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Samuel Thompson

Another Suitcase in Another Hall - and Expunging Ghosts

June 18, 2008 at 3:46 PM

Well...it's been quite some time, partially because I have in recent weeks become a twenty-first century technovictim: my computer's operating system has died.

Nevertheless, there have been some wonderful things in the past few months, both personally and professionally. Personally, I have had some great opportunities to reconnect with old friends and colleages, including South African coloratura Bronwen Forbay, who surprised all of us by taking over the role of the Queen of the Night in the Tulsa Opera's performance of The Magic Flute. Having met Bronwen seven years ago, it was of course wonderful to see her and to hear her again. Bronwen is a very convincing actress - as one should be on the operatic stage - and possesses the perfect sound: powerful without sounding forced, beautiful but also having great depth, controlled yet still alive and "spinning".

Professionally, well, after The Magic Flute I came home to have almost six weeks free, during which I did, of course, practice, and those weeks were followed by a second performance of Between A Ballad and a Blues (there will be more on that weekend soon).

Upon returning this week (for the sole purpose of unpacking, repacking, tying up loose ends and flying out again), I received two publications in the mail and it's odd, the timing is somewhat perfect. The first, a copy of STATE Magazine, the triannual magazine of the Oklahoma State University Alumni association, in which an article appears about my life since Katrina (I will indeed share my thoughts on this article in another entry, and am incredibly grateful to Matt Elliott and Valerie Kisling of Oklahoma State University for sharing my story). To quote another interviewee, "When your school - the school you love - sees fit to honor you, it's a wonderful thing."

In the aforementioned article "a man named Paul" is mentioned. That man, Paul Harris, currently lives in San Diego and was with my group during that fateful week. In the three years since then (and it's somewhat difficult to believe that it's been almost three years) Paul has been a wonderful friend, incredibly supportive and encouraging. After returning to San Diego and sharing his story, Paul was encouraged to write a book - that book, Diary From The Dome: Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina, has recently been published by Vantage Press and gives a very candid look at the thoughts of one man in addition to dismissing many of the "myths and legends" that are possibly still circulating about life in the Louisiana Superdome.

While he says that writing this book was therapeutic for him, Paul has visited New Orleans several times since the storm, lending his hand to various volunteer efforts. Diary From The Dome is a continuation of these efforts: a percentage of the profits from the sale of the book will be donated to Common Ground Relief. Common Ground Relief's mission is to provide short term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the gulf coast region, and long term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area. Common Ground Relief is a community-initiated volunteer organization offering assistance, mutual aid and support. The work gives hope to communities by working with them, providing for their immediate needs and emphasizes people working together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways.

For more information on Common Ground Relief, please visit their website at www.commongroundrelief.org. Advance copies of Diary From the Dome can be purchased via amazon.com or directly from Vantage Press at 800/882-3273.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 18, 2008 at 8:13 PM
Great to hear from you Sam! And I always love hearing/reading about your Katrina experience and aftermath - fabulous, well-written article. Good on you!
From Samuel Thompson
Posted on June 18, 2008 at 8:52 PM
Terez-

Thank you, and thanks for writing! I just reread the story that you sent me and wow...have you studied or been exposed to any of the traditional African religions? I'm asking because of the ritual that you described...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 12:35 PM
Sam - everything in Africa feels like religion in a sense, just as it seems like death is constantly hovering in the periphery. Ditto the spirits of the departed. It is the strangest combination of the sacred and the mundane, but it bears little relation to Western "religion." Interesting to note how many people in provincial Gabon would dress up, go to church on Sunday, sit there attentively and really seem to listen, then go back to their lives and think nothing of having a ceremony that night, calling forth ancestral spirits to rid a woman of her infertility spell (cast upon her by a witch). They just don't have the "one way is right and the other is wrong" philosophy that American culture seems to want to stamp on religion.

Wait, that came out wrong. In Santa Cruz, there are many religions and a lot of tolerance, but boy, the conservatives love to hate places like Santa Cruz. (Have heard more than one person refer to it as "Land of fruits, nuts and weirdos.")

Africa is very cool but very difficult. I'm sure there are a lot of parallels to what you experienced with Katrina - it's like a different set of rules exist when tragedy and death and larger-than-life circumstances run the show. I'm sure there was a certain camaraderie you experienced in those first few weeks following it (if only mental, once you were out of the area) that is now a sweet memory that you can't seem to recapture in life. That, and a searing sense of "this is what life is all about," which, sadly, fades as everyday life and its various pettinesses take over once again.

Am I rambling here, or what?! : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 19, 2008 at 12:46 PM
Oh, and a less long-winded response to your question is that in researching my first novel, I interviewed a few returned Peace Corps Volunteers from the country I served in, to get their first-hand stories about doing ceremonies, most notably Bwiti ceremonies. If you Google "Bwiti" and "Gabon" you should get some hits. It's really, really fascinating and scary, and it was incredible to talk to ppl who'd done it. (Warning, there is one article I read online, written by some smug New York type journalist who made light of his Bwiti ceremony that had me just shaking with rage - felt like blasting him both personally and publicly, but as he is a writer, and an influential one, I decided to keep my blasting to myself. No point in pissing off someone who someday might review something you yourself have written.)

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