My Bayou: New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover

Overview

A vividly described and intensely personal memoir, My Bayou charts a personal and spiritual transformation along the fabled banks of Bayou Saint John in New Orleans. When Constance Adler moves to New Orleans, she begins what becomes a lasting love affair with the city, and especially the bayou—a living entity and the beating heart of local culture. Rites of passage, celebrations, mysterious accidents, and magic all take place on its banks, leading Adler to a vibrant awareness of the power of being part of a ...

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Overview

A vividly described and intensely personal memoir, My Bayou charts a personal and spiritual transformation along the fabled banks of Bayou Saint John in New Orleans. When Constance Adler moves to New Orleans, she begins what becomes a lasting love affair with the city, and especially the bayou—a living entity and the beating heart of local culture. Rites of passage, celebrations, mysterious accidents, and magic all take place on its banks, leading Adler to a vibrant awareness of the power of being part of a community. That faith is tested in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and is ultimately proven right, as Bayou Saint John begins to rebuild.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
 
Funny, thoughtful, and moving—and sometimes all three at once—as Adler recounts her discovery of the city and the life she forged there, before Katrina and after. Above all, this is the work of a writer: virtually every sentence has an interesting idea or turn of phrase, and emanates from a voice you want to keep listening to.
—Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History and About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made
 

 
A personal history that finds its form in a meandering bayou, this moving meditation on the collapse of a marriage details how floodwaters breached more than just levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
—John Biguenet, author of Oyster and The Torturer’s Apprentice
 

 
Constance Adler plucks prophetic beauty from the rain clouds of the Bayou Saint John, rituals of vodou, and the deep layers of love found in the people around New Orleans. She is a masterful writer.
—Jacqueline Sheehan, New York Times bestselling author of Lost & Found and Now & Then
 

 
New Orleans is the perfect place to fall in or out of love and that is a major part of the story here. The author cannot spare anyone close to her—including herself—the risk of pain, but for those who can travel along with her, she also reveals the quirky, funky joys below, beside, and within that slow moving bayou of life that tears New Orleans from river to lake, wild and free, body and soul.
—Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus and The History of Last Night’s Dream
 

 
 Constance Adler’s lively bayou is blocks from my own home, but before this jewel of a memoir, I knew these waters glancingly, not intimately. How lucky New Orleans is that she arrived from New Jersey, fell in love with more than a man, and stayed. Read this sensuous book and risk the urge to pack your bags and be her neighbor.
—Pia Z. Ehrhardt, author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories
 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611860320
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2012
  • Pages: 260
  • Sales rank: 1,400,332
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Constance Adler teaches a creative writing workshop and writes a blog, Emily Every Day. Her writing has appeared in Spy Magazine, Utne Reader, Self, Cable Guide, Baltimore Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, Oxford American, and Gambit, New Orleans’s alternative newsweekly.

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Read an Excerpt

MY BAYOU

New Orleans through the Eyes of a Lover
By Constance Adler

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2012 Constance Adler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-032-0


Chapter One

WHAT THE PELICANS SAW

There is a muddy trickle of Water that runs through my neighborhood where I walk every day. It's called Bayou Saint John, named for John the Baptist. Fitting that such a twisty, curious waterway should be named for that eccentric cousin of Christ. The Choctaw people were nice enough to show the way to the explorer Jean Baptiste Bienville. It was the shortcut to the Mississippi, saved them miles of purgatorial struggle. History is undecided whether Bienville named this waterway for the saint or himself. Both stories fit, and it doesn't matter. My sense is that he considered this his bayou. He could name it whatever he liked.

My own baptism into reverence for the bayou took place on the morning that, by the calendar's reckoning, was ash Wednesday. Carnival had just climaxed, and having moved over that ecstatic peak into the downward slide toward a somber meditation on our mortality, the day called for wearing a gray smear on our foreheads to remind us that fun is fine, but death is where it's at. Amidst this atmosphere of decay and dust, I stepped into my pink paisley rubber rain boots and headed out to the bayou with a brown paper bag and one yellow rubber dishwashing glove (for the right hand) to pick up the garbage that had accumulated along the waterline. It was a good time for cleaning, not just because it was Lent, but also because the bayou was particularly clogged with junk at this time of year. I don't know where it got deposited, but it all seemed to float down here to my neighborhood between the Dumaine Street Bridge and the Magnolia Bridge.

My companion Lance, himself a muddy trickle of a dog, ran ahead of me. When he's in a good mood, Lance trots like a show pony, tail waving like a flag, mouth turned up at the corners in a giddy smile. When he's in more of a brown study, Lance runs like a jackal with nose to the ground, and ass slightly tucked as if he expects someone to kick him at any moment. I have never kicked Lance, never placed angry hands on his body. This dog lives a life of undiluted pleasure, punctuated by rare admonitions for petty crimes, such as chewing ballpoint pens that leave big ink stains on the living room rug. The worst punishment I have given Lance is to speak in a sharp voice, which is enough to send him into a crumpled state of abject remorse. This skulking posture of Lance's must come completely out of his imagination.

As I walked and picked, I found a lot of waterlogged plastic grocery bags, little white plastic rings from soda-bottle tops, cigarette-pack cellophanes, drink straws. Surprisingly few condoms. Not sure if I should be glad of that or not. Glad for me, at least. Then I reached down into the murk because I saw a white patch of something, maybe a sandwich wrapper. But no, it was the white belly of a dead turtle. Was it a plastic bag that killed him? I've heard that turtles die from trying to eat plastic bags, which resemble fish sometimes in the way they balloon out as they drift below the water. I couldn't stand to look at the turtle, but I couldn't look away either. I could see the seams that held together the plates of his shell, his thumb-shaped head, and his legs flippering uselessly in the gentle sway of the water. It made me think of that passage in Michael Cunningham's The Hours when Virginia Woolf's nephews find the body of a bird in the garden. "oh, thinks Virginia, just before tea, here's death."

I left the turtle to his slow decay and continued the task of cleaning the bayou. Farther along, I leaned over to grab what I realized—too late again—was a full diaper that someone had secured into a close bundle before dropping it into the bayou. As I lifted it from the water, the odor of baby shit and mud reached my nose. Too bad. I had gotten this far with it; I had to keep going. A commitment is a commitment. I had to pick up whatever I found that was not supposed to be here. That was the Lenten promise I had made to myself.

As I stood there with a dripping, muddy, rolled-up diaper in my gloved hand, two pelicans soared past. They flew like stealth bombers. The sight of the birds stopped me in my boots. It happened every time. I would pause in whatever I was doing and watch them. They held me in their flight.

Whenever the pelicans showed up, they bestowed a surprising air of benediction on the bayou, a visitation from some other world. Clearly they're not from around here, you say to yourself when you see one of these prehistoric giants floating effortlessly on an updraft, poised in midair against a backdrop of rooftops. These birds belong in a more spacious realm.

Why would these gorgeous wild creatures come to our cramped quarters? Why would they offer their blessing in this squinched city dwelling, with all our crankiness, preoccupations, and busy everydayness? Certainly not because we are good. The pelicans fly equally above the deserving and the undeserving.

They come every year around November to take up winter residence in Bayou Saint John until the end of spring. I am not sure where they spend the rest of the year—probably farther out into the Gulf or in Lake Pontchartrain. For several of the colder and windier months of the year, the brown pelicans live here in this bayou, which flows through a crowded, built-up neighborhood. They float low in the air, gliding on their huge wingspans just inches above the water's surface. It's a great gravity-defying trick of aeroengineering that still looks like pure magic to me. The pelicans make the ducks and herons and cormorants look like they are still practicing flight. These local birds, who appear just as harried and spent as the people, seem to belong here, pecking and paddling around in this citified waterbed while the pelicans make great sky circles with their wings.

Among the linocuts that Walter Anderson made from images he gathered while living on Horn Island is one that displays the artist's view of a pelican as she flies overhead. Of course the choice seems obvious now, but it is an unusual perspective. Usually, artists paint birds in flight from a perspective that shows them in a representational manner, so we can see their plumage and bone structure. They look pretty in a conventional sort of way. The average person would probably be immune to Anderson's peculiar vision of the bird, as the perspective is foreshortened, which warps the image slightly. Then again, Anderson saw a lot of things that no one else could see, and so it's not surprising that he would appreciate the potential beauty in the underside of a pelican. I don't think you have to be eccentric like Walter to see it, but the underside of a pelican does have an allure. I call it "stately absurd."

The pelican in flight holds her head back, pushing out her plumed breast, which is rounded, pompous, and awfully serious. She owns the bayou, and she is stately absurd as she coasts on the air in the manner of a B-52 bomber. She is graceful until she attempts a landing. That is always a wobbly, crashing affair, more comedy than precision; yet her command of the air remains awe-inspiring.

The pelican's breast also reminds me of the harrumphing bosom that Margaret Dumont presents in Marx Brothers movies. I felt sorry for this actress, since her character had to play the solemn foil. Her role consisted of a lot of gasping indignation and holding an erect posture as she thrust the bulwark of her bosom around while Harpo and Groucho swarmed over her like a kooky plague of ants. Just like Margaret Dumont, the pelican betrays no awareness of how funny she is as she floats high above our heads, which is the only reason she gets away with it. The pelican's stateliness would never hold if the Marx Brothers could fly.

Another important difference between Margaret Dumont and the pelican is that the pelican is a savage killer. I had the opportunity by lucky timing to stand on the Magnolia Bridge one afternoon when the sky was high and brilliant, while a group of four or five pelicans came through.

They were doing what they always do—cruising for fish. As soon as one spotted her prey below, she tucked her wings against her body so that her flight turned sharply downward, and she plunged beak first from fifty feet in the air. As she crashed into the water, she kicked up a great fountain of froth. Amidst the splash, it's almost impossible to see her split-second adjustment as she hits the water, unless you watch this performance several times over. Just as her beak reaches below the water to the place where the fish swims, unaware that death plunges from above, the pelican opens her mouth and scoops the unsuspecting fish into her rubbery pouch. Then, in minutely coordinated movements, she rights herself onto the surface of the water, her massive wings flapping a downdraft to get her balance, while simultaneously her neck wattles convulse with the fish, now fighting for its life, as it disappears into the darkness inside her. When I observed this brilliant combination of anticipation, keen sight, timing, and athletic prowess, I realized that cartoons were only a slight exaggeration of what happens in the so-called real world.

On this Ash Wednesday, as I watched the pelicans soar past me on their giant wings, I marveled at their ability to be at once magnificent and comical. I accepted their benediction and glimpsed the mystery and magic they brought with their wild grace. The birds prompted an unaccountable shift. My feet were literally sinking deeper into the mud where I stood, and yet I also felt myself sinking into something else that didn't have a name yet. The pelicans offered an invitation to descend into this place. To deepen my relationship to my bayou and the city it flowed through.

I interpreted this descent, inaugurated at the beginning of the Lenten season, as a call to stewardship. When I saw an aerial photo of the bayou—the pelican's eye view—I was struck by its resemblance to a spinal cord. How intriguing that geography has determined the bayou to be the primitive backbone for this city. It carries the vital spinal fluid that animates the land around it. Bayou Saint John is the reason New Orleans exists where it does today. Were it not for the convenient passage between lake and river afforded by this innocuous, muddy trickle, the French explorers who established New Orleans would have gone elsewhere. So we have Bayou Saint John to thank for putting us here.

When the pelicans came that day in February, Hurricane Katrina wasn't due to arrive for another six months. I couldn't have articulated a complete awareness of the threat that loomed over my city, my bayou, my home. Didn't know how soon would come that crashing, fierce storm that brought it all closer to my heart. Yet, on that day, I sank into a more encompassing embrace of my home and my role in it. I received my vocation. Some task was called for with urgency not yet apparent. I would document the body enlivened by this spinal cord. My sense of stewardship consisted of a simple assignment: Pay attention. I would walk my daily walk along the bayou and see what I could see. Sure, picking up the trash was always a good idea, but my self-appointed job would be to love this bayou by attending to it with my vision and imagination. I would give roundness and shape to whatever transpired here. I would breathe life into this body with my words.

SLIP INTO GRACE

Everything happens on the bayou. Love, sex, Vodou, marriage, birth, baptism, death, and daring rescues. If you spend enough time walking there, you will witness all manner of dramas, both high and low. Then, every so often something completely startling comes hurtling onto the scene. For instance, from time to time we find a car upended in the bayou. usually these arrive at the bend of Moss Street near the yellow house where the Vietnamese nuns live. The water is shallow there, and the road makes a tight turn. So drunk drivers who take it a little too cocky and too fast often go right over the edge, and the next morning we'll see the back end of a Camaro or a Dodge sticking straight up from the water, the front end lodged in the muddy bottom. Whenever I find side mirrors and headlights littered on the embankment along that curve, I know there has been another car-dunking. There is nothing anyone can do about it. No one can change the shape of the bayou. It wants to turn that way. So the city has put up a steel barrier and orange caution signs, with arrows pointing the way around this sharp turn. Still, no amount of signs can penetrate the misty confidence of a drunk driver in New Orleans.

There have been a few people who ended up in the bayou, not from drunk driving, but some star-crossed turn of the wheel. These things happen. More often than not, a valiant passerby or the police manage to fish them out of the drink. Some are not so lucky. It's hard to walk along the bayou and not think of the people who have died in it. There is a pleasant tree-shaded portion of the bayou half a block past the Esplanade Bridge where each year a floral wreath appears. It marks the place where a car plunged into the water with two young people in it. The girl in the passenger seat drowned. Someone who loves her and misses her places the wreath there on the anniversary of her death.

In 2003, a woman went missing for a couple of weeks. No one knew what had happened to her until there was a prolonged drought. A man on his bicycle stopped on the Mirabeau Avenue Bridge because he saw a hand sticking up out of the water. The newspaper story reported a "human hand." What other kind of hand might there be? I wondered. Soon the police figured out that this was the missing woman. Apparently, she had driven off the road, into the bayou, where her car sank out of sight. She died there and remained until the drought brought the water level low enough that the biker could see her. It appeared that she had been struggling to escape from her partly opened window. They found her strapped into her seat with the seatbelt. When I read this detail of the seatbelt, I imagined her to be a careful driver, conscientious about safety, so unlike most drivers in New Orleans.

Here is something I haven't been able to get out of my head. Two summers ago, a young man, who was walking along the bayou, stopped to help two little boys who were fishing near the Dumaine Street Bridge. Their cork bobber had come loose from their line. The young man waded into what at first seemed like shallow water to retrieve the bobber, but then he slipped on the sudden downward slope of the bayou's muddy bottom and fell into deeper water, where he drowned. This young man was unable to swim, and yet he had volunteered to go into the water to help the kids. The two little boys, who couldn't swim either, stood helplessly while the young man died. Later the police found his shoes on the concrete bulkhead that lines the bayou—his wallet and house keys tucked inside for safekeeping.

Why does someone drown? It doesn't make sense to me. For most of us, our bodies float on their own if we let them. Our lungs are filled with air. Our fat, our bones, this stuff we are made of is buoyant. If you are in water and do nothing at all except tilt your head back, you will float. If you keep completely still and release any effort from your limbs, then you will hover in the water as if held by invisible hands just below the surface, while a small portion of your face, encompassing your eyes, nose and mouth, will be exposed to the air so you can breathe. And this is the important point: Stop trying to do anything, simply be in the water, and you will float. I have done this for long stretches of meditation—not in the bayou, but at the deep end of a pool. I allow myself to hang in the water and then drift without making any effort to propel myself. I don't know what causes me to move in the water at all. Maybe my own heartbeat is the motor. But I don't sink to the bottom of the pool.

So why does someone drown? Perhaps he doesn't believe he can float. and then he panics. In the grip of a terrifying belief crisis, the drowning man claws and churns at the water, trying to gain firm purchase on something that is not solid. He cannot make decisions about what to do in water because he doesn't believe in the medium itself. Does not believe that it is possible for him to have a relationship with something that offers no resistance. His hands and feet pass through the water as if nothing is there. yet there is something there, something that will kill him if he cannot stop fighting and negotiate a different way of being with the water. When you're in water, it's actually your own fear that kills you, not the water.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from MY BAYOU by Constance Adler Copyright © 2012 by Constance Adler . Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

What the Pelicans Saw....................1
Slip into Grace....................7
Dream State....................17
I am Saved, Again....................29
A Dog's Life....................37
Then Comes Marriage....................57
A Brief Interlude with History, Science, Wildlife, Mythology, and Civil Engineering....................67
adrift on the Invisible....................73
Kick Him in the Balls....................87
Words that Float....................97
Innocence Comes to a Close....................103
Flight from the Bayou....................115
Honored Guests....................125
Awash in Grief....................135
Struggle for the Shore....................143
My Conversation with Death....................151
Katrina Litter....................177
Finding the Pulse....................191
Give Us This Day....................203
Getting to the Point....................211
Season of Miracles....................219
Epilogue: The Other Shoe....................241
Acknowledgments....................251
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