Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Haunted Beauty: New Orleans

This overgrown garden reminded me of Miss Havisham's house.

Finally, I have a minute to write again. The past couple weeks have been insane. I traveled to New Orleans, tagging along on a business trip with Jerry while his mother watched the kids. He had the weekend off and then I was on my own in the city for three more days. Then we returned home for a day, just long enough to wash the laundry, and left again for a wedding in Raleigh. It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed this morning, and unfortunately, it's my week to drive the band carpool! This weekend we have to drive up to the mountains for a band competition, so I guess I probably won't be finishing much work other than laundry and the general chores.

In New Orleans, we did all the usual sight-seeing and I spent a great deal of time walking around the city looking for courtyard and garden ideas, and just enjoying being alone and exploring a new place. You might remember some of my last gardening posts concerned our slate patio, which I'm trying to landscape as a courtyard. The patio is bordered by a fence and gate in front, a deck and shrubs on one side, a fence on one side, and a border or tall shrubs and trees on the back. All this enclosure gives it the feeling of a courtyard, which I'm trying to accentuate. I hoped to find some inspiration from New Orleans' famous courtyards.

A beautifully-decayed stucco wall

My hope was not in vain. New Orleans is replete with, not only courtyards, but hidden alleys full of plants, stunning jewel-box side yards, intriguing home exterior color schemes, and signs of graceful age. You do, of course, see the not-so-graceful aging as well. Grime, crime, and decay are everywhere, but the decay is of such beauty you can forgive it and even revel in it. In this way, I was reminded forcibly of Italy and old European locales and even of some parts of China.

Colonial Spanish wall, Victorian statue, and modern barbed wire

I took so many photos I can't possibly show them all in this post, so I am concentrating here on a few of the more mysterious and romantic places I saw. Everywhere you come across these neglected and forgotten relics of once-proud gardens and homes, now overgrown and forgotten as Miss Havisham's. You also see incongruous beauty. Victorian statuary adorns industrial squalor; lush ferns sprout from the walls of modern shops. It's my favorite sort of place. I want to incorporate this sense of mystery and faded grandeur into my own false courtyard. Later I will share some of the clean and tidy gardens I saw and some other ideas for the rest of the house and yard.

I think the thing about New Orleans I find most appealing is the sense you get of the striations of time there. It seems as if you're walking through several layers of experience at once, or as if you're inhabiting many different centuries simultaneously. I get this feeling in many old places, but in New Orleans it was particularly strong. This burned city, this drowned city, decimated and yet thriving, doesn't feel as though it is solidly anchored in the present.

A gated Garden District fountain: this is exactly what I want to do with our gate.

We found this first hand at our hotel, Hotel Monteleone. The hotel is very historic and storied. Truman Capote was nearly born there, but his mother barely made it to the hospital. We were not aware it is supposed to be haunted. The first night, around 10:30 or so, we heard hammering above our heads as if construction was going on. We wondered why on earth the staff would wait until so late at night to commence work. Not long past midnight I was awoken by the sound of the door lock turning and footsteps walking into the room. I was wearing earplugs, but the sound was loud enough to pull me from a deep sleep. No one was in our room, and the next morning I asked Jerry if he heard how loud our neighbors were coming in. I didn't really think to much about it for a while, but then I remembered the doors are locked with key cards, not turning locks, and yet I had distinctly heard a lock turning.

The next night we heard the construction, again after 10 PM, and I was awoken around 1 AM by the sound of a man speaking in a garbled manner, as if through a static phone connection. I shoved my earplugs in more tightly and decided I might complain about our loud neighbors to the staff. That same night, someone knocked on our door at 2 AM. Jerry got up to check, but no one was in the hallway. After Jerry went back to bed he woke up later and saw by the bathroom night light that the clothes in the closet were all moving around on their hangers.
On the second day, we heard a couple in the elevator talking about the hotel's reputation of having a haunted floor, but we just couldn't believe it. I did buy a book about the ghosts of New Orleans and found the haunted floor was the 14th: our floor! We still thought it was the neighbors and the hotel maintenance staff, not ghosts, making the noise. I even wrote something on my Facebook about how we hadn't noticed any ghostly activity! However, I went up to the 15th and 16th floors that day and saw no evidence of construction going on. Finally on the third night we had to concede that perhaps the hotel did have something paranormal going on. The hangers in the closet were banging together so loudly they woke Jerry up; it definitely wasn't something a mere air current from the HVAC could accomplish! Also, our neighbors had checked out, but we were still hearing footsteps and locks and talking all night. Then we attended a reception and dinner in the hotel conference room, on the first floor and the lights all began going crazy. One would flicker on and off and then the next, all across the ceiling like dominoes falling and then in random patterns. Then they would all turn on and off. This was so distracting it was hard to carry on a conversation. A waiter who had worked in the hotel for seven years told us, "Don't worry; it's just the ghost." So, evidently the haunting isn't confined to the 14th floor!
Boughs shelter picnickers in Audubon Park.
I'm still not sure about ghosts, despite our experiences. I wonder a lot about time and its structure. In 1991, I went to Governor's School, a North Carolina program in which exceptional students are nominated to attend college for a summer and are able to go for free. I went to Salem College and absolutely loved it. The school's intent is to expose students to as many concepts and points of view as possible. I remember one day we watched an art film by Salvador Dali, Andalusian Dog, I believe, and then we were given a lecture on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. I still don't understand what those two things have to do with one another. We also talked about time travel and Einstein's views on the subject, but I never have been able to understand Einstein very well.
I was afraid to take physics in school because I just didn't feel like I have the intelligence to understand it. The math, especially, defeats me. Dyslexia runs in my mother's family; many of the boys and men inherit that trouble with reading. I suspect I may have a similar problem with numbers. I flip them around all the time. The other day, reading a number for Jerry to put in the GPS, I read 318 instead of 813, the correct number. I also interchange similar-looking numbers, like 2s and 5s or 9s and 6s a lot unless I'm really careful. Numbers appear as visual images, not concepts, to me. I remember doodling in first grade, turning all the 11s on my math paper into little garden gates with tiny landscapes behind them, and all the 2s into horses, and so forth. When I got my paper back it was graded F but my teacher had written "Great pictures!"  across the top. My mother was infuriated!
A beautifully-forbidden fountain
At any rate, although I'm not good at math or physics I find listening to people who are fascinating. I think the best simplification of Einstein's time theories is Rebecca Stead's description, in When You Reach Me, of time as a drawer full of photos. She says, it's as if you have a drawer full of photos, one photo for each moment of time. Everything that ever happened is still there, still happening and existing in that precise moment. We see time as though the photos are stacked, one on top of each other and we can't get back inside the earlier moments, but really they're all shuffled in drawer, still happening all at once. If we could move from one to another, we would find the moment is still there. And if we could, that would be time travel. So every thing I've ever experienced is still out there somewhere. Somewhere I'm still three years old, sitting on my father's shoulders, looking down at the ocean from a cliff near San Francisco, and somewhere I'm still 16, walking in the woods with my friend after school, still 23, getting married, and somewhere I'm still 24, scared and exhilarated, rushing to the hospital to bring my first son into the world, still 38, washing laundry, and so on. All my significant moments and all the mundane as well. What I wonder is, if Einstein was correct, and these moments are all still existing, what would happen if they were to bleed into one another? What if you were somewhere where time's atmosphere is very thin or porous or something, and you could catch echoes of some of the earlier moments still occurring in that spot? Would you perceive it as a haunting? Would you think it was a ghost?
My aunt and uncle, living in my grandparents' house now, might disagree. They feel my grandmother is haunting the house. A few times, on her birthday or a family member's birthday or some other significant date, her light has been turned on in the night while they slept. They also have lost things, despite thorough searching, only to have the object appear later on the edge of her bed, where it certainly wasn't before, out where it can be easily spotted. My mother is upset about this. At the end of her life my grandmother wanted very much to die and move on. Her body was betraying her, her friends and husband and son had all gone on without her, so why would she want to stay in the house finding things for people? Personally, I think if anyone were to haunt that house it would be my grandfather. He designed that house himself, using Architectural Digest for ideas. It was the great project of his life. He made sure the masonry had a true dead space in between the layers of brick, for insulation, and put in a fireplace designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. He built the stairs by hand, hung the paneling, installed the floors, all himself. He was also a huge prankster. Maybe he's hiding things and Grandma is having to come behind him and put them back out where people can see them!
French Quarter front yard. All French Quarter houses were required to have a
fresh water fountain after a devastating 18th Century fire.
It's already almost time to go and pick up my pre-schooler, and I've hardly done anything besides laundry! There's so much to do, and so much more we'd like to do. Somewhere between here and Raleigh there is an art exhibit of statues all made of Legos, but really amazing and done by real artists. I saw a billboard advertising it Sunday afternoon as we drove home from the wedding and almost asked to stop, because I thought the kids would love it. But then I considered how tired everyone was going to be waking up before dawn on Monday, and how much washing there was to do, and I didn't say anything. We missed the Beer Festival as well as the Holy Smokes BBQ and Gospel festival while we were away. It's amazing how many events there are around here. You could go do something different every day! I think the trip to New Orleans was worth missing a few things around here, though. I really had a fantastic time and gained a lot of inspiration. As soon as I can I will share the manicured garden ideas I found on our trip, as well a whole series of exterior design photos I took.

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