Featured NOLA 2018

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.

000225660004.jpg

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. 

000225640020.jpg

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

000225630020 (1).jpg

Coming Back

This is goodnight and not goodbye
Simba's pic 1.JPG

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.

Simba's pic 3.JPG

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.

Simba's pic 4.jpg

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.

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.

IMG_3764.jpg

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.

Live-Oaks Remembering

000219260019.jpg

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.

000219260017.JPG

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.

Screen Shot 2018-06-06 at 12.10.49 AM.png

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.

GettyImages-514693420 (1).jpg
public-spectacle-lynchings-1.jpg

 

 

 

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

000219260022.JPG

Home

IMG_3297.JPG

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.

IMG_89172711829A-1.jpeg

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.

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.

On Love

Out of everything we read, Ernest J. Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying impacted me the most. A Lesson Before Dying is set during the 1940s South and tells the story of Jefferson, an innocent black man accused of aiding in the murder of a white man and sentenced to be electrocuted. Jefferson’s defense refers to him as a “hog” and Jefferson internalizes this belief that he is not human and even cynically mimics the actions of a hog: “He grunted deep in his throat and grinned at me”. Throughout the course of the novel Grant, a school teacher, regularly visits Jefferson in an attempt to get Jefferson to understand that he is a man and not the hog whites consider him to be.

They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Visiting the jail that Jefferson was locked up in was both profound and overwhelming—it brought the setting of the story literally to life, making Jefferson’s experience in jail tangible and real to me. We walked inside the black-out cells where prisoners were put in as punishment for out-of-line behavior. We walked in a room where people were hanged from the ceiling. My intention in taking the photographs below was not in any way to glorify or to create a spectacle out of death and suffering but rather I took these photos out of remembrance for what went on here and reverence for the innocent people who were locked up here like animals and suffered immensely. I hope my photographs capture the chilling and cruel nature of the jail.

web_000083670024.jpg

We also got to visit the plantation church where Dr. Gaines grew up going to school and in the novel where Grant teaches, kindergarten through sixth grade in a shortened school year compared to the white children. Visiting Ernest and Dianne Gaines at their home was a surreal experience and perhaps my favorite part of our bookpacking trip. Cheylon, an archivist at the Ernest J. Gaines Center, showed us inside the plantation church and gave us a brief history of the church and the property. Dr. Gaines lives on property that was once a plantation his ancestors worked as slaves on.

The novel is heartbreaking and moving. I can’t remember the last time I cried while reading but I cried several times while reading this book, especially reading Jefferson’s diary. During our morning seminar on the novel before we visited the Gaines’ home, Andrew talked about the idea of believing that we are loved and how it is easier to give love than to receive love; how it is hard to believe that we are worthy of love. By the end of the novel Jefferson finally realizes that he is worthy of being loved and accepting love:

  • “sometime mr wigin i just feel like tellin you i like you but i dont kno how to say this cause i aint never say it to nobody before an nobody aint never say it to me”
  • “is that love mr wigin when you want to see somebody bad bad”
  • “my litle cosin estel even com up an kiss me on the jaw an i coudn hol it back no mo”
  • “when they brot me in the room an i seen nanan at the table i seen how ole she look an how tied she look an i tol her i love her”
  • “[you girlfren] thats the firs lady that pretty ever tech me an nobody that pretty never kiss me”
  • “reson i cry cause you been so good to me mr wigin an nobody aint never been that good to me an make me think im somebody”

I cried reading these lines in Jefferson’s diary. As Andrew pointed out, this feeling of not being worthy of love is not unique to people in Jefferson’s situation but is a universal condition all humans struggle with to some extent. Finishing our bookpacking experience with a novel with universal themes on love and the human condition was perfect; I will forever look back on this trip and remember A Lesson Before Dying and the beautiful relationships we formed with each other through all of our adventures in Grand Isle, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Breaux Bridge.

Growing Roots

We pledged allegiance to the flag. The flag hung limp from a ten-foot bamboo pole in the corner of the white picket fence that surrounded the church
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
IMG_3903.jpg

Here we are in the old Pointe Coupee Parish courthouse prison cells: 12 college students and one professor, exploring a place that is far from our home. It is nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside and there’s no air conditioning to cool the hot floor of the building; it seems unimaginable to have to be on this floor for more than a single hour, let alone stuffed into one of the tiny prison cells. 

There they were, some 75 years ago or so, in a courthouse in the fictitious town of Bayonne that bears striking resemblance to Pointe Coupee today: 12 white members of the jury and one white judge held the fate of black man in their hands at the Bayonne courthouse in Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying. Jefferson, a black man, is wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit and is sentenced to be executed by electric chair, a grave injustice. Jefferson is dehumanized by the segregated criminal justice system and is forced to live out the rest of his life until the day he dies in a hot, stuffy and tiny prison cell. 

Today, boxes of unorganized papers and old books fill the cells in the Pointe Coupee Parish courthouse prison cells which once barred inmates until as early as the late 1980s. The cells-turned-storage rooms still hold on to the memories of humans found guilty of crimes; they are rooted in the agony and despair of their former inhabitants. The highest floor of this building paints the story of life in a cell that Gaines writes about in his novel for us to see with our own eyes. Rundown toilets are relics of the days when men and women lived day after day in these cells. Gaines describes the prison cell that Jefferson is placed into in A Lesson Before Dying:

The cell was roughly six by ten, with a metal bunk covered by a thin mattress and a woolen army blanket; a toilet without seat or toilet paper…
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
IMG_3920.jpg

In the months leading up to his execution, Jefferson is visited by his Aunt Lou and local school teacher Grant Wiggins who is charged with the task of teaching Jefferson how to become a man before his death sentence. In his godmother’s eyes, Jefferson must be rooted in his manhood before he can meet his maker, so Grant Wiggins is Miss Emma's choice for the man who will teach her godson how to become a man. 

IMG_3923.jpg

At first, Grant Wiggins is hesitant to visit Jefferson in prison, but after visiting Jefferson multiple times, Grant begins to become closer to Jefferson in the days leading up to the execution. As Dr. Gaines puts it himself, while Grant is teaching Jefferson how to die, Jefferson is teaching Grant how to live. Grant left Bayonne for California to go to college before coming back to teach in Bayonne, something in his past, his roots, made it impossible for him to stay away, as Grant comments: 

My mother and father also told me that if I was not happy in Louisiana, I should come to California. After visiting them the summer following my junior year at the university, I came back, which please my aunt. But I had been running in place ever since, unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

When Grant Wiggins comes back to where his roots are, he must grow them as he spends time with Jefferson in prison or teaches the local schoolchildren about their place in the world. Although he is unable to comprehend why he cannot leave his childhood home, maybe it is because when he goes back to it he finds the same community in the same despair. 

Local church/school from Dr. Gaines' childhood that now sits on his residential property. 

Local church/school from Dr. Gaines' childhood that now sits on his residential property. 

Yet the black community of Bayonne comes together, especially in the months leading up to Jefferson’s execution; they are rooted in belief and camaraderie, the sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of former enslaved people, coming together to lift each other up. Members of the community help Grant gather enough money so that he can buy a radio for Jefferson. Grant Wiggins gathers the school-aged children in the local church and teaches them about reading and arithmetic as well as providing them with life lessons, disciplining them when necessary, and reminding them that the justice system rooted in the United States of America is flawed and unfair:   

Do you all know what is going on in Bayonne?... Do you all know what is going to happen to someone just like you who sat right where you’re sitting only a few years ago? All right, I’ll tell you. They’re going to kill him in Bayonne. They’re going to sit him in a chair, they’re going to tie him down with straps, they’re going to connect wires to his head, to his wrists, to his legs, and they’re going to shoot electricity through the wires into his body until he’s dead.
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
IMG_3929.jpg

I interned at the courthouse where The State of Colorado v. James Holmes was on trial when I was a senior in high school. The District Attorneys tried hard to convince the jury that James Holmes, who walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, the white man who brutally killed 12 victims and injured 70 more, was guilty of his crimes. I sat and spoke with one of the victims’ mother, unable to imagine the pain that she felt losing her own child. I listened to witness testimonies recounting the tragic night. I watched as James Holmes who had dyed his hair bright orange, spun around in his seat as the DA was presenting evidence against the murderer to the jury. 

The 12-person jury was all white except for one Hispanic woman. James Holmes, a white man and a mass murderer, was found not guilty of his heinous crimes due to insanity. He was sentenced to life in prison even though he had taken the lives of 12 innocent people. The justice system still puzzles and fascinates me to this day. 

***

IMG_3932.jpg

Our class walks around the prison cells; we have a type of freedom that the inmates who once were confined to these cells never had. We walk through the prison cells in solemnness, dwelling on the plight of the numerous inmates who were once confined to these claustrophobic and stuffy cells. In one cell, our guide, Tammy, points out a rectangle in the ground where the floor has been welded back together. She then looks to the ceiling and tells us that she believes the round circle is where unfortunate souls would be hung from, their bodies dropping down through the area where the floor was welded back together. 

Throughout our time taking a tour of the prison cells I wondered about justice and the meaning of such a concept. Perhaps, like Jefferson, many men and women were wrongfully accused of crimes they did not commit and were sentenced merely for the color of their skin: an injustice. For those who were rightfully accused, what was their punishment? Was it just? Was it execution by electric chair like it was for Jefferson? How could the United States of America, a country that prides itself in its roots of freedom and opportunity, be responsible for a quarter of the world’s prison population? Is that justice? Is that freedom? Is that really how this country treats its citizens? 

We were not even in those prison cells for one hour, let alone a day, let alone a week, a month, a year, multiple years, but I was hot, claustrophobic and felt like I was carrying the weight of the world. I could never imagine being confined in these cells. The place feels so haunted and so horrifying. I was relieved when we hastily went down the stairs to the air conditioned first floor, fresh air never smelled so wonderful. 

IMG_3946 2.jpg

Our class got to meet with the current sheriff of Pointe Coupee, Sheriff Beauregard “Bud” Torres III, who not only is approachable but can also hold a tune; he leads a double life as the "Singing Sheriff" and has recorded his originals songs in New York and Nashville. The singing sheriff plays his original songs for us: he is proud of his work in the same way that he is proud of his heritage. Sheriff Torres graciously sat down with us to talk about Louisiana in general and to tell us about his own family history. 

Sheriff Torres can trace his roots back to the original French and Spanish who first came to Louisiana, including famous and integral ancestors who helped shaped this region of the United States. Similarly, I can trace my maternal grandmother’s lineage back as far back as before Christ and am the direct descendant of some integral people to world history including the notorious Christopher Columbus, who, in a way, helped to establish this country. I wouldn't say my roots are perfect, but I would like to think Columbus' descendants have come a long way and have learned from the past in order to try and make the world a better place to live in. 

The room that we’re all in right now is the courthouse’s press room. Sheriff Torres tells us that, while he’s usually stressed in this room, sharing his songs and family history with us is extremely refreshing. We smile back at him from our spots on plush, comfortable spinning chairs, clouds compared to the hard beds the inmates would have had to sit on in the cells above us. The experience is humbling—all of us in that room are grateful that we only had to walk through the cells, places where distraught inmates once lived, rather than exist in those tiny spaces day after day. 

*** 

IMG_3886.jpg

The day before we went to the Point Coupee Parish, we were at the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Within two days we walked through the Louisiana state capitol building one day—through the meeting places of the House of Representatives and the Senate and even saw the area where former and notorious Louisiana state governor Huey Long was shot in, only to walk through prison cells in Pointe Coupee the next day. We were able to walk around the building where matters pertaining to Louisiana are discussed and debated and saw the place one could be sentenced to should they break those laws within those two days. Both buildings have state legislative roots in their own ways and serve as reminders of some version of the making and repercussion of our country's justice system, which is clearly not perfect or fair, nor has it been for so many years before.

Ernest Gaines explores justice and the meaning of justice through Grant Wiggins' realization that the legal system is imperfect:

...Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him...
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Everything is rooted in something, anchored down in success in the same way it could be anchored down in sin. Roots are important, where you come from is important, but where you’re going, how you treat people and what you do to better the world, is far more valuable. 

Hierarchy

In my last blog I talked about how New Orleans has a very distinct character.  When we left the city, we left all that behind, but as we traveled further north in Louisiana, it felt like we were actually going further South - into the Deep South. 

Our hotel was in Downtown Baton Rouge.  It felt like the Finance District of Los Angeles with everyone coming in to work at nine and leaving the city to go home at five.

Empty.

While our base was in Baton Rouge, in actuality we spent most of our days exploring New Roads, a small one street town just a 40-minute car ride away from Baton Rouge.  New Roads is the setting for the book we are reading, A Lesson Before Dying.  Driving up to the town you pass beautiful estates, sitting on the False River.  The estates all have a big house near the side of the road, and then land that just stretches out as far as the eye can see - sometimes filled with sugar cane crops, other times just grass.  Driving past the estates I could imagine the big house overlooking the river, the rows and rows of sugar cane swaying in the breeze, and the slave quarters a ways off - their own small community. Once slavery was abolished, many slaves (now free blacks) still stayed on the plantation lands, now earning a small wage and having to pay rent – strapped to the same land and working for the same family as before the Civil War.  Many of the estates in New Roads remained working farms up until the 1970s.  The free blacks stayed in the same little houses and lived the same little lives. The slave quarters were now just “the quarter” and it was where Jefferson and Grant, the two main characters of the novel, were raised.

New Roads

New Roads

Once you pass all the estates and actually get into town, there are a few restaurants and stores, but it is mostly silent. The heat is oppressive and persuades most people to stay indoors.

When I was in New Roads, it felt like I was experiencing two sides of the same coin. There was so much kindness - true "Southern Hospitality" - that I had not experienced in New Orleans.  A pharmacist took us on his boat for a ride down the river, and the sheriff of Pointe Coupee Parish (where New Roads resides) took time out of his busy day to show us country songs that he made in Nashville. Everyone was so gracious - such a Southern virtue. But grace is being benevolent to someone who has less power than you, who is lower than you, and it presupposes a hierarchy. That hierarchy, in which there is white, and there is not white, is the other side of the coin.

Three hundred years ago there was slavery. Two hundred years ago there were black codes and sharecropping.  Then came Jim Crow, segregation, and the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.  Redlining and the War on Drugs followed, and now the prison system is used as a legal framework to maintain that same hierarchy.

The 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution makes it unconstitutional for anyone to be held as a slave. There are exceptions, including criminals.
— 13th, Netflix Documentary

When black men make up an 40.2% of the U.S. prison population, but only account for an estimated 6.5% of the U.S. population, we must ask ourselves a question. If 1 in 3 Black males are expected to go to prison in their lifetime while only 1 in 17 white males are expected to go to prison in their lifetime, we must ask ourselves: is this deliberate?


The prison industrial complex relies historically on the inheritances of slavery.
— Angela Davis

When we were in New Roads, we visited the courthouse and jail because it is central to A Lesson Before Dying.  The novel is about Jefferson, a black man - though he is only 21 and is more boy than man.  He is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and found guilty of a murder he did not commit. He is sentenced to death by electric chair. 

The courthouse was on the first floor of the building.  The jail, not a functioning jail anymore, was just used for storage and took up the second floor.  We took an elevator to go up to see the cells. “This elevator is the original elevator and even has a little compartment for the prisoners,” Tammy, the deputy giving us a tour explained.

Once we had all gone up the elevator, in groups of 4-5, we started walking around looking at the cells.  “This jail had been used as recently as 1989, with no AC in the Southern summer heat,” Tammy pointed out. The cells were tiny, only about two paces by three paces, barely enough room for a bed and a toilet.  They had three solid walls, and one wall of bars – no privacy.

View Into Jail Cell

View Into Jail Cell

Our guide showed us where the inmates had their recreation time. It was on the roof.  There was no shade. It was a 15 by 40-foot strip of roofing that gave in slightly with each step.  The roof was different shades of grey only broken up with black and silver vents randomly protruding through the roofing. We quickly went back inside to get a break from the heat.

Jail Roof (Former Recreation Space)

Jail Roof (Former Recreation Space)

As we walked around the jail Tammy took us into a small room. “This room,” she pointed out, “was the only cell for women back in the day.  But seeing as there were hardly any women prisoners, it was also the room used for executions.  See that circle with the hole up there,” Tammy pointed at the ceiling. “That’s where they would put the rope for the hangings.  And look at the floor,” she gestured to the ground, “you can see they’ve welded it shut, but it used to be a pit so the bodies could drop.” I was standing right on the welding, and quickly shuffled back.

Everyone was silent, each of us wrapped up in our own thoughts. I wondered about how many people had been hanged here, each with their own lives, their own stories. I thought about Jefferson and how he had faced a similar end.

I thought about this specific quote from the novel:

“Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person.  Justice? […] They sentence you to death because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened.  Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us white folks all, have decided it's time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.”

But then I thought about how, even from the beginning, Jefferson didn’t stand a chance.  How he had started picking cotton in the fields at age 6, and went to a black school in a church that started one month after the white schools and ended two months before the white schools ended – separate but equal?

I thought about the despair Grant, a black school teacher, had when his classes were filled with boys like Jefferson.

I have always done what they wanted me to do, teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Nothing else – nothing about dignity, nothing about identity, nothing about loving and caring.  They never thought we were capable of learning these things. ‘Teach those niggers how to print their names and how to figure on their fingers.’
— A Lesson Before Dying

I thought about the podcast I had listened to on the car ride to New Roads.  It was the episode of The Daily by the New York Times that was aired May 30, 2018 titled “Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?” Kevin Cooper is an African America death row inmate currently held in California's San Quentin Prison. Cooper was accused of four murders that occurred in the Chino Hills area of California in 1983.  The sole survivor of the attack said that the intruders were three white men, and a woman called the police and said that her boyfriend, a white convicted murderer, was probably involved.  She gave the police his bloody coveralls. The police threw away the coveralls and instead arrested Cooper.

Cooper was found guilty of four counts of first degree murder and one count of attempted murder with the intentional infliction of great bodily injury.

This is the story of a broken justice system. It appears that an innocent man was framed by sheriff’s deputies and is on death row in part because of dishonest cops, sensational media coverage and flawed political leaders — including Democrats like Brown and Kamala Harris, the state attorney general before becoming a U.S. senator, who refused to allow newly available DNA testing for a black man convicted of hacking to death a beautiful white family and young neighbor. This was a failure at every level, and it should prompt reflection not just about one man on death row but also about profound inequities in our entire system of justice.
— New York Times, Nicholas Kristof

All this happened in California, one of the bluest states in the nation. It serves to remind us that this issue isn’t a Southern issue, and it isn’t a Republican or conservative issue.  It is a national issue.

I thought about Jefferson. I thought about Cooper.

“This place is legit haunted,” Lauryn, another bookpacker, said as we slowly walked out of the cell.

Inmaet Writing Found In A Cell

Inmaet Writing Found In A Cell

A Lesson on Living

When, in disgrace with the fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state, And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, And look upon myself and curse my fate, Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, Featured like him, like him with friends possessed, Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope, WIth what I most enjoy contented least; Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising, Haply I think on thee, and then my state, Like to the lark at break of day arising From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate. For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
— William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29

I couldn’t lift my eyes from the table. Each word had been impaled within my bones. Each sentence had been left to resonate until the space between my two ears was flooded. I couldn’t feel my body; I did not have control at that moment. 

Paralyzed. 

Only a single tear was permitted to run the track of dewy skin along my rounded jawline. Palm lifted to erase all evidence of weakness before raising my heavy head and hazy face in order to face the world. I was greeted with adverted eyes and silence. Slow, deep exhales filled the space around me. 

Speechless. 

I wasn’t alone. Though no waves carrying the laughs from the previous night were poured onto the dark mahogany, I was conscious of everyone’s presence. They were with me.

Everyone. 

For so long, I have had the illusion of being empty, in an empty world. Who was I? What did I have to offer to my society and those around me? 

Nothing. I thought.

I bared nothing that would make me more desirable than the next. I was easily disposable and readily replaced.

Melissa Carpenter. That name doesn’t seem to ring a bell.

So, instead of defining myself, I have attempted to stir up adjectives I could use as a mask to present to the strange faces that become inquisitive.

Because I have nothing to offer.

I have cried over the loneliness that evades me persistently, but find comfort in knowing I am safe that way. Because it’s not me, it’s the labels which I have shielded myself with that resulted in abandonment. It was never actually me. 

Confident, strong, boisterous. Harsh sarcasm, obnoxious jokes and dogmatic behavior lie on display for judgment. 

Bold. 

It’s not inauthentic. Rather, it’s cheating - orienting myself at a strategic angle so that I only exhibit those fragments of me strong enough to withstand the harsh blows of objective opinion. But inside, I am so soft. I am.

Vulnerable.

I have wished for better friends, studied harder for better grades and prayed to be accepted.

Loved. 

I just want to be loved.

But is there anyone in this world who does not so deeply desire the security of knowing they are truly loved and worthy of such?

No. 

We need each other.

Yet we live in a place that makes it hard to believe one’s self is loveable. The invisible, supposedly deconstructed, barriers of race, socioeconomic class, and education continue to divide – limiting the interactions between persons who each have so much to offer. When we continue to divide and divide, those of us who fail to associate with the majority in several aspects are left standing alone. In silence. Where does an Americanized half Korean girl from a working middle-class family, who studies biochemistry, belong? Who is there to associate with? It is easy to amplify certain identifiers to fit in with one group over another, but how impossible it proves to find one person who gets it. Who gets you and your dreams. Your hardships and aspirations. Why is this our world? Why can’t conversations be open without fear of rejection? Why can’t we just love every part of every person? 

Instead, we find ourselves in a fruitless race of giving and giving with nothing being reciprocated. Eventually, one comes to realize that the pot can only be poured so slowly before nothing is left but a dry, empty, dark hole. That one can only break off so many pieces of a heart before there is nothing left and no more love to offer. 

Isolation.

To love and be loved; it’s a balancing act. 

You’ve never had any possessions to give up, Jefferson. But there is something greater than possessions - and that is love.
— Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Much like Jefferson, from Gaines’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” I have felt that I don’t have much to offer. I have felt trapped in my own world as Jefferson had been trapped in his, behind bars. As Jefferson is able to distinguish himself from his teacher, Grant Wiggins, I can identify the barriers that separate me from the whole. After touring the courthouse and prison cells in Baton Rouge, I was left speechless. Weighted down with the sorrow and despair which the prisoners had experienced in the very place I was standing. The must and humidity sunk deep into my pores. This was not life. As the rusty metal doors squealed shut I felt my heart drop to my stomach as I noticed fellow bookpacker, Claire, had been locked into one of the cells. She was no longer a part of my world. She was confined to the 15ft wide concrete cell and did not have control of her destiny. At that moment, she had become a slave.

Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
— Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

In a way, we are all a slave to someone. Someone who is older, has more experience, more money, more power. Can one who is seen as a slave ever be loved, though? How does one live like this?

With dignity.

It is impossible to escape the judgment of society. To remain dignified though, as a man or woman, one must practice selfless love. Not living with anticipation of such love being returned but willing to embrace and cherish what falls into one’s lap. Trusting that they are capable and deserving and worthy of every bit of love offered. Love is not a scam. It is pure and endless. Standing in his cell, Jefferson marched to his grave with dignity. At that moment, he knew he was not a hog, but a human, a man. Jefferson had the capacity to love as much as any other person, free or enslaved. Just as the prisoners wrote on the inside of the cell at the prison, in our roots, we are equal. We are all equal.

Juxtapose

IMG_0574.JPG

For seminar one morning, Andrew asked us to create a list of characteristics that we felt defined New Orleans.

“Exhibited”

“Contained”

“Reconstructed”

“Historic”

The list continued on till we had arrived at approximately fifty adjectives-most of which contradicted each other. Is it possible for a city to not only be self aware but to also be chaotic? Could New Orleans be celebrated and displaced? For me, these contradictions became overwhelming and apparent during my time in Baton Rouge. We would spend the morning touring a holding cell for prisoners but by the afternoon, we were comfortably sitting in a conference room, listening country songs from the singing sheriff’s Spotify. We would spend seminar discussing what defines humanity and contemplating questions about how we receive love before lounging on a boat and looking at the riverfront houses that lined either side. We toured the capitol and learned about Huey Long’s murder before speculating whether or not a pencil had actually gotten stuck in the Senate ceiling.

fullsizeoutput_217.jpeg

In A Lesson Before Dying, the driving plot of the book is a school teacher Grant, who is asked to teach Jefferson how to be a man before he is executed for being falsely accused for robbery and murder. Grant’s aunt is insistent that Jefferson must be a man when he is executed, rather than the ‘hog’ that society has made him out to be. However, there is a complex irony in trying to teach a man how to live like a man when he is about to face his death. This book has vivid moments of love and happiness that are followed by stark descriptions of Jefferson’s jail cell and Grant’s inability to grapple with his own experiences in the south. This mimics Southern Louisiana’s ability to have a history that has immense tragedy alongside a celebration of life and happiness. For me, having both emotionally moving and emotionally freeing experiences existing in the same place, one shortly after the other, emphasizes the truth behind what it means to be human. We live in a world where we are laughing at memes while also reading headlines about wars around the world.

IMG_0675.JPG

Additionally, I think seeing the prison cells helped me to put into perspective Jefferson’s experiences in A Lesson Before Dying. Several impactful scenes in the book do take place within the small prison cell, where Dr. Gaines describes the cramped quarters and the sound of the Jefferson’s chains. The cells that we were able to see in Pointe Coupee Parish are no longer in use. They are upstairs in the sheriffs’ office and are strictly used for storage purposes. Each one of the cells was filled with boxes and boxes of old files and cases that no longer had a home downstairs. Even with the files, I could still imagine what the prison could have been like. There was an eerie feeling within each cell that was enhanced by the peeling paint, the small notes written on the walls inside and the sound of all four cell doors closing. Despite no longer being in use, the prison felt lived in. It was not impossible to imagine the people who would have had to stay in lock down or who would have glanced up at the large brick clock that stood just above their recreational space.

IMG_0702.JPG

Once leaving the prison, we went downstairs to see the court house and had a chance meeting with the sheriff. He had come in from work to find all of us observing the old pictures and documents that were placed on the walls of the Sheriff’s conference room. Tammy, delighted to give us the best tour she possibly could, sat him at the head of the table to talk to all of us. Within the novel, the sheriff is cold, abuses his power and is unsympathetic to Aunt Emma’s cause. He often expects for Jefferson to adhere to the racist hierarchies that have been set in place for hundreds of years. He is the anti-hero. However, Sheriff Torres comes across as being Sheriff Guidry opposite. He is a charming southern man who can trace his ancestry all the way back to their first voyage to Louisiana. His family has stayed here, planted roots here and grown up here. He smiles often, attends to us as though we are the only people on his mind and cracks jokes in the middle of his stories. To add to the Southern charm, he enjoys singing country music and has been recording songs in Nashville-some of which he plays for us. They are wholesome country songs about love, women and the South. He brings a smile to all of our faces but it is a rushed change in emotion after experiencing the prison. It reminds me of an exhibit that we saw on Hurricane Katrina back in New Orleans-within the exhibit, there was a section that addressed the reactions of the community following the storm. Despite pulling up to garage doors that had been notes spray painted on by search and rescue teams or seeing the damage inflicted on their homes on TV before they were even able to see it themselves, the town still had a fashion show that re-purposed blue tarp to create clothing and they still held comedic signs that allowed people to laugh in the face of tragedy. This city has a powerful resilience that I believe is specific to their own community. They are able to grapple with happiness and tragedy in a truly admirable way that allows both emotions to exist side by side. There is not an expectation that tragedy must end before happiness can begin, instead, happiness exists alongside tragedy.

The World Outside

I no longer pretend to understand the world
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

In my opinion, the best books to read are the ones where I feel as if I am in the world of the book itself, experiencing life with the characters themselves. Maybe my opinion relies too heavily on my pursuit of a Creative Writing major, but even when I was younger, I realized that the more I understood the characters in a book, the more I could feel with and for them, the more I enjoyed reading a particular book.

When I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer for the first time about a year ago, it was hard for me to relate to Binx Bolling, the main character, as he went about his quotidian life, searching for meaning of it, in New Orleans. I had never been to New Orleans when I read the book for the first and knew very little about the social and political dynamics as well as the history of the city, especially in the mid 20th Century, so I struggled when I tried to place myself in Binx’s world.

However, I finally felt as if I could understand the locations and settings in the book more when I read it the second time around after spending nearly two weeks in New Orleans. Although I still realized that I felt detached from Binx as a character because I found minimal connection with a white male, a fraternity brother of the Deltas, living in New Orleans in the middle of the 20th Century as a stock trader who goes through his secretaries one by one, I decided that at least my understanding of the place that the book brings to life was clearer this time.

I felt as if I could see the places in my head, mainly because I normally could visualize Binx's Aunt's house in the Garden District of the city or Galatoire's Restaurant that is referenced in the book. While the setting came to life, I still thought that Binx and I were completely dissimilar. 

The Moviegoer follows Binx Bollings as if the character himself had his own reality TV show-- Binx struggles to find love with any one of his secretaries but eventually marries his cousin, he is isolated from the world and oftentimes watches movies alone and he is the older half brother to a number of younger half siblings. Throughout the book, Binx grapples with situations that I have never even imagined. 

Me at my sorority's LSU chapter house.

Me at my sorority's LSU chapter house.

But then, after I finished reading the book for the second time, I took a step back and re-evaluated my relation with the book and with its main character. Although I'm not a brother of a fraternity like Binx is, I am a part of a sorority (and I got to visit my sorority's house at LSU!). While I'm not living and working in a city like New Orleans, I still go to school in Los Angeles, an equally vivacious city like New Orleans in its own way. And, like Binx, at the end of the day I'm just trying to figure out how to live life each day. 

Kate, Binx's cousin and eventual wife, makes this comment about no longer pretending to understand the world. I suppose I would agree with Kate; it's too burdensome to try and understand the entire world, but it's worthwhile to try and understand parts of it. Living in New Orleans helped me to understand a city in a country of many across the globe. So, while I don't try to understand the entire world-- the psyche of every type of person, the cultures in every town, or the beliefs of every religion-- I certainly began to understand one tiny part of it. 

Our time spent in New Orleans taught me a lot about the little world around me and, more specifically, I learned much more about the dynamics and cultural history of a place that is still rebuilding every day after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, located in a region of the United States that was once incredibly segregated and has gone through multiple personalities under Spanish and French rule. I feel as if I am more connected to the city in a way that helps me understand the book more than I did the first time. I do not understand everything about New Orleans or Louisiana in general in the same way that I'm not trying to understand the entire world, but over these past weeks I have gotten a much better understanding of it.

IMG_3614.jpg

It’s one thing to be in a room, like a classroom or a hotel conference room and learn about the world outside, but it is life-changing to get outside of a room and understand the world around you first-hand. As Binx puts it:

…[W]hat takes place in my room is less important. What is important is what I shall find when I leave my room and wander in the neighborhood
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Binx makes this comment about wandering neighborhoods and getting outside into the real world with this sense that he could escape isolation in a room and be a part of something bigger than him, which has resonated with me throughout our time spent in Louisiana. I have thoroughly enjoyed walking around the city and learning more about who I am as a person, how I interact with the world around me and how these interactions can shape my future in the same way Binx goes through his life in The Moviegoer learning about who he is and where he is going. 

Clearly, I never got the sense that Binx was some heroic or remarkable main character, but he is very much a genuine and authentic person struggling to understand his identity from his interactions and love affairs with his secretaries to his relationship with his mother and half-siblings. And, not unlike a majority of modern people today, Binx relies on movies and film to help ground him in his exploration of self, which makes for an aptly named book title. Walker Percy writes about neighborhood, about place and about identity and its relation and almost reliance on cinema:

Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

While I was reading this book, I had an such an intensified sense of place when I found that I could orient myself in the city much better. I wanted to get outside the book, or the room I was in, and experience what Binx could have experienced, and especially wanted to experience his love for moviegoing and idolization of classic Hollywood celebrities such as William Holden. So, I looked up old movie theaters and found The Prytania theatre, which had been referenced in another book that we have read for this class, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and was amazed that a classic movie was soon to be shown, and it was a very relevant classic movie to our class: “King Creole” starring the one and only Elvis Presley. We made arrangements to visit the theater and watch the 1958 movie which was so incredible, not only because I love classic film and anything related to pop culture in the 20th Century, but also because I could imagine Binx sitting in a similar one-screen movie theater watching a black and white film on the screen and my relation to The Moviegoer was much more palpable after we saw the classic film.

Watching scenes on the screen at the Prytania Theatre that were shot in the French Quarter was mesmerizing: I was able to visualize and see places in New Orleans that I have repeatedly visited, like the French Quarter, back in time, the middle of the past century. I even felt as if I had a good sense of direction and knew where I was just by watching the on-location scene play out on the screen. Had I not ventured out into New Orleans multiple and repeated times, I do not think I would be as receptive to Binx’s plight trying to learn more about himself in an oftentimes chaotic world of New Orleans as much as I did. Binx, and consequentially Walker Percy, also understands the power of repetition:  

A repetition is the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

You cannot truly understand any part of the world if you read about it once, or if you hear about it just once. Take a hint from Binx Bolling and venture outside of the place you're in to experience the world around you to learn more about it but also, to learn more about yourself. 

Here are some foods that I tried for the first time in New Orleans: oysters, muffuletta and beignets.

Dancing in the Streets

It was hot and most definitely the wrong day to be wearing pants. I didn’t want to go outside to join Andrew on a corner somewhere in Central City watching some boring, old ladies march in sync to an obnoxiously loud marching band. I was just too tired. I wasn’t even going to go, but when I realized I had nothing better to do except wilt away in my hotel room that’s how I ended up there on a corner somewhere in Central City. I had never seen anything like The Divine Ladies.

Beautiful. Decadent. Vibrant. Jubilous. Never had I seen such unfiltered joy and expression. Why I was concerned about standing dormantly on the sidelines watching various old women parade themselves? I have no idea. That afternoon spent with the Divine Ladies was a party like no other. Floats and costumes and a full marching band playing “The Weekend” by SZA in the danceable arrangement I’ve ever heard surrounding me in every direction. I didn’t even stand on the sidelines at all. Not even two seconds into watching their divinity in awe, and I was engulfed in their court, dancing beside them and their extravagant garments. I didn’t want to dance because I knew I wouldn’t be as good as any of the champion residents that frequent the scene. I didn’t want to dance, but of course I did anyway. It was electric– nearly impossible not to. Never have I ever experienced anything like it.

Apparently, stuff like that is typical in New Orleans and that doesn’t make any sense to me. How does anyone get anything done around here with second lines marching out their windows on Sundays like clockwork? The spirit of the city is overwhelmingly generous and mystical, and everyday feels like I’m uncovering something completely brand new. Although it’s not very large in comparison to other major cities, I could truly get lost here everyday in something completely brand new. The experience of the second line was one of those things– one of those completely brand new out of this world kind of things. Brilliant and bright.

This was Buddy Bolden’s world. Okay maybe not his exact world, but Buddy Bolden (protagonist of Coming Through Slaughter) was a man of the town– a writer, a jazz connoisseur, a barber, and a family man. Everyone knew him, or at least of him because this was his town in every aspect. The only reason he ever left is because at some point this town– his town– became too much too bear, and I can see how. Like all cities, this one doesn’t stop for anyone. Just like life, it goes on and although a little slower, it keeps moving. There will always be jazz on the streets, psychics in the square, voodoo in the alleys, life everywhere… so much so that it can be hard to remember what you came here to do in the first place. What’s up, down? Left, right? In my short time here, I’ve already learned that it can be hard to orient oneself in a city that doesn’t have any orientation. Here, things have an organization to them but it’s all chaotic and hard to place. North and south don’t work here– it’s Riverside or Lakeside. And sure there are crosswalks and traffic lights, but if you can find someone who can tell me how they work, send them my way. This place is wired differently, yet it’s always pulsing and you can feel that heartbeat everywhere. I felt it especially on that Sunday afternoon while watching the Divine Ladies, and nothing made more sense. This. This is the heart of New Orleans, I thought to myself. This is exactly what Andrew wanted us to feel.

My Cup of Tea

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough 

to suit me.”

- C.S. Lewis

There’s something about coffee shops that intrigue me. Having your body be rejuvenated by a warm, aromatic drink. Coming out of the café with your clothes permeated with the smell of rich java. Feeling empowered to either completely get in the zone or to just unwind with a good book in hand. These are the memories of my favorite setting. Back at USC, the life of a typical student reflects much of the fast-paced style of the city of Los Angeles. Truly indulging in my favorite setting was never part of my “everydayness,” as Jack Binx would describe it.

Living in the 1950’s in New Orleans Gentilly neighborhood, Jack Binx Bolling seems like a plain man on the outside: he’s an upper class, Korean War veteran and a financial advisor, who enjoys going out with his secretaries and likes to watch movies. However, after reading 242 pages of a week of his life from his perspective, he’s a lot more complicated, funny, messed-up, lost, and honest than you’d think. The following excerpts show a small glimpse into his character:

... people with stimulating hobbies suffer from the most noxious of despairs since they’re tranquilized in their despair
— A cynical Binx pitying the perception that hobbies contribute to a successful life.
...all the friendly and likeable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.
— An angsty Binx describing why he reads controversial periodicals when he feels bad.
I can talk to Nell as long as I don’t look at her. Looking into her eyes is an embarrassment.
— A brutally honest Binx talking about his "plain horsy old girl" cousin, Nelly.

Sometimes I felt like Binx was with me at this café. As he reflected on that one week before Ash Wednesday, when he was about to turn thirty years old, I was listening, processing, and reflecting on all his analytical thoughts and remarks. I found myself spending hours with him—like he had just walked into my favorite setting and we were chatting over a cup of tea. Except he was doing all the talking of course.

He was obsessed with this idea of “the search” and how we shouldn’t be stuck in our “everydayness.” In between that, he took out his journal to pose questions about romanticism and scientific objectivity. He then went on to talk about how we can experience “malaise,” but then by the end of the week, he couldn’t even figure out how to find satisfaction in his search. And all of a sudden, he’s married to his mentally unstable cousin and decides to attend medical school.

My weak summarization of his story obviously doesn’t do the novel justice, but it probably left you just as confused as I felt after finishing it because I wasn’t even sure where I wanted to begin comprehending this man’s complicated thoughts. After reading The Moviegoer, I found myself stuck in how I should feel about this guy. He is, at times, insightful, and obviously has some problems, yet, he is somewhat likeable through all of his messiness. Processing everything was even more difficult because the entire novel was in his perspective, which forced me to evaluate his worldview, opinion, and validity of people, places, and philosophy. Sometimes he’d be super cynical or full of angst, but other times his thoughts just made me laugh because he has no filter. Still, if given the choice, I'd feel unsure about chatting with this guy over a cup of tea. 

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life… to become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.
— The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Walker Percy, the author of The Moviegoer, uses Binx (in all his splendid characteristics) to communicate much bigger and meaningful ideas to his readers. Sometimes I found myself liking Binx, but more often than not, I was annoyed by his inappropriate behavior and angsty thoughts. But it was through Binx's "search" that Percy challenged me to reevaluate my life’s purpose. Because of this deep and personal human connection, I had a sense of fulfillment and enjoyment when I reflected on the novel as a whole. And while “the search” may sound silly, it’s really just putting a label to a longing that everyone has at some point in their personal life: to find life’s purpose and satisfaction.

I appreciate Walker Percy and even (the somewhat tolerable) Binx because The Moviegoer forced me to slow down and consider Binx’s philosophical questions to be my own. 

‘You will be thirty years old. Don’t you think a thirty year old man ought to know what he wants to do with his life?’
— The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

I laughed when I first read how Binx’s sweet Aunt Emily just zapped him with such a burn. However, after taking out the part about being a thirty-year-old man and replacing it with “what will you do after college?,” the comical question resembles a fear that almost every student struggles with. It all ties back into this idea of “the search,” since ideally, education should lead to a career or passion that would ultimately lead to a sense of fulfillment and purpose in life. There feels like an enormous pressure to have everything together during this short and sweet time to find the major that works for you, achieve as much as possible, and grab all the opportunities you can. Even aside from passion and academics, Percy touches on another insecurity of any young adult: loneliness.

"I am frightened when I am alone and I am frightened when I am with people. The only time I’m not frightened is when I am with you."

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Binx’s cousin, Kate, can be boiled down to a mentally unstable woman, but in reality, she reflects a deeper and common insecurity that many people face. So in addition to students being expected to have their passions and career plans figured out, there comes an expectation to suddenly have a great and easy transition to attaining an awesome social life. It was what was expected of Kate, just like any other woman in her class.

He even touches on the spiritual and philosophical when he discusses God and romanticism and scientific objectivity. And while some perceive Binx’s tone to be pretentious, since he talks about philosophy in such detail, I perceive and admired his tone to possess a quality of honesty. Even though Binx is annoying at times, I value his shameless thoughts above all other characteristics because it keeps me engaged and listening. Not having a filter in his thoughts makes Binx a much more relatable character, and it reminds me that, I too, am a very flawed human being who’s still trying to figure out everything as I continue to pursue “the search.” The Moviegoer was definitely my cup of tea: fiction literature that evokes meaningful conversations and thoughts.

The reflective mood, as well as the allotted time and space a reflective mood demands, has been a great shift of focus. It was super fun to witness the culture and the neighborhoods in which our novels’ characters lived in, but the nature of this type of traveling required a go, go, go type of attitude for a solid week. I have come to appreciate this period of time to unpack what I learned about from this experience has been, in itself— a time to appreciate the process of unpacking and evaluating, over a cup of coffee with a book that dared me to connect a fictional character’s struggles and ideas into my own reality.

BAFC833B-7C73-404E-A06D-DAAD88188B11.JPG

There’s so much to unpack in this novel and I know that I will definitely reflect on and be challenged by it for a while. I believe it to be a book that will teach me something new every time I read it. And while I’ll probably hear from Binx in some other café again, nothing will ever be as cool as listening to Binx over a cup of tea, in his very own New Orleans.


More photos so far: 

The Sound of Slavery

Who gets to have a voice?

Who has earned the right, the respect, and the power to speak first, to be heard and recognized and validated by peers and strangers alike?

What does it mean when a group of voices systematically goes unheard and ignored?

Today I reflect on those who were strangled into silence. The people who lived and died without speaking their minds, as I am free to now. Those enslaved men, women, and children who would have been beaten if found with a book in their hands.

Their voices, their lives, and their histories, became palpable at the Whitney Plantation.

Cabins where enslaved workers lived at the Whitney Plantation

Cabins where enslaved workers lived at the Whitney Plantation

Over a century after emancipation, the Whitney Plantation is an anomaly. Of the numerous plantations scattered throughout Louisiana, it is one of the few courageous enough to honestly describe this stain of slaughter on the South. Other plantations exclusively sell the story of “Gone with the Wind”: of a gloriously romantic antebellum era, with mansions overlooking vast fields of cash crops, of gallant Southern gentlemen courting beautiful heiresses, sipping sweet tea and daydreaming about nothing at all.

In this vision, the cries of enslaved men being brutally whipped, inches from death, are muted. The cruel realities of women raped by their masters, raising children they were forced to bring into this world of merciless servitude, are censored. The remote gets grabbed and the channel is changed, from a documentary that we don’t really want to see, to a lovely whitewashed version of Southern history.

Modern plantations that tiptoe around their history of slavery are almost as dangerous as a sugar plantation was in Louisiana. The painstaking process of refining sugarcane was so unsafe that an enslaved person had a life expectancy of seven years after setting foot on the property. For the ten year olds, this meant they would likely be robbed of the chance to become an adult. Is this really a fair price for a barrel of molasses?

Kettles used in the "Jamaica Train" process of refinement, which involved pouring the scorching sugar from one open cauldron to another

Kettles used in the "Jamaica Train" process of refinement, which involved pouring the scorching sugar from one open cauldron to another

This toxic element of American history makes black voices like Michael Ondaatje’s incredibly necessary. In his novel, Coming Through Slaughter, he shares the fictionalized chronicles of legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden. Although Bolden lived in the early 20th century, the language of the novel shows how saturated Southern culture was with slavery. When Buddy breaks a window with his fist, Ondaatje parallels this rage to the not-so-distant violence of the region.

The window starred and crumpled slowly two floors down. His hand miraculously uncut. It had acted exactly like a whip violating the target and still free, retreating from the outline of a star.
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Like the hand of Buddy Bolden striking a window pane, white Southern plantation owners were left relatively unscathed by their own cruelty. Yet formerly enslaved individuals continued to suffer, even after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Newly freed families had no choice but to become sharecroppers on the same plantations where they were previously disenfranchised. They fell perpetually indebted to their old masters, thanks to deliberately high living costs and low wages. These people were fettered first by men, and later by debt. Such desperate financial situations followed certain black communities into later centuries, pushing young people into whatever jobs they could find.

And since the death of Mr Bass all [his] daughters had slipped successively into the red light district. Bolden in fact had slept with each of Nora’s sisters in his time.
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter
A description of Countess Piazza's brothel in a Storyville blue book  (from knowlouisiana.org courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)

A description of Countess Piazza's brothel in a Storyville blue book

(from knowlouisiana.org courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Approximately 2,000 prostitutes worked the streets of the district of Storyville in New Orleans in the early 1900s. In the blue books that served as an index of the Storyville district's prostitutes, women of color were labeled with a "C" or described as an "octoroon". This allowed them to be marketed to men who fetishized them for being "exotic". These women were again commodified, like their mothers, fathers, and grandparents sold into slavery. Years had gone by, yet black people still could not define themselves, could not have a voice, could not exist without being objectified or devalued for their skin color.

The burden of living in a society that seriously limited opportunities for and discriminated against blacks is a lot to carry. Bolden dealt with it by enjoying copious amounts of alcohol, music, and women, in addition to a more unconventional method. In the novel, Buddy abandons his wife and children for two years, to live in near isolation with a woman Buddy loves and her husband, in an area where he was a complete stranger. Landscape suicide: wipe the slate clean, and you can be whoever you say you are.

He could just as easily be wiping out his past again in a casual gesture, contemptuous. Landscape suicide.
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

How tempting it must have been for him to escape the world. To go somewhere far away from the people who think they know you, who saw you grow up and grow old and fall in and out of love with people, places, things that you’ve seen so often you can taste them in your dreams. Going somewhere, anywhere, where you alone get to decide what the world sees of you? No wonder Buddy was prone to committing landscape suicide. This was his way to have a voice. This was how he could speak; this was his way to tell others who he was, without being told first.

 

When we think of history, whose voices do we hear?

Which voices are accurately preserved over time?

Which voices are swallowed up by a self-righteous majority?

Slave songs are profound because they embody the emotions, intensity, and tenacity of the people who performed them. According to descriptions of Buddy Bolden's music (as he was never recorded), his performances shared this resonance. These melodies expressed everything about who Bolden and those enslaved were, without really saying anything at all. The language of music gave them a voice, if only for a few minutes, that their oppressors could not deny.

Ondaatje’s message in his title, “Coming Through Slaughter”, also speaks volumes. Coming through, processing, recovering, healing from the slaughter, the injustice, the murder of black people everywhere in the South. It isn’t a process that is easy nor efficient. Post-war, they were coming through slaughter. Post-Reconstruction: coming through slaughter. Post-Emmett Till, post-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., post-Michael Donald. Still, today, coming through slaughter.

Memorial for the hundreds of escaped insurgents killed in the 1811 German Coast Uprising

Memorial for the hundreds of escaped insurgents killed in the 1811 German Coast Uprising

A Weekend in New Orleans

Saturday Night.

“What the hell is a virgin mint julep??” the bartender at the Voodoo Lounge drunkenly exclaimed in response to the order Claire, a fellow bookpacker, tried to place.

Non-alcoholic drinks apparently do not exist in the Crescent City.

New Orleans’ obsession with drinking culture and general debauchery is most clearly seen on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter through the eyes of Ignatius J. Reilly, the belching, overweight, "slob extraordinaire", protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces.

The city has many masks.

Nocturnal. Licentious. A sweaty cocktail.

A stinkhole of vice.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

The cigar smoke in the air mutes the neon signs advertising 24-hour-bars and souvenir shops that are only broken up by drive through daiquiri joints and strip clubs.  It smells exactly how you would imagine.

Chaotic. Celebratory. Exhibitionist.

Beads are thrown into the air. Bachelor and bachelorette parties, their sashes dirtied, their t-shirts stained, stumble past people throwing up in gutters. Drag queens purse their lips, hands on hips, surveying the sweaty, swaying crowds. The deep bass of dance music blasts out of every storefront.

Heady. Spicy. Sensual.

There is a feeling of transgression, of stepping outside of your comfort zone, and of sexual and social deviance. On Bourbon Street one can buck the monotony of everyday life. People drink like there is no tomorrow and wildly chase after the next moment of excitement.  

This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

Decadence. Indulgence. Gluttony.

There is extreme excess in an attempt to stay in the now. But this happiness is fleeting: the alcohol wears off, the glitter is washed away, and the colorful beads lay forgotten in the street as people stumble back to their houses and hotels.

Debris. Decay. Distress.


Sunday morning.  

Compartmentalized. Syncopated. A new day.

The city is hungover and it is time to go to church.  Mass is held at St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, serving as an ever present reminder of the French Catholicism that the city was founded on, and the Southern medievalism that the city continually hints at.  From the Rex (King of the Carnival) krewe parade during Mardi Gras, to the echoes of the medieval code that surface in today’s version of chivalry, the past invades the present.

Historic. Preserved. Memorable.

The piety on Sunday is forever at odds with the loose morals of Bourbon Street. Mardi Gras before Lent, feast before fast. (Or if you’re Ignatius, feast before feast before feast before feast.)

Mrs. Reilly looked at her son’s reddenin face and realized that he would very happily collapse at her feet just to prove his point. He had done it before. The last time that she had forced him to accompany her to mass on Sunday he had collapsed twice on the way to the church and had collapsed once again during the sermon about sloth.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

Across the street from the Cathedral is Jackson Square, a beautiful, green park lined by the Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartments in America.

Jackson Square

Jackson Square

Charming. Familial. Quaint.

Restaurants, galleries, museums, and cafes line the Square, most famous of which is Cafe du Monde, selling golden brown beignets and sweet café au lait. Street performers sing and play instruments, while psychics offer advice and predict your future with tarot card and palm readings.

Colorful. Upbeat. Eccentric.

Around the Square you can hear the street musicians playing jazz.  Jazz was invented in New Orleans and in many ways the city resembles the music it gave birth to.

IMG_1604.JPG

"The music was coarse and rough, immediate, dated in half an hour, was about bodies in the river, knives, lovepains, cockiness. Up there on stage he was showing all the possibilities in the middle of the story."

- Coming Through Slaughter

It is a city that is a melting pot of cultures and a synthesis of ideas and values. New Orleans has been owned by many different nations and entities, and through all the handshakes and deals it retains a piece of each one. However, it is also a city that reamins very separate and distinct. New Orleans fosters small subcultures in its many faubourgs (neighborhoods).  From the quaint houses in the Marigny, to the rundown shotgun houses in the Tremé, New Orleans displays the improvisational nature of jazz music.

Bohemian. Enchanting. Free.

A house in the Marigny

A house in the Marigny


Monday morning.

Melancholy. Ennui. Decay.

It is time for the city to go back to work or school.  There is a searching, or maybe it is a remembering.  It is so abstract and yet everyone in New Orleans feel it - the writers, the drunks, the musicians, the students alike all feel the a sense of melancholy press down upon them.

Perhaps I feel it most acutely this morning because this Monday morning we are boarding the van and driving to Baton Rouge.  The New Orleans chapter of the Maymester is coming to a close, and there is a sense of sadness as we pull out of the city and onto the highway.  I’ll miss the cacophony of sounds and smells of the city, the $0.75 happy hour oysters, and the distinct character of New Orleans that you can't find anywhere else. I can only hope that the journey from New Orleans to Baton Rouge is not as ill-fated as Ignatius’ Greyhound bus ride story.

Outside the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.
— A Confederacy of Dunces

The Poeticism of New Orleans

There is a poetry to New Orleans. It’s a rhythm. It’s odd, and it doesn’t make sense, its wandering and complex and it lies but gives you moments of the purest truth. It’s a lost and mischievous 17-year-old, who doesn’t know who he is or who he wants to be. New Orleans acts like a “troubled” adolescent - violence, alcohol, sex, imagination, creativity, clashes of ideas, the testing of limits - they all run wild here. It is a city with stories of murderers shuffling down the alleys and pirates crowding the bars, has a distinctive pride in its unique red light district of Storyville, and is home to a music that transcends all rules, even ones that it made for itself. The city rests on soil that asks for sickness and sinking, always on the verge of an outbreak or flood. A world with voodoo - pushing past the Catholic force or African “wildness” and allowing a humming religion of dance, spells, and pleasure.

Divine Ladies Parade

Divine Ladies Parade

Part 1: Rhyming Spirituality

The spirituality of New Orleans is lyrical, intertwined, expressive. It is not fastened, but rather like the West African and islander ceremonies brought to the Americas by people stolen from their homeland — it dances. An curiosity about the "magic" aspect of Catholicism was first sparked by the recent Met Gala's theme "Catholic Imagination," but New Orleans expanded my awareness and fascination. The French and Spanish descendants and dominant white class in Louisiana, Creoles, were Catholic. As slave masters and first class citizens, they tried to instill Catholicism into the Africans and islanders they enslaved. What happened, though, was some sort of spiritual, fascinating miracle - the Africans incorporated Catholicism into their animism and deities. When I first heard this, I struggled to understand how these two spiritual cultures could hold hands. I wondered how the black community would accept Catholic ideas into their culture while still maintaining their own so strongly, and why the Catholics did not entirely strip the slaves from their native religion like their Christian counterparts did in the rest of the country. That concept - it is part of the poetry of New Orleans, or that is the word I can find closest to it. 

New Orleans helped me understand how different religions and spiritualities intertwine. "Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures," I read. From this idea I could draw a thread into the magical theme of voodoo. For an example, “Papa Legba” is combined with Saint Peter. Other Catholic saints were used to represent spirits of similar domains. The African and island people continued using many aspects of their spiritual customs, like the dancing, dolls, chanting, potions, types of good luck charms called "gris gris" bags, and offerings associated with Louisiana voodoo today. 

000225650004.jpeg
000225650005.JPG

Part 2: Music Notes & Rhythm

Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter chronicles the life of a man who similarly lives for ecstasy. Buddy Bolden, the subject of Ondaatje’s book and a jazz legend, existed on a mental brink of the freedom of creativity and the flexibility of morals. It’s a “place” in the mind which invites the rush of adrenaline and eventual satisfaction. By day, he worked drunk with a razor at the neck of a sweating barbershop client and offered them spontaneous advice without merit. By night he seduced and overwhelmed music notes and women. He lives his life like a young man testing every limit he finds, just like New Orleans tests the limits on the definition of a city and its culture. Buddy Bolden’s mentality reflects the dualistic mentality of his hometown - the experience is weathered but its recklessness is youthful. He does not bend to the rules - rather, he skips over and under the rules, peeling back wallpaper to see what’s underneath, and skirting under the dresses of women who are not his. It is not only Buddy who commits such dramatic acts, but the people around him as well. His friend Bellocq sets himself on fire rather than reasons, his mother-in-law chooses the companion of a snake rather than a cat, and his wife and her sisters come from a past of prostitution. 

000225630024.JPG

Ondaatje writes in a style that conveys this wildness, exoticism, youthful recklessness that characterizes New Orleans. His sentences break classic structure, thoughts flow with unregulated consciousness. I thought it interesting that some of my classmates felt frustrated with this writing structure. They found it confusing, disorienting, and overly “flowery.” But this is exactly what I loved about it. The poetic personality of the storytelling gave the scenes a genuineness that I don’t believe can be captured when forced into the confines of structure. We don’t think, imagine, or reflect in clear or regulated manners. The purity of Ondaatje’s representation of memory and experience is palpably strong, and matches perfectly with the experience I’ve had in New Orleans. It doesn’t make total sense and you’re never sure what is genuine and ingenuine, you may even consider what your definition of “genuine” may be. Could “genuine” just be our attempt to steer real experience into the stereotypes we have collected and stored? Ondaatje uses Bolden’s relationship with music to further allude, purposefully or by happenstance, to New Orleans. 

“We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot - see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes.” Like Bolden’s music playing, New Orleans, and one’s experience in New Orleans, can feel “formless.” It is formed by the French, West Africans, Spain, colonial Americans, the Vietnamese, among other cultures. Therefore, its identity is impossible to pinpoint its cultural “form.” It “tears apart the plot” of a city’s history, particularly of an American city set specifically in the South. It approached typical racial hierarchies in alternative ways, decorated its neighborhoods with distinctly different architectures and lifestyles, and promoted a sense of chaos over the usual order of American cities. The “music” that sits on top of Buddy’s life is his jazz. New Orleans generated a new form of music, one that experiments with structure, instruments, cultural backgrounds, and emotion. The concept of this music echoes through the city - accidents are ecstasy and a sip of adrenaline. 

Part 3: Poems on the Street

To turn an intangible feeling tangible, my feeling this city was some sort of poem, as Jenny and I wandered down Frenchman Street on a Saturday night we found a line of young men with battered typewriters. 

Here is what I wrote, in a style inspired by Ondaatje, Sunday morning.

Just past midnight - a few men sitting in front of beat up typewriters, smelling of beer and a long day, shirts unbuttoned for their hairy chests and hanging necklace charms. What do you want it to be about, he asks, rolling his tongue inside to wash across the sip he took. His mind swims in alcohol but his eyes are deeply invested in mine, peering through any stupor. A flick of the corner of his mouth to offer a smile when I say “youth.” 

000225650023.jpeg

New Orleans was the city where my grasp of poetry blossomed. I found it in Coming Through Slaughter, the lyrics and rhythm of a city known for its music, I observed it in its dynamic and stylized culture. What better place could there be to ask for a poem about youth, while I am in my youth - I hope I can capture its essence of fearlessness and imagination and magic as I write out my own life. 

Syncopated City

If Paris is the City of Love, then New Orleans is the City of Careless Love.

It’s currently 1am on a Tuesday and I just got back from the Maple Leaf Bar, where I was caffeinated by live jazz. I’ve been in New Orleans for a week now and have walked a total of 110,397 steps in many different neighborhoods, which is just enough to offset (most of) the beignets and fried food. It’s still not enough to really understand where I am, though. There’s just so much going on in this city.

I walked around the French Quarter on my first morning in New Orleans. This was the first thing I saw on the ground.

I walked around the French Quarter on my first morning in New Orleans. This was the first thing I saw on the ground.

Careless Love is a staple jazz song played by the famed Buddy Bolden Band of New Orleans. They don’t have a day-to-day fame, though, because when people on the trolley ask me what book I’m reading and I tell them it’s about the Buddy Bolden Band, they don’t recognize the name. Their fame is a secret veneration, kept alive by scattered jazz connoisseurs, those who know the history.

Honestly, I was expecting the culture here to be more… consistent. By that, I mean I naively expected almost everyone in New Orleans to love gumbo and appreciate jazz and have a fantastically costumed story ready to tell at the slightest mention of Mardi Gras. Obviously, no culture can be truly reduced to its stereotypes, but I’ve realized New Orleans seems to have the quirkiest conjunction of interests and pasts that make it an impossible postcard.

An artist I met told me that as the city branches out from the French Quarter into different neighborhoods, it becomes distinctly less Creole, less structured. New Orleans unfolds irregularly into fusions of tradition and eccentricity, from genteel Garden District to notorious Central City to artsy Marigny. The histories of the city are scattered along the Mississippi this way, and each of these river bank improvisations tell their part in New Orleans’ offbeat, multicultural biography. If Paris is the City of Light, then New Orleans is the City of Voodoo Candles, too.

The great thing about illustration is that I can capture people discreetly.

The great thing about illustration is that I can capture people discreetly.

Its belief systems are as syncopated as its jazz. I listened curiously to Careless Love at Preservation Hall the other evening: like the city, it was funky to parse at first too. Uneven movement from bar to bar, each neighborhood is its own melodic venture, self-aware of both its echoes of the aristocracy and the escape of it. Buddy Bolden and his friends improvised new traditions. Less Creole, less structured, in every direction.

But there was a discipline, it was just that we didn’t understand. We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it. He tore apart the plot—see his music was immediately on top of his own life. Echoing. As if, when he was playing he was lost and hunting for the right accidental notes… He would be describing something in 27 ways. There a was a pain and gentleness jammed into each number.

New Orleans’ personalities live a short walk from each other, and contradictions are split by single streets. Secret venerations, connoisseurs, and careless, syncopated loves all rub shoulders. Jazz and blues, voodoo, Creole festivities, and southern grace all claim their own regimes, transgressing a unified tradition and expected rhythm. I don’t think I’ll ever understand—there’s so much going on to know every history.

Players at Preservation Hall, where photos weren’t allowed anyway.

Players at Preservation Hall, where photos weren’t allowed anyway.

I have absolutely concluded, however, that New Orleans is passionate. Every neighborhood is powerful and hot and artful. If Paris is for the airy, accordion love ballad, then this city is for the romance of sweaty jazz and deep bass. New Orleans loves, but unconventionally, magically. Pass any bar and hear trumpets celebrating improvised love, abridged love, quick love. Offbeat, off-brand love. This city belches its odes to love in vain, a beautiful self-destruction. In humid heat, New Orleans fantasizes about a better romance.

The photograph moves and becomes a mirror. When I read he stood in front of mirrors and attacked himself, there was the shock of memory. For I had done that. Stood, and with a razor-blade cut into cheeks and forehead, shaved hair. Defiling people we did not wish to be.

In some way, that is what artists do. The crux of Buddy Bolden’s legacy is decadence. The labor of creating something worthy of secret veneration is a self-aware, even inconsistent or impossible process. Uneven movement from bar to bar, New Orleans is the oddly fused and syncopated art form. New Orleans exists for the scattered, passionate connoisseurs, for those who want to understand just how deep its eccentric histories go. It is not a careful story, but it is about love.

On Saturday night, I asked a typewriter poet on Frenchman Street to write a poem about me:

So I’ll keep looking and listening. An uneven movement from bar to bar. Which means you might find me with a drink in hand in Tremé tomorrow night.