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Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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Years ago, I saw the movie “Groundhog Day,” which featured Bill Murray as a broadcaster who had reported on Punxatawney Phil on Groundhog Day, and then found that he kept reliving the same day, over and over again.  As I continue my path home from the Gulf Coast, wracked with worry over my daughter (who I believe will be OK on the campus of Tulane University) and more to the point, over my friends in Plaquemines Parish — which appears to be sustaining worse damage than during Hurricane Katrina — I keep thinking about that movie.

I write seven years to the day after Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast.  I can tell you (in case you had any doubt) that there are many parts of the greater New Orleans area that have not recovered from that storm, and that will never recover.  The city and the area are wonderful, but it is not the same place it once was.  The people that stayed, and those that have come since those days, have a grittiness and sense of perseverance that is sobering to observe.

For those who stuck around – because this is where their home is, and their heart and their culture – the challenge has come round again.  I was in Plaquemines Parish with my friends last Friday.  I saw all that they had done to recover from Katrina, heard about the plans they had, visited their churches, reveled in their spirit and their vision for reclaiming a life and a future on the Gulf Coast.  Today, I haven’t been able to reach them because Hurricane Isaac rages on and will not move:  more than a foot of water has fallen in the area, the power is out, the levees in Plaquemines Parish have been overtopped, and everything that these folks – along with countless volunteers and hundreds of thousands of dollars – struggled for has been thrown into a cocked hat.

So it’s a little like Groundhog Day.  Do we keep working at it till we ‘get it right’ or till the levees are so high that they can not be breached, even by a twelve foot storm surge?  Do we politely suggest that the people who have lived on this land for generations just give it up and go somewhere else?  Do we build an ark (which was one of the solutions suggested in the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”)?

I refuse to believe that the people who will now have to rebuild again, following Isaac, should be expected to give up their homes.  Our friend, Rev. Tyronne Edwards, embraces the name of the Zion Travelers for his church.  Their slogan, in the days after Katrina, was “Let us arise and rebuild.”  So it was, and so it will be, again.  As fellow citizens and compassionate friends, we must respond to the struggle to reclaim the land our sisters and brothers love, and have lived on, for generations.  So, as the damage reports come in and the flood waters subside, we will likely be asked, once again, to answer the call for assistance, and to help our friends arise and rebuild.  We have done this before, and we will do it again, in a partnership informed by faith, a deep belief in justice, and the need that people carry, deep inside them, to be able to just go home.

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After months of feeling verklempt beyond words, we packed up our Prius and, nine days ago, began the long drive from Massachusetts to Louisiana.  This was wonderful and scary; sickening and invigorating.  Abby was finally starting at Tulane University, and after all the months of celebrating a series of lasts, we were about to start what will be a series of firsts.

We had a relatively stress-free trip down, stopping in Chambersburg, PA (home of Ben’s maternal grandmother), visiting friends in Rutledge TN on a beautiful lake – complete with an early morning fishing trip, a stop in Birmingham, AL where we took the civil rights walk in the downtown area and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Finally, we rolled into the Big Easy on a Thursday afternoon, and had a delightful dinner with my sister-in-law’s niece, who is completing her graduate studies at Tulane.

The next day was errand day – but it also opened a window into what life in New Orleans is like.  For one thing, it rained like crazy for much of the afternoon.  This is not surprising, given the heat and humidity that build up in the summer in this part of the country…but I was not expecting Ben’s phone call after he went to get the car from its parking spot on St. Charles Avenue:  “The good news is: the car started.  The bad news is:  it’s flooded.”  Sure enough, the moisture that has no place to go, with the water level so high, had caused water to back up to about ten inches in the streets.  As Abby and I bailed the car, we realized that, as Dorothy said, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

More than the flood, we were watching the weather, as tropical storm Isaac churned its way through the Atlantic.  That night we drove out to Plaquemines Parish to have dinner with our friends, Tyronne and Gail Edwards, and listened to Tyronne reassure folks about the storm.  We hoped he was right — that the levees wouldn’t be overtopped, that the new buildings that had been erected since Katrina would hold strong and secure.  We made sure that Abby had her emergency contact information in place, and hoped she wouldn’t have to use it.

Move in day came and went, and on Sunday, before Ben and I left town on Sunday morning, we took Abby out for brunch, tried to resist giving too much parental advice, and enjoyed our last few hours together.  We made a stop at the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in the 7th Ward, which is owned by one of the stars of “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and enjoyed the guilty pleasure of those absolutely delicious buttermilk doughnuts.  We talked about the influence of art and culture in New Orleans, about how important the Treme district is to the city’s identity…  and then, with tears all around, it was over.  Abby walked off toward her dorm, waving goodbye to us once more, and Ben and I burst into tears and sobbed in the car as we watched her go.

The pain was intense, but we knew it was time, and so, sniffling, we slowly made our way out of the city toward the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  I enjoyed narrating the tour as we drove through Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi…I had been there six years ago and was moved both by the rebuilding that had taken place, and the many empty lots that remain part of the landscape.  The beaches along the Gulf Coast are absolutely gorgeous, with white sand and beautiful water.  But we were also seeing people nailing plywood to their windows, and we knew that Tropical Storm Isaac was projected to have an impact on the Gulf Coast.

Abby, at our family’s overnight stop in Tennessee, as our family made our way to New Orleans (August, 2012)

This is different:  worrying about storms, storm surges, flooding, power outages is a part of life for people who live in this part of the country.  Will the levees hold?  Will the power stay on?  Will my house be there tomorrow?  All those questions are on the line.  This is stuff not everyone has to think about, but for us, it’s gotten personal:  our youngest child is now part of this landscape.  And tonight, she is locked down in her dorm, trying to sleep in the inside hallway of her building with thirty other young women next to her, with University Police nearby and emergency provisions in place.

Tomorrow, Ben and I will once again fight the urge in our guts to turn the car around and drive back to New Orleans.  Instead, we’ll continue our journey north, toward our home — just the two of us, this time.

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On Tuesday night, Abby — who we often refer to as “Slim Sunny” for her nearly 5’10” stature and her cheery disposition — returned from two amazing weeks in New Orleans.  She had come up with the idea of taking this trip, participating in the Rustic Pathways program.  She had earned some of the money needed to make the trip, and worked to come up with rest of the financing for it.  She so wanted an experience that was different from what she viewed as her routine life in a small New England town.

And she got it. Her time was filled with work cleaning a building that’s being re-opened as a charter school and insulating homes that are being restored post-Katrina.  And in doing this work, she got a peek at the trauma some of NOLA’s residents — survivors, really — have experienced.  She found that one resident, who has been waiting for a very long time for help with restoring her home, became intensely frustrated and angry when the youthful workers in her house weren’t behaving the way she wanted.  She ordered them out of her house.  That night, as the kids debriefed, they met with St. Bernard project coordinators who explained that one of the unfortunate side-effects of the trauma from the storm is anxiety and depression that sometimes gets focused on the folks who are trying to help.  It was an important lesson for these high school students, although a difficult one.  Several days later, however, the kids were back at it in another house, insulating once again, and the home owners came by, thrilled at the work being done.  They wanted to bring the teens cold drinks (and did), wanted to cook for them (alas, no time for that).  But the two experiences helped Abby see some of the challenges that New Orleanians are continuing to experience, even five years after the storm.

There was more.  They watched parts of Spike Lee’s excellent documentaries on the storm (When the Levees Broke, If God is Willing and da Creek don’t Rise), had a sobering tour of the Lower 9th (how, Abby wondered, could there be these concrete steps to nowhere, and why were there all these empty spaces where homes used to be and now, nothing?)  She saw houses with the marks on the front that showed the visits from safety personnel in the weeks and months following the storm, spray painted on the outside.  Including one that said “1 person, 1 dog” – presumably, dead inside.

She heard jazz at Preservation Hall and in the French Quarter, ate beignets and red beans and rice (on Mondays, of course), visited Tulane (she might be interested), learned sissy-bounce dancing, and even saw a Mardi Gras Indian.  She made wonderful friends from around the country – and now is mourning separation from them — and has said, over and over, “I’m so glad I did this.  I miss New Orleans so much.”

It was one of those life-changing experiences that gets under your skin, I think to myself.  Similar to the one I had during the summer between my junior and senior years in college, when I lived with a family in Greece.  I remember thinking, after that summer, “I’ll never view the world the same way again,” and in fact, that remains true.  Immersion in another culture, even for a relatively brief time, can open your eyes to a different way of being in the world.  That’s happened to my girl, I think, and it’s a blessing.

Slim Sunny is glad to see her Lexington friends, it’s true.  She has reunited with her cats, her comfy bed, my cooking, and sleeping late in the morning.  Yet she yearns to go back to the sweltering, humid heat of the Jazz City and its survivors and dreamers, who have captured her imagination and her heart.

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She longs for adventure, my younger child.  She yearned for a chance to do something really different, to go somewhere she had never been, to help others, to explore at least a little piece of the world.  Money is tight:  I’m still seeking a full time job, eighteen months after my last one ended.  We – like so many – have had to cut back, do without or with less, and hope like crazy that the economy and our fortunes will improve.  So such explorations didn’t seem a likely bet this summer.

But our exploring child wouldn’t let go of the dream.  She worked like crazy at her job (at the fabulous Rancatore’s Ice Cream), she asked her grandparents for exploring money.  And an anonymous donor appeared to give Abby a grant to travel to parts yet unseen, showing her (and us) what the kindness of friends, if not strangers, is about.  It was enough to make it all possible.

So today, we put Abby on a plane for the Jazz City, headed for two weeks – in the hottest part of the summer in that very steamy part of the country — to work on Hurricane Katrina restoration with the St. Bernard Project, and then to work on Gulf Coast oil spill recovery in an estuary.  She’ll meet other teens, learn about the amazing culture that makes New Orleans such a remarkable stew of music, the Mardi Gras Indians, creole language, fabulous cajun food.  She’ll sweat and get dirty, meet people whose lives are very different from her own, and – we dearly hope – grow in ways that she, and we, didn’t expect.

We took her to the airport this morning to begin the journey.  She was nervous, but she was pumped.  We were unsettled and already missing her.  Yet we know it’s the right thing, coming at the right time.  The right way to enter her final year of high school, the right way to learn more about the America she lives in.  She’ll always be our baby, but as she disappeared into the security line at the airport this morning and then emerged in the distance, waving goodbye, we realized she’s launched on the first of what we hope will be many, many adventures that help her expand her view of herself and her world.

The kindness off friends and family made this adventure possible – and all our hearts are deeply grateful.

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