Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Musical rhythms of New Orleans

Reflecting back on our New Orleans community experience, I am thinking about all the ways that we define community … and there are many. There is the community of family, of spiritual dwelling place, of neighborhood, of workplace, and many others. But when I think back on our days in New Orleans, I am struck again and again at the music that resonates through every human pore and building that exists in the city. This music creates a sense of community in its own right by bringing people together to tap their feet, lift their voices, or simply observe. For me, the lifeblood of New Orleans – her steady and rhythmic pulse – comes from the music.

Perhaps it was one too many night on Frenchmen Street, where I was mesmerized by the swinging Jazz Vipers and dazzled by the Cajun style of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, but I know that the musical traditions spill over well beyond this energizing street. I recall the 20s style Cajun music that Austin played in his truck while we created a new garden bed in Hollygrove, the Zydeco tunes that had couples in the 60s and 70s on the dance floor at Mulate’s and Midcity Rock n’ Bowl, and Glen David Andrews getting everyone to second-line at the Hollygrove Center. Each day was a special moment in musical traditions.

When I think of community, I think of a gathering of people for some common purpose – it may be for a short time, it may be for a lifetime, but we come together and lift each others’ spirits – recognizing that our humanity needs others in order to give ourselves meaning. Maybe we get a little dirty, maybe we bang a few nails into floorboards, or maybe we just talk to people about what matters to them. But through it all, we have somehow stepped outside our individual spheres and recognized that there is a greater world around us and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now how does music fit into this community concept? I realize that we don’t all have the musical talents of an Emily (because she’s pretty awesome), but I think each and every one of us can hear and feel the musical beat, open our eyes, and be swept into a space that brings an awareness of a special time and place. Music can empty out the hardship, breathe new life into weary bones, and feed our souls. When I think back to Glen David Andrews blaring his trombone while the banjo strummed in the background, I can see the grandmothers in the room clap their hands with smiles on their faces, the children run around playing chase, and the rest of us folks bob our heads – what an amazing capture of communal togetherness. It’s so simple, yet so powerful.

Music has roots. Community has roots. And these roots run deep in New Orleans.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"and in the end, the love you take......."

The night before we were all scheduled to fly to our respective homes I caught Joanne wandering through one of the cavernous halls of our Garden District house. She had an uncharacteristically distant look on her face.

I feel a bit awkward with the term "uncharacteristic" seeing as I only met her a week prior to this moment. However, since meeting her, I have come to know this bright and engaging person and in this particular instance her expression struck me as out of the norm.

I asked her if she was feeling down. I assumed this only because I was wearing that same expression on my heart and knew I couldn't possibly be alone. She said to me(or something along these lines) "I am. I am feeling a bit lost. Like I'm getting on a plane to leave home and I'm going somewhere else. I have no idea what I'm going back to."

We had a group discussion about community earlier in the week and again during our wrap up meeting. Some fantastic points were made during both of these sessions. If I may, I'd like to add one more...

These past 10 days have been full of hard work, hard sights, hard realizations about the scope of our national consumerism and the toll it is taking on our environment and people. It has also been equally as full of hard laughs, strong bonds and hard.....HARD partying.

On the one hand, we were a group of people from like-minded companies coming together to help rebuild a city. On the other hand, we were individuals with a wide variety of passions, skills and quirks. There were a couple of occasions where a few of us sacrificed themselves by waving aside their fatigue to help others pursue their passions.

For me personally, a few heroic folks drove me to a club and got lost for an hour just so I could pursue my dancing passion for an hour and a half. One of them was sick and one of them was injured. Did I mention they were my heroes?

On other occasions, folks would surrender their place in the shower line so another could be ready in time to help prepare dinner. (a point Joanne made earlier that week) Some would get up at 5am to prepare breakfast.

And others (Caron, Jennifer and Thao)would spend the duration of the days at the house doing laundry, dishes and cooking so the rest of us didn't have to worry about it.

When Joanne said what she did it made me realize that our little community, if for even this short little while, had become a home to me. Not a house on Fourth Street in the Garden District where we were all stumbling home at 2-3-4 am. Not a group of people from like-minded companies coming together to rebuild a city (though that's exactly what we were). Not just me or Joanne or anyone else by themselves. Our little community became what felt undeniably similar to a home. It may sound a bit cheesy, but to tell you the truth, I really couldn't care less.

This realization spread outward to the people at New Orleans Food and Farming Network, to the Ebarbs, to Miss Aida and her day care center, to Bayou Rebirth. These people opened up their doors, arms, kitchens to us and became an extension of that home.

Indeed. What was I going back to?
What have the people in New Orleans taught me? What kind of communities besides our direct families and friends in our hometowns even comes close to what we shared in NOLA? How can we bring that feeling home and share it with everyone we meet and know and love? How can I perpetuate this feeling of community wherever I go?

I have no idea. But I'm gonna try.

Thank you to everyone.
I have been fundamentally changed.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Coming Home,

Was really great, but that doesn't mean that I don't already miss all of my NOLA folks. When will we see each other again? Maybe never, but still I was so happy to be a part of this experience.

Thank you all for making my stay in NOLA such an amazing one.

~I will never forget you, (especially if you keep in touch)


Friday, November 7, 2008

Getting down and Dirty!!

Wednesday was one of the funniest times that the 27 of us have spent here. We were all a little worried about what "getting muddy" would really mean, most of us have never even been to a marsh,  (or known the difference between a marsh and a swamp) yet alone plant anything on its shores. We were told to dress in clothes that we did not mind getting extremely muddy (and possibly not be able to use the clothes again) I brought jeans and an old T-Shirt. Most others brought work clothes with stains or paint. 

Before we got out to the marsh to do our wetland restoration, we got a short presentation about the economical impacts of allowing our wetlands to slowly be destroyed. It was sad to see projections about what the wetlands might look like in five or ten years if we don't start to prevent what is happening. One way to do this is to plant those wetland plants to keep erosion from taking over more of the land.

The canoe trips were a fun way to relax. None of the canoes tipped over, although we did have a couple close calls. :) We all got at least a bit wet from our amateur rowing, but all in all everyone was happy to just have a day off from all the hard work we had been doing. We did however see an alligator. It didn't bite anyone and just scared a few of us a bit. A couple birds and some small turtles were also around for us to observe.

We had a short lunch a little ways from the bayou that we canoed on, this mostly consisted of sandwiches and left overs from dinners past. (I had some of my food from the morning and so I ate that) There were a few Americorps volunteers that were going to be doing some replanting with us and so we spent some time getting to know them. One of the girls was just out of high school and had decided to take a year off to come volunteer. It was my luck that she was from Oregon and so we talked about Portland and our love for rainy weather. (She was also a fan of wearing many layers)

We drove another half hour or so to just about Lake Ponchartrain. We had a task that afternoon of planting a truckload of plants along the shore of the Marsh and interspersed where ever we could see empty spaces. Everyone had to wear chest high wadders (this was a hilarious sight, I don't actually think anyone can look good in them) that were either wet and muddy or that were a few sizes too big. A few of us grew bums about 4 sizes bigger than we had when we stepped into them. (yes I have pictures)

We were instructed to get dirty, tear the roots of the plants, walk into the marsh, dig a hole and then stick your whole arm into the hole (while holding onto the roots of the plant, mind you this meant that you had to literally go elbow deep into the worst smelling soil you can imagine) and then lift your hand out (which created some pleasent/unpleasent sound effects) and pat the dirt around the base of the plant. After a few minutes of pretending that I could stay clean, I dug deep and crawled around on my knees sticking my had in any hole that I could find. The soil actually felt great (a sort of therapeutic mud treatment that could cost hundreds of dollars at any day-spa) and I enjoyed getting a little....let me rephrase that, A LOT dirty. Walking around in a marsh proved to be very challenging and most of us ended up finding deep holes that left you chest high in that same smelly water.

We finished surprisingly quickly (probably because people were motivated by the idea of getting out of the mud, again I have pictures) and we all changed into slightly cleaning clothes before getting into the vans to come home. I could explain a little more about how this processed happened, being that we were in the middle of a marsh which just means that there was nothing to hide behind or secluded places to change. People got creative in how they got dressed (I changed in the front seat of one of the cars), one of us (I won't go into details of names of identities to protect the parties involved) even got into his skivvies to pose for our calendar titled "the men of the bayou".

Everyone had a lot of fun, it was really great to have a break from some of the really labor intensive labor to have a mud treatment. Lots of bonding happened that day and we were all very energized to go back to work the next day.



Wednesday, November 5, 2008


After waking up early this morning to make breakfast, we all pieled back into the cars to go to the respective projects. A group of about 14 went back to the Ebard’s home. The rest went to a gardening site to plant more food for the communities in Louisiana. Linda welcomed us back with more hugs and this time she snuck in a kiss on my cheek. She is such a happy woman, ecstatic to have so many people helping her rebuild her home. She has on a number of occasions offered several of us a place to stay if we ever are in town and has even asked me to move in while I finish school. 

Linda keeps the groups energy up with coffee and snacks. You can usually find her in the kitchen, dancing and singing to any song on the radio. She is a great dancer and if you walk past her while she is dancing, she usually grabs you and convinces you to do a couple of moves with her.

Today we finished the bamboo floors in both the living room and the kitchen. We framed all of the windows and laid down the baseboard in the living room and kitchen.  The kitchen cabinets were put into place and the kitchen sink went back in. We purchased the countertops and painted the first floor of the house.  The floors in the master bedroom (which for some reason is bigger then the living room and kitchen together, and is about 1 ½ times the size of my apt) 

I wonder what we will accomplish tomorrow.


In the Muck

Do you know the difference between a marsh and a swamp? I didn't until our lesson in wetlands restoration today, courtesy of Bayou Rebirth. Apparently the largest difference is salt. A marsh has some degree of salinity and is affected by the tides, whereas a swamp is characterized by the presence of trees, which grow in fresh water.

Apart from the educational component today, we also had the opportunity to canoe through the wildlife refuge, to muck around in the mud wearing huge waders planting marshland plants, and to cap off the evening with some classic creole food and zydeco at Mulate's.

Today was a great day. It's now mid-week, and it was nice to take a break from our work with NOFFN and Rebuilding Together for a little time outside in the wetlands. It was a beautiful day, and there's something about wearing waders up to your chest and digging around in the swampy muckiness that makes you feel like a kid again! Tomorrow we're back to work again, and I'll be heading off to work with NOFFN again on their farming center in the Hollygrove neighborhood, and spending the afternoon cooking with a local home chef, in preparation for our big neighborhood party on Saturday.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008