Today I give myself an assignment based on one of Kim’s quotes from the beginning of the retreat. I determined to ask myself, all day, “Where are the cracks?” “How is the light getting in?” I start early, just outside my hotel room, looking down on still-sleepy sidewalks below.
9:05 a.m. Le Richelieu balcony
This morning the cracks are in the floorboard paint, alternating smooth and gritty under my bare feet. The light is getting in through a clump of ivy on a balcony across Chartres Street, so green in the early haze that it shines from within, from deep inside the thicket of leaves tiered tight and flooding into the curling black iron.
During the morning session, Kim reads one of his Nebraska poems, “Prairie Prescription,” about a pregnant woman who has been prescribed an hour of beauty a day. He asks us to write what that would mean for us. Then he says, “The past is destiny. The future is freedom.”
He introduces a Buddhist concept he calls “Four Ways of Seeing,” including “the visible,” “the invisible,” “the secret,” and “the deep secret.” These prompts lead my writing toward the imagery of “the veil between the worlds,” which practitioners of various mystical traditions will all tell you is exceptionally thin in New Orleans. I start to realize that Kim is our Papa Legba, our writer’s version of the deity of the crossroads in traditional voodoo, the master communicator who opens up the door between humans and the spirits.
My marathon group today is two groups of writers starting in two different places. Jeff and I head for coffee at Croissant D’ Or while Jeanne and friends head for lunch at Rose Nicaud. We plan to meet up at Jean Lafitte’s sometime around 12:30.
11:25 Croissant D’ Or
The cracks are everywhere here in this Old World patisserie. In the small hexagonal floor tiles. In the wall paint. In the sidewalks outside my window seat. New Orleans is made of cracks, I realize, which explains all the light breaking through, everywhere, beauty blooming out so fast my heart explodes each time it tries to keep pace.
Right now, it is breaking through flaky layers of frangipane next to a perfect cappuccino, sweet almond paste and butter seeping straight through to calm my blood.
Outside my window seat, a thin blond woman in crisp beige heels and a white pant suit climbs onto a raggedy bike decked out with beads and pedals away.
12:10 Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar
The cracks are all over, again, here in the wood-topped table and in the dark, old pirate bricks grinning at us from just behind the veil. The light is getting in through the gorgeous blue eyes of our server, a young Viking so tall his blonde head floats just under the dusty rafters. He’s patient and kind and so beautiful that our rowdy table of writers is hushed in awe each time he stops by.
Mellow club music is moving all around us, and the light is getting in through the high notes but settling into the bass booms, cozying up to the corners of the room and twinkling at us like the lights in Café Amelie’s courtyard last night.
Light is getting in all slanted and soft from the shuttered doors thrown open since the day the place began back in 1722. It’s lighting up the plaid bro shirts and the edgy black tees and the middle-aged polo shirts, lighting up the pink capris and the maxi dresses and the cutoff jean shorts of the girl whose boyfriend smacks her tiny derrière as she heads to the ladies’ room.
Our young Viking server has gone to stand in the doorway. An unlikely guardian of the crossroads, he quietly surveys the Bourbon Street swagger. His broad shoulders angle outward, drawing sunlight into our shadows. He checks his phone and smiles at it, his beautiful thumbs swiping and scrolling and texting away, telegraphing his heart’s deepest joy, I hope, to some extraordinary love.
3:30 Good Friends Bar
It’s Happy Hour here, but I’ve gone for the $8 Maker’s Mark in honor of my BFF, Cheri, who will come to New Orleans someday soon. Jeanne has pulled us into this glorious, stately old gay bar, remembering some story from long ago, but now we are so in the thrall of our mesmerizing bartender, J. J., none of us can write. I look for the cracks, but I can only glimpse them through holes in the rolling, raging conversation, or perhaps in the drink J.J. is touting, “The Buttcheeks Spreader.” I look for the light getting in, possibly through another one of J.J.’s recommendations, something called “The Double-Wide,” but everything is so distracting and dizzying that I really can’t be sure.
I leave my group in J.J.’s capable hands and head back early to Le Richelieu to prepare for the pedagogy panel I’m on during the evening session. Jeff is typing frantically by this time, capturing what will later become a fantastic piece based on our Good Friends experience called “Hey, Girl! Hey!”
That evening, the marathon rolls on even while our notebooks lounge safely back at the hotel. Jeff and I call in an order of oyster po’ boys from Verti Mart, just two blocks from Le Richelieu, and then find ourselves in a weird fluorescent wonderland when we go to
pick them up. There’s an enormous orange-tan man in a seersucker suit jacket and shorts waiting in line just ahead of us, his huge shirtless chest grinning under a dazzling smile and straw hat. He turns out to be Tito—of Tito’s Handmade Vodka—also picking up po’ boys and regaling everyone with Tales of the Cocktail stories from the festival on the other side of the Quarter.
Jeff and I float out of the Verti Mart dream world, gobble the perfect po’ boys, and then
float down Frenchman into another dream world, this one made of brass and funk at The Stooges show at d.b.a. We dance all night with Cynthia, another retreat writer we’ve decided that we have captured, like pirates, and whom we affectionately refer to as our “booty.”
The evening ends under the bare light bulbs of the Frenchman Street Art Market and a then a slow glide back to bed.