Monday, December 3, 2007

Compassion, Kindness, Willingness

This is my daughter Hannah, working in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans in March 2006. I could show you photos from each trip she's made, photos she has taken on the same spot to show perspective, but instead I'll just mention that Louisiana and Mississippi still need help. Driving north from New Orleans to Hattiesburg, Mississippi yesterday, I saw the FEMA trailers and the blue tarps that I saw in July, that I saw a year-and-a-half ago, and the view from the highway hasn't changed all that much. There are still abandoned homes and apartment complexes whose window-eyes gaze back at me, open and empty. Parking lots are empty. The roller-coaster at Six Flags lists toward the highway and looks like a Tinkertoy left out in the rain. If you've been following this blog, you'll remember Billy Sothern's reading of DOWN IN NEW ORLEANS, on Thacker Mountain Radio from Oxford, Mississippi. I highly recommend his book for a look at what happened in New Orleans in 2005.

New Orleans is a city of such visual -- and visceral -- opposites. Coleen and I had dinner at Galatoires on Sunday afternoon, at her insistence. It was as magnificent as she crowed it would be. "Real New Orleans people eat here," she said, and true enough, I saw lots of Old New Orleans as the restaurant filled up with folks with means, coming to dinner.

Then I drove out of town the next morning, passing these scenes off Esplanade, just outside the French Quarter.

When I arrived in New Orleans on Saturday evening, the sun was setting and we drove past the Superdome.... such memories it brought back, such stories are held now, in that place, stories that have nothing to do with football games. If you haven't seen the Spike Lee documentary about Katrina and New Orleans, do rent it and watch it. There are still so many stories to be told.
Coleen and I were at the main post office on Monday morning, where there is a huge display of photographs and write-ups, as Comfort would call them, of those lost in Katrina. These tributes were hand-written or typed -- I could have stood there all day and read them. Wish I'd had my camera with me -- it was a work of art, this wall of tributes.

I did stop at the St. Louis Cemetery (#3) yesterday, on my way out of town, to pay a tribute of my own.

I'm working in Mississippi today, all day long, with kids, teachers, parents, friends. Folks in Mississippi never miss an opportunity to tell me that they were hit just as hard by Katrina, even though they don't always get the same press. It's true, they were. Driving up highway 59 into Mississippi -- well away from the coast -- it still amazes me to see the forest on either side of the highway stripped of its leaves. Sticks -- that's what's left of the trees. They are snapped in half and stand there, at attention, like a ragged popsicle-stick forest, on either side of the interstate.

I know we're making progress in Katrina-ravaged places. It still seems like it's not enough. Conversely (those opposites), I am so touched by the countless stories I've heard about people's generosity... their kindness, compassion, and willingness to help.

So I'm back in Mississippi, back in the deep south, the land of beautiful and terrible contradictions. The good folks at the University of Southern Mississippi have invited me here to tell my stories. Ellen Ruffin (who became my Cousin Ellen as we worked together at the Mississippi Library Convention last year, as we worked together.... well, lots of times)... Cousin Ellen is the curator of the Lena Y. de Grummond Children's Literature Collection here at USM. I'm excited to say that my papers will soon be housed here -- all those drafts of RUBY LAVENDER, EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, FREEDOM SUMMER, ONE WIDE SKY and more... correspondence with editors, rough drafts of maps and other materials I used to create the books -- it's an honor to know that I'll be in such good company --

Think Ezra Jack Keats, H.A and Margret Rey (Curious George!), and Kate Greenaway, just for starters. I have known about and loved this collection for many years -- my love affair started long before I had a book published. I knew there were treasures here.

I've also known for years about the civil-rights-movement treasures carefully collected and stored at the McCain Library at USM. I've got two hours of research time scheduled here this afternoon -- be still my heart! Oral histories, photographs, artifacts... this is a perfect way to end my touring days this year and jump-start the writing of the Sixties trilogy, which has been waiting for me patiently, for months.

Or maybe the perfect ending to those touring days is the speech I give tonight to the Honors Forum and anyone else who cares to attend. I'm going to talk about being from the deep south and what that means to me in all its conflicting glory.

I'm going to talk about my young adulthood and what a shocker of a swamp I found myself in at 18, right here in these Mississippi stomping grounds, when I discovered I was about to become a young mother in the deep south -- it was 1971 and becoming a young mother without being a married woman was a disgrace. Boy did I feel it.

But -- just like those opposites that Uncle Edisto talks about in LITTLE BIRD -- there was beauty in that time as well. I'm going to talk about my journey from Jones County Junior College in nearby Ellisville, Mississippi, how I had to by-pass college at Southern when I would have dearly loved to have been able to get an education there -- or anywhere -- and how I ultimately found ways to care for myself... and my family.

People helped me. Compassion, Kindness, Willingness -- they are powerful forces for change. Powerful forces for good.