It's been tough for me to find the time to keep up with this column recently. Two weeks ago, I made the mistake of scouring the news for something to spark my interest and get my fingers flying. I found that the news was so depressing (We're beginning an economic recession that's projected to last a long time and be more devastating than the Great Depression!) that my mind was clouded and my fingers were stilled right where they sat on the keyboard.
I turned my thoughts to my own immediate family for inspiration, but my oldest daughter had just been burglarized – losing a brand new computer and the iPod we had given her for her birthday. My anger was so intense over this violation that I could not focus on a folksy family topic either, which some of my readers tell me they enjoy. Reluctantly (as I do not like to let others – or myself – down) I emailed Mike Thomson that I would not be posting a column that week.
A few days later, my husband and I took the kids to Mandeville to stay with the Rabbits (see A Culture in Confusion
for more on this delightful tribe) while we went to a Saints game. Slowly and almost inexplicably, as I entered the world that has been turned upside down by Katrina two years ago, I found my mind quieting and a sense of spirit returning.
First was the interaction with all of the Rabensteiner boys. Young Frederic, having been recently subdued by a broken collarbone, was unusually still and spoke with me politely and earnestly. Toddler Billy entertained us all by taking a little folding chair we had brought for him and plopping it right down in front of the neighbor's huge Halloween lawn decoration, his knees nearly touching the plastic bubble that separated him from four circling ghosts; later, he moved the same chair to the edge of the neighbor's lawn and sat down as if waiting for a parade. Even though it was October, it was still warm and pleasant in Mandeville, thus allowing Billy the freedom to move about in only a diaper. This fact, combined with the way in which he was nearly folded double in the little chair, made him look like a tiny nudist. I wished I had so much freedom and so little care – although I'm quite sure I wouldn't look so darling if I sat in a lawn chair at the edge of the street naked.
Leaving Mandeville and our two kids behind, we crossed Lake Pontchartrain and the last remnants of gloom and despair evaporated. The water sparkled with the afternoon sun glinting off the white sails and the whitecaps. The city of New Orleans appeared on the left side of the bridge and even appeared to sparkle itself – the distance and the sun having cleverly hidden all of the sad decay that still remains in so many areas. Winding our way into downtown New Orleans, we rolled the windows down to better discern the source of the jazz music on Camp Street. As it happened, the Crescent City Blues Fest was in full swing at Lafayette Square, a quick two block walk from our hotel.
We checked in, dumped our stuff, and walked back to Lafayette Square. How could I be so sad, I wondered, when these New Orleanians were celebrating life with such relish? The quick answer was – I couldn't!
Rabbit himself joined us at the square, taking off a bit of time from his nearby engineering office. I nearly chastised him for working on a Saturday, then realized he had stopped what he was doing to join his longtime friend (my husband) in the square, probably halting an important project in the process. Would I have done the same? More than likely, I wouldn't have. I cling to my duties so steadfastly that I sometimes pass on such opportunities; I should be seizing the chance to treasure the small things. I should be sucking the joy out of every moment, as I myself have preached to generations of students.
Surrounded by the tempting smells of jambalaya and crawfish pie, I watched Quintin and Rabbit give each other the typical grief they always do; I smiled. I mentioned to Rabbit that I was struggling to write this column lately, as he's been supportive (although sometimes combative!) of my efforts. He told me that Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Okay, I'm done. I've said all I have to say." And maybe I have, maybe I have.
The weekend was charmed. I rode a streetcar for the first time in my life and loved it. I wondered how I could have failed to grab one of the thousand opportunities to do this in the past. We stopped in Harrah's Casino and actually won $100 – and even left with it, another amazing feat. The Saints won the game in thrilling style, capping off our rendezvous with friends, family, and fun with the perfect touch.
I didn't want the magic of renewal to fade with our return to Alabama, yet with each passing mile, I felt the pressure of the daily worries returning. I focused on the scenery and shut out those thoughts – I figured Monday was soon enough to begin working on a new gray hair.
The next evening, we got "ghosted" – otherwise known as "booed" by some factions. We awoke to find a large cardboard ghost affixed to our front door, accompanied by a poem and treats. The poem encouraged us to pass along the favor to other families in our neighborhood. Sure enough, as I departed for work the next morning, I noticed doors and windows all along the way dotted with these ghosts.
I was completely swept up in this different style of magic. I was reminded of two recent times when a soldier from Iraq was returning home to our neighborhood. Without exception, every single mailbox proudly displayed a yellow ribbon. If you stood on the sidewalk and positioned yourself properly, it looked like a sea of yellow, fluttering in the wind and urging the solder home. The sight made tears well up in my eyes. I love my tiny neighborhood and its sense of spirit. And just like that, with that memory and the new challenge to pass along something to these wonderful people, the old me returned completely. I was happy to realize that the magic could occur at home as well as in Louisiana.
A trip to the store ensued, where I grabbed my own treats to pass along to two chosen neighbors. I traced the outline of two spooks on one piece of poster board, cut them out, and used a black Sharpie for two eerie eyes and a mouth frozen in a not-so-fearsome "O" on each one. Not bad for someone without an artistic bone in her body, I thought.
With the kids help, we targeted our neighbors across the street as our first "victims". I peeked from one of our front windows as Julia carefully put the ghost on their door. We decided, since they had a glass outer door, to post the poem on the ghost's belly and have it face them rather than to the outside. Finally satisfied with the positioning of her phantom, Julia quietly looped the handle of the bag of treats around the doorknob, rang the bell, and ran, ducking for cover behind the same bushes that already hid the figure of her brother. He was to do the second door later and was waiting to see if he could best her in stealth mode. Everything becomes a video game with him, you see.
We didn't count on the reaction we received. We expected Mr. Hughes to open the door, retrieve the ghost and the goodies, and go back in. Instead, they "oohed" and "ahhed" at the door, reading and re-reading the poem, for at least fifteen minutes. I was rooted to my spot in my darkened home, afraid that a movement would attract their attention and give us away. But it was poor Julia who really suffered – she had gone on her ghostly mission straight from basketball practice and was wearing only shorts and a t-shirt. The temperature was dropping, rapidly, and she returned to the house blue and shivering after the Hughes finally took their loot inside and closed the door. I rubbed her arms to warm them and listened to her breathless account of her escapade, her eyes sparkling and reminding me of the waters of Lake Pontchartrain all over again.
What have I learned in the past month?
I learned that I'm too much inside myself and too much outside myself.
My greatest joys in life occur from my family and friends – yet worry over these same people and events (inside myself) also clouds my vision and keeps me awake at night.
These things pale in comparison, however, to the amount of time I spend fretting over the global picture (outside myself) that I cannot change. I want education to be better; I want our legal system restructured from the ground up to return to what it was meant to be. I want the government to do only what it should be doing to protect its citizens and no more. I'd like to have more money, but not because I'm greedy and not because I'm too lazy to work. I want more money so that I can be self-insured and not have to subject myself to the ridiculous maze of insurance policies, claim forms, rules, deductibles, and such, that plague my life on a far too regular basis.
I think the secret is to just find the perfect blend. I'll let you know when I manage that.
Meanwhile, I think I'll wish all of you – my neighbors in the virtual community – a Happy Halloween by ghosting YOU:
The phantom ghost has come around
To leave these goodies he has found
And since that ghost has gotten you
Please read closely what you should do.
First post this ghost where it can be seen
On a door or window ‘til Halloween
Then no other ghost will visit again
Be sure to participate, it will make you grin.
So please do your part, you have only a few days
So everyone has a chance to play.
Make two treats, two ghosts, two notes
Take them to families that may have been missed.
Deliver them after dark when there's barely a light
Ring the bell and run out of sight
Last but not least, try not to be seen
And share in the spirit of Halloween!