A reason to get out of bed every day of your life!

Let the people mentor you in spiritual mapping – understanding the people of your neighborhood and city

I have a constellation of mentors that help me ever more get deeper and deeper into the spiritual mapping – the goal of which to better and better know the people to whom God has sent you.  From Pastor James – pastoring an African American neighborhood – one of the three worst devastated neighborhoods in the city during Katrina, to some teachers in both prep and urban schools, these people – who are not all Christians – mentor me in shared life and being ever more sharp in my mapping of the city.

I’m sharing a great article from a blog by a person here.  It’s a great honest, gritty assessment of the people here.

Of the Mixed Bag of Life, Love & Home or How the Protestant Ethic Misunderstands Fun

Though a self-aggrandizing cliché, New Orleans is a special place.  Her sister cities are found in the Caribbean or Latin America, but she also bears the stamp of having belonged to the United States for 200 years.  And yet Louisiana’s history, unique among the American states, created a city that bears little resemblance to other American cities.  (Above: “New Orleans in 1798 in accordance with an ordinance of the Illustrious Ministry and Royal Charter”.  Public domain image care of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection.)  She is a mutt of a city, visually and culturally.  And as with mutts of the animal world, the cross-fertilization of many cultures has crafted a singular culture strengthened by its diversity.  It has made New Orleans into something not easily categorizable.  But as people love to categorize, they often remark upon the easily identifiable aspects of New Orleans’ culture: architecture, food, music, public celebrations. 

Less apparent, or less tangible perhaps, than the things you can live in, eat, listen to and attend are the ways you feel moving through the city.  New Orleans is not unique among cities in possessing a spirit of its own, a life that seems to both contain, be constituted by and yet independent from the individual people who live in it.  For lack of a more accurate terminology, I will call this a personality.  A city’s personality does not necessarily describe the individuals who dwell in the city, though it may.  It need not describe every interaction one has in that city.  Nevertheless, there is something a given city is like, a quality of experience that many people agree they have had there, or a characteristic they have found there.  Visitors, rather than inhabitants, often perpetuate these personalities, bring them back home and spread the canned reputation of a place, so that when other visitors come, they simply have the experience they expect to have and see what they expect to see.  The cycle repeats. 

Inhabitants tend to have experienced more nuanced aspects of a city’s personality, ones that eclipse the surface estimations of visitors.  Inhabitants certainly hold an idea of their city’s personality, but it will look different (in big or small ways) from the out-of-towner’s.  For instance, L.A.’s reputation of being superficial and materialistic is largely perpetuated by people who do not like L.A. and would not live there or wish they didn’t.  The view highlights some aspects of L.A. and spins them pejoratively, not bothering to understand the flip or balancing aspects of the negative.  I will let Los Angelans decide on these aspects for themselves but I, for one, rather like their city.

And so with New Orleans, ostensible home of letting the good times roll, the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy.  (Right: movie poster from the 1987 film of the same name that gave Ellen Barkin an excuse to look sultry, but otherwise just perpetuated lame stereotypes about the New Orleans and her people.)  While I recognize the personality to which these monikers purport to refer, I mostly think of them as kitsch.  To begin with, these names sound positive, but often get wielded against New Orleans and her inhabitants as code for “lazy” or “degenerate”.  Additionally, these nicknames identify a real trait (not sloth or decadence, thanks), but they miscategorize its nature.  Hardworking people live in New Orleans, even stressed out ones.  People who do not drink and never get naked in public live here.  Lots of them. 

It is, additionally, not a very wealthy city and if one thing does not contribute to leading a carefree existence, it is living low income and/or dealing with poorly funded city infrastructure.  Life is not particularly “easy” here: relatively normal power outages; simple age so that everything on and in your house is liable to be crooked or mended or ad hoc; sink holes on major and minor thoroughfares; pools big enough to strand a car whenever it rains enough (above: photo by Matthew Hinton of the Times-Picayune which ran in the December 12, 2009 issue – this is not Katrina flooding, this is from heavy rain, which we get fairly often); the actual or perceived untrustworthiness of many if not most public officials; racial tensions; disaffected and inefficient civic bureaucrats; a police department that ranges from misanthropic to frightening; litter; widespread poverty that results in crimes of all sorts; annoying and ill-mannered tourists*…and I will not even mention (more explicitly) our recent noted disasters care of the Corp of Engineers and British Petroleum.  For every local I have encountered who loves New Orleans, I have met at least one other who disparages it.  People seldom hate it, but their affection is not untroubled.  New Orleans is, frankly, a troubled city and it is not all fun and games to live here.

**Note this next portion of the article – and how it helps a person “get it” – get under the skin of what’s going on inside of people.  This is a great example of how to read people, why the culture and mores are as they are….

So whence this carefree reputation?  If the woes of New Orleans are indeed so considerable, why all the merriment?  My answer, achieved through the unscientific methodology of living here, is that it must have to do precisely with New Orleans’ woes as well as with her history as a Catholic, as opposed to a Protestant, city. 

Essentially, New Orleaneans have an old habit of taking lemons and making lemonade.  Life will be difficult, so enjoy what you can when you can.  We all have to work.  Why not play?  This somewhat fatalistic, but not pessimistic attitude contributes to the more tangible aspects of New Orleans culture: food, music, public celebrations.  Time is taken here on the things that make life livable.  This tendency also has echoes in Irish culture, in Latin American culture, and even in medieval European cultures (i.e., in Catholic cultures).

It has, however, no echo in the Protestant ethos so prevalent in the rest of the United States, which nearly deifies toil while demonizing pleasure.  Small wonder then that visitors focus on the party and not on what the party means.  By far most out-of-towners* visit the city during festival periods, e.g., Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, Voodoo Fest.  They often see the city in its, admittedly not infrequent, moments of revelry.  New Orleans and New Orleaneans do embrace a party, but not out of hedonism-run-amok or decadence.  We live here – we can drink on the street any day of the week, enjoy the late hours of establishments when we like, revel in the strangeness at will…and there are some strange, beautiful folks here.   None of this seems unusual or license to act like a frat boy to us.  It is tourists who turn the party into a puke-fest, who flash their breasts for beads, often stupidly when it’s not even Mardi Gras which, by the way, has miles of family-friendly parade routes – you just have to stay away from the tourists.  New Orleans embraces a party out of a deep recognition that life is not always rosy and the cosmos owes you no favors.  (Below: photo of the crowd at the quite wholesome Barkus parade – dogs, kids, satire – that occurs in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras season, but before the flood of visitors.  In general, avoiding downtown and sticking with daytime parades will help you steer clear of obscenely drunken college kids and exhibitionists.)  

An old Catholic ethos lives and flourishes here; the same ethos that encouraged medieval artists to create momento mori imagery – skulls, bones, decaying corpses.  The bad stuff (death, disease, natural and manmade disasters) will happen to you no matter who you are or what you do, and you will not be able to predict it.  Moralizing clerics may have hoped these images would remind sinners of their fate and impel them to repent, but folk culture (yay, folk culture!) often took this warning in another direction.  I think both can be found in New Orleans:  recognize what’s important and do what you ought, but be open to the spontaneous good time because you may not get another.  This is the stuff of which Bakhtin wrote in Rabelais and His World.  Public celebration and comedy (in a broad, behavioral sense) have cathartic social effects that bind communities and allow for the day-to-day living together that can be so difficult, so inequitable.  

So when it’s time to play, for pete’s sake, play.  But do it mindfully and leave your moralistic judgment at home.

* Caveat: I use “visitor” or “out-of-towner” as an umbrella descriptive term. New Orleans needs, likes and wants visitors! I reserve “tourist” to refer to a kind of visitor that, I think, nobody anywhere wants: disrespectful of the place they visit and that place’s inhabitants, behaving as they would never behave at home, viewing the tourist destination as somehow there for them, like Disneyland, with no real life of its own outside of tourism. You guys can stay at home.  Please. 


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