Claire Robertson

The Road Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days, those are really hard questions to answer.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Post is About Nothing... And Something

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The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

           Yet it’s not just the voice of the sea which seduces. The roar of the air conditioning, a promising respite from the humidity of Grand Isle, Louisiana, is nearly as enticing. Late into the night, the beachy breeze remains warmer and stickier than the air inside of our roomy cabin. No wonder Kate Chopin’s quintessentially maternal Adele Ratignolle, and exceptionally individualistic Edna Pontellier, are frequently fanning themselves and fainting on their Grand Isle vacation in The Awakening.

            Fortunately, Grand Isle has come a long way since the work was written, during the late 19th century. Once Joseph Hale Harvey shaped the place into an up-and-coming beach resort, the natives of New Orleans couldn’t resist. Wealthy citizens flocked here to exchange the stinking heat, humidity, and yellow fever epidemics of the city, for the salt spray and sandy shores of the coastline. To this day, Grand Isle remains the easygoing vacation spot of Kate Chopin’s era. This tiny island, dotted with quirkily named rental cottages, cordially invites locals and visitors alike to relax.

            Each restaurant we visited featured a sign imparting the message: “Laissez les bon temps rouler”, which translates from French to, “let the good times roll”. Thanks to its history as a valuable territory for European conquerors, Grand Isle maintains a cultural identity impacted by the French, Portuguese, and Spanish. This melting pot of influences is only one of the island’s curious juxtapositions. The best biscuits in town come from a restaurant attached to a gift shop and gas station. A well-worn cemetery rests steps away from a rusty playground. Rickety homes quiver on tall wooden poles, some crumbling with age even before the hurricane-prone area gets hit with seasonal storms.

            There is something uniquely rare about this place. It isn't the abundance of fried food, or the absence of LA traffic. The timing of our visit to Grand Isle was deliberate; we were meant to slow down from the pace of our everyday lives, before we leap ahead into the hustle of New Orleans. What makes Grand Isle distinct from other beautiful beaches, and from my hometown of Newport Beach, is that the quiet locale forced us to slow down, and do nothing. There was so little to do, and so much time to do it-- the opposite of a typical day.

            Before this trip, I thought I was pretty good at doing nothing. Like most college students, I spend too much time on my phone and not enough time on the things that count: bonding with family or friends, or studying. Yet the "nothing" of my phone still sucks up my energy, emotionally and mentally, and after a day of doing "nothing" I'm left drained and confused as to where the time went. On this tiny island in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, sharing a house with 12 strangers-turned-friends, I learned what really doing nothing feels like.

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            It's boring! After a lazy morning lounging in the sun, flopped on the shore like a whale, I am astounded to discover that it is barely afternoon once I return to our cabin. I take a leisurely shower, and waltz into the shared living room to see what everyone's up to now. Seven college kids are just sitting there--reading. How perfectly, wonderfully boring.

            I follow suit, launching into the book, ready at any moment to join in on an adventure, should one of my neighbors choose to start having one. Nope: they all sit there, stoic, lost in another world, a world that looks alarmingly similar to the one steps away from my squishy recliner. Suddenly, it is my turn to get sucked into this alternate universe, where Edna swims for the first time amidst the waves eagerly crashing onto the shore, then curling back into themselves. I think of Edna and Adele, as they sat on their shady pension (boarding-house) porch. Chopin’s novel, The Awakening, is one I have been captivated by for a long time, and depicts the world of Kentucky-born Edna Pontellier. Mrs. Pontellier is locked into her role and responsibilities as a wife and mother, yet she discovers she wants something else entirely for her life.

She grew fond of her husband, realizing with some unaccountable satisfaction that no trace of passion or excessive and fictitious warmth colored her affection, thereby threatening its dissolution. She was fond of her children in an uneven, impulsive way. She would sometimes gather them passionately to her heart; she would sometimes forget them.
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

            What a depressing existence this is for the protagonist! She has no guiding force in her life aside from her own capricious whims. Edna lacks joie de vivre, although she is fleetingly happy while painting portraits, or listening to a certain Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano. Yet most pitiful is how desperately she falls in love with a faraway man to whom she is not married. Edna feels most alive in the presence of her lover, yet she is keenly aware of the futility of pursuing a relationship with him.

‘I love you,’ she whispered, ‘only you; no one but you. It was you who awoke me last summer out of a life-long, stupid dream. Oh! You have made me so unhappy with your indifference. Oh! I have suffered, suffered! Now you are here we shall love each other…’
— Kate Chopin, The Awakening

            One of my fears is being totally, utterly, irreparably wrong. It's not because of the element of wounded pride in being mistaken. Instead, my fear is choosing the wrong major, picking the wrong job, making the wrong friends: resulting in a disappointing, inauthentic life. Edna, in her superficial love for her husband and children, and her genuine love for the wrong person, is frustrating to watch. Chopin avoids an inevitable tough decision by killing off Edna, rather than having her protagonist choose between living authentically and abandoning her old circumstances, or suppressing her truth and fulfilling her family commitments.

            In reality, even on vacation in Grand Isle, we cannot evade catch-22s like this. Life is chock-full of choices, and the wrong ones especially can be educational. Fully experiencing failure, loss, or disappointment points us in the direction of the "somethings" we most care about. Without being in a situation that puts our favorite "somethings" at risk, we may never realize what those are. When "something" matters, it demands a response, a defense. A song by The Script puts this well, declaring, "You've gotta stand for something or you'll fall for anything".

           Evidently, both something and nothing are important. The "nothing" reminds me to live in the moment, and relish the mundane in order to better appreciate adventure. The "somethings" bring me joy, and guide me in living a life aligned with what, to me, matters most. Too late does Edna discover what meant the world to her, as her world was already set in stone around her. What began as a fortress-like life structure devolved into a prison of her own design, from which she couldn't escape without paying a steep cost.

           At this point in my life, I encounter a number of crossroads important to my education, career, and relationships. Deciding on my "somethings" that count helps me to build my life foundation, while the "nothing" reminds me that the "somethings" aren't everything, either. Grand Isle is the perfect place to hone the art of nothing, and I am reluctant to leave. But the future in New Orleans is calling, beckoning, louder now than the sultry voice of the sea.

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