Tag Archives: New Orleans


Flags in Barrio Viejo, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

par·ish   /ˈpariSH/  n.  1  part of diocese under a priest, etc.  2  church congregation.
When I was small, my Sundays were ordered by ritual. By ironed dresses and clean shoes, by getting out the front door by a particular time, by entering a room with tile floors and crossing myself with water, by singing certain songs, by speaking certain words, by listening when I was made to listen and speaking when I was supposed to speak. By holding hands with my parents and shaking hands with strangers around me. By walking in a line, by receiving a white disc in my hands, by placing it on my tongue and letting it dissolve. When I was small, I loved all of this. I loved saying “Peace be with you” to those around me. I loved the smell of incense and the burn of the candles. I loved a place where I knew how things would be, and a space where others assured me God dwelled.

As I grew, I continued to take comfort in this space and these rituals, but I also came to understand that these particular ones were specific to the faith of my parents and this place.

I was raised in a place segmented and ordered by the Catholic religion. In Louisiana, the state is not divided into counties, but rather into parishes. Ascension Parish, St. Charles Parish, Vermillion Parish. An Our Father, a couple of Hail Marys and a place that rested its hopes in the sacred heart of Jesus, in the truth of the Trinity. I knew about faith long before I knew about politics and to me faith was defined in only one way, the way I knew: A parish was a place you lived. A parish was a place you worshipped. A parish was a place where you lived and worshipped. Wasn’t it that way everywhere?

In July, I went to Patti Smith’s Camera Solo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Art Museum. From reading her memoir and viewing her art, I recognize some similarities in those of us who were born and raised Catholic. Many of us seem to carry through our lives a sense of connection to ritual, to objects as talisman, to the holiness of everyday things.

Most of Patti Smith’s photos are not of people or landscapes. They are portraits of objects, and they capture materials suspended in a moment: a tea cup, the crease on a bed, a pair of embroidered slippers.  She has photographed the beds of Virginia Woolf  and John Keats. She has photographed the slippers of her friend and former lover Robert Mapplethorpe and of Pope Benedict XV. She has photographed her father’s cup and her own guitar.

Virginia Woolf’s Bed 1, Monk’s House, Patti Smith

Herman Hesse’s Typewriter, Patti Smith

Robert’s Slippers, Patti Smith

Robert Bolano’s Chair, Patti Smith


In an interview for the exhibition, Patti Smith says that she has always been talismanic and that she “fell in love with art and it eclipsed everything, even religion.” She uses a Land 250 Polaroid camera to take her black and white photographs, which seem to capture both the material solidity of objects and the artist’s fleeting exposure to them at once. What I like most about her photographs are their intimacy and their immediacy. I am positioned as viewer in relation to the object, and I feel the same closeness to the subjects as Smith. There is artistry in not only in the composition but in the way Smith invites the reader into this intimate relationship with the objects, to view them as she herself experiences them. We feel the intimacy there even if we are not directly part of it. She discusses how by photographing the objects of loved ones, mentors, and artists, she is capturing a part of them. Of photographing many artists’ beds, she says: “We have extraordinary things happen in beds. We sleep, we conceive. We make love. We are ill in our beds. We recuperate. So beds are very important in our lives.” Our beds, these physical objects, hold so much of our lives, those moments both awake and dreaming, and the times in which we are most vulnerable.

When I left Catholicism abruptly after a longer period of edging away, I hadn’t yet realized that these impulses and instincts to ritual, to the sacredness of things are not particular to the Catholic Church or to religion for that matter. Afterall, the rituals of religion are inventions of the human mind; we make ritual to make sense of our life: of birth and death, of grief and struggle, of growing up and growing older, of love and sacrifice. I had a break with the church and with God as I’d known him, but the aliveness in me, the sense of something larger than myself, the knowing that we humans were not it did not go away. Neither did my appreciation for the sense of ritual and way of recognizing sacred that before I’d only recognized in my Catholic faith.


Paint on door, The Heidelberg Project, Detroit, Lisa O’Neill

Wooden Archway, Bisbee, Lisa O'Neill

Wooden Archway, Bisbee, Lisa O’Neill

Breakfast, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

Close-up Tibetan Sand Mandala, Tucson, Lisa O’Neill

Close-up Sculpture, Phoenix Art Museum, Lisa O’Neill

Circus Tent, Venice Beach, CA, Lisa O’Neill


This recognizing the sacred is a way of looking, of being, of seeing. I don’t need to believe Jesus is savior to love Gospel music. I don’t need to know Hebrew to hear the solemnity in prayer at Pesach. The feeling of mala beads brushing up against my fingers is not so different from the feeling I used to have when my hands held a rosary. We import the meaning onto that which we celebrate, onto the things that allow us physical reminders of our more abstract beliefs. These things are both empty and full at the same time.

It took me a long time to realize that I get to decide what is sacred for me. That no one else can impose that on me. I began to realize that I can create the sacred in my own life. That I can make ritual and disassemble ritual. That I can shift and collage and shape my spiritual life, which is to say: my life, in whatever way I choose.

And so I find the sacred now whenever I think to look, which is often: in the birds that roost on branches and wires and cacti around my house, in the quick text message from my mom or dad, in the way light hits the floor in my kitchen, in the way my dog snuggles up against my chest in the morning. And in recognizing the sacred in the present moment, I don’t have to wait for the thunderbolt of divine blessing. The divine blessing is already here with me. I only have to be still, to witness it as it unfolds.


Filed under weekly words



1plot \`plat\ n.  1 :  a small area of ground  2 :  a ground plan (as of an area)  3 :  the main story (as of a book or movie)  4 :  a secret scheme : INTRIGUE


I have been going by the house for years now, every time I am home for a visit. It was just a shell of where we lived but I felt compelled to visit every time I was back in New Orleans in the years following Katrina. A few months ago, my mom sent me an email to tell me that the house had been razed. It’s just river sand now, she wrote. She said she picked up three pieces of brick (one for her, one for my dad, one for me), a small piece of wood, a small piece of latticework—the traces that were left behind. She said she wanted to lie in the sand and make a sand angel, to place her body on the earth itself, but a truck drove up so she just pretended.

I knew, then, what to expect when I went by 3324 Vincennes Place, and yet, I was surprised all the same. I was taken aback by the shock of green grass usurping the plot. I had expected river sand, but since my mom visited, there had been time for old seeds to sprout up. To fill this hole, this gap, this absent space.

I thought: how odd to witness so clearly an absent place that is so full, this place that occupies so much space in my in my memory. The lot looks enormous without our house on it (hadn’t my mom mentioned that in her email as well?). Just one small block of green. It was hard to imagine all those rooms, all that our house contained.

I pulled out my journal and tore out a perforated page. On it I wrote: THIS WAS HOME. This (space). Was (past tense of “to be,” as in is no longer). Home (a place where families are born, where dreams are dreamed, where mornings break and evenings are put to bed). I took pictures of the sign resting in the grass in front of the plot. I took portraits of myself with my arm extended, holding the sign. I walked around the perimeter and traced the word HOME with my finger in the river sand. Then I took a stray stick and signed my name in the corner of the plot before tucking the stick in the back pocket of my jeans. Three trees stood as sentries at the back of the land and then there was just the span of grass and sand and the neighboring fences on either side.



The sidewalk had 3324 spray-painted in orange, over a version painted in white. This now marks the address since there is no longer a house to mark the space. Addresses are random numbers and letters we assign to places to make them ours, to make them home, to tell people where to find us. While I was sitting in the car across from the plot where our house was, a mail carrier, mail in one hand and a bag crossing her body, walked by the empty lot on her route.

I scanned my body. I felt tears behind the lids of my eyes—held, not held back. There was a sort of soft gnawing in my belly. I didn’t feel sad really but rather vaguely numbed out.

This was a place I had been saying goodbye to for years. A place I came to visit as one does a deceased family member in a cemetery, over and over again. Our home died to us and now the traces of it, save a long thin piece of wood with blue paint that I found and took, are gone as well.

And although this moment felt like it should be the natural point of closure, the final goodbye, I couldn’t imagine stopping my visits: even if there was a new house there, even if there was a new family in it. In the movie version of my life, we might end here as the protagonist bids farewell to her childhood memories and her childhood home and steps off into her very bright future. Maybe there would even be a flash-forward to her home-to-be, complete with husband in the doorframe and children eating breakfast at the kitchen table. So why do I feel its not over for me and this land?

It’s not a compulsion, this desire to visit. It’s more like coming to sit in silence with an old friend. There’s a kind of peace that comes from being there—from remembering what was and seeing what is real now. I can sit with all the fond memories and the painful loss of this place. It feels real. It feels authentic—this mix of beauty and joy with grief and sorrow. This house taught me how to live life and bear it all: how to grow, how to be nurtured and to nurture, how to love and also how to unexpectedly and without warning, let it all go. To say goodbye. To unhand expectations of what the space you rest your life in looks like.



I feel I owe this land so much—the place I was born into, where I took my first steps and read and wrote my first words, where I learned how to embrace and be enclosed in the arms of somebody who loved me. I learned to cry, to mourn and to go on, still and always, with the movement of life. I learned about the richness that lies in details—in the shape of a sill, in nicks, slants, the flaws we perceive as such or the ones we find charming. I learned how to observe and how to write those observations down.

It occurred to me as I sat across the street from my childhood home that while I thought I had been coming back to grieve and let go, I was also coming back to honor and pay tribute to the home that held the space for me to become who I am, to the sacred spot where my mom, dad and I became a family. I realized I have continued to come back, all these months, all these years later, because I am so deeply grateful.




Filed under other words


Dove release ritural at Freedom Riders Reception in New Orleans. All photos for this post by Lisa O'Neill

free·dom \ˈfrē-dəm\  1: the quality or state of being free: as a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action b : liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence c : the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous <freedom from care> d : ease, facility <spoke the language with freedom> e : the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken <answered with freedom> f : improper familiarity g : boldness of conception or execution h : unrestricted use <gave him the freedom of their home> 2 a : a political right b : franchise, privilege

(from http://www.merriam-webster.com)


Monday night, I had the honor and privilege to bear witness to some of the original Freedom Riders as they “finished the ride” they began in May of 1961. These riders were joined by forty student riders, college students who were selected from over a thousand applicants to be part of this historic reenactment of the 1961 Freedom Rides.

In 1961, a group of riders–a mix of young men and women, black and white–gathered in Washington D.C. to undergo training for the ride they would take together on Trailways and Greyhound public buses through the Deep South. The training was so they would be able to remain nonviolent even when met with violence. They expected the ride to take two weeks and to arrive in New Orleans on May 16, 1961. Met with brutal violence in Alabama, the riders found themselves beaten and stranded in Montgomery, with no drivers willing to continue. The group was at an impasse and forced to abandon their journey. But unbeknownst to them, other groups had already begun to follow their lead. These groups got as far as Jackson, Mississippi before they were met with arrests and jailtime. No group ever made it the full way to New Orleans. But it was these riders, their insistence on traveling together and integrating public buses that led to the ICC ruling that segregation on interstate buses and facilities was illegal.

I arrived when the bus had already pulled up and the Freedom Riders were recounting stories from their time riding. After, doves were released in honor of the riders and in memory of those who had passed on. The number of stitches required after beatings were recalled (in one case, 57). As were the words spoken by those who rode. The names of cities infamous for tear gas, for burning buses, for beatings delivered with iron pipes, baseball bats, crowbars. Anniston. Birmingham. Montgomery.

Before heading off, these young people, in their teens and twenties, had written goodbye letters to their parents, had signed their last will and testaments. They understood that to get on those buses together was to put their lives on the line, and they did it anyway. They did it because the stakes were that high; the riders knew the stakes were that high because injustices were being done, over and over again. Black people being told they weren’t allowed. They weren’t good enough. These young people knew that lunch counters and bus rides were just individual, smaller deaths: a slow, lifelong version of hanging from a rope in an oak tree.

Their strength, their tenacity, the grace and integrity with which they conducted themselves and their action reminds me of the young students in Tucson, Arizona today who are fighting relentlessly to save their ethnic studies classes, classes that study the history of where they come from and that flesh out a holistic picture of the people who make up this country of ours. These students are insistent. They refuse to be ignored. But they too are committed to nonviolent resistance. They use the power of their words and their bodies but they do so in ways that do not harm others. Their actions are underwritten with the same mindset as the Freedom Riders: we understand the harm that has already been inflicted over and over again. We will fight for our rights, but we will not continue the violence, will not continue to be part of this cycle of harm.

Brass Band plays at the 2011 Student Freedom Ride

The doves were released and a brass band made of young New Orleanians played as the Freedom Riders, old and new, crossed arms, joined hands, and made their way inside the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. Inside, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said a few words. Then, folks from WYES, where the documentary will air, spoke. Then, the director of Ashe. One of the riders from New Orleans Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons spoke and as she did, she called out to the young people present, those who rode and those others present in the room, to work, to put themselves in positions that would be uncomfortable, to be willing to do so to work for change. “Find something to get pissed about,” she said. “And then do something about it. Because the struggle is not over.”

Student Freedom Riders Sing "A Change Is Gonna Come"

After a blessing, the room scattered to eat from the buffet: gumbo and red beans, salad, fried chicken. A singer came to the podium and the keyboardist began to play. Immediately I recognized the bars I knew from the beginning my favorite Sam Cooke song. “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” And when she got to the end, and she got to the last “long time comin’,” she held the ‘long’. She held it for what felt like forever. The room held its breath. Then it cheered. Because she held that note a long time, because she made us feel what a long time comin’ felt like. That moment times a thousand, times a million. A long time feels like forever when oppression is involved, when you are under the thumb and the thumb weighs down like iron. A long time feels like forever when you are the oppressor and have to work so hard to forget you are human to be able to oppress.

She kept singing: This Little Light of Mine, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. During Woke Up This Mornin’ (With My Mind Set on Freedom), some of the Freedom Riders joined the singer on stage and sang. I was particularly impressed by Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr. who solidly held down the bass line. Then, Smith-Simmons talked about We Will Overcome as the soundtrack of the movement.

Freedom Riders Lead the Crowd in We Shall Overcome. May 16, 2011

And the riders on stage crossed their arms across their bodies and joined hands. There was such an ease about this joining, a sort of familiarity with each other and with that gesture, their bodies slipping into muscle memory. I could imagine the eighteen-year-old versions of themselves doing the same gesture, over and over again. I joined hands with a middle-aged African-American woman to my left and a middle-aged African-American man to my right. During different points in the song, we squeezed each other’s hands. I let myself sing and really listen to the words. I let myself feel the passion in the voices of those around me. This wasn’t a Hallmark moment. This was a moment born from grit and determination and struggle. This was a moment in which everyone in the room was aware of the struggle, the struggle that is not finished, and yet was able to celebrate and able to say: despite the racism that still exists, the injustice that still abides within our communities, the prejudice we harbor in our own minds and hearts, we shall, we shall, we will overcome someday.

I grew up in a city that was sixty percent black, but the city I grew up in always appeared to be white. The textbooks I read told me the history of white people in Louisiana. The people in my neighborhood were all white. Most of the children at my school were white. Despite being surrounded in my hometown by black people, by black culture, I knew almost nothing about the history of black people in my state, and in the South period. I remember the time in high school spent memorizing the names of dead presidents more than I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement.

It wasn’t until I lived other places that I was able to fully understand the reality of segregation in New Orleans. I always had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was not right, the black neighborhoods and the white neighborhoods, the way some of my friends’ parents discussed certain streets or blocks in hushed tones, the locking of car doors when a dark-skinned man was standing at a stoplight. But I had to go outside of my city to realize the way in which its people are divided and to realize the role I myself play in that division.

When I worked at a community center serving a largely African-American community in the Lower Garden District in my twenties, I remember having a conversation with one of the patrons who came in. He asked me where I was from. I told him I was from here, I grew up Uptown. And he laughed and replied, Oh, you’re not from New Orleans. He was right. My New Orleans wasn’t his. His New Orleans wasn’t mine. Since my early twenties, I have worked hard to try to really see my city and all its people, to fill in the gaps and better understand my hometown as it truly wholly is.

And I will admit that night, even as I was surrounded by the New Orleans community, I felt alone, out of place. I had gone by myself after not finding someone to come with me. I haven’t lived in New Orleans for seven years now so don’t have the same network I used to. But the real discomfort, the real feeling of being alone, came from the fact that I was back in my divided hometown and I was among a few white people there, maybe twenty to thirty of the hundreds. My discomfort came from feeling that although this historic event held significance for all Americans, all Southerners, all New Orleanians, it belonged less to me, and I needed to be respectful and conscious of this. I found it hard to navigate my place in this room. I still struggle, whenever I am home, to navigate my place in the city, now that I know its history better.

I had expected this sort of low  turnout from white New Orleanians. Just as I was not surprised, even if disturbed when, years ago, my white 70-year-old neighbor in New Orleans said that his office would not be having the day off for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday because “we don’t have that many black people in the office.” While there could be other reasons for low turnout by white New Orleanians, its hard to not come away feeling that many did not recognize the significance of the Freedom Rides on their own lives and on their own liberation. I am reminded of the Mayan Greeting that students in Tucson Ethnic Studies classes recite at the beginning of each class: “You are my other me. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”

The discomfort and dissonance I felt is a necessary part of the process. That’s what I constantly ask of my students, to feel the cognitive dissonance with the texts we read, the films we watch, the conversations we have, and to engage anyway. The only way we will learn to understand each other as individuals is to stay through the anxiety and discomfort. To stand respectfully, with an intent to listen and engage, and to stay.

Original Riders Sing "Woke Up This Mornin'"at 2011 Freedom Ride.

I am embarrassed at how little I knew about the Freedom Riders before I watched the documentary (which is amazing and artfully done. You can watch it here: Freedom Riders). I knew there were buses. I knew there were people, both black and white, on them. I knew they came through the South and were confronted with terrible violence. But the details of the movement, of the ride, I knew nothing of these.

The documentary Freedom Riders  recounts history and retells the stories of the Freedom Riders a half a century later. The film contextualizes the rides within the movement and spends time documenting each day of the trip, each group of riders, each mob that attacked them. Along with footage of the ride and the riots, the film spends the majority of time telling the stories of the riders, officials, and local residents, people who were personally affected by the rides. What I was struck by in watching the documentary even more than the violence endured by the riders was their undeniable spirit, their belief that they would overcome and that they needed to be a part of this process of overcoming.

Photo from Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Freedom Riders, who were all part of the New Orleans's Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) group and were arrested were arrested in Jackson, Miss., in their efforts to desegregate bus terminals. From clockwise top left: Julia Aaron, Dave Dennis, Jean Thompson and Jerome Smith all

One of my favorite moments in the documentary comes when the first group of many Freedom Riders have been sent to prison in Parchment, Mississippi. Rather than pay fines for their crime of “Disturbing the Peace,” the riders chose to go to jail. They decided that if that’s what officials wanted to do, jail the riders, then the movement would just fill up the jail. They would keep sending buses, keep sending riders to Jackson. A group of eight riders were staying in a cell built for two. One of the riders is discussing how they made up a song and sung it to the jailers: “The buses are coming, oh yes. The buses are coming, oh yes. The buses are coming. The buses are coming. The buses are coming, oh yes.”

That transformed into: “You better get ready, oh yes. You better get ready, oh yes,” and when the jailers, fed up, told them to stop, they thought amongst themselves, What are they going to do, put us in jail?

The riders kept singing.

When the guards threatened to take away their mattress if they didn’t stop, the song became: “You can have our mattress, oh yes. You can have our mattress, oh yes…” Then it was the toothbrush, and after some deliberation, they kept on singing: “You can have our toothbrush, oh yes.” One rider joked that they learned to sing with their mouths closed to protect each other from their foul breath.

I was inspired by their levity, by their sense of humor even in the midst of such a dour situation, being imprisoned merely for trying to take public transportation, being denied basic rights because of the color of their skin. And in the face of all of this, continuing to defy authorities who were wrong and doing so with humor.

I was inspired by the Freedom Riders, many of them the first of their families to go to college, who left Fisk University at the end of the semester, dropping out because this ride was more important. I was inspired at the way the riders talked about Parchment Jail becoming a sort of university of nonviolence, where they engaged with each other in discourse about the movement, about how to make change nonviolently.

It was powerful to watch this documentary amongst my fellow New Orleanians, to engage in this part of history together.

I am humbled by the bravery of these young men and women who, despite the danger, despite criticism even initially from many within the movement itself, put their bodies and their lives on the line for justice, for freedom. I cannot even imagine what they must have been feeling as they sat on buses and watched mobs of people outside, who cursed them. People who were holding weapons and were set on killing them. The feeling of being left with no protection, abandoned by their own country. This is a reminder to me to never forget those who have made sacrifices in the name of justice. It reminds me to aspire to be more like them, to harness their example as a way to inspire bravery and action in myself to continue the ongoing work for justice in my communities and my world. It reminds me that this is work I need to pay attention to, that I need to engage in every day of my life.

One of the student riders in the Freedom Rider renactment of 2011.


Filed under other words


Preservation Hall, August 2009, Lisa O'Neill


dis·cuss (di-ˈskəs),  v.t. [ME.  Discussen, to examine, scatter < L. discussus, pp. of discutire, to strike asunder, shake apart, scatter  <  dis-, apart + quatare, to shake, beat], 1. to talk or write about; take up in conversation or in a discourse; consider and argue the pros and cons of.  2. [Colloq.] to eat or drink (something) with enjoyment.  SYN.—discuss implies a talking about something in a deliberative fashion, with varying opinions offered constructively and, usually, amicably, so as to settle an issue, decide on a course of action, etc.; argue implies the citing of reasons or evidence to support or refute an assertion, belief, proposition, etc.; debate implies a formal argument, usually on public questions, in contests between opposing groups; dispute implies argument in which there is a clash of opposing opinions, often presented in an angry or heated manner.


This second Sunday, the dictionary project‘s flash fiction february features a flash fiction story by writer César Díaz. Enjoy!


Preservation Hall

Life of vagrant alleys, of pool halls and restaurants, and whiskey n’ beer taverns soak into the walls of Preservation Hall and sets them throbbing to jazz. At night, these doors open to people who come in stamping feet and nodding. Road shows torch songs that meld into the swollen hearts of lovers of bebop, of blues, of hot jazz. These songs sop the walls; seep out towards the life of New Orleans alley rats and barflies. During the afternoons, these houses are dark; the walls sleep before the musicians plug in, before the singer rehearses. Or until Hayward comes within them, that’s when the walls pulse and the shadowed air grows luminous.

Hayward is the owner’s brother. He is seated at the back by the bar, watching the stage just before rehearsal. Light traces down upon him from the ceiling. Half of his face is a balmy orange, the other in shadow. A dim glow of the club rushes to and Hayward’s mind wonders. He asks the bartender for whiskey.

Stage lights are soft focus, as if they shine through fingertips. Beneath them, hid only by a mere shadow of a set, is Marian. She sings without piano, without ensemble. Hayward begins to feel as if his body was an audience listening and singing, and snapping fingers, swaying heads, eyes closed, all smiles. He singles Marian out.

The pianist’s hand slips onto the keyboards, improvises. The walls awaken. The pianist’s arms, limbs, fingers—fiddling and shifting and lifting. In the air, on the floor, fills the rhythm of the music.

Hayward to Marian in thought: Soon the pianist will herd you, tame you, darlin’. Blunt your sharp pith into soft gestures. Soon the audience will see you, call you beautiful.

Marian croons, intones. The pianist follows suit in snatches and jazz turns. Voice and strings, spare with loose passion, whelm the room. It stops, and the music retracts. The walls again are off. The stage once again, silent. Men clap.

Hayward: She whom I’d love. I’d leave before she knew that I was with her.

Hayward’s blood presses in. He wills his thoughts, gulps his whiskey to rid his mind of this lust.

Hayward stares.

“Missus Blake, wonderful! Bravo!” says the hall’s manager.

He wants the rehearsal done with. He wants quiet before the men and women from as far away as Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain come and dine, drink, and dance up and down the Quarter. He’s noticed Hayward’s songstress. He watches her. He wants her, and Hayward observes the hall’s manager from the bar.

Marian lines up, the piano next to her. She snaps her fingers—music starts. This time a saxophone. Its sound carries and flows where it will not strain Marian’s throat. Marian allows herself to carry, to flow. Her lips are curiously full, and very red. Her legs in thin tan stockings make her lovely.

Hayward: Oh, stage-bird. Music girl. Lil’ stuck-up West Coast jazz girl. You’re all up there. Murmur your music, paint the walls in sounds. Bartender, more whiskey!

Another music break. Marian sees Hayward. She knows he’s been looking at her. She’s been watching too, off and on. She plays coy.

“Who’s that?” she asks.

“The owner’s brother,” says the pianist.

The pianist stares at Marian.  He notices her glances, how she tilts her head, her dark brown locks wave over her bare shoulders. She moves for Hayward around the stage until she sees she has him. Then she withdraws proudly.

The pianist adds, “I hear he’s no good.”

Marian: Oh, hun, I know respectable folks, lotta of ‘em. New York to Chicago to Philadelphia. I’ve had better men. Doctors and lawyers. Not the hall’s owner’s brother. My.

A haughty laugh, a smile and glance back at Hayward.

His eyes are fixed. He waits for her to fly, paint the walls with her sound. Her bare shoulders coaxing, her thighs firm against her purple dress.

Hayward: I bet she can… I got my place close by. Gotta get her right. Keep her loveliness.

Marian: “What’s eating that guy, anyway?”

“He loves you, darlin’ just look at his gaze,” the pianist says.

She swings to the front of the piano. She leans a bit, her brown hair revealing her bare back. Marian feels his eyes. She moves for Hayward. Her back towards him but projected.

The pianist again strokes his keys.

Music starts, again. Hayward’s head bobs.

The saxophonist plays his notes softly. A fluttering butterfly. Taunting. Undulating. O’ just a little more.

Hayward asks for another shot.

Marian to Hayward in thought: I bet you can’t love. You’re too skinny. Like making love to paperclips. Your lips are slight. You couldn’t love me anyways. But I could get dinner or a gift, a dress out of you anyways. Men like you will marry if you love. Would you love me? Give me kids, a home, everything? Oh, you will. If I make you. Just watch, hun.

Marian sings. For a moment, she forgets her tricks. She forgets Hayward off in the distance, drunk by the bar. She bellows glorious notes like muscular limbs. Her croons like sugar heartaches. The walls press in, she is in control. The wall come alive, a flesh-throbbing body that for a split moment pushes Hayward and Marion together. His heart against his mind.

And then, just then, the shaft of light from the ceiling goes out. Hayward’s eyes follow it. Along with the light, pulled upward, goes his mind…. into dreams:

Marian sings—

Marian dressed in black. A thin garment. She waits alone on stage. Hayward dressed in a suit and tie approaches. His feet shuffle forward, floating as if on air. The air sweet with a nutty scent, roasted and warm. Marian knows he’s coming. At that moment she steps off the stage. Her face is tinted a yellow glimmer of autumn leaves. Old Southern flowers, her perfume. Hayward’s eyes speak, “I saw you first, I did.” His melancholy runs deep, sealing all his senses but his eyes. Marian walks away. He reaches for her. She nears the shadows and glides away from the soft light of the stage. “She’s not for me, even in a dream.”

—Marian croons.

They’re at Preservation Hall. It’s as if Hayward knows nothing of it. Only that Marian is its walls. They are singing walls, tender lights throbbing, bobbing, and pushing inward. On Hayward. It is how he feels. It is the whiskey and not his instincts. He has lost his faculties. Hayward enraptured. Marian, his butterfly.

The pianist crashes a chord. Her walls collapse.

The light above him is no longer.

Marion turns and seeks his face, his eyes and they are not there, but shadow. She looks one way, then the other. Pulls her hair, sways her hips. But it’s no longer the same. Hayward’s eyes are not there. His mind gone elsewhere. He has made a decision. She is not for him.

“Missus Blake? Missus, are you okay?” asks the pianist.

Her eyes flood with tears, she stares at the ceiling lights no longer shedding the light towards the bar. On Hayward.

Hayward is gone. He has let her go.


Preservation Hall, August 2009, Lisa O'Neill



César Díaz is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He is a recent graduate of the nonfiction program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He’s working on his first book. He can be reached at diaz.cesar at gmail dot com.



On the creation of “Preservation Hall”:
When I received my word, I immediately jotted down keywords that rang out to me, words that elicited an emotional and visual response. These words from the Latin root meaning of ‘discuss’: to “examine, scatter, strike asunder, shake apart,” got me thinking about an idea for a story where two characters interact without ever speaking a word with one another. I’m fascinated by the way we “talk” through body language, eye contact, and what I think is pure human instinct. In my story, I wanted for Hayward and Marian to have an entire discourse with one another, a back and forth argument where one tries to figure out the other, and in doing so a decision or course of action is made by the story’s end. I wanted my story to have a very “hot jazz'” feel to it, where the language, the tone, and delivery of the story becomes the lens by which the reader examines this interaction between Hayward and Marian. I wanted the reader to feel the jazz club, to see how the walls throbbed and came alive with the music, while also gently lulling the reader into an imagined space before dropping them back in reality. All in all, my word inspired the creation of a lyrical story, a sort of verbal minstrelsy that mimics what Marian does to Hayward: moves around the stage to attract your attention before withdrawing proudly.

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key·way (kēˈwā) n. 1. a groove or slot cut in a shaft, hub, etc. to hold a key (metal piece to fasten a wheel or pulley to the shaft) 2. The slot for a key in a lock operated by a flat key.


My childhood bedroom was locked using a skeleton key. I remember holding the wrought-iron key in my hand and feeling there was something exotic about it. The way the key inserted in the keyhole and the substantial turning of the lock was way more satisfying than with a plain old dead bolt. I would stand there, only slightly taller than the knob and turn the key back and forth, practicing locking and unlocking.

I knew the key was old. I knew it was different than other keys. I was a kid and had neither the fear required to lock my door or anything to hide, but the fact that I had this thing that could give me privacy, that could keep my things and myself stored away, made me feel important.

That room no longer has a door, no longer has walls. The floor that had been covered in brown carpet is stripped down to bare wood. And the key is gone as well. I’m not sure when I lost it or where it got tossed, amongst knick-knacks and cleaning supplies in the bathroom closet? In a spare drawer?

*     *     *

The front door of the house had been warped by the humidity so that you had to hold it in a little when you turned the key in the front door. Otherwise the latch wouldn’t lock or come unlocked.

I remember fighting with that lock over the years:

When, on a trip from the grocery store as a child, my mom handed me a key and asked me to unlock the door.

When, returning home from a date in high school, I tried and failed to make a seamless and graceful exit and had to resort to banging my hip up against the door.

When I came home for holidays on break at college and moved in and out of the house, going out to hear music and then returning home to visit with my parents.

When I unlocked the front door to bring in Christmas trees and furniture, to let in family members, best friends, and potential suitors.

When I unlocked the front door to allow myself inside.

*     *     *

The side door, like the front door, was wooden with glass panes. It used to be the back door but then my parents added on to the house when I was eight. We hardly ever used the side door except when going to the side yard to or to the shed. Sometimes, we would open the door to let the dog out.

Now, when you look in, you can see crumbs of sheetrock lying on the ground. The rooms are no longer rooms but a skeletal wooden frame. The house looks much smaller this way, without all of our stuff to take up the space.

You can see straight through from the living room to the dining room to my bedroom to the guest room. You can see all the way to the front of the house to the kitchen, without walls to block your view. You can see the entire house at once and yet you see none of it.

*     *     *

When we arrived there on October 1, 2005, there was a large yellow X spray painted on the front of the door. And there were numbers. The numbers were code for rescue workers. Zero dead bodies. Zero dead animals.

The house had been filled with five and a half feet of water. But now the water was drained. So there was only the reminder of the water, in the form of wet furniture and mold covering the walls.

We put on masks and went in through the side door. We surveyed the damage. We carried our possessions out the front door and dumped them in a heap on our front lawn.

When we left that day, my dad locked the front door. Out of habit? Surely there was no longer anything worth taking.

*     *     *

Every time I come home, I drive to my old neighborhood. I park in front of my childhood home. I get out and walk up the front stairs and peek through the front door. I don’t know what I am expecting, to see our house as it was before brought back to its original state? Maybe I just need to be reminded of what’s gone so I can handle missing it.

*     *     *

I talked to my mom just an hour after my parents had sold our home to the city of New Orleans. They had met with a Road Home officer and after they signed the paperwork, they gave her the keys to the house.

Afterwards, my parents went to the house to say goodbye. My mom told me that before she left, she walked around the house, taking pictures.

I picked up some stuff we’d left at the house, she said. Remember the books there. I took all that. And I don’t know why but I took a picture of all the doors. I just kept thinking of that image. Doors closing. Doors opening.


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in·gra·ti·a·tor·y* /in-ˈgrā-sh(ē-)ə-ˌtȯr-ē/ a. tending to ingratiate, ingratiating

in·gra·ti·ate /in-ˈgrā-shē-ˌāt/ v. [f. L in gratiam into favour + -ATE, after It. Ingratiare, ingraziare.}  1. v. refl. Get oneself into favour; gain grace or favour (with); make oneself agreeable to). 2. v.t. Bring (a person or thing) into favour (with someone); make (a person or thing) agreeable (to).  3. v.i. Gain grace or favour (with)

When I was twenty-three and living back home in New Orleans, I began working for a community center that offered a coffeehouse with pastries and coffee a couple of times a week for homeless men. This was the first time I had real conversations with people who were living without a home, instead of encounters in passing on the street. Through them and through Unity for the Homeless, I learned more about what they were facing, where they came from, why it was near impossible for many of them to hold down a steady job and residence.

I also learned about the different places around town that provided services for homeless men and women, and I learned the different expectations that came with those places. At more than one place, the men and women who sought shelter and food were given it only after they attended a spiritual service, for whatever denomination was there. They were emphatically told they were sinners and to repent. And it was only after sitting through this condemnation. “Sermon for your sandwich,” the guys told me. Many would rather go hungry than go there.

In my experience, people who are homeless, who are addicted, who have committed crimes, who have estranged themselves from their families—hell, people, like me, who have messed up in anyway, have the knowledge that they have messed up. They don’t need a reminder of the ways in which they are flawed or the damage they have done. Most often, they need the hope that healing is possible. If all you have known is brokenness in your life, how are you to even begin to believe that wholeness is something that can be achieved? No wonder your behavior is to continue to break, to break with, to behave in ways that shatter your self or connection to other people.

And to begin to heal oneself, one’s primary concern cannot be the needs or desires of others.

This is not only because one needs to take care of oneself, but because one needs to be real about who one is while making oneself whole. People need to know that they, as they are, are worthy of rich, fulfilled lives, and they don’t have to act a way they are not, believe something they do not believe, or ingratiate themselves to others to do so.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I continued working with homeless and low income people in San Francisco, for St. Anthony Foundation, a Franciscan based organization in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. The reason I was attracted to the organization was largely due to its mission statement. Part of this statement was that every human being is worthy of dignity and respect just by being.

I don’t mean, by this post, to undermine the reality that people make awful mistakes and cause wounds that are sometimes so difficult to heal. But I do think it is important for us to remember that all of us have the capacity to make mistakes, to fuck up in ways we would never think possible. And because we all have that capacity within us, we also have the responsibility to offer grace to those are hurting whenever we can, not because they can do something for us but because they need it and we are in the position to give that grace.

*I am house-sitting right now so this word was not selected from one of my home dictionaries but from this one:

The Newer Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Thumb Index Edition), Volume A-M 1993

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saint (sant), n. [ME.; OFr. seint, saint; L. sanctus, holy, consecreated],  1. a holy person. 2. a person who is exceptionally meek, charitable, patient, etc.  3. [S-], a member of any of certain religious groups calling themselves Saints. 4. in certain churches, a person officially recognized as having lived an exceptionally holy life, and thus as being in heaven and capable of interceding for sinners; canonized person.    adj. holy; sacred; blessed  v.t. to canonize; make a saint of. Abbreviated St., S., s.

This is a special post, not one that follows the normal rules of this blog. I felt I had to weigh in on the New Orleans’ Saints victory over the Minnesota Vikings today to win the N.F.C. Championship just a few hours ago.

I am not a big football fan. I enjoy watching the game but only in the company of others. As a New Orleans native, I became quite used to the Saints losing year after year. When others were watching, I would watch too and cheer and ultimately, be disappointed. Over the past few months, I have watched the Saints both win and lose, but I have watched them play with diligence and commitment and a spirit of camaraderie. I have also watched my friends and strangers from my hometown become overcome with excitement at having a winning team, at having something from our city to believe in.I have seen the Superdome full, the fans decking themselves out in elaborate black and gold gear. I have seen post after post on facebook, friends echoing their enthusiasm about the team winning.

New Orleans isn’t always united. The town had its share of problems even before the levees broke–a failing education system, deep scars and open wounds of racism, corrupt politicians, disintegrating wetlands that make the city even more unstable. But the thing is, the city is also a place of deep spirit, of commitment, of passion that cannot be squelched, of celebration that will not be denied. And we have seen that in the way its citizens–and many people from around the country–have rallied around the Saints this year.

The truth is: We needed this. It has been a long long road since Katrina. We watched our city, our neighborhoods, our blocks and our homes covered with water. This was about more than a football team. This was about more than a championship game. Today was about feeling proud of our city and ourselves. I’m not saying that winning this championship game or even winning the Superbowl, if that’s what comes to pass, solves the city’s problems. There is still so much to rebuild. There is a deep disparity of wealth. There are problems that will not be erased without much work and dedication. But when I watched the Saints win today, I kept thinking of the song “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” I thought of it in terms of this game. I don’t think that everyone knows what it means to see a team that has never, in its 43 year history, made it to the Superbowl  realize that dream. I don’t think everyone knows what it means to see the Superdome–a place ridden with memories of despair from when it was a shelter for Hurricane victims–turn into a place of redemption and hope.

Perhaps some might say that I am blowing this out of proportion, that this is afterall just a sports game, that it is made up of overpaid players and by people who want to make a ton of profits. All I can say in rebuttal is how it felt today to see the Saints win. I, a person who doesn’t really care about sports, was overcome with a spirit of joy as I watched fans in the dome hug each other and confetti fall from the ceiling. I was unable to get through to my parents on the phone for an hour because the 504 lines were all tied up, everyone was calling each other to scream into the phone, to cry, to celebrate.

I will argue with anyone who says this was just a game. Today provided the citizens of New Orleans with fulfillment of a long awaited dream and with a chance to showcase our city and be proud of one another. No matter what our differences, today we all have a team we can believe in, and for the moment, that feels like enough.

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As in, I “dropped” the blog posting for last week. As in, the post “dropped” out of my head, “dropped” off my to-do list, “dropped” outside my priorities.

Last week was my first week of teaching and school so even though I picked a word, I didn’t get to posting it or to writing about it (part of this might have to do with the fact that that the word “drop” has 15 definitions). But here it is, the word of last week:

drop (drop), n. [ME, droupen; ON, dropa; akin to G, tropfin toften; for the base, see DRIP], 1. a small quantity of liquid that is somewhat spherical or pear-shaped, as when falling. 2. a very small quantity of liquid. 3. pl. liquid medicine taken in drops. 4. a very small quantity of anything. 5. a thing like a drop in shape, size, etc. as a pendant earring or a small piece of candy. 6. a dropping; sudden fall, descent, slump, or decrease: as, a drop in prices. 7. anything that drops or is used for dropping or covering something, as a drop cutrian, a drop hammer, a trap door, or a slot for depositing letters. 8. the distance between a higher and lower level; depth to which or distance through which anything falls or sinks. 9. in football, a drop kick. v.i. [DROPPED or, occas., DROPT (dropt), DROPPING], 1. to fall in drops. 2. to fall; come down. 3. to sink to the ground exhausted, wounded, or dead. 4. to fall into a specified state; pass into a less active or less desirable condition: as, she dropped off to sleep. 5. to come to an end or to nothing: as, let the matter drop. 6. to slump; become lower or less, as temperatures, prices, etc. 7. to move down with a current of water or air. 8. to be born: said of animals. v.t. 1. to let fall in drops. 2. to sprinkle with drops. 3. to let fall; release hold of. 4. to give birth to: said of animals. 5. to utter (a suggestion, hint, etc.) casually. 6. to send (a letter). 7. to cause to fall, as by wounding or killing. 8. to dismiss; have done with. 9. to lower. 10. to omit ( aletter or letters) in a word. 11. to poach (an egg) 12. [Colloq.] to leave (a personal or thing) at a specified place. 13. [Slang], to lose (money). 14. in football, a) to drop-kick (a ball). b) to make (a goal) in this way. 15. in nautical usage, to outdistance.

at the drop of a hat, 1. at a signal. 2. immediately. at once; without hesitation or reluctance.

drop behind, to be outdistanced; fall behind.

drop in, to pay a casual or unexpected visit.

drop off, 1. to go away or out of sight. 2. [Colloq.], to fall asleep.

drop out, to stop being a member or participant.

get (or have) the drop on, [Slang], 1. to draw and aim one’s gun at (another) more quickly than he can draw and aim at one; hence, 2. to get (or have) any advantage over.

I remember learning about onomatopoeia, a fancy word for something I think we all inherently feel and understand, in elementary school. I liked these words, known to me but suddenly imbued with importance because of a new concept that went along with them. Crash. Bang. Thud. The words whose consonant and vowel construction made them sound like the definition that went with them.

Drop. It is a word that feels this way. A word that—to me, at least—implies a fall into an unknown and sometimes scary destination. Last week was the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that was only a Category 1 when it hit, and the breaking of levees in New Orleans. And the word of the week, and its many meanings, feels oddly appropriate to me. Millions of raindrops. The dropping of plans, of events, of schoolbooks to get out of town. Drops of hurricanes poured into glasses by those who decided to wait this one out at hurricane parties with friends. The word from a neighbor to my parents and then to me that there wasn’t a drop of water on our street. Followed by the drop of the news that the city was now flooded. People floating in the water. People dropping dead from exhaustion, from dehydration, from heart attacks, from shock and loss. President Bush dropping out of the public eye and our government dropping responsibility for its citizens. Local, state, and federal officials dropping the ball as the citizens of my hometown struggled to stay alive with no food and water and in the face of tremendous loss. Coast guard trying its best but dropping behind in reaching every person in his home, atop his roof. A good five days after the storm, the first supplies dropped down to the people at the Convention Center. Drops followed by drops followed by drops. Dropped calls as I tried to reach friends and family, to see where they were if they were okay. Dropping out of work as I spent all my time in the office trying to find out the latest information. Drops of tears heard over the phone on multiple calls a day to my parents. My stomach dropping when I heard that my cousin and state trooper Ivy had finally been able to see our house two weeks after the storm saw the waterline five feet up. He couldn’t open the kitchen door because the water had picked up the kitchen table and dropped it in front of it. The drop of my parents’ plan to retire in the next year. The drop of their security, having paid off the house. Not a drop of hope. Not a drop of peace. Not a drop of poise. People picked up at the Superdome and the Convention Center and then dropped onto buses, dropped at the airport, dropped on bridges. New Orleanians dropped in the Kentucky, in Arizona, in New York, in places where they knew no one and nothing. Children separated from their mothers and dropped thousands of miles away. Pets dropped off at kennels, at foster homes, with people who weren’t their owners. Refrigerators, kitchen tables, photo albums, clothes, mattresses dropped in the street in front of houses. Roofs dropped into living rooms from felled trees. My parents and I dropped all we could save of our house in the back of a van and drove away. People dropping their expectations of returning to the city they love because they have no money to return, no home to return to. The Road Home dropped their promises to Hurricane Katrina victims. Insurance agencies refusing to pay what’s due and dropping their policyholders. People seeing the racism and classism witnessed in the footage of Katrina and then, quickly, dropping the issue. Newsmedia finding new stories and dropping New Orleans out of the headlines. Volunteer groups dropping into the city and rebuilding. People from elsewhere dropping their judgment that New Orleans should not be rebuilt. That citizens should have left. That people of New Orleans were ignorant or stupid for not leaving, that they were dumb to live there in the first place. A dropped sense of security in the levee system and in the government’s concern for New Orleans. Me dropping the information to friends from other places that a year, two years, after the storm, the city looked the same as it did a month after. The drop of letters and photos in my mailbox from college friends, showing their support and trying to replace some of the memories I lost. Dropping into my old haunts now four years later and seeing them full of people. Dropping through neighborhoods where houses and businesses are still abandoned. Dropping down to the ground to dance to Rebirth Brass Band at Jazz Fest. A dropping of heads at the funeral of another friend who has died since the storm. Bulldozers dropping concrete and bricks that, just minutes before, were the public housing apartments for New Orleans residents. Homeless citizens going to drop in shelters that may or may not have room for them. Friends and family unable to drop in for a visit because they now live hundreds or thousands of miles away. Tourists dropping their original vacation plans and heading to New Orleans to spend their money there. Businesses dropping out of conventions in New Orleans either because it looks bad after bailouts to be in a “party city” or because they are worried the storm has left the city devastated, still. Drop-kicks scoring goals for the Saints as Saints fans drop their banners to throw up their arms in joy. A drop followed by a drop followed by a drop. Definition #7:  to move down with a current of water or air.


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