So cool, so cool, so cool. That is really all I have to say about our two major events in Cajun Country (around Lafayette): meeting Dr. Ernest J. Gaines and spending time with bluegrass musicians at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop.
Just kidding. I have way more to say.
First of all, I am so grateful Dr. Gaines and his family, not only for allowing us into his home in Pointe Coupee, but also for answering our questions and giving us oatmeal cookies. Mrs. Gaines makes a mean oatmeal cookie. And Dr. Gaines was so open and wise when I started asking questions about God and jazz. God and jazz: the pretentious question starter-pack. So thanks for being patient, Dr. Gaines!
A Lesson Before Dying is the first book in a while that made me lock myself in the bathroom after finishing it. I sat on the sink in the Baton Rouge hotel room Olivia and I were sharing and just had a good, long, somber think. My Sink Thinks only happen when something has profoundly affected me. And A Lesson Before Dying did just that. It is an astonishingly poignant novel about a black man, sentenced to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, trying to reclaim his human dignity before he dies (with the help of a very good friend and teacher). Throughout my reading of the story, I was reminded of one of my favorite poems – “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
We visited the courthouse in Lafayette that Gaines was thinking of while writing the book. We wandered through the cells, which now serve as storage units for the sheriff’s office. But some are still empty, and I was able to walk in, shut the barred door behind me, and try to imagine what Jefferson (our doomed hero) undoubtedly feels sitting in his small, humid cage. And I just kept thinking of those immortal last two lines of “Invictus”: I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
So often, we are all wretched like Grant, Jefferson’s teacher – unable to stand with courage as a human being and unable to genuflect before any god. But I like to believe that, at the end of his life, Jefferson does both somehow. He bridges the gap between human dignity and sublime submission with elegance and courage. “Tell Nannan [his godmother] I walked,” he utters before submitting to death. He is certainly the captain of his soul. Standing in that rusty cell in Lafayette, I could just feel it.
The day after visiting Dr. Gaines, we headed to Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop. We had just finished reading Tim Gautreaux’s short story “Floyd’s Girl” about a strong Cajun family, so I was ready to listen to some authentic Cajun and bluegrass music and meet some authentic Cajun people. But, holy guacamole, I did not expect to fall absolutely in love with these people. I spent the majority of the three hours at Tom’s on the back porch that overlooked the calm, brown bayou. Leland, Lori, Janet, and Elmer were playing out there, and singing “Ring of Fire” and “House of the Rising Sun” with them made me so inexplicably happy.
I had never before sat among strangers and realized how completely beautiful they were. Really guys, I was grinning like an idiot the whole time. It’s because people like Leland, Lori, Janet, and Elmer (and Byron, who was in another room, but who told me he loved my glasses – you’re a legend, Byron), people that don’t know a lick about you but open their arms wide and invite you to sing along…they are the reason I know the human race is worth saving. No exaggeration.
Peace, love, Cajun Country.
MEAL OF THE MOMENT: JAMBALAYA
Jambalaya is delicious (like everything else in this state), and it is also the perfect Meal of the Moment, since the event we attended at Tom’s Fiddle and Bow is called “JAMbalaya” and it happens the first Sunday of each month. I don’t know what else to say about the roux-based rice and meat dish, except that I ate it at a restaurant where I taught Stasi how to dance to bluegrass. It was a lot of fun, but twirling around a dancefloor after eating jambalaya was a precarious situation.