Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Life In the Big Easy

Claudia and I are in New Orleans, where we are speaking in workshop for the Child Welfare League of America's Conference. Our workshop title is "Transitioning Kids From Residential Living to a Home Setting." Claudia will later today link the presentation from her blog at http://www.fletcherclan.blogspot.com/ for those who are interested in seeing (part of) what we had to say.

This afternoon I am going to forego workshop sessions to take a Cemetery and Voodoo History Tour. I'm sure I'll have plenty to blog about that upon my return. Recently on Speaking of Faith Krista Tippett offered "Living Voodoo," an interesting program on the topic. Before listening to Tippett's program most of my awareness of voodoo had come from ridiculously scripted movies or books, but her interview with an expert in the field and additional reflections sparked an interest on my part. I'm sure today's tour will be largely showmanship (as most "touristy" things are), but I hope to ferret out some useful details about the experience as well. In our part of the world (the upper midwest) such approaches to spirituality as viewed as aberrations at best, myth at worst and, for the most part, routinely ignored. The tour departs at Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop. Hmmm. Should be some interesting fodder for blog readers coming up.

At the moment I sit in our room on the 26th floor of the Marriott New Orleans, located on historic Canal Street. Our room looks over much of the city and a huge bend in the Mississippi River. What a contrast the Mississippi River in Louisiana is compared to its nascent beginnings in Lake Itasca, northern Minnesota. It is a beautifully sunny day, with temperatures predicted to rise to near 80 degrees today (a far cry from the 5 degrees on Sunday when we left home). The river is busyh with boat and barge traffic, and here (in the area immediately next to the French Quarter) there are few signs of the devastation that rocked New Orleans just two years ago. On our way in by shuttle on Sunday night, however, and from the plane's windows as I looked over the city I could see huge areas completely devoid of light, reminding me that much of this area has yet to be restored. It is eery to look down from the night sky to see the patchwork of lights and no lights next to one another.

In areas not too distant from our current location there was between six and twenty feet of water standing for weeks in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yesterday we heard Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu speak with passion about the devastation and restoration of the area. We have been thanked by many Louisiana natives simply for being here to suffuse the economy with tourist cash. Typically I find the notion of healthy economy as personal security and social sanctity a difficult pill to swallow, being here helps me understand a little better the interplay between means and contentment. Louisiana (and New Orleans in particular) yet remains a community in dispersion, with estimated hundreds of thousands not intending to return "home." It feels a bit odd, then, to be staying in such luxurious accommodations knowing of the devastation that has afflicted the ordinary people around us, but perhaps our contribution to the economy will help in some way.

I am struck by the affection so many have for New Orleans. Yesterday we heard Sharmaine Neville sing (she is a local artist of considerable reputation and sister to Aaron Neville). She related to the listeners how she had spent time in foster care in this state and of her many foster homes there were only two that were kind and loving to her. She spoke without acrimony, but as a way of encouraging those of us involved in child welfare issues to take heart and remember why we do what we do. She sang a couple of songs for us, including a mambo that included Senator Landrieu and others forming a dance line of sorts on the front stage. It was really quite festive. She spoke highly of her city and encouraged us to come see her at Snug Harbor, where she regularly performs.

Last night Claudia and I ate dinner with three of her professional contacts (who would better be classified as friends). I had a great muffaletta sandwich (ham, salami and an olive spread on a toasted bun), and we enjoyed the rocking festivities of Bourbon Street. At the close of our meal the waiter in question made a deliberate point of thanking us for "visiting Nahlins." As we walked back to the hotel it was only 8:00 PM, and things were just getting started in this big old party city. I was harmlessly accosted on the street by a young man saying, "I like your shoes. I'll be you I knew you got 'dem shoes." I had earlier read about not "falling prey to the shoe scheme," so while I wasn't sure what it was all about, I simply said, "Thanks" and walked on. We did a google search and discovered that it's an old-time, usually good-natured hoax, perpetuated on Bourbon Street. A tourist is identified, a local says "I'll bet I know where you got dem shoes," and once a wager has been levied he says, "You got dem shoes on Bourbon Street!" After which, of course, the losing better is expected to pay. I see it as innocent fun; others see it as intrusive and obnoxious.

More from Rev. Zombie's Voodoo Shop to come ...

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