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I commit to you New Orleans, the mess that made me

by Lauren McCabe on March 11, 2016

new orleans zydeco music love

I didn’t think I’d end up back here in New Orleans, this hot, soupy city where I was born and raised.

In college in New York City, whenever someone tried to guess where I was from, they would look me up and down and say with certainty, “California!”

I had long blonde highlights. I loved to surf, rock climb and run. People envisioned west coast sunshine when the encountered my off-the-wall energy, and for a moment, I thought perhaps the west coast was my destiny.

Through many twists and turns of life, I returned to New Orleans in my mid-twenties.

Things didn’t go as planned.

There were no waves to surf and no rocks to climb, just miles of humid swamp rapidly eroding into the sea. I had relinquished my party-girl lifestyle for an alcohol-free existence and there seemed to be nothing to do on weekends but booze and eat. Violence in my neighborhood had reached a terrifying crescendo and people were getting shot and dying and my heart was aching.

On weekends, I would sit in my 100-year old house with tall ceilings, marble mantels and history all around me and think, I hate this city.

Friends from college would email about passing through New Orleans, and I didn’t know what to do with them other than get drunk and eat, and I would think, I hate this city.

As I started to hate New Orleans, my home, something else happened, too.

I started to hate myself.

Then on one of those perfect New Orleans afternoons when the sun is warm and generous and a second line rumbled\s in the distance, I broke down in sobs.

Here I was, sitting on my porch drenched in sun and music and beauty and all I was capable of was hate.

What had I become?

I reached back, far back, for that moment I left New Orleans for New York City at eighteen, and how I missed my city, craved it.

One night, on a date at a swanky New York City jazz club, I was dancing in a sea of focused heads. My date looked at me perplexed and grumbled. “I don’t understand how you can dance to music like this.”

Every single year when carnival was near, I flew to New Orleans from New York and I invited anyone to come – open house, bring yourself and yo friends – only to encounter confused stares. “But we would have to miss a class.”

And then Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, and that night my city flooded and people died and everything changed forever, I sat in a bar in Manhattan listening to the table behind me toast New Orleans for higher gas prices.

And what had I wanted in New York City all those years?

All I wanted was to date a guy who could dance, not well, but just like himself with that reckless abandon that I was used to at home.

I wanted friends who would skip classes rarely, but without question if a trip to Mardi Gras was on the agenda.

And in the wake of Katrina, as my city began that long and tireless process of rebuilding, I ached to be alongside them in the September heat, cleaning out refrigerators, razing houses, standing for all that was beautiful and right and true.

These things that I had ached for when I was far away all those years ago were right there, at home.

And now, years later, here I was at home. With all of these things.

Funny how that works.

There in the spring sunshine I made a promise to my city, and it was this:

I’m here to stay, NOLA. I’m committed to you and the beautiful mess that made me, and to thank you I’m going to make you the best city yet, a safe city, a healthy city, a city where every life is valued.

And you know what? I’m going to love you, every inch of you, your swampy air and beautiful second lines and lack of surfable waves and violence too, I’m going to love that because the only way through hate is love, and I’m a love machine, that’s my promise to you.

I’m committed to everything that makes you great and everything that makes you horrible, and nestled in the center is a commitment of transformation, a commitment to making you flourish.

I sighed.

I was home.

3

The year of almost-30

by Lauren McCabe on February 12, 2015

jazz fest new orleans

When I turn almost-30 it is a perfect day: jazz fest, blue skies, brass band, beer. I planned it to be just that, perfect, first by quitting my job and then by throwing myself into the finer pursuits of life: reading, yoga, art, teaching. I sway in a big brown field listening to brass band, beer in hand, breeze on back, thinking that this year, this one, is going to be unstoppable; that this song, this one will fuel it.

I notice the gray hair spiraling off my head like a slinky and call my best friend.

“I found one,” I say, half worried but half excited for this newfound puberty of old age.

“I found twenty-one,” she quips back.

We account this difference to her being more almost-30 than me.

As an almost-30-year-old, I look the same as I ever have: brown eyes with hazel specks, fair skin that burnishes gold in the summer, except everything is smoother, bigger, like a tomato so ripe it’s ready to burst.

One single brown age spot fades in and out of existence below my left eye, showing its outline after a weekend at the beach, disappearing after a week indoors.

I stop reading tech magazines that adore profiling successful entrepreneurs who have built billion dollar businesses by age 25. As an almost-30-year-old no where near that marker of success, I prefer to listen to Spotify playlists with songs that call out to me in rhythm and timbre.

One day, sautéing balsamic glazed red onions in the kitchen, I catch a lyric of one of the songs on the playlist.“Will you still love me when I’m old and no longer beautiful?” coos the sultry female voice. “I know you will, I know you will,” she answers herself.

At almost-30, I regret letting the plaster cast of my 12-year-old face decay in the corner of my backyard. One summer when I was young, my parents sent me to welding camp where a French metal artist directed me to make a self-portrait table. Welding the table together with scrap metal, we mounted a plaster cast of my face in the center, filling the tabletop with concrete and shards of mirror mosaic.

“In the future you will be able to see your face then and now,” said the French metal artist.

The plaster absorbed every single detail of my twelve-year-old self: puffy cheeks, bushy eyebrows, small zits, heart shaped lips.

The table sat in my parents’ attic for sixteen years, looking so real that each time I climbed the stairs to move a portion of my childhood possessions into my new house – books, clothes, pictures – I beheld the table in awe, astonished that I could grasp my past so vividly.

Then one day after there were no more books left to move, my parents dragged the table downstairs and set it by the backdoor. When I arrived to their house for family yoga, they told me to take it with me or else.

My husband loaded it into our VW bus, and the van sunk with the weight of metal and concrete. When we got home, he encouraged me to place it in the backyard. “It will ware well.” Overwhelmed with stuff, I waved my hand and said, “Fine.”

Now every day when I walk onto the porch to water the ferns, I watch chunks of my face fall off, washed away by thunderstorms and sun and hurricanes so that I come face to face with the slow decomposition of my face.

Two stray cats use the jagged face potholes as a rubbing post, and sometimes I catch them with specks of plaster on their heads and in their ears. A bird perches on my nose and pecks at my chin, taking two giant gulps.

I consider cleaning my crumbling face for our Mardi Gras Party so that what’s left of my 12-year-old self shines. The cast was originally spray-painted gold, and flakes still glitter under my eyes and across my jaw. Dirt has crusted in my eyebrows; my ears are filled with algae. “You look rustic,” my husband assures me. “It’s kind of cool.”

At the party, my face-table serves as a resting place for food, drinks and napkins. People get drunk. A guy teeters over the table peering down at my face pensively and I say, “That’s a self-portrait of me when I was 12.”

He looks up, confused.

“I can’t figure out which beer is mine.” He grabs a half-crushed can of Bud Light off the table. “Is this one yours?” he looks at me absently, swaying.

At that moment, I want to carry my face table inside. I can Windex the mirror mosaic and scrape off the rust. I can repaint my dented face gold and it will look like rustic art. I can put it in the corner of the guest bedroom that is shuttered and cool, and I can make sure it doesn’t see any sunlight ever again.

I exhale.

“That beer is totally mine.” I take it from his hand, and he gives me a palmy high-five.

“I knew it!” and grabs a different half-crushed can of Bud Light and guzzles it down.

In two months, I will turn 30.

I will be at Jazz Fest in a burnt field swaying under a hot sun listening to a brass band that I have danced to since I was sixteen. I will wear tie-dye and drink Blue Moon and wear SPF50 and go to that festival every single day because my husband gave me a brass pass for Christmas, an all-access entry ticket that also gets me into a tent with coffee, water and fruit.

And I will keep my face table outside.

8

I quit, and this is what I have

by Lauren McCabe on September 30, 2014

Guatemala Surf

Once upon a time when I was one year out of college I decided to go to Guatemala.

There wasn’t a real reason why I went except that I had saved up enough money to afford the five-dollar a night beach bungalow on the black sand beach that supposedly housed good surf. I told my boss at my unpaid internship that I was going, and he told the client who didn’t know I was an intern that I had earned a well-deserved vacation. Then I left.

I booked a cheap flight that included a 24-hour layover in Atlanta and went by myself. To get to the beach, I reserved a shuttle, which turned out to be someone’s brother in law’s cousin who had a van with garbage bags on the windows. He was looking for extra cash for Easter weekend.

He drove me four hours then dropped me off at a small river and said, Adios.

I said, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach?

He said, A boat will come.

I looked over at the small dock. There was an ancient woman holding a pineapple, sleeping. No boat in sight.

I turned back.

When?

He squinted.

Fifteen minutes.

Then he left.

~~~

Fifteen minutes later the guys with machine guns came paddling up the river and I just about screamed.

But nothing happened. They looked at me funny and said something in Spanish to each other and then kept on paddling. The woman with the pineapple still slept. I sat awkwardly on a bench with my backpack, still waiting for the boat.

And fifteen minutes after that a boat did come. People suddenly streamed out of huts with bags of ice and fish and mangos. I paid the man at the helm a dollar. A young Guatemalan teenager smiled at me and said, Britney Spears.

Then they dropped me off at a dock on the river and said, Adios.

I said again, Isn’t there supposed to be a beach? Except I said that in broken Spanish. No one spoke English.

The whole boat erupted in chatter about this beach that supposedly held good surf.

Finally a boy said, Follow.

He walked me through the winding paths of a sandy village until there it was. The coast. Black sand beaches that shimmered with volcanic glitter, long lines of waves, a bare bones thatched bungalow.

Olivia greeted me, a woman who lived in the village and was responsible for cooking all of my meals since there was no restaurant in the village. There were two other guests at the bungalow, some guys from Norway who were tall and handsome and spoke gravely about everything. The next morning they left, and I was there by myself for five days until two women from Colorado appeared. They were blonde, tall, professionals that had somehow meandered to this small village on the pacific coast for a week of vacation.

They were beside themselves that such a place existed where there were no roads, just sand pathways, no restaurants, just Guatemalan families that cooked for you if you asked kindly, no electricity past 9 pm, just the light of the moon reflecting off the water.

Brightly colored hammocks swayed in the ocean breeze as Olivia showed them the accommodations, a bunk bed for $5 a night or a hammock for $1 a night. That people sleep in hammocks all night long! One woman exclaimed.

Over lunch we talked about what brought us here. They asked me what I did, and I told them about growing bored in my unpaid internship, the desire to find uncrowded surf, and the tienda in my Brooklyn neighborhood where you could call any country for 15 cents a minute, so I called this place and booked a bunk bed.

One of the women told me about her first job after college in advertising where she rapidly climbed the ladder until the day her boss pointed to a VP and said, That will be you in ten years.

She watched the VP storm through the building with high heels and a hard face and thought, Is THAT what I want?

She went home and asked herself that question over and over again and after a restless night, she realized that she had no clue what she wanted, but this wasn’t it.

She quit her job, packed her things in storage, biked across the country and then discovered Durango, a snowy town nestled in the Colorado mountains. When she dismounted from her bike and beheld the frosty pines, she thought, This is it.

Now she worked for a small start-up there, making a fraction of the salary she once did, but she didn’t care.

That’s why we’re here and not in some fancy resort, she said.

For the rest of day she gazed in awe at this small beach town, the hand-made flour tortillas cooked in the village each morning, the scorching sand that sparkled.

From her astonished eyes, I knew that whatever life she had envisioned for herself hadn’t included a beach made from eons of volcanic rock grinding together and a village with sand sidewalks. This was something that she had been incapable of dreaming about ten years ago when she quit her job to giver herself to the unknown.

Here, now, seven years after that chance encounter in Guatemala, I am thinking about that question, Where do I want to be in ten years? Just like that Colorado woman, I woke up one morning, went to my advertising job, gazed at the successful people around me and thought, This isn’t it. I left.

What remains is a blank space, a vortex of time and energy and imagination that has just begun to roil. I can’t even fathom where I will be ten years from now, but I’m hoping that it will be something equally unimaginable because that’s what I want: a future that doesn’t exist now, but will on that day when I sit down, spread my hands wide and create.

1

The Rejection Dress

by Lauren McCabe on May 15, 2014

I once saw a woman wearing the most extraordinary dress on Mardi Gras day.

From a distance she looked like a flurry of color, of hot-whites and neon-greens and flamingo-pinks flapping in the breezy sun.

As I got closer, I saw that the dress was made of paper, hundreds of sheets affixed to a full-length ball gown cascading in ruffles around her, enveloping her.

Studying the papers I saw what they were: rejection letters, hundreds of them, each in their own unique and roundabout way refusing to publish her work. From beneath the ball gown she beamed, twirling and dipping in the second line parade, baring her face to the liquid sun.

I imagined her before she was the woman in an extraordinary dress, what she must have done as the days and months and years of rejection surmounted: collected each slip in a dresser drawer, the one just below her socks, just in case she needed to recall who had denied her.

One day, opening the drawer to a sea of vibrant paper, she imagined that the rejection letters were no longer rejection letters but folds of a strange and beautiful silk, variegated in hue and texture and luster.

She gathered the material in her arms, released it onto the floor and began sewing steadily, patiently, until each and every single inch of rejection was accounted for in a dress as large and full as a fairytale.

And so wearing her gown of color, she asks us, how do you wear your rejection?

Do you drape it over your head like a dark hood, awaiting the guillotine of failure?

Or do you take each inch of rejection in your bare hands and start working it into something else: a hot air balloon that carries you up and up, a boat that brings you forward and onward, a dress as large and fiery as the sun itself?

Gazing at yourself dressed up in your own rejection, do you see something greater and grander, the queen of Mardi Gras Day?

2

How many times can you start over again?

by Lauren McCabe on November 13, 2013

Lauren McCabe Mandolin

How many times can you start over?

I think of this in musical instruments: piano, clarinet, flute, harp and french horn, the instruments that I played by age sixteen. I began with piano at the behest of my parents and the intention of playing the harp, my true desire, the instrument that at age seven no one was sure I was serious about playing (I was).

Then at ten I couldn’t resist the lure of the school band and the idea of learning any one of a dazzling array of instruments. I played the clarinet, then flute and finally french horn, a noble instrument with a complex knot of brass at its heart center. It had a brave sound that made me think of kings and knights, and as I marched around my house bellowing into its mouthpiece, I imagined myself as the herald of something important, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

After four faithful years of playing the piano, I marched up to my parents and begged them to allow me to play the harp, proving my musical candor with a piano performance of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. With luck, a harp teacher was offering group lessons after school, and I learned that instrument with a motley group of students, odd children drawn to the instrument for deep and mysterious reasons.

My dalliances with instruments didn’t end with the finish of school, and certainly not with the passage of time.

A year ago I took up yet another one, the mandolin, spurned by an urge to have something small enough to take anywhere. Twenty years after my first music lesson I am still starting again, over and over, one instrument after another, year after year.

But then, I am really not starting over again. Music is a language that I learned long ago under the strict instruction of my piano teacher Ms Kitty, who piled stacks of theory books on a TV tray and made me complete each exercise perfectly before I could play. Even now, I already have the tools to play music, I just need an instrument to apply them to.

So it goes with music, and so it goes with life: a career change, a city-move, a relationship transformation, sometimes you think starting anew is starting from scratch, erasing hard years spent shaping your life to be what it is now. But is this so?

Transforming, say, from a corporate accountant to a graphic designer may seem like a near-impossible feat, like crossing the ocean on a straw raft, a voyage that would surely entail demise.

But the truth is the stretch is not that much of a stretch.

Don’t accountants look at graphs? Don’t you, with your passion for design, already have a knack for visual thinking? Your business acumen combined with design skills are a potent combination, one that many businesses need right now. All of a sudden the distance between where you are now and where you want to be starts contracting, and what was once a vast ocean roiling with danger is now a stepping stone across a bubbling brook, the natural hop to becoming happier. It wasn’t until I exhaled vehemently into the flute that I realized my lungs were better suited for the giant puff of the french horn.

A year ago, when I first took the mandolin in my hands I couldn’t fathom how someone could play such a tiny instrument. My fingers were accustomed to the wide planes of the piano and the graceful stretches of the harp, and they creaked stiffly as I tried to press chords into its neck. My mandolin teacher sat across from me patiently drinking tea, making me play chords over and over until my fingers began to curl just right.

And then one day at work, sitting in a meeting around a big conference room table, I began playing an invisible mandolin under the table. My fingers moved over translucent strings, silent chords echoed gloriously in the steely room, my hands snapped when I felt them play the wrong nonexistent note.

Slowly, the motions of the mandolin became second nature, like breathing.

Very rarely do you start over again.

Very rarely do you do something in which you are entirely unskilled, entirely without aptitude, entirely without context.

Even when starting an instrument at age fifty, you have a half century of melodies in your head, you already know, innately, the rhythms that you are about to play. Try it. It’s true.

You are building your life year after year, one elucidating experience at a time, one relationship at a time. You are becoming finer with age, a wine rich and complex with notes high and low so when held to the light you glow richly, a variegated hue.

You will reform and realign, pivot and adjust, shift and deepen just as the flavor of wine transforms with each passing year, but know this: you are not starting over again, ever, and so the number of times that you can change? Infinite.