Tara Baudry

Unlike an Oak Tree

In our first couple of days in New Orleans, we took the streetcar to the Garden District to look at the beautiful houses and stop by Anne Rice’s House, the author of Interview with a Vampire. Andrew stopped our stroll next to a single oak tree and read us a poem from Walt Whitman’s collections in Leaves of Grass. The poem is called ‘I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing’, it is here below.


Before we even got on the plane to come to Louisiana, as we were waiting in the terminal Andrew predicted that by the time we were back at this airport in three weeks’ time, some of us would be in tears saying bye to one another. I thought this was pretty ridiculous. Going into this trip I was worried about everyone being annoying or not liking me so if I could get by with simply getting along with everyone I would’ve considered the trip a success. As a group we are individually so different in background, fields of study, and general interests, but here we make up one cohesive group. And now, three and a half weeks later, I don’t just think people here are tolerable or nice, but I have found real friends that I truly care about. Early on we were advised to create deep connections with each other and not just pretend to be someone we aren’t in order to sound smart or impress. It is hard and scary to be vulnerable with a group of, essentially, strangers but by doing so the friendships I made here have given me the most amazing memories. Doing something like ‘Bookpacking’ is an interesting and fun experience but it also gets lonely, makes you look inwards, and has you questioning what life is about. I couldn’t have gotten through it and taken advantage of all the course has to offer without the conversations I had with my classmates and now friends.

One of the greatest moments we were able to share as a group came in our last weekend spent in Cajun Louisiana. Our last reading, a short story called ‘Floyd’s Girl’ in Tim Gautreaux’s book Small Things, Small Places was placed here. The descriptions of,

“ample laps of aunts, daily thunderheads rolling above flat parishes of rice and cane, the musical rattle of French, her prayers, the head-turning squawk of her uncle’s accordion, the scrape and complaint of her father’s fiddle as he serenades the backyard on weekends, vibrations”
— Tim Gautreaux, Floyd's Girl

summed up our experience with the people here perfectly. We had the opportunity to take part in not one, but two jam sessions with people we met at the Tante Marie Café and Tom’s Fiddle and Bow Shop. On Sunday afternoon we spent about 2 and a half hours just talking and playing instruments with strangers who very quickly became friends and actually witness Floyd’s practice of, “…[making] noise with his friends on the weekends”. I actually had the chance to play guitar for a couple of songs in Blue Grass style in the back room (as compared to more southern, Cajun style in the main room), and experience, “the buzz of a fiddle and the clang of a triangle in her pretty head, the love songs sung through the nose”. Sitting and singing all together as a group was such a special thing to share together. Being able to learn about a completely different culture that we had just read about in such a small glimpse but then see it come to life was what the trip was all about. I wouldn’t have had the courage to partake in the music in the way I did without the support from this group and some special groupies.

A single live-oak tree…

A single live-oak tree…

And just as Walt Whitman realized he could not be joyous like the live oak tree if he had no friends around, this trip would have been nowhere near as amazing or memorable without the people I’ve met and gotten to know. I definitely will be crying saying goodbye but I know the friendships we carved here will last far beyond this trip. Moreover, this trip has made me be even more appreciative of the friends and family who “I believe lately I think of little else than of them”. Without our instructor Andrew, this trip would not have been bigger than simple ‘Bookpacking’. He encouraged us to make it a practice in empathy and learn about ourselves. While all 12 of the people here are so special, I have to give a little shout out to two amazing girls I met- Maria Camasmie and Cameryn Baker.

To Maria: I am so happy we roomed together those first nights in Grand Isle. I knew that moment when you brought your markers out that if anything we would at least draw together! But getting to know you and having the opportunity to build an actual friendship with you has been one of the best parts of my trip. I will forever remember and cherish swimming with you at sunrise in Grand Isle, opening up to you on our long walk on Magazine St., eating junk food for two hours straight on a rainy day, and dancing with you on the streets of New Orleans. It has been a privilege to get to know such a clever, fun, creative, and genuine person as you. You are unlike anyone else I have ever met. I can’t thank you enough for listening and being here for me every day of this trip and I can’t wait for the many more memories to come.

To Cameryn: My bear, I feel so lucky to have such a kind soul like you in my life thanks to this trip. You go above and beyond to make the people you care about in your life feel special and loved. Thank you for being my first hug, and usually at least the 7+ hugs, in my days. Your light and bubbly personality makes everyone around you feel a certain ease and comfort that can be likened to feeling at home. I wish you could see how amazing you are and how unique it is to find someone as generous and warm as you. You are a beautiful writer and it has been such an amazing adventure to be a part of your experience here. I am so excited to hang out with you even more when we get back for the summer and the school year (and set up play dates for Harambe and Gates).

Swamp Witches™ Forever

Swamp Witches™ Forever

All Hands on Duck

Taken at the Ernest J. Gaines Institute at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Taken at the Ernest J. Gaines Institute at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette

I remember looking at the syllabus a couple of days before leaving for this trip to grasp a basic understanding of the order of things we would be doing. I made sure to have the books or at least figure out how I could Amazon Prime them to the hotel in time for each deadline. I saw that we would start our journey in Grand Isle, move to New Orleans, then go to Baton Rouge and Cajun Louisiana for a couple days, until we end our trip back in New Orleans. All of this seemed pretty random to me at the time, but now that we’ve arrived at our last novel in the series of 6 that we were assigned, I understand just how carefully this trip was curated. All of the novels we’ve read have led up to the most heart-wrenching, emotional one: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.

We arrived at Baton Rouge on Memorial Day and the city was practically empty. Almost every restaurant was closed and there were barely any people or cars on the streets. It was such a stark contrast from the lively and always bustling streets of New Orleans, but a good place to get a lot of reading done and a necessary change for the novel. A Lesson Before Dying takes place in the late 1940s in a small town north of the capitol along False River. The novel tells the story of a black man named Jefferson who is accused of and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit and is given the death penalty. Grant Wiggins, the local school teacher, is given the job by his aunt and Jefferson’s godmother Miss Emma to make sure he dies a man, with pride and dignity. Out of all our experiences with bookpacking so far-this has probably had the most real life connections to the story.

Side by side picture: an archive of the draft on the left, the published copy on the right

In the towns of New Roads and Oscar, we had the opportunity to visit the courthouse and jail that inspired the ones written in the novel, actually meet Dr. Ernest J. Gaines and ask him questions about the novel, his life, and his writing process, and also look at archives of his writing and previous drafts of the book. I think something that has become esspecially apparent on this trip was how much we as readers offer interpertations of a book that were not held or intended by the author. This isn’t necessarily bad as it can make a book relatable across generations, but it is also important to stay true to the original purpose of a novel. For example, I had asked Dr. Gaines if the character of Vivian in the novel was based off his wife Dianne and their relationship. He simply responded, “No, but she did maybe look like her”. This made the book almost even more real in a sense because it showed how the book wasn’t based off Gaines’ personal life since he wasn’t using it to share his personal story. In addition, going to the Gaines Center and having the opportunity to physically flip through the drafts of his hand written notes and edits showed just how meaningful each word and phrasing was to creating the final picture. Some changes were so miniscule side by side but emphasized a completely different aspect of the characters or the plot. It encouraged us to see how meticulous the process of writing that Gaines described to us when we talked with him and that we experienced while reading the book truly was.

The most impactful part for me personally was when we visited the jail, where Jefferson stayed and where Grant and other families went to visit Jefferson every week. This is where a large part of the novel takes place and essentially how the reader learns about Jefferson’s state of mind. Just an hour before our visit, I read the part of the novel that included Jefferson’s personal diary in which he jotted down his thoughts on the last days leading up to his execution. Here are a couple of things that were written:

“this was the firs time i cry when they lok that door behind me the very firs time an i jus set on my bunk cryin but not let them see or yer me cause i didn want them think rong but i was cryin cause of bok an the marble he giv me and cause o the peple com to see me cause they hadn never done nothing lik that for me befor”

               “i dont want sleep at nite no mo jus catnap in the day while they got lite and they got noise cause i dont want drem bout that door ever time i shet my eyes”

               “sun goin down an i kno this the las one im gon ever see but im gon see one mo sunrsise cause i aint gon sleep tonite”


Reading Jefferson’s diary and imagining what it would be like to be in such an impossible situation was incredibly difficult. Then going beyond the written words: walking through the actual jail cells, seeing where people would be hung, how small of a space it all was and feeling the closeness of the walls and the strong grip of the horrible heat slowly suffocate you was unbearable even for 20 minutes…I can never fully imagine how someone would endure it for hours, days, years. It was in this moment that I understood why this book was last, and why we had to leave light and breezy New Orleans in order to shift and force our mindset to appreciate the heaviness of the novel. This was the peak of our course in empathy. While we will never be able to fully place ourselves in Jefferson’s shoes (he only had two- one for work, and one for church) but, the lesson he learns is a universal one.  The lesson the characters in the novel and the reader realizes is that no matter how hopeless a situation is and how hard the struggle is to find faith, there are people who love you and when you can receive and accept that love, hope can be found.

Another reason this book came at the perfect time in the trip is because we had the ability to truly get to know and care about each other. I was reading Jefferson’s diary on a dock where a mother duck was providing shade for her ducklings, they all cuddled close together underneath her until they were ready to go for a swim in the lake. And it made me realize I had my own friends here to love and support me too. They were there to wipe my tears, understand the sadness, and give me a much needed cuddle.   

‘The only thing I believe in is loving you.’
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

To the Streets

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In order to fully understand and appreciate the vibrant city and culture of New Orleans, it is imperative to learn about the history and people that created it. We started our second week in the city by visiting the Whitney Plantation. Unlike other plantation tours offered in the South, the Whitney is the only plantation with the purpose to share the stories of the enslaved people born and raised there and the history of slavery. Our tour guide Ali was exceptional at tying slavery to traditional economic systems in addition to racism. He explained how the work force was first comprised of indentured servants from Europe but moved to African Americans and the Triangular Slave Trade because they were economically more profitable. Slave owners not only physically manipulated and damaged people but emotionally and mentally as well by ripping them away from their home, family, and culture and putting them in an entirely new place. However, an innate characteristic of humanity is having compassion for other human beings. People who believed in the enslavement of others stripped all aspects of what makes someone who they are in order to view them solely personal property. It was only when they dehumanized African Americans were they able to conquer them.

Despite all this manipulation, the slave communities never lost hope and so they were never fully conquered. They tried to salvage as much of their culture as possible and share it with the family they created. One of the biggest ways slaves protected their culture was through music. Using instruments like drums, banjos, flutes, etc. blues was created to depict the pain and suffering African Americans were experiencing during slavery. Blues with the addition of hymns, work songs, gospel, and traditional marching band music all combined together to give birth to jazz. Some slaves were given Sundays off of work and would gather at Congo Square, which we had the chance to visit, to sing and dance.  

In the novel, Coming Through Slaughter  by Michael Ondaatje we get to learn about the life of Buddy Bolden who most give credit to as developing jazz into how it is played today. Buddy or “King” Bolden is described as, “…the best and the loudest and most loved jazzman of his time, but never professional in the brain”. He never played a song the same way twice. He would just let the power of his mind drive how he would play the notes usually resulting in some kind of ordered chaos that would be heard as a, “…siren twenty blocks away”.

“Then silent. For something’s fallen in my body and I can’t hear the music as I play it. The notes more often now…Half dead, can’t take more, hardly hit the squawks anymore but when I do my body flicks at them as if I’m the dancer till the music is out there. Roar”.
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Buddy got his start in parades and in his first parade, “He walks out of the crowd, struggles through onto the street and begins playing, too loud but real and strong you couldn’t deny him, and then he went back into the crowd”. And almost fittingly, a parade is also the place Buddy had his worst mental breakdown. He was, “coming down Iberville, warm past Marais Street” and while his story in the novel is seen through many different character’s perspectives, the reader gets a glimpse into the madness from Buddy’s point of view. At one point during the parade Buddy thinks,  

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Route for the Second Line Parade - Sunday, May 26th

A little south of this route is the corner of Iberville and Marais— where Bolden performed.

I was able to actually see a traditional parade, one similar to that which Buddy would have performed in, called the Second Line Parade. This parade occurs every Sunday and lasts for four hours with a different social club being featured each week. The group I had the chance to see were known as the MoneyWasters. It was amazing to see how everyone came together to just celebrate life and music with no regards to the blaring heat or general functionality of the streets. Recently, we also had the chance as a group to watch Bolden- a movie about Buddy Bolden, at the Prytania Theater in the Garden District where the protagonist (Ignatius) of another book we read in this course (A Confederacy of Dunces) came to watch movies. Bolden was filmed through Buddy’s memories and perspective, switching between flashbacks, his time in a mental asylum, and a Louis Armstrong radio broadcast. Being able to read the words, walk the same streets, and watch a visual depiction that illustrate Buddy’s rise to royalty and successive spiral into madness allowed me to have a better understanding of the character, jazz, and New Orleans.

As I stood on the sidelines of the parade in awe of these two boys dancing in the front of the band, a club member pulled me aside to explain what they were doing. He told me about how this parade happens every Sunday and that all the floats and costumes I was seeing today would only be worn today, tossed, and then the start for something bigger and better would begin for the next year. He gave me the opportunity to slip under the rope to get a closer view and better videotaping of the two dancers. Before the parade moved forward in its celebration he told me, “Right there- is history. You just viewed History with these two boys, that video will become history”. And I believe him. It made me wonder if the people who watched Buddy Bolden perform, to the point of insanity, even had an idea of the impact he would have on a whole genre of music.  Bolden didn’t simply play beautiful, intricate music, but truly played the culture of the city.

“There was pain and gentleness everything jammed into each number”.
— Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter

Just as you can walk down Royal Street at night and see masses of homeless people and hear their muddled, drunk slurs, if you walk two blocks further down you will see the elegance of the moonlight reflecting off the beads hanging down from the balconies while listening to a beautiful women singing ‘At Last’ by Etta James. The deep pain and incredible joy jazz is able to create mirrors the existence of Buddy Bolden and the essence of New Orleans. Jazz takes things like the pain from a history of slavery and blends it with the resilience of a people who recovered and became better from a disaster like Hurricane Katrina into one mesmerizing melody.