
Looking toward City Park’s North Course

The Summer Tanager

© Alex Burdo | Macaulay Library

Last Saturday began with no agenda, other than to get out and get some exercise. And to do this unplugged. I walked out my front door, maybe fifteen minutes after the official sunrise time of 6:14 a.m.

The next hour (plus) went a long way toward recharging my battery. Funny how unplugging can do that. The only reason I missed my phone was for its camera. It might have been nice to capture some photos of the eastern sky, which was awash in color for the first part of the walk. But I did get one shot before I left the house:

On the latter part of the walk, I took a detour into City Park’s Couturie Forest. It had been years since I’d ventured into this sylvan escape, even though I pass by it multiple times in any given week. Even on my more ambitious runs of days past (Saturday’s excursion was maybe 30% run, 70% walk), it didn’t make sense to venture into the forest. The paths there are definitely not meant for running, and I never felt I could spare the time to meander.

That feels foolish on my part, in retrospect.

Here’s a description of the Couturie Forest, from City Park’s website: “. . .the perfect place to escape from the city without ever leaving town! Combined with Scout Island, the 60-acre Couturie Forest is a nature-lover’s haven filled with native trees, scenic waterways, and fascinating wildlife — all in the heart of the New Orleans.”

It really is magical: you cross a small bridge, step onto a path, and instantly, the canopy of trees overhead muffle the sound of the roadway, no more than forty yards away. Well, that’s a guesstimate. . .the road is close, I know that much.

The highest point in New Orleans lies within the Couturie Forest. Climb Laborde Mountain, and you’ll be 43 feet above sea level. That was my first stop. There’s not much of a view, because the spot is surrounded by trees. But it sure is quiet up there.

There’s a lot more to write about the Couturie Forest, and I plan to visit again soon (with a camera). In the interest of not getting too long-winded, I’ll skip to my sighting upon exiting the forest. Around the bridge that marks the entrance (and exit), I saw a bright red bird, pecking away at the ground. It was still early, so maybe there were worms.

“A cardinal!” I thought. ‘Round these parts, I see robins, and blue jays, and these very loquacious green parrots; but cardinals are a lot rarer. But this little one didn’t have the features I’d associate with a cardinal: no black markings on the face, nor the comb atop the head.

I thought of my mother. . .while she wasn’t a birder, she was always one to pick up on the details of flora and fauna. I also thought of fellow blogger Dr. Rex, who wrote a lovely post about the meaning behind red birds and cardinals. (I hope you don’t mind me linking here, Dr. Rex!)

After conducting some sleuthing when I got back home, I decided the little red bird was a Summer Tanager, a member of the Cardinal family. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab has a very robust online library, that’s where I picked up the picture at the top of this post. (I hope I covered all the proper photo credits).

As often happens, I want to tie some direct spiritual or metaphysical meaning to my sighting of the Summer Tanager. It’s an exercise I have to remind myself, just as often, that’s fraught with peril. Trying to correlate cause and effect to these types of things never works out like I think it might. So I’ll just tie it to feelings. The things I was thinking and feeling during my unplugged walk, and the things that jumped out at me as I looked for the bird on the Internet:

  • I’m anticipating a convergence of my family members, coming into town for an upcoming wedding. It’s my niece’s wedding, she’s the second one of the next generation to get married, but it’s the first one my mom won’t be around for.
  • The first person I thought of when I saw the Summer Tanager was my mother.
  • The first line in Dr. Rex’s post about red birds is: “A cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you.”

So without going any deeper, I’ll just say that I’ll take this as an article of faith: that my mother will be with all her family as they gather here in the next week or so, in our hearts and memories. May her gentle spirit bless all the proceedings.

 

Tricentennial Trivia

April 14, 2018

For anyone who’s spent any time in New Orleans over the past several months, there’s been no escaping all the tricentennial coverage, signage, and just all-around hullaballoo over this city’s 3ooth birthday.

I spent this past Saturday in the French Quarter, amidst some volatile Spring weather. I think tornadoes hit in North Louisiana, but we were spared down in the Southeast corner of the state. Walking the streets, and getting soggy, I wasn’t necessarily soaking up history, but I was definitely thinking about it. (I’m a pretty sensitive sort, and there’s a lot of misery in this city’s history. Gotta be careful about what I soak up, for self-preservation.) Several questions came to mind, that Google and Wikipedia helped answer:

  • Is there an actual date for New Orleans’s founding? According to Wikipedia, yes and no. It was founded in the Spring of 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who was heading up the French Mississippi Company at the time. The actual date has been lost to history, but someone apparently picked May 7 as a good springtime date to celebrate the anniversary. And as an aside, Bienville’s name has not been lost to history. He did a lot of settling all along the Gulf Coast.
  • Does the iconic St. Louis Cathedral predate the founding? Nope. There was a wooden church in the same location in 1718, not the big cathedral that stands today. It was upgraded in 1727, destroyed in the “Great New Orleans Fire” in 1788, and rebuilt by 1794. So the structure that stands there today is only 224 years old. It received its “cathedral” status in 1793, so it is, at least, one of the oldest, if not the oldest cathedral in the U.S.
  • What’s the big deal? Okay, well, neither Google nor Wikipedia could answer this question. But in the course of my searching, I discovered that New York City was founded in 1624 (as New Amsterdam). The English renamed it New York in 1664. So will New York go all woo-woo for 400 in six years? And then again in forty-six years? And what about St. Augustine, Florida? It’ll turn 500 in 2065. That seems like a big deal. (Yes, Brother David, it really is the oldest city in the U.S. The city of St. Augustine has been an inside joke between the two of us for roughly forty years, now. No way to make that long story short).

I don’t want to seem like I’m not supportive of all these celebratory efforts with that last bit of snark. It is a pretty cool thing to live in a city that’s been around longer than the United States. I guess I just feel that a celebration of that many years should be tempered with some recognition of all the things those years encompassed, the good and bad. And tempering, or temperance, is not one of the things this city is known for.

February 18, 2018