Leaving Louisiana

Above all, there was understanding. She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

As someone who is naturally reflective and analytical with a touch of perfectionist, it is incredible to reflect on this trip. I continuously forget that this was a class because I learned so much about the world and about myself, about other people in Louisiana and about my fellow bookpackers. I learned about humanity, about the value of education, about moving on from one day to the next. My birthday is coming up, and another year means another reflection on my life over the past year. This bookpacking excursion was the perfect finishing touch to my year—it put the majority of my past year into perspective while also teaching me so much more. This past month has honestly been one of my most favorite months of the past twelve. 

In the hope that I don’t get too philosophical or sappy, I’ve chosen some of my favorite lines that I underlined while reading the books for this class. When I read books, I actively read and mark up the pages of a book in two different ways: for educational purposes, for future papers, etc., and then for my own enjoyment. I read somewhat quickly so I tend to underline things I love without really soaking it all in, but now that I’ve flipped through all the books we have read over the course of the semester I found a common thread in what I enjoyed most. Virtually everything I underlined and starred as being important to me had to do with life, life compared to death, and, more generally, existence. A great number of characters, if not all the main characters, in the books we’ve read have gone through awakenings where they learn more about themselves and their lives. I’d say I was right there alongside with them. 

While we didn’t stay in New Orleans for the entire trip, we did spend a good amount of time in the city in the first weeks of our time in Louisiana. One of my favorite lines from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, a book about a vampire trying to find his place in the world and, more specifically, in New Orleans, Louis the vampire makes this comment when he looks back at his life: 

But all during these years I had a vague persistent desire to return to New Orleans. I never forgot New Orleans.
— Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

This goes for New Orleans and for the experience as a whole, but so many incredible memories and friendships were made over these past weeks and I can’t imagine ever forgetting them. 


Tim Gautreaux writes about life as a Creole versus stereotypical Southern life in his short story entitled “Floyd’s Girl”. Food and religion is extremely important to those with French backgrounds, and, after a young girl has been pulled away from her father, her grandmother exclaims of her granddaughter that: 

Living without her food would be like losing God, her unique meal.
— Tim Gautreaux, Same Place, Same Things

In context, the Creole grandmother is appalled that her granddaughter who has almost been kidnapped by her birth mother’s boyfriend will have to live in a place like Texas without her comfort food and without Catholicism. While the religious aspect of this quote is too complex for me to cover in one blog post, I can definitely touch on the food aspect of the quote. introduced me to so many amazing foods and restaurants. I never thought I would try oysters or liver pate, but I tried foods for the first time during these past weeks we have spent in Louisiana. I never thought I would be able to tell New Orleans locals that I have been to iconic restaurants such as Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace or Napoleon House, but I have and now have the power to give restaurant recommendations for New Orleans. I could not have gotten through this time without food, and especially all the amazing foods we’ve been so fortunate to get a taste of throughout our time. 

This bookpacking excursion has been crazy, relaxing, eye-opening and educational all at once, and I think that that is the joy of reading books in the location where they take place. When I was younger, I always imagined the books I read coming to life and thought how cool it would be to see the world on the page pop up in front of me as a hologram. While this world does not have the technology to really do that, bookpacking is more or less the same thing—it’s also more real and authentic compared to a hologram. 

I certainly will not forget New Orleans or all the wonderful places we were able to travel to in Louisiana. This experience was truly an experience of a lifetime and I am so grateful I was able to be a part of it. With the chaos of school ending as well as the chaos of my own life, this class, this trip, was a much-needed awakening. In the weeks prior to flying out to New Orleans with 11 complete strangers I was stressed out and not in the greatest of spirits. Next year I will be a senior in college, which is something I still am having trouble fathoming, but I feel as if I have been confused about what my life is going to be like over these next pivotal few years. But after having spent these last three and a half weeks with an amazing group of people, I have learned a lot about myself, have become somewhat less stressed out since those very first days of the experience and have a more positive outlook on life in general. Sure, I learned about Louisiana, about the culture and history of this special place in the United States, learned about the people who inhabit it and have read and experienced what I have read in a way I could never imagine. More than anything, however, I was inspired in some way by every single person on this trip and now feel as if I am starting to find my place in this world. 

I don’t know when I’m going to die, Jefferson. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe today. That’s why I try to live as well as I can every day and not hurt people. Especially people who love me, people who have done so much for me, people who have sacrificed for me. I don’t want to hurt those people. I want to help those people as much as I can.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

A Romantic

This month of May was one of open blossoms, potent colors, blue shutters, and luscious green trees and grass. This month of May was spent in Louisiana, where the hot air does not let you forget sensation and leaves you sticky in sweat. In Louisiana, even the air feels romantic, as it rests on your skin when you gaze at a saxophone player, watch the fingers of a bass player, see the childhood one-room school of a famous author.

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This romance I am rattling on about is not just the passion between two lovers, but about being a romantic and wondering about all the different kinds of love. If you have read my other pieces, you can probably tell I am enchanted by the world around me in all its symbols and metaphors - the lyrics, the human connections, the air, the nature, the stories, the aesthetics, the ideas. And being a romantic, I believe in love and always have. But, on this trip, I learned about the various kinds that tried to explain themselves to me this month of May.

Each novel we read, as most novels do, embraced some kind of struggle for love. For Edna, it was the romantic, erotic love she craved that spun wild in Storyville and the life of Buddy Bolden. Vampires are an embodiment of lust, but Ann Rice reconstructs complex ideas of love for these supernatural creatures torn between companionship and manipulation. Jefferson must learn to accept love. Grant, Miss Emma, Grant's aunt, and so many others in the plantation community - even Paul - try to express familial and friendship love even when its hardest. Floyd loves his daughter in the way that he does everything he can to be the best father for her, and the town comes together in their community love to keep them from losing each other. 

Edna comes to the realization that she does not love her husband, Mr. Pontellier.

“As the devoted wife of a man who worshiped her, she felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams.”

She loved the attention and devotion he gave her, but that connection was thin. She married him out of convenience, in following the expectations of society. She chose “dignity” over passion and romance. A romance in which she finds with a man, Robert, whose relationship with her is far from allowed in their society. In The Awakening, Edna felt she was forced by her world to let go of romance like her childhood fairytales. As a novel about female independence, and an “awakening” in more ways than one, my mind explored how I felt pressures to “find love” in my society and how expectations have and have not changed since the late 19th century. What do we prioritize, the euphoria or the logistics? The timing or the passion? The simplicity or the wildness?

 A piece at NOMA presenting a woman as a painting - love as being the energy of a gaze. 

A piece at NOMA presenting a woman as a painting - love as being the energy of a gaze. 

“You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions - and that is love.”

A Lesson Before Dying is a lesson on love. Grant tries to understand how much of himself he needs to give in order to be a loving person, swinging on a pendulum of selflessness and selfishness. Jefferson struggles with accepting the love that surrounds him, not believing in the words and the efforts of his family and Grant. Grant explains to Jefferson that even though his life has not been fair, he has something that is priceless - a huge space in many people's hearts. He urges Jefferson to share that love, because it is the greatest gift.

~~~

As I read these stories, I was also having long talks about all these different kinds of love with friends during and in between. A friend going through her first heartbreak, another one contemplating her relationship with her mother, a friend confused about his feels for a girl, a friend forgetting how actions affect other people, a friend facing divorce in the family, a friend falling for a friend, a friend worried she always loves the wrong person.

What sunk its teeth into my neck and strummed my heartstrings - it was love. It was discovering, and absorbing, all the different kinds of love that melt into each other and sometimes lead to confusion, disbelief, bliss. I came face to face with pondering the allusion of love, bleeding love, guiding love, and the desire to be loved.

 Evangeline Tree

Evangeline Tree

New Orleans and Southern Louisiana - a place so saturated - was this tangible backdrop for discovering all these kingdoms of love. It is so naturally beautiful that it feels like it holds your hand to lead your down the road of an old Southern romantic story. Sit on the edge of the Mississippi River with people that mean a lot to you, feel rain pounding on your soaking clothes as you run to a psychic that will tell you to open your heart, visit the “Evangeline Tree” from an Acadian Romeo-and-Juliet-esque poem your dad read to you as a child, eat warm beignets as you discuss philosophies on long lasting love.

Perfect should be in the future, Andrew said. You will change, and they will change. You cannot be trying to get back to something in the past.

It hit me a few times while in New Orleans that this trip, in its way, is a romance. A romance with myself, the world around me with its fascinating people, and storytelling.

For me, love exists. It exists in the serendipities and smiles and wanting to hold your friend's hand. It exists in the way your mother agrees to fill out your paperwork even though you just complained about something irrelevant for an hour. It exists in the way the a golden light catches a pink flower or slides across the green eye of someone who means a lot to you. A little boy giggling with his brother, not wondering at all where the jingling open air trolley may be taking them for the afternoon. 

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I am going to keep reading, and writing, these "love stories" because it is a good one.

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Lessons on How to Live

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain

Professor Chater shared this quote with the class to remind us all about the importance of what our Maymester is at its core. Studying a place, its people, its history, and culture and being guided by the fiction that is not only quintessential, but revealing to places and people that have been overlooked and under appreciated. Nothing changes your perspective on life more than experience itself, and I can say without a doubt that visiting a small town called New Roads, changed mine forever. 

Nestled about two hours outside of New Orleans is quaint little town that encompasses the very essence of southern hospitality. The town is called New Roads but is the inspiration for the fictitious town in Ernest Gaines novel, A Lesson Before Dying. Something particularly fascinating about the bookpacking experience is the unpredictable nature of it— we are guided to places because of the novels we read, however, once we get there everything that happens is exciting and unexpected. During our visit, we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit the courthouse and jail cells described in the novel. A novel which tells the story of Jefferson, a twenty-one year old uneducated black field worker who was wrongfully accused and convicted of the robbery and murder of a white man, and sentenced to death by electrocution. Grant Wiggins, a teacher who was given the enormous task of teaching young Jefferson to be a man, questioned

How do people come up with a date and a time to take life from another man? Who made them God?
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
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The experience was extremely emotional and stirring for our group to endure, however, it grounded the novel in history and brought to light the reality of the otherwise fictitious story. Walking through those cells and seeing the prison grounds makes you realize that this was the reality that people used to face, and also reminds us that America, though marketed as the land of the free, houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners even though the United States only represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population.

Thankfully, the world slowly but surely has undergone change and is overdue for more to occur. One of the most important things Grant ever taught Jefferson was this: 

I think it’s God that makes people care for people, Jefferson. I think it’s God that makes children play and people sing. I believe it’s God that brings loved ones together. I believe it’s God that makes trees bud and food grow out of the earth.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Life is about relying on God, and forming human connections and bonds with one another that carry our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. These relationships open our eyes to the wonder of the world and inspire us to open our hearts to loved ones and friends, to savor each moment as it passes, embrace all that life has to offer, and to celebrate the joy of everyday. Grant’s sentiments to Jefferson remind us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, and that every personal connection has meaning.

There were people along the way that reinforced these beliefs, and I’ll start with telling you a bit about Cotton Roy. Cotton Roy works at a laundromat in Baton Rouge, and very quickly became a friend. As I did my laundry and chatted with Roy, a young boy stumbled in whom Roy introduced as his adopted grandson. He was late for work so Roy began teaching him about the value of hard work, and earning your money instead of just having it given to you. Roy put a hand on his shoulder, stern but kind, and told him that he won’t be there to give him things all the time, so thats why he has to learn and train his body to work hard to achieve what  he wants out of life. On my way out, I offered to give the kid a ride home. He was sweet, but already accustomed to a life that Roy so desperately wanted him to escape. He asked me for money and to buy him some cigars after telling me he was about fifteen years old, an obvious lie considering he didn’t look a day over twelve. It made me think of how Grant felt when he was contemplating whether his teaching affected or changed his students lives in any way, and I wonder if Roy feels that way towards his “adopted grandson.”

And I thought to myself, What am I doing? Am I reaching them at all? They are acting exactly as the old men did earlier. They are fifty years younger, maybe more, but doing the same thing those old men did who never attended school a day in their lives. Is it just a vicious circle? Am I doing anything?
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
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Another meaningful connection was our meeting in New Roads with Sheriff Bud Torres, who is probably the only head of law enforcement that simultaneously has record deals in Nashville. Sheriff Torres was extremely welcoming to our group, tracing back his family history to Spanish and French settlers in the 1590s, giving us a private concert to showcase his awesome music, and even signing his picture for us to keep as a souvenir. Sheriff Bud even wrote a song about Grand Isle, which was the first stop on our adventure, and said he wishes he would had known we were there so he could have come and sung us some country songs by the water. Since I’m newly into country music, I was ecstatic to have another artist to add to my music playlists— especially one as great at Bud! 

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After leaving the courthouse with a smile plastered on my face, I stumbled in to what looks like a mom and pop pharmacy, or “maw maw and paw paw” rather. Immediately me and three others were greeted by the most charming old southern gentlemen I have ever met. After a few minutes of getting to know each other and answering the classic “what are you here for? where are you from? and what are you doing?” questions, Raymond urged us to visit one of his camp sites just steps away from the pharmacy, and even offered to have his son show us around. Nelson, who Raymond likes to refer to as Prince Harry, joined us on the water and gave us a tour of one of his dad’s five campsites on the False River. The town was peaceful and beautiful, but I couldn’t help but wonder what people did when they got bored. Nelson explained, they spend a lot of time fishing, boating— which includes wake-boarding, tubing, jet-skiing, etc., and when they're tired of that, they like to go out to Mississippi where they have hundreds of acres of land, and hunt. A complete different world from what I’m used to… I’ve never fished let alone hunted! Nelson offered to take us out on his boat, before knowing how big our group actually was, but when I told him there were thirteen of us, he replied the more the merrier. You always hear about Southern hospitality but you don’t actually expect to encounter it to such an extent and experience such warmth and kindness from strangers, especially coming for Los Angeles where everyone is just eager to connect with you on Linkdin, instead of in real life. 

 Nelson, Raymond's son

Nelson, Raymond's son

 Raymond

Raymond

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I’m grateful to Dr. Gaines and his novel for bringing us to this wonderful place, and of course, to Professor Chater for organizing an opportunity for our group to meet with Dr. Gaines in his home and to ask him questions about his life and work. Dr. Gaines said

I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t go to California, they weren’t gonna educate me here…my body and mind were there [California], but my soul stayed here [Louisiana]
— Ernest J. Gaines

These interactions with places and people, all teach a lesson in themselves, overwhelmingly that life is about relationships and about caring for each other, and the unique personal journeys and experiences that we all endure. This maymester, cliche as it may sound, offered a valuable lesson on living. Through the adventures, experiences, and friendships that we have made along the way, we have all learned more about ourselves, each other, and life.

 Class photo with Dr. Gaines

Class photo with Dr. Gaines

Two Romantic Moviegoers

Growing up, there was nothing more exciting than going to the movies. Whether it was with my parents on a Sunday afternoon or with my friends on a Friday night, there was something so captivating about devoting a piece of my life to watching another life unfold on the silver screen. It sounds so cheesy, but ever since I can remember, I’ve always known that I wanted to be a filmmaker. Having taught myself in the height of my elementary youth the ins and outs of editing while all of peers would undoubtedly prefer a game of tag, I fell in love with the beauty of creating a space for myself in which anything is possible– where I am neither limited by the restrictions of linear time and physical space. I can imagine that it is for similar that Binx feels so drawn to the appeal of cinema as well.

Binx, being the Moviegoer that Walker Percy refers to in the title of the novel, sees himself less a protagonist within his own life and more as an observer– an audience member in which he processes all that happens to and around him. An introverted and introspective man, Binx finds solace in the space of the theater where things happen as they should with a beginning, middle, and an end in which there is a happily ever after. With this being said, although there is joy in going to the movies and resonating with what one sees on screen, there is an inevitable danger that comes along with the inability to separate fiction from one’s reality. This is the nature of Binx’s condition as he is a man that expects the grandiose and the glamorous. The subtle glances that read as love at first sight on the streetcar fueled with desire, the way Binx projects his infatuation onto his secretary– a woman of which he hardly speaks to. Binx, being a cinephile himself, knows all of the cues that signal satisfaction, interest, and ultimately a love for the ages through the function of films that he idolizes and adores– this being his way of learning and understanding about the world in general, but more specifically as it relates to himself. However, this isn’t a critique.

While I may be analyzing his condition and the way he moves through the world, I’m not saying that Binx is either wrong or right– I’m only making observations in the way that he does throughout the entirety of Percy’s novel. In fact, to criticize Binx would be to criticize myself as I feel that the two of us can (at times) be quite similar. I too am a Moviegoer, a girl that lives through observations well informed by cues that my media library has taught me over the years– another way of saying that I, like Binx, am a hopeless romantic.  There is a beauty in seeing the world through a filtered lens, looking for the romance in every aspect of one’s life. Particularly in New Orleans, it’s almost too easy to indulge one’s inner romantic. Between the vibrant European-infused loveliness in the French Quarter, and the quaint hospitality of the Southern wealth in the Garden District, it’s too easy to fall in love with the city and anything within it. However, it’s an exhausting way to live when expectations often don’t align with reality. While waiting for the rest of the Bookpacking crew to come out of the Presbytere, I idled aimlessly through Jackson Square when I was enticed by yet another psychic.

Little cinematic moments...

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Every reading I’ve had (and I’ve had many) is always different, yet they are all fundamentally similar and are usually structured with the same foundation. However, this woman who I stumbled upon while killing time read me in a way that I have never been read before– through odd specificities and metaphors I would have never thought of prior. “I’ve never said this before in a reading, but I’m getting the sense that you should invest in a storage unit soon…” she said as she squinted and leaned in closer to the cards, as if they were telling her the quietest of secrets inaudible over the jazzy hubbub of the square. I’m sure I just looked puzzled as I didn’t know what to make of that at the time, but before I could ask anymore questions she moved on to tell me: “And make sure you stop romanticizing everything. Just be more present and in the moment– no expectations.”

As I already said, I’m a big time romantic so it’s only in my nature to move through my life that way. Telling a romantic to stop romanticizing is like telling Binx to stop going to the movies– impossible. I understand what she meant, but it’s always easier to look into someone else’s life and tell them how to fix their problems when you’re not experiencing them yourself. Just as I think separating his appreciation of cinema from his understanding of the reality of his world would do Binx some good, that’s not necessarily a easy or a feasible task and I think that’s worth noting while reading The Moviegoer. Although not my favorite read on the trip thus far, I have a great appreciation for what Walker Percy is saying through the vessel of his character, and if anything it has only made me more self-aware as to how I operate in my daily life.

Throughout this trip so far, I've noted that there is nowhere for my romantic to hide hence the reason why it's so hard to pretend to be anything else.  Anywhere else, I can at least pretend to be a cynic, but in New Orleans everything is beautiful. Even on Bourbon Street when every corner reeks of a frat party gone stale, there's still a rhythm and rhyme to it all that one can't help but give into. I want to take photos of everything and keep them tucked away forever; I want to jar the street scents and never release them; I want to feel everything that this city brings me all at once all the time. It may be platonic– maybe even unrequited– but it's love regardless and here, it's everywhere. The psychic is probably right though... It's in my best interest to let go of the romance. It'll only make it that much harder to peel myself out of here.

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Dear Diary

Dear Candace,

Mom! Although we were both technically in physics together last semester, our lack of attendance prohibited me from meeting one of the sweetest people ever until the beginning of this trip. You honestly crack the funniest jokes in the subtlest way and it gets me every time. I’m so glad you were there to “take care of us” and keep us all in check. Our love for Drip is something that can be replaced by no other. Thank you for all the memories, your kindness, your thoughtfulness and just being a great friend and a real joy to be around throughout this whole trip. I will continue to look out for your signature hat on campus. 

 

Dear Christina,

I’m so grateful for our time together in the Bayou Cabins and our spontaneous adventures. From Six Flags to McDonalds to the brewery, I knew you were one person on the trip who was always down to have a good time and a good laugh. I admire your ability to truly balance relaxation with academics and remain grounded the whole time. Thank you for listening to my frustrations and just knowing when to be there. I’ll be sure to make sure I am ‘keeping up w Kristina.’ From LSU all the way back to USC…. YEEEEHAAAAWWW!!! 

 

Dear Ciannah, 

I’m really glad we got to share Rag’s Cabin together. I initially thought that you were just shy and wasn’t sure if we would ever get the chance to talk.  After our spontaneous trip to the abandoned Six Flags and after the first night in the Bayou Cabins, I knew you just needed some time to warm up. Thank you for being the person who I could just look at and mutually smile with when everyone was being crazy and we were the only two with nothing to say. Thank you for scaring me getting out of the shower with the mosquito net wrapped over your head – I’m really glad “she” didn’t take you away. I’m so glad to have met you and even though we are now proud owners of LSU apparel, I know I’ll still be able to find you back at USC.

 

Dear Eric,

I am sure that this trip has not been the easiest for you. Particularly because you were the only guy. However, I appreciate your willingness to go with the flow. I admire your kindness and thoughtfulness to invite everyone anywhere you went. I also appreciate how inquisitive you are about EVERYTHING. I’m not usually one to ask too many questions, but you have made me realize there are so many things I don’t know myself about the world which I had never thought of. Thank you for being such an enjoyable person to be around. Thank you for coming to watch Magic Mike with us in the Bayou Cabins and just giving us all a good laugh, but also sharing with us how different your life in China was. I hope we were all able to teach you something and I hope you go back to USC with the same eagerness to learn and consider expanding your friend group so that you can still ask us Americans all the things you ever wanted to know. 

 

Dear Claire,

You are one of the most positive people I have ever met and such a pleasure to be around. Whenever I’m in a mood or just feeling grouchy, I know that if I come talk to you your happiness which constantly radiates from you will rub off on me. It is seriously contagious. I’m not sure how anyone could direct negative energy towards you, but even if they tried your Raising Canes joy would deflect them in a hot second. I admire how open you are to starting conversations with people who you know have very little in common with you, then listening to their story and what they have to say all the way until the end – never interjecting but nodding and listening with open ears. I also respect how much you stay true to your values. You know who you are and don’t let people make you question your beliefs but instead you explain why you feel so passionate. I’m truly grateful to have met you, Claire. I ain’t felt like this in a long time. Please feel free to keep sending gif’s and dad jokes. 

 

Dear Jenny,

I’m so glad I got to share LITERALLY every day with you this past month. I was truly devastated when I thought you were being moved. I am sorry for being crazy at times… although it was mostly Lauryn’s fault. I’m also sorry if the light was ever on too late. Your free spirited mindset is so admirable to me. You’re also just brilliant! I have enjoyed our late night talks of love, relationships, hardships and everything to the moon and back. I’m still searching through your Facebook friends to find…. Him. Don’t worry, I will figure it out. I hope you have an amazing summer in San Fran., enjoy Vampire Weekend and just continue to be the amazing, smart, artistic person you are! I hope I will still see you around campus and that we can hang out! 

Dear Lauryn,

Well, where do I begin… I guess I can say that I am so grateful to have met you. You have honestly become such an important person in my life and I know that our friendship is in it for the long haul. I will forever treasure our late nights that consisted both of you chasing me down as well as me making sure your phone (that was on 3%) was charging. I know I pick on you constantly, but that is just my way of showing how much I actually care. I hope you enjoy your summer, being AMAZING at PAPER. I know I will still talk to you all the time, but please don’t forget to tell me about all your life problems as well as all the incredible things I know you will accomplish between now and the next time I see you. 

Dear Ryan,

Ryan? Simba? I don’t know anymore. Although your first interaction with me was one night on campus as you tried to tell me I dropped my phone… in which I proceeded to tell you “I don’t need it…” I’m glad you didn’t remember me from that time because that would have been really embarrassing. Thank you for just always being a rock throughout this trip and for inviting me into your friendship group back at USC. Although I keep my phone on DND and I never answer you, I appreciate you responding to me in minutes and picking up after the first ring. I admire your ambition, love and comfort you have given me every day since we met. I know I can be a lot to handle at times but you stuck with it all the way from Grand Isle to the very last day… and you have signed yourself up for all the days after this trip as well. You are truly a great friend and although we have already made so many memories and have shared countless nights and days together, I know this was only the beginning. I’ll see you soon (Sunday, please don’t leave me stranded at the airport). 

Dear Sadie,

Sadie, I honestly feel like we really didn’t talk that much over the course of the trip. I think the most we ever talked was at the airport right before we both left. However, I want you to know that I have always appreciated how whimsical you are. I could always tell how much you have thought about life just through your metaphorical way of speaking. It is something so unique to you and it continuously amazed me. Thank you so much for your warm heart and kind words at the airport. I really don’t think you understand how much that meant to me, but truly, thank you for allowing me to find closure.

Dear Sofia,

I'm glad to have met you during this Maymester. I know we didn't really talk that much but I'm happy we got to share everything this past month together. It almost seems like yesterday that we were in Grand Isle together and I didn't know anyone's name. From all the cemetery tours, the coffee shops and long days exploring New Orleans, I really appreciate you being there with everyone else and adding to my journey.

Dear Taylor,

I am so happy to have met you and have shared so many good times together. Although most of our time was spent searching for food then stuffing our faces, I really enjoyed getting to know you and to hear about your views on life and just about your own experiences. It honestly still amazes me. Thank you for all the fun nights together and Bourbon Heat… especially those photos. Please stay in touch so we can go to Bon Shabu and BCD together (with Jasmine of course). Stay amazing, and I’ll see you in the Fall!

Dear Andrew,

I don’t think I can express how thankful I am to have shared this experience with you. Moving forward, each day seemed so long, but looking back, they were so short. How fast this trip has gone. I admire you in so many ways, Andrew. You’re spontaneous and excited to incorporate any local suggestions into the schedule, yet plan each day with so much thought and consideration. Your laminated maps, persistent research and iPad figures have not gone overlooked, but have only added to making every day that much more special after we are able to recognize the history and culture behind each place we visit. You make sure we are comfortable, culturally competent and that we are enjoying this as much as you are. I think I can speak for all of us when I say, we have.  I can see how passionate you are about bookpacking and being able to share that with us; I can only hope to find something that I am half as passionate about. Thank you for giving us bookpackers.com and a space to express ourselves without judgment. Thank you for letting your walls down and sharing with us who you are. You have truly inspired me and allowed me to recognize that I have no reason to be ashamed of who I am. You have taught me that each and every person has their own story and while they are all different, we are fundamentally one. I have lived most of my life believing that I can take care of myself and handle my life solo. You have showed me how that is not a way of living. We need each other. Thank you so much, I look forward to keeping in touch and seeing how far you take bookpacking in the future.

Dear Melissa,

I know you weren’t necessarily excited to go on this trip. Fearful of all the new people who may reject you. Fearful of not sticking to a strict schedule where every second of every day has been planned out for you. Fearful of being in a new atmosphere and being stuck. For one month. One month later, I want to thank you. Thank you for opening your heart and allowing yourself to enjoy this amazing experience with amazing people who won’t be forgotten. Thank you for being yourself more than you have in a long time, allowing people to see your quirky, goofy yet insecure and anxious self. You have so much to be grateful for. I can see how much you have grown in this short amount of time and while you are going back to your busy life in LA working and doing research I just ask one thing of you. Please remember how to enjoy life. Life is too short to get caught up with things that don’t fulfill you. Don’t trap yourself in situations that upset you, thinking it will be fine. Make your voice heard, your problems expressed, and your happiness shared. You have so much to offer this world in ways you can’t yet see. Take this time now, to make this a new beginning, with all these new people. 

This past month has been one of the most eye-opening times in my life. I have learned so much and have met so many people that have honestly changed my life. Just as we were able to observe in "Floyd's Girl," the last short story we read on this trip, it cannot be ignored how fundamental a community is to one's own growth. I believe this last chunk of reading really solidified and comprehensively summarized what I see as the main lesson of this trip: we need each other. This is a world that requires us to lean on each other for support, to count on others and to be counted on in return. To be trustworthy, loving and compassionate. I am so grateful to have experienced all of this every single day this past month and I thank Andrew, and every one of my fellow bookpackers for that. You all have made such a big impact in my life, and I will never forget that. 

The Road Ahead

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Roads can say much about the priorities of a place. Louisiana's famously populist governor, Huey Long, built highways across the state so that he could drive from the capital to see his "hick" constituents more frequently. The roads in Baton Rouge tended to be wide and well maintained. The streets of New Orleans had notoriously large potholes. One bridge that spans Lake Pontchartrain was secure but left us bouncing in our van. And in Grand Isle, the tiny two way street that runs the course of the island is simply paved (and slightly bumpy).

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We've driven a lot on our weeks in Louisiana, but I jumped at the chance to take the van on just one more journey. On our second-to-last day of the trip, we visited the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. It’s a sobering sight; empty plots of land where houses stood pre-Katrina haunt the landscape. We slowly drove past rows of grassy rectangles, overgrown with weeds, when it began to pour. How fitting that the sky shed tears at the devastation of this former community. How cruel that the very rain that tore this place to shreds dares to drop here again.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
— William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Like the brief candle of Macbeth’s imagination, the community that used to flourish here is gone forever. Some residents left for safer places, yet many stayed near New Orleans, struggling to piece together their former lives. After thirteen years of recovery, "tomorrow" looks promising for some Lower 9th natives. Charities like Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation still build houses for families in need in the area. Yet the road ahead for this district will not be an easy one to take.

Across town, in the French Quarter, people strut down a very different road. New Orleans is a city that’s famously good at making noise like the idiot's “sound and fury”. Musicians blare on their trumpets and saxophones, bartenders pour heavy-handed drinks for already-wobbling tourists, mule-drawn carriages roll over puddle-filled-potholes, and shiny new cars pull up to hotel valets next to homeless men with cardboard signs. In sounds, sights, and smells, no city takes the cake quite like New Orleans. The French Quarter is loud, overwhelming, chaotic, seductive, licentious, mysterious, lively, and gorgeous. Its roads are littered with empty beer cans, old Mardi Gras beads, spilled drinks, used Café du Monde napkins, forgotten grocery lists...

In the words of one of my classmates, New Orleans is a city that hasn’t decided what it wants to be yet. The suffering of the residents of the Lower 9th, of the French Quarter’s homeless, of countless residents in poverty, leaves its mark on the city. Yet New Orleans still overflows with luxury and excess, as tourists and wealthy locals spend lavish amounts on crazy cocktails and indulgent meals. New Orleans is neither entirely rich nor poor, lost nor found, joyful nor melancholy. It's a hurricane of hypocrisy, and a downpour of duplicity.

The storm which has been brewing since noon now breaks over our heads. Thunder rattles the panes. We walk out onto the gallery to watch it. A rushing Gulf wind slashes the banana leaves into ribbons and blows dead camellia blooms across the yard. Veils of rain, parted for a second by the house, rush back together again.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

The gloomy, gray rainclouds which frequently threaten lazy summer afternoons in the city take very little time to burst forth with precipitation. One minute, that cloud looks a little darker than the others, the next, passersby are soaked by the storm. The hot, sticky humidity followed by a chaser of warm, heavy rain is the perfect cocktail for a city defined by its convoluted confusion.

A flash flood fills the avenue in front of our New Orleans hotel. The rain comes down hard and fast, with the water rising until it soaks even the sidewalk. The tumultuous nature of Louisiana's weather makes both physical and metaphorical roads tricky to navigate. Only the drivers well-versed in the way the water pools here will make it out quickly. Likewise, only those who are deeply familiar with the scars Katrina and other catastrophes of south Louisiana have left behind, will be able to help these places heal. Although the road to complete recovery from Katrina still reaches beyond the horizon, the heart of the hurricane has passed. The rain that started the flash floods have ceased, and the streets begin to move again.

Bookpacking has served as a reminder to me that the adventure matters more than the destination. These journeys are where challenges, growth, and change can happen-- and these are what shape us into our fullest selves. Only by traversing the road ahead do we discover what means the most, what strength we have that pushes us through storms, and who stands by us throughout the ride.

Coming Back

This is goodnight and not goodbye
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This blog post has by far been the hardest one to write. I’ve spent the last week, opening the document on my computer and staring at the blank page. It is supposed to be reflective and supposed to encapsulate the last month that I spent in Southern Louisiana but I really don’t know what to say. It is impossible to put into words how incredible this past month has been. I traveled to parts of Louisiana that I never would have seen on my own. I met and became close friends with a group of people that I never would have met. Despite USC’s efforts to create a community, it is still a large school-mostly divided by majors or clubs and the diverse collection of people who were brought together on this maymester may have never had another opportunity to get to know each other. I learned so much about myself, my own culture and the experiences of people in Louisiana in a way that a classroom never would have taught me. I value education and I am grateful for the classes that I have taken at USC, however, none of them come close to this maymester. It is a luxury and an honor to be able to learn about such a unique vibrant city while living in that city. It changed how I read each novel and altered my understanding of their history. For example, I have watched documentaries and read about the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. Prior to this trip, I thought that I had a deep understanding of what it must have been like to be there for the disaster-however, I was wrong. By seeing the lower 9th-a part of Katrina that was and still is deeply affected by the disaster, by peeking through the gates of the abandoned Six Flags- an amusement park that was destroyed and forgotten after the hurricane, and by walking through their museum I got a more clear understanding of what was lost during that storm. There is a piece of Southern Louisiana that feels lost and damaged. There is something missing yet, the people who we met and the celebrations that we were able to take part of exemplified their ability to smile in the face of adversity. This city has a resiliency that I have not found in the other cities I visited. This resilience, however, had to be brought to my attention. It simmers just underneath the parties, food and mardi gras beads. Our professor, Andrew, was able to bring to light the history that exists underneath the experiences that we were having. Over dinner, he could explain to us the differences between creole and cajun food. While standing in front of Huey Long’s statue, he could explain to us the significance of his death and his impact on Louisiana. While reading Dr. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, Andrew could show us the prison cell where Jefferson would have been kept and the schoolhouse where Grant would have taught. My point is that there is only so much the classroom can teach before experience has to step in. This Maymester has been an unforgettable experience and I am so thankful to have been a part of it.

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When my mom first brought me to the airport, I didn’t want to go. I had been excited for weeks and had been doing everything I could to prepare myself for the upcoming month but when we got to the airport the reality of what I would be doing kicked in. I would have to spend the next month with people I don’t know, in a city I don’t know, and be graded on my experience of that place. I had mentally planned for the worst-lots of awkward outings, ordering in food and counting down the days till I could go home and be with my friends but, about a night or two in, a few of us stayed up late, cooking brownies and sharing stories from our lives at USC. It was that night that I realized that I could be okay and that I could make friends here and enjoy getting to know these strangers for a month. That being said, I didn’t expect to be tearing up as I left two of my closest friends at the airport. I didn’t expect to miss them already. One of the most valuable parts of this experience has been getting to see everything with them. A big part of Maymester for me became discussing the food, the tours and the culture with people that I had become close to. It was important that we were all experiencing Louisiana differently at the same time and it gave me an even more vivid understanding of what this place is like for the people who lived there. In a matter of weeks, we developed a small community that looked to each other for understanding, laughs and a good time. It also just made that month more fun.

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I’m happy to be home. Despite wishing I could spend more time with our Maymester class, I wouldn’t have wanted this trip to be any longer or shorter than it was. It came to a perfectly timed end. There is still more to see, more to read and more to do but to dig even deeper into Louisiana would have meant staying for another month or year. It would have meant really moving in and getting to know what it’s like to live there, rather than living out of a suitcase in the Lafayette Hotel. I hope that in the upcoming months I can take with me the lessons that I learned while in New Orleans on how to live an experience instead of photographing it, how to relax and let life happen and how to let experience add to the learning that happens in classrooms or in books. I’ve loved this course and thank you Andrew for everything.

Perfect Places

I alight at Esplanade in a smell of wasting coffee and creosote and walk up Royal Street. The lower Quarter is the best part. The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. Little French cottages hide behind walls. Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
 The French Quarter 

The French Quarter 

 Courtyard of The Court of Two Sisters

Courtyard of The Court of Two Sisters

New Orleans is a city that is rich with culture and mystery, one of the greatest being the fact that I can walk through the French Quarter today and still smell the coffee, see the iron work that mirrors rotting lace, and tuck into a wondrous courtyard at any given moment like described in Walker Percy's work. It is through Percy's descriptions in his deeply existential and philosophical novel, The Moviegoer, that we are able to see direct images of New Orleans, while simultaneously contemplating life itself. Percy has crafted an utterly unique and complex novel that possesses the melancholic and searching nature of individuals that New Orleans attracts. Binx, the protagonist of the novel, embarks on a metaphysical search to find meaning in his life and to escape the crippling everydayness that people inevitably fall into. He asserts

…(places get used up by rotary and repetitive use) and when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness. Everydayness is the enemy.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

My way to escape everydayness is to travel. Being in a new place constitutes new experiences because everything is new, and nothing — not the street signs or smells or sounds people make — are the same as anywhere else. Traveling is like meditation for me, it forces me out of the clatter of everyday life and into the here and now, the exactitude of the present. I love to explore new cities that inspire me and make me feel like life is worth living. Binx is on a search to find meaning, but I’m on a search of my own; I look for perfect places. You may think perfect places don’t exist, but they do, and they’re different for everyone. For Binx, it is

Where Happiness Costs so Little
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
 Prytania Movie Theatre 

Prytania Movie Theatre 

He feels at ease and fulfilled when he is tucked away comfortably in a movie theatre. But if Binx is a moviegoer, maybe I’m a city-goer. He feels happy in any and every movie, even if its a bad one, and I feel content traveling all over the world; I will travel to any continent, state, or city, and wherever I go, I will love it. Binx will watch anything, and I will go anywhere. He escapes the confines of his reality by staring at a screen for a few hours, and I escape my mine, quite literally, by going somewhere else. But perhaps Binx has a more dramatic existential crisis than my own; while I grow frustrated by repeated days and faces, maybe Binx is frustrated with life and people all together, finding peace only in the perfectly planned and orchestrated Hollywood crafted reality. Binx sees movies on Ferret Street near Tulane, a place warmly refffered to as ‘The Armpit’ by students and moviegoers alike. I couldn’t find ‘The Armpit’ but I was able to see King Creole in a century old theatre. It was a charming 1950s flick that is set in New Orleans, starring Elvis Presley. As I exit the movie theatre I breath in the

Heavy warm air [that] has pushed up from the Gulf
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

and can’t help but grow nostalgic to have to leave New Orleans in a few short weeks. After the movie, we stroll through the neighborhoods of the Garden District, a charming upscale suburb tucked away in New Orleans. 

These houses look handsome in the sunlight; they please me with their pretty colors, their perfect lawns and their clean airy garages. But I have noticed that at this hour of dawn they are forlorn. A sadness settles over them like a fog from the lake.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
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I can’t help but pay attention to the sadness that Percy captures, it settles like a storm about to break the clouds, an inescapable June gloom that lingers past the point of comfort. It is unavoidable in this city, and before you know it, a storm will come. 

A warm wind springs up from the south piling up the clouds and bearing with it a far-off rumble, the first thunderstorm of the year. The street looks tremendous. People on the far side seem tiny and archaic, dwarfed by the great sky and the windy clouds like pedestrians in old prints. Am I mistaken or has a fog of uneasiness, a thin glass of malaise, settled on the street? The businessman hurry back to their offices, the shoppers to their cars, the tourists to their hotels.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
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I tuck into a cafe moments before the storm took full effect. Although I have always loved the rain and cloudy days alike, the storms that hit New Orleans are unforgiving and extreme, unlike the few moments of light sprinkling that sets the public into a panic back in California. Binx notes that

There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

He is referencing the feeling of losing time and space: a feeling I encountered when visiting Six Flags Amusement Park, damaged and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. The park exists only in ruins and as a constant reminder that everything is temporary and that devastation lurks just beyond the clouds, willing to strike at any moment. It is a humbling realization and exploring the abandoned park, though illegal and technically considered trespassing, I learned a valuable lesson. 

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Binx criticizes the way that

Other people treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

and maybe he's right, but the moments people cherish are exclusive to each individual, and while Binx is content seeing movies, I am content when I travel. I for one, cherish the moments of change, moments where I can break through the routine of life and just explore whats out there. There are some places I like more than others, but all the same I am happy just to be somewhere new— happy to be in New Orleans, and happy to be embarking on this adventure, always looking for my Perfect Places. 

Bookpacking is About the Smallest of Things

Our bookpacking group left Baton Rouge and headed to Cajun Louisiana, specifically the city of Breaux Bridge, population 8,407.  The car I was in pulled off into a small wooded area and stopped. Wait, is this where we are staying for the next three days?

 Bayou Cabins

Bayou Cabins

When I first read about Bookpacking the Big Easy in an email (thank you economics department advisers!) I thought it’d be a great way to knock a GE out of the way and explore New Orleans - the only city in Louisiana that I had any prior knowledge of. I didn’t expect this trip to be much more than reading a few books about the Crescent City.

However, after reflecting on this trip, I’ve come to realize that it’s about so much more than just NOLA. The magic of bookpacking comes with exploring the small pockets of various subcultures - specifically it’s about all those small interactions with people that come from all different walks of life.

The last book we read on the trip was Same Place, Same Things by Tim Gautreaux - i's a collection of short stories. I think it's fitting for me to share some small moments that slipped through the cracks of my longer blogs to wrap up this experience.

 Boat docked on False River

Boat docked on False River

Bookpacking is about spontaneity.

When we were in New Roads, some of the bookpackers talked to a local pharmacist and he offered to take the whole group out onto the False River on his boat.  He even let us go tubing off the end of it! On the ride, I had a long discussion with him about skimboarding. In California we skimboard on the shore, where the waves gently lap up onto the sand.  However, in New Roads, they don’t have beaches as the river bed drops off abruptly from the shore, so they skimboard off the wake of motor boats! Now I have something to try when I get back to my local beach. Going on a boat ride on the False River wasn’t something that was on the course description or the syllabus, but because of the kindness of the people that we met, we were able to have such a fun afternoon.

 

 Sheriff Bud Torres

Sheriff Bud Torres

Bookpacking is about generosity.

In New Roads we had just finished our tour of the jail and courthouse, and as we were leaving we ran into the Sheriff of Pointe Coupee Parish.  Sheriff Bud Torres, showcased his country songs that he wrote and recorded in Nashville. He described the origin and meaning behind some of the songs he wrote and told us about why he likes his specific version of country music. He spent a considerable amount of time with us even when he had other duties and responsibilities. It was a very much needed lighthearted moment after the somber mood brought about by the jail.

 

 

Bookpacking is about local music.

When we were in the Bayou we went to Joie de Vivre coffee shop and listened to live Cajun music.  One the musicians explained the difference between Zydaco music and Cajun music and even let us play his instrument: the single string tub bass.

There’s nothing wrong with west Texas, but there’s something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted the rest of her days by memories of... the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends, vibrations of the soul lost for what?
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about pride.

In that same coffee shop, I noticed that the barista had an inverted pink triangle.  I complimented him on his tattoo, and he said "it's a pride tattoo!" I told him that I knew what it was, and gestured towards myself.  We shared a smile.

Bookpacking is about religion.

A tour guide in Cajun Louisiana explained how important the Virgin Mary was to his community and how they proudly display her in their front yards - a tradition that he claimed isn't followed anywhere else. 

Grandmère, the Pope said St. Christopher wasn’t for real.” He glanced at the magnet on the bottom. T-Jean’s grandmère gave him a scoffing look. “If you believe in something, then it’s real. The Pope’s all right, but he spends too much time thinking about things instead of visiting people in grass huts like he ought.
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about stories.

It’s about hearing about the tale of Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and seeing the Evangeline oak in person - a small claim to fame by the people of St. Martinville.

 Evangeline Oak

Evangeline Oak

What would that poor baby eat for supper?
Can she get turtle sauce piquante in Lubbock? And T-Jean’s grandmère thought of the gumbos Lizette would be missing, the okra soul, the crawfish body. How could she live without the things that belong on the tongue like Communion on Sunday? For living without her food would be like losing God, her unique meal.
— Floyd's Girl

Bookpacking is about food.

Po-boys from a fruit stand, Chinese food in the Bayou, $0.75 P&J oysters.  

Captain Tom from the swamp tour told us how to make turtle stew, a waitress taught us how to eat crawfish, and a vendor in the French Market talked to me in great detail about the difference between alligator tail meat and body meat.  Food is intertwined with culture and culture is intertwined with food - in trying new foods I was able to open up a dialogue about culture.

Bookpacking is about people.

While bookpacking was pitched in that first email as the interaction of literature with location, at the end of the day, it turned out to be the people we met and talked to who made the largest impact on this wonderful experience.

more than a kitchen's gift

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Louisiana culture, like Ernest J. Gaines' novel, is interlaced with food. 

“And now I could smell fried chicken” Grant says when he walks into Miss Emma’s home. I stopped chewing. That fried, well-spiced batter, was stinging my mouth. I had not planned to be tasting the words as I read a novel. I sort of froze, and sat there on the cracked laundromat chair, and contemplated. They say the best way to learn is to immerse yourself, and that in essence has been the main aspect of this bookpacking journey. But to have it happen on accident, unknowingly, Ciannah’s “let’s go get food while we wait” to the laundromat manager’s “go to Tony’s” to stepping into a neighborhood favorite to my friends’ “I might wait for a big dinner” to my “well I’m just going to grab something” — all of this led up to the moment where flavors were sinking into my tastebuds, aromas drifting through my nostrils as the narrator of A Lesson Before Dying experienced the same.

We were sitting in a laundromat in Baton Rouge. We thought we should eat something since it was dinnertime, the manager of the laundromat with his Southern drawl and enthusiastic rolling of the tongue told us to go down to Tony’s, a big seafood warehouse. Women in aprons and white hats lined a buffet taking orders as they filled the styrofoam boxes. “What you want, baby?” one said to me. “Can I get a fried chicken? Is that good?” “Yes, baby, okay you want two?”

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Her assuming I’d want so much food, and her maternal tone reminded me of Miss Emma, Jefferson's godmother, in A Lesson Before Dying. In A Lesson Before Dying, Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma sends food with Grant for Jefferson at every visit. It is the expression of her love, when words are not enough. On a night out, a saxophone player who said “I’m skinny because I drink a lot of whiskey and play a lot of music” had made me think of Miss Emma when he stopped his zydeco band, and, pointing to an open air party bus that squeezed by the tiny road, said, “Ahh, You all see those big beautiful curvy women? Want good food? Y’all can go to the restaurants, and they good. But you want real N’awlins food, its in the homes of those beautiful Southern women right there. I tell you, jus’ get invited into their homes and you will have the both meal you ever had.”

Miss Emma, when she cooks for her family and her loved ones, seeks to feed much more than their stomachs. With Jefferson, her expression of love and support is an effort to feed his human soul. Miss Emma’s food offerings become a symbol of the love he cannot accept, the care and affection in which he cannot bring himself to believe any longer.

“”Your nannan can sure cook,” Grant says to Jefferson bringing a bag of food from her kitchen.

“That’s for youmans” Jefferson replies. 

A young man who is sentenced to the electric chair for being in the wrong place at the wrong time albeit utterly innocent, has become obsessed with the idea that he is not a man, but a hog. He has difficulty accepting the food brought to him. 

Reading that line about biscuits made me remember these buttery, soft biscuits we all piled into our take-home bags in Grand Isle. It reminded me I needed to hand my friend a $5 dollar bill for the fried chicken and biscuit dinner she picked up for me when I decided to stay on the porch to watch the sun go down. I ate my fair share of sweet potatoes throughout my journey in Louisiana, sometimes without even noticing it would come as a side. 

On a sunny afternoon in Pointe Coupee, the hometown of Ernest J. Gaines, a charming pharmacist sent his son to take us out on the water in their boat. It felt like a perfect summer's day - skies blue, skin just slightly sticky with sweat, a bubbling warmth in every inch of my body. I wanted ice cream. 

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While Andrew was getting gas, I jumped out of the van and ran into the gas station store. A vanilla ice cream sandwich was just waiting. I pulled out two dollars, handed it to the employee, and skipped back to the car. In moments like those, food can make your feelings become tangible - the simplicity, the sweetness, "dog days," smoothness. 

I have always felt something for the aesthetic of ice cream. It evokes innocence, simple pleasures, easy summers, and favorite childhood memories. 

The moment in A Lesson Before Dying that stirred me - made my heart jump and my nerves simmer, was the first time Jefferson asked for food. "A whole gallona vanilla ice cream" he said, smiling for the first time during any of his visitations. But he explained to Grant that he did not want the vanilla ice cream in that moment, he wanted it for his very moment he could before his execution. I ended up writing my essay about his moment, Jefferson's enthusiastic request for a whole gallon of ice cream. The boy was cheerful in this moment. Grant noticed “He looked at me with an inner calmness now. Was it the ice cream?” I think it was the ice cream, and all the memories and lyrical easiness of innocence. 

I don't know how I could have written about New Orleans and Louisiana without talking about the food. Because reading about the food, you realize its importance in psychology and deeper meanings. And consuming the food, whether you understand its emotional meaning or not, you absorb the mash of cultures and heart that makes the South such a special, strange place. 

 

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A Life Lesson

“What makes human human?”

I asked Andrew, sitting across him from a desk.

He smiled. Then he closed his laptop, got up from the chair, took a cup of coffee, and walked toward the sofa with me.

“I think this is a problem to be discussed while we sit here”.  

He then took a sip of the coffee, and told me a lovely story:

“During WWII, my grandfather lived in London. At that time, Nazi Germany was air bombing the city. All women and children were encouraged to leave the city if possible. My grandmother took my mother to America, while my grandfather stayed behind. He was in charge of putting out fires in the city”.

Much intrigued by the context, I leaned closer to him.

“During their time in America, my grandfather would constantly write letters to my mother. In these letters, my grandfather tells these wonderful stories to my mother. All the stories set around this magical house that they lived in.”

“What are they like?”

“Children stories,” Andrew said, “he would talk about the cuckoo clocks, for example. During the day, the cuckoos in the clock will go ‘cuckoo!’ ‘cuckoo!’ to report time, but when night falls, they go to the backchannel hidden behind the clock that connects all the cuckoo clocks in the world. This is called the ‘cloud cuckoo land’. In this land, all cuckoos would travel around, meet each other and make friends.……”

"wow, that's fascinating

“There is a cat in his house, ‘Billy the cat’. My grandfather loves him, but he couldn’t communicate with him, because he didn’t understand those ‘meow meow meow’ that Billy the cat always says. One day when he was out on the street, he ran into pouring rain. In a rush, he stumbled upon the stairs of a bookstore. Naturally, he went in to stay away from the rain.”

“As he went around the store, he noticed a peculiar sign: you can only buy one book at a time. He started wondering: how strange, a bookstore that doesn’t let you buy more than one. As he looked closer, he suddenly noticed something different. It is a magic book store! All the books are about magic potions, elixirs, spells, sorceresses, etc. My grandfather then started thinking: what book should I get if I’m only allowed one?”

“Then he saw this dictionary on the shelf. It is no ordinary dictionary at all. It is a ‘English-Meow Meow-English’ dictionary. He held it as if holding a priceless treasure. As he opened the book however, everything started disappearing around him. The book in his hand, the shelfs, the doors, the floor, the bookstore all began vanishing from his eyes. He had to quickly find one word in the dictionary to not walk away empty handed!”

“He suddenly remembered that the most common phrase Billy always said to him was ‘meow meow meow’, so he quickly flipped the pages to that phrase. Then, he saw the following translation:”, Andrew paused for a moment and took a profound look into my eyes.

“What does it say?” I asked, unable to withhold my curiosity.

“‘Tell me what you feel, not what you think’”.

 

 

Andrew was talking to me the other day in the New Orleans Museum of Art (which by the way, has an extremely interesting architecture style. When we first walked from the grass in front of the museum toward its front door, it feels almost like a smaller copy of the national mall in DC with its majestic columns in the front of the building facing a fountain and a long grassland that extends all the way just like the one in DC. However, looking closer and I began to notice something strange. The roof is almost Chinese in style yet lacks the full coverage of the traditional tenon joint structure, with the outer edge surrounded by short green iron fences like East European façade; the square and straight-line style of the side building is like Islamic buildings in the middle east; the front of the building has giant Greek style columns yet failed to extend all the way to both sides of the building. As we saw the mosaic decoration on the ground of the interior instead of giant marble with shiny smooth faces, we finally realized that the building is an attempt to bring different elements from different architecture styles into one and be the melting pot of architectures. Very interesting. But very bizarre, in the eyes of a buttoned-up traditionalist like myself).

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Back to the topic, Andrew was talking to me about his opinions on art which totally blew me away and gave me a brand new way of thinking. I, as a pure materialist and rationalist, judge art by the amount of effort put into it. Andrew, as a romantic liberal, judge art by the transcendental message that it communicates. We were in one room looking at one picture painted by Modigliani, Amedeo called “Portrait of A Young Woman”. It depicts, as the names suggests, the face of a woman. However, unlike an ordinary portrait, the face is depicted extremely flat, with her eyes dull and black. There is no true to life detail at all in the painting. Especially on the eyes which are literally just two brush strokes of black colors.

 this is the painting we were talking about. this picture is downloaded from new orleans museum of art official website

this is the painting we were talking about. this picture is downloaded from new orleans museum of art official website

Andrew was clearly fascinated by the picture. He was able to recognize the style of this particular artist from far away and began telling me the sad story of the artist’s life. He stared at it for a long time, capturing every fine detail of the painting, trying to feel the message that the artist communicates. Finally, he asked me:

“what do you see from the painting? What do you feel? Look at her eyes, Eric. Why do you think he painted it that way? What can you tell about the artist?”

After realizing that Andrew was not joking, I tried my very best to look at the picture again and again, but in vain. It is still no more than a children’s painting to me. I just can’t think of anything.

“I don’t know sir. Maybe he doesn’t know how to draw an eye?”

You have to trust me I was being very sincere. I did not mean to put Andrew in a complete burst of laughter. Nonetheless, my way of interpreting art totally caught him off-guard. So he decided to show me how he interprets art, or more generally, the beauty in life.

He spoke of early music, written by composers who are paid by rich people to play cheerful notes which they were having food, doing work, or reading books. Never was the music intended to express any personal insights, rather, they were created to be perfectly pleasant to our ears. Hence all the beautiful and relaxing melodies played during dinner. He also spoke of early paintings. Painting as two dimensional decorations to fill the empty space on the walls not covered by furniture, paintings to show beauty and beauty only.

No. They were not the type of art that he found most pleasure in. Andrew told me. This type of art, beautiful indeed, lacks the power to speak to him. There is beauty, but dull beauty, boring, able to sustain an indifferent glimpse, yet unable to hold a person for minutes and hours contemplating in front of them. Music too. Pleasant. Pleasant yet plain. Pleasant yet unmoving. Like a simple lullaby good for playing in the background and make babies quiet asleep. Instead, he found most joy in arts that speaks to him; in arts that connects to him; in arts that he feels.

He showed me a picture of the sculpture, Laocoon and his sons. I was fascinated by the fine details of the sculpture and its absolute true-to-life representation. This was exactly the type of sculptures that I enjoyed, a total mastery of sculpture techniques. However, I was shocked when he told me that the sculpture was made a good two thousand years ago. I would totally have guessed this was the work of someone like Michelangelo. So it was a very clear point: human beings have mastered the techniques of sculpture two thousand years ago, a mere true-to-life representation is not enough to be extraordinary.

It was only then that I began to realize the deep values in art works that break conventional rules. Sometimes, it is not just about creating the most beautiful thing. It's about ideas, values, messages, beliefs, feelings and every other humanistic expressions. 

When we were in the Evangeline restaurant, half of the table, myself included, continued philosophizing about life for two hours. During the conversation, we kept trying to define what is human, what is conscious, what is existence, what is time, etc. As far as I remembered the conversation, one of the only consensus we reached is that human is human because we are conscious of our consciousness and able to think about thinking itself. Other than that, the conversation went wild, unable to settle with any conclusive ending. Suddenly, I came to realize that Binx Bolling and I are very much the same in terms of our world views (except for his sometimes overly extreme cynicism and plain rudeness to other people. One example: he thought that all the friendly and likable people seem dead and only haters seem alive, which I didn't quite understand where did that darkness came from).

Nonetheless, I'm same to him on many life philosophies. “During those years I stood outside the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only for diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie”. That was me, perhaps even more extreme than Binx. Reading only highly esteemed philosophy works such as The Republic and Metaphysics, I consider any other less known books to be a waste of my time. I don’t walk around the neighborhood for diversion. I consider that a waste of time as well. Only when I run around the neighborhood can I be convinced that I’m excising thus not wasting time. I’ll hate myself if I spent my precious time watching a movie. I went as far as trying to squeeze every bit of time out of my day to “do something worthy”, which eventually led to the purchase of a long board just to get between classrooms faster and several similar decisions like that. 

Binx likes to go to theatres and talk to people, because he found that “most people have no one to talk to who really wants to listen”. I like to do that to. I can listen to people talking for a long time and ask a lot of questions to keep them going. I even write like he does! A random thought would occur to him and he would talk on for several pages until going back to what he was originally talking about. Everywhere he went, he was thinking, searching, trying to read people. When Binx went onto his “search”, I can’t help but thinking it is the same kind of search I’m going through as well. Standing outside of the universe, trying to explain everything in the world logically, stripping all the sporadic feelings and emotions. I like to interpret history in purely materialist approach, that we are just genetically driven biological creatures who likes to make copies of our DNA as much as possible, that different circumstances, purely deterministic, led us to make unavoidable different choices, and created different paths of history as a result. When something gave me a pleasant feeling, I try to analyze why. Is it because it reminds me of a pleasant childhood memory? And I was pleasant then because my biological needs were perfectly fulfilled? Does the pleasure associate with my genetics or the environment that I grew up with? Do I like seafood because I couldn’t eat much seafood when I was a child thus attracted to things more rare and precious? Every single thing in my life, I try to find a perfectly reasonable and logical answer to it. As time passes, I become insensitive to emotions just like Binx.

This was perfectly manifested in the way I approached photography, and consequently the way I interpreted art. I used to believe photography to be some rigid machine work. Obsessed with indisputable data, I bought highest end equipment with the best in market resolution and dynamic range. I used only prime lenses with the largest aperture, caring about nothing but sharpness--the only thing unable to be altered in post processing.  I carefully learned all the advanced photoshop techniques such as luminosity masks, image stitching and stacking etc. In my mind at the time, photography was nothing but techniques. The result? A bunch of beautiful photos all looked exactly the same: overly saturated colors, perfectly straight horizon, carefully cropped according to the golden ratio, some stuff in the foreground, sunset over some stuff in the background, all HDR together, none overexposure nor underexposure in any area of the photo. This even influenced how I viewed paintings for that I would only admire paintings that required a lot of effort in the production. But what do I think of my photos now? Good postcard shots, maybe even suitable for desktop backgrounds, but definitely not photography.

By trying to follow a rigid formula to create beauty, I gradually lost the ability to find moments of true sensation. By degrading everything down to numbers and benchmark tests, I became obsessed with the most trivial thing and forgot what truly touched me in the beginning. Basically, I stripped my humanity and tried to be a machine. 

Andrew told me the story of St. Paul. He doesn’t give everything a logical explanation nor does he plan to. When asked questions like “how to you know such and such is true?” he answered simply by “you know”. Sometimes we cannot explain everything rationally, such as what happens before the big bang, and a desperate search becomes in vain. In the end of the novel, Binx took his aunt’s advice, lived happily with Kate and became a charismatic half-sibling for her mother’s children. Did he succeed in his "search"? I think he did. 

 

So what indeed makes human human? Andrew never directly answer my question, but I think I knew the answer quite well now. 

The Cajun Experience

We had the wildest experience in a mere span of one day.

Waking up in the morning, we all got ready for a seminar that focused on A Lesson Before Dying. It is a book about the last days of a wrongly convicted young black man before his execution. It’s a truly powerful book that touches deeply upon several of the most profound themes in the United States. Slavery, legal system, racism, just to name a few. The day before, we took a tour around the old prison cells in Pointe Coupee Parish just like the book described. Darkness, rust, cluster, lack of air flow, extreme humidity and heat, strong stench, the condition of the prison cells is more than terrible. We are able to feel for ourselves the condition that Jefferson, the wrongly convicted man, lived through awaiting his impending death (Although, I would imagine the plantation life to be not much better for him. But nonetheless, the prison is probably as worse as it could possibly get for Jefferson). During the time process, his humanity has been shed away by the white lawyers, juries and justices. Described as a hog rather than a human, Jefferson has lose all confidence in himself. He would deliberately imitate a hog, deliberately piss off his loved one. However, with endless loves from people such as Grant, Miss Emma, Reverend Ambrose and the entire community, the true worth were awaken inside Jefferson and he was able to realize that he was loved, he was capable of being loved, and he was worthy to be loved. Eventually, Jefferson calmly embraced his death with dignity. Andrew recited Shakespeare Sonnet 29, a poem about a desperate person regaining hope after realizing that he was still loved. We were all in absolute silence.

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We stepped out the hotel room and headed for Dr. Gaines’ house, the author of A Lesson Before Dying, hoping to learn some deep insights from the very author of the novel. We approached him with a very solemn respect for him and the subject he writes on, only to find out that he is a very funny and relatable guy. When asked how he created those characters, he responded “you don’t know what to do with them. You just create those characters. As you write along, you figure out what to do” We also asked him about his writing process to which he responded “you know the beginning. You know the ending. And you have 200 blank pages to fill and that’s it”. Frankly speaking, I did not get quite as much insights as I expected from the meeting. However, one photo shocked me quite particularly. It was a photo of Dr. Gaines’s aunt, who has a terminal disease that makes her only able to crawl on the ground for her entire life. It was this disabled woman who single-handedly brought up twelve children from the plantations house, during an era of Jim Crow laws and lynching in the deep south. It was also this woman who, when wishing to discipline her children with planks, her children would unconditionally obey and kneel before her to take the beating. Dr. Gaines only talked briefly about her but I was deeply touched by the extraordinary character of her aunt.

 The women in the middle is Dr. Gaines' aunt. Andrew took this photo.

The women in the middle is Dr. Gaines' aunt. Andrew took this photo.

Then we experience a 180 degree mood shift and began the most extraordinary representation of the Southern hospitality. Almost all novels we read touched on “southern hospitality”. Whether it is Ignatius’ mom treating the rather miserable policeman, or Binx’s aunt making a big speech about gaiety, sense of duty and gentleness; whether it is grandmere preparing her favorite food for Floyd’s little girl, or even the big gathering at the Ratignolles’ on Grand Isle, elements of southern hospitality is repeatedly mentioned and explored upon. However, we never got a chance to truly experience it for real. (To support this controversial and almost offensive claim, I shall offer my sincere opinion here: On Grant Isle we were secluded in our own house, the only local people we’ve ever met are the owners of the local restaurants with whom the experience I already described in the first blog. Coming over to New Orleans, we are surrounded by a city so richly historical yet so different from “the south”. We did meet many nice people, but I don’t feel confident in calling any of them southern hospitality rather than just general big-city politeness. It is one thing to be nice and polite, yet a whole other to be hospitable and welcoming. Hence the conclusion above.) But on the day we visited Dr. Gaines, we met some real hospitality. The story started from the day before when we visit the prison cells in Pointe Coupee Parish. Christina and several others went into the place called Raymond’s’ Family Pharmacy right next to our parking lot. With an initial intention to get some water or perhaps using the restroom, they found themselves in an extremely friendly conversation with the owner of the Pharmacy, whom invited all of us to join his son to for a boat ride the next day! and there we go: the wildest, most random and most joyful surprise of our trip, perhaps what Sadie would call a serendipity. Thus, on the afternoon of the day, we headed to Nelson’s dock, which is right opposite to the courthouse, and had an amazing boat ride on the lake! It was also my first time ever trying water tubing! I regret so much that I never seen it before. (Although, frankly speaking, it was more like water quenching. )

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The day did not end just there yet. After water tubing, we drove away from the parish to a place called Bayou Cabins several miles east of Lafayette. It is the most bizarre housing run by the sweetest most incredible southern lady who cooks the most sumptuous breakfast one ever live to witness for us every single day. Stepping outside of the van parked above a specially selected glade under the enchanting shade of the bayou forest with the perfect amount of cushioning and fractions and water permeability unsurpassed by any lame concrete pavement works commonly seen in cities, I was immediately amazed by the luxurious opulence of the architectural magnificence of the cabins capable of putting the Château de Versailles in a shameful blush. Opening the door and a smell of meticulously developed fragrance made up with the odor of antique air conditioners, uncirculated air, cup-price air freshener and some secret ingredients known only to the owner of the place unique to each cabin blew pleasantly on my face. In fact, the furniture and the interior decoration was so stylish and comfortable that even low forms of life such as ants and cockroaches gathered together in the cabins to appreciate its sheer beauty. Some say it is like a 5 star hotel, I take that as an insult to the majestic Bayou Cabins. Others say that it is the best place they ever stayed in their ten years of travelling in the United States, I totally agree and think that they’ll never find a better place ever again. Sometimes at night, I just find myself lying on my bed staring at the ceilings of the cabin, where even the spider nets seemed dreamingly artistic under the carefully designed, handcrafted and true-to-life manual operated ambient lightening system and the pleasant melodies from the nostalgically classic air conditioners. Good grace this place was the best! No wonder Lauryn was able to have accomplished such a chivalry act of kindness by humbly relinquishing her possession of the entire bed to the lonely bug that sought the warmth of her blanket and the company of her kind-heartedness at night. Everything about the Bayou Cabins is just Amazing!

 photo of the dance floor taken by andrew

photo of the dance floor taken by andrew

Add ever more drama to the already sensational day was our dinner at Randol’s, a local favorite featuring a restaurant, a bar and a whole hall with wooden floor and a stage filled with band members dedicated exclusively to dancing. Peering through the plastic glass that separated us and the dancing hall, I was able to see one young looking man dancing eagerly among a group of elderly folks, all of them, although unable to move as swiftly as when they were young, were so immersed in the joyful fast-tempo Cajun music that it seemed like their body just naturally undulated with the waves of notes coming from the stage all by themselves. After finishing our pleasant dinner, most of us joined the dance. A moment of pure pleasure where everything but the movement of the body is forgotten. What a cheerful way of life!

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The following day, we went to a Cajun music gathering at a local café in the town. When we went there, the music was just set to begin and once again, we were embraced by bursts of hospitality from local folks. The guy who played the infamous iron water bucket bass (I couldn’t remember his name, sadly) was particularly interested in introducing us to their musical insights and all the beautiful stories in the lyrics about family and love. As we were all totally captured by the music, Andrew picked up a viola from the middle of the group and started playing along with them. The entire group looked ever so joyful. It was by this performance that I truly come to appreciate Floyd’s concern for his little girl. “The ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends….” All of those are unique identities of the Cajun culture that you can only truly come to appreciate by experiencing it on the spot The hospitality, the expressions, the endless music, the easy-going characters, constant bursts of laughter and everything else that makes the Cajun culture. If they are all tripped away from the girl, good heavens will she be forever haunted by her memories for the rest of her life. The culture provided people here with such a strong identity, whom  in turn intensified the Cajun culture, a circle of continued benevolence.

Later that afternoon, we met the same group again in a local brewery enjoying life. The person who played the viola (I’m so bad with names I feel very sorry) told me that he was born and raised here and then became an engineer in Los Angeles for a long time before he came back eventually. So I guess there is always something about our home and our childhood that bond us to some particular culture and particular place. For him, it is the Cajun culture he was raised in right there at Breaux Bridge. Eventually, a high salary from a respectable occupation in one of the world’s largest cities still cannot beat the sound of viola and a sip of cold brew at home. For myself, it would be my hometown Lanzhou. Since my parents all came from different parts of the country and none of us speak the local dialect, I never viewed Lanzhou as my hometown and always wanted to get away from it when I was a kid. Finally, I succeeded in going to schools on the other side of the earth, only to find out that I started missing it desperately. It is part of me. Shed it away, and I become like a tree with its roots cut off. It is where my home is and where I feel the most at ease. Right now, everywhere I go, I introduce that I’m from Lanzhou as proud as a peacock. It meaning to me gets stronger as I grow, just like Breaux Bridge is to the viola performer, and Louisiana is to Grant Wiggins and Dr. Gaines. To modify the quote from Dr. Gaines,  of us has body and mind everywhere, but soul bounded firmly in our hometown.

The Diner Drawing

One morning during our first week in New Orleans, when I was having trouble going back to sleep after waking up too early, I tried to inspire myself by walking around the city for an hour. On a whim, I decided to eat breakfast at Commerce Restaurant, a local diner in the business district. Mornings like these happen to me often, no matter where in the world I am. I frequently go days in a row running on three or four hours of sleep, but I’ve learned to embrace my restlessness. We’re back from Cajun country to rest in New Orleans for a few days now before heading back to California. I’m having a bout of sleepless mornings again. I’m starting to suppose this is some sort of mental menstrual cycle, but in any case, I’ve decided to visit Commerce again to eat eggs (hoping I can encourage spiritual and intellectual fecundity by ingesting them) and write this. The servers think I’m funny because I keep declining coffee. Truth be told, I don’t need it. I’m very awake. It is 7:30am. I’m going to share two very permanent stories: one is about a tattoo, and one is about this place I’m in right now.

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In my most recent blog, I described a sense of restlessness in New Orleans, its capacity for ennui and malaise, and its ability to dwell and distract itself as an antidote. After getting out of the city, I’m starting to see that it’s not just New Orleans. It’s Baton Rouge, too. I went on a run along the Mississippi one evening and saw at least ten different couples sitting along the water together, watching the river flow out of sight, letting romance settle. Funnier yet, I think Breaux Bridge, Louisiana dwells and distracts itself too. In fact, I know it does because I was playfully invited to play the washtub bass in a Cajun band jam session at the Joie de Vivre café for two whole songs, and then later enjoyed similarly delightful music at a local brewery while I sipped a couple beers and read The Moviegoer. Loving these curious distractions and dwelling in a moment is not just an antidote to some malady of discontentment. I’m learning that it’s a vitamin for happiness. A true gift.

Five years ago, I was in Paraguay for the summer on an exchange trip in a rural community. During that summer of speaking a language I barely knew in a country I knew even less, I read a book called A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It changed my life profoundly. I knew it was an important book for me. I remember highlighting parts that I knew were especially important, even though I couldn’t pinpoint why. Below is a passage that has kept coming to mind these past mornings. I have been trying to understand it for a long time. Owen Meany has a weird voice so Irving writes his dialogue in all caps:

“I want to go on being a student,” I told him. “I want to be a teacher. I’m just a reader,” I said.

”DON’T SOUND SO ASHAMED,” he said. “READING IS A GIFT.”

”I learned it from you,” I told him.

”IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT—IT’S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT. IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”
— John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

I’ve spent an exorbitant amount of time recently reading astrology, religious texts, histories, and now fiction, dwelling on the design of how time or imagination or God has played out before. Here I’ve studied both the motivations of a past culture and spent generously on future visions of psychics, trying to entertain my own desires, how I can interpret where I am. These stories have made me aware of different ways to live—the distractions—all the ways we might find design and meaning in our own lives. (I want to avoid using the word coincidence, but basically dwelling and distracting yourself is like using art and intuition to become aware of the coincidences in your life, or why certain events or conversations or books are important to you.)

My very first blog post on this Louisiana trip was about the confusing estuary I was in. I’m still in it, but I’m much more aware now, and I have a better idea of how it’s flowing. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why then, but I just knew that what I was feeling, thinking, and reading at the time—May 12, 13, and 14 of 2018—was important. I was entertaining myself, pretending I was Edna Pontellier, getting distracted by stilted homes, dwelling on lone flowers on the beach. I was floating between dots of past and present.

But I knew this trip was a gift I couldn’t understand yet. I could feel it held some permanent lesson for me, yet to be articulated. I knew meaning was coming. This is the start of my first story: I decided to get the lone flower that entranced me from the beach tattooed on my arm. I get tattoos like a first step in the creation of art. I draw on my body like I write—it all begins with some thought that seems important, some impulse of meaning at first that I want to document. So I do. I know that through dwelling and dwelling (what others may call the creative process), deeper meaning will unveil itself. I still haven’t discovered the full meaning of my other tattoos, and so when people ask for the story, sometimes I just make up the gist of one. Not that that’s wrong, but there are plenty of interpretations and stories I have yet to unveil. As I grow, I’m slowly understanding why I acted on the notion to get them, why something was so important to commemorate permanently. I’m getting better at paying attention to these moments and urges in my life. When I make a bold connection, I let it dwell. The flower I got here was a morning glory, the same one I drew in my first blog, the one that could mean love in vain, tenacity to follow your dreams, or lasting love. My hunch is it that this tattoo will mean all three of these things eventually. This ink marks the start of a story, a journey full of coming meaning. I’ll read into the tattoo as it starts to manifest its importance, when I can begin to understand how those mid-May moments come back to my past or my future.

I guess this is what I do because I like to think I’m a designer. I live by design, for metaphors, to connect the dots. I think I’m understanding now the way of life I love. All this conversation, all this reading, all this reading into things—I think that’s what bookpacking is. We’re always bookpacking, always dwelling and distracting ourselves with good discussion of both fact and fiction, packing our personal stories and every learned tale with us, whether we’re visiting plantations with abominable pasts or stepping into a diner for a simple breakfast. This is the way of life I love. I’m supposed to dwell on things I find beautiful and distract myself with them, read meaning into those beautiful things, and live the most beautiful ones into existence. It doesn’t matter where I find them or where I learned them necessarily, just like how if you have faith or believe, it doesn’t really matter why. I’m just supposed to connect the dots. Each time and place has meaning—what brought me there? I did! This book did! This dream did! These feelings did!—and psychic intuition and fiction and 9am class sessions all have me in common. I’m meant to relate the philosophical discussion about goodness I had with Claire over dinner to my own intentions in relationships. When the tarot cards tell me I’m set up for success but have to let go of some grief first, I need to think deeply about how I can move on from what’s bothering me. I’m supposed to take the books I realized were important from five years ago—the ones that are popping into my head on restless mornings as I pace a new city—and read into why I can’t stop thinking about its meaning now. When our professor Andrew tells us the secret to a lasting love is to love the person your lover is going to be, I’m supposed to dream a little about the loves I experience in my own life. I’m meant to understand that I have the choice and the courage to follow dots of serendipity into meaningful stories for my own life. I can believe every cliché if I pay attention, I can treat every lyric or encounter like a prophecy if I want. I accept the gifts I’m aware of, so I can indulge in connections when they come. We’re always bookpacking, moviepacking, songpacking, conversationpacking... We're distracting ourselves and dwelling. I think this is my happy place. Reading books and drawing pictures and enjoying music are all forms of having good conversations. Through them, we’re meant to be searching for the ways we want our lives to be. Dwelling on dreams and distractions, getting swept up in their meanings, and being grateful for them every single day.

So here I am at Commerce, typing all of this out. This is my second story: when I came into this restaurant the first time, I didn’t expect to come back. I strolled in on a whim with my sketchbook on me. Because my illustration inventory was running low, and I decided to sketch the scene ahead of me while I waited for my omelet. I could tell the owner and servers were curious about me, the girl who didn’t need coffee at 7am, but they left me alone to draw. I drew, I ate, and I realized I didn’t have enough cash to leave a tip. So I took a photo of my drawing, ripped it out of my sketchbook, and tucked it under my plate as gratuity and left.

This morning, I wake up with a feeling that I should return to this restaurant to do some writing. I knew to trust this feeling because I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else, and I was hungry. When I walk in, the owner and I make eye contact. I know he recognizes me. I look at the shelf on the wall behind him and see my drawing. Without a word, I smile and take a seat.

“He wants you to sign this, queen.” A familiar server brings over my drawing and a menu. “Can I get you coffee, darling?”

I’m beaming. I gently refuse coffee but ask for my eggs. This is a beautiful diner, I am a queen, I sign, and we dwell in this moment together. We’re distracted by the drawing and the exchange, the smile and the nod.

“Hey, Jenny,” the owner of the restaurant calls from behind the counter, after I’m already halfway done with my food. “I’m going to frame it and hang it up. Are you an artist?”

“Kind of, I would like to be an artist,” I nod in his direction.

“I love that drawing,” he gestures to the shelf behind him where my picture takes its throne.

“I’m so happy. I love this place,” I grin into my omelet.

And I do love this place I’m in. I always have, even before I was able to write all of this down, even before the first morning I came to Commerce. I’ve loved it since at least five years ago, when I first discovered that Owen Meany book and realized for whatever reason that passage would be important. Maybe I’ve loved it even before that, because there might be dots from my past I’ve yet to connect, gifts I’ve yet to receive. It was serendipitous that I walked in that first time, but not a coincidence. It was self-awareness that brought me in this morning, so I could sit here now and begin to understand, through every conversation and story—through Edna and Binx and Louis and Ignatius and Jefferson and Wiggins and Buddy Bolden—where I am and why.

Andrew told us to find our happy place on this trip, to look for that special spot in Louisiana. I was expecting to choose some comfortable café simply because I liked the beignets, but I’ve distracted myself with a beauty much sweeter than sugar now. I’m dwelling in this diner, and it’s nearly 10am. The servers are still offering me coffee, but mostly just to tease me and peek at what I’m writing on my laptop. They come around with their coffee pots, they call me queen and Jenny darling. Queen, they ask me, you all good, Jenny darling? We just share smiles and nods. They know I’m happy where I am, and that though I’m in this diner, I’m also dwelling somewhere outside of it, too. The art of life. I hope they’ve also been here. Nothing is meaningless because everything is full of meaning. We just have to read into things a bit, and I think it’s natural to be a bit restless on that journey. I am charmed. I want to thank Andrew for bringing this specific place and these specific characters into my awareness. This is an important gift to my life. I will let you know just how important soon, when I’ve connected all the dots.

THE LEGACY OF BUDDY BOLDEN

Fragments.

*

Hot. Humid. The smell of alcohol and piss. The street is half tourist half drunk. Come on gang. One second late, we’ll have to stand in the back.

 

Where are we going now professor?

Preservation Hall.

 

One person. Two persons. Thirteen worn out figures on the edge of total defeat by the cruel weather. Lean on the wall gang. Try to keep the street clear so people can walk by.  

 

One minute. Two minutes. Fifteen minutes. Some drunk guy walked by. People with reservations, please line up this way. Thank you.

 

Is this the back of the line? It’s actually the front. Don’t worry though. Last year we were way back and still got in. Bursts of laughter.

 

Concentrate. Concentrate. You have a novel in your hand and you should be reading.

 

Thirty minutes. Three quarters. One hour. If you are 21, use the restroom right next door. If you are under 21, walk three blocks that way.

 

Sweat. Thirst. Fatigue. I should get some water for the gang. Eric, would you mind holding the camera for me?

 

Stand. Stretch. Pour. Try hard to keep from the wall because it’s covered with filth.

 *

Then the door opens and I went in. The moment I’ve been waiting for too long.

The legacy of Buddy Bolden.

 Buddy and his Band. Andrew and his gang.

Buddy and his Band. Andrew and his gang.

Total immersion.

*

Eric sits on the ground. In the middle of the very first row, a mere two inches from the trumpet player. This is the first ever live jazz performance for him and he managed to get this close. “What a blessing”, he thought, while trying to observe every detail of the band member’s pre-performance preparations to enjoys his privilege of this proximity to the fullest extent. He can see the drummer carefully laying out all his different instruments on the ground. He can hear the cornet player casually chatting with the band about dinner plans. Laughing, and he smiled. Eric likes jazz, just as he likes all other kinds of music that brings him pleasure. He likes it, but is not crazy about it. He plays piano, of course, just like all other middle-class kids from China are forced to. He neither enjoys it or hates it. He just goes along with his parents’ expectations. So his level of music understanding is moderate. Not too bad to look ignorant, nor too good to impress others.

*

When the drummer started the first beat, everything in my world ceased to exist. My own existence started to fade away as the sound of music penetrates every single cell of my body and dissolve them. Then, gradually yet persistently, they became part of the music. The music grew into me. I’m no longer an observer. The entire music consists of music, and music along. My fingers, my shoulder, my neck, my foot. Every part of my body started dancing in sync with the music. I’m a part of it.

*

Sweat dripping down from the forehead of the trumpet player onto his glasses. Some escapes and continues down his chin, onto his hands, his instrument, and eventually onto the ground. Every now and then, amongst the short bursting intervals where he is not playing, he quickly draws his right hand from the trumpet and pushes his glasses up. As sweats accumulate his glasses keep sliding down more often until a threshold where he cannot bear it anymore so he takes out a piece of napkin from his chest pocket and wipes his entire face and keeps playing. He is so immersed. So immersed that the obnoxious sliding glasses post no obstructions to the flow of his music. Even Eric, sitting so close to be able to count the number of his sweat drops did not notice all those actions. 

*

Clapping. Yelling. Roaring from the audience. Big smile on the performers’ faces. Only when the last punch on the drum set stopped was Eric able to regain his conscious. He did not clap. He could not. The large smile stayed on his face. He couldn’t control it at all. The music took over his body, it took a good minute of roaring from the crowd for his mind to reclaim authority over the body. Then, the only sound out of his mouth was “wow”.

*

I’ll be frank. I don’t like Buddy Bolden as a person. I mean, what the heck? He is practically drunk all day. He marries one woman and has sex with all her sisters, not to mention the controversial nature of his wife’s profession. In everyday life, I see Buddy Bolden as a mess. If Buddy and I sit across each other on a table, we might flip it as soon as we start talking life philosophies. However, it is no one other than him who initiated the new trend that eventually reinvented conventional music. “Jazz”, according to Andrew, is a word originated from Storyville that describes, shall we put it this way, a certain brief period of happiness. It’s playful in nature, not bonded by rigid rules. It’s fragmented, has abrupt bursts and pauses. Listening closely, the note seems incoherent and chaotic. However, when you sit back and try to capture the whole spectrum of the music, all of the scattered notes assembled together into a larger harmony and gives a sense of joy incomparable to any other kinds of music. In detail, it seems all over the place. It seems that there is no rules at all. But when you close your eyes and enjoy, you began hearing beautiful melodies and realizing that after all, there are rules that make jazz jazz. Listening to it is almost like enjoying a giant mosaic painting where millions of small pieces are put together in a seemingly chaotic way which creates a picture that can only be seen when stepping all the way back and staring at the whole frame so I guess no wonder it is born in a red light district where general lawlessness covers its appearance but underground rules dominate all transactions by a guy who is mentally troubled but has extreme music talent where his mental deliriousness prevented him from performing conventionally yet his talent gave birth to a whole new genre of music. “We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot”

 

Well, Buddy Bolden it is.

Live-Oaks Remembering

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I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing, 

All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches, 

Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green, 

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself, 

But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not, 

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss, 

And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room, 

It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, 

(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,) 

Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love; 

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space, 

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near, 

I know very well I could not.

- Walt Whitman" I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing" 

I was excited for the trees in Louisiana, the low-hung branches of mossy trees that stretch far over a shady ground that would otherwise feel the scorch of a heavy sun. In my head I've always pictured myself reading under a maternal tree like this, waving at the summer bugs and pulling at floral dress to cover my lightly dirt-marked knees. When I saw the trees, I was not disappointed. It was the trees that made me wonder if I had lived a past life in Louisiana. As we walked through the Garden District, I murmered that I was going to write about trees. Andrew smiled and stopped us, and read the poem by Walt Whitman. It is a romantic poem, with curves of curiosity and edges of lonliness - but it is beautiful. It was about a tree that probably stood in front of me - one of these trees held the memory of Mr. Whitman reaching up to pull a twig from its arms. I wanted this to be a romantic blog. But a few more beats of looking at the trees, remembering a tree I had seen in Grand Isle, and feeling stunned by images from museums and classrooms in my mind's eye, then I knew it could not only be that.

Trees are a symbol of nostalgia. They frame a memory in any person, whether it be your Christmas pine trees or tapping sap out of a maple tree or your backyard's eucalyptus scent. There may be the tree that was your favorite hiding spot, the one that held the tree house that always needed fixing, the fig tree that would drip fruit the neighbors dog would escape to eat, the tree whose branches held your after-school swing.

In the South, there is a nostalgia as fertile as the plush greenery and as thick as the roots and trunks of the oak trees that line the Garden District. The theme of Southern Gothic, a genre in which Interview With a Vampire falls with its aching decadence and death, romantically swings through ideas of a decaying beauty. We discussed in lecture how Southern Gothic represent a nostalgia for the "Old South" - a luxurious moment of medieval idealism. It is a nostalgia for that delicate beauty, for the time when these gorgeous homes were built. New Orleans homes were even built with nostalgia on the mind, as pillars echoed ancient Greek and Roman architecture that fill the myths and ornate fences whispered European descent.

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Little girls dream of walking down the aisle in a garden next to a mesmerizing plantation home lined with mother-like trees laced in Spanish moss trees and humming to a chorus of crickets. There is a nostalgia for ladies in pretty dresses, chivalric men, the heartfelt warmth of Southern hospitality. If you type into Google "plantation home wedding venues," you'll find plenty of options.

On our trip, we visited the Whitney Plantation. Today's Whitney Plantation opened in 2015, a plantation-turned-musem focusing entirely upon the experience of slavery. It is the first, and only, of its kind in America - a public plantation that prioritizes the ugly truth over pretty nostalgia.

The romanticism of the old American South stretches turns a blind eye to the suffering, class lines, and inconsistencies of the past. The nostalgia is a thick cloud that blinds even the hindsight that is supposed to be 20/20. The sight that should see that the plantation the girl dreams of is stained with the sweat of thousands of black backs, and was watered by the tear ducts of enslaved ripped families and tortured individuals. The nostalgia thoughtlessly craves, in Langston Hughes's words, "The lazy, laughing South/with blood on its mouth"

  View from the Big House on Whitney Plantation

View from the Big House on Whitney Plantation

Billie Holiday's song "Strange Fruit," in which she immortalizes the memory of bodies hanging from tree branches, has lyrics that express the bipolar nature of beauty/horror. This can be seen in much of the South's representation in honest art, like Langston Hughes' poem quoted above "The South." The lyrics display a split between the South's physical beauty and horror.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south/ The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Originating from a poem by New York writer Abel Meeropol, the song does not only dwell on the horror of dead bodies. The song gets its title from the "strange fruit" - human beings - hanging from the trees in the South.

Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

To further my immersive learning, I have tried to be "moviepacking" alongside bookpacking. After visiting the Whitney Museum, I watched 12 Years a Slave. The film tells the story of Solomon, a free black men living in New York, who is tricked and captured to be sold into slavery. He, among, others, are shipped to New Orleans, the largest slave market in America. Solomon spends twelve years as a slave named "Platt."

The film, consciously or subconsciously, also displays the idea of beauty/horror by juxtaposing the physical "heavenliness" of Louisiana's natural beauty with hellish slavery and racist culture. The visual filmmaking choices are tied to reality - and do not diminish the natural beauty of the film locations in order to perpetuate a story of ugliness and terror. Shots would hold a lacy branch against a delicate sky, or show sensuous Southern grandeur before representations of enslavement crossed the screen. On a pretty summer Southern day, Solomon spends an entire day with a noose around his neck, tied to a grand oak tree with drooping Spanish moss that looks like it wants to caress him.

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While Southern trees remember the georgeous gowns of Louisiana's elite and the small toes of a playful child, they are also remember the lives they took. Lynchings played an elemental part in torture and hate crimes. The third season of American Horror Story, "Coven," takes place in New Orleans so I added it to my "moviepacking" list. An episode begins with a young black boy dressed sharply in a white button down shirt riding his bicycle to his first day at a white school, only to be captured and hung by a group of white angry men. In 12 Years a Slave, an abusive plantation overseer attempts to hang Solomon for defending his hard work. He is stopped from going through with the hanging, but Solomon is left to tip toe in the mud for the whole day as punishment. The morning after I watched the film, Andrew discussed a famous photograph of a lynching. Here is a cropped version of the photograph. I have also included a photograph of a demonstration protesting lynching in Washington D.C., 1934.

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 Evangeline Tree in St. Martinville, Louisiana

Evangeline Tree in St. Martinville, Louisiana

I did not just see in Louisiana a live-oak growing, I saw in Louisiana live-oak remembering. It remembered beautiful times, laughter and carriages and bare feet and a first kiss - the tree above is the claimed meeting spot of the lovers that inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Evangeline" - but it also remembered hearing hearts shattering, abuse, corrupt deals, and souls leaving a body. And the tree will continue to watch, as will all Southern trees and trees around the world. I embrace the Louisiana oak's beauty, and feel the power of its heartfelt memories and happiness, but I also let them honor the stories of those who faced injustice.  They will sketch their memories with their roots in the ground, and they will whisper their secrets to their offspring carried by the wind. They will not act, but they will guide, teach, and watch, as we grow up and out and into ourselves - as humans, as animals, as a community, and a society.

To end, I am including an an old folk song that has always rung in my head, most famously performed by Eva Cassidy. It is called "Tall Trees in Georgia." The haunting melody leads lyrics of a woman reflecting on the Southern trees that watched her through her pink beloved youth and into her faded, lonely old age.

Tall trees in Georgia/they grow so high/they shade me so/And sadly walking through the thicket I go

The sweetest love/ I ever had/ I left aside/ Because I did not want to be any man's bride

But now I'm older/ and married I would be/ I found my sweetheart/ but he would not marry me

When I was younger/the boys all came around/ But now I'm older/ and they've all settled down

Control your mind my girl/ and give your heart to one/ For if you love all men/ you'll be surely left with none

Tall trees in Georgia/ they grow so high/ they shade me so/ And sadly walking/ through the thicket I go

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Home

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For Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, home is the land he grew up on in Ponte Coupée Parish, Louisiana. It’s the same land where he and his twelve siblings were reared by their aunt Augustine, where they attended school in a tiny church building, and where generations of his family members were born and raised. His roots to this place run deeper than the Mississippi waters in the nearby False River, where he often went fishing.

Dr. Gaines is the picture of what a comfortable grandpa looks like. His small-framed glasses, tilted beret, and knowing smile make him charming, as he sits in his armchair and answers our questions. After living for some time in California, Dr. Gaines looks happy to be back on the plantation he has called home since his youth. His wife, Dianne, gracefully helps him respond to some of our trickier queries.

Dr. Gaines’ book, A Lesson Before Dying, focuses on a protagonist who is desperate to get out of his rural hometown. Yet Grant Wiggins is too attached to the place thanks to his job as the local schoolteacher, his affair with married teacher, Vivian, and his assignment to teach innocent Jefferson how to be a man before his wrongful execution by electric chair. Twenty-one-year-old Jefferson is convinced he means nothing to anyone, yet Grant tries to persuade him that he’s worthy of love.

‘Do you believe I’m your friend, Jefferson?’ I asked him. ‘Do you believe I care about you?’
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

In Baton Rouge, we sat in our conference room-turned-classroom after finishing this book, totally floored. Our discussion veered from an investigation of the text to an analysis of ourselves and our culture. Jefferson doesn’t believe that he is wanted, refuses to recognize his inherent worth as a human being, considers himself little more than the “hog” he’s described as to his jury of peers during the trial for his life. His home is nowhere, he feels unloved, he speaks to no one. This mindset is heartwrenching -- yet I've known that feeling too.

Do I believe that I am loved? Do I believe that I am worthy of love? Why?

Some days, those are really hard questions to answer.


For country star Hunter Hayes, home is Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. As a toddler, he performed in the little café steps away from our rental cabin. We ate breakfast where he played guitar years ago, where the wind still whispers between firmly rooted tree branches overlooking the lethargic bayou. Our hostess, Lisa, is proud of “our boy Hunter”. She’s just as excited for him as if he were her own son making his way through the music world.

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The sentiment of tight-knit community here is unmistakable. During a jam session in the Joie de Vivre Café, residents danced, played, sang, and clapped along to Cajun music. In Breaux Bridge, it became obvious that our student group of thirteen was from out of town. Yet we were treated like members of the family; four in our group actually got to try out some of the instruments in the jam session, learning them as they played along. The love of these people for their unique culture, for their country, and for each other, is bubbly and contagious and gives us no choice but to walk out the door grinning from ear to ear.

Tim Gautreaux’s short story, “Floyd’s Girl”, highlights a particular instance where this sense of community drives a family across the state. Everyone in the area is distraught when Floyd’s daughter, Lizette, is taken to live with her mother in Texas. This anecdote impeccably describes what several characters think Lizette will miss out on if she leaves home in Louisiana. Mrs. Boudreaux thinks Lizette will be lost without her Catholic upbringing, T-Jean’s grandmère can’t imagine what Lizette will do without her home cooking, and her own uncle, Nonc René, worries about Lizette missing his music.

…now he imagined his grand-niece dragged off to live among lizards and rock and only Mexican accordian music. How could she bear to stay there without the buzz of a fiddle and the clang of a triangle in her pretty head, the love songs sung through the nose?
— Tim Gautreaux, Same Places, Same Things

To these members of Lizette’s community, home is essential for Lizette to live a good life, and home is with all of them in Grand Crapaud. They all want what’s best for her, and going to Texas to be with her no-good mother is not what’s best. These people love her so much that they tore across town by car and by plane to get her back, to bring her home.


For my family, home is Newport Beach, California. My parents, my siblings, and I all went to the same high school, and even shared some of the same teachers. We grew up going to bonfires on the beach, and to Disneyland for birthdays. There’s no better feeling than taking the exit onto MacArthur Boulevard and seeing the Pacific Ocean stretching far beyond the streets ahead—that’s when I know I’m back where I belong.

But I’ve moved around a lot lately. I relocated to Paris, France to study abroad for my freshman year of college. After getting into USC, I moved to Los Angeles. In total, since August 2016 I have moved nine times, from apartment to apartment, eventually to my sorority house, and then back in with my mom and dad for the summer. Home is no longer just one place for me.

Home is around a dinner table with my parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins, singing silly songs and joking about absolute nonsense, too full after a great meal to move.

Home is running into a bear hug from my boyfriend after a long day, warm and safe and happy.

Home is when I stay up far too late talking to my roommates about celebrities or Disney movies or deep life questions.

Home is asking a new friend to get lunch, and carpooling with old friends to get ice cream.

Home is wherever you are when you’re with people that love you for who you are, right now.

It’s not always easy to get there, however. Jefferson takes months to find out that he’d always been home, that his godmother and his friends had always loved him and always would. Lizette knows her home is with her family in Louisiana, and is so relieved when she’s safely back in the arms of her father. There have been times when I’ve forgotten where’s home, who’s home, and how to find my way there. Steffany Gretzinger’s song, “Out of Hiding”, beautifully captures that it’s a marathon to get back, singing, “Baby, you're almost home now / Please don't quit now / You're almost home to me”.

So often I get caught up worrying about the future. What happens after college? Should I go to grad school? Would I even get in? What job should I get, where should I live and work full-time, how many dogs should I adopt in my twenties, how often will I get to see my parents my siblings my old friends…?

I worry it won’t work out the way I’d planned, that people will leave me and places will get old and my sense of purpose will fizzle over time. That’s when I know I have to come home.

And as long as I continue to love people, and people continue to love me, home is never too far away.

A Short Reflection on Cajun Country

He saw his daughter growing up on the windy prairie in a hard-bitten town full of sun-wrinkled geezers, tomato barbecue, Pearl beer, and country music.
— Tim Gautreaux, “Floyd’s Girl”

After spending three nights in Baton Rouge, we hopped in the van and headed for Cajun Country. We stayed at the Bayou Cabins Bed & Breakfast in Breaux Bridge, a small town with a population of about 8,000. Candace, Claire, Lauryn, Ryan, and I stayed in cabin 11, the “Maison De Parrain (Godfather’s House)”. The cabin was homey and eclectic with bright blue, green, and yellow paint on the walls, homemade quilts and mismatching sheets, a shiny gold replica of Jean LaFitte’s pirate ship, and an antique mirror. At breakfast the owners served us crawfish-shaped beignets and pointed out baby Hunter Hayes’ picture on the wall. Hunter grew up in Breaux Bridge three blocks away from the Bayou Cabins and on Sundays would participate in a kids’ Cajun music jam session. Lafayette, the largest city in Cajun Country, was about a 30 minute drive away. Our first night in Breaux Bridge we drove to Randol’s, a Cajun seafood place, for dinner. At Randol’s we watched old-timers dance enthusiastically to live Cajun music, and some of us including Andrew even joined in for a song or two.

Breaux Bridge was a nice change from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans. My favorite experience in Cajun Country was going to listen to authentic Cajun music at Joie de Vivre (“joy of life”) Cafe in Breaux Bridge. The coffee shop was alive with energy and enthusiasm. I could have sat listening to the music all day long. Every person we talked to was genuinely interested in hearing about what we we doing in Louisiana and what we were reading. They also wanted to tell us about themselves and give us insight into Cajun culture, history, and traditions and they were eager to let us participate. Jenny and I were talking to one of the musicians, Joe, and telling him that we were reading Tim Gautreaux; he told us to read “The Bug Man”, his favorite Tim Gautreaux short story. Andrew jumped in on the violin; others tried their hand at the triangle and the instrument made from an old wash basin. We snapped pictures and recorded on our phones as Andrew was playing and when the song was over we cheered loudly beaming with pride for our leader.

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With the above shot I ran out of film. It is the only shot I got on my camera at Joie de Vivre.

Visiting Cajun Country was a much needed respite from the busyness and constant hum of a big city. Compared to Los Angeles where people avoid eye contact walking past you on the sidewalk, in Breaux Bridge I was reminded of humankindness.

Bye Bye, Bayou

 The Breaux Bridge Cabin Site 

The Breaux Bridge Cabin Site 

 Andrew Chater, jamming with the Cajuns

Andrew Chater, jamming with the Cajuns

Just as quickly as we had arrived in the quirky college town of Baton Rouge, we were leaving— piling into the van and parting ways with the first hotel that actually had fluffy comforters that enveloped you in its sweet softness as you drifted into peaceful bliss. I closed my eyes in anticipation of what was to come next. Sure I was sad to leave, but if we were meant to stay in one place we’d have roots instead of feet. I had googled The Breaux Bridge Cabins we were staying in before leaving Los Angles, and although I had previously been terrified to stay in such a shall we say “humble” setting, my newfound interest in small southern towns left me optimistic. As we pulled into the pebble speckled driveway, Christmas lights illuminated the cabins and welcomed us to the campsite. A rickety old swing set called my name and as I took a seat, my classmate Eric, questioned whether or not the old set “could retain the weight” of me. Two people were already swinging comfortably and I think Eric thought a third could potentially be problematic... he wasn't wrong. That particular swing set managed the three of us, however, when a couple of of us piled onto it later, it inevitably came tumbling down. Ironically, Eric wasn’t there to witness our unfortunate but predicted downfall. We later discovered a brochure advertising the cabins that quoted previous visitors saying things like 'the cabins were of the finest places on Earth' and that 'they rivaled five star resorts.' These statements were so exaggerated that all we could do was laugh and do our best to endure the questionable breakfast options and poor wifi connection.

We instead focused on the real reason that we came to the Breaux Bridge Bayou: to immerse ourselves in the Cajun lifestyle and community— Cajun’s being the French Acadians who migrated from Canada and settled here in the 1700s. We shuffled off to visit a Cajun jam session in town that welcomed us to their performance with quite literal open arms. We were taught about the history of Cajun music, how it differs from Zydeco music, and were even invited to join the band. I played the spoons, Sadie and Lauryn played a one of a kind instrument known as the wash base, and Andrew jumped on the fiddle. Out of appreciation for this kind gesture, Andrew, being British, used his self proclaimed authority to grant nobility to proclaim Jimmy, the two time Grammy-winning accordion player, ‘Lord’ Jimmy. His friends howled with laughter and said that Jimmy was probably more used to hearing “Oh lord, Jimmy.” The Cajuns were quick witted and we laughed at his clever reprise as we sipped espresso and snapped photos of the joyous band.

The Cajuns are filled with pride and values that demonstrate deeply rooted kinship and community. We see this through the lens of Tim Gautreaux’s short story, "Floyd’s Girl," where loving father Floyd, whose daughter has been stolen by her mother's Texan boyfriend, gets her back after a bizarre chase in a story that celebrates blood, the love of family, and the tight-knit community feelings that characterize Cajun culture.

“You don’t come to Grand Crapaud and take no Bergeron child to drag off to no place,” she scolded, threatening him with the walker...”This child belongs with her papa. She’s got LeBlanc in her, and Cancienne way back, and before that, Thibodeaux.”
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

Being in the less than luxurious Bayou cabins illuminates the fact that it is not about where you are, but instead who you're with. The people and the culture of this community demonstrate the importance of community and caring for one another. Cajun culture and fellowship has allowed their way of life to survive the test of time since their expulsion from Acadia in the 1750s. Gautreaux’s story and my experience in the community have left me with the impression that Cajun’s are like the three musketeers: they stand together— all for one and one for all. With that being said, when the safety of Floyd's daughter was put into jeopardy the whole community came out to protect her, and to assert that the little girl was Cajun through and through, and that the blood that ran through her veins represented generations of Cajun families. Floyd considers the reprucussions of his daughter being forced to live a life in Texas with her mom, bearing in mind that

There was nothing wrong with West Texas, but there was something wrong with a child living there who doesn’t belong, who will be haunted for the rest of her days by memories of the ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncles accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends. Vibrations of the soul lost for what?
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

The Bayou is rich with Cajun culture and community that keeps their traditions alive and well; they embody vibrations of the soul that make a person feel alive and apart of something bigger than themselves. Although it was a small town and my experiences were brief, by talking to locals and observing their interactions with one another, when I said Bye to the Bayou, I felt reassured that in these small pockets of the United States, history, culture, and community prevails.